By: John San Filippo
Goal setting is a critical component of progression. Goals should be lofty, measurable and have deadlines. Consistent check-ins are extremely important for assessing progress and keeping motivation high. Finally, don’t forget to celebrate achieving goals before you move on to the next one–and to love yourself through the inevitable difficult times.
Last week we covered Skill Acquisition in CrossFit–if you missed it, you can find the link here. Now that we have an understanding of how to acquire new skills from a physical standpoint, I wanted to cover the concept of effective goal setting, so that we can tackle the psychological side of achieving new heights.
You may or may not have heard of the concept of SMART goal setting. SMART goal setting was first coined by George Doran in the November 1981 issue of Management Review1 , and it stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound goals. Today, we’re going to add Evaluation and Review to our goal setting template, and create SMARTER goals2. This will provide a template for how to put goal-setting into action–and why each specific component of SMARTER goal setting works with subsequent components to lead to goal achievement.
The first task in goal achievement is to set a specific goal. We can think of specificity as the gatekeeper through which our other attributes are attainable–goals that are too general (I want to try harder, I want to lose weight, I want to be competitive) have several problems. They prevent us from being able to measure our progress, set deadlines on when we want to achieve our goals, and prevent any possible evaluation or review of how our efforts went. This will result in decreased motivation and performance. So, if we make our goals more specific, we will be able to increase the clarity of our goals and reduce anxiety associated with meeting the goal Vague, non-specific goals cause greater self doubt and uncertainty, due to the feeling of unknown inherent in a non-specific goal. This can cause our goals to become threatening, instead of motivating. The human brain thrives on certainty–so make sure that your goals are in line with that need! In order to think about how to set a specific goal, either have it be numerical (a weight, a number of reps, or a time) or skill/action based (a muscle-up, an unbroken mile run, finishing under a time cap, completing a workout with RX weight.)
Once we’ve set a specific goal, we now have the ability to measure our progress towards that goal. With some goals, this will be easier than others: measuring how much weight is on the barbell is just simple addition. However, what about an action goal, such as being able to perform every workout as prescribed? This is where daily recording of your progress is important. When we’ve studied long-term goal success, so called “learning goals” are usually more successful than outcome goals–even if the outcome goals are specific. For example, MBA students who focused on mastering specific, difficult sections of the syllabus had higher GPAs than students who simply focused on a specific goal GPA at the end of the semester3 . A good CrossFit example of this is a ring muscle up. There are no half reps of a muscle up–and yet the divide between zero and one is overwhelmingly large for some people! Instead of setting the specific, but unmeasurable goal of achieving one ring muscle up, set a goal to first master the kip swing on the rings. Not so coincidentally, this lines up well with the skill acquisition order that we learned last week–simple to complex. While specificity is important, we also need day to day measurability in order to be successful. By measuring your progress in the components of your goal, you’ll be more successful in achieving your goal.
Now we arrive at the aspect of SMARTER goal setting where it is easiest to go wrong–setting an attainable goal. When we read the word attainable, we think within reach, which is easy to interpret as easy. However, somewhat counterintuitively, difficult, far-off goals actually inspire greater performance and goal acquisition than close, easy to reach goals. In fact, as long as we possess the skills and motivation necessary to accomplish our goals, and don’t have conflicting goals, there is a linear relationship between the degree of difficulty in our goals and our performance.4 It is the skills component of that equation that attainable refers to–not the degree of difficulty or improvement in our goal. We simply need to possess the requisite skill to make progress towards our goal. For example, if your goal is to set a new 2k row PR, and you already know how to row, you will achieve better results if you set your goal to be a significant improvement, rather than a few seconds. However, if your goal is to do 25 unbroken double unders, but your single under PR is only 10, you should instead set a lofty single under goal, and then focus on achieving double unders. Talk to your coach if you need help determining what a realistic, but far-off goal is for you.
Relevance is the key to the motivation aspect of goals. Remember–the relationship between difficult goals and improvement is predicated on possessing both the skills AND the motivation in order to achieve maximal progress. Relevant goal setting boils down to two questions:
- Do I actually care about this goal?
- Is this goal conflicting with any of my other goals in life?
Question one is a deceptively complex question, especially in a CrossFit setting. Every day, you’ll watch other gym members accomplish movements, weights, times, and performances that are beyond the scope of your current abilities. It is easy to have a fleeting moment of desire to also accomplish these tasks. However, we’ve just finished discussing the need to set lofty goals. Those goals will require both time and hard work. Without true, lasting desire to accomplish these goals, our motivation will quickly wane. When you’re deciding on a new goal, write out all of the work and time necessary to complete that task. Do you still want to accomplish that goal after seeing the investment necessary? Question 2 is a function of the limited time in our lives. While we all want to be great CrossFitters, successful professionals, wonderful family members, and fun humans, it takes time to be successful in any area. If you pick a goal that actively detracts from another goal you’re working on, the indecision this generates will create the sensation of the unknown, and we’ve already covered the impact of that on achieving our goals.
Time-bound goals serve two purposes:
- Pressure of a deadline
- Allowance for feedback
Anyone who has ever procrastinated knows the burst of productivity that accompanies an impending deadline. While we can’t procrastinate our way to goals (nor should we try. Not squatting for six months and then trying to put 50 pounds on our squat in three months is a good way to make friends with an orthopedic surgeon) we can use the natural pressure imposed by deadlines to keep our goals forefront in our minds. However, it’s the allowance for feedback where our deadline provides the most value. Picking a deadline shouldn’t be an arbitrary process, it should be a function of laying out the necessary time for the work our goals require. Once we’ve laid that out, we can then go back and measure our progress against that timeline. While small deviations will be inevitable, large discrepancies allow us to alter our approach to achieving our goals, and get back on track. If we’re trying to lose 50 pounds in 6 months, but after 1 month, we’ve only lost 2 pounds, we know that we need to adjust our eating habits accordingly. Furthermore, time-bound goals allow us to more effectively evaluate and review our goals.
All of these goal setting techniques center around the idea that the more objective our goals are, the more effectively we can accomplish them. Evaluation and review of where we are in our progress towards our goals will lead to more effective completion of our goals, but without objective data to review, the review process can be tainted by our perception of effort levels, progress, and adherence to our plans. There is one more important ingredient to mention in regards to evaluation and review: studies have found that without a physical record of progression towards goals, evaluation of progress doesn’t impact goal attainment5. The research is mixed on whether those physical logs need to be public or private, but simply thinking about how we’ve progressed doesn’t lead to any increase in attaining our goals! So make sure we’re somehow logging our progress toward our goals. This can take the form of a notebook, notes on our phones, or using our gym software.
There is one component of goal-setting that isn’t included in the SMARTER framework: self-love. Setbacks and failure are a necessary part of any self-improvement. Please make sure that we continue to love ourselves, to stay positive, and celebrate the small victories. While this applies to all aspects of our lives, CrossFit is supposed to make your life better outside these four walls. While we need to be honest in our evaluations of effort, persistence, and practice, don’t ever lose sight of the fact that just by showing up, we’re making ourselves better.
So, if we really want to make goal-setting work, make sure that our goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound, and don’t forget to evaluate and review your progress along the way. Give yourself the respect and kudos you deserve, set high goals, and persevere through inevitable rough patches.
Our brains adapt first, then our muscles, then we are able to do skills under added intensity. Slow down to teach your brain and build muscle. Progress from simple movements to complex movements. Finally add intensity.
One of the wonderful aspects of CrossFit is the never-ending procession of new skills to master. We get pullups and want chest-to-bar, then muscle ups, and so on and so forth. However, sometimes it’s easy to get frustrated by our inability to master a certain skill. This article is designed to give you a roadmap to mastering new skills. While it’s written from the perspective of CrossFit, this can be applied to any motor skill–so if you’re looking to learn to play an instrument or swing a golf club, this will work just as well.
Before we get into what’s going on in your body and brain when you’re learning a new skill, let’s talk about the fundamental principle that drives all progress in the world of fitness: The SAID principle1. The SAID principle stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. That’s a fancy way of saying that your body will only respond to the specific stimulus that you place on it. In order to progress in any sort of skill acquisition, we’re going to need to place the right demands on our bodies to achieve the result that we’re looking for.
Very generally speaking, there are three stages of skill acquisition:
- Neurological improvement.
- Physiological Improvement
- Skill usage under added intensity.
The first improvements in any skill are always from an improvement in our neurological system’s ability to perform a given task. Some of this is because of an increase in motor units–your brain’s connection to your muscles. Some of it is due to an increase in neural efficiency–your body’s ability to recruit the existing motor units. Finally, some increases in skills come from our brain’s ability to automate lower order parts of a skill with practice over time2. So, when learning a new skill, step one is to begin with the least complicated aspects of the movement and move slowly through many perfect repetitions. This will give our central nervous system time to adapt. For example, if we’re learning how to squat for the first time, slowing the descent and pausing at the most challenging portion of the squat (the bottom) will allow our brains time to automate the process of squatting, since we’re reducing the neural demands of moving quickly through different stages of motion. This also means that more complicated movements are easier to learn because we’ve already ingrained the less complicated movements. Attempting to learn how to overhead squat prior to mastering a basic goblet squat will force your brain to expend energy both on the new aspect of the movement (the overhead position) and the aspects of the movement that you’ve only halfway mastered (the squat). Compare this to learning the overhead squat after a simple squat has become completely natural–your brain will only have to concentrate on learning the motor pattern of the overhead position during squatting. This phase happens on the span of days and weeks–but the next phase will require more patience and perseverance.
Once our brains have learned a movement pattern, the limiting factor in motor skill acquisition shifts to physiological characteristics: we may have the ability to successfully execute the snatch with an empty barbell, but loading 200 pounds onto the same bar will exceed our muscular system’s ability to accelerate the barbell enough to pull our body underneath the bar. The rate of improvement once we get to this stage will unfortunately be much slower than the increase from neurological improvement–building larger muscles, improving our heart’s stroke volume, or creating other physiological adaptations requires weeks or months, as opposed to days and weeks that neurological improvement occurs over. One of the most common mistakes that CrossFitters make is to grow impatient once their faster gains from neurological improvement slow down, and give up before enough time has passed to impose sufficient stimulus to create the desired effect that they’re looking for. For example, someone who has a good grasp of kipping on the rings and good pulling strength may be able to kip through the transition into the dip portion of a muscle up, but without the physical strength to do a ring dip, they won’t ever be able to perform a muscle up. With complex, strength based movements, respect the fact that it may take a few months to achieve your goals–and chase gradual improvement over a quick fix.
In terms of gaining strength (either with a barbell or gymnastics) improvement from physiological adaptations, there are three important facts to consider:
- Most strength and hypertrophy is built in the eccentric (lengthening) portion of movements rather than the concentric (contracting) phase. Because slowing down the movement also has the benefit of increasing neurological adaptations, slow eccentrics have a double benefit in regards to skill acquisition. However, be careful with the amount of volume you do with negatives–their increased stimulus leads to increased potency as well.3
- We only gain as much strength from the work that we are able to recover from. Once we’ve reached the end of your neurological adaptation with a movement, progress will stall unless we get enough sleep, eat well (and enough!) and give our muscles adequate time to recover in between sessions.
- Returning to the idea that our bodies only respond to the stimulus we deliver to them, it’s important to slowly ramp up volume and intensity over time. Doing the same number of reps at the same weight and tempo will quickly lead to plateaus.
The final piece of the puzzle when we’re learning new skills is to add intensity. Intensity can take the form of more weight, longer sets, faster cycle time, or doing the movement under fatigue. Intensity is a wonderful driver of fitness–but simple skills are quick to master. Complex, skill-based movements can take months to reach a level of mastery that can withstand fatigue. Respecting the process of building true adaptation will allow for years of healthy CrossFitting–and better scores in workouts!
So what does this mean? Learning new skills takes time. We have to progress from simpler to more complex, from slower to faster, and from few reps to high reps. One point worth reiterating–it’s your brain that learns movements first. Doing 100 reps in a day, getting frustrated, and never returning to that skill won’t give your brain the opportunity to adapt and learn. Practice skills often (3-4 times a week) at low total volume. As you get better, start to increase volume and decrease frequency of practice. Finally, add intensity in order to transfer those skills to workouts, and life.
This year, we’ll be doing a slightly different take on Friday Night Lights.
Everyone who signs up for The CrossFit Open this year will be placed on a team, and we’ll be doing an intra-gym team competition around the open.
Every single person will have the opportunity to score points each week for their team–for hitting PRs, for coming to Friday night lights (even if you have to do the workout at another time!), and in a few other ways that are still to be announced.
Each Friday, we’ll have food, drinks and community at the gym–and prizes for weekly challenges.
Talk to John or Kumi for more details.
Make sure to go ahead and register for the open in order to give us time to prepare the teams. We’ll have computers set up for everyone to register on 1/27, but feel free to register on your own before then here.
Don’t know what The CrossFit Open is? Here’s a (less than two minute) video that explains it all.
Thanks for being the best members always!