I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of it, but for the bulk of my fitness career I never really used a workout log to track my workouts. I always figured I could tell when I’m working out hard enough. Or I figured I knew my routine so well I didn’t need a map to guide me through my workout.
Most of all, I simply felt that such a simple thing as pen and paper couldn’t really be the missing piece to my exercise puzzle. My experience just didn’t point to the fact that I needed to write down what I did. I knew how far I ran last week and I remembered how much I did on the bench press.
Of course, I remembered what I did because I always did the same thing. Every workout was a carbon copy of the one before it. But I felt I was paying my dues. I worked out on a regular schedule and I pushed myself too hard each and every time. So why did I need a piece of paper to tell me what I already knew?
Silly me though, I thought that getting in shape would happen if I just worked hard enough and put in enough time. Even though the progress was almost never there, I figured I just had to be patient and wait. Rome wasn’t built in a day after all.
I feel silly now for believing such things. After all, we don’t build muscle just because we lift heavy things. We don’t burn fat just because we run until we drop. And most importantly, we don’t get results just because we work our tail off for years on end.
I wanted what everyone else wants. I wanted more. More strength, more speed, more power and more muscle. In other words, I wanted to progress. But progress doesn’t just happen because we put in lots of time and effort. Just think of all of those folks who show up at the gym time after time and yet they look just as they did last year.
The key to progress is not just hard work and dedication, but progression. I know, it seems obvious enough, but it is a simple idea that eluded me for years. Maybe it was because I felt like progression was something that would just happen on its own over time. One day I go in and do 10 pull ups and the next week I would just magically be able to do 12.
Unfortunately, progression isn’t something that just wanders by and jumps into our arms. It’s like a wild animal that must be hunted and tracked down before we aggressively take it for ourselves. It only is available to those who are willing to go after it and snatch it as soon as they can.
This is why a workout log is so important. By keeping a record on hand, you can instantly know what you need to do to progress. It’s all right there in black and white.
The issue with hard work and effort is that it can fool us into thinking it’s good enough. The other day I did 11 pull ups and felt that was pretty challenging. As I dropped down I felt I must have accomplished something and this surely spurred my body into becoming stronger. However, after checking my log I learned that my personal best was 17 pull ups in a row. Those 11 that I did were a step backwards, not a step forwards!
If I didn’t have that log I would have gone home believing my 11 reps were good enough. But after checking that log, I tightened my boot straps and cranked out a solid 18 reps. Now I knew for sure I accomplished something. There was no guessing or thinking about it. I had gone above and beyond what I had done before which is the essence of progression.
Progression really is that simple. It’s not about complex formulas or periodization plans. It’s simply about knowing what you have done in the past and then reaching down deep to improve your performance. While progression is a simple thing, knowing when it happens can be tricky. As I mentioned before, we can trick ourselves into thinking we are progressing when in reality we really are not.
On top of our own efforts, we can be fooled into thinking our workout is progressive through any number of other signs. I used to believe a workout was effective if I broke a sweat or if I burned enough calories on the calorie counter. I also thought I did a good job if I got a good pump or if my workout was longer than usual.
Of course all of these things can be fooled. My workout can be long just because I was distracted. I could have broken a sweat because it was hot and humid. And that muscle pump could be from a lack of rest or changes in my diet. In short, all of the signs of a good workout could be there, but at the end of the day I may have even lost ground.
Keeping a workout log keeps this from happening. By looking to progress performance you’ll know in black and white if you have progressed or not. If you do better, than you have progression. If not, then you don’t have progression and you won’t progress plain and simple.
So if progress is so important and keeping an exercise log is the best way to achieve it then why don’t more people use a log? One of the reasons is like the one I mentioned where people feel that exercise logs are for telling them what they need to do when they already know what that is.
Another reason is because keeping an exercise log can be tedious to both read and write. There are all sorts of boxes and numbers! Who wants to stop after each set and write down stuff as they tremble and sweat on the page?
And then, there is the idea that we need all sorts of special log charts or books to create or spend money on. All of these reasons are nothing more than making a mountain out of a mole hill. Keeping an exercise log should be simple, cheap and super easy. You don’t have to write down every little rep and set. You don’t have to use a special app or log book.
Just a simple notebook with some notes after each exercise is all you need. Heck, my log book is just a single sheet of paper. All I write down are my personal bests. If I beat a personal record, I erase the old one and write the new one in. If I don’t break a record then I just leave it as a sign post that I need to pass in order to progress.
There are few rules on what your exercise log should include or look like. As long as it has some record of what you have done it will serve as a reliable vehicle for progression. The only recommendation I would make is to include a quick comments section. That way you can make notes about things like technical improvements or reminders for the next workout.
In the end, I wish I had kept a workout log many years ago. I would have avoided so many plateaus and frustrations. I also would be in far better shape than I am today, but better late than never. So if you have been neglecting the workout log then simply start on your next workout. Keep it simple. Keep it cheap and keep it progressive. Within a few short weeks you’ll be further along than you ever imagined.