SMART Goal Setting in Bodybuilding

Article by seungmena aka Big Les – MuscleTalk Moderator

First of all I want to thank you for getting this far. For many years if I saw anything with a title like this I would not give it a second glance, dismissing it as psychobabble or worse, American psychobabble!1

Bodybuilding Goals

Psychobabble I hope you will see is not something I have slipped into, instead I have realised that certain concepts have very real practical uses, this is one of them. Before I start though, a quick word of explanation; my examples are drawn from bodybuilding nutrition because this is where I have the best knowledge. It is obvious, I hope, that the fulfilment of a bodybuilding goal takes more than just good nutrition and that proper training and rest routines are integral to success.

So what does SMART stand for? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time bound. As you read you will see that these categories overlap, for a goal to be measurable it has to be specific, if it is to be achievable then it has to be realistic as well. Making it time bound, or to put it another way, giving yourself a deadline adds momentum and drive to the goal – which I will discuss a little at the end of the article as well.

Specific Goals

A lot of people start off with a goal that goes something like this, “I want to get in shape”. Right now I am going to help everyone achieve that goal – in fact I am going to give you two ways of achieving it. First, go to McDonalds or KFC four times a day and eat at least two meals and a dessert. Do this for a month – you are now in shape. Okay you look well on you way to being a sumo wrestler, but that is a shape and you are in it, go out and celebrate at an eat-all-you-can buffet. Maybe that shape is not for you, or that is far too much work and money, so here is a way of achieving your goal of being in shape – today. Instant success, what more could you want?

Okay, how do you achieve this, simple go to a place where there is a full length mirror and some privacy, take off all your clothes and look at yourself. See, you are ‘in shape’, your shape right now. Congratulate yourself on a job well done. As you can see through my sarcasm, the goal “I want to be in shape” does not tell you anything about what you want to achieve.

Many people will counter this by saying, “okay I meant I wanted to be in good shape”. This is an improvement, but it is not specific. What do you mean by ‘good shape’, or ‘buff’, or ‘fit’, or ‘toned’? These are highly subjective terms and one person’s ‘fit and toned’ could be another person’s skin and bone. As an illustration of a specific goal I will give you mine:

I want my abs to show through with deep separation and full definition, I want my lower abs to have vascularity. I want to achieve low single digit bodyfat so that every muscle is crisply defined and separated showing hardness, vascularity and hardness. While being this lean I want to fill out and round off my delts, give an appearance of height and fullness to my traps, and take my arms over the 18inch mark. My quads I want to be full with a good sweep and separation, my hamstrings I want to look like steel cables from the back and to look like they are hanging off from the side. My glutes I want to be hard and crisply separated from my hamstrings. My back I want to be wide enough to fill my upper arm in the front lat spread and to look deep and detailed from the back.

That is specific, say exactly what you are trying to achieve. Obviously not everyone wants to look like that, maybe you just want a flat stomach so you can look good on the beach with a few abs poking out and no bingo wings, or you just want to add size to your arms. The key point is be specific so you know what you are trying to do, if you have no idea of what is you are really trying to achieve, it is like setting off on a journey without knowing where you are going. How can you plan your route, decide what to take with you, how much money to put aside or take, what to wear – you are clueless. The same applies with your bodybuilding, how can you expect to build something, let alone a physique, when you have no idea what that is you are trying to build. That could be a good definition of madness.

Measurable Goals

Okay, you have a specific goal. I am going to use mine as a reference, so how on earth do I go about measuring that goal? Apart from saying I want my arms over 18inches my goal is very much about my appearance and has a huge subjective element. That is the nature of bodybuilding, it is essentially subjective. And by the way, if you are a strength athlete all these steps apply but your job is made a lot easier because your sport is much more concrete.

What will I do to determine whether or not I have achieved my goal? First of all I have a mirror, I can use that, secondly and of much more use I have a camera, and thirdly there are lots of pictures of bodybuilders I can use for reference. Therefore, I can measure my progress and whether or not I have achieved my goal in the following ways: by looking the mirror, by getting photographs taken of my physique, and by collecting pictures of bodybuilders who have achieved the condition and physique I am seeing to achieve and comparing photographs of me to them. If I was artistic I could draw a picture or series of pictures of what I want to look like and compare my photographs to them. If I had decided it was essential to have a waist below a certain size, I would get the tape out and measure it. The possibilities are limited by what you can think of that is applicable to you and your specific goal.

The importance of measurement is that it not only tells you when you arrive so you can celebrate, being able to measure your progress allows you a much greater chance of success because you can make adjustments on the way. If you are cutting and you know you need to lose 30lbs and drop 4inches on your waist, and after two months you are down 2lbs and ¼ inch you know you have to make some changes, dramatic ones and change your approach radically. By the same token if you want to add an inch to your arms and after four weeks they are up 1½ inches start celebrating, you have achieved your goal and you can set a new one that actually represents a challenge for you. This leads us onto the next part of the process:


I said in the introduction achievable is closely linked with the next step, realistic, but is a distinct step in its own right. What do I mean by achievable? For example my goal is: I want to add 25lbs of lean mass while losing 45lbs of bodyfat, take my arms to 23 inches in three months all natural. That’s specific, and I could certainly measure it using a tape measure and bodyfat analysis. What a great goal, right?! No, let’s be honest, even with mutant genetics and a massive suppression of myostatin expression built into my genes from birth that is never going to happen, human beings do not work like that and certainly they do not work like that in three months.

Okay that goal was also unrealistic as well, so let’s use a better example. Let us say I had my goal, but that to get there I need to lose 50lbs. Is that achievable? Well yes, that is achievable in three months, possibly with a lot of hard work and assistance. But that is not the full answer, because I have answered theoretically, what I need to do is be brutally honest with myself and actually ask, is that achievable for me? And by ‘me’, I mean the fullest definition of ‘me’ to include your life circumstances as well as your genetics. After all, you may be capable genetically but not have the money or be over committed in terms of work and family life. Or it could even be, actually, if I am honest with myself, the achievement of that goal requires a commitment of time and resources that I am not prepared to give.

Some of you may even be honest enough with yourselves and say; actually I do not want to work as hard as achieving that goal would require me to do. By being honest with yourself you dramatically increase your chance of success.

If your goal is not achievable for you then go back to the first step and change it, do this until you have a goal that you can honestly achieve. Obviously a goal should not be so easy that it requires no effort to achieve, but by the same token it should not be so far away that you are dissuaded from undertaking it by the sheer magnitude or scale of what is required. I will come back to this a little bit later, but it is possible to make big goals achievable by looking at them differently, so do not give up just yet.

Realistic Goals

In explaining what is meant by realistic, I am going to give nutritional examples, although I could give examples from any aspect of bodybuilding. In nutrition being realistic is fundamental; if you do not know what can and cannot be done, then, you are not going to construct a diet that gets you where you want to go. Not only will your goals be unachievable, but you become susceptible to misinformation, hype, and purveyors of hope and dreams because they let you believe it can be done with their products.

I can illustrate this with two examples, and although they contain a little exaggeration they are based in beliefs that are very common. My first bodybuilder is lean, weighs around 140lbs and has the hint of his abs showing through. He knows that more muscle will make a dramatic difference to how he looks and that every pound counts because he naturally lean. He decides to add 10lbs of muscle as his first goal. Having been lean all his life the prospect of being fat disgusts him and so he decides he is going to add 10lbs of lean muscle and no fat. This is specific and measurable, and in his mind he can achieve it. Is it achievable, well the purveyors of lean bulking would have him believe it so, and he knows he can stay lean because he always has been, the evidence says yes, it is achievable. If we ask the question of whether our friend is being realistic the answer is actually a no. At this point I hear the proponents of lean bulking in uproar and consternation at such an outrageous assertion. I had better explain why adding 10lbs of lean muscle without fat is unrealistic.

At 140lbs and single digit percentage bodyfat, our bodybuilding friend needs to take in all the nutrients required to build that muscle because he has none stored (as bodyfat). Nutrients, like amino acids the building blocks of muscle, have an overhead of calories; that is you need to eat food to get them. Secondly building muscle takes energy, energy not only for training but to fuel repair and growth. In addition to this an anabolic environment requires these things to be in plentiful supply. One good example of this is nitrogen balance. For anything near an optimum anabolic environment the body has to have a positive nitrogen balance or more simply nitrogen in has to be greater than nitrogen out. To do this we have to eat food. All these essentials for muscle growth rely on an excess. If this was not enough to force us to eat, our bodies are not 100% efficient. There are losses in the processing of food, the building of muscle; every metabolic process gives off a little heat at the very least, which requires energy. Muscle building is expensive in terms of energy and raw materials, to grow you have to put in enough fuel and raw materials to build with.

There are two more levels on which this is an unrealistic goal. If our friend wanted to not gain bodyfat he would need to achieve the following with his diet: He would need to consume precisely the right amount of food to required provide the fuel and raw materials per day to provide his body with what it needed for the amount of growth that it could achieve in that specific time period. Think about it, he has to know how much food to consume to repair all the damaged tissues of his body, that is, those damaged by being alive and by his training. He has to know how much food is required to fuel his training, growth, repair, thinking, immune response as well as every other metabolic process. How much food he needs to fuel the amount of new tissue his body can produce that day. Can anyone honestly tell me they could even begin to work that out for a day? And in reality it is not even as easy as doing that for a 24 hour period, the evidence increasingly points to the fact that our metabolism works in much smaller periods of time, possibly 3 hours or less. Add to that we have to factor in how the body reacts in terms of nutrient partitioning as a reaction to demand and perceived demand, then we factor in our metabolic response to the food we have just eaten in terms of its glycemic index, glycemic load, and digestibility, how it is processed, and tissue demands. Plus the knowledge that certain foods or nutrients to be precise have preferred metabolic outcomes and we add all that together to produce a diet which is perfect – and then we have to run for the bus or we face an unknown stressor and all our calculations are wrong. And of course we have to recalculate the diet everyday to account for the new tissue that has been produced.

That level of precision is not going to happen, so instead we supply an excess of nutrients on a regular basis. One of the oldest and most effective ways of doing this is to eat like the bodybuilder you are trying to be, so a 140lb bodybuilder trying to be 150lb eats like a 150lb bodybuilder. The likelihood is that at first the extra calories will not all be used in growth, repair and maintenance and some will be put away as fat for use later.

Finally, if I have not managed to convince you that our friend is not going to only add 10lbs of muscle, we come to the final reason why this is not a realistic goal. Fat is anabolic. A lot of fat is not anabolic, far from it, it creates an oestrogenic environment that is the antithesis of the metabolic environment for optimum muscle growth, but some bodyfat is essential for optimum body performance and hormonal support. If you want a dramatic demonstration of this, then female bodybuilders provide an example. When a woman diets down for a show her periods stop, that is the normal hormonal processes shut down. No one is exempt from this. In men it is not as dramatic, but if your bodyfat is too low testosterone production is compromised and lowers. Fat is anabolic for a second reason. Fat provides a cushion and brace for your body that allows it to lift more. Sure there is Pudzianowski twice Worlds Strongest Man with his abs and bodybuilder-esque physique, but look closely at a professional bodybuilder off season and him, and you’ll see they are not worlds apart. He is leaner than most strongmen, yes, but is he super lean? No! Look at powerlifters and the picture is clear, a little bit of bodyfat is essential for lifting heavy weights. Hang on you say, I am a bodybuilder, not a strongman or powerlifter! Yes, but weights are the stimulus for muscle growth, the heavier the weight the greater the stimulus.

Apologies if that was a long example, but hopefully I have made it clear that staying lean, I mean really lean, is not concurrent with optimum muscle growth. Not saying you won’t grow any muscle, of course not,; what I am saying is staying lean while trying to add muscle is making your job extremely difficult to the point of setting yourself up for failure and disappointment – in short it is not realistic.

There is a second big way in which bodybuilders are not realistic. Many read how professionals drop 50lbs or more before a contest, so even though they are not competitive themselves (although some competitors make this mistake too) they think they too can go up 50lbs-ish to add muscle. Why is this not realistic? Simple, our friend is not seeing the complete picture. First of all, our professional bodybuilder’s starting weight is his contest weight, devoid of bodyfat and water. Our friend is often lucky to be in single digits bodyfat. Let us break the picture down, the professional bodybuilder has dehydrated, so up to 20lbs of their weight gain could be water, but let’s be conservative and put it between 10 and 15lbs. Secondly our body builder will have added muscle, usually between 5 and 10lbs (there are exceptions but these guys are not going up 50lbs in their off season) during their off-season. So if we add just the weight of putting their body’s water level right after dehydrating it and their muscle gain we have a weight gain of between 15 and 25lbs. That means between 35 and 25lbs of their gain is fat. Okay 35lbs of fat is a lot to lose in 12 weeks but it’s not phenomenal by any means, and 25lbs is 2lb a week bar a fraction. This means that most professional bodybuilders barely break into the low teens bodyfat in the off season. Ronnie Coleman has his bodyfat tested by water immersion and has never been over 8%.2

There are other examples, but I am sure you have got the idea. The point is to think through and even research into whether or not what you propose to do has been done, and if it has whether it has been done by people like you, and if so what were their circumstances? If their circumstances are nothing like your own then it is not realistic to think you can mimic their methods or success.

Time bound

This is the last step, and it is simple. When you have a goal, give yourself a deadline. Be it a show that you want to compete in, your holidays or a date picked out. Without this final step your goal has no sense of urgency. If your goal has no sense of urgency then really it has not made the step from being a wish; okay a realistic, achievable, measurable and specific wish, but at the end of the day it is just a well defined wish. It is adding this final element that makes a goal that – a goal.

So now you have set your goal, the problem is that the deadline is three months away and that is an age. This is where I steal a concept from Anthony Robbins. The method he calls RPM. The ‘R’ is for ‘results’ – this is the goal that we have so meticulously prepared by being smart. The ‘P’ is the important bit; it stands for ‘purpose’ – the step that gives you drive and momentum. Purpose means once you have set your goal you write out why you want to achieve it. You write out, just as you write out your goal to make it concrete, why you want to achieve it. Not just one reason, all the reasons you can think of, and this can be a very long list, in fact it should be quite a big list because the goal is important enough for you to have set it in the first place. That said it could be a short but powerful list, the point is that you have reasons for setting the goal, write them down and really focus on what achieving this goal would mean to you, and include the consequences like attracting a fit girl, getting a trophy, more confidence as well as more obvious thinks like looking like a Greek god.

The final step, ‘M’ stands for ‘massive action plan’. This is Anthony Robbins’ own term. For me a plan of attack would be fine, and I would like to think that having taken the trouble to set a smart goal you would also plan how you were going to achieve it. After all, one of the fundamental reasons, if not the fundamental reason for using SMART is so that you can accurately plan and decide what you are going to do. One thing to note is your plan does not have to be either definitive or set in stone, it is simply what you think you can do to achieve your goal at that point in time. As you learn more, your body or circumstances change so your plan is going to change. This is a good thing, often your first plan is probably more like a brainstorming session anyway, where you simply scatter onto the page everything you can think of that will help you get where you want to go. Then you refine it, by deciding what is appropriate for you, and then you revise it. This process of refining and revision is actually an essential ingredient in success.

Finally, before I conclude, often when we set out what we need to do to achieve our goal it produces a massive list; this is why Robbins’ calls it a massive action plan. However, if we take this list and group together items that are related we produce a much smaller and less intimidating list. So instead of, have pre workout supplement, eat meals on time, have post workout shake, keep carbs under 100g five days a week, carb up on Wednesday and Saturday, take essential fats; we could have ‘stick to my diet’. And the heading ‘stick to my diet’ has these items listed below it. So today all I had to do was, stick to my diet, do my cardio and rest – that’s a lot easier to remember than all the things underneath the headings.

By way of conclusion I would like to thank you for reading this far (and if you skipped to this paragraph – go back and read it, cheeky!). SMART as a process 3, is very useful not only in bodybuilding but in any area of life where you want to achieve something. Not all of us want to change the world or build multi-national companies, but all of us want to achieve something, usually quite a few things, in our lives. By using SMART we can decide what those things really are and how we are going to get them. What is left is for us all to follow through and achieve our goals.


  • For my American friends this has a similar complimentary meaning as the American phrase, English (British) teeth.
  • He also tested at -2% which means that the baseline assumption of the test for the level of fat required to sustain life was incorrect. And that Ronnie Coleman is a mutant!
  • Process is just short-hand for a series of steps.
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