How Should You Track Your Progress In The Gym?

Let’s call your last purposeful period of exercise a workout.  You intentionally moved around for the sake of movement, athletics, or aesthetics.  What did you do in the previous workout?  What will you do in your next one?

If you’re casually visiting the gym and doing the same ol’ routine, you’re working out.  If you’re following a frame work to make incremental progress at the gym, you’re training.  We train with purpose.  As we accumulate training sessions, they tell a story.  Are we doing the same thing over and over again?  Are we changing what we do every time we’re at the gym?  Do we make steady progress in some places and get worse in others?

What story is your training telling you?

It’s impossible to understand this story without knowing what you did, and this brings me to the idea of tracking what we did in the gym.  This is not what I mean?

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I don’t mean tracking it by telling all your friends, I mean remembering what the hell you did to get better.

Checking in at your gym can be a great metric to keep track of attendance, but how do you know what you did while you were there?  Let’s talk about quantifying and qualifying progress.

Quantifying Progress

Quantity  refers to a numerical value.  In exercise land this turns into sets, reps, weight lifted, minutes of work, miles run.  We love to quantify everything that we do.

I walked 10,000 steps.  I lifted 100lbs.  I drank 3 cups of coffee.  I spent 15 minutes in the bathroom after that 3rd cup.

Tracking these numbers can vary in importance.  If you’re driven by analytical thought, this can be great for you to see progress.  When we continuously see improvements in these measures of work, we interpret that as progress.  The other side of the sword is just as sharp; When we do not see improvements in these numbers, we assume that there is no progress.  Neither is necessarily true.

Qualifying Progress

In regards to movement and exercise, quality refers to a non-numerical value.  We talk about how a pattern looks, how a movement feels, what our perception of difficulty is.

Tracking qualifying variables is just as important as tracking quantity, and as I become more obsessed with  interested in psychological variables in training, I’m realizing it’s greatly underestimated or outright ignored as an indicator of progress or development.

While they’re seemingly two completely different aspects of training, I believe that they’re essentially the same thing; Different views of tracking progress, and different tools to address our perceptions of progress.

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Tracking Quantity is a rather elementary, my dear Watson.  Write your shit down.  Nailed it!

There are many systems to use here, the most popular being the old stalwart, a notebook.  Moleskin, marbeled, bound or spiral, get yourself some paper.  Write down what you did in the training session:  How many sets and reps we did of each exercise, and how much weight we lifted for each.

The next time you perform the same exercise, pick any of those variables to increase:  It may be more weight, another set, another rep, speeding things up or slowing them down.  We can use increases in this total workout as increases in performance, and over time, these measurements should be going up.

If you’re technologically inclined, there are any number of apps to track your progress, from simply adding stuff to Microsoft Excel to using biofeedback software.  My outright favorite is the website and mobile app Fitocracy, which allows you to enter all of these variables.  When you might forget, it actually TELLS YOU each time you set a personal record, and tracks that progress over time.  As the start-up grows the site grows, and there’s increasing detail for those of us that like fancier input.

Get over there and say hello!

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If you’re a numbers guy, and I fully admit to being one, you may be thinking, “How the hell do I qualify progress?” 

That’s exactly what I was first thinking.  In machismo training culture, where #BeastMode is the fetch thing to say, it’s almost ridiculous to ask, “Hey, how does that make you feel?”  It’s a deadlift, I don’t care how you feel, I care what you pick up.  Go lock it out.

That reductionist mentality is holding us back.  I say that because That reductionist mentality has held me back.

It’s not just about what you lift, how many times, and in what pattern.  It’s just as important to understand how that pattern looks, how you feel during the set, and how completing the set makes you feel.  Our perception of how our body moves is huge for understanding when and how to modify our training.

Just as there’s importance and progress in adding more weight to the bar that you’re picking up, there’s also progress in making the same weight feel easier.  I’ve been playing around with the idea of Perceptional PR’s, and while I continue to expand on it: This shit works.

Making a weight that previously felt heavy for 8 feel reaaallyyy easy for 8 lets your body interpret hard work as easy work, and minimize the stress from any given set or a complete training session.  Just as we weren’t made to sit in front of screens, we weren’t made to repeatedly pick up heavy stuff, and allowing our body to perceive heavy weight as paper weight is huge.  Monitoring Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) can be a big factor for appropriately balancing and fluctuating training to avoid burn out.

Monitoring the feels is just as important.  My friend and colleague Bill Rom regularly ties in our emotions before or after our training session to our movement quality and temperament.  If you’re highly flexible and are stretching everything, it would behoove you to slow down and strengthen that available range of motion.  Perhaps your body is interpreting all of the “stretching” as a negative stressor.”

On the contrary, if you need support to sit down on the toilet, I’d venture that it’s in your best interest to leave the barbell on the floor for a hot second to focus on moving more, and as relaxed as possible.  This is what makes “flow” style drills so appealing to me.

Quantifying and qualifying our movement experience can be tricky business.  If we’re only focused on picking up more weight, we may not realize that picking up makes us feel like a miserable mess.  If we’re only concerned with feeling post-exercise jubilance, then we may not realize we’re barely picking things up!

Tracking progress is best done by combining measures of performance with personal perception and feedback.  If your focus is too far in one direction, you may be picking up more wheels or spinning them, but how do you know you’re getting better?

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