An important step in structuring your training is to set goals. Without well-established goals, it’s easy to waste time and effort on an exercise program and not achieve the results you deserve. When starting a program, many people set goals based on appearance-related outcomes such as weight loss and muscle gain. While these are perfectly legitimate outcomes, performance-based goals are more effective than appearance-based ones when structuring a training program.
Appearance goals vs. performance goals are the subject of some debate in the fitness industry. Some fitness professionals argue that you should give up your focus on physical appearance and instead learn to appreciate your body. I agree with some of that sentiment. I think too many people tie their self-worth to their appearance and get caught up in the idea of a “perfect” or “ideal” body that, in reality, doesn’t exist. That kind of thinking can lead to unhealthy and obsessive behaviors. On the other hand, my job as a trainer is to help you get the results you want. I’m not here to tell you how you should feel or what you should want. The truth is that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look better, as long as that desire doesn’t come at the expense of your physical or mental health.
In my opinion, appearance-based training and performance-based training can go together. In fact, training for aesthetics and training for performance have a lot of similarities. For many people, improving appearance means increasing muscle and decreasing fat. Improving performance often means increasing strength and aerobic capacity. Both involve resistance and aerobic training, and for both, the details of each program should be personalized based on what works best for you.
Really, the difference comes down to how you set your goals and how you use those goals to structure your program. In that regard, it’s more effective to set and structure a program based on performance-based goals. Training for purely aesthetic goals isn’t the most effective way to structure training for several reasons. First, aesthetic goals are often subjective which makes it difficult to know whether you’re progressing towards your goal. Aesthetic goals can also be difficult to measure. Common appearance measurements, such as bodyweight, aren’t good indicators because they don’t differentiate between the loss or gain of fat and muscle. You could increase your muscle mass and decrease your fat mass, but your overall bodyweight might stay the same despite the fact that you’ve improved your body composition. In addition, appearance changes can often be out of your control. Your physical appearance is largely dictated by your genetics, which means that your appearance may not change in the ways that you want or expect. It’s possible that you will work very hard to improve your physique and still not be satisfied with what you see in the mirror.
Despite those issues, I’m not suggesting that you give up your aesthetic goals. However, even if you do only want to exercise to flatten your stomach or get bigger biceps, you’re more likely to get those results if you use performance-based goals to guide your training. General performance goals include increasing strength, muscular or aerobic endurance, speed, power, etc. Performance goals can also be skill based; learning to master a movement such as a pull up or pistol squat.
Some examples of performance-based goals include:
- Perform 1 pull up
- Perform 10 consecutive push ups
- Run a mile in under 10 minutes
- Complete a 5k run in 40 minutes
- Deadlift your bodyweight
Performance-based goals are generally:
- Objective. If you can lift more weight on a particular exercise with the same form, you’ve gotten stronger.
- Measurable. It’s easy to quantify and record your performance based on the amount of resistance you use, the exercise variation you’re able to perform, or your time to completion for a certain distance.
- Occur relatively quickly. This is especially the case for beginners who are often able to improve their performance in most of their sessions.
Training for performance doesn’t mean that your physical appearance will not also improve. In fact, your physical appearance is more likely to improve because training for performance increases your likelihood of maintaining your training over time and making progressive gains. Think of an elite athlete. Their physique is a result of training for the goal of improving their performance in their sport. They don’t train to look muscular, they train for strength and the result is improved performance and a muscular appearance.
When setting performance goals, think about why you are exercising and what is important to you. If strength is important to you, you could set goals related to increasing the amount of weight you lift in your bench press or deadlift and structure your training to include progressive overload in those exercises. If endurance is important, you could set a goal of completing a 10 mile run. If you’re a recreational basketball player, increasing your performance on plyometric exercises would be appropriate to improve your power and jumping ability. If you want to lose weight, working your way up to a pull up and increasing your high intensity interval performance will benefit you by increasing muscle and improving your ability to use fat as a fuel.
No matter what you’re trying to achieve through your training, working on performance-based goals will help you get there.