Your Goals: What They REALLY Mean

Another great American feastival is behind us, which means we can all pack up the leftovers, put away the tablecloths, and take a few minutes to think about the road ahead. So...are you on track with your fitness and nutrition goals?

That's probably not a kind question to ask the day after Thanksgiving, but today is as good a time as ever to cast things in a new light. Let's have a look at those Goals - and what they REALLY mean.

One of the most important things we do at True Fitness and Nutrition happens the first time any of us trainers meet with a new prospective client. We sit down together - trainer and client - and discuss that person's Goals in pursuing personal training. Understanding someone's goals is so Important (with a capital "I") to plotting a fitness and nutrition strategy. No one with sculpted abs past the age of 20 got there without setting a goal and then sticking to it (which is the hard part, but that's another story). Only there's a CATCH...

What Your Goals Really Mean

To be pursued effectively, fitness and nutrition goals have to be defined specifically - and scientifically. When the Goals conversation commences with new clients, most have a general idea in mind of what they would like to look like and how they would like to feel. But the steps necessary to get there are clouded by a popular fitness industry based on sensationalist marketing, and tips from well-meaning friends who have never studied the science. Let's take a look at the two goals I hear most often from new clients, and redefine them for action.

"I just want to be more Fit"

People almost universally use the term Fit to mean a capable, do-anything body. Scientifically, there are actually different components of Fitness, and varying degrees of each. It's fair to say that an ultra-marathoner is an extremely fit person, but so is an Olympic gymnast, a professional dancer, and an All-American sprinter. Could each do the others' sport with comparable results? No way. That's partly a product of practiced skill, but it's also how each athlete's body is specifically conditioned. In other words, it's how they each exercise.

In Fitness science, the "Principle of Specificity" reigns. It means that the more you train for a specific purpose, the better you will be at that specific thing, and sometimes to the detriment of other things. An athlete at the upper echelons of Iron Man competition spends 99% of her training time improving swimming/biking/jogging endurance. How do you think she would perform in a tug-of-war match with a woman about the same size who spends hours each week hoisting and carrying insolent toddlers? My money's on the mom.

There are 5 recognized Components of Fitness, in no particular order:

  1. MUSCULAR STRENGTH (ex. How heavy a suitcase could you pick up if you only had to do it ONE time?)
  2. MUSCULAR ENDURANCE (ex. How many stairs could you climb in a row carrying a suitcase half as heavy?)
  3. FLEXIBILITY (ex. Could you fold yourself into that suitcase?)
  4. CARDIOVASCULAR ENDURANCE (ex. How quickly could you run 5 miles? No suitcase)
  5. BODY COMPOSITION (ex. Would you look smokin' hot wearing a bathing suit doing any of the above?)

I'll explore these in detail another time, but for most of us, Fitness means a body that exhibits ALL five of the components - ESPECIALLY Body Composition. There isn't really one sport dedicated to this kind of well-rounded Fitness. You might say that the Olympic Decathlon comes close. Crossfit claims to crown the Fittest man and woman alive each year through impressive displays on ESPN (mostly of Muscular Endurance and Body Composition).

But you don't need to do 100 handstand push-ups on ESPN to achieve stellar Fitness. The philosophy I stand behind, with all my experience in sports academia, athletic coaching, and personal training, is that Muscular Strength is THE most important quality to improve, BECAUSE it serves all the other ones. Remember how I said that the 5 Components above are listed in no particular order? Well...I fibbed. Here's how strength effects them all:

  • Muscular Endurance is the amount of reps that a muscle can perform with a medium weight (think push-ups) before it has to take a break. The most important contributor to Muscular Endurance is Strength. Think of it like this: if you are stronger, doing reps with lighter weights becomes easier, and your Muscular Endurance goes up.
  • Cardiovascular Endurance is the ability of the heart and lungs to provide oxygen to the muscles. This is also greatly limited by Strength for the same reason as Muscular Endurance. A strong 150-lb person will run a better marathon than a weak 150-lb person, because every single step is easier, because of Strength. When training for strength, the maximal force production of the muscles goes up, so that less than maximal contractions (lighter weights, cardio) become easier to do.
  • Body Composition: strength training builds muscle, and muscle boosts metabolism, which means you use/burn more fat off your body 24 hours a day. The more muscle you have, the more calories the body burns, even while it is asleep. This is why men (who genetically carry more muscle mass than women, even if they don't strength train) can often eat more nachos and beer than women, with less body composition consequences. Lifting weights is the key to building fat-burning muscle for both men and women, and it needs to be challenging, or else it doesn't count. Going for a leisurely walk is relaxing, and a great way to spend a morning, but it does not build Strength the same way as lifting something heavy with the proper technique, repeatedly and progressively over time will.
  • Flexibility: this may surprise you, but lifting weights can actually INCREASE your flexibility. Proper strength training takes your muscles through a full range of motion, which is what "flexibility" actually means, and also strengthens your muscles at end-range of motion, which is where injuries usually occur. With strength training, your range of motion at joints improves. Granted, specific mobility work like self-massage and stretching is great too, but stronger muscles at end-range means better flexibility.

Strength serves as the base for everything that the body can do and dictates what the body looks like. It's for this reason that the bulk of your training should be dedicated to this high-yield component if you're seeking "Fitness". Want to be Fit? Train for Strength.

"I'd Like to Lose Weight."

This is the most common goal that I hear at True Fitness and Nutrition. But here's where it gets tricky. "Losing weight", as a wished-for goal, does not usually mean, "Make my bodyweight go down". What most people mean by the statement is, "Make my body fat go down', and there is an important distinction. As long as your body fat goes down, your bodyweight can be high and you will still look darn good. I love when ESPN The Magazine comes out with the Bodies issue. It is a pictorial of top athletes (nude, but still safe for work), and they often list the bodyweights of the males and the females. They'll show a beautiful, lean, and athletic woman, and state plainly that she weighs 140-180lbs! If you are strength-training and building muscle, the number on your scale is nonsense. What the vast majority of men and women are looking for is a Body Composition change. A low body fat percentage of total bodyweight is what we work toward, not necessarily a lower scale number. For example, here is 5'10" Serena Williams 'tipping the scales' at around 180lbs, and hey...looking GOOD.

A huge, HUGE part of this Body Composition pursuit is about nutrition. Building muscle requires good nutrition, but the body fat that you carry around depends greatly on it too. So how to eat for a lean body? That's a big topic, but this is a quick picture of how to attack it. Make most of your meals look like this:

If most of your meals look like this, you'll be exhibiting a nice 6-pack to flex in the mirror. If meals only look like this occasionally, there will be a layer of body fat covering those strong abs. If meals never look like this, then your visible 6-pack is as elusive as a unicorn.


And there it is. The two most common general goals become re-framed as scientific Components of Fitness. From there, the steps that lead to the changes sought are clear. Train for Strength, as the key to the whole enchilada of "Being Fit". And go easy on the actual enchiladas for "Losing Body Fat".

So fix yourself a leftovers plate of turkey and green beans, skip the extra pie, and go hit the weights.