The best way to keep track of your progress is to log your workouts in a workout journal.
In this article, I’m gonna share what my workout journal looks like and how you can adopt the habit of keeping one.
Reasons to Keep a Workout Journal
I’m guessing I’ll have to sell you on the idea of keeping a training log first. I know I had my doubts about it from time to time, but I kept getting back to keeping my journal because it gives me lots of benefits.
I don’t need a stupid workout journal. My memory is fantastic, I keep my workouts simple and know which numbers I have to hit.
Sure you do. The purpose of a workout journal is not solely to help you recall your last sets and reps. That is the least important feature. Far more important is the fact that it helps you to stay consistent and motivated. With a workout journal, you have a tool to ensure your own accountability. And it keeps you more focused during your workouts.
I don’t wanna complicate things by introducing a complicated workout journal.
You won’t, because keeping such a journal is super simple. You don’t even have to buy a notebook or use lots of paper for this. All you need is a simple tool to record your workouts in a really simplistic fashion. Doing my log entries takes me 2 minutes before each workout and filling in my sets/reps is done between exercises.
I will look like a total nerd in the gym!
First, nerds are cool. Second, you will most probably look like you know what you’re doing. Every self-trained athlete who takes his training serious keeps a workout log.
Isn’t this a distraction from the workout? Shouldn’t I be in the moment or something?
If you want your workouts to be more zen, a workout journal is just the right tool to help you with that. You can sketch your workout shortly before you start your session. This means you don’t need to worry what exercise to do next, how many sets you’ve already done. you can write down beforehand how many sets/reps you want to do to motivate yourself.
What Kind of Workout Journal Should I Buy?
Okay, so I’ve sold you on workout journals. What kind of journal should you have? I suggest that you choose the one that’s most convenient and most appealing to you. Here are some ideas:
- A text file on your desktop. Just use a simple text editor, open a file and log your workouts with that. You can have one text file in which you log all your workouts one after another. Or you create a file for each workout and name it by date. Then you can organize your workouts into monthly folders. Obviously, this only works if you work out exclusively at home.
- Use Evernote. This is a bit more fancy, but still costs you nothing and it has the advantage that you can use this everywhere if you have a smart phone. It’s a good tool if you want to keep your log entries organized. Simply create a notebook called “Workout Log” and add a note for each workout.
- Get a proper paper notebook. This is my weapon of choice. This little peace of gear is the single best addition to my arsenal. Right now, I use the blank cardboard notebooks from Moleskine, because they are really flat and portable. But small hardcover notebooks can also be nice because they can take a beating and provide a stiff surface to write on. Any brand will do, though. I think it helps if you choose a notebook that you like writing in.
- Use a PocketMod. If you really wanna get minimalistic with your training log, try this one. The idea is to fold one piece of paper in a way that you get a tiny 8 page notebook. Go the website I linked to and have a look at the folding instructions. You don’t have to use the premade templates. A blank page will do. Depending on your handwriting, you could fit about 16 log entries in there. Let’s say you work out 4 times a week, so one piece of paper could serve you for a whole month. Talkin’ about saving the rain forest!
The possibilities are endless. You can also use Excel sheets and plot your progress or use special smart phone apps if you want to get technical. But if you don’t feel inclined to do so, simple is better!
The Workout Log Entry
Here’s what you should note down with each entry.
- Date. This is mandatory, otherwise you won’t be able to evaluate your progress later.
- Planned sets and reps. This is the core of every workout entry. Before every workout, write down what exercises you are going to do. Write down if you are doing super-sets or circuits or just single sets.
- Planned resting time between sets. If you are doing a structured strength routine, you should record how long you rested between your sets.
- Mark each performed set. Let’s say you want to do 5 sets of 5 reps of pistols (5×5). You will note down “Pistols 5×5”. After you performed one set, set a mark next to that entry and start your stop watch to time your resting period. For example. after 3 sets, the entry will say “Pistols 5×5 III”.
- Correct as needed. You may have a bad day and might not hit the numbers you planned out. First, don’t beat yourself up and don’t try to force it. Bad days happen. Second, just correct your notes by crossing off the planned sets/reps and write down what you did. It doesn’t need to be beautiful.
- Warm-ups and cool-downs/stretches. If you use the same warm-up and cool-down for every workout, just note these down in the front of your workout journal. If you’re doing specialized mobility work, or something else you want to make progress on that is not measurable in exercises/sets/reps, note that down as well.
Here is an excerpt from my own workout journal.
I use my own abbreviations, tags and signs. Find your own system, so that you will later understand what you wrote down and so that taking notes is convenient and quick.
As you see, noting down the most important things is not complicated and takes almost no time. Here are some additional suggestions that can help you figuring out plateaus or help you if have body recompositioning goals.
- Current bodyweight. If you’re trying to lose fat or gain muscle mass, this can help you analyze your progress. Keep in mind that the number on the scale can be deceiving, because your bodyweight might fluctuate over the course of a week. This only helps for long-term analysis.
- Weekly mirror photo. This works well with the Evernote workout log. Every week, at the same time (every Monday before breakfast can be a good time), take a quick photo of yourself. Save this to your Evernote workout log with the correct date. Lighting should always be the same!
- Perceived difficulty. In addition to sets/reps, note how difficult an exercise was for you. Just use a simple scale from 1 to 10, 10 being destroyed afterwards.
- Mood before and/or after workout. Some days, I don’t feel like working out and it seems like I won’t be able to do any hard exercises. Sometimes, after my warm-up, I’m really surprised how well I’m doing despite feeling down. Recording your mood before and after, together with your performance, can be a real eye-opener. You might notice that you can get a personal record even if you felt really beat up before. This helped me overcome the occasional moodiness, so I sucked it up and did my workout despite my inner resistance.
- Cheat workouts. Note down if you did anything sport related that is not part of your formal workouts.
- Food journal. If improving your diet is a priority of yours, food journal entries can be added as well. You can start an extra log just for your food journal or include it in your workout log.
Structure of the Workout Journal
A workout journal can be quite unstructured. Remember that we want to keep it simple. But certain things can help you organize your workout journals. The following should be noted either on the cover of a notebook or the first few pages.
- Start and end date. Especially for paper notebooks, this is essential if you want to find log entries from “way back”.
- Goals. Write down specific, measurable goals that you want to achieve, such as 10 clean consecutive one-arm push-ups in 6 weeks.
- Workout routine. If you set a fixed schedule for your workouts (which you definitely should as a beginner), note down the details. If you started a new routine but your notebook is still half blank, just start a new page write down your new routine.
That’s it from me about workout journals. Do you have any additional hints and suggestions on how to keep a neat workout log? Let me know in the comments below.