Ultimate Guide to Achieving Fitness Goals with 10 Pitfalls to Avoid

I’m no stranger to goal setting and goal getting.  Sure, I’ve missed the mark with some goals, but I’ve achieved many of my set goals such as losing 34 pounds in 3 months, adding 50 pounds of muscle mass in approximately 18 months (i.e. bulking up), increasing my bench press to north of 200 pounds, squatting more than 300 pounds, running 5 miles (this was a big one for me), and radically improving my flexibility by doing tons of yoga.

Mind you, I didn’t achieve all of the above fitness goals at the same time.  Those are various fitness goals I achieved over many years.  I like goal setting and continue setting personal goals.

Interestingly, people who have early success with goal setting tend to continue with goal setting throughout one’s life with success.[1]

This in-depth fitness goal setting article is set out as follows:

A.  My Approach to Setting and Achieving Fitness Goals (A Blueprint that Worked for Me)

B.  Goal Setting Tips

C.  Goal Getting Tips (Attainment Tips)

D.  Pitfalls to Watch Out For When Setting Fitness Goals

E.  We All Set Goals Whether We Know it Or Not

A.  My Approach to Setting and Achieving Fitness Goals

1.  Identify 1 over-arching, but specific goal

I set a specific goal that requires a specific pursuit.  When I added 50 pounds of mass, I primarily lifted weights.  I learned all I could about weightlifting, including eating for muscle … and doggedly pursued my goal.  My goal at the time was to hit 210 pounds.  I had specific strength goals that I knew would help me gain size – those goals were simple: bench 225 pounds and squat more than 300 pounds.  I hit all of those goals.

In the case of my weight lifting, my over-arching goal was to weigh 210 pounds without putting too much girth on my waist.

IMPORTANT:  Every goal I ever achieved was a goal I really, really, really wanted.  Whenever I didn’t really want it, I didn’t achieve it.

2.  I set out specific tasks/actions for achieving my main goal

I knew I needed to lift weights.  I consulted a trainer and he put together a lifting and nutrition program for me.  Moreover, we met every 8 weeks or so to review progress.  At each session, my trainer revised my workout and nutrition as needed.

3.  I tracked and measured EVERYTHING

My trainer required that I write down everything – exercises/sets/reps/weight lifted for each set.  He would review the progress.  This was a KEY element of my success.  Had I not tracked everything, my trainer and I would not know how to proceed.

Also, I tracked my weight and measured size growth every 8 weeks.  This served 2 very important purposes:

  1. Determine what was working and what wasn’t working
  2. Inspiration:  As my muscles grew and I packed on pounds, I was inspired to continue with relish.

4.  I visualized every night

Before I went to sleep, I would envision the body I wanted.  At the time I knew nothing about visualization … I just did it because I was so focused on my goal.

Ironically, my approach to visualization wasn’t the best approach.  It’s better to visualize specific steps or actions than the desired end-result.

B.  Goal Setting Tips

1.  Start with 1 small goal

Studies show that people who have initial success with the goal setting process tend to have success with attaining future goals.[1]  In other words, success breeds success.  After all, goal achievement takes practice as well.  Therefore, start with a small, short term goal that you can achieve with a little effort.

2.  Be the person who achieves the goal

This is the concept promoted by Darren Hardy in his article “Goal Setting Doesn’t Work“.[2]  Don’t let the title fool you because in my view, he advocates goal setting, but with an interesting twist.  He suggests that the reason people don’t attain goals is that they haven’t changed who they are.  He suggests that in order to achieve goals, once must change to be the person who does achieve that goal.

It’s interesting because traditionally we believe when we reach a goal, we’ll change ourselves.  Darren flips this around by saying only when we change who we are will we be able to achieve our goal.

Frankly, I’m not sure Darren is right … but I’m not sure he’s wrong.  All I can tell you is what’s worked for me in my achieving many goals.  In my view, visualization of the end-result played a significant role in my success.  I’m not the only one … Arnold Schwarzenegger uses visualization extensively to achieve his extremely ambitious goals.  He started using visualization during his bodybuilding days to great effect.[3]

Where Darren Hardy hits the nail on the head is that to change who you are and reach goals, you must plan carefully and work hard.  He puts working hard as “Achievement requires work, discipline, commitment, maybe some heartache and a stiffened spine.”[2]

3.  Visualize Actions and End Result

Visualization, I believe is the glue that makes goal setting AND goal getting work.  That’s been my experience.  In my experience, in order for me to make the effort to visualize I had to REALLY, REALLY, REALLY want the goal.  In fact, when I really wanted something, I visualized automatically.  I started visualization (also referred to as mental imagery) before I had ever read anything about.  Sports Psychologists use visualization extensively with great success.[4]

Example of visualizing actions that lead to the goal

If your goal is to build rock-hard muscle, you must lift weight.  In fact, you must lift more and more weight to failure.  Therefore, visualize each set.  During each rest period visualize yourself completing the weight.

Professional athletes use visualization a great deal.  The process is visualization specific actions such as smashing the perfect 350 yard drive in golf, sinking the perfect basketball shot, hitting a home run, etc.  Each of these actions are actions along the way to win a game, match, etc. and form part of the larger goal of becoming the best.

Professional Athletes Who Use Visualization with Great Success

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger practiced visualization as a professional bodybuilder, movie star (to become a movie star) and politician.[3]
  • Isaiah Thomas on handling the pressure of playing in an NBA Championship … he said “I used a lot of visualization in terms of who I would be guarding and who would be guarding me. When I was walking down the street for, say, lunch, I’d imagine those individuals in front of me. I’d imagine going around them.”[5]
  • Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Muhammid Ali used visualization in training and competion.[6]
  • Jim Carrey the movie star and comedian, visualized success before stardom.[7]

4.  Be Specific

In my experience, it doesn’t help to set vague goals such as “I want big muscles” or “I want to be skinny” or “I want to be rich”.  It’s better to be very specific … so specific so that you can clearly visualize the goal and the actions needed to achieve the goal.

Better goals include “I want to lose 30 pounds” or even better “I want to lose 3 inches off my waistline”.  For bodybuilders good goals are “I want to add 20 pounds of lean muscle.”

Then set sub-goals that will achieve the over-arching goal.  If you want to lose 30 pounds set the following sub-goals:

  • I will walk 1 hour five times a week.
  • I will eat one large salad every day.
  • I will only eat one sugar treat each week … on Saturday evening.

These sub-goals are the action steps that will get you to achieve your over-arching goal.  You can set several sub-goals which forms your blueprint.

5.  Be selective

Don’t set too many goals at one time.  If you’re overweight, don’t set goals to lose weight, run a marathon and compete in a fitness competition.  Instead, start with one goal … choose the most important goal.  In the above example, choosing to lose weight first makes the most sense, because with the weight gone, training for a marathon (a future goal) is more easily attainable.

6.  Be lofty enough so it’s difficult … but no so lofty it’s impossible

This is not as easy as it may seem.  You must choose goals that will make a difference in your life and inspire you to change, but you don’t want to set goals that are virtually impossible to achieve.

For your first goal setting event, start with a fairly easily achievable goal in a relatively short time (i.e. 1 month).  This way you can establish a goal setting and attainment success record that will inspire to continue with goal setting and getting.  Early failure is demotivating and can discourage future goal-setting events.

7.  Ensure You Have or Can Get the Skills to Attain Your Goals

If you set goals that you do not possess the skills to achieve, you’re wasting your time.  Be sure you can actually do the work required.

8.  You have to Really, really, really want your goal

This is as important as visualization.  Mere interest isn’t going to inspire action.  I learned this the hard way.  The only momentous goals I’ve ever achieved was because I really, really, really wanted them.  I could taste it, picture and I thought about achieving the goal a lot.  The result is I did what I needed to to in order to succeed.

C. Goal Getting Tips

Once you’ve set your goals, it’s time to reach them.  The following are simple tips to help you attain your goals.

1.  Goal Accountability Actions

If you feel accountable, you’ll more likely achieve your goals.  The best way to be accountable is to share your goal with another person or people.

  • Write them down
  • Tell people close to you
  • Join a group
  • Post goals to Facebook
  • Put necessary tasks into your calendar for daily reminders
  • Schedule time for tasks necessary to achieve goals
  • Hire a trainer/mentor
  • Pursue with a partner (be sure your partner is as committed and really wants the goal as much as you do … it can be a double-edged sword if they quit).

2.  Goal Motivators

  • Track and Measure to see results and to make any necessary changes.
  • Use a goal-tracking software or tracking sheets
  • Create reminder cards/posters
  • Set deadlines – daily, weekly, monthly and yearly deadlines for sub-goals (action steps) and the end-goal.
  • Do something each day in pursuit of your goals.  It can be something small … but it’s the momentum that’s important.  If your action plan includes one off day each week, follow that.

3.  Dealing with setbacks

Setbacks include slow progress and skipping prescribed actions.  If you skip a day or an action, don’t sweat it.  In fact, it will happen.  You’re not perfect.  Simply resume the next day. It’s only one day.  If you quit, you’re finished.

 The above goal-getting tips make you accountable and motivate you.  You don’t have to do all of them … choose one or two accountability action and one or two motivating actions.

D.  Pitfalls to Watch Out For When Setting Fitness Goals

1.  Failure

Yikes, I said the “F” word.  Failure is a word much of the self-help literature avoids.  After all, failure is not an option, as they say.  I want to return you to reality by saying that failure is a real possible outcome.  However, don’t fear failure.  Instead embrace it.

In most cases, even if you don’t attain your goal, you likely made a lot of progress, which is success in itself.  Suppose you set a goal to lose 30 pounds in 4 months, but you only lose 20 pounds.  Is that failure?  Yes and no.  20 lost pounds is successful, but 10 pounds short.

The only true failure is if you quit.  Quitting is failure, even if progress is slow.

2.  From Goal Setting to Expectations

Setting goals and creating plans to achieve them is great.  Developing expectations is not so good.  You fall into the expectation camp when you want something, but expect it to materialize fortuitously rather than through planning and effort.

3.  Unrealistic Goals, a.k.a. Stretch Goals

It’s fun and all to dream big and shoot for the moon, but if it’s totally unrealistic where it’s a one in a million chance, you’re shooting yourself in the foot before you leave the gate.

Instead, set ambitious, yet realistic goals that are attainable by sticking to a well-defined plan.  If you establish a track record of failing to achieve goals, you may have difficulty completing goals in the future.

4.  Setting Meaningless Goals

If you need to lose 200 pounds but set a goal of losing 10 pounds, is that meaningful?  Not really.  10 pounds is a great short term goal, but it’s not the end desired result.  Therefore, if you have a lofty goal, establish that as your end goal, but set smaller, short term goals along the way.

5.  Falling for “The Secret” Approach to Getting What You Want

Do you remember “The Secret”?  I do.  In a nutshell it taught you can achieve things by thinking about it.  Okay, there was more to it than that, but it wasn’t all that realistic.

Achieving goals requires effort; true, roll up your sleeves effort.  You aren’t going to add 10 pounds of rock hard muscle simply by saying mantras.  No, you have to establish a weightlifting plan and nutrition plan and then workout hard every week.

6.  Getting Discouraged and Losing Motivation

This is the goal-killer.  Sometimes progress is slower than we had hoped.  We start strong early on, but motivation dwindles as progress slows and the end-result simply seems too daunting.

Avoid getting discouraged at all costs and have faith in your plan and yourself.  If you quit, you fail.  Period.

7.  Failing to Adapt or Modify the Plan

Sometimes the best plans aren’t perfect and require modification.  For example, if you want to add 10 pounds of muscle and it’s not happening, you may have to adjust your workout and/or nutrition plan.  That’s okay.  Adjustments are part of the process.  This is why tracking and measuring is important … so you can determine quickly at any stage what’s working and what’s not working.

Having to adjust, adapt and modify is a good sign.  It means you’re doing what you need to do.

8.  Setting Too Many Goals at the Same Time

You can only do so much.  If you set too many goals to achieve at the same time you can become overwhelmed and totally discouraged by lack of progress.  Be selective.  Choose the most important goal to you.

This does not mean you can’t set multiple goals.  You can set one or two fitness goals, one or two career/business goals, one or two relationship goals and so on.  Those various goals are in different spheres in your life which you can compartmentalize and not become overwhelmed.

9.  Taking Unnecessary Risks

Goal setting behavior can result in risky behavior … the “do-anything” to attain a goal.  I don’t advocate taking unnecessary risks in order to achieve a goal.  Goal setting is not about shooting for the moon.  It’s about focus, planning and following that plan.  It’s not about trying to achieve something that’s almost impossible to achieve.

10.  Ignore other aspects of your life

If you find that you’re ignoring everything in your life except your pursuit of a goal, chances are you set too lofty a goal.  In the short term, focus is fine, but in the long term it can harm relationships and our wellbeing.

I’m all for goal setting, and I’ve focused on goals with laser-like intensity at times in my life, but long term focus to the exclusion of other parts of our lives is not a good way to pursue goals.

E.  We All Set Goals Whether We Know it Or Not

What about being in the present?

A ton of self improvement literature, including new age, yoga, philosophy, etc. promote the value of being in the present and to be aware.  I don’t disagree.  The obvious issue is that goal-setting is a “future-oriented” process.

The issue is whether goal setting and being in the present can co-exist or be pursued at the same time.  I believe they can.  One of the most popular books on being present is Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now“.  In this book Eckhart explains that living in the now does not mean you don’t plan events, for example.  After all, we have future events and tasks to complete.

Therefore, if we can for practical reasons book events in a calendar, yet live in the now, there’s no reason goal setting and attainment can’t be done while living in the now.  I believe this is where the distinction between goal setting and expectations lie.

Expectations is future-oriented expecting something with no planning or effort.  Goal setting and pursuit, on the other hand, is selecting an end destination and putting together a road map to get there.  You achieve each activity in the present … each activity leading to the goal.

Another good example explaining how goal setting and living in the present can co-exist is a road trip.  When you go on a road trip, you have a destination with mini-goals or destinations in between that lead you to the end destination.  Just because you have an end destination planned, doesn’t mean you can live in the present as you drive along.

Goal Setting is Impossible to Avoid

Much of the literature that suggests goal setting is not an effective process.  My view is that we can’t avoid setting goals.  We do it whether we know it or not.  A “to-do” list is setting goals.  Scheduling events to attend is setting a goal.  We schedule the event, plan how we’ll get there, what we wear, what we’ll bring, who we’re going with … and so on.

If we’re looking for a job, we set a goal of getting a job.  In order to achieve that goal, we take various actions such as submitting applications, preparing a resume, scheduling an interview (hopefully) and so on.

Goal setting at the simplest level is impossible to avoid in our lives.  I think the literature that suggests goal setting is not very good refers to lofty goals or “stretch” goals.   I agree … setting impossible goals or goals that require out full attention at the expense of other things in our lives, are not good.

Goal Setting and Goal Getting is a Big Part of My Life

I use goal setting in my fitness life and business life.  Goals have helped me achieve a lot in an efficient manner.  Therefore, although there are pitfalls and fixation can be dangerous, overall goal setting has been a great benefit for me over the years.

Goal Setting and Achievement is Fun

There’s nothing like setting a goal, developing a plan and achieving the goal.  I find the entire process fun.  It’s something to do and it’s effective.

Goal setting is also efficient.  Instead of meandering about jumping from one approach to another with no clear path, setting goals gets you to take the necessary steps immediately without second-guessing yourself.


[1]  Williams, R.  Why goal setting doesn’t work.  Psychology Today

[2]  Hardy, D.  Goal Setting Doesn’t Work.  Success

[3]  Schwarzenegger, A.  Interview with Piers Morgan.  CNN.  Aired October 2, 2012.  Read A. Schwarzenegger’s excerpt on Vision at http://www.muscleandfitness.com/training/athletes-and-celebrities/arnold-talks-about-vision-and-training-cnns-piers-morgan-tonight.

[4]  Suinn, R. Helping Athletes for the Gold.  Psychology Today

[5]  Handling the Pressure.  Encyclopedia NBA Playoff Edition.

[6]  LeVan, A.  Seeing is Believing: The Power of Visualization.  Psychology Today (originally published in Flourish).

[7]  Carrey, J.  The Oprah Winfrey Show.  Jim Carrey Interview with Oprah Winfrey.