S.M.A.R.T Goal Setting for Fitness & Weight Loss


Estimated Reading Time: 12 Minutes  (updated: Friday 29th September 2023)

Back in my years studying psychology, I came across a simple goal setting system that would allow one to determine whether a new goal they had would was likely to be successful. If you could set a goal that made sense and matched the S.M.A.R.T goal setting system, you could be pretty sure that the goal, at least structurally had a good chance at successful completion. 


The system was first written about in an 1981 article titled "There's a S.M.A.R.T way to write management goals and objectives" by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham. The smart acronym stands for a goal that is: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound.


As you can see, the S.M.A.R.T goal system was originally intended for the boardroom, not the gym floor but over time the system has proved that it's an effective way to assess just about any goal. I'll show you how to apply it in a health & fitness setting as I've been quite successful with it as a first line of viability assessment with many of my clients as a fitness coach. Once your intention has passed the viability test, you'll know you have a great shot at achievement and you can start to make a plan.


"A goal without a plan is just a wish" - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


Applying The S.M.A.R.T Goal Setting System in Fitness


1. Specificity: Get Laser-Focused on What You Want

One of the hidden challenges in fitness is that it's easy to mistake what you want to achieve with what everyone else says, but you've got to be careful not to aim your focus at the status quo if it's not going to serve you. 


The most common example of this I see is the goal of losing weight. This intention is usually stated as "I want to lose weight" but what if this question was answered with "oh really? when is your boxing match?" It would likely be quite confusing, but it would reveal a problem with the goal of weight loss. Taken literally, you're basically saying that you want to weigh less on a scale. This could be done with a loss of water weight or through restriction at the cost of your muscle mass. Sure, you would weigh less, but it would be to the long term detriment of your metabolism and health & fitness goals. The problem with setting your goal up this way is that it ignores your lived experience and often massively over-states what has to be achieved to feel better.


Believe me this is the first major banana skin in fitness, let's go a little bit deeper with the weight loss example. Very often a prospective online personal training client will enthusiastically tell me they want to lose a good deal of weigh, let's say 30kg, but this goal is born of a lack of track record of success in fitness so it's not well calibrated to how things actually feel along that weight loss journey. 


Often I can see that, if I could help this prospective client loose just 10kg from body fat specifically, whilst taking every step we can not to loose any muscle in the process they would look, and feel like a completely different person. They would be leaner, more athletic, their clothes would fit better, and importantly they would still have adequate energy levels due to not having had to diet aggressively.


Which means that in this scenario, I know that we would have achieved more with a third of the stated goal when done in the correct way, and had I gone along with the 30kg weight loss goal, I'd have given tacit approval to dieting, restriction and a loss of muscle mass, this is why at least speaking to an experienced coach can provide excellent clarity on your goals. Don't get me wrong, weight loss would have occurred, but it is only of utility to lose body fat, not water, and certainly not existing muscle. 


Avoid Vague Descriptions of Your Goals 


The reason you want to be specific with what you want to achieve is that what you articulate to a fitness coach is going to determine the type of training program they put together for you. It's also important to be specific on what you want to achieve, because if the description is too vague, it can leave you spinning your wheels, going through the motions, but ultimately frustrated with what feels like slow or absent progress.


This can all be avoided with a focus on the Specificity element of the S.M.A.R.T system. Let's look at another example. Instead of an ephemeral description of your goal such as: “I want to get fit,” you would likely be better served by pin-pointing what 'fit' means for you. Does it mean running a 5K without pauses? or performing a perfect set of 10 push-ups? or is it something harder to pin down like the way you feel when you wake up in the morning or climb the steps at work? Each of the 4 outcomes could be approached differently by a fitness coach, of course a well structured fitness program is likely to have crossover benefits across a range or performance vectors, but there is a world of difference in the training it would take to go from couch to 5k vs going from not being able to do a single push up to being able to deliver 10 good reps so clarity on your goals is crucial.


    In my experience as an online personal trainer, I’ve seen a tremendous difference when my clients transition from vague goals to specific objectives. This shift provides a clear focus, thereby guiding our training strategy effectively.


Measurable Goals: You Must be Able to Track Progress

Next, using the SMART strategy, we need to make our goals measurable. This allows us to quantify progress, providing a clear indicator of how close or far away you are from your targets at any time.


Although as I've mentioned I often don't thing a weight loss goal is the best description of a fitness goal, let's take a common example. The subtle transition of a generic “I want to lose weight” to a more specific “I aim to lose 5 pounds in 4 weeks.” This tangible, measurable goal enables us to track progress and adjust their program accordingly against a realistic outcome.


As a call back to hesitation to set weight loss as the primary marker of success, we also need to consider whether there are any hidden drawbacks, for example with the weight loss example the hidden challenge is that it's perfectly normal for weight to fluctuate daily, even by 2-3kg,  without any impact on your actual body composition. Factors like digestive motility, hormones, carb intake and sodium intake can all lead to a short-term gain in weight. 


Imagine doing everything right for a couple of weeks on a new fitness program, only to realise you've gained weight, it could be really demotivating and enough to derail many people, which would be a huge shame because the weigh-in is simply measuring the wrong things. In my experience, switching your measure of success to tracking your body fat percentage instead of your weight would set you up far better for long-term success. Once you find the true measure of what you want to achieve you will be in a great position to achieve it.


Achievable Goals: Matching Challenge With Feasibility

Setting achievable goals is a delicate balancing act between challenging yourself and maintaining feasibility. Ambitious targets are admirable but setting the bar unrealistically high can render a goal unachievable which can be very unmotivating. 


I’ve seen clients move from hyper ambitious, though potentially unachievable aims, to a series of more balanced, feasible targets. For instance, transitioning from a sedentary lifestyle to incorporating 1-2 regular workouts a week is in my experience a better goal, than trying to go from no exercise to getting to the gym every day.


Firstly because more is not always better with exercise, a workout is only as good as your ability to recover from it, and secondly because it's not just about working out, one has to consider the sheer number of new habits required to make this kind of lifestyle switch over night. One would need to build new habits around exercise, recovery, eating well, all the way to the very logistics of adding a trip to and from the gym each day. It's a good intention, but likely a step too far with regard to feasibility.


One would be better served setting up this goal incrementally. For example you could say to yourself "Ok, in month 1 I'll get to the gym once per week, in month two we'll bump it to 4 sessions per week, then in month three I'm going to move to daily training sessions.


This approach can boost morale and increase the likelihood of adherence to a set fitness program, if self-esteem and self-belief are factors at play, it is better to set about a plan that is going to be more realistic to implement as confidence is built on the follow through we make on the promises we make ourselves, not on the end result. 


Relevant Goals: Make Goals Mean Something to You

A successful fitness program requires goals that are not just specific and achievable, but also per relevant. They need to align with the broader vision of fitness and lifestyle you hold for yourself. For example, if you want to achieve and then maintain your ideal weight or body fat percentage and it’s always been a challenge for you, then perhaps it’s not a great time to also set a second goal to run a marathon. Whilst it's a great intention and may pay part of your vision of the best version of yourself, it may be ill-fated to stack goals this way. In this combination of goals, simply managing the recovery and adjustments to nutrition to make these two goals possible would not be a good frame of reference for how to eat and exercise under normal circumstances. 


So you would create another hidden challenge, which is that even if you did achieve both goals, you would only have learnt how to maintain an ideal weight in the presence of training for a marathon, not in everyday life, and you can't always be training for a new marathon.


So whilst running a marathon is a great goal and a fantastic achievement, it would be better to set about this goal in isolation later once you had learned how to maintain your healthy weight, otherwise the marathon is going to skew your attempt at healthy habit formation.


My advice is to focus on a clear relevant goal to the specific challenge you most want to overcome. Take a moment to consider what is causing you the most discomfort in life? Solve that first.


Time-Bound Goals: Urgency Motivates

Finally, setting a timeframe for your goals can provide a sense of urgency and motivation. In my career as an online personal trainer, I’ve seen how time-bound goals motivate my clients to stick to their fitness regimens, it's why I've chosen to work on the basis of an initial 12week training program. Three months is plenty of time to achieve just about any fitness goal, and also establish the kind of habits that will be necessary to maintain what has been achieved. 


These goals can be time bound in the traditional sense in that you might say to yourself on new years day, "I will be 10% body fat by the end of February". Conversely, you might say at the end of September, "i'm going to clock up 50 hours of yoga between now and the end of the year" either one works and has a clear deadline with which to measure against success. This means goals don't drag on, you have a clear place to start and a clear timeline along which to achieve your goals.


Can an online personal trainer help you achieve S.M.A.R.T goals?

The combination of a well calibrated online personal training program and S.M.A.R.T goal setting could be transformative for your fitness journey. Whether you’re a beginner looking to set out on your first attempt at a fitness challenge or have a well established routine and are looking to level up, S.M.A.R.T goals provide a clear and achievable roadmap from where you are now to the achievement of your goal. If you would like to discuss your goals with an experienced coach, let's schedule a consultation call.


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