A new kind of goal can keep your mind calm and on target

By Matt Perryman

At the gym this morning, doing my usual full-body Sunday morning session, it occurred to me how different my training is now from past years.


For most of the time I spent lifting, from the late 1990s up through around 2018, I was a “numbers guy”. The only thing I cared about was the numbers I could put up on the squat, bench, and deadlift.


Lift more, and for more reps, meant “good”. Less meant “bad”.


Pretty easy. And not without value, I must say. Watch people lift at most any gym and you’ll see a lot of energy spent for no clear reason. Number goals give you a target to aim for, and a benchmark to measure progress toward them.


Tracking your sessions and chasing bigger numbers is one proven way to make sure that you’re in a different body 12 months from now.


After you’ve been at it awhile, this method brings rapidly diminishing returns. For me it ended in a nasty cycle involving injuries, burn-out, and psychological head-games between me and the weight on the bar.


That changed a few years ago.


What I do now is start with a rep goal, which is almost always 8-10 reps, and then pick my work weights to meet that target.


The aim is to hit right at the limit of what’s possible to handle in that range.


Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky called this the “Zone of Proximal Development”. The ZPD is the space between what you can do comfortably with your own present abilities, and what you can do with guidance and encouragement of a coach or partner.


Walk right up to the edge, and no further.


That’s a useful place to be for anything you want to improve.


Too many people fall on the wrong side of the ZPD. They’re either far too conservative, going through the motions without any real intensity behind the pageant, or they’re over the top with pre-workout drinks, loud fast music, and spotters helping them grind out forced reps.


It’s all that mental baggage again, playing head-games with the weights.


The takeaway from all this is to notice the difference between two types of goals.


Product goals measure what you actually accomplished. Did I squat four plates? Yes or no.


This is fine and good, and if you’re competing you need that focus.


But product goals can become a trap.


If you aren’t dialing in for a specific contest target, better is to focus your efforts on a process goal.


I don’t care how much I squatted. I only care that I got into the ZPD for my target of 8-10 reps.


This seems like a small tweak, but do not poo-poo small hinges that swing big doors.


The difference in mental game is profound.



Matt Perryman


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