There’s a bit of wisdom we’d all do well to follow—control what you can control, let go of what you can’t. It applies broadly to life—from severe circumstances like job losses and break ups, to less psychologically threatening circumstances like the training day.
Within the training day there are circumstances beyond our locus of control.
But shrinking our thought process to simple goals attached to the training hour in front of us pays dividends as time accumulates. It helps us manage our training intensity and keeps us sane.
We have a client and friend that walked on the Penn State football team as a skinny, 6’3” linebacker. He left Penn State a 245 pound two-year starter and the leading tackler on a team that housed two eventual NFL stars. His biggest attribute wasn’t his athleticism. It was his ability to set small, focusing goals every day of his life—especially in his training. The process grew him into a mental goliath that eventually played four years in the NFL and landed him on the list of the league’s leading special teams tacklers.
He learned to control his focus by setting small goals. He learned to play the mental game.
Here’s how you can apply the same goals game to your training:
This is a simple, how do I feel today?
By asking this question we set the framework for establishing control over our training process by realizing what’s beyond our control.
If you feel good, you know there’s more within your training control today.
If you feel like you need four scoops of atomic pre-workout just to get through your warm-up there’s less within your training control today.
Making the distinction allows us to let go of what we can’t control and set appropriate daily goals. Feel good?—set more aggressive performance goals. Feel like shit?—change your focus to feeling better by the end of the session.
Let’s talk about feeling shitty.
It’s going to happen—even with solid nutrition and a staunch adherence to a good program. Extraneous variables, things we can’t control, ultimately affect our gym life. So, when we arrive to train feeling like a garbage can stuffed with smashed assholes, it’s best for us to make feeling good the goal.
It starts by simply letting go—which sounds poetic and liberating. But it’s way harder than anyone expects. Approach it from the angle of self-care. Start with an internal statement like this:
“Sexy, you need to do what’s best for yourself, and training hard today isn’t that.”
You don’t have to call yourself sexy, but why wouldn’t you?
Once we’ve accepted our current circumstance, we can approach the training day by setting an overall session goal of walking out of the gym feeling good. We subsequently break that down into smaller goals.
Let’s suppose you’ve chosen to replace your lifting session with a cardiac output session. There are, of course, parameters on your training spreadsheet outlining cardiac output sessions. Looking at the sheet and saying, ‘ok, this is what I’ll do today’ isn’t enough. It requires commitment.
At this point we make another self-statement:
“Sexy, you’re going to do 45 minutes of cardiac output and you’re going to work your damnedest to keep your heart rate between 120 and 130.”
This statement does a few things for us:
Let’s change our hypothetical thought process. From this section on, you no longer feel like you’ve been set ablaze with gasoline and extinguished with a pitchfork.
Grab your program spreadsheet and scan the weights you listed from last week’s training session. First—determine how challenging the loads were. Did they push the RPE limits, or were they at the bottom end of the RPE spectrum. Did you increase the load each set, or did you find a weight and use it for all prescribed sets? Once we make these determinations we can set appropriate weight goals.
Now—let’s work through a few hypotheticals.
Numero uno: You used a single weight for all of your sets that tested your RPE limits.
Start with the same weight and see how it feels. If it feels the same as last week, the goal is to maintain your performance. If it feels easier, add weight to the second set and decide you’ll maintain that weight, or go up, for the remaining sets.
Numero dos: You used a single weight for all of your sets that stayed well beneath your RPE limits.
Use last week’s weight as a warm-up and start your sets with heavier load. Set the goal to increase each set and find a new weight to challenge yourself with in the coming weeks—starting a situation like we discussed in numero uno.
Numero tres: You increased weight each set until you maxed out RPE.
The goal this week is to use that weight that maxed out your RPE for all the prescribed sets.
By using these three different strategies we keep our focus on what we can currently control while expanding training progress across a series of weeks.
Rep goals piggy-back weight goals. They’re supported by a simple statement:
I’m doing this many reps with this weight.
This focuses our brain on a simple, challengingly attainable goal. We can focus this on a single set or expand it across a training session regardless of training prescription.
Sometimes we have to break out of the 5×3, 3×8 or whatever mold that lies on our program and decide I’m doing this many reps with this weight no matter what it takes.
This is, however, a “super bowl” situation and it shouldn’t be done all the time. You’ll know when the time is right.
To determine skill goals, ask yourself one, or all, of these questions:
“Did my current ability allow me to get everything I could have out of that set or with that weight?”
“What small tweak in my technique would improve this lift?”
Here’s a tangible example:
You’re back squatting and at the completion of the set you notice a few things. Your upper-back tension wasn’t optimal and you didn’t spread the floor with as much intensity as you could have. We morph these observations into two separate skill goals.
During the next set you’ll pick one and focus on it. Declare that you’re going to own your back tension from set-up to completion. Once you accomplish that goal, move on to spreading the floor and focus with unbreakable intent. By the end of your squat session you’ll have improved as a squatter by separating skills into goals and achieving them.
Playing the Goal Game
It’s all a game, man. It’s all a game. Focusing on small, controllable situations by employing the framework let’s us play the game and win. Understand your situation and then choose the proper goal framework. Then win, goddamn it, win!
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