Rob Wagner Powerlifting USA Strategies for sticking to your fitness goals by Jim Steel

Strategies For Sticking To Your Fitness Goals

Fitness goals. With the new year upon us, and with many people making New Year's resolutions to begin an exercise program or to get back into the gym, I figured that most folks need strategies to avoid the all too familiar trap of getting motivated and then after a while, falling off and reverting to our old, bad habits. With that in mind, I wanted to provide everyone with some expert advice on how to stay motivated, how to schedule time for training on a busy day, and how to develop the “sticktoittiveness” to keep at it even when the going gets tough.

For these answers and more, I turned to Dr. Rob Wagner, PHD in Sports Psychology, National and world champion powerlifter, former college football player and strength coach for over 30 years. Wagner has real world, in the trenches experience as well as the academic credentials to back it up and is just about the most creditable fellow that I can think of to help you stay on the path to your goals. I wanted folks to read this and get something out of it, whether you are a total beginner or an experienced lifter.

People flock to the gyms this time of year, determined to reach their fitness goals. How important is it for them to have a plan to get there?

It is of the utmost importance! Not only a plan in terms of how they will add this new habit to their life but a plan of progression and regression and also an understanding that there will be pitfalls and miscues that may screw this plan up and how will they make the adjustment to the plan. I do believe that the biggest barrier is people in general is just not being educated on how to use a gym or better yet how to work out and move properly. Seems odd you can go to Amazon and find hundreds of books or google thousands of articles about how to lose weight and get in shape. The information is out there but knowing what to do requires more than just reading a book that provides a plan for them to follow. At some point people will need to have an understanding of how their body works and they will need to make changes to maintain or improve their fitness. Understanding  progressions or regression will not only help their fitness goals but it will help provide the variety in working out that will keep them from losing interest. Something we are doing at my high school now is educating the PE students in Strength and Conditioning, Group Fitness and team sport activities and it's required so we are trying to make a dent in this lack of understanding. Go into any office and ask a person to do a bodyweight squat.  This is a natural movement but most people have lost the ability to do it and secondarily they can't even start to explain how to do the exercise. So, you buy your book or find your article but you don't know how to perform the exercises correctly. Fitness to me is like learning a foreign language, there’s a ton of options to do this but again you have to put in the time to learn and also expect that it will take time to progress and get good at it.

The reality is fitness, in the fitness industry, is never sold in that manner and I think it's a disservice that most individuals in the industry lay out these promises of you being changed in three weeks or lose 5 inches etc. The reality is the benefits only come when you are consistent with some aspect of it and you will need to do this for the rest of your life. That's a tough sell right there!

So, using that as a foundation I think it's wise for people to find a professional, whether it be a personal trainer, Life coach, strength coach etc., that can provide an educational plan in which the individual is taught the exercises through a progression of exercise or movements that culminates in them developing a toolbox of options to use. So that is how to initiate your plan, find a knowledgeable professional that can guide you moving forward. The whole idea is to get moving but moving correctly. This doesn't have to be a hand holding session or here I am as your social outlet for 60 minutes, which many personal trainers seem to operate as, but this person serves as a consultant to continually adjust and adapt the training for the individual and educate them when needed. If you can't afford a “coach” (I’ll use that term since it's more accurate), find one to follow on the internet, social media etc.  Just remember if their first piece of advice about training has you putting a loaded implement on your body, run for the hills. Regardless of where you are in your training abilities, a coach should assess your movement skills to make sure you are moving properly before ever loading, even if you have been training for 20 years.

There is a notion out there making the rounds that goal setting is not that important. Do you think it's important to set goals? 

From an exercise adherence aspect, it's vital. How do you know when you have achieved what you set out to do?  Think of it this way, having specific goals is important. If the settler’s goal was to just head west, they would have driven their wagons right into the pacific ocean and drown. The goal was to head west and open a business or head west and work the land etc. Goals lay out the map of the journey and just like traveling there are times when there are detours. When these detours are encountered you make adjustments and continue on that journey even though your route may have been slightly altered.  A simple way to look at goals is that they are something directing the person's attention and action to the important aspects of the task at hand. Secondly, goals help facilitate effort and persistence, with no destination what’s the sense of heading out on the road in the first place.

If so, how does one go about setting goals? Is there a way to break down goals to make them realistic and how does one know what a realistic goal is?

First, let's consider goal setting as a metaphor of a staircase. You are at the bottom of the stairs and eventually you would like to be at the top. The top step may represent a long term goal or the actualizations of where you want to be as it relates to an aspect of your life.  Each individual step would represent a shorter term goal that would lead you to the long term goal. How many steps are present is up to the person setting the goal and the reality is, you are constantly adding steps or creating new staircases as you move through life.

When it comes to developing goals, there are some simple protocols to follow and a multitude of systems of goal setting people can follow. The most basic that I see used is SMART goals. In the SMART goal system, each letter stands for an aspect of goal setting that must be employed for the goal to be achieved. S stands for specific, meaning you must have specific goals, reference my heading west goal above.  Getting in shape leaves a lot of wiggle room as a goal. The more specific the goal, the more targeted the outcomes and it forces the goal setter to consider the processes needed to achieve it.  

M stands for measurable; the goal must have a quantitative value to it. Think of measurable and behavioral in the same way. If you define the goal in a behavioral way, it will help define what is to be done. If the goal is “I want to be in better shape”, versus "I want to lose 10 pounds”, the latter is specific and measurable and provides the behavior that will be pursued (weight loss).  Getting stronger or getting bigger as goals are too general and don’t guide the behavior needed to achieve the goal, much like heading west is really just leading you in a direction with no real destination or outcome.  

The A and R of the smart goal is where A stands for achievable and R for realistic. I paired these because people do not always see the differences in these two terms clearly. As adjectives, the difference between achievable and realistic is that achievable is capable of being achieved, which either means it’s possible or probable while realistic is expressed or represented as being accurate. I think using another R term for realistic may be more beneficial here and that would be the term relevant. When determining these two terms, Achievable can be framed as “is it attainable (within your capacity)”, and Realistic as, “is this relevant or applicable to the task being pursued?” Using the weight loss scenario from above, if a 200lb individual sets a goal of losing 10 pounds by not eating for the next 24 hours, that goal would not be attainable, unless part of that process includes surgically removing a limb. It would not be relevant since the weight loss would only be temporary and impossible to maintain since at some point they will have to eat again.  

The final letter T stands for time. This ties the whole goal setting process together by putting a timeline or period in which this goal needs to be achieved. Using the travel analogy, we all have a time frame in which we plan to arrive at our destination and goals are just like travel. The time frame may sometimes happen a little sooner or later and it's the later arrival in goal setting that makes many people abandon their goals altogether. To put it in perspective, if you planned to go to Disney World, in Orlando, and the planned travel time was 20 hours would you turn around and drive back home if you find that at 20 hours you're still in Jacksonville? I would think not, but this is exactly what happens to people when they don't meet this aspect of their goal, they drop the whole thing. Setbacks and detours happen in all aspects of life. How you handle them often determines where you end up.

As a final statement on SMART goals, there is a small problem. In the SMART goal structure, there are two keys missing that make goals and or goal setting work effectively. The first is that goals need to be evaluated and reviewed as you work on them. “Are you making effective progress and do you need to modify the goal in any way?” I think many people are surprised that you can change and modify the goals as you go. As in life rarely does everything go as planned and to evaluate the goals and make changes and update them makes this process that much more effective. It also gives the control of the outcome to the person that is working on the goal. The second key is that you must take action on your goals. Setting goals does not kick start anything in motion. The individual must take action and get started on making the goal come to fruition.

Can you describe the differences in motivation and discipline? 

Motivation can be seen as the foundation for performance and achievement. It can be determined from the variability in behavioral patterns in individuals and how they are applied to certain tasks or activities. Determining motivation is based on the quantity of motivation (how much motivation a person has) and the quality of motivation. Quantity of motivation is reflected in how much a person achieves in an activity and quality is determined by a person's sustained and positive engagement with the activity. This may include a person's accomplishments  and the degree of enjoyment and physical and psychological benefits of their involvement in an activity. As it relates to fitness the quantity and quality of motivation are connected to how a person thinks before, during and after their fitness activities. Sports research shows that athletes are more motivated when they feel they have the ability to meet the demands of the task and that they have some control and autonomy in regard to their participation. Hence my focus on the educational aspect mentioned earlier in the interview.

Discipline on the other hand is a set of rules or principles that an individual uses to conduct patterns of their behavior. Discipline in a sense sets the boundaries for what you are willing to accept and allow yourself to do when pursuing a goal or taking action on a task.  

Here's a good way to look at these two. In G. Gordon Liddy’s book “Will” he talks about overcoming his fear of lightning/thunderstorms as a child. Let me include that I am not advocating his approach for anyone to follow if you have this fear (astraphobia) and need to overcome it. He decided during the next thunderstorm, that he would climb a tree and stay there throughout the entire storm, enduring all it could throw at him. He had the motivation to overcome his fear, one he realized it was an unwanted fear that limited him as a child.  That motivation led him to devise a plan to meet this fear head on. His discipline was to climb the tree and stay there through the entirety of the storm. During the next thunderstorm young Liddy climbed up in a tree and spent the entire storm in the tree. He never feared thunderstorms again. The discipline of climbing and staying in the tree throughout the storm was facilitated by his motivation to overcome his fear.

How does one develop the habit of getting to the gym? Eating right?  

This is where the above subjects all come together, goals, motivation and discipline.  Motivation drives the initial process; you are motivated to change and you identify what needs to be changed and then identify the factors that will influence that change. For example, a person wants to increase their Deadlift max. Factors influencing this can range from improved technical approaches to gaining bodyweight. Using our travel analogy, we plan for the trip and then we have to figure out our modes of transportation, and routes to follow to get to our destination. These factors make up the itinerary of our goals just like the travel factors are part of the itinerary for the trip. Our discipline guides our adherence to pursuing these goals. It's safe to assume in most situations the motivation has to be their first. A person is unhappy or identifies something that needs a positive change.  

Combining motivation, goals and discipline is the foundation of habit development. Having goals, being motivated and establishing your guidelines for adherence (discipline) are the ground floor. When it comes to changing habits, you should start small and set the bar low. You want to make changes that are attainable, this goes back to the goal setting. Giving up smoking and drinking by the end of the winter may sound like a solid goal but the reality of accomplishing either of these two will be a huge challenge. A mentor once told me, “hunt one rabbit at a time.” or as it applies here, “change one habit at a time.”  For dieting, replace something bad with something good. So, take out soda and replace it with fruit. The thing you change will also need to consider where you are starting from as well. If you drink 6 diet cokes a day, and I am talking about the big Gulp size, like my college Defensive Coordinator did, the change will be a higher hurdle to cross. For habit development think tiny changes. By replacing one or two little things you will be motivated by each little victory and that will keep you motivated to move forward.

I also mentioned setting the bar low. This comes back to the desired new habit being attainable. If the plan is to get to the gym 5 days a week, you have to ask yourself, “is that attainable based on my other life factors, like family and work?” An example of setting the bar low would be instead of five days, consider what is the bare minimum you can make, come hell or high water. For most of my clients I tell them to focus on one or two days, if we get more that is a bonus. This way they can achieve the goal of working out for those days and it keeps them motivated to keep at it. Humans need about 21 days for a behavior to become a habit so it’s important to make those early goals attainable and especially when just starting off. I can't tell you how many people would join my gym in January and they were never to be seen again once the month of February rolled around. Being committed to the new habit is easier when the bar is set low and is in a realm of the attainable for the individual.

In your lifting career, have there been times when your motivation has waned and if so, how have you stayed on the path that you set out to follow?  

Yes, but never due to weightlifting itself.  

In my later years of competing in the late 90’s early 2000’s, and you were witness to this on multiple occasions, I had days where I just felt flat and had no drive to train. Thinking back, it had a lot to do with having some physical discomfort that I just couldn’t get through even after warming up (typically on squat days).  My solution to that was to stop the workout and reset it for the next day. In that 18-20 hours the idea that I had to stop training would burn in me until I was able to train the next day. I found that the extra day was usually a huge benefit and the training would go as planned. Even today I use this approach. When life gets in the way I sometimes have no choice but to put it off until tomorrow. When this happens it's not time to throw in the towel but instead chalk it up to one of those detours I had mentioned earlier.

In another circumstance when I stopped lifting competitively it was probably at a time that I was not completely ready to stop. It was an abrupt change in life when I opened my gym business and I felt that I needed to fully immerse myself into the business. I still trained in the gym but lost some focus needed for competing at a high level. I would have customers come to me with problems in the middle of workouts that I needed to address, my diet was less structured than I needed it to be and the stress of running the business was at times overwhelming. Interestingly when I left the business and got into teaching, I still had similar issues, training was erratic and not very fruitful. I found myself missing workouts to finish grading papers or working on a project for school. I remembered something a sports psyche counselor had told me a decade before. He said you need to prioritize your training. He said set aside a time and make an appointment with yourself to train. Nothing else can interfere with that and you have to keep the appointment. It seems so common sense and of course it works like a charm. To this day I still prioritize my training and using that approach always helps to keep me on track. Part of this includes setting  up and knowing your schedule and setting those training dates in advance.

I tell my athletes to “embrace the discomfort” of exercise. How do you get someone to realize that yes, there will be some burning in your muscles and lots of hard work ahead and soreness, but that it's all worth it?

Become comfortable with the uncomfortable! I can always remember coaching athletes in a variety of sports and this was a huge thing with them. In training at some point, I would put athletes in their playing position and make them hold it for a minute (60sec). Kids would strain and make faces and complain about how bad this was. I would say, “become comfortable with the uncomfortable”. This is hard for the individual to do alone but it can be done and it's not only exercises but becoming comfortable with not eating that pizza that you want now and having to wait for 6 days and then you can have it. Once you realize that not having the focus of your desire in that instant does not mean it's the end of the world. But for most people tell them no soda for the day and they act like it's torture. You have said many times that when you consider some of the suffering that members of our armed forces went through, it gives you a different paradigm from which you view discomfort.  

Folks have to understand that discomfort from training is temporary and part of the process of making your body stronger and more resilient. This includes the discomfort during training and that which you may experience the day or two after a hard workout session.

Visualization has been used for years by top level athletes. Can a regular gym goer use it also? 

If so, can you give some example(s) of a visualization exercise to use?

All individuals can use imagery to facilitate better workouts and to help them in accomplishing their goals when it comes to fitness. Some examples of this are to see the outcomes you're looking for but it is even more important to use imagery for the processes that will lead them to these outcomes. For example, imagining that you are going to deadlift 500 is something you can do but the effectiveness of this will be minimal if you have never deadlifted 350. The experiences you have had as an individual get incorporated in your imagery. For imagery to be effective it needs to be as vivid as possible and it needs to include all the senses. The more realistic the imagery the better the transfer of the imagery to the real experience and the desired outcomes. So back to the 500 and 350 lbs. deadlift scenario. Knowing what 470 or 480 feels like is a lot closer to 500 than 340. So, considering that the imagery like your goals should be attainable.  

A simple approach to using imagery is to find an area that is quiet and you won't be distracted. You can sit in a comfortable chair or lie on the floor. The key is to be able to be still and not uncomfortable. Once in position you will relax your body, there are a variety of ways to do this. One is to just focus on your breathing and focus on slowing your breathing down, take a pause between each inhalation and each exhalation, breathe deep and as you exhale see any unwanted stress go out with your breath. Also allow the tension in your body to go away by relaxing those areas. Do a simple scan from toes to head mentally and relax any areas where you still feel tension. Once you have relaxed you can start your imagery. A couple things to guide you here. Perform the imagery from the internal perspective. See it and feel it through your eyes and body. External imagery (like watching yourself on video) can help but is not as beneficial. As you perform the deadlift that we mentioned earlier, notice all the things that are present in the room, the sounds, the smells and incorporate them into the imagery. Consider your touch in terms of feeling the bar knurling, the pressure of the weight etc. You can perform the lift for the sets and reps you have planned in an upcoming workout or you can focus on that max you plan to take in the next few weeks. Again, I cannot stress enough the reality you need to create in this image. Perform the sets or single 2 - 3 times. After each performance go back to focus on your breathing and being relaxed then after you are relaxed return to the imagery again. After the last performance return to the breathing again but instead of focusing on relaxing focus on coming back to your present time and space and gradually open your eyes and slowly get up and go on with your day. In addition to the extra mental sets you were able to get in, you should also find that you will come out of this feeling refreshed almost like you took a quick cat nap.

Many folks out there have busy lifestyles, work, kids, and other responsibilities. How does someone set aside time in the day for their training?

There are two components to make your habits stick. First set the bar low. When I ask people about their training availability when designing programs, I always ask how many days can you train. The majority will start with 5 or 6 days. I look at them and say really? I then ask them in the worst case scenario what can you promise me you can train barring everything else in your life and then they usually say 2-3 days. I work from the 1-2 day premise and tell them that is your start, you have to train two days a week that will be your goal. By them accomplishing this goal, which is certainly low hanging fruit, it keeps them moving in a positive direction.  

The other is what I mentioned earlier which is to make your workout sessions a priority. Set a time that you know you can commit to even if it's 15-20 minutes. The sense of accomplishment always outweighs any negativity that may linger about not getting your regular 60 min workout in.

If someone does miss a training session, how do they get back on the right track?

This is probably the easiest thing. I typically tell my athletes to just jump back where they left off. If you got sick and needed to take multiple days off then you may want to reduce the weight and volume of the next workout to give your body a chance to ease back in.

What are some common mistakes that beginners make when starting out with a fitness/lifting regimen? 

Well, it would be the opposite of what I had talked about here. Selecting too many training days, lifting too heavy too early, basically diving in the deep end of the swimming pool of training. At the end of the first workout beginners may think they should be exhausted, sore and tired. I think that the reality of this is they should come away with a better idea of how to perform say 1 or 2 exercises and feel energized, not exhausted, with an understanding of how to train. Remember this is something you will be doing for the rest of your life so what’s the rush? The other thing is to give yourself the opportunity to screw up if you missed a day or two of training or you went off your diet. Typically, this would be the impetus for your perceived failure and end of your fitness pursuit. Instead, treat it like the dad that is in Jacksonville at the 20 hour mark and remember it's a long drive back to New Jersey with three screaming kids in the car.

RAW Podcast with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel

About The Author - Jim Steel
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog Basbarbell and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Jim Steel is co-host of the RAW with Marty Gallagher Podcast along with Marty Gallagher and J.P. Brice and is a monthly content contributor at IRON COMPANY.