I balance two 25 pound plates on the barbell, place the sweat rag along the bench and position myself beneath the bar to warm up on the bench press. I stare up at the bar, check in with my body, and position my hands perfectly before I realize… “Crap! I forget the fitness journal upstairs!”.
After weight training 4-5 days a week for about a year and a half, I plateaued. My workouts had grown predictable, my muscles were getting visibly thicker but not stronger, and I needed an affordable way to motivate myself (i.e. I couldn’t afford a personal trainer) and revamp my post-work sweat-sesh. So, after January came and went and 2017 hadn’t magically brought me #gains, I embarked on a February Fitness Resolution: to log all my workouts for the month of February. When I came down with the flu the first week of the month, I edited my goal accordingly.
So from February 6th-March 6th I began keeping track of every part of my workout: how many reps, how many sets, how hard it was on a scale of 1-10, and a quick 1-3 sentence summary of my lift. Since, I had been gifted a fitness journal by the strongest woman I know for the holidays, and because her biceps give mine a run for their money, I went into my resolution with high hopes… and I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s what I learned and how my workouts improved.
1. Organizing A Fitness Journal Is Hard … But I Finally Got Into A Groove
My first attempt of logging my workouts went horribly. My writing was eligible. I realized I didn’t know the names of half the workouts I’ve been doing for 18 plus months. A push press got called shoulder pushes. Russian kettlebell swings got called KB wooshes. Cleans with a kettlebell got called KB up & downs. My weight-lifting vocabulary needed some serious work.
By week 4 I had gotten into my fitness journaling groove: I began planning out my workouts ahead of time, which gave me time to look up the proper name for all the exercises, look back at the weights I had done throughout the previous three weeks and accurately predict how much weight I could bench, curl, and press either during or after warming up. When I planned my workouts ahead of time I left the “reps” box blank, so that during my workout that was the only section that needed to be filled in.
While at the beginning of of the month I found the journal to be a distraction away from my workout, by the fourth week I had found a system that worked, and I am glad as heck that I kept with it because it’s pretty rewarding flip back through the pages and see how much work I’ve put in in a month.
2. It Is Very Hard To Log A CrossFit® Workout On Paper
I began doing CrossFit two weeks into this experiment after a friend of mine who works for a local CrossFit box hooked me up with a set of free classes. Stopping during class to write how the warm-up, WOD, and warm down complete with sets, reps, and weight was not possible. Which meant that when I logged my WOD’s into my fitness journal I often forget important details such as my one-rep max, how long the workout took me to complete, or whether the workout finished with a 25 calorie row or a 500 meter row.
I began going to the 6am CrossFit class, so when I incorporated CrossFit into my fitness schedule I did not stop lifting weights on my own after work. My new morning activity was hard to track in my journal while in class, so often I went to my CrossFit boxes website where the WOD was posted, and copied the workout right from the website into my journal and when I remember the weight I used or the time I completed the workout in, I included that as well.
If I continue to drink the CrossFit Kool Aid I will download and use a tracking app that the most invested CrossFitters use to track their workouts, which is an app I researched, but did not begin using, because I was committed to using only a paper-log for a month.
3. It Kept Me Accountable
Many dietitians and trainers suggest keeping a food and/or a workout journal to track progress and daily intake because it keeps you accountable. I was skeptical whether or not I would feel motivated by “some paper and a pen”, but I did experience the valuable asset of task completion when at the end of my workout I saw a detailed chart of my hard work.
At the beginning of the month I decided that I would leave a page blank in my fitness journal for every day I did not work out or took a rest day. Many days it was this ~fear~ of the blank page forced me to go to the gym 6 days a week. On my rest day I often spent extra time foam rolling or stretching my muscles so that I would get the reward of writing it down in my fitness journal after.
4. My Warmups Got Shorter and I Got Stronger
Because the journal only had so many boxes, I stopped spending as much time warming up, and began dedicating more time to actually lifting heavy weights. After the first three days of filling out 8 boxes just from warming up, I realized that my workouts were not as efficient as they could be and I was tiring myself out before the heart of my workout even started.
By limited myself to three warm up sets (or 3 boxes) I gave myself both more room in the fitness journal to track my progress and had more energy to actually reach and surpass my fitness goals. At the beginning of my experiment I had plateaued on my bench press at 1 rep of 155 pounds and 3 reps at 135 pounds, however, by the end of my experiment I had bench pressed 1 rep of 165 pounds and 5 reps at 135 pounds.
5. I Got More Flexible
At the top left corner of my fitness journal I had the option to to check yes or no for a box labeled stretching. While I would usually rush back to the locker room after completing my last set so that I could get home and beat the hanger that was sure to set in if I didn’t make it home by 8:30pm to cook dinner, I wanted to check that damn box… so I stayed and stretched.
While I never stretched or foam-rolled more than 10 minutes, after a month of 10 minute stretch-sessions, I am finally able to touch my toes (a feat I stopped being able to do after training for a marathon tightened up my hamstrings and hips). While my new-found flexibility is more a testament to my stubbornness than anything else, I have my fitness journal to thank.
6. I Developed A Love/Hate With The Journal
Even after I had begun seeing how positively the journal was impacting my sweat-sessions, there were still some days where taking meticulous notes on my workout was the last thing I wanted to do. Some days I was feeling exhausted from work and writing the details felt like a chore, especially when I wanted to zone out and get my sweat on.
Now that the month is over, I’m glad that I kept track even on the days when it felt like a hassle, but on those days taking pen to paper was annoying.
7. I Felt More In Touch With My Body
By writing down my workouts, and filling in the additional information section at the bottom of the log, I dedicated an additional few minutes to touching in with my body. I started with my toes: Hows that broken toe on my right foot feeling? And moved slowly up my body to asses each muscle group: How are my shoulders holding up after a day a push presses and clean jerks? Do I need to take an additional few minutes to roll out my lats or massage my forearms? Can my body handle my “cash out” set of 10 pull-ups today, or should I skip?
After checking in with my body I recorded the BEST and WORST part of my workouts. Some days the best part included, “Learned the name of the strong rugby player I’ve seen in the locker room”, other days the best part was finally hitting that 160 bench press PR. Some days the worst part was “Felt very dehydrated” or “Kept weights light in preparation for early morning CrossFit WOD which I can tell will be hard”.
At the end of the month I had finally broken through my plateaus. I was pushing, curling, squatting, and deadlifting the most weight I ever had. But more than just getting stronger, I also finally learned the names of the my weight-lifting moves, am the most flexible I have been in years, and realized that my workouts weren’t as efficient as they could be.
While a portion of the improvements I saw during my month resulted from my mental stubbornness, I did see real physical improvements. Either way, keeping a fitness journal has really benefited my body and mind, making it a habit I will gladly continue… at least until my biceps outsize my gifter’s.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.