“Keep a training journal” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to beginners. And, for the most part, it’s good advice! As I’ll explain, there are plenty of benefits to keeping a training journal. But there are some drawbacks, too, and you should be aware of those. This article will explain both the pros and cons of training journals, and hopefully convince you on why you should keep one – but that you should also use it very carefully.
Benefits of Keeping a Journal
Don’t get it twisted: there are plenty of benefits of keeping a training journal, and those should not be overlooked. In my opinion, these are the most important reasons why you should keep a journal or log of your workouts:
- To create a record of progress. Strength training is a long-term practice, not a one-off deal. It’s great to walk out of the gym thinking, “hey, that was a great workout,” but if you’re concerned about performance, you should be more concerned about hitting PRs and sticking to a plan. And to know whether you’re doing that, you need to keep a record of what you’ve done in the past.
- To keep you responsible. On a related note, people come into the gym and do the same thing they did last time… and the time before that… and the time before that. Progressive resistance is the key to long-term success in strength sports, and in bodybuilding, but without a record of progress, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that you’re bigger or stronger than you were in the past.
- To help with post-hoc analysis. Finally, if you’re using a journal properly, then after a training cycle, you go back over your records and try to determine what worked and what didn’t – and then you adjust your future training accordingly. Both of those things are key! There’s no use in trying to adjust your training if you aren’t able to tell what worked for you and what went poorly. And if you identify what you need to do, but don’t act on that information, you’re not going to get anywhere.
The relative value of those benefits is going to be highly dependent on your level of experience. For raw beginners, accountability and short-term analysis are absolutely crucial for sustained progress. But many advanced lifters won’t struggle with accountability, and they’ll have reached a point where short-term performance is as dependent on external circumstances as it is on training. For those lifters, a journal might be less useful; or it might only be useful when many different variables or qualitative observations are recorded.
…And the Lesser-Known Drawbacks
Now, despite those benefits, there are some drawbacks of keeping a journal, and I think those are much less well-known. That’s unfortunate, because it’s pretty important that you understand those trade-offs if you want to optimize your training. Again, you could probably come up with quite a few drawbacks, but these are the two that stick out the most in my mind:
- Simply keeping a journal can create a lot of mental pressure. For those lifters who love to compete with themselves, a journal often becomes a double-edged sword. In every training session, you should strive to perform as best as you possibly can in that session. If you’re constantly feeling pressure to perform at the best you’ve ever been, you create a lot of unrealistic expectations and negative emotions, and that often causes those lifters to overreach.
- Depending on how you track your training, you may also suffer from information overload. I mentioned above that more advanced lifters may need to track more variables to really benefit from a training journal. But if you’re tracking too much – regardless of your level of experience – then it becomes easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. You will probably struggle to determine what information is relevant and what isn’t; and as a result you may make poor decisions about your training.
So, should you keep a training journal? Ultimately, that’s up to you, but I would recommend that you do. For most people, the benefits of keeping one outweigh the drawbacks – but only if you use your journal mindfully!
If you find yourself agonizing about falling short of old PRs, or stuck in a loop of analysis paralysis, then take a step back, take a few deep breaths, and recognize that by far the most important part of your training is what you’re doing right now. If your past performances are creating a distraction from the here and now, then put the journal aside for a bit, and come back to it when you’re feeling a little more focused.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.