Making progress visible – How and why to track your training

Track your training - measuring tape

What gets measured gets managed.” – Peter Drucker

Of course, Drucker was talking about business. But the same fact holds true for training and working out. Remember “how you do one thing is how you do everything”? Let’s see what measuring can do for your training.

In the last post we looked at the formula for behavioral change to get you into the game. This post is about keeping it in there. A very important tool for that is tracking. It can make all the difference between a scattered approach of randomly picking weights and a focused, coherent block of training.

Tracking gives you a handle on progress

  • Creates a roadmap – Overwhelm and frustration often happen when we don’t really know what we are doing or what we should do next. If you have a plan, this issue doesn’t arise. Tracking can turn your training from a fuzzy, incoherent thing into something graspable and managable.

  • Gives intermediate goals to shoot for – Like every journey, the path to fitness is not a matter of one giant leap but of many smaller steps. If you know which step is the very next one, you can put all your energy into it – be it adding the next 10 pounds to your lift or running one more mile. Focusing on specific and attainable goals is great for motivation and adds up over time.

  • Creates victories and a positive feedback loop – Imagine this: with teeth clenched, inwardly shouting every expletive in your vocabulary you manage to push that weight through the last three repetitions. Or maybe you shaved a whole minute off your personal best on the course. You take out your training log, cross out the old number and write down the new one. This is yours now, nobody can take this triumph away from you again. Not bad for pen an paper, hu?

Saves time – Have you seen the people at the gym who look totally lost? That wander aimlessly from machine to machine, trying each one out for a few reps with that clueless look on their face? And when you leave after an hour they are still there and haven’t broken into sweat yet? Maybe you even are one of those people? Tracking saves time, because you know exactly what to do, in what order and with how much weight instead of groping around blindly.

Preserves concentration and cognition – As I said before, willpower and cognition are a limited resource. Trying to keep your whole training in your head squanders it away on something that a sheet of paper could do for you. Save your precious mental resources for more important things.

What should you track and how?

Back when I started, I liked to make these very elaborate training logs that planned for every contingency. I noted down the exercise, number of repetitions and sets, weights for three different sets, machine settings, etc. etc. I almost spent more time at my computer compiling than using them in the gym (analysis paralysis, anyone?).

There is nothing wrong with being elaborate, especially if you are just starting out. These days I like to keep it simple and only keep track of one or two variables.


Weight – This is self-explanatory. For the exercises you do, note down the maximum weight you can do them with. Eliminates the question of “which one did I lift last time?” or trying four different dumbbells before getting the correct one.

Target number of repetitions – The target number of repetitions for most people and exercises is 8-12. But it really depends on your training style and goals. For instance if you do HIT (High-Intensity Training), the number of repetitions will be lower. After reaching that target number you add more weight.

Exercise order – This might seem superfluous but let me tell you, as a newbie the gym can be quite an overwhelming place and I often struggled to remember which exercise I needed to do next. Wasted cognition, wasted time – just write it down. And it’s alright to not know the names of the exercises, my training log was full of “that thing with the crossed cables” kind of names.

Machine settings – If you don’t use free weights, writing down the machine settings of the ones you are using is very helpful. Again this eliminates a lot of trial and error at the beginning of your sets. Find a setting that is comfortable for you and manifest it on paper.

Time – Especially if you do a discipline which aims at going faster, tracking your time is a good idea. Running, trail running and the likes call for a stop watch. If you do indoor cardio, most machines today should have a watch built in.

Distance – If you are just starting out with running and you don’t have a set course yet (on which you are trying to beat the time), it might be a good idea to track the distance you are going. A good alternative for that is the Nike+ Running app, but people have been known to use Google maps.


Body weight – Most people track their body weight and measure their diet/workout success by the number on their scale. However, body weight is a highly inaccurate parameter. Depending on what you eat and do, weight can greatly fluctuate with water retention. Also, if you exercise, you might be losing fat and gaining muscle, thereby not losing weight at all. If you have nothing else to track, body weight will do to see a general direction, however, I recommend tracking other variables.

Circumference – An easy way to track your progress is to use circumference. All you need for that is a tape measure. Measure the following circumference and note it down: mid-biceps (both arms), waist (at navel height), hips (widest point below waist), mid-thigh (both legs). Add those up to your total centimeters (or inches if you swing that way). Remeasure them every two weeks to keep track of your training success.

Body fat – This is the crème de la crème of measuring and there are some elaborate techniques and gizmos out there, like DEXA and Bodpod. I have never used them though. As I said, I like simplicity.

Keeping it simple is an important part to remember. Track only a few variables so you know you’re on the right track. Don’t go overboard where tracking turns into a chore of its own. I actually only ever do four different exercises these days (I will explain why in a future post). If I see steady progress in weight lifted, I know I’m on the right track.

There is an infinite number of tools and apps out there to help you, but I like to keep it old school and rely on simple pen and paper. I find it highly satisfying to write out the number of a new max or challenge and so far never felt the need to put it in graphs or diagrams. At the end of the article you will find a sample training log in the form of an excel file you can use to create your own.

Dowload the workout-plan sample spreadsheet here

Download the circumference spreadsheet here

What do you use to track your training? Any apps or helpers you can recommend? Did I forget anything important? Let me know in the comments.

image sources: 1 & 2

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