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A SMART Guide to Set Fitness Goals

Updated on January 7, 2017
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Mahmoud Elboraey, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer with a Bachelor's Degree in Physical Education and Sports Science.

Overall fitness is achieved through the right combination of volume and intensity of cardiovascular training, muscular strength, endurance training and flexibility training. It's also important to monitor body composition (fat versus lean body mass) to ensure it stays within healthy limits.

Goals and your desired results should be the first guideline that you use in designing your training program. Also, your plan should include goals pertaining to other aspects of general fitness and health. In order to do so, you would need the following:

  • Establish a reasonable time-frame for achieving your goals.
  • Break down long-term goals into shorter-term ones.
  • Establish criteria for measuring each goal (lower body fat by 3%, loose 10 kg, increase muscle by 5%, increase muscular strength by 20%, etc).

Your Goals Should Be Smart:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Goals Examples:

Decrease body fat by 3% by April and increase muscle mass by 4 kg by April through exercising a minimum four times per week, sticking to a healthy diet and increasing a general daily level activity.

Training Variables

In training towards achieving any goals, there are certain variables that we can manipulate in order to make a workout more or less intense. Understanding each of these variables and how they affect.

Tthe total workload is essential for designing safe and effective programs.

Training Variables for Cardiovascular Training:

A. Frequency

Frequency refers to the number of training sessions per week. Research has shown that cardiovascular training once or twice per week would only help maintain fitness but does not provide enough of` a stimulus for significant aerobic fitness gains. For the cardiovascular system to adapt to exercise by improving its fitness, training needs to occur three to five times per week.

B. Duration

To achieve gains in cardiovascular endurance, Duration of the exercise session must be at least twenty minutes. More significant gains can be achieved through 30 to 60-minute sessions. Research has shown that exercise bouts of less than 20 minutes can result in some psychological and general health benefits but does not really warrant aerobic endurance improvements.

C. Intensity

Exercise Intensity refers to how hard a person is exercising during a particular exercise. Cardiovascular exercise intensity can be measured using RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion), monitoring HR (Heart Rate) or through the simple “Talk Test".

Use the Karvonen Formula When Determining Appropriate Exercise Intensity:

  • HRR of 50 to 60% for sedentary beginners
  • HRR of 60 to 75% for healthy, active and moderately fit individuals
  • HRR of 60 to 85% for healthy, active, fit individual.

The Karvonen Formula

HR max = 220 - age

HRR = HR max - RHR

50% of HRR = (HRR X 0.5) + RHR

85% of HRR = (HRR X 0.85) + RHR

*HRR (Heart Rate Reserve)

*RHR (Resting Heart Rate)

Training Variables for Muscular Strength and Endurance Training:

A. Volume:

Volume is the total workload used during an entire workout session. A session's volume is optioning by multiplying the weight used in each exercise by the number of reps, then by the number of sets then adding the sum total of all exercises. Example: 3000 pounds of weight/session.

A volume per exercise or per muscle group would be also useful to record for future reference and periodization purpose.

B. Load:

The percentage of 1RM used for a particular exercise is considered a load of exercise. Example: 70% RM. Exercise load plays an important role in determining the effect of that exercise on an individual,s muscular system and on the number of reps they can achieve. Loads above 85% RM have been associated with increases in injury risk and training below 60% RM negatively affects strength gains. Therefore, the training load should be ranging between 60 to 80% RM depending on the desired results and your level of fitness.

C. Reps:

The number of reps per exercise is inversely related to the load. The higher the load, the lower the reps. A lot of people today still believe in 30 and 50 reps/set for fat-burning and endurance, they have been associated with higher occurrences of injuries to both muscle and joints. therefore, sets should be ranging between 8 and 20 repetitions depending on the desired results and your level of fitness.

D. Sets:

An exercise set is usually defined as a number successive repetition of a certain exercise performed without rest. In the past, weight-lifters and body-builders performed a multiple-set program and used them in a variety of ways. Nowadays, studies have shown that similar improvements in strength can be achieved through performing a single set to fatigue. Keeping this notion in mind can help us design programs that are much less time-consuming. Also, multiple-set programs have been associated with higher incidences of injury as well as drop-out due to boredom.

On the other hand, varying the type of exercise for the same muscle group has been shown to promote better gains in muscular strength size, as compared to multiple sets of the same exercise. Therefore, we recommend exercise prescription of one to two sets sets maximum depending on the desired results and our level of fitness.

E. Rest & Recovery:

Rest and Recovery is very important component of any exercise program. How much rest you allow for a certain muscle or muscle group between sets will greatly affect the way this muscle adapts to the exercise load. Also, the amount of recovery time between training days will impact the result and overall effectiveness of the training programs.

F. Frequency:

Frequency refers to the numbers of training sessions per week. Generally speaking, to two to three exercise session per week should be enough to produce a significant strength and endurance gains. For those who prefer to workout more frequently, training the same muscles on two consecutive should be avoided. those who work at higher load should allow a longer resting period between training sessions.

G. Exercise Selection:

A common mistake that a lot of people alike fall for is to over-train certain parts of the body and under-train (or not train) certain others. It is very important to give similar attention to all major muscle groups in the body in order to maintain joint stability and avoid injury.

H. Exercise Sequence:

A variety of theories has been developed over years to determine the best exercise sequence. In my opinion, the two most valid of these are:

  • Multi-joint exercise first: which allows you to perform exercise requiring a large amount of energy expenditure while they are still not fatigued. They can then proceed to isolation exercises.
  • Large muscles first: Most large muscle exercises smaller muscles to assist in their execution. If the small muscles are fatigued first, you might not be able to perform exercises for larger muscle groups.

I. Tempo:

The speed at which each rep of an exercise is performed is known as the Tempo. Studies have shown that exercises performed at slower speeds warrant a more even application of muscle force throughout the range of motion and greatly reduce the amount of stress to the joint of connective tissues. since the eccentric phase of exercise has been associated with more instances of injury, it is highly recommended to give more time to the eccentric phase of any exercise. A safe would be 2-4 seconds for the concentric phase and 4-10 seconds for the eccentric phase. The tempo of exercise will be greatly dependent on desired results as well as on the individual's level of fitness.

Best of luck!


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