The biggest reason people fail to "get in shape" is the rapidly waning motivation. Training is hard and it isn't always fun. Sometimes your tired, lazy, or even legitimately busy. In order to do something hard (easy things rarely produce results) continuously one must have a set of goals. By set I mean short term and long term goals. Fighting to reach those goals and tracking progress towards those goals is often the difference between success and failure.
People pick up weights for many different reasons. I would wage that the most common reason to start lifting is to look better. Whether we are looking for a partner or not we like to have at least a non-offensive appearance and we hope to obtain a more attractive one. A "nice body" instills confidence. So Aesthetic goals are not bad, in my opinion.
The problem with aesthetic goals is they are hardly measurable. How do you know when you are halfway there? Being aware of ones progress, or lack thereof, is critical to objectively evaluating a training protocol. When progress is being made the trainee is encouraged to continue despite the difficulty of the training regimen.
If your goal is to look better how do you make it quantitative so you can effectively measure your progress? In my opinion an attractive/impressive body is a muscular body with minimal to moderate fat levels. So to look better one must first gain muscle mass. Second one must lose fat (typically). I put these two in order because I am convinced this is the most efficient way to train. Muscle first (read strength), then fat loss (read conditioning/interval training).
Some of the reasons for this way of thinking...Firstly, muscle mass requires more energy to support. More calories are burned at rest by a muscular person than a non-muscular person (skinny or fat). Secondly someone with large muscles will be able to do more work (burn more calories) during a conditioning style of training than a the person with string-bean quadriceps. So building muscle first will make the fat loss part more effective than jumping right into a fat loss program.
Convinced of the logic of implementing a strength training program, you now ask yourself two questions. (1) Where do I start and (2) how far do I go? To start you need to learn the basic exercises (squat, press, deadlift, and bench press). Starting Strength is the best technical guide to the lifts I have found. It will teach you how to do the lifts, how to find starting weights and how to progress. I would just be rewriting what Mark Rippetoe has already written about getting started, so I won't.
The purpose of this post is to help you realize that strength goals are important and milestones must be recognized and celebrated.
How far do I go? Strength Goals:
You are capable of more than you think. Before I started training seriously in October 2011 I had never bench pressed 200 pounds. I figured that 200 pounds was a good goal and it might take a while to get there. I got there (with some hard work) relatively quickly. Then I decided that 2 plates would be a good goal, that is 225 pounds. I recently marched up and past that value and did it for 3 sets of 5 reps. I have started to realize that my potential is much higher than I had initially perceived and my goals need to move to accommodate my new vantage point.
I think strength goals should be grand. I think this way because a normal person who eats plenty of food is actually capable of becoming very, very strong. The goals might as well be high since your genetic potential is very high. Here are some good examples of goals for general strength athletes.
In terms of hundred pound increments:
Bench Press: 300#
In terms of 45 pound plates (number of plates on one side of the bar):
Deadlift: 5 (495#)
Squat: 4 (405#)
Bench Press: 3 (315#)
Press: 2 (225#)
These levels of strength may seem high to you (they did to me at first) but in reality men out there reach these levels of strength all the time. This is not elite professional lifter status this is simply the potential of average healthy men who are dedicated to training consistently. Obviously genetic potential (based on recovery capacity and body type) will vary for each individual. These goals may be too lofty or too low but they are certainly in the ball park for most male humans with a few YEARS of solid training.
I have set the plate style goals for myself. I really like it when I can put another 45 on the bar. It just looks good. I am hoping to meet these goals by graduation time next year. I have 150 pounds to add to my deadlift, 120 to my squat, 80 to my bench press, and 70 to my press. It is a lot of work but I know I can do it. I am shooting for next May but one or two lifts (likely the presses) will take a bit longer.
If you train hard and eat plenty you will find that your original goals will be achieved quickly and they will become milestones along the way to your new strength goals.
I mentioned putting 45 pound plates on the bar feeling real good. Big plates are always fun to put on the bar and every time you put one on you should be excited even if it isn't your big strength goal, it is a milestone. 45's aren't the only plates in the arsenal and they aren't the only time an internal celebration should occur. 25 pound plates are also exciting. When you throw those on there you know you are 50 pounds further than your last milestone whether that was going from the bar to 95# or 135 to 185# or whatever. 50 pounds is a big deal. I even get excited when I can put a 10 pounder on in place of a 5 and a 2.5 pounder. Moving to bigger plates is a big deal and is part of the reason why lifting weight is so much fun.
It is hard to tell the difference between looking fat and not so fat, or trim and trimmer. It is hard to measure and certainly to see the difference between 16.5 and 17.0 % body fat. It is easy to see progress on the bar. Henry Rollins summed up the weight on the bar pretty well:
"The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you're a god or a total
bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds"
If you lifted more than last time you know you are stronger, you know you have progressed, and you are likely to keep working at it.
Keep training, set goals, celebrate milestones, and you may find your aesthetic goals are reached or are simply not as important as they used to be. Aesthetics don't drive my goals anymore. My performance drives me and that is what I am now striving to improve.