Most of us keep some kind of log. But amongst the shopping lists, dear-diary entries, meetings, and the rest do you keep a fitness journal? If not, you might want to start, according to one Men’s Health article.
“Nutrition logs get all the press as they have been shown to help you make positive changes [to your diet] that allow you to see results,” says Joe Gambino, CSCS, D.P.T., a New York-based physical therapist, and trainer. “But not many people carry this same phenomenon over to their workouts.”
Writing down your fitness levels now and comparing them to the past and the future can help keep you motivated and set you up for continuing success. It helps you to see what works and what doesn’t, allowing you to repeat the good and pick the best path to your fitness goals.
“There is a chance that returning back to this program in the future can yield similar benefits,” says Gambino.
A few “rules” for your fitness journal
We all know to write down sets and reps, laps around the track, and times. But a great fitness journal includes so much more.
Don’t leave anything out
“Your workout plan should, first and foremost, have every single exercise written down,” says Gambino.
In addition to sets and reps, include the tempo or pace, rest breaks and times, and pounds lifted or equipment settings. If you can, use a portable fitness tracker to collect even more specific information, like averages and peak and recovery heart rates.
And don’t forget to include baseline information, like bodyweight, personal records, body fat percentage, and insights into the exercises you care about most.
Gambino says, “You know your log is detailed enough when you can recreate the workout a year down the line without missing or forgetting something.”
Include how you feel
Recognizing and acknowledging how you feel and perform from session to session helps you understand when you can push harder, or need to take a little extra recovery time. You can explore this using a rating of perceived exertion, or RPE.
Rate your workout and individual exercises on a scale of one to 10. Over a short period, you’ll know if an activity gets easier, harder, or just doesn’t work the way you need it to. Maybe the fifteen-pound dumbbell curls that rated a nine on your RPE scale last week earn a five this week. Or perhaps the entire workout dropped from an eight to a six. Now you can decide if you need to up your game or leave it in place for now.
This type of journal also helps with injury prevention. Maybe bench presses hurt your shoulders, or your back hurts after squats.
“If you record how you feel with each lift—not only ‘was it hard?’ but how your body felt after—you can identify the lifts that may not be right for you,” Matthew N. Berenc, CSCS, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Institute in Los Angeles, CA, says.
Make extra notes about the good stuff
If a lighter weight on the bench really works your pecs, or Coture circuits make you feel invincible, write it down. And don’t forget the non-physical benefits.
“Exercise can spark creativity,” says Berenc making the gym an excellent place for brainstorming and contemplation.
Find a journal that works for you
Pen and paper or app, it all comes down to what works for you. The old-fashioned pen and paper provide exceptional flexibility, while apps offer great tools for analyzing your progress. Pick a way that you can commit to, and don’t be afraid to try different styles. Gambino likes the Exercise.com app for the iPhone because it already contains most of the exercises people do, has a place for notes, and includes a built-in 1-10 scale. Berenc prefers the Way of Life habit tracker for iPhone. Along with tracking goals and keeping notes, it lets you export your data into a spreadsheet.
A plethora of apps exists to help with your fitness goals. Just search online or in your phone’s app store to find the one that’s right for you.
Things you can learn from a fitness journal In 2017, Gabrielle Kassel decided to keep a fitness journal and shared what she learned over the course of a month in a BarBend article. Her observations helped her fine-tune her workouts and taught her a little about herself. Here’s what she learned:
Organizing a fitness journal is hard at first
Her first attempt went horribly, she says. She didn’t know the names of half the exercises she’d done over the past eighteen months. But by week four, she’d found her groove. She’d learned the names of all her exercises and started planning her workouts ahead of time.
CrossFit doesn’t journal well on paper
“Stopping during class to write how the warm-up, WOD (workout of the day), and warm down complete with sets, reps, and weight [went] was not possible,” she says. That meant she often forgot things, like her one-rep max, how long the workout took, etc.
It kept her accountable
“I was skeptical whether or not I would feel motivated by ‘some paper and a pen,’ but I did experience the valuable asset of task completion when at the end of my workout, I saw a detailed chart of my hard work,” she says.
She made it even more effective by leaving a blank page for every workout she missed.
“Many days, it was this fear of the blank page [that] forced me to go to the gym six days a week,” she says.
Her warm-ups got shorter, making her stronger
She initially shortened her warm-ups because her journal had a limited number of boxes.
“After the first three days of filling out eight boxes just from warming up, I realized that my workouts were not as efficient as they could be, and I was tiring myself out before the heart of my workout even started,” she says.
Limiting herself to three warm-up exercises gave her more room in the journal and left her with more energy to “reach and surpass” her fitness goals.
It made her more flexible
The top left corner of Gabrielle’s fitness journal provided an option to check yes or no for stretching.
“While I would usually rush back to the locker room after completing my last set so that I could get home and beat the hanger that was sure to set in if I didn’t make it home by 8:30 pm to cook dinner, I wanted to check that damn box. So I stayed and stretched.”
After a month of ten-minute stretching sessions, she says she could finally touch her toes again.
Her journal put her more in touch with her body
She started with her toes and worked her way up her up. Then, she recorded the best and the worst parts of her workout.
“At the end of the month, I had finally broken through my plateaus. I was pushing, curling, squatting, and deadlifting the most weight I ever had,” she says.
“But more than just getting stronger, I also finally learned the names of my weight-lifting moves, am the most flexible I have been in years, and realized that my workouts weren’t as efficient as they could be.”
Follow Gabrielle’s example and keep a fitness journal for a month. You don’t have to keep a detailed account of every move you, though you may want to as you progress.
I’ve kept fitness journals as simple as a spreadsheet with the name of my workout, the date, and a check if I did or did not do it. I gave the workouts creative names like “The Fat Boy” and “Striker Heaven” for the cross-training or kickboxing routines I did that day.
Maybe you’ll just walk ten minutes this week, or do three push-ups. A couple of weeks in, you’ll notice you’re walking for fifteen minutes and can do five push-ups. At the end of a month, six months, or year, you may even find yourself doing this.