I hate numbers.

Two clients walk into my gym on the same day. The first tells me they want to lose 5lbs by July 1st. This is SMART right?

Specific - 5lbs

Measurable - Weight is about as measurable as it gets

Attainable - 5lbs of weight loss in a month? Hell with a tiny tweak they could have probably done it in a week.

Timely - They want it done by July.

My next client came in and said they wanted to run a 5km race by September. Specfic? Measurable? Attainable? and Timely? Yes.

More useless than signing up to the Angry Birds newsletter to find out when they come out with their latest update first? Well, maybe not quite. But you get the point.


Yeah, I'm missing something. But so are you: RELEVANCE. Goal setting in personal training often misses this key point. When Paul Meyer described SMART goals in his book Attitude is Everything he called relevance "choosing goals that matter". In no environment does this matter more than in personal training.

A goal of losing weight isn't SMART and a goal of running a 5km race isn't SMART. They're SMAT or as I like to refer to them, STUPID.


Time oriented





R - The most important letter

Why does my first client want to lose 5lbs and how did he come up with that number? He was obese so why not shoot higher? What would a 5lbs weight loss mean to him?

Why does my female client want to do a 5km race? She's got 3 kids and works full-time. Doesn't she know that steady-state cardio isn't the most effective use of her time? After all, she's only got 2hrs/wk to exercise.

SMAT goals are everywhere and if you're allowing your clients to make them you will fail. Why did they choose a weight loss goal? Why do they want to do a 5km race?

What do these goals mean to them and how did they come about?

Delving deeper into a 5lbs weight loss

As it turned out,  my male client (Mike) didn't understand goal setting either. He was overweight and the gym was a daunting environment for him. In the past he'd tried and failed with extreme dieting (yoyo'd back up to a higher than initial weight).

His alpha personality made him an all-or-nothing type guy who wanted to kill it in the gym. In his previous attempts at exercise he had poor or no instruction and got injured. One time it was his knee, the next his back, and recently a shoulder that had been diagnosed as impingement, a labral tear, and tendinitis by 3 different practitioners (translation = nobody has a clue).

His past experiences led him to be cautious in his goal setting but I still wanted to find out why it was so important for him to lose weight so I delved further.

As it turned out, Mike's eldest son was getting married that summer. His family is active and always make sly remarks at him for being overweight. These have worn him down and he wants to prove that he can make a change. Mike wants nothing more than the respect of his family that he loves dearly and this is the way he wants to start.

This is the kind of thing that you write on your client tracking worksheet.

I'd say that's a lot more powerful of a goal than a simple "5lbs by July 1st".

Delving deeper into a 5km race

To me running a 5km race is a horrible goal to have without associated meaning. I train predominantly weekend warriors with busy lives and very little time. These are generally people with gross muscle imbalances and end up hobbling after even a light jog.

With this particular client, Mary, I delved deeper.

As it turned out, Mary's best friends had been part of a running group for months. They started largely due to SMAT goals (my conclusion, not theirs) and have continued because of the mental relief it gives them.

This is a group of women who all work full-time, have families, and have ailing parents. Their lives are stressful from the minute they wake up until they go to sleep. The running in the morning is their only time to shut off from the World and spend quality time with their friends. From what I understand they don't even talk most of the time, they enjoy the comfortable silence being with friends gives them.

Mary needed the same stress relief and missed spending time with her friends. They were already running 5km in the morning and she wanted to work her way up to their level without pain. This was where I came in.

A 5km run isn't a goal and steady-state cardio for a busy and over-stressed individual may not always be the best choice for aesthetic results.

Sometimes we need to look deeper into the benefits our clients glean from these activities. It's our job to help them live a happier and more vital life. In this case, I'm ok with Mary training to run 5km.

How to figure out the "R"

You're different and better than the rest. The other trainers are SMAT; they take goals at face value. You're SMART. Here's how you delve deeper into the reason behind your clients superficial goals:

Ask why at least 3 times

It doesn't get easier than this. When a client gives you a goal make a rule to ask them why at least 3 times in the conversation.

Make it awkward

Ask an open-ended question and be quiet. Make the room more awkward than when Mary Swanson tells Lloyd Christmas he has a 1 in a million chance to be with her:

The more awkward it gets, the more your client will speak to fill the silence. They'll tell you the first thing on their mind which is usually the real reason why they're sitting in front of you.

Keep going until you're satisfied

It might take 2 minutes or 30. Keep delving deeper. I've said why upwards of 10 times in one conversation. When they describe an event from their past, ask them the color of their shirt or the material of the sidewalk. It's important to help your client paint a vivid picture in their head why they came to sit in front of you.

Only then will they give you their reason for the goal. At this point they've not only given you everything you  need to train them effectively, they've also sold themselves on your services.

Figure out the why before devising the how

Your clients are not pro athletes. They are regular people who want to look and feel good. Maybe their goal is to get laid, maybe it's to play with their kids, or maybe it's to be a part of a social group.

When a client has back pain it almost always originates somewhere else. The back pain is the symptom and you need to get to the base of the problem.

The same goes for SMAT goals. 5lbs of weight loss and running a 5km race are STUPID. They are chosen superficially as a perceived way of achieving a more in-depth goal. You're better than that. Get down to the root and think SMART.