Keep It Real: How To Set Realistic (But Ambitious) Expectations In Strength & Physique

Article written by Nicola Joyce

Let’s be real: we can’t all be fitness models or world-class athletes. But ambitions are good. Exactly how can women set realistic goals without quashing personal ambition?

Strength sports are enjoying a boom in participation and inspiration. We can measure the amounts of new competitors coming through the sports of bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman and Olympic lifting. But it’s impossible to put a number on the amounts of people out there who swipe through Instagram, taking inspiration from the videos and gym selfies of their favorite athletes.

With so many new people taking inspiration from the fitness industry, is it time to ask: what factors do you need to take into account before setting realistic goals?

Let’s keep it real.


There’s plenty you can do through training and nutrition to alter your body’s size, shape and composition. You can train it to be bigger, to run faster, to jump higher. But you can’t deny your genetics. Genetics are probably most significant for bodybuilding and physique competitions. But they play a role in your likelihood of success in strength and power sports, too. The width of your hips, pelvis and shoulders are genetic and no amount of training will alter them. Your individual attachment points, and the shape of your muscle bellies, will be yours til the day you die. Genetics, too, may play a significant part in your ability to gain (or hang on to) muscle mass, and could even have a role in your emotional relationship with food, your appetite, your willingness to work hard, and your ability to outwork the competition. But at its most basic level, genetics sets the shape and structure of your body. Have you got the genetics to meet your physical goal? Or do you need to accept that the bikini body look, or 400lb deadlift, isn’t going to come naturally?


Sport ain’t cheap. Strength sports need kit, competition entry fees, significant food and training costs. Coaches and clubs cost money. Travel to competitions, accommodation, and on-the-day costs soon add up. And let’s not talk about bodybuilding and physique sports, particularly for the female competitors. Tan, posing suits, shoes… the list goes on. It’s possible to do strength sport on a shoestring, but it’s hardly realistic. Do you have enough disposable income to cover the true costs of pursuing your goal, day-to-day as you train, diet and prep, and then for the competition itself? And are you willing for your income to take a hit, as the pressures of being an athlete put a squeeze on your 24-hours-a-day? Will diet-brain and being tired from training affect your work output? If you’re self-employed, can your business stand the pressure of a boss whose energy and focus are elsewhere?

Health & Injury

In an ideal world, we’d all come with a clean bill of health. No old injuries, nagging twinges, and perfect digestive, immune and hormone function. How’s your health background? Be honest with yourself, are you physically robust enough to cope with the rigours of intense training, strict dieting, low body fat and compromised recovery? And it’s not just physical health you need to think about. Unless your emotional health is solid, you risk rocking the boat. Anyone with a history of eating disorders, or a propensity for disordered eating during times of stress, shouldn’t put themselves through any sporting prep which messes with food habits and body fat levels.

Work Capacity

Whether your goal is to get photo-shoot lean for personal satisfaction, or to achieve World-level status in your sport, you’re going to need to work harder than you ever thought possible. This isn’t just a couple extra gym sessions. It’s relentless. The training, the cardio, the food prep, the diet. And when you’re not doing something towards your goal, you’ll be thinking about it. Your goal will take over your life, in the best possible way. Just like any ambition fuelled by passion. Do you have the inbuilt work ethic to deal with it? There’s no shame in saying “no”. I don’t have the passion, drive and work ethic to set up my own business, build my own home, move to another country or set up a brand. That’s OK. I know where my strengths and laser-beam focus lies. Where’s yours? Is it really, truly in this fitness goal of yours… or not? Do you have the ability to work hard enough, day by day and hour by hour?

What’s Your Fitness Budget?

Before you get started, take stock. How much time, energy, money and effort are you really able to dedicate to pursuit of your goal? Your fitness budget will be impacted by your real budgets (financial, home life, peer support, health and energy, work and business) and this will have a huge impact on the results you can get.

Lifestyle & Circumstance

Time to get nitty-gritty real. Does your lifestyle support the work and sacrifices you’ll need to meet your fitness goal? Or is it flexible enough to change without massive fallout? Think about your key relationships (not just the person you live with). The pressures on your time. Your work commute, your pets, your kids, your other hobbies and social outlets (you do have other hobbies… right?) If you live in a houseshare with a group of guys who work shifts, come home at 2am with pizzas, and play video games til 5am, you might find dieting for a bodybuilding contest and getting up to do cardio before work a struggle. On the flipside, if you really want to do this, you’ll find a way. Life tends to shape itself around a fiercely-made goal. But it makes sense to think about this stuff before you get started.

Your Own Goals (Not Someone Else’s)

Let’s backtrack. Think about the exact moment you set your fitness goal. Why did you decide on it? Inspiration is great, but be sure your goal is yours and not someone else’s. A borrowed goal, a direct copy-cat cut and paste, or external inspiration without internal motivation won’t last the course. Make sure this goal is your goal.

Now you’ve done your fitness audit, go ahead and point your life in the direction of what you want. Set realistic goals which excite you. Work to perfect your body, fitness and art. Take your motivation from yourself rather than from external forces, and enjoy reaching the best version of you… depending on your personal circumstances.

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