Picking a fitness goal- relative weight over absolute weight

Posted on September 17, 2020

(Last Updated On: September 17, 2020)

This heavily depends on a person’s age, as most goals do.

When older, many are content to have their fitness goal be “fend off gravity for another day.”

Where being at a reasonable weight and comfortably going through daily life is enough. You know, like you’re not avoiding stairs because you have a meeting to get to, and you’re afraid the stairs will make you sweat so much everybody will look at you funny.

In my experience with clients, a transition in goals often occurs once having multiple children, in part because that is when the mid-30s hits. Between the chaos of kids, the midst of a career really getting going, and physical decline which has clearly become apparent, worrying about how much you bench press takes a back seat. A lot of times the fitness goal becomes “have a smaller stomach than the other parents” or “to exercise without everything hurting.”

However, once the kids get older, some fancier fitness goals may come back into the mix.

And of course younger people, like those in their 20s, don’t have these concerns.

Regardless, it’s helpful to have a goal. It helps direct workouts and can give a person a sense of immediate purpose for exercising. Exercising only with the purpose of making your 70s more enjoyable doesn’t always resonate or motivate when that’s decades away.

A go-to rule when picking a fitness goal is to make it revolve around your bodyweight

For example -this is more common with younger people- you pick the goal of “I want to bench press 300 lbs.”

Let’s say you weigh 180 lbs. What would be one of the easiest ways to help your 300 lb bench press goal? Gain weight.

Contrast that with “I want to bench press 1.5x my bodyweight.”

Now you can’t necessarily take the road of getting heavier since you’ll also have to adjust how much weight you’ll have to lift.

Better yet, go with doing a certain amount of push-ups nonstop i.e. an exercise revolving more around your own bodyweight than external weight (like a barbell).

-> Of course, this is not mutually exclusive. You can have a bench press and push-up goal simultaneously. For sake of argument, I’ll act like they’re exclusive. One reason for doing this is, broadly speaking, I do find having multiple goals is not realistic for the average person. Trying to run a half marathon and also having a bench press goal? There’s not enough time or energy to make that happen.

The reason this distinction is important is because it’s pretty common for younger people (really this aspect is a male issue) to pick an absolute weight goal, gain a bunch of weight whether consciously or unconsciously to attain that goal, and then…never lose the weight. I’ve seen this happen to quite a few guys who get into bodybuilding. Their bulk phase becomes their only phase. Cutting ain’t much fun!

When you’re 25 you might care how much you bench press. When you’re 45, you probably won’t, but you’ll always care how overweight or obese you are.

-> Again, this tends to be due to having children. Keeping up with them is a lot easier when your heart is in shape, which bench pressing doesn’t do.

The more you can make the goal center around your bodyweight, the more likely you’ll have to be aware of how heavy you are.

Take biking vs running. Riding a bicycle is of course easier if you’re lighter, but it’s clearly not as big of a deal as when running.

You can bike an hour fairly easily even if you’re obese. Running an hour while obese? Not going to be fun. (This is only more true if we’re comparing a stationary bike to running.)

Another way to think about this is the length of the activity.

Pull-ups always revolve around how heavy a person is, but it tends to be better to make the goal rep oriented rather than weight oriented.

  • “I want to be able to do a pull-up while holding a 25lb dumbbell between my feet”

Will not cause you to think about your weight quite as much as,

  • “I want to do 15 pull-ups without stopping”

Another way to phrase this is a 100 meter sprinter is heavily concerned with not carrying excess weight (fat) and is not going to be overweight or obese, but they also aren’t going to be as light as a marathoner.

-> Even if both have an 8% body fat level, the sprinter, by being heavier, is still carrying around more fat. (8% of 200lbs is more than 8% of 150lbs.)

When it comes to your longterm health, even a very relative weight oriented goal is likely to provide you with adequate strength. Where even a marathoner is plenty strong enough for what most people want to do in life.

However, if you’re only doing sprints, you’re not necessarily going to have your heart in great shape. Certainly not in as good of shape as it could be in.

And when it comes to maximizing the fitness of your heart or the strength of your thigh muscles, the heart wins in importance.

-> I’m saying the heart wins in terms of what’s more important to living a long and healthy life. However, I completely accept for some people they’d rather look like a lifter than a runner, even if that might mean not living as long. The how you live vs how long you live argument.

We shouldn’t view strength training as cardio (with some stats on the life expectancy of endurance vs power athletes)

That doesn’t mean you have to train like a marathoner. In fact, that’s approaching a length of activity potentially detrimental to the heart. The point is when thinking about various fitness goals, when in doubt, go with the one that’s more reliant on how heavy your body is. It’s by no means a guarantee, but it’s a way to better keep your weight in check. If nothing else, more endurance oriented goals will probably get you to burn more calories.

I take this approach with clients. If a client doesn’t have any specific goals, or is ambivalent picking one, I’ll lean towards exercises more reliant on how heavy they are. Any new, overweight client, and basically the entire first month or two is going to be them lifting their own bodyweight, one way or another.

That doesn’t mean I tell them they need to run. In fact, I rarely advocate running unless a person says they want to do it, and you need to earn the right to be able to run without your body hating you, such as being in decent enough shape to begin with. But it does mean we’ll do a lot more 20-reps-and-up exercises than 5-reps-and-under exercises. It means I pick exercises much more likely to make the person think “Man, this would be easier if I lost some weight.”

-> One covert way I do this is by alternating exercises where the person is on the ground and standing. This way they’re constantly having to get up and down.

One, that tends to wake people up real quick to how their body generally is doing, “I really shouldn’t be getting out of breath and dreading getting on and off the floor every few minutes,” and two, it’s actually a skill many older people lose, and get afraid of. (If balance is a concern, I’m sure to have objects near them for support.)

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