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Perspectives on Progress

This is the third addition of my series on goal setting and accomplishing. My last two blog posts have been all about setting SMART goals and creating an action plan. Before diving into this article, I would strongly recommend you check those two articles out; although, I may be a bit biased as the author. Whoops.

Goal-Setting Science vs. Art

If the last two articles were the science of goal-setting, this article will be the art of tracking your progress. While creating an action plan is a fantastic start, things will inevitably not go your way at some point along your journey. What will you do when you start to stumble? How will you develop awareness of self? How do you shift your perspective so that you see all you HAVE accomplished and not just what you fell short in doing? That is what this article will be covering today.

But First: A Familiar Tale

Picture this: it’s March 14, 2018 and you plan to compete at USAPL Raw Nationals in October. Your goal is to place top 5 in your respective weight class, and you did your research to figure out approximately what numbers you need in order to accomplish this goal. You lay out your action plan with mini objectives to hit along the way. By April 1, you wanted to increase your squat max by 20 pounds since the start of the year. This would keep you on track to hit that coveted total come October. Your squats have been feeling awful and your numbers haven’t budged. Do you recognize what this individual is feeling? Of course you do, and we have ALL been there.

What happens when one lift isn’t going well? We dwell on that one lift. When our biceps refuse to grow despite weeks of added volume, our eyes don’t leave that area when we look in the mirror. Life in general can be relentless and when it is, we fret on the problem and search for a resolution. I suggest we break this cycle, if only temporarily, and broaden our scopes in hopes of finding a new perspective instead.

Stop Focusing on the Number

What you don’t know about the powerlifter from the example is that while his squat number hasn’t changed, he’s been going to see a physical therapist to fix his hip shift. His form has gotten exponentially better and more consistent. While his squat hasn’t gone up, his deadlift has and it’s actually gone up more than he anticipated. His quads have gotten bigger too, which boasts for more strength in the long-term, and he’s been able to tighten his belt up a notch tighter as well as he’s moved down half of a weight class. He has made so much progress in just 2.5 short months and yet all he focuses on is one number. We all focus on the number; we have a tendency to gravitate towards objective results – weight on the bar, pounds on the scale, dollars we’ve earned, our GPA, etc. Who we are cannot be defined by numbers on a page, however, and our progress cannot be totally tracked by just measurements.

Redefining Progress

Here are some practical recommendations for a holistic approach to tracking your progress:


The weight on the bar certainly is the easiest way to track your progress when it comes to lifting. Additionally, adding more weight to the bar over time is important; however, there are several other factors to consider. Muscle building and strength performance are not quite as simple as reps, sets, and weight. Another consideration is the quality of the movement. Remember when you squatted your bodyweight for the first time, but you were crooked and you didn’t quite reach proper depth? It may take you another 6 months to squat that same weight with proper depth and technique. Does that mean you didn’t get any better for a whole half of a year? Heck no! Furthermore, you set yourself up for more long-term success by performing a better movement.

Another technique marker of success is the tempo you’re able to lift with. Have you ever tried to lower a weight really slowly or pause at the hardest part briefly? It’s way harder, and if you can get to a point where you can do the same reps, sets, and weight with a slower tempo, then you have definitely gotten stronger.

A third consideration when it comes to lifting is your bodyweight relative to the weight you’re lifting. Generally speaking, when you’re heavier, you can lift more. So if you squat 135 for 8 reps at 135 pounds bodyweight, and then you start dieting and you wonder why 135 is feeling so heavy, it’s because you weigh 125 now! So if at 125 pounds, you can still squat 135 for 8, you have gotten stronger!

Body Composition

If your goals involve an aesthetic component, the number on the scale can be a guide to how you’re doing. But it is not the whole picture. Another tool I would recommend is the mirror – do you like how you’re looking? Are you generally looking better? For some people, the mirror is a bit too subjective, so a great objective output is to do girth measurements – chest, shoulders, arms, waist, hips, etc. If you’re looking to put on muscle, the scale should move up gradually, you should look visibly bigger, and those areas should all be increasing as well (yes, your stomach too; it’s inevitable). If you’re looking to lose fat, the scale should move down gradually, you should look visibly leaner, and those areas should be decreasing (yes, your arms and booty will get smaller; it’s inevitable). If two out of those three requirements are being fulfilled, then what you are doing IS WORKING. Just be patient and stick with it.

A Final Word

Lastly, but probably most importantly, progress is not linear. When you’re brand new (within your first 6 months), it may be linear, but eventually linear progress will stop. You will not be able to add 10 pounds to your squat every month indefinitely. Not only is progress not linear, but it is harder and harder to come by as you become more advanced. In year one of training, it is not out of the ordinary to build 15 pounds of muscle, but by year 5, you’ll be lucky if you can put on 3-5 pounds of lean tissue. This is just how the body works. Don’t be discouraged. You should workout because it makes you feel good both physically and mentally. Nobody cares how big your muscles are, how flat your stomach is, or how much you can bench press. It’s great to set goals and feels amazing to accomplish them, but nothing feels as good as enjoying the journey.

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