Keeping a training log is incredibly important for all athletes, but especially for a strength trainee. Athletes and bodybuilders need to record their progress, yet athletes often do what they’re told and bodybuilders run a style of programming for a while and gauge progress by pictures. But for the strength trainee, numbers mean everything. If you lift more this week than you did a year ago, then you are obviously stronger. A training log easily quantifies progress and removes speculation and confusion. If you don’t keep a training log, then this post should convince you to do so. If you already keep one, this post may give you some additional variables to record or some ideas on how to organize the log itself.
What To Use
Any notebook will do, but notebooks without spirals will hold together. Composition books works really well, but they can still fall apart. Use duct or electrical tape to hold them together over the years and avoid turning the covers inside out. Chris has been using the same spiral notebook for several years, and it looks like he’s had it since fifth grade. The front cover is completely ripped off, but he keeps it on top as if it were still attached. The papers are loose, but some how he keeps it together enough where he can reference his training sessions (I’ve requested a picture). I don’t recommend this. Below are two types of notebooks that will hold up better:
The one on the left is a standard composition book, but with a leathery cover. The one on the right is a military field notebook; it was free and the cover is hard back and will hold up for a while. You can use whatever you want to, but I suggest picking something that will hold up for at least two years. My composition notebook above was used for at least 2.5 years.
What Data To Record
How much data to record will depend on the habit of keeping a log. If you haven’t kept one before, keep it easy and just write down the date, exercises, sets, and reps. It’s helpful to record all of the warm-up sets. This way you can calculate the tonnage (weight x reps x sets) of the entire workout, but this isn’t really necessary (I haven’t ever done it, but it would be useful for intermediate level lifters). More importantly you can see how you felt based on the warm-up sets you did. I found out a couple years ago that I needed more warm-up sets on upper body exercises than I did for lower. I also learned that I needed at least a single right below the first work set weight. Recording all the sets, including warm-ups can let you find this information.
If recording the lifting data is a habit, then be sure to add in your comments. If a set felt great, point that out. If it felt like shit, point that out too. The next section will give two examples of my personal logs and you’ll see some quick comments. I’ll also point out if I felt pain in a given structure (i.e. “L. medial elbow pain” or “R. proximal hip flexor”). This way problem areas can be addressed in mobbing and you or your coach can keep an eye out for technical problems when lifting. I also like to record the day, time, and location of where I’m training. I’ve trained all over the world and had good and bad sessions. When I randomly matched a PR in the snatch and almost PR’d a CJ in Australia, I want to remember that and see what circumstances helped that (a medium day two days before probably helped).
Lastly, I like to put comment on how I feel when I start the session. If I’m feeling a bit sluggish, I’ll point that out. If you’re not feeling great going into a session, then consider how much sleep you’re getting. If it’s not enough sleep and you feel tired, then you know what to do. Of course you can wait and make notes on many of these data points if they are abnormal. Pointing out that your first squat set is “regular” may be superfluous, but if you destroyed it or had a bitch of a set, point that out.
How to Organize the Data
You can do pretty much whatever works for you. I will caution you to ensure that the data is easy to read and reference. If you’re trying to see what you did last week, or three months ago, you don’t want to spend more than a few seconds looking. I like to draw a rectangle around the name of the lift or exercise; doing so makes it easy to distinguish the rows or columns of data. I also like to draw a line signifying the work set. You’ll see in my old log that line is horizontal since my data is aligned in a column. In the newer log, I just draw a slash to signify the beginning of the work set since it’s organized in a horizontal row.
Note that there is about 2.5 weeks of information on this one page. This information is from the summer in 2009 when I was still chugging along on a linear progression. Cute. Also, the note on the top right of the page was something Chris wrote to make fun of me and somebody else. I hate when people write “notes” in my training log.
In this new log I organize things in rows. You can see how I note how I feel at the top of the day. As you can see, I hadn’t squatted since before Thanksgiving (the clean and jerk-a-thon really fucked me up) and hadn’t trained since before Christmas, so I did a light day and then a light/medium day. I did Hammer Strength rowing because my quads were shaking so bad when I was trying to do barbell rows.
Everyone should have a training log. If nothing else it will display whether or not a given program has worked. Use a notebook that won’t fall apart easily, and organize the information so it’s easy to read and reference. Once the habit of recording information is established, start recording additional information that will help you guide your training and programming. Some other things you could record that I didn’t are mobility workouts or emphasis (I put those on the left page of my new workout) and food intake (I only record this if it’s abnormally low). If you carry your training log while you’re training, it will make you look like you have your shit together. Otherwise, record it as soon as you get home; otherwise you’ll forget. The more you record, the better of you’ll be later when trying to reference the information.