“I think I want to enter a powerlifting competition.” These were the nine innocent words my client Michael said to me during one of our regular Saturday morning workouts. At least they seemed innocent. Little did I know that at the time this casual thought would push my skills as a trainer, push Michael’s limits as an athlete, and become one of the more rewarding experiences either of us had ever had in the gym.

Michael started training with me two years prior to his revelation of wanting to squat, bench press, and deadlift as much weight as he could possibly handle. He came in as a former collegiate sprinter who’d spent the last 20 years focusing less on his physique and athletic performance and more on building a career in finance. He didn’t come to me in particularly bad shape for a guy in his early 40s who sat at a desk all day (though I do vaguely recall he may have puked at the end of our first workout). But it was our twice-weekly workouts that drove him to become more passionate about building muscle and getting strong. And while he certainly made significant progress that he felt good about, he wanted a bit more. So we found a meet in upstate New York, circled the date in our calendars and got to work. Things were about to change. We had a goal.

Training for a goal, whether it’s a 500lb deadlift, getting ripped for a photo shoot, or dunking a basketball is a surefire way to increase focus and take your fitness to another level. All of a sudden your trips to the gym go from “Ugh, I guess I’ll get my workout in” to “I need to hit 257 pounds on my bench press today if I’m going to stay on track to nail 315 at the meet.” But achieving a goal doesn’t just happen. You need to take the proper steps first. Namely, setting the goal and putting a plan in place.

Setting a goal seems like it should be a one step process. Look super-hot in time for my high school reunion or hit a height of 19 feet in the Pole Vaulting Nationals. But if your thought process is to simply skip right to the end game, chances are you’ll never get there. You need to find a connection to the goal and be able to put a plan in place. Here’s how you get that done.

This is the big picture, blue sky, pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow that you’ll ultimately be looking to achieve. You can’t be wishy-washy. In fact, you have to be really specific. Goals such as “I want to look better on my wedding day than my bitchy Cousin Janet looked on hers” are way too vague (and, to be honest, a bit messed up).

“I want to be 16 percent body fat by my wedding on April 19th.”

“I want to lower my triglyceride numbers by 20 percent at my next doctor visit.”

“I want to qualify for the regional Judo competition next fall.”

These are all great goals as they are specific and measurable. The only caveat is that they do have to fall into the realm of actually being possible and realistic. So don’t make the mistake of setting the goal of becoming the UFC Middleweight Champion before you even have your first fight. Think in terms of smaller steps first that will ultimately lead you to that big goal. This is commonly referred to as “shrinking the change.” Now that you have a specific goal, write it down on a piece of paper, fold it up and place it under the refrigerator. Because once you set it, it’s no longer your focus—figuring out what you have to do to reach your goal is where your head needs to be.

Winning a Judo tournament or losing seven percent body fat may be specific, achievable goals but there is one problem with them: They are out of your control. You have no say over what your competition may be doing to prepare for that same Judo tournament. Nor do you have control over how your body will react to the new diet and nutrition plan you have put in place in order to drop fat. So rather than getting fixated on the finish line, it’s time to focus on the behaviors that are in your control. Are you going to the gym five times per week? Are you drilling that new takedown technique that your coach showed you? Have you been keeping a food journal and emailing it to your nutritionist for analysis? You can only control whatever is actually in your control. Unfortunately, this is where most people fall down. These behaviors are the true work behind accomplishing your goals and can take a lot of effort without a lot of immediate reward. Going to the gym at 5 a.m. is hard. Resisting Doris-in-Accounting’s “world famous” banana bread every time you pass her desk is challenging. Getting punched in the face during daily sparring is painful. But establishing and repeating these behaviors is what it takes to get you where you want to go. Hey, no one said achieving your goals would be easy.

This is the stuff that will actually get you out of bed when the alarm sounds at 4:30 a.m. and get you sweating over a hot stove preparing meals on Sunday nights. You have to discover the personal significance behind your goals. If you’ve noticed that you are getting out of breath every time you walk up the stairs to go to bed at night,that fear can certainly motivate you to make some changes. If going to the gym and working with a trainer twice a week means you’ll be able to pick up your newborn granddaughter, you better believe you are going to be keeping those appointments. We are stuck in a statistical, pragmatic world that focuses so much on numbers and finish lines (I want to make this much money, I want to weigh this much) that we often lose the connection to why we actually want those things. Find that connection. Having the energy and mobility to play with your grandchild will always carry more value than seeing the scale go down by a few pounds and will get you out of bed instead of hitting snooze.

Now that you know what it is you want to do, the behaviors required to get it done and why it’s important to you, it’s time to establish a plan. Of course, what the plan should be is completely dependent on the individual goal. I cannot emphasize enough how hiring an experienced professional can be invaluable in helping you devise a plan. Great coaches and teachers who have helped others attain similar goals know what it takes to get you where you want to go. Doing the work is hard enough in and of itself. So hire a pro to map out the path, make changes when needed, be a sounding board, and help keep you honest and accountable. It may cost you a bit of money, but the time, effort, and mental energy you’ll save in the long run will be well worth it.

As for Michael, he broke four New York State records in his first competition. Two weeks later he came into the gym beaming. He was wearing a T-shirt he had made that said “300, 400, 500” in a column down the front. These are the weights he wants to hit in the bench press, squat, and deadlift, respectively, in his next powerlifting meet. So we found a meet and circled the calendar for late June. We have a new goal.

This guest post was written by Dan Trink, CSCS and Director of Personal Training Operations at Peak Performance in NYC. The opinions expressed herein are his and his alone. To learn more about Dan, follow him on Twitter at @trinkfitness or visit www.trinkfitness.com.