Here’s an analogy for setting goals and programming that I think can help many people: think about looking through a microscope at increasingly higher magnification.
If you haven’t used a compound microscope since getting your learner’s permit, it’s a system of magnification where a lens of short focal length is used to form the initial image, which is further magnified by a second lens of longer focal length.
To use: you create a slide, mount the slide on the stage, and use the lowest-power lens to find what it is you want to examine. Once the object in question has been identified, you can switch to a higher-powered lens to better examine the details. But only after you’ve located the amoeba can you look at its cell membrane.
If you, the athlete or trainee, are the subject being mounted (stop snickering) and examined, use the first or lowest-powered lens to find your goal.
When you take a good hard look at yourself, what is it that you really want to change? What is it that you want to become? To keep this from being hypothetical, let’s say you want to be the strongest badass in the gym. That’s the goal.
The second thing you examine at this magnification is where are you now: an honest assessment of your current status. (By the way, the system of lenses closest to the slide is also called objective, which is what you need to be for your experiment to be a success.)
The assessment: you are not the strongest badass in the gym. That’s good enough at this level.
At the next lens, you ask: how do I become the strongest badass? Let’s start by defining strength. Some basic, commonly accepted standards for men are a double bodyweight deadlift and back squat, and a 1.5 bodyweight bench press—all done for a single rep (for women: 1.5 deadlift and back squat, bodyweight bench press). Can you do those?
If the answer is yes, keep asking questions until you either decide you really are the strongest badass or you find something that makes it clear you really aren’t.
Let’s work with the assumption that you’re not the strongest badass. (If you say you are, get someone else to independently verify your data.) Find an incremental goal that helps you achieve the macro goal set at 10x. Pro tip: this is what it’s all about—little goals you add up to achieve the macro goal.
If you can’t squat double your bodyweight, that’s okay. Let’s go up a level to find out why.
100x can be a real bitch. Unfortunately, a lot of people never get further than this lens. If you’ve been squatting but are now stuck at a plateau, here’s where you see a coach to refine your technique. And if you’ve never run through a 6 to 12 week program, now is the time. If the program doesn’t work, try a different program. If the coach didn’t work, is it because you asked your meathead friend for help? If yes, that’s your own damn fault, fool. Find a real coach. A real coach would at minimum be someone a) who has already accomplished your goal (good), b) who has coached others to it (better), or c) whose profession it is to look at movement and training and has accomplished a) and b). (best).
If you can’t squat double bodyweight simply because you don’t squat? Well, son, progress will come easy for you. Start squatting and things will improve (probably life in general).
Now, if you can’t get into a squat without pain? Sorry, bro, you need professional intervention. No matter the scenario, now you get kicked up to the next lens.
Now you need to be in front of a professional (if you had just hired me in the first place, you wouldn’t even need to think about microscopes). I’m going to give you a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) to address your quality of movement. If you have pain when you squat, I’m going to kick you up to a doctor or physical therapist, someone with a whole other level of microscope (think electron).
If (thank god) you don’t have pain when you squat, I’ll give you some interventions and see what makes you at least a little better. If foam-rolling your hip flexors and adductors make you squat better, that’s the first step. We’re not just looking at building muscle, we’re targeting the bilayer of phospholipids (microscope, remember?). Yes, we may have to roll your adductors to help you squat. Yes, it’s awkward. Yes, everyone does it. Just don’t make eye contact and nobody will care. First you’ll squat better, then you’ll squat more, and then finally you’ll squat the most.
This is how you choose activities—in the gym or in life. Start with the lowest power you can. Keep things simple. Make sure you’re looking at what you actually want (or need) to improve. Only after what you’re trying doesn’t work should you move up in magnification.
For example, if you haven’t had your squat quality addressed or simply tried a proven program, why the hell are you trying to get creative with chains and bands? They have a place, but for most trainees those things get applied at a higher-power magnification then you need to be working at. Don’t get fancy.
Here’s another example. If you want to lose weight, and you know you eat way too much shit, before you start to worry about macro nutrient timing and obscure supplementation: STOP EATING SO MUCH SHIT. If that doesn’t have a positive impact, turn the dial, use a higher-powered lens, and find out why.
As a general rule, give new programs and dramatic changes six strict weeks to see if they work. Your body needs time to adapt–don’t be too quick to get frustrated. But if after three months no noticeable changes have occurred, change something else.
You should recognize that your program has to change when it stops working. A coach will be able to see when progress is starting to slow down. A good coach will know progress is about to start to slow–and change the program before it starts to become less effective. But unless you have years of training and experience, you’re not a good coach, so stick with it.
Once you’ve made it, congrats: you’re the strongest badass in your gym.
Find a new gym and start again.