Organic Fitness: Is it Important to Set Exercise Goals?

running-womanThe health benefits of adhering to an organic fitness program are multitudinous. By regularly performing heavy resistance training, high-intensity interval training, and plenty of low-moderate intensity activities, you’ll not only look better naked, but you’ll also increase your protection against a wide range of chronic diseases and enhance your brain function, energy levels, and mood, among other things.

Some people rely on these general health benefits as their sole source of exercise motivation. However, others write down specific and time-bound fitness goals, often as a way to give their workout motivation a boost. Is this something we all should be doing, or are we better off just focusing on the immediate benefits and enjoyment we get from exercise?

Goal setting: Is it as important as we’ve been led to believe?

In the health & fitness community at large, fitness goals – such as rowing 500 meter in under 2 minutes, lifting 400 pounds in the deadlift, losing 6 pounds in 3 weeks, or completing a marathon – tend to be viewed as an essential component of an exercise plan. People who join a gym are often reminded by the receptionists how important goal setting is for staying motivated over the long-term, a message that is strengthened by personal trainers and gym instructors who emphasize that goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).

However, not everyone places so much emphasis on goal setting. In the ancestral health community, physical activity is often performed as a way to have fun, spend more time outdoors, and play. Of course, there are also many Paleo followers and ancestral health enthusiasts who follow a strict plan and train heavy in the pursuit of time-specific goals. But if we look at a “hunter-gatherer fitness regimen“, it’s clear that it is more directed towards achieving multifaceted fitness and enjoying fresh air, social interactions, and movement, than it is directed towards progressive overload and goal achievement.

This primal approach to training is rooted in the physical activity patterns of hunter-gatherers and healthy traditional people, who clearly didn’t exercise because they were trying to reach long-term fitness goals, but rather because they had to move their bodies to procure food, build shelter, and escape predators. In other words, they only had goals with each specific physical activity session, and no incentive to focus on gradually increasing the stress placed upon the body (progressive overload) or to keep a training journal.

I believe we can learn a lot from our Paleo ancestors about how we should design our fitness plan/program. That being said, we have to keep in mind that the reasons people have for exercising today are very different from the ones Paleolithic humans had. Also, perhaps more importantly, we have to remember that our environment has changed dramatically in the last 10.000 years…

“Lazy genes” in an obesogenic environment

The physical activity levels (PALs) of hunter-gatherers are much higher than that of 21st century office workers, but that’s clearly not because hunter-gatherers run and lift things in an attempt to improve their physique or fitness levels, but rather because they have to move their bodies to survive.

In other words, hunter-gatherers rarely move their bodies to any significant extent unless they “must”, because expending more energy than necessary would negatively impact survival in an ancestral natural environment, where food is not conveniently found at a grocery store nearby.

Heritable biological traits that confer a survival advantage in a specific environment are positively selected for through natural selection. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that humans have evolved a tendency to take it easy and relax when possible.

These “lazy genes” were adaptive in a Paleolithic milieu, but in the modern, industrialized world – where food is easily accessible and most of us don’t have to move our bodies to any significant extent to survive – they set us up for chronic inactivity and fat accumulation. It’s therefore important that we take our current living conditions into account when we discuss the necessity of goal setting.

When goal setting is important

Some people find that the immediate benefits of exercise, as well as the general health benefits associated with regular physical activity, are all the motivation they need to go for regular walks in nature, lift heavy things at the gym a couple of times a week, and do some sprinting every now and then. However, others find that more specific and measurable results are needed to really peak their motivation. This is something that becomes especially apparent when you coach people who have trouble staying motivated over the long-term and/or work out because they want to look better, lift heavier, or run faster.

During the years I’ve worked as a personal trainer, I’ve really learned how effective small progressive steps forward can be for a clients’ motivation. Simply hitting the same rep target in the deadlift as the last workout, but this time with some added weight to the bar, gives a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. That’s not to say that relying on this type of gradual progressive overload as the sole source of motivation is a good thing, as there are clearly days when you won’t outrun your previous record, and as we all know, you won’t be able to add extra load to the deadlift bar each workout indefinitely.

That being said, there is no doubt that setting performance goals and focusing on progressive overload should be done by more people. This is especially true for gym members who keep paying the membership fee, but rarely get in the door, those people who feel that they never manage to stick to their exercise plan for more than a couple of weeks before they ease back into old sedentary habits, and of course, those who go through a workout without really breaking a sweat.

Many gym goers have never gotten around to make a plan or steer out a direction for their efforts in the weight room, and they therefore feel no real obligation to work out. When there are no SMART goals to be reached or incremental increases to be made, the cost/reward ratio of going to the gym can quickly end up seeming very high…

So, goal setting can be valuable for someone who finds it hard to consistently stick to an exercise plan and/or has trouble getting off the couch and into the gym altogether. Another group that obviously benefits from writing down goals and keeping a workout journal are those who actually have specific goals with their physical activities, such as the long-distance runners preparing for a race, lifters who are serious about building muscle and strength, and athletes with a specific performance objective in mind.

That doesn’t mean that these individuals should never add an unplanned exercise session to their routine or that the training journal has to be followed to the letter, but there’s little doubt that planning and progressive overload are important to create a gradual specific adaptation to one type of activity.

Play, fun, and immediate physical benefits

Up until this point, you might have gotten the impression that goal setting is essential for virtually everyone. However, that’s not really the case. Some people manage to stick with an exercise regimen without bothering with goal setting and training journals. These are often the people who have established healthy routines and find that the immediate benefits of exercise – such as the good feeling of being outdoors, the mental boost, and the joy of “playing” – outweigh the perceived cost of getting off the couch.

To get to this point, it’s clearly important to find forms of exercise one enjoys. Those of us who have played sports, spent hours dancing, or participated in group training sessions know how much “easier” and more fun it can be to exercise when there is something more than a treadmill or rowing machine involved.

The difficulty for a lot of people is to really get to a point where the aforementioned immediate benefits of exercise are sufficient motivation to work out as often as one should. This is especially true for adults, who often live hectic lives, have “forgotten” how to play, and focus on achieving measurable results from the time put into something.

Trying to bring the child in us to the surface can definitely be worth it though, as there is something special about exercising just for the fun of it. The upside of not having a strict plan to follow or any SMART goals that you’re striving to achieve is that you get to be a lot more spontaneous about your workouts. You don’t need to worry so much about exactly how many reps you do or how long the breaks between each exercise are. Also, having a bad workout doesn’t get to you in the same way as it would have done if you were training with specific goals in mind. That being said, as previously mentioned, not everyone manages to find the motivation to train hard when there are no goals to be reached or specific purpose with each workout.

The bottom line

So, should you set goals with your training? As discussed, it depends on many factors, such as the reason you exercise, your motivation, and your current lifestyle habits. For most people, a mix between relatively strict, goal-oriented training that focuses on progressive overload and more loosely planned exercise sessions that revolve around play, fun, and experimentation is a good way to go.

Personally, I used to adhere to a very strict training program. I didn’t always set up specific goals with my training, but I kept a training journal, wrote down pretty much everything I did in the gym, and placed a lot of emphasis on progressive overload. Today, I still focus on progressive overload, but my training program is less strict in the sense that I no longer go into the gym with a detailed plan of exactly what I’m going to do. This way I manage to have some sense of what my progress is like, but I don’t get so obsessed with workout planning, rep counting, and goal achievement that I end going through every workout following a strict, detailed plan. In other words, I try to mix things up occasionally so I don’t lose the enjoyment that comes from being spontaneous and trying new exercises and routines.

What about you? What are your motivations for working out? Do you have specific goals with your training?

Picture: Creative Commons picture by Craving Crusher. Some rights reserved.


  1. Hi Eirik, good article, as always. Every species evolves if it survives long enough. Do you think think the human race has evolved into using our brains more than our bodies in order to survive, thus making so much physical exertion unnecessary? I’m not saying we don’t need exercise; we definitely do. Otherwise problems develop. I’m just thinking it doesn’t need to be as strenuous as some of the health gurus are suggesting.

    I know one man in particular who is 94. He is in very good shape both physically and mentally. He still drives his car. He takes care of his wife, who had a stroke but lives at home with him. He does all the shopping, cleaning and cooking for the two of them, so he gets plenty of exercise but has never in his life had a formal exercise routine.

    Using this man as a role model, wouldn’t it be enough for most of us to just go about our lives if our lives are reasonably active, rather than be committed to a training program of some sort? Many of us do not enjoy exercise routines and would rather just skip them.

    • As I point out in the article, you don’t necessarily need a detailed exercise program. That being said, most people probably benefit from having an overall plan or strategy regarding what types of physical activities they’re going to perform.

      From a public health standpoint, I think the most important thing is that we should spend less time sitting and more time moving/walking.

  2. Great points. I know several people to always expect to meet or exceed their strength but personally I use it as a measure of whether or not I need to back off for a little de-loading time and focus on the *fun factor* or if I’ve been slacking or not; I keep a training log and only focus on a well-rounded program, not a specific training protocol. Training and working out are a lifestyle for me, as is nourishing my body as well as I can. I find that keeps me grounded and happy 🙂

    • Over the last couple of years I’ve been transitioning over to a similar approach myself. I used to be very anal about how many sets and reps I was going to do, and I even used a stopwatch to time the breaks between each set and exercise. Today, I still focus on getting stronger, faster, etc. over time, but I no longer slavishly follow a strict training program.

  3. Thanks for the article Eirik! I love to move & consider the gym a ‘playground’ to test my strength, speed, agility, balance, power, movement patterns, work capacity, etc. Some of the reasons I enjoy working out are: learning new movements/exercises, challenges, beating my PRs, being healthy & reasonably fit, stress reduction, the ‘feel good’ endorphins I get after completing a good workout.

    I don’t enjoy jogging on a treadmill, elliptical, indoor bike, etc. for extended periods of time so tend to do more circuit based exercises for the purposes of aerobic & anaerobic conditioning & escalated density work for strength-endurance/work capacity. Sometimes I do ladder/cone/bosu drills & exercises to improve speed, speed-endurance, conditioning, balance, agility & change of direction. Other times I’ll mix up some cleans & snatches & plyometric exercises for power & other times stick to basic large compound exercises to build max. strength & some hypertrophy sticking to the 3, 5 & 8 rep range. For equipment, I use bodyweight, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, free motion cable machine, resistance bands, ladder, cones, bosu, Swiss Ball.

    I incorporate some yoga into my routine, sometimes attend a Zumba or step class for fun & have recently started taking up Krav Maga.

    I create short-term goals for a set period for about 3 – 8 weeks on what i want to accomplish for that period & create (or find) an exercise program & individual workouts for that block. I log each workout so I know where I’m at, can measure my progress & use it to go back to when I revisit the exercises at a later date. It makes it easier to see what my starting weight should be, what time/load I should try to best, etc. From time to time, I do an unstructrucured/unplanned workout depending on how I feel. Regardless, I adjust my workout daily if/as needed depending on how I feel & how I’m moving.

    • Some of the reasons I enjoy working out are: learning new movements/exercises, challenges, beating my PRs, being healthy & reasonably fit, stress reduction, the ‘feel good’ endorphins I get after completing a good workout.

      This pretty much summarizes my reasons for working out as well.

      Awesome program! You have even incorporated some cleans & snatches, two great exercises that unfortunately few people include in their program or know how to do correctly.

  4. Great article!

    Ever since I shifted my focus from building muscle mass to ancestral health, my total muscle mass has dropped. The people I gym with look at me as though I’m mad when I tell them about my shift in focus, they lament the loss of all the gains I’ve made..

    Our current popular culture worships overmuscled bodies. Different racial phenotypes have different degrees of muscularity. My East Asian ancestry has placed on me a genetic ceiling.

    To maintain the buff look, I need to supersede my genetics with regular heavy resistance work outs which I feel are not ancestral. Over time I suspect this regular overloading of the joints may not be good too.

    So now I’m 175cm 65kg. 12.5% body fat. And I look quite similar to the old photographs of my preindustrial ancestors. I still do simple calisthenics in the gym to maintain the optimal gene expression that is my main goal of exercise but anytime I get the chance to do an ancestral physical activity eg. Hiking or kayaking, I gladly skip my gym sessions for it..

    • Couldn’t agree more. In the ancestral health community, there has been a lot of focus on the detrimental effects of excessive cardio training (“chronic cardio”), whereas the potential adverse effects of too much strength training have received far less attention. As I’ve pointed out in many of my articles, I think this is an oversight. Resistance training is great, but it has to be kept within moderation. Following a bodybuilding-type training program and blasting each muscle group with 15-20 sets to failure once or twice a week is not the way to go for optimal gene expression and good health. Unfortunately, this is the exercise strategy a lot of lifters and gym goers adhere to.

      • Exactly. In the future I’m sure people will slowly realized that too much muscle might not be a good thing in itself too.

        Guys at my gym “dirty” bulk (processed and junk foods) and rely on the calories in calories out model of the human body. A lot of them follow the practices of older gymmers. A lot of it is what I call “bro-science”.

        They do see the gains though as most of them are early 20s with high testosterone but I do worry about their health in the long run.

        Regarding chronic cardio, what are your thoughts about the endurance hunting hypothesis? It argues that sapiens were evolved for chronic cardio. A paleo prof (can’t remember his name) is an avid proponent and practiced of chronic cardio.

        • Regarding chronic cardio, what are your thoughts about the endurance hunting hypothesis? It argues that sapiens were evolved for chronic cardio. A paleo prof (can’t remember his name) is an avid proponent and practiced of chronic cardio.

          I wrote about the endurance running hypothesis in my article titled The Evolution of the Gluteus Maximus. You may want to check that out. As for the professor, you’re probably referring to Daniel Lieberman.

          Short answer: Research has shown that the human body has several traits that are primarily essential for running, not walking. That being said, I question the idea that our Paleolithic ancestors did a lot of steady state, high-intensity endurance exercise. I think it’s more likely that the Paleolithic man did a mix of walking, light running, and some higher intensity running when they were out hunting and/or scavenging.

          Keep in mind: Just like there wasn’t one Paleolithic diet consumed by all hunter-gatherers, there wasn’t one universal physical activity pattern. Some tribes may have performed a lot of persistence hunting, while others relied more on foraging and/or scavenging as their primary means of obtaining food.

  5. Thanks for the link, will read the article later.

    The diversity of dietary and activity patterns for different ancestral populations have led me to think that perhaps the focus shouldn’t just be to revert to a generic ancestral pattern but maybe to a personalized one. Eg a kitavan might fare poorly on an inuit subsistence pattern and vice versa.

    For me it would be to ingest lots of tubers, vegetables and seafoods while going light on the red meats. Anecdotally, 1 month after the iarc announcement and my cutting down of red meat, my body fat mass actually dropped 0.7kg (repeated readings on same bca machine).

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