If you’re like most fitness enthusiasts, you already know the importance of setting goals that guide your training program.
Setting SMART goals is arguably one of the most important steps in developing your fitness program.
Not all fitness goals are created equally, and some goals set you up for frustration and failure from the moment you first step foot in the gym.
SMART goals are designed with behavioral psychology in mind and intentionally built to be useful and effective at moving you methodically toward whatever your long-term fitness aspiration might be.
This article breaks down everything you need to know about setting SMART fitness goals to keep you focused, motivated, and foster your success as you embark on your personal fitness journey.
When it comes to setting SMART goals, the term does not just refer to cleverness or intelligence.
In fact, SMART is an acronym that stands for the following (
Collectively, these traits define a SMART goal, whereas other goals do not sufficiently meet these criteria.
According to a 2010 overview on goal setting and action planning for behavioral change, SMART goals are necessary because they “help individuals focus their desires and intentions and create a standard by which success can be measured” (
Additionally, SMART goals should be intrinsically motivating, based on both approach and mastery outcomes, and appropriately challenging.
Consider the following goal:
This goal fits neatly into the SMART paradigm and gives you a distinct set of criteria that you have a great deal of control over.
This allows you to be the driver of whether you achieve the goal, as opposed to outside forces beyond your control that influence your outcome.
Let’s break down each SMART criteria in more detail.
Specificity is a must when it comes to setting SMART goals. Specific goals have a numerical value by which you can determine your success or failure.
Consider the previous example of performing resistance training 3 times per week for the next 8 weeks. This is so specific that it leaves no room for interpretation. At the end of a week, you either did or did not perform the workouts as planned.
Compare this with a goal such as “exercise more.”
This goal essentially means anything and nothing at the same time. If you just do a few minutes of walking, you’re technically exercising more but unlikely to see any results.
Given the lack of specificity, it’s much harder to gauge whether you’re meeting your goal criteria, and if you aren’t, what you need to change to make it happen.
Goal specificity should remove any ambiguity regarding whether you hit your goals.
In line with being specific, the goals must also be measurable to allow you to gauge whether you’re meeting them.
For example, “losing 10 pounds in 12 weeks” is a measurable goal that you can track.
However, simply saying “I want to lose weight” is too vague.
You may lose a pound and see no physical change and end up being disappointed even though you technically lost weight.
With the rise of fitness trackers that allow you to measure your vital functions and athletic performance, setting measurable goals for almost every aspect of fitness has never been easier.
If you cannot put a number on it, it’s not measurable and leaves too much room for interpretation as to whether you met your goal.
The third SMART criteria you must consider is whether the goal is attainable.
While there’s nothing wrong with major, long-term fitness goals, most fitness programs should focus on what you can achieve within several weeks to months, as opposed to a monumental target that will take a decade to achieve.
An attainable goal will always be relative to your current fitness level.
If you only need another 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of weight on the bar before hitting a 1x bodyweight barbell squat, then a month or two of training is a realistic time frame.
On the other hand, if you have not exercised in years, performing a 1x bodyweight back squat will probably take a few years.
Instead, consider adjusting your goals based on where you are now.
Perhaps going with “perform 10 full-depth goblet squats with a 25-pound (11.3-kg) kettlebell within 3 months” would be more attainable for your level.
However, attainable goals should still push you significantly toward becoming stronger and healthier. Setting attainable goals is as much an art as it is a science.
You must ensure your goals are not so hard as to guarantee failure, yet not so easy that you do not get any real satisfaction or benefit upon reaching them.
Relevant goals are those that pertain to you and are tailored toward your life, health, and fitness needs.
For example, if you’re dealing with hypertension and prediabetes, focusing on a specific weekly aerobic exercise goal is more relevant than trying to reach a 30-inch (76.2-cm) vertical jump.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to make the varsity basketball team, focusing on your vertical jump height could be more appropriate than setting a weekly goal for aerobic exercise.
Your goal should be relevant to both your health needs and overall interests.
The final component of SMART goals is that they are time-bound. This means there’s a specific time period within which you plan to achieve your goal.
Although there’s no hard-and-fast rule on how long your time frame should be, most SMART goals should aim to take 1–3 months to achieve.
Of course, the period of time you select for your SMART goals will influence how attainable they are, but the main point is that you do not leave the time frame so open-ended that you never start or never finish your original goal.
Using the weight loss example, a goal to lose “10 pounds (4.5 kg) in 3 months” gives you a motivating window within which attaining your goal is reasonable. Yet, it keeps you accountable for both starting and finishing your goal in the time frame you set for yourself.
If you just said, “lose 10 pounds,” you set yourself up for disappointment if by week 6 you have not yet lost the 10 pounds despite this being unrealistic.
On the flip side, if you have no sense of urgency or due date for your goals, it’s far too easy to just “start on Monday” and continue procrastinating.
Without putting a time-bound window on the date for achieving your goal, you’re set up for failure.
SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. This framework gives you the most individual control over whether you reach your goals.
Tracking is key when it comes to implementing SMART goals. Any SMART goal will, by definition, be trackable.
Nevertheless, if you fail to track your SMART goal progress, you’re losing out on what makes the SMART goal system so effective at getting results.
Everyone has different tracking preferences. The following are just a few methods that can help you stay on top of your progress.
Pen and paper journaling
Write down the date, time, stats, and any subjective comments from every workout or training session.
For a bonus, track how you feel on rest days, too.
Writing and tracking in the journal is best performed daily to make it a habit.
Fitness tracking apps and devices
Fitness tracking apps paired with monitoring devices are an excellent tool for monitoring your workouts and vital signs.
These trackers are especially effective at helping you reach aerobic exercise goals, as you can see your heart rate, time spent exercising, and distance covered, among other similar statistics.
This makes tracking progress incredibly straightforward.
Track your SMART goal progress through journaling and fitness apps.
Holding yourself accountable is the necessary ingredient for turning SMART goals into reality.
Fortunately, a well-constructed SMART goal automatically lends itself to accountability, as you can measure and track your progress against your time frame.
There’s no secret to this. However, daily checklists and partner accountability are two quick tips that may help you stay accountable toward your SMART goals.
Setting a daily checklist with your goals for the day is a good way to keep accountable without being overwhelmed.
Ahead of time, prepare your daily tasks that will further your SMART goal progress, then check them off the list as you go.
If you have a partner, spouse, friend, or workout buddy who you trust, you can share your goals with them and see whether they can assist you with accountability.
Whether that means giving you a ride to the gym or just shooting you a text asking if you finished your daily workout, a little friendly accountability from another human goes a long way toward improving your focus.
Having daily checklists and accountability partners may help you stick to your SMART goals.
Staying fit and healthy is a never-ending journey.
Whether you’re just getting into exercise or looking to break new territory in your established fitness routine, SMART goals are an absolute must.
Throughout your fitness journey, you’ll set a new SMART goal, reach it, reassess it, and then set your next goal.
Over time, this process results in massive transformations in whatever direction you aim.
Nevertheless, it’s key that each SMART goal is the right size to keep you motivated and satisfied as you progress towards your longer-term ambitions.
If you set and adhere to SMART fitness goals, you’ll see much greater and more consistent improvement than if you’d aimlessly try one fitness program after another without clear direction.
Now that you understand what a SMART goal is, take some time to reflect on where you are in your fitness journey and where you want to be in 3 weeks, 3 months, and 3 years. From there, set your first 1–3-month SMART goal and get to it!