Setting fitness goals that actually work

Or, the Twin Combine: brother vs. brother in a test of brain and brawn

“He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m going to tell you a story about goals, why most people’s goals are terrible, and how to set goals that you’ll actually work towards, which is to say, goals that actually work.

Most people’s health and fitness goals are atrocious. They sound like they’re ordering at a deli counter, and the resulting goals are about as motivating as a half-pound of ham:

  • Lose 12 lbs
  • Gain 10 lbs of muscle
  • Run a 5k

Those are boring goals. Not a single one of those would motivate me to get out of bed in the morning. At least not as written.

You have to pick a goal that matters to you. Why do you want to lose 12 pounds? What for? Who for? What do you really really want, and how will losing 12 pounds help you get it? If you don’t have the answers to those questions, you’ll never be able to tie any emotions to your goals.

Emotional goals are the only ones that work. You have to have an incredibly strong, incredibly emotional desire to acheive them. When you imagine hitting your goal, it has to be incredibly pleasurable. When you imagine not hitting your goal, it has to be incredibly painful.

“Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” –Jeremy Bentham

Most people are afraid to cultivate that pain. They’re afraid that if they let themselves really, really want something, it’s going to be devastating to not get it. But that’s life. You need that desire or you’re not going to accomplish anything.

And paradoxically, when you let yourself truly want something, you’re actually more likely to get it — meaning it’s less likely you’ll disappoint yourself in the first place.

If you don’t hit your goal, remember two things: it may hurt now, but you can survive disappointment. And also, this isn’t the last chance. Just because you missed it this time doesn’t mean that you have to give up.

So set an emotional goal. It doesn’t have to be a big goal — in fact, big wild goals tend to not be great, because they’re so far away that you can’t really feel them. You really can’t imagine what it would be like to win the olympics. But you can be damn sure what it would feel like to be confident taking your shirt off at the beach.

So what would get you excited about working out, or eating better? Often, it’s the little things that change your quality of life. Your knees not hurting. Having the energy to play with your kids. Mine was a classic: sibling rivalry.

I cannot remember when or why we took this picture.

The birth of the twin combine

Back in 2014, I was a few years out of school and didn’t have much to motivate me to go to the gym. I was playing a few rugby 7s tournaments every summer, but my real aim there was to not embarrass myself in front of my old college teammates. Lifting weights was a nice way to cut down my stress after a long day at work, but again, I didn’t have anything I was really working towards.

I was spinning my wheels. My twin brother Coleman felt the same way: he was entering his second year of constant work travel and wasn’t loving what it did to how he looked or felt. Neither of us were happy with where our fitness was, but we also didn’t have anything to pull us out of the rut. We needed a change, a goal.

We needed motivation, something new that would help us get out of bed and to the gym in the morning, because clearly, the general dissatisfaction that we were feeling with our health wasn’t doing a whole lot to change anything.

So we tried to come up with something that could be the motivator for the change we wanted to see. While we were talking about this, the NFL combine was on TV.

Thinking back, I had always had the most success when I had an upcoming athletic event — rugby season, a regatta, something. Plus, our birthday was about three months away. So we decided to have our own version of the combine on our birthday: a series of events designed to see who was the better twin both physically and mentally.

The Twin Combine was born: winner was to be crowned the Better Twin for a full calendar year. The first thing to do was select the events:

  • Max bench press
  • Max deadlift
  • Max squat
  • Shuttle run
  • Long jump
  • Broad jump
  • The Wonderlic test
  • An eating competition

With an event list, a date, and the title of ‘Better Twin’ on the line, I started training in earnest. I went from 2, sometimes 3 days a week in the gym to a consistent 4x, I was eating right, and I actually made a plan (and stuck to it!) instead of just going in and doing whatever I felt like that day. It was some of the best training I’ve ever done.

Having that strong motivator that I could go back to when things got tough was key. We’re identical twins, so this was 100% a test of willpower and planning, as we have the exact same genetic potential. The person who trained the best would win, period.

And so I wasn’t going to be the one that skipped a training day. In the morning, when my alarm went off for a 6:00 AM workout, I just had to remind myself why I was doing it — and the consequences of losing — and it was far, far easier to get out of bed.

Coleman won the first twin combine. Pretty handily, if we’re being honest. The exact lifts have been lost to time, but I know it was the first time he ever hit a 405 deadlift, and I PR’d on a number of lifts — 225 bench and 335 squat. I would have liked to win, but ultimately it didn’t matter. I had had the best four months in the gym since college.

Twin Combine 2017

We’re doing the Twin Combine again. My discipline has gotten significantly better in the last three years, but I’m not pushing myself. I’m back in my rut. It feels like I’m just going through the motions, and as we build out Ohmcoach, it’s been so easy to let work get in the way. It’s time to rekindle some of that competitive fire.

So consider this the official announcement of the 2017 Twin Combine, taking place the weekend after July 6 (our birthday). We’ve decided to up the stakes a little bit by letting each of us pick one totally discretionary event, to stack the odds in their favor.

This years event list:

  • Max Bench
  • Max Deadlift
  • Max Squat
  • 5km run
  • 2km row — Kennedy’s discretionary event
  • Handstand walk for distance—Coleman’s discretionary event
  • 100m sprint
  • Eating challenge
  • Best-of-three chess

I’ve got a plan to beat my brother, and my training starts today. Your job? Find a real, emotional goal to work towards — something that you’ll give a shit about, that will motivate you to do better. Maybe you have a reunion coming up. Maybe you want to take your shirt off at your annual beach trip. Maybe you just want to have energy all day at work. Whatever kindles the fire.

Having that emotional goal won’t make progress automatic. But it makes things a hell of a lot easier. So whatever it is, find it.

When it comes to health and fitness, it’s a lot easier to read advice than it is to put it in practice. That’s why I wrote a little booklet to help you get to the gym and follow through on your goals. Get it here: Five Scientific Strategies to Actually Get Yourself to the Gym. If you enter your email on that page, I’ll also keep you updated on my quest to beat my brother.