How To Set SMART Fitness Goals—And Why It’s Smart To Do It

SMART Goals

Have you ever told someone (or maybe just yourself) that you want to “get in shape, build muscle, or decrease body fat”? If so, how did it go? 

Let us guess: Not so well. Maybe you put in some effort, but you never really felt like you got there. Or perhaps you never even got off the ground in the first place. (No shame—plenty of us have been there.) 

Enter: SMART fitness goals. 

SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-related, and it dates back to 1980s management literature, according to Art Markman, PhD, the author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others based in Austin, Texas. (Yes, you may have heard slightly different versions of the acronym, too.) This goal-setting formulation is valuable, he explains, because it lines up with the psychology of motivation. And while you can use the SMART system to create a goal with your current fitness level and in any of life’s arenas, Markman believes that it works particularly well for fitness. 

“There’s just so much specific and measurable stuff you can do in fitness,” he says and adds that there are many tools out there to support you in your endeavors, like fitness apps and devices. (ICYMI, the Paceline app rewards you for hitting 150 minutes of elevated heart rate activity each week!) Amanda Hudock, a certified personal trainer based in Cleveland, Ohio, is also a fan of SMART fitness goals. 

“I try to create SMART goals for clients and with clients,” she says, adding that you’ll get more “bang for your buck” from them than you will from generic goals. 

Convinced yet? Read on for more on how to create SMART fitness goals letter by letter—and track your progress toward achieving them.

S: Specific

According to Markman, the first step is knowing exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. This is useful, he says, in that it holds you accountable: “If all you say is, ‘I really want to get in shape,’ what does that mean? How are you going to know when you get there?” Instead of a vague goal, you might decide that your weekly goal is to work up to cycling for 30 minutes three times. That’s specific and strategic, Markman notes,  because cycling is a great way to build some muscle mass and cardiovascular endurance. Or, perhaps you’ve striving to spend five to 10 minutes warming up before every workout, which can help your overall goal to prevent injury and optimize performance.

M: Measurable

For similar reasons, you’ll also want to choose a specific goal with some tangible measure of progress. Markman offers the example of setting measurable fitness goals like running a mile. “We know how long a mile is,” he says. On the day your watch’s mileage counter ticks over a mile, you’ll know without question that you’ve achieved your measurable goal (and along the way, you’ll be able to see the strides you’re making as that mileage creeps up). 

A: Assignable

The idea here is that somebody has to take responsibility for a specific goal, Markman explains—and with personal goals, that likely comes down to you (although you might enlist the help of others, like a personal trainer or a workout buddy). Pro tip: You can enable yourself to take responsibility by creating an implementation intention, he says, which is basically a precise event you can actually get on your calendar. 

Here’s an example: If you say you’re going to go to the gym twice a week, “twice a week” isn’t on your calendar. But “Monday” and “Wednesday” are—and that level of precision pushes you to grapple with the realities of actually carrying out a behavior, like figuring out how you’re going to get to the gym and what commitments you’re going to need to work around. 

R: Realistic

When you’re setting fitness goals, it’s important to choose something that’s actually attainable to keep yourself energized, Markman advises. 

Your exercise motivation to do something is a function of how important it is to you and how achievable you think it is, he explains. Think of it like this: If someone walked up to you on the street and offered you one million dollars to leap to the top of a building in a single bound, you’d walk away without trying because you’d know it was impossible—even though that monetary incentive would probably sound pretty good. On the other hand, you’d probably work pretty hard to be rewarded for achieving something just out of your reach.

Also, remember to be honest about where you’re starting from in your fitness journey when you set a fitness goal, Hudock advises—and, to that point, measure your starting point more than once.

If you want to chest press a heavy weight, as a goal example, measure where you’re starting from two or three different times, Hudock suggests. Here’s why: There are plenty of factors that can affect how well you’re able to perform in the gym (think: how well you slept the night before and how hydrated you are). Measuring your starting point multiple times helps you to understand where you are on average. 

T: Time-Related

Finally, you need a clear timeframe within which you’d like to crush your goal. This will help you to create a plan as well as track your progress, Markman says (more tips on that next). So, rather than just throwing something on your bucket list, give it a deadline. Set a timeline for short-term goals and your ultimate goal. 

Tips for Tracking Your Progress

Now that you’ve got your goal, there are a few things you might want to do to keep tabs on the strides you’re making. 

  1. Use tech to your advantage. 

These days, Markman says, there are tons of apps and devices out there to help you see the progress you’ve made toward fitness goals. His advice? Use them! (And BTW, if you’re in the market for a new wearable fitness tracker, Paceline health and wellness credit card Members can earn back the cost of the latest Apple Watch¹, up to a $429 value, when they purchase it with the Paceline Card. Apply now.)

  1. Check your progress in aggregate. 

Instead of examining day-to-day progress, Markman advises looking at how you’ve done over the course of a week or two. The reason: It’s easy to get demoralized after a bad day. By looking at what you’ve achieved over a longer time span, you average out some of the variability that might discourage you. 

  1. Treat yourself as well as you’d treat a friend.

You wouldn’t tell a friend to abandon their goal after one bad day—so don’t get down on yourself, either, Markman urges. “You have to be willing to treat yourself at least as well as you treat everyone else,” he says. “Progress on anything difficult is two steps forward and one step back. And it is what you do on the days when you have a step back that determines your ultimate success.” After all, exercise is a physical stress, but it should, hopefully, alleviate rather than cause emotional stress.

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