the joy of strength training


January 2nd, 2010 at 12:54 am

Too many goals?

Goal setting is of the utmost importance in training successfully. It is probably second only to not injuring yourself (which would mean that you couldn’t train at all).

The problem with most of us – the people reading this blog – is that we want to do too much. We don’t, on the whole, spend all our free time lounging on the sofa stuffing our faces. Not unless we’ve done a hundred burpees first. So we’re less likely to die from heart disease, which is nice, but we want more than simply not to die from a preventable illness.

How many people have read (or written) a post on a forum like this:

“I want to lose fat, gain muscle, run a marathon, get a triple bodyweight deadlift, do twenty pull ups, become a competitive Olympic weightlifter and play football with my mates at the weekend…”

I have a lot of sympathy with this; I want it all too. But here’s the problem: often such goals are listed as if they are all achievable in around the same timeframe with around the same effort. But this is not the case at all. Here’s how I think it breaks down:

Fat loss
This is actually one of the easiest goals there is (and weight loss is even easier). It is also one of the quickest to achieve. The problem for most people is that they are not prepared to do what needs to be done to achieve it. Dan John showed in his Velocity Diet experiment that you can drop a lot of fat in 28 days if you go at it with complete focus. Whereas no-one in the world can master the Olympic lifts in 28 days.

You might choose to lose your fat nice and slowly, but you can lose half a stone of fat in 4-8 weeks without too much hardship.

Playing football with your mates/running a marathon
I’d put these in the same category even though they sound like vastly different challenges. In fact you can train for a marathon in around six months, less if you have some fitness background. You probably won’t post an elite time but we are built to run long distances very slowly. Getting fit to play football (soccer) is similar – we’re talking a few weeks or months of conditioning.

Competitive weightlifting
Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about qualifying for the Olympics, I’m talking about entering a local meet. Even so, mastering the lifts to the extent that you can do something reasonable in a local meet will probably take at least a year or two. Powerlifting is the same; it’s not as technical but it takes time to build up the strength needed. I have seen people go into their first meet and lift very light weights; there’s nothing wrong with that to gain experience, but if you want to be close to competitive even at a local level, you need at least a couple of years of training behind you unless you are naturally gifted.

Triple bodyweight deadlift
I admire your ambition but is this even a realistic goal? Most people will never achieve a triple bodyweight deadlift and even for those who do, it could take years.

Doing all of the above in the same year

This is where people lose the plot (including me, all too often). Have you ever trained for a marathon? You can’t do anything else! You have to spend so much time out pounding the roads that you can barely fit in life, let alone other training goals. So that is six months, at least, where you will be doing extremely well if all your other abilities are simply maintained.

The same applies to maximum strength goals. If you want to get very strong, you may have to consider not doing anything else. That means no jogging, no Frans, no playing rugby on ‘off’ days….

The number of times I see people who want to get very strong saying that they still want to play football twice a week. Yeah, right. There’s no problem lifting weights and playing football, but if your deadlift is at 2 x bodyweight, the chances of you getting to 2.5 x bodyweight are very slim.

Of course there are goals that don’t take quite so much effort. Getting 100 push ups non-stop for example. You can train for that doing 10 minutes three times a week.

So there’s an issue with what it takes to achieve a particular goal. Sometimes you just have to focus on one thing and get it done, before moving onto the next thing.

Crossfit is an attractive system to many because it offers an opportunity to gain competence in a variety of cool-looking exercises while dropping body fat. For many people, this is perfect. But once you get seduced by particular movements and want to start competing, then you need to take a different view. You are training a sport now, and that means making choices.

Read Dan John on goal setting

Louise Fox deadlifting

Louise Fox deadlifting 3 x bodyweight in competition

Strength standards

It is always useful to know what a decent standard is in a particular lift. Perhaps a triple bodyweight deadlift is beyond most of us, but we’d like to get “good” at our lifts. Have a look at these strength standards. They were designed for women but they all work equally well for men apart from the bench press standard (where ‘good’ would be 100%, ‘very good’ would be 150% and ‘excellent’ would be 175%).

Here’s something else to bear in mind. I know this might shock you, but people on the internet don’t always tell the absolute truth about their lifts. Reading internet forums, it might seem as though there are millions of people in gyms up and down the land pulling over twice their bodyweight off the floor – so it’s strange when one doesn’t actually see this happen very much.

Often what happens is that people generously ‘round up’ their lifts. So perhaps they are 10 kg off their target but they think that 10 kg isn’t very much so they feel comfortable rounding up. This is like someone buying a dress that is a size too small thinking that they will definitely fit into it in four weeks’ time. Neither party has any idea how much effort it will take either to increase their deadlift by 10 kg or drop a dress size in four weeks. In my case, it could take me a year or more to increase my deadlift by 10 kg – if I’m really lucky!

Here is another shocking fact, folks. Many people who quote their maxes are quoting something they achieved ten years ago, not something they achieved yesterday. What really matters is how strong you are today.

I’m saying all this because it seems to me that many people’s ambitions are based on what they read other people on the internet claiming to achieve. If you want a reliable source of information, go and look at competition results in your chosen sport or activity. You don’t need to look at the world records, find the results of a local competition. See what people are achieving who actually turn up to an event, perform and are judged by their peers, not what people achieve in their own heads and then post on the internet.

Serena Williams playing tennis

Serena Williams

Sport strength standards

If you are training to support a particular sport, it is a good idea to have a set of standards that adequately reflect the needs of your sport. As a rugby player, say, or a martial artist there are going to be diminishing returns to increasing your strength and conditioning. It’s not that you can be too strong or too fit, but getting there can impinge on your ability to play your sport.

Coaches like Will Heffernan or Dan John, who work with athletes all the time, have evolved their own set of standards. Getting strong for sport is not about going in and hammering the power lifts to get as high a number as possible. It’s more about developing a well rounded athlete who doesn’t have glaring weaknesses.

As an example, here are Will’s strength standards:

  • Trap bar deadlift 2 x bodyweight
  • Bench 1.5 x bodyweight (1 x bodyweight for women)
  • Push ups 50 in 1 minute
  • Inverted rows (chest to bar) 30 in 1 minute
  • Pull ups 12+ (if under 100kg and male)
  • Pull ups 8+ (if over 100kg or female)

The point is to be able eventually to achieve all of these standards as a way of maximising your capabilities for your sport. If you can cane 50  push ups in 1 minute easily but you have trouble getting more than a handful of inverted rows, you have an imbalance that would benefit from being sorted out, since it is probably having an effect on your game.

Of course, testing well won’t instantly make you an elite athlete. If you achieve all these standards and you’re still not very good at your sport it simply means you can no longer blame your lack of strength.

Setting expectations

Generally for any sport or activity improvements are initially made quickly but slow down over time. You will not usually make the same progress in the second year as you made in the first six months. There may be exceptions – you may be introduced to an astounding new methodology that causes a great leap forward – but you can’t bank on it.

Similarly as you adapt to a particular movement or activity, it becomes harder to improve it. So it is not wise to base your expectations of getting your mile under 6 minutes on the period it took you to get your mile time from 8 minutes to 7 minutes.

This might sound painfully obvious but I see people do this all the time. Technique also plays a role here. The better your technique, the harder it is to improve, since you can no longer make those easy gains that come from simply doing the movement better.

In fact the longer you have been training the further you have to extend your training horizon. After years of training, I’m now starting to feel like a year is not long enough to plan my training because I’m now aware of how much (or rather, how little) progress I am likely to make in one year.

Here’s an example from powerlifting: I put 5 kg on my competition squat in the last year. To people who are relatively new to lifting that doesn’t sound like much at all. I have a long term goal of double bodyweight squat. If I continue to improve at the same rate, I will have a double bodyweight squat in five years time. I will be 39 years old. Actually, that sounds pretty cool. Five years seems a long time, but I know enough to understand that for this particular goal, we are talking years not months. A year ago, I wouldn’t have understood that.

The next thing to think about is whether I want to continue training powerlifting for the next five years in the way that is necessary to continue putting 5 kg on my squat. If I get distracted by running a marathon next year, then that five-year timeline will be retarded. How important is a double bodyweight squat to me? Is it cool enough to spend five years working on it? Obviously only I can answer that question but these are the sort of things we need to be asking ourselves. If a double bodyweight squat isn’t that important to me, I’m not going to do what needs to be done. I’m not going to be able to “keep the goal the goal”.


I’ve made every mistake in the book when it comes to goal setting. I’ve chosen incompatible goals, unrealistic goals, too many goals. These days I’m trying to apply to my goals a philosophy similar to what I apply to my life: fewer, simpler, slower.

The emotional involvement in training goals can take its toll. It is common for motivated individuals like us to put a lot of pressure on ourselves, to start out with high expectations and grand schemes. So it is correspondingly tough not to meet those expectations. You may think you did something wrong, but perhaps all that was wrong was that your expectation of progress was too high in the first place.

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  • 1

    “In my case, it could take me a year or more to increase my deadlift by 10 kg – if I’m really lucky!”

    It took me a year to add 10kg to my back squat. We seem to be on the same page 🙂

    lelak on January 2nd, 2010
  • 2

    Thanks for the article mate. Fewer, Simpler, Slower. That’s the mantra I’ve been going by lately. Actually, I’m focusing on just ONE goal at a time now. It’s working. I have to tone down my crazy idea head and just walk that line until the goal is accomplished. Here’s to success in 2010!

    Mikey on January 2nd, 2010
  • 3

    I realized this past year that I had a variety of joint imbalances that were limiting my ability to progress on certain lifts. (now complicated by a slight rotator cuff tear.)

    So I’ve back off and am dedicated at least 2010 to working on these weaknesses and merely maintaining my ability on my strenghts. If I make no further progress on deadlift or bench- but improve on squats and presses this year will be a remarkable success.

    deb roby on January 2nd, 2010
  • 4

    Good post 🙂

    I use Will’s ‘balanced athlete’ numbers …

    I don’t get many injuries any more and I’m convinced it’s because of hitting/bettering these numbers (particularly maintaining the ratio of 5:3:1 with my pushup/inv row/pullups)


    KIra on January 2nd, 2010
  • 5

    @ lelak: nice to hear from someone else in the same boat! If I find that miraculous new methodology I’ll let you know…

    @ Mikey: one goal is ideal. I’ve got two so I’m not really doing this as well as I could be!

    @ deb: excellent decision, it’s about the long term not just the next few months.

    @ kira: yes, I was interested to hear about that ratio. Really neat formula. Does that mean that Will discovered the magic of 5/3/1 before Wendler? 😉

    gubernatrix on January 4th, 2010
  • 6

    I’ve limited myself to really simple goals. I get to pick one thing from each area in my life. Five in all:
    run 5K (body), organize my office files and computer files (spirit — trust me the spirit will be happier), train my little Border Collie (hobbies), take online classes (work), and last, learn to cook Indian food (healthy habits).

    That’s it. Not limiting myself to only fitness or only financial or ??? — I guess I am seeking a balanced approach, and so far everything is right on track.

    I always start my “New Year’s” goals after our Thanksgiving holiday. I don’t have any family so Christmas is a nice quiet time to get things started out right.

    The other Mikey in Calif on January 11th, 2010
  • 7

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    katka, dnevno. on May 17th, 2010
  • 9

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