The Most Important Part of Your Training Plan

Most training plans available these days share a lot in common. There are certain principles that serve as the building blocks of any quality programming. Things like progressive overload and periodization, specificity and recovery are all taken into account. While these are all great things to consider, and an essential part of any program, there is perhaps one component whose importance is often understated. That component is a method of tracking and logging workouts.

Pursuing any goal requires a measurable metric by which to track progress, yet too often in the pursuit of fitness people often just put in the time, whether that’s logging miles on the road or taking a few fitness classes a week, without actually measuring anything to see if that time spent is having a positive impact. In other words they are exercising blindly.

For a few people this sort of blind exercise may be enough to keep them in shape, if that’s their only goal. For most others the pursuit of something is what keeps them on track. Whether it’s fat loss, muscle gain, or pursuit of a specific strength accomplishment, there is always a goal to pursue. I’m a huge proponent of constant, daily efforts to improve, and the only way to know if improvement is being made is to employ some sort of tracking.

This can be simple or complex, but it is highly dependent on the goal. Some things you can track daily, others may be weekly or monthly because more frequent checking would border on obsession and drive you insane. With things like testing one rep max efforts the frequency will of course be spread out because you just shouldn’t do that every day. Checking your daily vegetable intake, on the other hand, will be done, well, daily.

Knowing what to track is born out of creating a well defined goal. It should be something specific and measurable. The typical “lose some weight” goal does not fit this criteria. Drop five pounds of body fat in a month is much more specific. Body fat is a measurable attribute too, and you have a time frame that provides a definitive end point. In addition, it is not such an outlandish goal that it is unattainable.

For an example such as this I would not suggest tracking every day, mainly because body fat measurements are a pain in the ass and the day to day variation may make it difficult to see progress. Weekly check ins with a scale and a set of calipers should do just fine to analyze the trend. Now a month is a pretty short time frame, but one or two weeks in you should be able to assess your progress and do some course correction if need be.

That’s one of the big benefits of tracking. If you are assessing yourself and your progress prior to the deadline you set you can make changes if necessary. Small tweaks to diet or exercise plans may be needed to keep things on track. If you are seeing progress toward the goal then staying the course becomes that much easier too. Heck, more often then not staying the course is a good option if you’re not seeing progress. Results don’t necessarily happen in a linear fashion, and sometimes perceived stagnation means a big plateau busting breakthrough is right around the corner.

Not meeting your metrics is not the end of the world. It’s simply an opportunity to gather more information. Did you actually follow the plan you set forth? Or did you miss a few meals and workouts? If you did, why was that and what can you do in the future to prevent it? Was it really the plan or was it your implementation of the plan? This sort of investigation can elucidate obstacles that you didn’t even realize were there. Identifying these obstacles and implementing solutions to overcome them can put you back on track when otherwise you may have never known they existed.

Regardless of your goal time frame, keeping logs and tracking relevant information can provide some long term benefits. I have a notebook full of every workout I’ve done for the last two and a half years (when I first seriously started lifting weights), and this historical information is really useful from time to time.

For starters, I can identify periods of time when I had quite a bit of success. I can see what sort of workouts I was doing and get a general idea of what I was doing diet-wise, how I was sleeping, and how well I was managing stress. All of this information is useful in planning out subsequent training phases.  If you have a record of what has worked in the past then you’ll know to incorporate things because of that success. On the flip side you’ll know what didn’t work and what sorts of things to avoid in the future.

The other thing a good training log does is act as a measuring stick. I can see what weights I was using and get a sense of my strength and conditioning levels. Certain workouts can even serve as benchmarks, where I repeat them to get a more accurate assessment of my current fitness levels in regards to the last time. For example I just pulled out a workout last completed four months ago and went through it this week. I used more weight on the press sets and beat my AMRAP score for the finisher from the previous workout which is a pretty good indication that I’ve improved in both of those areas in the last four months.

If possible, I love to do multi-week training plans that include some sort of before and after assessment to give a tangible record of the progress made. It’s kind of like having a final exam to complete after a semester of learning and study. You for darn sure better be able to do better than if you had taken the same exam cold at the beginning of the semester. If not, you probably slacked off and didn’t put in the effort to learn the material.

Lastly a well kept workout log can serve as a confidence booster. Sometimes I struggle with appreciating just how far I’ve progressed in the last few years. Going way back in the logs illuminates a time when I was just starting out, relatively weak and out of shape. Compared to where I am now I can see the monumental strides I’ve made in that time, and that can do wonders for the psyche. Even if you don’t feel you are getting immediate results, you can see what you’ve accomplished in the past and gain the confidence in yourself that those kind of gains are in your future if you work just as hard.

If you aren’t employing some method of tracking for your workouts it would behoove you to do so. It is often said that fitness is a lifelong journey, and good record keeping can serve as a roadmap during that journey.  You can use it see where you’ve been, where you are now, and to tease out the paths necessary to take along the way to your next goal. So grab a notebook and start sketching out your map. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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