goal setting

How to Set Goals: Goal Characteristics

By: Barbell Logic Team

The purpose of setting a goal is change. You want to motivate yourself to greater levels of effort, organize your resources toward meeting your goal, and maximize your commitment. Change comes from making each goal specific and difficult, from building the importance of success along with the confidence in your approach, and from including some form of feedback in your plan.

Goal Characteristics

*Note that is this part 2 of a two-part article on goal-setting theory. You can read part 1 here.

Photo: Nick Delgadillo


Last week we discussed the aspect of goal setting theory that argues against setting goals based on some subjective level of effort. A vague decision to “do your best” will not give you the best start toward change or to meet a meaningful or important goal. We analyzed goal-setting theory to strength training in which big goals are broken down into individual, objective training sessions, making small goals that add up to your main goal.

Define the Core of Your Goal

The purpose of setting a goal is change. You want to motivate yourself to greater levels of effort, organize your resources toward meeting your goal, and maximize your commitment. Change comes from making each goal specific and difficult, from building the importance of success along with the confidence in your approach, and from including some form of feedback in your plan.

Specific and Difficult

Just as with training, when a goal is specific and difficult it leads to higher level of performance. You might expect that setting very hard goals would have a negative effect on performance, but Locke and Latham observed the opposite: “We found a positive, linear function in that the highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance.” Negative effects only came when the performer or group exhausted the limits of their ability or when their commitment to the goal lapsed. In their research, goals that became impossible in hindsight still brought out higher performance levels.

This is similar to Coach Brent Carter’s “Five Reps or Five Seconds” motto for lifting. Coach Carter argues that, from a physiological perspective, a lifter should give five seconds of maximum effort before giving up on any lift. If you do that and fail, you may realize that the objective lift for that day was impossible, but regardless of success, you will have raised your effort level to try and meet that objective goal. More often, however, you will find that if you plan to give five seconds of maximum effort, you will succeed where you thought you wouldn’t or where you would have chosen a lighter weight if the choice were subjective.

An objective goal, like the weight on the bar, may indeed be beyond your ability, but trying for the objective goal will bring out more effort than assuming you will fail before you even begin. Locke and Latham confirm this in their goal-setting theory stating that specific and difficult goals lead to higher performance than “urging people to do their best.” They reasoned that “when people are asked to do their best, they do not do so. This is because do-your-best goals have no external referent and thus are defined idiosyncratically.” Subjective goals based on your own assessment of ability cannot possibly motivate you to higher levels of performance than specific and difficult goals, even if those goals turn out to be unreachable.

Setting long-term, specific and difficult lifting goals can be challenging. You don’t always know what you are capable of or how long it might take you to reach big lifting milestones. That’s okay, as long as you realize the point of setting your goal. If your goal is a 405 deadlift, for example, you should try to set a challenging timeline for you to reach that goal. But that’s not the only thing you should do. You then need to set smaller goals that if you meet them, will lead directly to that 405 deadlift. Work backward from your big, 4-plate goal to the present. What are the first goals that will take you from where you are to where you want to be?

Some of the first goals you might consider are consistency with your training, form goals, and recovery goals. If you’ve missed some training sessions lately, make your first goal to miss zero scheduled training sessions this month. Identify the inefficiencies in your training and nuke them. To reach your lifting goal, your first step might be improving something outside of the gym, like your sleep habits or your nutrition: Getting enough protein, fueling your training, and sleeping 8 hours a night will revolutionize your training. Whatever your big goal may be, start with the first specific meaningful change that will bring you closer to it. And, what if you don’t meet your goal? That’s okay because striving for something specific and difficult will bring you a lot closer than you would have been if you just did your best.


Photo: Nick Delgadillo

The other issue of performance is commitment. Often assumed to be merely a function of willpower, there are certain factors that will maximize your commitment. Locke and Latham identify two factors that affect your ability to commit: (1) The importance of the goal and (2) your confidence in achieving it. How important your goals are will affect your commitment to them. This means that you not only have to identify the importance of your long-term goal, but you have to identify the importance of your smaller goals as well. In terms of training, your long-term goal may be health or fitness or sports performance and these may be easy to attach value to. You also need to understand, however, the importance of each hard effort that contributes to that goal. Each dietary decision you make, each training session that you have to complete, every time you have to take a small step in the direction of your bigger goal. This partly comes from your overall value of the bigger goal, but it also comes from knowledge. If you understand the importance of each workout, how it fits into a bigger picture of strength training, that it is more than just exercising, then you are more likely to commit to it and make good decisions.

Making a goal important is partially what we usually consider accountability. Locke and Latham write that though there are many ways to convince someone that a goal is important, “Making a public commitment to the goal enhances commitment, presumably because it makes one’s actions a matter of integrity in one’s own eyes and in those of others.” When you tell others about your goal, sign up for a program that involves other people, or commit to a coach or expert that you are going to perform your goal, you automatically enhance the importance of that goal and help yourself commit to it.

This goes hand in hand with the other piece of commitment—your confidence. How confident are you that the process you are engaged in will lead to your ultimate desired result? Recall our New Year’s Resolutionaries in Part 1 of this article. Most are not confident in their own knowledge and expertise of strength training. Some may have looked up programs on the internet or in fitness magazines, but most show up without much of a plan, and lacking that, they also lack the confidence to commit to haphazard, ad hoc efforts.

Education is part of the answer. If you know how to achieve your goal, what Locke and Latham call having a high “self-efficacy,” then you are more likely to develop good strategies, have higher confidence in your plan, and commit to it.

In order to do this, it may help to create shorter term goals that are learning goals instead of performance goals. Reading Starting Strength, for example, can help give you confidence in barbell training and the linear progression. It not only gives you a plan of action, but in it, Rip makes a comprehensive argument for the program and the lifts it contains. Reading Starting Strength should be a learning goal for anyone who wants to get a lot stronger with barbell training.

A coach can also help with commitment. Coaches provide surrogate expertise where your own may be wanting. This is part of the reason we hire experts. A coach will approach your programming with their knowledge and experience and, as long as you trust your coach, this will help your own commitment by increasing your efficacy.


Finally, you need feedback built into your smaller goals, mile markers along the way, where you can measure your progress and make adjustments. You need external, performance-based assessments of how you are doing that reference your big goals. This is not just a measure of progress, but it is the process that you use to regularly boost your performance when it may be lagging behind. We often shy away from feedback because we fear the negative effects of criticism. If you receive negative feedback, you may worry that it will have a negative impact on your performance because you won’t feel as good about your progress. This is not what Locke and Latham have purposed, instead, “When people find they are below target, they normally increase their effort.” Such that the “combination of goals plus feedback is more effective than goals alone.”

When you set your goals, consider how you plan to measure your progress. Think of this like setting a pace for a race. If you stay on target you will meet your goal in the long-run. If you start to flag or falter, you will need to adjust to pick up the pace. Both types of feedback are important to your success.  

For lifting, feedback starts with your training log, keeping a record of every step of your progress. From there, learn to interpret that data. To help you adjust your training or your expectations as you meet or miss your performance goals.


Whatever your goals, make them big and ambitious. There’s no downside to doing so. Just make sure you take some time to make them specific and difficult, set up a plan to achieve them, and seek out the knowledge and help you need to bring it all together. Doing so will give you everything you need for success.

[1] Locke and Latham, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey” (September 2002 American Psychologist) (quoting Ryan, T.A. “Intentional Behavior,” (Ronald Press 1970))




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