Supercoach v. Supercoach: When you’re in an exercise rut

In the debut series “Supercoach v. Supercoach,” Mental Performance Coach Toby Larson joins Minds of Steel Founder & CEO Juan Antonio to discuss exercise ruts and the importance of goal setting.

Supercoach Toby:  I’ve been thinking a lot about a question you asked me, “What do you do when you get into a rut with your exercise routine?” This is a common issue a lot of people face. Personal trainers and coaches oftentimes approach this dilemma with some variation of “use words of encouragement” or the “a carrot and stick” method for improving the output.

Although this might work from time to time, it completely overlooks that the rut is indicative of a need for change. The rut could be deeper than just the boredom that can come from habitual gym use.

In these situations, the first thing I want to investigate are the goals someone is worked towards. From my experience with a variety of athletes, we tend to start a fitness program with the idea of “getting fit” or “losing weight,” but never take the time to make these goals more concrete.

To me, having vague goals is not much different than having no goals. It means you and your trainer/coach never invested the time to define one simple question, “What do I hope to accomplish?”  

Supercoach Juan Antonio:  You’re spot on coach: that gym rut has nothing to do with actual boredom. It’s a blaring, neon sign saying, “LOOK AT ME – WE’RE NOT GETTING ANYWHERE.” I feel that all ruts, whether at work, in the gym or in a romantic relationship, come to the limelight when this question pops into your head, “How did I get here?

In the gym, it’s when you find yourself just going through the motions. You hop on the elliptical, push some random weights around or go to a “skinny jeans” group fitness class without thinking twice about how or why you’re doing it. Going to the gym has just become the status quo. To me, this is the same thing as walking into the gym blindfolded.

To make matters worse, you recognize you’re visiting the gym all the time and yet, you find you haven’t even lost one pound of body fat. This is real issue for ruts: the results you’re seeking aren’t coming.

It’s funny how we’ll spend days planning that Maui vacation or milestone birthday party, but when it comes to serious gym goals – FYI wanting to “lose 25lbs of body fat” is as serious as it gets – we think that taking 5 seconds to think about our fitness goal and respond with “lose body fat” is enough. It’s not.

That’s not a thoughtful response as much as an ingrained gym reaction.

Far too many people going to the gym or thinking of going to the gym, completely skip over goal setting as though it were some type of annoyance like standing in a long Starbucks line.

Skipping/skimming over goal setting is what leads us to arrive at the half-baked goals “lose weight” or “be healthy.”

Speaking of Starbucks, do you know what just happened at the one I’m writing in? I literally just jumped off my seat at the words, “define what you’re actually hoping to accomplish.” If more people invested the time and respected the process of setting goals, we’d have more trim, fit and happy people.

At this point, I’d settle for people simply writing down their goal(s) on actual paper and looking at it everyday.

Supercoach Toby:  Exactly. Do you think Vernon Davis goes to the gym with his goal being “to get stronger?” I doubt it. At his level, he’s probably working on specific things like lateral agility, quickness, reaction time, injury prevention and increasing power/speed. All packaged in a systematic way to achieve his ultimate goal of playing for the Denver Broncos.

If you think goals aren’t needed, I can tell you for a fact that endless studies have been done on goal setting. To sum them all up, goals work and are important for achieving any sort of change. Taking the time to set them up correctly is one of the most important things required for gym success.

There are a few things that need to be followed for your goals to really work. You need to set hard, but not impossible goals. I call them “medium-high” goals. These goals also need to be specific and timely – think “lose 5 pounds of body fatby December 13” instead of “get in shape.”

Another critical aspect is identifying and writing down the daily and weekly actions necessary to achieving your set goals.

For example, “I will squat 3x per week for the next 6 weeks to build lean muscle” or “I will run 3 miles, 3x a week to reach 21 miles of running per week for one month.” If you leave out this critical step of identifying the process, you’ll find yourself either working with no direction or losing the motivation to stay on track.

Supercoach Juan Antonio:  All I know about Vernon Davis is 1) he’s a professional athlete playing in the NFL and 2) he recently said made use of the infamous Conor McGregor line about undergarments (Which lead to this incredible Reddit jem).

I like your “medium-high” barometer for setting goals. I feel like most people I meet are at the extremes of goal setting.

On a scale of 1 to 10, they either live at

0 = (never set any)

or at

10 = (set-impossible-to-accomplish-goals-unless-you’re-a-professional-athlete-that’s-getting-paid-millions-of dollars-to-exercise).

Your medium-high idea strikes me as an “8.5” of difficulty that says, “It may take me a while, but if I stay the course, I can reach it if I really want to.

We often forget that we’re everyday people who have full-time jobs, are working and going to school (two jobs), or have two kids (three jobs at least!) and are struggling to maintain a healthy work-personal life balance.

You hit the bullseye right here: identifying and writing down the daily and weekly actions necessary to achieving your set goals. 

How many times do we just set goals once, launch them off into the sky and hope we’ll magically reach them one day? Hope has no place in goals as much as daily actions do.

What’s critical to remember is the distinction between outcome goals and behavior goals.

An outcome goal such as “lose 13lbs by December 13” is not in your control. That’s right, you have no control on whether that will actually happen. You roll one ankle and BOOM – your running program has gone to shit. Your co-worker decides to extend her maternity leave, say goodbye post-work bootcamp and hello to picking-up-her-slack-at-the-office.

Behavior goals on the other hand, are 100% in your control. For this “lose 13lbs by December 13”, some behavior goals might include:

  • have 1 power shake for breakfast 5 days per week instead of cereal
  • eat green veggies at every meal 5 days per week
  • perform 30min of walk/run intervals 3x per week
  • lift heavy 2x per week

The key is taking the time to break down outcome goals into manageable behavior goals. You then choose to engage in your behavior goals or not. That choice is on you.

It’s all these little things that will lead you to that outcome goal you’re seeking. Whenever you can, break down an outcome goal into behavior goals to ensure success. Physically write it down on paper.

Supercoach Toby:  One thing I really like about the behavior goals you pointed out Juan Antonio, is that they identify what to do.

Of course, “Quit eating sugary cereal for breakfast” would be important to losing body fat, but it lacks specific direction on what to do. I’d advise making sure you record the tasks that are critical to achieving your goals. Don’t just rely on human memory; in today’s busy world, one missed cup of coffee will have you forgetting your co-worker’s name.

This is a valid point: sometimes, the ability to reach your goal is out of your control. This brings up another key aspect to making goals effective: feedback. Here’s a place where a coach or trainer can really aid or hurt the process.

Although the nature and the type of feedback will be individualized, it’s important that you have a way of identifying if you’re making meaningful progress. Progress and meaningful progress are not the same thing.

This requires more than just stepping on the scale; the feedback should include behavior considerations too. This may include where you’re focusing your efforts (doing great on exercise, but ignoring those nutrition behavior goals) or your consistency (you’re great on Mondays, but each week by Thursday, you’ve gone off the track).  

Sometimes, just knowing that you’re below your target can help increase your efforts or help you come up with new ways to work towards your goal. Perhaps that power shake turns into a power muffin? Or you switch from running to biking for a few weeks and realize you love it?

Without feedback, you miss out on the chance to adjust and adapt. Feedback, like stretching is not to be overlooked.

Here’s the most important thing I want to get across about goals: make sure you’re proactively involved in setting your goals. 

Ask people who are qualified to help you and take the time to leverage their expertise, but your knowledge of your life and body is just as important in coming up with gym strategies to reach your goals. 

And make sure the outcomes of your goals are important to you. I personally don’t want to run a marathon, so setting a goal to increase long distance running endurance wouldn’t be important to me and I’d eventually stop working at it. It’s not realistic for me.

If you believe in your ability to achieve a goal, you’re far more likely to engage in the behaviors needed. I could set a goal to reach 5% body fat by June 2016, however, I know that between being a parent, husband, coach and business owner, all the things I’d have to cut out of my like to drop my body fat that low is unrealistic.

five percent body

“5% body fat” looks and sounds fancy, but I’d never achieve it. Instead, I decided I want my waist measurement to be 4” less than my inseam – simple, measurable and attainable.

Do you feel you’re aiming for a realistic goal? Is it specific, measurable, meaningful? What are the behavior goals related to your outcome goal? This would be the perfect time to find out. 

Supercoach Juan Antonio:  Too many gems here coach. I just want to say two things:


five percent body

2) If your trainer/coach alone is setting your goal, you’re asking for trouble.

Toby Larson is a Mental Performance Coach and owner of Fit Mind Training. He works with amateur and professional athletes around Silicon Valley. Juan Antonio is Founder & CEO of Minds of Steel. Follow them on Twitter at @FitMindTraining and @MindsofSteel.


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  1. […] issue is that the more we focus on getting a result, the more we become affected by missed targets. We talked previously about setting goals and once again I will emphasize that the big outcome goals that people typically set for […]

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