Goals, which by my definition must be specific and must have a time parameter, are great, but in my experience few people come to the gym with an actual goal. Instead I have found most people show up to the gym with an idea.
The idea being an "in shape" self, which for most people means looking decent in a bathing suit, having the stamina to tackle the office stairs without being winded, and having the strength move everyday objects with a low perceived rate of exertion.
Or in my terms "be more human."
This means that for most people just about any style of training is going to get them to where they want to be and any progress in any physical capacity is progress towards the goal.
In simpler terms most people know where point A is, but don't exactly know where point B is they just know they are tired of fucking being at point A.
Then how do you know when you stop being at point A and you are making progress towards the fitter you?
I can think of 6 ways you can identify and "measure" progress.
1. Increased load
You can move heavier stuff around then when you started.
This is simply accomplished by attempting to lift heavier and heavier weights over successive training sessions.
2. Increased range of motion
This means instead of having to stop at parallel in the squat you can now squat with the hips below the knees while maintaining technique.
3. Increased number of repetitions completed
Instead of doing 12 reps of overhead presses with 20 pounds you can now do 15 reps with 20 pounds.
4. Increased movement complexity
This would be like moving from a trap bar deadlift to a conventional deadlift as your hinge movement.
5. Increased work capacity
Being able to get the same amount of work done in less time, more work down in the same amount of time, or more work in less time.
6. Improved quality of movement
This would be akin to the difference between the first time you attempted to back squat when you were shaky, hesitant, and every rep appeared as if you were going to spontaneously combust and the 10th time you attempted back squatting when everything appeared in sync and graceful.
All these give you an opportunity to see and measure your progress as you get started towards being "in better shape." You may come to find that you develop a goal that is more specific and can be better measured by one of these areas alone, but keep in mind that if you don't make progress in that one area you may still have made progress in another.
Why does being able to measure progress matter?
Because for most if you can't see that you are getting anything out of the time and effort you are investing you will likely stop putting forth the time and effort.
Also it is important to remember that these areas are somewhat related and that progression in one may lead to slight regression in another. For example if you increase the load in your deadlift (progress) the movement quality of your deadlift may take a slight dip as well as the number of repetitions you have been doing. It is because of this that I often recommend focusing on one area above all others over a certain amount of time and then switching to another because often times you don't always get progress in all six at the same rate or magnitude.
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training