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I've been going to the gym 3-6 times a week regularly for the past 5+ years, with occasional breaks for injuries. I'm no longer a beginner, but I am having a hard time figuring out how to set interesting goals to keep me motivated.

Setting particular weight goals isn't particularly motivating to me. Due to various setbacks, the goals I am excited about (pass the CPAT, learn to do the salmon ladder) are still several years away, so it's hard to stay motivated. How do people find interesting goals in between?

I'm hoping any answer will be generally applicable, but for context my current workout schedule is roughly:

Day 1: pull day
Day 2: 30 minute run
Day 3: leg day
Day 4: 30 minute run
Day 5: push day
Day 6: 30 minute run
Day 7: rest

On weightlifting days, I usually do something like 3 circuits of 2 exercises, 3 sets x 10 reps each. I know to mix it up to work on higher reps/lower weight some weeks and higher weights/lower reps other weeks. I've also been working with a personal trainer one day a week for roughly half this time, but mainly to help with form. I can do pull-ups (up to 10 a set at my peak, although with injuries/recovery this has fluctuated), which is the first intermediate goal I had.

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To address the other half of the question, you have a goal of doing the CPAT (For those that are unaware, this is a firefighter fitness test often used in the hiring process to remove or eliminate candidates that do not perform as well) and the salmon ladder (Ninja warrior type of origin, using a bar to leap up a hooked "ladder" structure).

So, take the overall goals and break them down.

  1. Salmon ladder - Work on being able to do one rung. Don't worry about the full ladder, just think about achieving one rung. So explosive pullups and similar upper body exercises should be part of the regimen to enable this. Once you get one, reassess and try for two, and so forth.

  2. CPAT - Each section of this has related exercises. If I think way back to when I did it, there was the hose extension, the sledgehammer, ladder lift/carry, body drag, and a few others. Break those down. The goal is to drag a human dummy like 50 yards for time. Get a cage bag, work on dragging it 10 yards, then 20 and so forth. The hose extension, same. The sledgehammer, work on 5 strikes, then 10, and so on. Work with a physical trainer and see what exercises correlate.

One of the mistakes that people make is they say "I want to be able to do X", and they consider anything short of X a failure rather than a step on the path. If I can go to martial arts for an example, we don't teach brand new people a 360 jump spin hook kick. First we teach a basic side kick. Then the next is a hook kick, then a reverse hook, spin hook, then we start adding the jump. If you can't do X today but you can do Q, do Q. Then R, then S, and work until you can do X.

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The standard coaching strategy is to set only SMART goals and try set mid-term and short-term goals that lead to a big vision you are really passionate about.

1. What are SMART goals?

There are some variants out there but the most common one for that acronym is

  • Specific - What exactly is it you want to achieve?
  • Measurable - How can you verify you achieved that goal?
  • Attainable - is it possible to achieve the goal (at all and in time)?
  • Relevant is it necessary to do this in order to achieve the higher-order or later goals?
  • Time-bound till when can and will this have to be achieved?

2. The process

The first thing you need is a vision. That does not mean an unrealistic dream, it means a SMART goal still, but it has to be something you can see yourself in, in like one or two years, maybe longer. You need to fully identify with it and be really passionate about it. And you need to be able to draw a very specific picture of why you want this, how it will feel like, how your life will look like if you want thus etc. Thus, "I want to be the strongest man in the world" or "I want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime" are not good visions in this sense since most people do not have a clue about what this means in terms of things you need to sacrifice and endure.

Only if you got this, where you can picture your future self and go like "ye wow want to start better yesterday", then you start to analyse what you need to get there.

You look where you have to be at in 10 months if your vision is in one year, what you have to be doing then still. And step by step, you go backwards in time until you know your goals for the next six months, the next month, the next week, and even tomorrow until you covered everything you need to do and when to do it if you want to achieve your grand vision. Every step and goal should be formulated in the SMART framework.

Sounds like a lot of work? It is. And you need to know a bunch before even starting. That's why there are coaches out there, they do this and know this to make a living. It has been proven time and again that this works well once you made a plan in this fashion and it is easier to stick with it if you can relate every step with the vision and have many small successes because the goals can be achieved.

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  • DANGIT! Sniped on SMART by 2 minutes :D :D
    – JohnP
    Sep 12, 2023 at 14:04
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    I would add that you should always have short term (1-6 months, maybe a year), mid range (2-3 years) and long term (4+ years) goals. At every completed phase (So every year or so) look at those and reassess/replan/adjust.
    – JohnP
    Sep 12, 2023 at 14:05
  • This feels like half of an answer. Of course goals should be specific, measurable, and achievable, but how do you find achievable goals that are more interesting/exciting than lift X+10 pounds.
    – TMuffin
    Sep 13, 2023 at 2:07
  • @TMuffin As written, you need to make them part of something more. If you realise this is the only way to get you to your dream, the motivation is trivially there. I think your problem is mainly that your overarching goal(s) is/are too arbitrary and "would be nice". You need your personal vision first. Sep 13, 2023 at 4:12
  • I really am excited about the CPAT and the salmon ladder, but they're not achievable goals in the next year or so. I'm looking for advice on intermediate goals. I thought that was clear from the body of the question, but I'll update the title as well.
    – TMuffin
    Sep 13, 2023 at 4:41
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I am in a similar boat to you: I am not new to sports, have done many different ones my whole life, am very familiar with training and the peculiarities of my own body, but I do not tend to take much value out of "simple" goals (like a certain weight when lifting; or a certain pace when running).

Over time, I've developed priorities which are more along these lines:

  • At any time I have an active running training plan with some digital coach, and will take utmost priority to make these runs; the plans are structured around a set of local races that I run strictly against myself. I absolutely do not compare myself to others.
  • I will take any opportunity to go rock climbing, and will prioritize it above almost everything else in my life.
  • For all sports, I will do my utmost to stay healthy.

(Note that some people will frown at calling these bullet points "goals", especially the last one, so I won't do that here.)

From these three points, everything else follows. For example, to reach the running goal, I had to completely restructure the way I sleep, so I can run in the early mornings. Setting the rock climbing priority means that even though this is very hard for me due to logistical reasons, I get to be on the crags 5-6 times per year for a few days each. If there is a question whether I go rock climbing or to a family member's birthday party, I know what to do.

Sub-goals include keeping it all fun in whatever way necessary (for example, I love training very data-driven; indulging in a pretty nice sports watch has been an absolute booster for my running; or I might splurge on nicer climbing shoes than strictly necessary simply because it's a small boost to morale). Depending only on discipline or motivation is just not enough.

In my experience, showing up is the most important bit about being a hobby athlete. I used to do outdoor and indoor sports since my early twenties, but now in my late 40s I have tuned everything to avoid obstacles. In the last month, I ran 120km and did 60h of other sports (mainly indoor climbing and bouldering, some strength and yoga on the side), aside of full-time job and family. Right now it feels like I can keep this up indefinitely (or rather, until time rears its ugly head eventually), I feel zero frustration, and I absolutely never think that I would be rather doing something else during the activity.

Do I get better at what I do? Yes, slowly but surely. It does not matter though. There will always be millions of athletes who are better than me, and I will always be better than millions of athletes. I'm happy if I'm improving even slightly, and guess what; doing something for many hours will make you eventually better, and even if the pace or the weight will not increase, at least you know that you showed up and gave the effort.

TLDR: make sure you are having fun when doing the activity. Using numbers in your training is fine, especially in the day-to-day training sessions, especially if it motivates you, but don't get hung up on mid- or long-term pace or weight goals; you cannot really influence them in a reliable way. And if your routine goes stale, don't hesitate to change it up.

In your concrete case: if you feel your lifting to become a chore, don't hesitate to do a different routine; or other individual exercises. Maybe check out calisthenics, they are big on finding ways to incrementally get better with many intermediate, reachable goals (the "bible" of that sport is probably "Overcoming Gravity" - you might get that and check if that is an alternative or addition that would give you some smaller goals).

For running, you can pick local races as "automatic" goals (focussing on showing up, not on a time); or on the goal of constantly increasing your monthly distance; or on the goal of being able to run the "next" marker distance (i.e. if your farthest distance was 10k so far, then train to be able to run 15k injury free, and so on). Whatever is fun for you.

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