The 3 Top Goals in the Gym and How to Hit Them

This article is about how to achieve 3 specific goals people have in the gym. If you’re interested in the basis of goal setting strategies you can read more here.

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Here are two fake conversations I didn’t have with anyone the other day, but let’s pretend they happened so I can make a point:

Fake Conversation 1

Me: “What’s your fitness goal?”

Them: “Well I want to lose some fat, gain muscle, be healthier, more athletic, stronger…”

Me: “That’s a lot, how are you going to do all of that at once?”

Them: “I don’t know, go to the gym and hope for the best.”

In this example we have the problem of not being able to set a specific goal.  Even the most in-shape individual at your gym right now wants all of those things I listed.  Being general like this doesn’t help.  It’s important to select a singular focus for a span of time.  That doesn’t mean that focus becomes your only care, it just means that you’ll devote your training to that specific focus for a given length of time and then you can decide to switch it later.

A really common example of this is Bodybuilders.  Bodybuilders typically go through an off-season “Bulk” in which they will eat more, and lift heavier in an attempt to increase their overall muscle mass.  They will then change focus as their competition gets closer to a “cut” in which they eat less and change their training to lose body fat while retaining muscle mass.  Overall they have a singular goal but their focus changes.

Fake Conversation 2

Me: “What’s your focus?”

Them: “I’m focusing on my endurance for my upcoming marathon!”

Me: “Then why are you doing a powerlifting program?”

Them: “I don’t know, Jesus! Leave me alone!”

Once you know what your focus is it’s important to figure out what tools will help you reach your goal.  It’s very much like an inexperienced hunter not thinking there is much difference between a shotgun and a rifle, while an experienced hunter knows that which gun you select depends a lot on what you are hunting.  Similarly, we need to know what our specific goal is and choose the appropriate “tools” to achieve that goal.

When I meet with new clients I like to tell them to pick their most important goal.  Out of the plethora they listed which one are they most impatient to complete?  In this article I’m going to list out the three most common focuses people have and the general “tools” I recommend for getting the job done.

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Getting Stronger

I’ll admit I’m biased in my inclusion of this section.  Whenever I work with new clients I heavily recommend starting with at least one 9-week strength cycle.  Building a foundation of strength before pursuing other fitness goals makes achieving those other goals much easier.  There are many ways people define strength, in this section we will define getting stronger as the ability to lift a larger amount of weight.  For example:

  • Pulling a 275 lb deadlift when your previous max was 225 lbs
  • Performing a strict pull up when you couldn’t do one before

The easiest way to build strength is to perform low rep sets frequently.  For instance, if you wanted to increase your squat max from 225 lbs  you would perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps at 205 lbs (approximately 85-95% of your max).  A good strategy is to perform a minimal amount of sets but perform them as many days during the week as possible.  4 sets per day for 2 days is better than 8 sets in one day, and 2 sets per day for 4 days is even better than that.

For bodyweight exercises we use a similar strategy.  Simply sneak one rep in after a set of another exercise.  For example, I will usually perform a single pull up after I finish a set of squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc… Doing one rep certainly isn’t hard and it will build real strength.

In summary, if you’re trying to build strength:

  • Keep your reps under 5 reps
  • If possible, split your sets into multiple days (4 sets split over two days is better than 6 sets on one day)
  • Keep the weight between 85-95% of your one rep max

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Losing Fat

This is probably the most common goal people come to see a trainer about.  In general, people are wanting the trainer to be a drill sergeant that keeps them on the treadmill longer and forces them to burn calories.  I am very upfront about not being this kind of trainer and my methods do not include screaming at you just so you feel guilted into burning more calories.

When it comes to losing fat the secret isn’t in how much you exercise, it’s in how you eat.  You can’t out-train a bad diet and you can’t run off all the junk food you want to eat.  You likely already know this.  The secret to fat loss is a negative energy balance.

To ensure a negative energy balance you need to have an idea of how many calories your body burns every day already.  There are calculators available online to help you figure this out, just google “TDEE calculator” and you’ll have quite a few options.  These calculators are great but they’re not perfect.  A more precise method is to download a food diary app, like MyFitnessPal or MyMacros+, and log everything you eat for 10 consecutive days.  Don’t worry about how many calories the app says you’re supposed to hit, just eat normally and log everything.  After 10 days you should be able to take an average and have an approximation of how many calories you tend to eat on a daily basis.

Using this average as your “maintenance calories” amount you can now aim to eat 200-500 calories below this number everyday, this is called your “deficit.”  Continue to log your food everyday and make sure you aren’t overeating and staying within your deficit.  If you’re new to tracking your food start with a small deficit (around 200 calories) and only increase your deficit when you don’t see any weight loss over 7-10 days.  The larger of a deficit you start with the quicker you can lose weight but you become a lot more likely to bounce back into overeating and relapse.

When it comes to training that can help you out with losing weight it’s natural to think of long distance running or cycling.  These options are fine if you enjoy running or cycling, even better if you want to do either competitively, however most of us don’t enjoy hours on a stationary bike or treadmill.  Instead, try High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to burn a few extra calories.

In short, HIIT involves a maximum effort interval, typically 10-20 seconds, followed by a lengthy rest period, anywhere between 30 seconds and 3 minutes.  The point of the rest period is to feel nearly fully recovered before engaging in the next interval.  Personally, I like to add HIIT on to the end of my workouts but some people like to schedule them separately, it’s all a matter of preference.  Start with 3 intervals and over time add more to get maximum benefit.

With regards to your weightlifting it is advisable to have a slightly varied approach to sets and rep schemes.  Perform at least 3 sets of 4-6 reps during compound exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press, etc… and perform no more than 10 total sets of 6-9 reps of accessory exercises such as bicep curls, lateral shoulder raises, pec fly, etc…

In summary, when it comes to losing fat:

  • Track your food intake with a food diary app.
    • Stay 200 – 500 calories below your “maintenance” calories.
  • Add HIIT sessions to your workouts to effectively burn extra calories.
    • Start with 3 intervals and slowly add more.
  • Perform 3+ sets of 4-6 reps of compound weight lifting exercises each session
  • Perform no more than 10 total sets of 6-9 reps of accessory weight lifting exercises each session

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The number one reason guys get into the gym: hypertrophy (aka Mass Building).  There’s a lot of methods we can use to trigger hypertrophy, some more validated than others.  In this section we are going to emphasize two methods I’ve had personal success with as well as success with many clients: High Volume Training and Tempo Training.  In this article we are going to discuss high volume training.

High Volume Training refers to focusing on staying within a much higher rep range than normal, 6-15 reps per set.  When using this kind of rep range you will have to lower the weight immensely from your strength training amounts.  Thus, it is advisable to start your workouts with at least 3 sets of a compound exercise in the strength training rep range, 1-5 reps.  Follow this with 3-5 sets of another exercise in the 6-9 rep range, and lastly 2-4 sets in the 9-15 rep range.  For example here’s an example of a leg day hypertrophy routine I would use:

  • Squats, 3 sets of 1-5 reps
  • Barbell Lunges, 3 sets of 6-9 reps
  • Leg Extensions, 2 sets of 6-9 reps
  • Hamstring curls, 2 sets of 9-15 reps
  • Calf raises, 2 sets of 9-15 reps

As with fat loss, diet plays a large role when trying to gain mass except this time we want to eat slightly above our caloric maintenance level. Many early lifters take the simple approach of just cramming down more protein. I can tell you that I, nor my clients, have had much success with simply increasing the protein alone. What has usually mattered more is carbohydrates; specifically, we start with increasing carbohydrate intake by about 50g per day and increase protein by about 20g. Additionally, I have seen good results during hypertrophy phases when adding about 1 tsp of L-Leucine to Whey Protein Shakes (read more here).

In summary, when it comes to building muscle mass:

  • Eat slightly above your maintenance calories
    • Mostly carbs, some protein.
      • Add leucine to protein shakes for a little added boost
  • Incorporate 3 sets of strength training (1-5 reps)
  • Perform the rest of your sets in the upper rep range and in increasing order.

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Want extra help reaching your goals?

If you’ve read this article and are feeling like “Yeah, that sounds great but I’d still like some help” then you may want to get in touch with a trainer/coach.  Brawn for Brains offers online coaching services at an affordable price. We work with you to develop a training plan intended to get you to your goals, provide extensive nutritional advisement, and answer any questions you may have. If you’re interested in getting in touch with our training services simply click “Personal Coaching” at the top of the article.


Drop the Ego and Get Strong for Real

If you follow me on twitter you know I’ll post somewhat frequently (for me at least) that it’s extremely important to drop your ego when you get serious about the strength game.

About a year after I started lifting I thought I was progressing much quicker than everyone else and it must be because I was simply superior to everyone around me.  I was pulling 345 for 3 on my deadlifts after only one year, I was so damned strong…

In reality it was the fact that I was using lifting straps, a belt cinched as tight as my intestines would allow, shoes with overly thick soles, and a back as round as a scared cat.  Of course this story ends in injury.  My injury wasn’t huge, I’d just have an excessive amount of trouble walking, tying my shoes or lying down for days after deadlifting but about a week later I’d be okay and I’d do it all over again.  Squats were a similar story…

I believed that all the pain meant my body was going through a rapid adaptation and that I was just working harder than everyone else, and therefore I’d surpass them. Clearly this was not the case.

After a long hard look at some footage of me squatting and deadlifting I realized how bad it was and decided I needed to pursue better performance instead of just stacking on plates.  I dropped the weight on all of my lifts to a measly 95 lbs for the first week, practicing better form without the aid of anything and slowly increased the weight.  I became much more critical of my form as I added weight, if my squat was deep at 135 but I suddenly couldn’t drop below parallel at 145 I’d drop the weight back down and climb my way back up.

Nowadays I can pull over 400 lbs on my deadlift without the aid of anything except a bit of chalk, squats leave my knees feeling good rather than creaky, and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been (for real this time).

The strength game can be extremely humbling because very few can actually make significant progress much faster than the average.  Individual rates vary and newbie gains are speedy gratification but for any natural weightlifter that’s been in the game for a while knows that progress slows and eventually the biggest factor becomes how consistent you are.

Getting Strong, Properly

There are innumerable methods to gaining strength available but all of the good ones rely on the same basic principle: Progressive Overload.  Progressive overload (PO) is the principle that the muscles will continually adapt to progressively increasing demands.  The key with PO is that the levels of increase need to be manageable increments and not lofty goals of going from 185 to 225 on bench in the span of a single session.

Some of the most popular effective programs available utilize this principle extremely well; you set a given rep range for an exercise and when you can perform the upper limit of the range with a given weight you increase the poundage, when you can’t complete the lower limit you decrease the weight.  These kinds of programs involve consistently performing at the edge of your capability which is what makes them so effective.  The limitation with these programs is the exclusive focus on a given rep range can be less than optimal for developing the skill of strength.

I’m certainly not saying you should throw these programs out!  Many of them are based on some very solid research, yield amazing results and are overall very well designed.  What I am saying though is that sometimes we should “inject” a phase of training with an array of rep ranges to develop our skill.

Periodized Training is a method of progressively overloading the muscles in training.  Typically people think of it as “Start with High reps, low weights (High Volume) and move towards high weights and low reps (High Intensity)” and while this is kind of correct it is not the type of periodization I am talking about.

In my free program, The Gauntlet: Phase One, I like to utilize a different kind of periodization.

If we define the rep volume as:

# of Sets x # of Reps = Rep Volume

By keeping the rep volume relatively consistent we can incrementally increase the weight in cycles that allow us to continually push the overall intensity of the workout higher while simultaneously utilizing multiple rep ranges.  For instance in the Gauntlet: Phase One program the deadlift is programmed in two 3-week cycle and looks like this:

Week 1: 4 Sets, 9 Reps Each, 70% of 1RM

Week 2: 6 Sets, 6 Reps Each, 75% of 1RM

Week 3: 9 Sets, 4 Reps Each, 80% of 1RM

Week 4: 4 Sets, 9 Reps Each, 75% of 1RM

Week 5: 6 Sets, 6 Reps Each, 80% of 1RM

Week 6: 9 Sets, 4 Reps Each, 85% of 1RM

As you can see the overall rep volume stays the same each week and only the weight increases.  Weeks with higher reps allow us to practice the movement repeatedly with a lower weight, which is beneficial because it taxes our ability to maintain the form.  Weeks with the lower reps per set allow us to refine our skill of lifting a very heavy amount with plenty of attempts (sets).  The weeks in the middle are the ones I find the most challenging because it requires a mix of the two skills we develop in other weeks.

How does this relate to dropping my ego?

A program structured similar to the one listed above requires two things: a plan, and the capability to follow through with that plan.  When we walk into the gym every week with the plan of “Just gotta do better than last week!” we are vulnerable to allowing our ego to take hold and pushing much higher than we should.  Maybe the guy next to you is squatting 25 more pounds than you and you want to show him you can hang.

When we employ a program like this we have to plan everything ahead of time and stick to it.  We can relax our egos and trust that the numbers we programmed will allow us to develop our strength.  We’re not just trying to get one really really good workout in, we’re cultivating our strength strategically and focusing on consistently improving over the long haul.

Be Strong With me

The type of program I described in this article is similar to the one I designed in

The Gauntlet: Phase One

This program is meant to be a 6 week injection into other programs to help increase your strength across the board.  Test your before numbers and run The Gauntlet, you won’t be sorry.

Have you already completed The Gauntlet: Phase One?

Tweet me your before and after maxes (@brawnforbrains) and be featured in future phases of The Gauntlet.