In the gym, I watch people move. When I watch them move, I can sometimes see what they’re thinking. And reading someone’s intentions when they move can be extremely helpful, especially as a trainer.
One thing I see over and over again in the gym is folks letting their goal take precedence over the purpose of an exercise.
Let me clarify.
For this discussion, we’ll define Purpose and Goal thusly:
The Purpose of an exercise is the underlying intention as far as movement goes: the why of it all. For example, the purpose of banded side-steps is to work the muscles that abduct the femur at the hip joint. Since some people have trouble firing the correct muscles when working through large, multi-joint exercises like squats and lunges, isolating said muscles is a good way to train them to come on.
The Goal of an exercise refers to how much you intend to do. For example, when doing banded side-steps the goal might be to step from point A to point B leading with the right leg, and then back from point B to point A leading with the left, all without stopping.
[Side note: these are not necessarily universally accepted definitions or widely used terms. I’m simply laying them out like this to illustrate a point that will, hopefully, affect your perspective and, therefore, inform your choices when exercising.]
Why is This Important?
Ignoring or misunderstanding an exercise’s purpose--or conflating it with the goal--can quite easily lead to injury (either immediately or down the line). If you squat as though the purpose is to get your head below a certain level, you leave yourself open to all manner of movement faults and compensations that could compromise some pretty important joints. If, however, you squat as though the purpose is to lower your body by safely and effectively hinging at the hips, then you can set yourself a goal of getting low enough that your head reaches a certain level.
Likewise, not having a clear understanding of purpose could also leave you spinning your wheels. Back to the banded side-steps example, if you misinterpret the point and instead accomplish your goal by adjusting your position and using muscles you’re already adept at moving, you’re essentially just broadening the neuromuscular gap rather than expanding your movement arsenal.
Putting it in Practice
Use this philosophy to help guide how you lay out your workouts. Rather than going the normal route of setting a goal and then doing whatever it takes to reach that goal, try making the purpose a caveat to your goal:
"My goal is to do 4 sets of 12 shoulder presses WITHOUT ARCHING MY BACK."
"My goal is to do push-ups until I can no longer do them PERFECTLY."
Goals are important in the gym. They help both to keep you motivated and to assess progress. That being said, though, the purpose of the exercise is the far more important factor. You should have goals, but it is quite alright for them to fall short; the purpose, however, should never be compromised.