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7 Keys to Effective Goal Setting For Bodybuilders

Every so often I come across an article that says, “Goal setting doesn’t work.” That makes me scratch my head and wonder what the writer was thinking. Closer to the truth is what multi-millionaire, best selling author and personal development expert Brian Tracy said: “Goal setting is the master skill of success.”  In no sport or endeavor is this truer than bodybuilding, where every month, every week, every day, every workout, every set, is a chance for achieving goals and setting personal records.

Simply knowing what you want, specifically, increases your odds of getting it. But there are certain ways to set goals that will keep you more focused and virtually guarantee you’ll achieve them. Use these 7 keys and watch your motivation shoot through the roof and your muscle gains come in month after month after month.

Key #1: Fully harness the power of deadlines.

If you think about it, it’s a remarkable achievement when a bodybuilder hits their peak on one specific day of the year. In fact, it’s probably too much for the conscious mind to handle – it doesn’t happen without the subconscious mind being programmed with a target and a date for its achievement.

Even for more modest goals, deadlines are imperative. As Cyril Northcote Parkinson stated in the famous psychological law bearing his name, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” No deadline = no urgency. No urgency = more procrastination, less effort.

When you review and affirm your goals, always focus on the deadline as well as the goal itself. This programs your subconscious mind to automatically adjust your behavior to make maximum use of every minute of your time and steer you toward hitting your target on the one day that counts.

Because different types of goals have different “gestation periods,” you should have short term, mid range and long term goals ranging from daily goals for what you’re going to eat and how much you’ll lift in the gym to multi-year goals such as earning a pro card.

Key #2: Set goals in ink but deadlines in pencil.

A common criticism of goals is, “what if you fail to reach them? Won’t that be a de-motivator?”  That might be true if you thought missing a deadline was permanent failure instead of temporary delay. So don’t think that way.

For each time frame, write your goals in ink and your deadlines in pencil (metaphorically speaking, if not literally). The ink represents the fact that once you’ve set a goal for something you really want, you are pledging that you’ll never give up. You might even imagine your goal as carved in stone.

Write your deadline in pencil as a reminder to keep your deadline flexible. If you don’t make it in time, you didn’t fail, you simply underestimated how long it would take. Simply erase that deadline, keep the goal, set a new deadline, and persistently keep after it.

Key #3: Understand the difference between a goal and a vision and be sure you have both

A goal is a stepping stone and has a deadline or end point. A vision is the big picture of what you want for your entire life and has no deadline or ending point.  Bodybuilders who set a goal to compete, but don’t have a clearly defined vision often find themselves with the post contest blues. After the onstage rush wears off, they feel a void; they feel aimless.

Each time you achieve a goal, you have to keep asking, “What’s next?”  But if you have no vision, you may find yourself at a loss for an answer. If you have a vision, the next step is an obvious and natural progression. More importantly, that new goal is the next stepping stone in a lifelong journey and the journey itself becomes the reward.

Here’s an example. Goal: To win the overall national championship title this year.  Vision: To continuously challenge myself, improve my physique, optimize my health, maximize my longevity and be the best natural bodybuilder I can be.

Key #4: Set muscle building goals that are achievable and realistic for your training age.

How much muscle can you gain? It depends.  If you’re a beginner, then you have some large and fast gains you can still reap. Through the first year, especially in the first several months, two pounds a month is common and even a pound of lean body mass a week is not out of the question during focused periods of hard work.

As your training age increases, the rate of gains decreases. Intermediate bodybuilders with two or three years of experience usually see the gains fall to around a pound a month. For advanced bodybuilders, gaining even three or four pounds of stage weight from one year to the next is success. Most bodybuilders will always desire and pursue more size, but at the advanced level, the size gains come slowly and it’s more about quality, balance and refinement.

Chronological age can certainly affect your rate of gains, especially when we’re talking about your seventh or eighth decade and beyond. But many people age 40-50 and up, sell themselves short because they think they’re too old. Think again. If you start training at age 45, you may have some very rapid gains ahead of you because you’re still a beginner, so set your goals ambitiously.

Key #5: Set specific and achievable goals, without setting limits.

When you set very specific goals, it’s almost uncanny how often you hit them on the nose, right to the digit and to the day. This is proof of the power of clarity and the power of you subconscious mind to guide you to your goals. But who’s to say you may not have done better if you hadn’t set a cap on it?

The solution is to set goals with no limit. Setting “no limit” goals is as simple as adding a few extra words to your goal statement such as “or more” or “at least.”  For example, you might write, “I am gaining at least 10 pounds of solid lean body mass in the next 12 weeks,” or, “I am increasing my deadlift to 405 pounds or more by March 31st.”

Key #6: Never set foot in the gym without specific goals for each workout

Great physiques are built one great workout at a time, but you rarely have a great workout by accident. Great workouts are a planned event. The best workouts I’ve ever had were the ones I was thinking about the entire week before.

I remember sessions where I finished my last set of squats, hitting a lift that I was very pleased with, like 315 for 20 reps. Right then and there I started thinking about hitting 325 for 20 at next leg workout, which was almost a week away. I clearly saw myself putting an extra five pound plate on each side. All week long I kept thinking about it and visualizing doing the reps. Every time I did that, I hit those goals the overwhelming majority of the time.

Beyond the physical improvements, a major benefit of continuously setting daily workout goals is the boost to your confidence when you reach them. Since you train several times per week, think about how many opportunities you have to jack up your confidence. We all have mental up and down days, but there is nothing like hitting a goal in the gym to boost your motivation. Even a simple goal like doing one more rep with the same weight is satisfying. When you hit personal records, it’s downright euphoric.

Key #7: Stay focused by writing down your goals and carrying them with you.

A goal that’s not in writing is not a goal at all, it’s just a wish. Most New Year’s resolutions are little more than wishes; they’re casually set and usually only stated verbally. Therefore, they’re lightly taken and freely abandoned at the first obstacle.

A goal becomes a goal the moment it’s put on paper. But writing down a goal once and filing it away is rarely enough.

The key is to stay focused on your goals day and night.  The more you think about it, the more it’s on your mind, the more it’s right there in your sights – right in front of you, the more likely you are to take action, move toward it and achieve it.

Put all your goals in writing on a master goal list. Read your list every morning and every evening. Take your highest priority goals, write them on a card and carry that goal card with you everywhere you go. Read it as often as you can. Read it dozens of times a day if possible. Do this and you will be shocked at how your level of goal achievement accelerates.


  1. Tom Terwilliger

    March 3, 2012 at 12:28 am

    Great advise as always Tom. I’m going to share this with my goal achievement students. Thanks bro.

  2. Charleshatten

    October 5, 2012 at 5:26 am

    Ive wiped out and been told that exercise lifting can actually make u fat…..well they sure seemed right cuz i got this gut weigh 260 and am 5 ft 9 in. yes i run play ball ride my bike hike swim lift have a total gym walk and my whole family is like man we r worried about u ….. kinda depressing but just being real. Ive done supplements and stuff but the nutrietion thing diet is my enemy. I do tkd into jiu-jitsu boxing and kick boxing and I ask myself why do I have these man tits and beer looking gut and I dont drink…..It just seems to be from waist up….well there it is …. i said it and im not quitting as a matter of fact im going to weight watchers im just well there

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