“If you don’t know where to go, it doesn’t matter which path you take”Lewis Carroll
Tracking workouts is one of the single most beneficial tactics that you can implement to start building muscle. If your goal is to build muscle then you need to be able to check markers to ensure you are not just spinning your wheels, it’s the physiological cousin of a business’s profit and loss account.
If you have a goal to make £1,000,000 but don’t track income and expenses daily, weekly, monthly and yearly then how will you be able to monitor progress and see if you are actually working towards your goal. This is the same as tracking progress to build muscle, you need to be able to analyse what you are doing over a set period to see if you are taking actual strides towards your goal.
What To Track
It’s a well and good saying you need to track a workout but you first need to create a structure for your workout that you can track and this comes down to initial programming.
Whether you are in the early stages of lifting weights and have got a program online or are more advanced and have created your own, they will all need to have certain aspects that are consistent.
The first of which is exercise selection, your routine should have some staple exercises that you perform on a weekly basis and remain constant for a set period of time.
If you are on a program that mixes up exercise selection every few weeks to ‘keep your body guessing’ then you are going to struggle to see progress in the long run.
You need a few staple exercises that you stick with over time and can get significantly stronger in them. Obvious examples are the multi joint compound movements like squats and deadlift.
Sets and Reps
Each exercise should have a designated number of sets and reps, there are certain exceptions such as sets where you perform as many reps as possible (AMRAP), however as a general rule a set number of sets and reps should be programmed.
These will act as an indicator of what weight you should be using and also when you are ready to increase the weight. If you’re hitting the set and rep numbers with a given weight then you’ll be ready to move up the weight on your next session.
Rest Periods and Tempo
These definitely go overlooked as it’s become more common for people to pull out their phones in between sets and lost track of time as they are scrolling. Rest periods are crucial for ensuring you are fully working the muscle and keeping blood flowing during the workout.
Tempo is overlooked even more however it’s not as detrimental to your results as a failure to track rep or weight progress. Tempo is how long it takes to to perform a rep and consequently a set. For optimal hypertrophy a set should last between 45 – 60 seconds, therefore if your set is 12 reps then each rep should take around 4 seconds to complete.
A tempo range for a rep might look like this in a program; 1-1-2-0. This is 1 second to lift the weight, a 1 second squeeze at the top of the movement, 2 seconds to lower the weight and then zero pause at the bottom.
Systems For Tracking A Workout
Now that you know what you should be tracking in your program it’s time to look at some of the simple systems you can use to track workouts.
Pen and Paper Log Book
The most basic and old school method of tracking your workout is with a tried and tested pen and paper. You can buy specially made log books from amazon or a more simple notepad will do the same job.
All you need to do during rest periods is log down the details of your exercise, this will be weight used, number of sets and number of reps. Not only will this act as a motivator moving forward with your workouts as you continually look to best your previous lifts but it’s also good mentally for you to look back on and see how far you’ve progressed if motivation starts to fall.
The App Store has sprung up with countless fitness tool over the years and workout logs are one of the most popular categories.
A free app will give you similar functionality as a pen and paper method but has functions such as a pre programmed library of exercises and ability to create a workout template. You can therefore just type in your numbers as you go and it will save your logs for future reference.
Some even have to functionality to show progress graphs and share your workouts with a community.
For the more tech savvy you can also create a nice spreadsheet to store all of your workout logs. This will be time consuming to set up in the beginning but once set up you can plug in your workout data and create graphs to show your progress over time.
This option is more for those basically addicted to workout out as you can get the same functionality on an app with the work already done for you.
Monitor Progressive Overload & Strength
The main reason for tracking workouts is to monitor strength levels in all of your lifts and ensure that you are implementing progressive overload.
Progressive overload is one of the key concepts for building muscle and revolves around consistently getting stronger over time to force your body to adapt and build muscle.
Progressive overload is a basic premise that revolves around the need for you to be getting stronger, doing more sets or doing more reps over time to see muscle growth.
Therefore based on this you need to be able to monitor your progress to make sure it’s moving in the right direction and this is where tracking your workouts comes in.
It’s not enough to create a target weight for an exercise and work towards this goal (though this is a good starting point), the real challenge and aim should be to look at each individual exercise and see how you can add small increments over time to improve these lifts.
The large, multi joint, compound movements like the squat and deadlift should be straightforward enough to look to increase weight on a regular basis, once you start getting towards a genuine plateau for these exercises you will likely have already built a solid foundation of muscle and be at an intermediate lifting level.
It’s the single joint isolation exercises that you will likely struggle to progress on and should monitor more carefully. It’s 100% more difficult to add 5lbs to a lateral dumbbell raise than it is for an overhead barbell press and therefore on isolation exercises you will need you use a different form of progressive overload.
If you write down and track your key compound lifts each week and ensure you are progressing with these over time then you will undoubtedly start to see rapid progress in muscle growth. If however you treat every session based on mood, level of tiredness and spontaneity of picking exercises then you will end up spinning your wheels and be waiting much longer to see progress than the person working with a goal in mind and tracking it.
Make Adjustments To Your Training Program
Not only is tracking a workout crucial for monitoring progress on your routine but also for analysing and seeing where you can improve a current program.
If we take an example of large muscle groups and look at a squat then it’ll be easier to illustrate this point. Your hamstrings and glutes are significantly larger than your quads and a back squat for the majority of the population is a stronger exercise than a front squat. This is both to do with the mechanics of the exercise and the muscle groups used.
If however you monitor you log book and see that your front squat is actually close to or stronger than your back squat then there might be some muscle imbalances and underdeveloped muscle groups. You would as a result reduce knee extension and quad dominant exercises and place more focus on hamstring and glute development.
It’s easy to make changes based on instinct or feelings about certain exercises and how this might be stalling your progress. It’s crucial that you do exercises that you enjoy and can feel the muscle engage with however you should also monitor what exercises you are seeing progress in and double down on them.
You might feel that your arms are not developing in proportion to the rest of your physique but if your hammer curl for example is seeing progress week on week then you should pay extra focus on this and add some similar movements.
It’s easy to say focus on your weaknesses but this shouldn’t be at the expense of your strengths, you should get the absolute most out of your strengths first before even considering how to work on your weaknesses and the only way to monitor this for sure is by looking in the mirror for changes and monitoring your workouts.
Monitor What Has Worked Historically
This is my personal favourite aspect of tracking my workouts and it’s to see what has worked historically. Everyone is physiologically different and therefore responds to workouts differently, what works for one person may not necessarily work for you.
One thing you can be sure of though is what has specifically worked for you in the past and the best way to analyse this is to have log book recordings that you can look back on and replicate.
If for example I see a picture from three years ago and think “wow, that’s the best shape I’ve ever been in”, then the easiest way to get this look again will be to replicate the routine and diet that I followed during this period. Having a written record is the easiest way to do this.
You can also use it to look back and see what you have improved on or what has been stagnant and needs additional focus. If your bench press is the primary movement in your chest routine and you’ve been stuck lifting 225lbs for the past 6 months then chances are your chest development won’t have come a long way in this time.
You can go to the gym and get a good pump and maintain your physique but if you look at your progress over a period of time and see that it’s minimal then you need to re-evaluate and look at what you can do moving forward to bring this muscle group up further.
Motivation And Goal Setting
That final reason for tracking workouts isn’t actually related to the effects on muscle growth but more for the mental impact it will have (both positive and negative).
If you are looking through your log book and see that your progress has been minimal lately then this will either give you motivation step up the intensity of your workouts or will have a negative impact in that you can actually see minimal progress. The benefit of seeing this however is that regardless of the motivation that you derive from it, it will no doubt force you to re-evaluate your goals.
Being able to closely monitor progress gives you the ability to set realistic and achievable goals for your routine which is paramount for successfully developing a physique.
Just Test It
If you’re still not convinced about the success of tracking your workouts and think it’s a waste of time then just take a moment to think about all your current lifts and then look back to a year from now and remember what your routine looked like and what weights you used.
If you can’t even remember the last time you added a few plates extra to the bar then chances are you’ve likely not added a few extra pounds to your physique. There is a direct correlation between getting stronger and building muscle and if your not monitoring this then you are leaving progress on the table.
Take two weeks to just log everything you do in a workout, use whatever method you want to log it but just get it written in some form for week 1 but don’t check it. Then Week 2 perform the same routine, write it down but don’t look at the first week. Once you’ve finished both weeks training compare the numbers you’ve logged, if they are pretty much the same then you need to take action and look to beat the log book every workout.
It’s a simple concept but it’ll do wonders for your physique once you pay attention and focus on improving every workout with tangible goals.
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Also check out:
a similar article I wrote for Bulk Powders