Do you use a training log? Having a piece of paper with all the exercises, reps and sets you’ll be doing that day is good, but it’s not a training log.
For that modest little piece of paper to be upgraded in status to a mighty training log, you need to record things in it every time you train.
It should be mercilessly lashed with lead and ink; dates, times, poundages, were you well rested or not, did anything hurt, and what feels great, in addition to exercises, reps and sets.
Not nearly enough people make this extra effort. I know this because I’ve spent many hours in gyms over the past 20 years and rarely see it being done. Let me tell you why you need a training log and how it puts you ahead of the pack.
Why you need a training log
1. Track Your Weights
Yea, this one’s obvious and you probably have a rough idea of the weights you generally use for certain exercises. But memories can get fuzzy and if you want to make real progress it helps to be clear on all the details.
You may remember the weight you used last week but how many reps did you get? Where you able to get it for 2 sets last week instead of 1? What if the last time you did that weight was 6 months ago? Was it a super-set or by itself?
You can also make notes for the following week…if you should back off the weight or go up faster depending on how challenging it was.
2. Start and Finish Times
Tracking the amount of time you spend on each training day helps in several ways:
- Keeps you aware of the time so you are less likely to waste it.
- Knowing how long your training session took last week helps you better plan your day around it this week. I can’t tell you how many days there have been that I was not in the mood to hit the gym, but my training log for the previous week said the session only took me 39 minutes and I thought, “Move fast enough and you could be done in 35 minutes today. Now get up.”
- Reducing the amount of time it takes you to complete the same work you did the previous week means that you’re in better condition. You need to record your start and finish times to know.
3. Spot training imbalances
I’ve discussed how there are 7 fundamental movement patterns and in order to keep your body balanced and able to perform a variety of tasks well, you need to develop them all. An example is tracking your push pull ratio like I discussed in last week’s post.
We also have exercises that we love to perform because we’re good at them. On the flip side, there are exercises that we don’t really love so much because they feel awkward and we kinda suck at them. Well, if there are exercises and therefore movements we find difficult, then that will translate to everyday activities we find difficult or may avoid doing altogether.
If you use a training log it will become obvious which movements they are and they can then be properly addressed. First, you will find an easier version of the exercise to do (keep an eye out the next few weeks, I’ll give you systems for figuring this out). When you get good at it, you can then move on to a slightly harder progression, and so on.
4. notice patterns about when and why things hurt
Whenever something feels weird, shitty or just plain hurts, I write it down. I describe what I felt, where I felt it and what I was doing when I felt it.
Over time, I begin getting a clearer idea of what might be causing what I feel. I then test stretches and exercises to see if they help me feel better. If I can’t fix it on my own I’ll take this information to my chiropractor or Rolfer.
On this particular training day in the photo above, I felt this strange nerve tingle down my left arm when carrying 45 lb. plates. I figured something was pressing on a nerve because of how I was holding the weight but wasn’t sure what to do about it. My Rolfer, Richard Condon, looked at my posture, tested my elbow extension and thought it might be my bicep.
The bicep tendon attaches to the shoulder blade, which in turn attaches to the clavicle. If the bicep is too tight while I carry heavy plates at my side it can pull the clavicle down causing nerve entrapment. He released the tension in my bicep and the problem disappeared. You better believe I put that in my training log to remember for the future.
5. understand what works and what doesn’t
A few years ago I trained for a Super Spartan Race that was about 9 miles long. I don’t think of myself as much of a runner seeing as I don’t really enjoy running for more than a 30 seconds at a time. So I put together a program that focused on density strength training and sprinting.
In case you’re not familiar with what density training is, there are many ways you can structure a density program but here’s a piece of one of my days. I’d find a squat rack that had a pull-up bar on it. After warming up, I’d load the bar with about 65% of my 1 rep max weight, set a timer for 20 minutes and hit start.
After doing 5 reps of back squats I immediately perform 2 pull-ups and then go right back to the squats without any rest. I keep going at this non-stop pace until the timer goes off 20 minutes later. I keep track of how many sets I’ve done, multiply it by 5 reps and 2 reps, and then record my total number of reps for each exercise.
The following week I did sets of 6 and 3 reps, trying to get more total reps completed than the previous week. This training method gives me the same cardiovascular benefits of running but builds a lot more strength.
Anyway, the program worked very well for me and I will certainly use it again for future races. And because I have a training log with all my notes, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel from memory years later.
On the flip side, I’ve also had programs that I thought would be great but ended up overtraining me because they did too much, too often. When I want to try a similar program in the future, I’ll look at my notes and make adjustments so I don’t make the same mistakes all over again.
Not only do you get to record what types of training programs work best for you but you can also take notes on dietary changes.
This photo shows a day when I was 4 weeks into experimenting with a Ketogenic Diet. I recorded what I ate, exactly when I ate it and how it effected the ketones in my urine. I must have been feeling pretty good that day because apparently I ran home for a quickie at 1 pm. Good to know.
6. Working Out vs training
I’ve discussed the difference between working out and training before, but to summarize I have a little metaphor for you.
Working out is like taking your convertible out for a drive on a summer night. You have a general idea of where you’d like to go but nowhere specific in mind. Head towards the beach, maybe drive down the strip…you’ll see what feels good when you get there.
Many people have the same approach at the gym. They have an idea of what they want to do but no specific plan, and that’s fine for some people.
Training is like taking a road trip with GPS. You know the exact place you want to end up and you have specific directions. There may be a detour or two along your path but simply recalculate the adjustments and you’re on your way.
In both situations you’re in the car for the same amount of time and use the same amount of gasoline. But the casual drive can lead you to getting lost in a questionable section of town while GPS guides you to a specific place, arriving at a specific time.
This holds true for spending the same amount of time and energy at the gym. If you’re OK with random results from your gym time, then working out is fine. But if you have specific results you’d like in terms of strength, flexibility, injury prevention and body fat, you need to train.
Your training log tracks where you’ve been, where you are currently, and shows the trajectory of where you are going.
In essence, a training log is a valuable tool for anyone looking to feel better, move better and perform better.