Dear Diary, I Kicked Butt in the Gym Today!

Pop Quiz time.  When you last lifted, how much weight did you lift, and how many reps did you perform, on your third exercise?  Don’t worry, this quiz is an open notebook.  I’ll give you time to go get your workout journal.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  What?  You don’t have one?!  Oh.

Before you start feeling like I’m gonna admonish you for not recording your works, know that I’m not beyond reproach.  I’m sometimes guilty of not recording my workouts either.  And you know what happens in the workouts immediately following those workouts I don’t record?  Not as much “good” than when I do record, that’s what.

One of the most important factors for making [muscle] gains or [fat] losses in the weight room is something called progressive overload.  I don’t want to sound too sciency (that’s my way of saying I’m incapable of sounding too sciency), but progressive overload basically means this: when you put your body under stress, as in weightlifting, your body is forced to adapt to the newer, heavier stimulus, ultimately leading to greater strength gains.

The thing about it is, your body doesn’t really like progressive overload.  Progressive overload is hard; uncomfortable.  Your body needs it, it just doesn’t like it.  So what does this have to with keeping a journal?

Have you ever had a day in the gym where you just absolutely destroyed it?  I mean, you were just so motivated, and hit it so hard, that there was no weight too heavy, no rest period too short, and no rep too many?  I have, and it’s awesome!

Now, have you ever had a day where you were anything but motivated?  Heck, it’s a wonder you even made it to the gym?  And when you were there, did you just kinda go through the motions, grabbing whatever weight you felt like grabbing, stopping well short of anything resembling fatigue?  I have had those days, and they suck.

That’s the beauty, benefit, and importance of keeping a journal.  Regardless of how you feel, numbers don’t lie.

One thing I try to do in my own training is to do a little bit more, a little bit better, each time I’m in the gym.  I wanna lift one more pound, or do one more rep, or do it a little bit better than the last time.  If I rely on my memory or my feelings, it’s not happening.  But a journal won’t let me cheat.

Even if I’m unmotivated or I don’t feel like lifting a certain weight a certain number of times, if my journal says I can, I do.

I’m making my journal sound like a real disciplinarian, and it can be.  But it is also an encourager and an advisor.  It’s not just saying, “Come on, you!  I don’t care how you feel!  You did it last time!”  It also says, “Come on.  I know how you feel, but you can do this.  Remember, you did this last time.”  To which I respond, “Yeah, you’re right!  I did do this last time!  Thanks, journal, you’re the best!” [Fist bump journal.]

Ultimately, a journal keeps me from lifting the same weight for the same number of reps for days, weeks, or months on end.  It helps me to progressively overload my muscles so that my body will adapt to the newer, heavier stimulus, leading to the gains (of muscle and strength) and losses (of body fat) I desire.

So, now that you see the benefit and importance of keeping a journal.  What does it look like?  Ultimately you wanna make your journal your own, but there are a few things that I think are important enough to keep in mind, which I’m happy to share with you here.

Day, date, and time – Is the day really that important?  No, but the date is.  And why not have a record of what day August 3, 2017, was?  Why’s the date important.  Well, when you look back at your old journal you’ll have an accurate record of how far you’ve come.  And that’s pretty awesome.  As for time, you may find over the course of several workouts that you miss more workouts when you wait until after work to work out.  Or you may discover that you’re your strongest around noon.  From that, you may wanna start scheduling your workouts at that time.

Exercises performed – Whether you’re following a specific pre-designed program (which is what I do almost exclusively, and highly recommend) or you’re just doing a potpourri of exercises, make sure you’ve got some sort of plan for that day’s workout.  I’m tempted to share what exercises I think should make your list, but that’s a post for another time.  For now, if you wanna fill a notebook page with biceps exercises, do it.  Just write them down.

Training variables (trainer speak for sets, reps, weight, and rest) – How many sets will/did you perform?  For how many reps?  What weight will/did you use?  How long will/did you rest between sets?  Differing these variables can and will elicit different results.  Someone wanting to maximize fat loss will train differently than someone wanting to maximize his or her strength.  Likewise, someone interested in becoming a faster runner will train differently than someone interested in competing in a fitness competition.

Notes – This basically means whatever else you wanna put down.  I’ll make note if something hurts or is a little “tweaky”.  I also make notes of exercises or movements that felt relatively easy (yay!) or unusually hard (boo!).  I may tell myself, “Attaboy!”, or tell myself to focus.

Lastly, I typically leave space at the bottom of the page to answer these four questions.

  1. Am I “a little outta breath?”
  2. Am I “sweaty?”
  3. Am I “kinda shaky?”
  4. Am I “on?”  (“On” means, was I focused, in the zone, or was my head right?)

If I answer yes to these four, high five.  If not, I look at my journal to see what I could do differently next workout.  Go heavier?  Shorter rest period?  Work of my form on a particular exercise?  There’s always something.

So, that’s what I put in my journal.  Over the years my workout journals have changed.  I’ve used spiral notebooks, notepads, workout cards, my smartphone, and, ashamedly, nothing.  (I honestly think that if I would be, or had been, more consistent in my journaling, I’d be farther along than I am.)   I just came out of a smartphone phase, specifically Evernote, and have returned to using an old school pen and notepad.

As for what goes in my journal, that too has changed.  Perhaps you can begin with what I’ve suggested and tweak it as you go along.  You may find that it’s more than you need.  You may find yourself saying, “I wish I had recorded _____ last time.”  Put _____ in there this time.

If you’re new to strength training, new to keeping a workout journal, or have just been going through the motions with little to no direction, I recommend a few options.

First, do a web search for workouts about your goal.  Many times, these are proven programs and will take the guesswork outta which exercises to perform and include the recommended training variables.

Second, create a list of one or two exercises you feel competent performing for each of the major muscle groups (chest, back, shoulders, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and abdomen) and perform three sets of each exercise for ten reps.  Choose a weight that will elicit muscular fatigue on your third and final set.  Its effectiveness will far exceed its simplicity.

Third, get with me or another certified personal trainer that will design a program specific to your wants and needs.  And him or her to keep a record of what you’re doing.

I’m hopeful you now understand the importance of recording your workouts, and how to do it.  Remember, what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get managed (or mastered).