The only way to make sure that’s happening, is to carefully track your workouts. Even adding 1-2 pounds to your lifts is still progress, and it’s the kind of improvement you’ll miss if you don’t keep a workout log.
Unfortunately, most people don’t track their workouts. They train according to how they “feel,” and end up lifting the exact same weights, or lighter ones, every time they go to the gym.
And they don’t make any progress.
Perhaps the most common excuse for not tracking workouts is “I don’t have time.” That’s fair — keeping a workout log can be a pain. I used to spend over three hours per week tracking and planning my triathlon workouts.
Luckily, you don’t have to choose between your free time and keeping detailed fitness records. I’ve created a simple, foolproof system that you can use to track your strength workouts with your phone and a spreadsheet. The best part is that it only takes 20 minutes per week.
1. Download Evernote on Your Phone and Sign In
If you haven’t heard of Evernote, then please crawl out of your cave and join modern society.
It’s a productivity app that makes it easy to store notes in text, image, or audio form. The best part is that it syncs to your phone, tablet, and desktop in seconds, as long as you have an internet connection.
More importantly, you don’t need an internet connection for the Evernote app to work on your phone. Since many gyms don’t have a great wifi signal, including mine, this is an essential feature. When you leave the gym and enter an area with a better wifi connection, then Evernote will sync.
For this system to work, it’s best to have Evernote downloaded on your computer and your phone. You don’t need to have it on your computer, but it will save you time.
Once you’ve downloaded the app and signed in, it’s time to start planning your workouts.
2. Make Each of Your Workouts into a Note Using Evernote
I’m assuming you already have your workouts planned on a spreadsheet, journal, or document of some kind.
If not, do that first. You need to be able to look at your training program in its entirety before breaking it into individual workouts to review later.
Open your workout plan, and create a new note for each workout in Evernote. Name it something like “Day 1: Lower Strength” or something else descriptive so you’ll be able to find it later.
I’m using a 5 day body part split, so here’s an example from my computer:
If you want to add guidelines for rest periods, it’ll save space to use commas as a symbol for “minutes.” So “3-5’” means “three to five minutes.”
Below that exercise, add how much weight you’ll use for your warmup and how many reps you’ll do, separated by a “x” symbol.
Make a new line for each set.
Plan your work sets the same way, using the weight you used in your last workout. If you don’t have those records, smack your head into your desk, and write the weight you’d like to hit in your next workout and for how many reps.
For instance, in my last workout I squatted 240 for 3 (yes, I know, I have a long way to go). I would write that for my first set, and do the same for the other two work sets.
Repeat this process for all of your exercises, in all of your workouts.
I’ve also organized my workouts into a folder, called, creatively, “Workouts,” which I suggest you do too.
Let’s say you want to do more complex styles of training, such as circuits, alternate sets, supersets, or varying rest periods. It’s easy with this system.
List your exercises in Evernote the same way you could any other workout, set up your circuit, and go through it as many times as you need to.
After your circuit, add how many sets you completed, what weight you used, and how many reps you performed in each set.
If you’re switching between two or more exercises with longer rest periods, which is a great way to save time without decreasing your performance, that’s easy to track with this system too. Just use symbols.
Let’s say you want to alternate between calf raises and weighted situps, like I did when I made this note. Put an asterisks next to the exercises you’re alternating between, and leave a key to remind you what the symbol means.
Use the same system as alternate sets. If you’re doing both in the same workout, use a different symbol like a carrot (^) for your circuits and and asterisks for your alternate sets.
Now that your workouts are planned and ready, it’s time to hit the gym.
3. Update Your Workouts from Your Phone While You’re at the Gym
When you get to the gym, open the note that has your workout for the day.
Start your workout. If you normally use your phone as a stopwatch between sets, I recommend using a wrist watch instead. It’s a little annoying to switch between Evernote, the stopwatch, and your music (if you’re like me and have music ADD).
After each set, update your workout with your new performance. The best part is that you only have to change one or two numbers in most cases, instead of writing a whole new page in a paper workout journal.
Let’s use my leg workout as an example. Here’s one of the exercises I did today:
Next week, I’m going to add 5 pounds to my squat (well, that’s the plan). I’ll only have to change a few numbers to update my workout. If I had been using a paper journal, it would have taken several times as long.
Another benefit of this system is that you know exactly what you did in your last workout. You don’t need to flip back to the last page of your workout journal, because the information is right in front of you.
If you need to, leave some notes below each set or at the bottom of your note on how your workout felt. For instance, you might write “Went to failure on the last set,” or “Shoulder felt a little weird on overhead press.”
It’s also a good idea to leave a few notes on what you’re going to change in the next workout.
Here’s a note I left a few weeks ago:
If I hadn’t made that note, I might have assumed that I should try to add reps or progress in some other way. Instead, I was able to add weight and reps the next week workout when I was better rested and fueled.
If you wait until your next workout to plan, you’ll never remember how your last one felt. Do this during your workouts or immediately after.
As you update your workout, Evernote will constantly be syncing your progress with your computer. If the app suddenly crashes or your battery dies, your data will still be safe.
There’s just one problem — how do you keep track of your long-term progress if you’re always updating and editing your workouts?
4. Track Your Strength in a Spreadsheet, Too
In addition to tracking your daily progress, you should also keep a long-term record of your stats so you can see how far you’ve come.
Here’s the easiest way to do that:
Open a new spreadsheet and save it as “2014 Training Log” or something similar. I create a new spreadsheet for every year of training, and I suggest you do the same.
Create a new table and title it “Strength Workouts,” or “Super Strong Butterfly Dragon Records,” or whatever you’ll remember.
You can configure this table any way you want, and the variables you track depend on your goals. If you want to get stronger, it’s more important to track your maximum weight for each lift. If you’re focused on hypertrophy, it’s more important to record your volume.
Here are some of the primary metrics you may want to track:
- The date.
- The maximum amount of weight you lifted.
- The number of sets you completed.
- The number of reps in each set.
- The total amount of weight lifted per exercise (weight x reps x sets).
- How you felt on a scale of 1-5.
- The total amount of time you spent in the gym.
You don’t need to track all of those things. Right now, I’m tracking the maximum amount of weight I lifted, and the total amount of weight I lifted per exercise.
This allows me to track small details from workout to workout, like exactly how many reps I did per set, yet only track the most important numbers over time, like my absolute strength.
When you get home, open Evernote on your computer. Find the note with the workout you just finished. Open your strength training spreadsheet. Then fill out the spreadsheet with whatever metrics you’re tracking at that time.
If you can’t remember the exact date you trained, look at your Evernote file. It tells you when the note was last updated:
I recommend you update your spreadsheet after every workout. I used to wait until the end of the week and update the spreadsheet at once, but I would usually forget.
You might be wondering, why not use Google Spreadsheets to track my workouts at the gym, so I don’t have to copy and paste them later?
There are several reasons Google Spreadsheets doesn’t work as well:
1. It requires a good internet connection, which you don’t need with this system. (This also means I can’t listen to Pandora at my gym, which is another tragedy).
2. You have to click a little “Edit” button every time you want to update the spreadsheet, which almost triples how long it takes to update each exercise.
3. If your mobile browser restarts, you have to open it again, type in the URL for Google Spreadsheets, and waste a few minutes opening the app.
Does This System Still Work if You’re a Trainer or Client?
Yes, but it requires a little more work. If you’re training clients, this is still an easy way to keep track of their progress.
There are several ways to do this, from best to worst
1. Use the normal system as outlined above, and ask your client to share the spreadsheet with you through a file sharing service like Dropbox or Box.
2. Have your client copy and paste their workouts into an email at the end of every week. This is also extremely time consuming for you and your client. I feel like shanking myself with a sharpened toothbrush if I spend more than about an hour reading emails, so this is a no-go for me.
3. Ask them for their Evernote username and password so you can login to their account and review their progress. I don’t like this approach as I respect my client’s privacy, and it would take far too much time for each client.
This also requires you to keep scrolling back and forth between their workouts to see how much progress they’ve made. In my opinion, this still takes too much time and increases the risk of missing something important.
Here’s what I do:
I create workouts for my clients, and put them in a Google Doc. They copy and paste the workouts into notes in Evernote.
They use Evernote to update their workouts while at the gym.
I create a shared Google Spreadsheet with their exercises listed in the top of each column, and the date on the far left column. They copy and paste their data for each exercise into the corresponding column at the end of every week. It generally takes about 10-15 minutes.
Here’s an example:
Finally, I have them email me a link to their spreadsheet, along with any other subjective notes or questions they have.
This is the fastest, and easiest way I’ve found to help my clients and myself save time and review workouts faster. You may not need to do this, depending on what your client’s goals are. But it’s a good system if they’re trying to get stronger.
Tracking your workouts doesn’t have to be a pain.
I forget who said it, but someone once told me that “if you aren’t tracking your workouts, you aren’t training, you’re just throwing weights around.”
But that doesn’t mean you need to monitor every detail of every workout. Generally, there are only a few key metrics that matter. Your job is to find the easiest way to monitor those data points over time. Paper and pencil can work, but you’ll save time if you use the above system.
What system do you use to track your workouts?
What are your best tips to make logging your strength workouts easier and faster?
Let me know in the comments section below.
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