Use Goal Cycling to Stay on Target

Steve Maraboli Goal CyclingHave you written down your goals? Great.

The next step is to determine how to reach those goals. Some methods will work better than others, for any given person or task. On the other hand, there may be several similarly-effective ways to reach your desired endpoint. Either way, you will have to put in the work and hours.

How you perform that work and the way you construct the process can make all the difference. This is where goal cycling can come in handy.

So Many Goals, So Little Time

If you’re like me, you want to do it “all.” Heavy pulls, pressing the beast, handstand and ring work, Olympic lifts, the list goes on. When forced to trim it down, the list might look like something like this:

  • Pressing the Beast overhead on both sides
  • Pulling a 2.5 x bodyweight deadlift
  • Becoming proficient with the ring muscle-up
  • Becoming equally strong in pistol squats on both sides
  • Excelling in the sport of your choice.

But how could you cram all of these things in a weekly or daily training schedule? A wise individual has said that if everything is a goal, then nothing is a goal. That certainly holds some truth because our time and adaptation reserves are limited.

Picking just one goal and sticking to it is certainly effective, but most people have too short an attention span for the length of time required. There’s also the downside that you could lose some other qualities in the process if you’re not doing anything to maintain them. For elite-level performance, though, this is often necessary. To be the fastest person in the 100m will leave little wiggle room when it comes to training.

For effective goal cycling, limit your goals to two or three. They might be more skill-oriented or pure strength goals. An example of the former: holding a proper handstand for 30 seconds. For the latter: a 1RM front squat with (+)1.5 x bodyweight.

After you’ve listed your two to three goals, determine whether they support each other or interfere with each other. Pursuing a goal of completing a marathon in under three hours will most likely make everything strength related hard to achieve. If there’s a clear contradiction, refine your goal selection.

Planning Your Goal Cycling

As soon as your goals are determined, you can program your weekly training. One option is to dedicate days to a single goal, though this may be less efficient. Sure, you can squat or deadlift for an entire 45- to sixty-minute training session. But toward the end, the quality of the work will drop, and so will the productiveness of the session. In most cases, you can work toward two goals within the same day and even during the same session if they’re compatible.

The process, listed out:

  1. List your goals.
  2. Determine the type of goals: Are they strength or skill-based? Or perhaps both?
  3. What is the optimal frequency to train them? More skill-based goals usually benefit from greater frequency.
  4. Ask yourself, “How many days or sessions can you train during a week?”
  5. Place the most important goals first in the week.
  6. Continue with the other goals.
  7. Get to work.
  8. Assess and adjust after one or two weeks.
  9. Do deloads when needed.
  10. Continue for as long as the work is productive.

The last point is worth expanding. If after several weeks you have not yet met the goal, you can allow yourself to move on to other goals for some weeks or months and come back to the first one when feeling refreshed and maybe with even better requisites for accomplishing it. Hence the name, goal cycling.

You don’t need to rigidly stick to one thing. Sometimes, a temporary interruption can be beneficial. Goals are important. But enjoying the training process, and having the adaptability to be able to take a break and return to the plan without giving up on it is just as important.

Determination and commitment are virtues. But if you hit a wall with your training, then do not be afraid (or too stubborn) to back off for a while, and come back when ready. You have two choices: modify the training (specialized variety comes to mind) or move on to a couple other goals for a training cycle or two.

Below are some examples from my own training of how you can pair and cycle goals.

RING MUSCLE-UPS AND HANDSTANDS

I can do them, but they can be better. Neither will get better if I don’t devote more time to them under concentrated training blocks. I put three or four sessions of 20-30 minutes into my training week and I’m on the right track. Some of the sessions might be separate, some might precede strength training sessions etc. Almost any period of time will do, except for after any heavy upper-body work. As always, of course, it is important to treat these sessions as skill practice. When the quality threatens to drop, I’m done for that session.

FRONT SQUATS

For the past three or four years I’ve put a lot of work in to BMX-racing, which is a type of sprint bicycle race on a track with jumps, rollers, and berms. It’s a strength and power sport with a high skill component. When I learned that Olympic-level riders aim for a 1RM front squat of 1.5 x bodyweight, I got to work the very next day.

Barbell front squats and double kettlebell front squats were my weapons of choice most training sessions. I did squats two times a day if I felt like it. Even when I didn’t have squats planned for the session, I did a few light reps as a warm-up. In hindsight, it was probably too much, which is not uncommon among the young and overly eager.

Nevertheless, I got the 1.5 x bodyweight squat within six months. Now I’m pursuing 1.75x — not for the sport, but just because I want it. During this period, my overall strength also improved on chin-ups, deadlifts, and one-arm presses.

SPEED DEVELOPMENT

To be more competitive in my sport, I needed to work on speed and acceleration. Off-season, I did two or three sprint sessions a week. Sport practice occurred several times a week once the season started. Disappointingly, my speed was not much improved to the year prior.

I suspect I pushed the strength training too aggressively throughout the year. For speed development, you need to be as fresh as possible for each session to ensure quality practice. Lessons learned. Next year I’ll turn down the volume of the other training a couple of notches.

Things to Consider About Effective Goal Cycling

Some skills stick with you for years even if neglected. Others may require that you sharpen your blade several times a week. Maintaining athletic qualities is certainly a lot easier than attaining them. It has been said that it takes about one-third of the work to maintain them as compared to what it takes to reach them. I’ve found this to be quite accurate.

At this point, something called training residuals comes into play. This helps with planning since you can gauge how long the training effect should last after the training session.

Quality – Duration of training effect (days)

Aerobic endurance — 30±5
Anaerobic glycolytic endurance — 18±4
Strength endurance — 15±5
Maximal strength — 30±5
Maximal speed — 5±3

Summary

  • Goal cycling is certainly not new or revolutionary, but if you have been dabbling with everything or frustrated with your progress toward one certain goal, consider giving it a try.
  • Be sure the goals you choose are meaningful. A one-arm chin-up is a great feat of strength, but if it is not truly important to you, your likelihood of complying with the required training will be quite poor.
  • Be able to identify the point of diminishing returns. Pavel gave an excellent example of this at the SFB Certification: “When you can hit 5 sets 5 of one-arm/one-leg push-ups anytime you like, it’s time to move to another pressing goal.”

Keep strong and go after your goals!

Sources: Issurin, V. (2010) New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization. – Sports Med, 40: 189–206.

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Jukka Mäennenä
SFG, SFL, SFB
Jukka Mäennenä is an athlete and coach in Finland, an avid BMX and mountain bike rider, and interested in everything related to strength and performance. He has earned each of StrongFirst’s SFG, SFB, and SFL Instructor Certification credentials.

9 thoughts on “Use Goal Cycling to Stay on Target

  • I really enjoyed the article, Coach Jukka. Just what I expected and needed to hear. It says that you are an avid box and mountain biker. Me too! Except moto enduro riding and mountain biking. As you well know, those sports require a lot of endurance and strength. I was wondering how you balance doing what you love to do with completely different fitness goals? For example, won’t participating in mountain biking detract from the simple and sinister goals in the TGU and swing with the bulldog (40kg)?

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Yeah, I´ve been riding mountain and BMX bikes more than a decade and don´t see myself stopping anytime soon. Currently I´ve been doing mostly BMX racing and some occasional mountain bike enduro races. The biggest challenge is related to BMX where you need to have a lot power and speed. Those are the two qualities that I lack in. I have done plenty of work to improve them but there´s still a lot more to do.

      Simple and sinister goals will fit pretty nicely with mtb enduro for example. Doing short almost daily practice sessions with S&S type of program should leave you plenty of energy for riding. I haven´t done the S&S myself but I´d see it to be a very good fit during off- and in-season. Just adjust the volume and frequency according to how you feel on your bike.

      And on top of that if you´re regarded somewhat generally strong, in other words you´re in the intermediate level, the goals in S&S with the Bulldog shouldn´t take that long to accomplish. I´m talking about 3-6 months in here at most – provided that the training is good.

  • Excellent article.
    Something that I have been working on in the past six months, and had 5-6 goals. I have already achieved 3 of them, but the others not so much. I guess the article sums up my mistake quite well.

    I would like to ask if one is better off to just work body weight if ‘pistols’ is a goal? If weighted work should be done, should single leg work like Bulgarian split squats/step ups/DLs take priority over Heavy Back or Front Squats?

    thanks

    • Why not combine both modalities? It´s rarely an either or question. Keep the BSQ and FSQ´s in the mix to maintain strength. Something like the lines of 2-4 sets for 3-6 reps done 1-2 times a week. Always keep 1-2 reps in the bank.

      Meanwhile you can work on Pistols with no problems. If the challenge is on the mobility side of things you really don´t get that much loading from practicing pistols themselves. In this case bilateral squats or RFESS´s come in handy and don´t detract you from the goal.

      At least this is how I see things.

  • I enjoyed this article. It gave me the motivation to actually write down my goals…which are: Simple and Sinister with a 24kg kettlebell (currently doing the swings Rx but the TGU with 16kg and 20kg); and doing the right of passage from ETK with a 24kg kettlebell (just finished one session of the right of passage with a 20kg kettlebell and bent over rows instead of pullups).

    Anybody have any thoughts on how I should go about designing a training program to meet these goals? TGU are very hard for me on my right side from a football injury. I do not have full range of motion or an anterior deltoid.

  • Great article. As the saying goes, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority”. I especially enjoyed the part about training residuals and will be giving this idea more thought.

  • Very sound advice. The last piece about training residuals is intriguing. I would greatly appreciate more articles devoted solely to this topic. Well done.

    • Training residuals are indeed a very interesting topic! Actually I got some new information from a well respected sport scientist just recently (several months after submitting the article). Apparently aerobic energy system or aerobic endurance is the first one to “take a dive” during a detraining period. He described as an example a group of hockey players who just ended their season. Aerobic endurance was beginning to detoriate already after 5-7 days.

      Speed is another tricky one. You can maintain the highly neurological adaptations on top level for a week at most. Therefore if the sport of your choice is depended on speed, you should train for it almost year around.

      Hypertrophy and strength holds on a lot longer – fortunately.

      • Hello there! Very useful reading (I have it bookmarked), thank you! Also, I think a whole article should be written about training residuals. It would greatly help to plan different types of training prior to given competition event. Have a good day!

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