Keeping a Workout Journal

A workout journal is one of the most important tools for ensuring forward progress and results in your training and dieting efforts. A well done journal is a gold mine for figuring out exactly why you have or have not been making progress, learning what works for you as an individual, and planning future programs. It’s also a ton of fun to look back on your journal in a year or two and be blown away by the amount of work/weight you were doing previously compared to what you can do now.

Here are the essential elements of a good workout journal:

Date

Session rating

Exercise/sets/reps/weight used

A way to make personal records stand out

Workout notes and comments

The more detailed your workout log is, the more information you can mine from it later. However, it’s much better to simply scribble down the date, session rating, and weights used with no comments or anything special if it means that you’ll be consistent in keeping the journal. If it takes too long to write and becomes a chore, then you will quickly stop keeping it and won’t be able to take advantage of the benefits. Start simple with just the basics and record more if you feel like it or find you need more information.

The date is kept because it’s important to see how frequently you are actually training. Many people are on a “3 day per week program” but if they write down when they actually go to the gym, they quickly realize that their program is actually a “3 time per two week” program. Once you’ve been keeping a journal for a while it’s also fun to look back and see what you did that day the previous year.

The session rating can be something like “felt great” or “felt awful” but I prefer a simple rating out of 10. Average days should be around an 8/10 and this lets you be a bit more specific about just how bad or great your day was. It doesn’t really matter how you rate your day, as long as its easy to keep track of and you do it consistently. A great day should be 9/10 and a a 10/10 day should be reserved for a lifetime best effort.

The purpose of this is to see patterns in your training, how you feel, how you’re recovering between workouts, and ensure further progress. If you’re having tons of sub 8/10 days in a row, it’s probably time to rethink your training, take a little bit of time off, focus on stretching, recovering and eating, or figure out what’s causing you to feel terrible all the time. It’s also easy to see if you’re fulfilling the principle of progressive overload by consistently hitting personal bests and pushing your limits.

The next part – Exercise/sets/reps/weight used – is the meat and potatoes of the journal. This is where you track everything you do and can see your personal bests rise. The format I like to use is exercise name – weight x sets x reps. For example Bench press – 225x5x8 would mean 5 sets of 8 reps at 225 lbs. To keep track of personal records simply highlight them, box them off, draw stars, or somehow make them obvious when you’re quickly flipping back through your journal. I write PR in the margin and circle it a bunch of times.

Here’s a full sample workout journal –

4/7/2016 – Rating: 9+

Warmup –

Jump rope 2×100 reps

Agile 8

Shoulder dislocate stretch – 2×20 reps

Hang cleans – 135×8, 185×5,5,5, 205×5,3,3

2 dumbbell overhead press – 55×5, 65×5, 75×5, 85×5, 90×3

1-arm dumbbell row – 80×10, 90×10, 100×10, 140x16L/14R — PR!!!

Weighted decline situps – 25lbs 2×20

Neck bridges – 1 min x 2 sets

Grip – forearm roller 2 sets

Notes – Felt awesome, hit a huge PR on 1 arm dumbbell rows and hit a nice triple on my overhead press. Had a slight twinge in my shoulder on some of my warmup sets but it went away by the end. Make sure to hit the pecs, traps, and shoulders with lacrosse ball tonight. Finished this workout in 45 minutes.

 

I recommend all of my clients keep a detailed workout journal and look back at it frequently.

Health and Fitness Basics – Tier 1

When it comes to training and nutrition, everyone seems to get all hung up on details that really don’t matter that much. Let’s take a look at what really matters. If you’re not doing all of these things, then don’t waste your time with the details until you are.

  • Sleep at least 8 hours per night.
  • Drink half your body weight in ounces of water per day – or even simpler, drink a gallon of water per day.
  • Train hard 2x per week, minimum… consistently for a long period of time (more than a few months).
  • Use some sort of system of progression in your training.
  • Get enough protein to support said hard training (1g/lb of body weight is good for most hard training people. You can get away with less but protein is delicious so eat it.)
  • Weigh yourself 1-2 times per week to know if your calories are where they need to be.
  • Do enough stretching and low level activity (walking, etc.) to stay healthy, mobile, and injury free.
  • Have a goal that matters to you.

This is a bare minimum kind of list, but pretty much everyone is lacking in AT LEAST one area.

This stuff is not negotiable if you want to make progress. If you’re doing it all “pretty well” and not making progress then strive to do it better.

If you’re doing all of it and not making progress, then we can talk about how you’re lying to yourself.

Common areas of lying that might not be as obvious as under sleeping and dehydration are how hard you’re actually training, how much you’re actually eating (both protein and calories), and how much your goal really matters to you.

All of the things on this list are ridiculously simple, but unfortunately in this time of fitness click bait and brand marketing, this stuff is up for debate. So, I’ll go into a bit more detail on each of the points to hopefully clarify any questions. Many of these deserve their own post, so this will be a high level overview of each.

Sleep –

Sleep is incredibly important. If you aren’t getting 8+ hours and don’t believe me, then do some googling or better yet try it for yourself and see what happens to your results when you sleep enough to recover, build muscle, and burn fat optimally. Your mood will improve, your body composition will improve, your energy will improve, and you will feel awesome. If I just wrote that last sentence about a supplement and said it is completely guaranteed to work, I’d ask you for 49.99 a bottle and you’d happily shell it out. You’d probably question if it’s legal. Not only does this work 100% of the time and deliver everything promised… it’s also free. The only catch is you actually have to do it. For some reason our culture vilifies sleep as something unproductive, and having a bad night’s sleep is like a badge of honor, an excuse for poor performance, and a talking point all wrapped in one. If you’re serious about getting results start taking your sleep seriously.

Hydration-

Drink half your body weight in ounces per day (200 lb person drinks 100 oz of water). If you drink a gallon you’re pretty much covered. Hydration deserves it’s own post.

Training Frequency –

Train twice a week, minimum, and do it consistently. Consistency is key. Make fitness a priority and make a habit of destroying excuses. The more often you make yourself go train when you don’t want to, the easier it gets. This is why clients who are serious but love excuses get put on a 7 day a week program. After a few days of this you really REALLY don’t want to exercise, but after a few weeks of making yourself it becomes no big deal, habit replaces willpower, and consistency becomes a non-issue.

Progression and Effort-

I want to leave most of this for another post, but this is the key that most people are missing. Do more reps, more weight, or decrease the time to do the same reps and weight. Do this as often as you can.

If you think you’re training hard but you never feel sore at all, you’re not sweating, and not making yourself uncomfortable… then you’re probably not training all that hard. Don’t sell yourself short. You can do more than you think is possible if you allow yourself to and believe in your ability to do better each day. This doesn’t mean you have to crush yourself every workout and hobble up stairs for the rest of your life, but put in an honest effort.

Nutrition –

If you have no idea how many calories you’re eating or how much protein you’re getting then this stuff can make a massive difference. You don’t have to weigh your food, but check out this simple guide from precision nutrition about portion sizes and make sure you’re getting enough protein. This doesn’t have to come from meat if you don’t like eating meat, but do your research and make sure you’re getting what you need. Counting calories is annoying, but it can be very helpful for some people. If you’re not into it, then use the scale to determine your calories. If the scale is moving up, you’re in a surplus. If it’s moving down, you’re in a deficit. If it fluctuates a bit but pretty much hovers in the same range, then you’re at maintenance. For accuracy and ease of comparison, weigh yourself at the same time of day on the same day 2x per week. Improving nutrition is the first area I’d look at if everything else is taken care of.

Health –

Stretch and walk enough to maintain or improve mobility and health. Walking is ridiculously healthy for you so make it a habit. Stretching can be done whenever you will do it. I like to have people do it after a workout, but any time it will get done is the best time. Pretty much everyone can benefit from some foam rolling, mobility work, stretching, walking, stress management and health maintenance.

Goals –

Be honest with yourself about what you want. Goals give you context for choosing exercises, progression models, nutrition plans, workout frequency, and everything else. One of the main reasons people get so caught up in details is they have no grasp of context because they have no goals to provide it. Make your goals for yourself. I’ve rarely ever seen anybody get into great shape because someone else wanted them to. Pick a goal that resonates with you and motivates you to do all the boring stuff I outline in this article.

If you do everything on this list, then you can be quite confident that you’ll reach your goals and the minutiae naturally falls away. There’s absolutely other stuff that’s worth worrying about and that can be very helpful, but unless these basics are addressed it’s not even worth mentioning. So many people hear this basic advice and don’t take it seriously because they’ve heard it all a million times. All I can say is make the effort to actually do it and you’ll be amazed at what happens.