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Staying on track over Christmas

With Christmas only 6 weeks away, celebrations are fast approaching. Most people will spend their time going out more and enjoying themselves and as Christmas only comes around once every year it’s important we all enjoy ourselves. However, the last thing people will want to do is to undo the hard work they have done in the gym and leave themselves with an uphill battle to climb when January comes around. Therefore, this article will go into ways in which you can still derive all the enjoyment from Christmas festivities, without derailing the progress you have made towards your fitness goals.

 

Firstly, you need to establish the mind-set you are going to adopt. Broadly speaking, there’s three to choose from. Firstly, there’s the athlete’s mind-set whereby you don’t derail from your diet or training regime at all. On paper, this is the best approach everyone. However, in practicality, the majority of people will not be able to adopt this approach because of the increased amount of socialising that Christmas brings which limits time being spent in the gym, as well as not having access to the foods on their meal plan.

 

On the other end of the spectrum, many will choose to completely drop fitness as a priority and choose to enjoy themselves by any means necessary. Although this is the more fun approach in the moment, it can leave people feeling really down about losing their way when January come around.

 

The third approach, is to enjoy yourself whilst making small adjustments to your Christmas plans in order to not regress over the next couple of months. What this approach looks like will differ between individual’s due to the varying levels of sacrifice people are willing to make in order to stay in shape over Christmas. Below we will discuss ways in which you can alter your plans to suit your fitness goals. The extent to which you apply these to your lives will be dependent on the amount of sacrifice you see as sustainable and enjoyable for yourself.

 

The first alteration we can make is with nutrition. With many people indulging in high calorie, low nutrient based foods over Christmas, the first thing you should have in mind is to still prioritise protein in each meal. This will help you maintain muscle mass, as well as making you feel full, to help prevent overeating on that box of Celebrations lying around. What this looks like in practice is sorting the protein source in each meal out first. For example, when Christmas dinner comes, fill half your plate with a portion of turkey leaving less space to fill up on the extras such as roast potatoes, stuffing and Yorkshire pudding. This ensures adequate protein is being taken in, whilst still being able to enjoy the other parts of Christmas dinner with less chance of over consumption due to less space on the plate.

 

Next, we can opt for lower calorie options of certain foods and drinks. For this we need to identify the calorie dense items of food and drink and make switches which you are happy to settle for. For example, you may find yourself going out drinking more over the Christmas period. A typical alcoholic drink for winter is Bailey’s and the number of calories in a 250ml glass of this is 437kcal. This is over 4 times the number of calories found in a single gin and tonic (96kcal). Although this is an extreme comparison, even consuming 100-200kcal less with each drink can be the deciding factor on keeping your calories near maintenance when having multiple drinks in one sitting. The same can be done for food. If you wish to indulge in ice cream as a Christmas treat, 460ml of Haagen Dazs salted caramel is 1309kcal whereas Halo salted caramel of the same size works is just 320kcal, a 1000kcal saving on snacks which are essentially identical.

 

Planning ahead with your training is also going to be key. It’s normal to not be able to maintain 3+ sessions a week if you are travelling and with family in other parts of the country. However, training a muscle group just 5 working sets per week will maintain the size of the muscle for an extended period of time. Therefore, if you can find it in your schedule to fit this in, then that is going to go a long way in terms of maintaining your progress and prevent the consequences of ceasing to train altogether such as losses in muscle mass and strength.

 

Finally, many of us will cease work for 1-2 weeks over Christmas. Therefore, planning to use some of this added time with physical activity with family can significantly help increase one’s energy expenditure for the day. For instance, choosing to go out on a long walk in the countryside during the day instead of sitting down inside is a hugely positive action to take. This will also make it a lot easier to transition back into regular training, should you have to stop training due to travelling or other social events over the festive period.

 

In conclusion, I hope that the several lifestyle tweaks discussed in this article have given insight into how small changes can produce big results in ensuring that you start January in a really good place with your fitness whilst still being able to enjoy Christmas the way you want to. If you are hiring a personal trainer it might be worth sitting down together to plan your Christmas strategy so you can hit the ground running come January.

Pre-Fatigue Training vs Traditional Sets on muscle growth

 

 

Reference of the Study: Trinidade et. al. (2019). Effects of Pre-Exhaustion Versus Traditional Resistance Training on Training Volume, Maximal Strength and Quadriceps Hypertrophy FRONT PHYSIOL

 

 

Details of the Study:

 

  • Trainees performed 3 sets of leg press to failure 75% 1RM, 2x per week, for 9 weeks in total.

 

  • One group performed 1 set of leg extensions before the leg press (pre-fatigue group), while another group performed the leg press training in a non-fatigued state (traditional training group).

 

  • It was found that both groups saw significant muscle growth of all quad muscles, with no notable differences between groups.

 

  • This study suggests that when taking each set close to failure, pre-fatiguing a muscle can achieve similar muscle growth compared with traditional training, with no additional benefit.

 

  • This is despite the fact that lifting performance (load lifted), on the leg press for the pre-fatigue group was significantly affected.

 

 

Real World Application:

 

  • Pre-Fatiguing the muscles provides an opportunity to gain the same muscle growth as traditional training, with lighter loads and less repetitions, thereby minimising joint stress.

 

  • Therefore, this could be particularly useful for people returning to the gym after rehabilitating certain joint injuries.

The Importance of Sleep for your goals

 

On average, in the UK, men get 6.17 hours of sleep per night, whilst females get 6.04 hours per night. This falls short of the 7 hours recommended for your average adult. This falls even further short of the recommended amount for someone in regular training, whereby the general rule of thumb is 7 hours + as many hours as you trained for that day. For example, if you trained for 1 hour, then it would be recommended that you sleep for 8 hours (7 hours + 1 hour of training). This article will look into the key factors effecting your training outcomes and how sleep will influence each one.

 

When we isolate training from nutrition and focus only on getting the most out of the session when we step into the gym, we want to be feeling our best. However, a lack of sleep can drastically effect this. Concentration and motivation towards goals have been shown to significantly reduce in response to low levels of sleep. Whereas, anxiety and irritability have been shown to increase. When these factors are put into play in our daily lives, it will automatically make us enjoy training a lot less and not train at the same level as we potentially could do. Also, for most of the general population who are not fitness enthusiasts, this will be enough to make their attendance to the gym drop by large amounts which will then have the knock-on effect of preventing the gym from becoming a habit whereby attendance becomes second nature. That way, even when they do eventually catch up on sleep, they have to work hard again to try and make it become a habit. Training also increases muscle protein synthesis, the act of building new proteins (the building blocks of muscle tissue). However, lack of sleep actually blunts this response, resulting in less muscle being built each session. This links closely to nutrition which we will move onto now.

 

Nutrition provides the body will the fuel to execute training efficiently, as well as the nutrients needed to recover and grow. Adequate protein intake is required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and as mentioned above, lack of sleep blunts this response, instantly making your diet not as optimal as it could be. Next, a lack of sleep has been shown to trigger increased levels of ghrelin and decrease levels of leptin which leads to increased levels hunger and appetite. This is going to make it much more difficult for anyone looking to consistently eat within a caloric deficit each day to lose weight. However, when paired with the lack of interest towards goals, this can also be an issue for people looking to eat within a moderate calorie surplus to gain muscle. This is because if motivation towards goals are low, then this can result in more low-quality foods being eaten, leading to them feeling sluggish and potentially overeating if the foods they choose to eat are hyper-palatable, high calorie foods.

 

Overall, a lack of sleep can have both direct and indirect negative influences on the results you achieve when trying to change your body composition. Therefore, it should be a priority to achieve adequate sleep if you are serious about making significant changes to your health and fitness.

 

If you are struggling to get the right amount of sleep, it is worth looking at your sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the term used to describe environmental and behaviour practices used to enhance sleep quality and duration. There are a few factors that contribute to this. Firstly, if your lifestyle allows, a regular sleeping pattern will help your body maintain a healthy circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle) so your body will know when it’s time to sleep. Similarly, it can help to create a routine before bed to aid with this. However, this should not include any screen time, as screens decrease melatonin levels, the hormone which helps us to fall asleep. Therefore, consider relaxing activities which do not include a screen such as having a bath and reading. Next, we want to eliminate the effects of drugs that negative impact sleep. The two common drugs being used are alcohol and caffeine. The half-life of caffeine is approximately 5 hours. Therefore, if you consume a large energy drink (approximately 160mg of caffeine) at 5pm, there will still be 80mg of caffeine in your system at 10pm. Therefore, it’s important to consume your caffeine early in the day, a general rule is no later than 8 hours prior to bed but even earlier would be better. With alcohol, often people believe it helps sleep as they can fall to sleep more easily after consumption. However, it effects sleep quality, therefore limiting consumption to weekends will prevent evening glasses of wine from impacting your sleep in the week.

 

If this does not work, I would recommend seeing a specialist whereby they would analyse your individual case and work out the best method of treatment, potentially recommending certain supplements such as magnesium. Overall, I hope this article has helped inform you of the importance of sleep and how you should prioritise it, in order to aid you in reaching your health and fitness goals.

Load vs Rep Progression

 

 

Reference:

Plotkin et. al. (2022) Progressive Overload Without Progressing the Load? The Effects of Load or Repetition Progression on Muscular Adaptations. PERJ.

 

Details of the Study:

 

  • Trainees performed the same lower-body workout 2x per week for 8 weeks, taking all sets to failure.

 

  • One group lifted within the 8-12 rep range and attempted to increase the load over time, still sticking to this rep range.

 

  • The other group also lifted within the 8-12 rep range initially. However they aimed to perform more reps overtime whilst maintaining the same load.

 

Results:

 

  • It was found that both groups saw increases in muscle thickness of all muscles measured, with no notable trends favouring either condition.

 

  • Furthermore, changes in lean mass of the legs were similar between groups.

 

  • This supports the main know drivers of hypertrophy are mechanical tension and metabolic stress are both great for hypertrophy.

 

Real World Application:

  • This study suggests that progression via load or reps results in similar outcomes, as long as the set is taken to failure. Therefore, if muscle growth is the aim then proximity to failure should be prioritized.

 

  • Once you know you can train to failure successfully and it comes the decision to either up the weight or increase reps. Exercise execution is vital for all lifts and movements it would be useful to hire a personal trainer to coach you on exercise execution.

 

  • A useful strategy would be to perform your compound more mid range movements with the progression of load and your isolation movements towards the shortened and lengthened ranges of the muscle towards higher rep ranges.

Why you may not maintain adherence towards the gym.

Exercise has never been more accessible than it is today. In terms of weight training, most areas in the UK have several gyms for every budget, ranging from £20 per month commercial gyms, right up to country clubs that charge several hundreds of pounds per month. Regarding outdoor sports, there’s plenty of clubs and cycle routes out in public and running solo will always be completely free. Furthermore, exercise from home became massively popular during the COVID 19 Pandemic, with the use of Peloton Bikes, as well as free home-based circuit training on YouTube becoming increasingly popular.

 

Despite this high amount of accessibility, only 6 percent of UK males and 4 percent of females meet the Department of Health’s recommended levels for activity. Why might this be the case? Giving exercise a go in the first place is not so much of an issue. Hence the massive boom in gym memberships every January, as well as the huge purchase of home gym equipment in the pandemic. The main issue is with adherence to these changes to one’s lifestyle. The ability to adhere to a training programme will differ between individuals. However, I have chosen some very common factors which, when stuck to, will make it significantly easier to stick to a training programme.

 

Firstly, there’s enjoyment of the exercise itself. Choosing a form of exercise that you actually enjoy (or in some people’s case, find more tolerable than others), is crucial. Whether it be exercise, food, a hobby, a relationship or a job, if you do not enjoy it then you are not going to stick to it for long. One caveat is that your chosen exercise must align with your goals. For instance, if you want to put on muscle but only love running, then this will not work, you will need to be resistance training regularly. However, there is plenty of flexibility within this: you can choose high vs low reps, the addition of drop-sets, super-sets, rest-pause sets, giant sets etc. So, you can tailor your sessions around your own preferences.

 

 

Next, having high quality goals is key. We can follow the acronym SMARTER to create a high-quality goal. S stands for specific. For instance, we would change the goal ‘I want to be able to run faster’ to ‘I want to improve my 5k PB’. This way, we know to focus the training on 5k performance and not just a general running programme. M stands for measurable. This goal has already partly been made measurable by adding in 5k. However, we can make it even more measurable by saying ‘I want to improve my 5k PB from 25:30, to 23 minutes’. A stands for achievable and R stands for realistic. Having an overwhelming goal can be very disheartening. Wanting to improve your 5k PB from 25 minutes to 23 minutes is very realistic. However, wanting to improve it from 25 minutes to 14 minutes will be near impossible for the majority of people. T stands for Time Bound. You need to set an end date on this goal to help create urgency. An example being, I want to improve my 5k PB from 25 minutes to 23:30 in 3 months is a realistic, time bound goal for a relative novice. E stands for Evaluate. Your goal needs to be frequently evaluated, to see if your training needs to be adjusted part way through, in order to increase your chances of actually achieving the goal. R stands for recognise. You need to recognise the little wins along your way to your end goal and appreciate how far you have come on your journey. If your goal satisfies all these conditions, it should provide a clear and motivating target to aim for.

 

Finally, we need to look at the social aspect of training. Often in life we associate our enjoyment towards an activity closely with the relationships attached to it. For instance, plenty of people enjoy drinking in pubs, however how much they enjoy this activity is hugely dependant on the relationship they have with the people they go with and exercise is no different. If you find yourself unable to adhere to an exercise programme, choose a training partner who you enjoy spending time with. Furthermore, having a training partner gives the added bonus of accountability. If you have a time set to meet someone at the gym, this makes it a lot more likely to happen as opposed to you planning to go alone and then not really feeling like it when the time comes around.

 

Alternatively, you can kill several birds with one stone and hire a good quality personal trainer. This will not only create a positive social aspect to training once a strong relationship is built, they will also help you create effective SMARTER targets and work closely with you to formulate a training programme which aligns with your goals, involving sessions that you actually enjoy performing.

 

Overall, I hope this article has helped identify some key elements for you to focus on when embarking on changing your lifestyle for the better.

Does Strength Training Potentiate Hypertrophy?

Study Reference: Carvalho et. al. (2021) is stronger better? Influence of a strength phase followed by a hypertrophy phase on muscular adaptations in resistance trained men. RES SPORTS MED

 

Study Details:

 

  • Men with an average training age of 4-5 years in the gym performed 4 sets of squats and leg press training 3x per week for 8 weeks

 

  • One group lifted in the 8-12 rep range throughout the entire 8 week programme (hypertrophy only training)

 

  • The other group lifted in the 1-3 rep range for the first 3 weeks, before lifting in the 8-12 rep range for the remaining 5 weeks (strength and hypertrophy training)

 

  • After 3 weeks, the hypertrophy group saw greater quad growth compared to the strength + hypertrophy group- as expected.

 

  • However, at the end of the 8 weeks, the strength + hypertrophy group saw superior growth compared to the hypertrophy only group.

 

Real world Applications:

 

  • The study supports the idea that, if you want to maximise muscle growth, then including a short strength phase prior to a hypertrophy phase may be beneficial.

 

  • However, there are plenty of other studies that show that a strength phase prior to a hypertrophy block shows no additional benefits. Therefore, it’s important to note that more research is required before this becomes reliable.

 

The 4 Pillars of Nutrition: Calories, Macronutrients, Food Quality, Adherence.

If you don’t know of any great sources of information, learning about nutrition can be a minefield. On one hand, you have ultra-restrictive fad diets, such as ketogenic, juice cleanses and carnivore. On the other hand, you have Instagram fitness influencers telling you ‘ignore everything, just create a calorie deficit’ (which, even if it was enough to reach your goal, is hardly helpful advice in learning how to go about achieving that). Therefore, to try and condense nutritional advice into one article, without over-simplifying it to the point of misinformation, I have selected 4 pillars of nutrition. If these needs are met, then you have set up a nutritional protocol suitable for your goal.

 

Calories:

As mentioned above, there are plenty of people which believe it is as simple as calories in vs calories out. Although it is essential to know how many calories to intake to meet your goals, there is also plenty of negatives if you ignore every other aspect of nutrition. If you eat more calories than your calorie maintenance, then you have created a calorie surplus and will put on weight. If you eat less calories than your calorie maintenance, then you have created a calorie deficit and will lose weight. This provides a great starting point when creating any nutritional protocol.

 

However, only considering caloric intake does not account for macronutrients. If your diet lacks protein, then you will add less muscle than you could be during a calorie surplus and losing more muscle than you could be during a calorie deficit. It also does not account for food quality, possibly resulting in deficiencies in certain micronutrients. It also does not take into account adherence, often people adopt extremely low-calorie diets which they cannot stick to in the long term.

 

Macronutrients:

The 3 macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Adequate protein intake is required to maximise muscle retention in a calorie deficit and muscle gain (hypertrophy) in a calorie surplus. Protein requirements will change between training goals, however having an intake above 1.6g per kg of bodyweight will suffice for most goals.

 

Glycogen is the body’s chosen source of energy. Having adequate carbohydrate intake in our diet will keep glycogen stores full, resulting in higher quality of training. Fats have assist with many functions in the body and is also another source of energy, as well as the absorption of nutrients. Keeping fats at approximately 30% of total caloric intake should ensure you are in taking all that you need.

 

If you succeed in selecting the correct calorie intake and macronutrient breakdown, you will start to make significant progress towards body composition goals. The downside to only focussing on calories and macronutrients is that food quality can still suffer. Also, you may still set up a diet which is not adhereable for you.

 

Food Quality:

Broadly speaking, food quality refers to how nutrient dense the food is. For example, vegetables have a vast number of micronutrients in each and every serving. Therefore, vegetables would be classed as a high-quality food. On the contrary, alcohol has virtually no nutrients in each serving, as well as containing 7kcal per gram (almost double the calories than protein and carbohydrates, which have 4kcal per gram). Therefore, alcohol would be classified as a low-quality food.

 

Food quality is important, as people can still hit their macronutrients and calorie target whilst consuming several takeaways and overconsuming alcohol. The issue with this, is that they can end up with deficiencies in several vitamins and minerals. This can lead to increased chance of illness and disease. Therefore, I would recommend filling your diet with as many high-quality foods as you deem adhereable.

 

Adherence:

The last piece of the puzzle is adherence. When many people change their diets they almost never make changes which they can stick to for the rest of their life. This way, they are only setting themselves up to eventually fail. Therefore, it is important to only make changes which do not overwhelm you in anyway. A good personal trainer or nutritionist will assess the level that you should begin with and progress you as you are learning and adhering to the skills and habits that you are able to keep consistent.  If you are going to stick to a diet long term, then a level of enjoyment is paramount to success.

 

In conclusion, these 4 pillars of nutrition cover most you need to know to generally stay healthy and meet most of your goals. There will be certain exceptions for individuals with special dietary requirements, if you feel like you are one of them, then it would be best to consult with a qualified nutritionist.

 

Is Inter-set stretching beneficial for Hypertrophy?

Reference to Study: Van Every et. al. (2022). Loaded inter-set stretch may selective enhance muscular adaptations of the Plantar Flexors. PLOS ONE.

 

Details of the study:

 

  • Trainees performed 4 sets of straight-leg calf raises on the leg press machine, and 4 sets of seated calf raises, 2x per week for 8 weeks

 

  • One leg was trained using a traditional 2 min passive rest between sets (traditional)

 

  • The other leg was trained by implementing a 20 second loaded stretch immediately after each set, before resting for another passive 100 seconds (inter-set stretching)

 

  • Inter-set stretching was performed using the load of the machine during the stretch.

 

  • It was found that both legs saw similar growth for all calf muscles.

 

  • However, there was a trend that the leg implementing loaded stretching saw slightly superior growth of all muscles- but only reached statistical significance for the soleus.

 

 

Real world Application:

  • Due to the mainly insignificant findings, there isn’t really anything that should be implemented into real world training. However due point 6 above, it is likely further research may later support the use of inter-set stretching. Therefore, if someone wanted to start implementing it now, it may be beneficial.

Are Eccentrics more important for Hypertrophy?

Reference to Study: Sato et. al. (2022). Comparison between concentric-only, eccentric-only and concentric-eccentric resistance training of the elbow flexors for their effects on muscle strength and hypertrophy. EUR J APPL PHYSIOL

 

Details of the Study:

 

  • Trainees performed 3×10 bicep curls 2x per week for 5 weeks

 

  • 1 group only performed the concentric portion, another group only performed the eccentric portion and the last group performed both concentric and eccentric portions of the bicep curl.

 

  • Note: The total volume load (weight x number of contractions) was double for the concentric+eccentric group.

 

  • Despite this difference in load, it was found that biceps growth was similar between the concentric+eccentric group & the eccentric only group, whilst the concentric only group saw significantly less group.

 

  • Therefore, the study supports the idea that the eccentric portion of the contraction is more important for growth

 

 

Real world application:

  • Many people chasing muscle growth often rush the eccentric portion of lifts, allowing gravity to take the weight down instead of keeping the muscle under as much tension as they could to control the weight. Therefore, this study is part of the growing evidence why this is highly suboptimal for their training goal.

Benefits of a protein rich diet

When people think about high protein diets, the only thought that may come to mind are your typical huge men in the free weights section walking round with a shaker cup and a stringer top. However, the benefits of a high protein diet go way beyond aiding muscle growth. This article will explore several reasons why a high protein diet can be beneficial for everybody.

 

Firstly, having adequate protein intake will elevate muscle protein synthesis. The benefits of this do include muscle growth for those wanting hypertrophy.

However, it’s also particularly important for anyone over 35 years old. This is because once we reach 35 years old we experience sarcopenia. This can be defined as a natural loss of muscle mass by amount 1% per year. This can be combatted by adequate protein intake and regular resistance training. Starting a high protein diet and regular resistance training younger can have huge benefits in later life. Having a larger amount of muscle mass in old age can help someone keep their independence by allowing them walk without a zimmer frame, climb stairs without a stair lift, and go to the toilet unassisted by a carer. Furthermore, elevated levels of muscle protein synthesis are going to aid the recovery process of any form of physical activity. A common myth is that endurance athletes won’t massively benefit from a high protein diet. However, adequate protein intake helps recovery from all forms of exercise. This is because proteins are the building blocks of muscle tissue. Therefore, stimulating their production (muscle protein synthesis) is going to drastically enhance their recovery.

 

Another benefit of a high protein diet is for bone health. There’s a myth that high protein intake can lead to losses of calcium, and therefore bone density. However, this is not the case as high protein diets have actually been shown to increase bone density. This is going to have benefits to everyone. However, the two populations that will benefit most from this will be the elderly and athletes who participate in impact sports. The elderly is more prone to falls, this means having good bone density is going to be essential in ensuring any injury that is caused is not something which is going to be long term, and something that can contribute to a loss of independence for the rest of their life. This particularly holds true for breaks in the pelvis, as its common for elderly people to not fully recover from this, making walking painful. As a result, they only walk when they absolutely have to, drastically reducing their physical activity levels which, in turn, takes years off their life via accelerated decline of their cardiovascular health.

 

Alternatively, athletes who participate in impact sports are going to have to have bones that can withstand high levels of contact in order to stay injury free. The higher the level of competitor, the more important this will be as higher-level athletes will train more and therefore have to withstand impact more often. Furthermore, higher level athletes may also get paid for performing, meaning that any injury is going to affect their earnings throughout their career. However, if the athlete is already injured, a high protein diet can help accelerate the recovery of the injured tissue. Meaning, that a high protein diet has its place in the prevention and rehabilitation of injuries in sport. It’s also suitable for an injured athlete to replace a given amount of carbohydrates with some more protein, as they will be training less so energy demand is lower.

 

A high protein diet is also essential for anyone trying to lose body fat. Firstly, due to its effects on muscle growth/retention mentioned above, which enhances fat loss in a calorie deficit. Secondly, it provides a higher level of satiety compared with the two other macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats). This will result in less cravings for snacks between meals, making it much easier to achieve a consistent calorie deficit on a daily basis. Lastly, digesting food requires the use of calories, this is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). Protein has a higher level of TEF compared with the two other macronutrients, providing a further benefit to help one achieve a calorie deficit.

 

Overall, I hope these reasons show you how a high protein diet can provide a whole host of benefits to anyone from any sub-section of the population, from the most sedentary of individuals right up to elite athletes. Also, from young children, right up to adults in their elderly years. The ideal way to ensure you are getting enough protein would be to base your meals around a varying your protein source. Some common examples would be eggs for breakfast, chicken for lunch and fish for tea. Each protein source is going to differ in calories so it’s important that you track protein alongside your caloric intake so that your nutrition is in line with your goals.