This one’s pretty short, but I’ll give you a highlight anyways:
If you want your training to actually get you somewhere, you’ll be well-served to keep a training journal. Just try it for a couple of months. See below for tips!
You just got to the gym with your bro. You’ve got your beats, you’ve got your gear, and the preworkout is tearing through your veins with the energy of a thousand Mexican jumping beans. Something is about to get torn up, and as the free weights come into view and you see an empty bench with your name on it, your bullseye settles.
You and Broseph McBrodenheimer shuffle through your customary warm up before he asks you the customary question, “How much you want on there, Brochacho?”
“Umm,” you reply, thinking back to last week’s session, “like 205, I think… Because I did like 200 last week. Or wait, no… I guess it was 205. No, wait. I think it was 195… Wait, how much is it if we have plates and 35s on there?”
Eventually, a conclusion is reached: “Ah, screw it. Let’s just do 205. It probably doesn’t matter anyways.” “God,” you think, “that took long enough.”
“Right on, Brohan,” Broseph replies, “so how many sets do we want to do today?”
[Repeat uncertainty song and dance and arrive at similar conclusion]
What are You Trying to Say, Bro?
That probably came off sounding pretty condescending (I guess it kind of was), but I have a point here—one that is simple enough that it’s kind of boring to point out, but here it is:
It’s a lot easier to remember what you’ve done (or what you want to do) if you’ve written it down.
Why does this matter? Well, in a simplistic nutshell, because making consistent improvements over time requires one to make progress (again, over time) and do more than they have in the past. Of course, in reality, things become slightly more nuanced when we consider things like de- and re-sensitization to certain kinds of training stimuli, but basically, you need to push yourself to new places to achieve new results, and this becomes more difficult to track, evaluate, and plan for if you don’t even know what you were doing/could do a couple years, a couple months, or even a couple weeks ago.
Is that to say that physically documenting your training is a hard-set requirement to ever achieve progress? No; of course not. I’ll admit two things right off the bat: 1) yes, some lifters (usually ones who have a lot of experience and approach their training systematically) can keep their numbers pretty well organized in their heads, and 2) there are plenty of lifters out there that make pretty awesome progress by just going in with a “I’m gonna crush it” attitude and not really bothering to write stuff down or even keep close track of what they’re doing. These things do happen.
But, in counter to those admissions: 1) even those lifters that can keep decent track of these things in their heads could almost certainly keep better track with a journal, and 2) just because someone managed to do something one way doesn’t mean that it was necessarily the best or easiest way they could have done that thing, or that doing things that way will work particularly well for everyone else.
Plus, in addition to every other compelling reason there is to start keeping a training journal, here’s one more thing to consider:
It’s super-freaking easy to do.
At first, it might seem annoying or time consuming, but when you consider that the rest of your time at the gym is (hopefully) spent exerting yourself somewhere in the vicinity of your voluntary limits, putting pen to paper (or thumb to phone or what have you) doesn’t really seem like such a demanding thing to do in between sets.
And did I mention that it’s super helpful to actually making progress and not spinning your wheels?
How do I Journal and Stuff?
So, now that I’ve totally sold you (right? riiight?) on trying this whole training journal thing out, let’s talk about what you might want to actually write down in said training journal.
Journaling your training can be as detailed or as basic a process as you want it to be, but a good place to start is recording the date, the exercises you did on that day, and the number of sets and reps you did for each exercise as well as the weights you were using. While I’m always a little hesitant to recommend this for reasons outside the scope of this article, body weight is also a decent one to put in there, especially if you are actively trying to cut fat or build muscle (just be careful about placing too much stock in your scale weight, as it can be…misleading in a variety of manners that I will discuss some other time).
As for how you record this data, there are several options available, with the three most common categories being on the phone with training log apps, on the computer with Excel or some other spreadsheet software, or on good ol’ paper with, you know, pen or whatever.
Personally, I highly prefer keeping my records with pen and paper, mostly for a 1-2 combo of reasons: 1) I like (and recommend) actually recording numbers in between sets rather than at the end of a workout, and 2) I really dislike using my phone when I’m working out (not out of principle like some might think but rather because I’m normally pouring sweat and sporting dirty gym hands).
If you highly prefer using an app or a spreadsheet, that’s fine! I would, however, still recommend trying to record your workout either during or immediately after. A lot of people have an aversion to carrying a journal around with them in the gym. I don’t say these kinds of things often, but I think that these people will be well served by simply sucking it up for a week or two. Try it out; you’ll quickly realize it’s not such a big deal. Don’t worry about what that guy who’s been squatting 3 x 10 with 185 lbs every week for the past five years thinks; you’ve got your journal—your little collection of paper and ink that will actually help you get better—and to me that doesn’t seem like something to be annoyed by or embarrassed about.
Conventions and Such
When it comes to actually recording the data, you want to be consistent and systematic with how you do it so that you can look back sometime in the future and not be confused by what you actually did way back when. For instance, if you record 5 sets of 7 reps as 5×7 one day and then as 7×5 the next week, when you look back on it a year later, you probably won’t be super clear that both of those days involved 5 sets of 7 reps. Consistency is the way to avoid this kind of confusion.
The standard convention for this above example is sets x reps (5×7 in the example above). If I’m doing a strictly selected number of reps for a certain number of sets, I like to use this notation and add the weight at the end after an “@”. For instance, 5×5 @ 400 lbs.
If, however, the number of reps I’m doing (or the weight I’m using) is changing from set to set, I prefer to record each set individually using the notation reps/weight (e.g. 5/400 lbs; see example below where I did 6 sets of 3 with varying weights on the squat).
Additionally, throughout the years, I’ve adopted a few notations to indicate things like supersets (brackets connecting the exercises), drop sets (using dashes to make multiple rep/weight entries in a single set; see below), etc. Symbols work great here, but if you are using a spreadsheet, you might experiment with something like color-coding cells to represent these kinds of things.
As you log more and more sessions in your journal, you’ll probably begin to establish your own system of conventions based on what makes the most sense to you and what seems easiest. This is great! There really isn’t any “right” or “wrong” here; just find what works for you and stick to it. Allow your system to evolve over time as needed.
If you want to work up to making it a common practice to keep notes in your training journal about how you are feeling each day, what you ate before training, how you slept the night before, and so on, knock yourself out! The more details you take note of in your journal, the more data you will have to identify patterns when you look back at your records. However, as per usual, I definitely recommend just starting off with the basics (date, possibly body weight, and basic info on exercises, sets/reps completed, and weight used) and sticking with that until it is a well engrained habit.
Wait… That’s It?
Believe it or not, that’s about all I have to say about training journals (at least for now). Those of you who read much of my work know that it often goes in depth, dare I say to the point of becoming long-winded, but here’s the thing about training journals:
They’re simple. Simple, yet very worthwhile if you are interested in making progress in your fitness endeavors, whatever they may be.
The same can be said about food logs, but that is probably a topic for another article (also, with the advent of things like MyFitnessPal, food logging has become tremendously easy, so the question becomes more what to eat and how to accurately measure portions rather than how to actually record the data).
If you guys have thoughts or questions about training journals or suggestions for what you’d like me to write about next, let me know in the comments below or through social media, etc.
As always, thanks a lot for reading, everyone! I always enjoy sharing what I’ve learned. If you guys enjoy reading it, please pass it on to your friends or anyone else you think might benefit from this stuff. Cheers!
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