How and Why to Keep a Training Journal

Jean's Training Log

The Following was written by Coach Aaron Tandem

Do you workout? Or, train for anything in particular, even if it’s for its own sake?

That’s good!

Have you been doing it for years?

Even better!

But, do you know exactly what you were doing on October 17th of 2013?


I do.

It’s actually quite a surreal feeling to pull out one of my first ever training journals, flip to one of the beginning pages, and laugh to myself, “That’s what I was doing? Ha! I was so weak.” Or, even better, “THAT’s what I thought was a good idea to reach my goals? Wow, if I only I knew then what I know now.”

Which is part of the fun, really.

Having a training journal is much like taking photographs and then putting them into an album. You get to store some memories, keep track of things you did, and maybe use some of the less-than-good ideas as a learning opportunity. Or, at the very least, know never do to it again. Hopefully.

You may have heard before that it’s probably a good idea to have a training journal of some sort. So, without any further adieu, let’s go through at least a few reasons why you should.

Reason #1: If You’re Not Assessing, You’re Guessing

In one of the first questions I asked you, I enquired as to whether or not you knew exactly what you were doing exercise-wise on a certain date a few years back. Now, while you don’t necessarily need to be as meticulous as I am with my training journal notes, having at least some mild, written recollection of what you’ve accomplished will help you understand just how far you’ve come.

Frequently, you’ll hear us say at Empowered Strength: “If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing.”

Which is equal parts us being helpful and pretentious.

What it means is pretty simple. If you’re not taking a proactive role in understanding what you’ve been doing and ascertaining as to whether or not those actions have moved you closer towards your goal . . . well, then you’re just doing random stuff and hoping something works. A wise man once said: “If you don’t know where you going, any road will get you there.” I suppose this can said another way: “If you don’t keep track of what you’re doing, then you’ll never know if it’s working.”

It’s a rather simple concept, really. And, it’s the only way to truly know whether or not you should change the program you’re working on, or just stay the course and don’t fix what ain’t broken.

I can’t tell you how many times an individual has told me:

“I just don’t feel like I’m making any progress.”

But, when they finally look at the records of their training that he or she has taken, it’s quite obvious that progress has been made.

Reason #2: Your Memory Sucks

Ok. Maybe that’s a bit rude.

But, do you remember what you had for breakfast this morning?

Isn’t it crazy how many times the answer to that questions is also, “No?”

This simple fact becomes extra important when you’re following a training plan that requires a little more complexity than just “go workout.” For an example, if one of your goals is to pack on some more muscle mass, then you know you need to lift some heavy weights, and with quite a bit of cumulative volume, and with progressive overload over time.

Or, let’s say your goal is more cardiovascular in nature and you want to gradually increase your running volume from 10 miles a week, to 100 miles a week. It wouldn’t make much sense to just jump straight from 10 to 100 right? No, that would be ridiculous. But, tell me which week of running has more miles in it: The one where you ran 5, 12, 3, 6, and 7 mile runs during the week, or the one where you ran 15, 2, 4, and 9 miles during the week?

If you’re like me, you probably had to take second to add up all those numbers in your head and then compare them to decide which week had more miles in it. Now, imagine you dozens of weeks like these. Could you keep all of those numbers in order accurately in that brain of yours?

I sure can’t.

It works the same no matter what type or style of consistent training you may be doing. Writing it down will aid you in the long run, by allowing you to store the information somewhere besides your memory.

Plus, there’s just something satisfying about finishing another training journal as a tangible representation that you’ve been keeping up with your physical health:

Aaron's Training Journals
(Aaron’s current two training journals. One has significantly more noticeable wear and tear on it.)

Reason #3: You can Track Your Recovery

Have you ever had a training session where you “just weren’t feeling it?”

I know I’ve had more than my fair share.

But, if you make it a habit of keeping track of your overall energy and perceived recovery per session, you can glean quite a bit of useful information for yourself. For example, if you’ve been keeping a log of training sessions as per the first two reasons above, and you realize that you’re actually NOT making the progress you’d like to see but still feel pretty fresh each session, then this means you can (and should) likely do more stuff to get the results you’d like to see.

The opposite is also true!

If you notice that the last week’s worth of exercises just leave you feeling zonked, and you’re not making the progress you want .  . . Well, then maybe it’s time to do a little rest, or give yourself permission to take a week off!

Seriously. That’s allowed sometimes.

That’s why it’s good to also keep track of how you feel each and every session (or even just on a weekly basis) to understand your body’s response to training as objectively as possible. I know of a few individuals who train 2 hours a day and have never taken a break since they started. That may or may not be within your capabilities. And, even if is, every single individual I’ve ever met who trains that way is always injured in some shape or form.

Choose your battles.

How to do it

Now that you’ve got yourself a training log, here’s what the heck you should do with it:

Things to keep track of:

  • Today’s Date (of course)
  • The specific week you may happen to be on, if relevant
  • Also, the specific day
  • The exercises that you’re doing, with the reps, sets, and weights used
  • Supersets or “paired” exercises if relevant
  • Difficulty of the workout using the RPE scale
  • Any pertinent notes to specific sessions or weeks

Seem like a lot? It’s really not too bad, and should look something like this:

Week 2Monday, June 6th, 2016
(Day 1)KB Press, 3x(1,2,3):
28kg: (1,2,3), (1,2,2), (1,2,2)
Pull Ups, 3×8-12:
12, 9, 8
KB Swings, 80% effort, 8 min:
28kg x 110 total reps
14 RPE; felt hard, but manageable. Missed a few reps due to “groove.”

That’s really about it.

Does it need to look exactly like this? No. But, you do want to keep track of as much as you can without getting too bogged down in the details.

You’ll find your own system eventually, but this is a very good layout to begin with. Get into the habit of doing this every day you train.

RPE Scale

6 < – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – 13 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – >20

Where 6 is “Practically No Exertion,” 13 is “Somewhat Challenging,” and 20 is “This is INSANE.”  

Now . . .

Have at it!

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