There are a couple of great ways to keep track of your progress in the gym, whether those goals are building muscle or burning fat. Keeping track of progress visually with photographs and video can be of great benefit for either goal, but there are a variety of opinions on the idea of keeping a training journal. Some believe that it takes focus away from training and limits you to doing that which you’ve already done by having you use the same weights all the time. Others feel that it’s a great way to track your progress and speed up your training by keeping the guess work out of the mix.
I’m of the mindset that anything you can do to keep track of your progress will help to keep you moving forward. Plus, keeping track of everything, and saving the records, can help you to figure out what works for you—or what doesn’t work. If your gains have stagnated, or if you’ve come across repetitive injuries, you can look back and see exactly what you were doing that didn’t work for you. That can obviously work regarding positive results, too. If you’ve had periods when you’ve felt your best and had your best gains, then you can go back to using those methods again.
How Do You Keep a Training Journal?
There are multiple ways to keep a training journal, and it can be anything from a notebook or printed card to an app or notebook feature on a mobile device. I generally prefer to stay away from my electronic devices while training, as I find it too easy to get distracted by email. If you’re like me, you can just pack a small notebook and pencil or some paper on a small clipboard into your gym bag. The e-books at X-Rep.com and X-Workouts.com are based on that idea, so they have printable workout templates. That way you can simply print out and follow the programs and write down your weights, reps and any changes you make right on the workout templates. It’s still a great idea to use a small clipboard and a pencil, as it can be hard to find a good writing surface in most gyms.
True, if you’re not used to it, it can be somewhat annoying to carry a notebook around at first, but I believe it’s worth it, as you’ll build more muscle faster when you can check on the exact weight you used at your last workout. This saves you from struggling to remember what you used previously, and the numbers can be a power-packed source of motivation, as you’ll likely find yourself wanting to surpass what you had done in the past.
What Do You Record on a Training Journal?
Record the weight used on every set you do along with the number of reps. For example, during your rest between your first set of bench presses and the next, if you did a warmup set with 135 pounds for 10 reps you’d write:
Bench presses: 135 x 10
After your rest period, if you did a heavier work set with 185 pounds for eight reps, then you’d make another journal entry after your second set, and the page would look something like this:
Bench presses: 135 x 10, 185 x 8
Do this for every exercise so that at your next workout you can just look back to see what you did, and attempt to better your performance with either more reps or more weight if possible. Progression is a big key to muscle-building results, so using more weight and/or performing more reps for longer time under tension can translate into visible gains. Keep in mind that these increases won’t happen at every workout, however. Try to better your performance whenever possible, but don’t allow yourself to get discouraged or frustrated when your strength remains the same for a few workouts in a row. Building size and strength—or losing fat for that matter—is always a gradual process. Be patient, enjoy the process, and don’t sacrifice exercise form and safety just to use more weight. Injuries are counterproductive to your progress.
Other Ways To Track Progress
Another incredibly effective way to track progress is through photographs and video. We’ve all relied on a scale at some point in our lives, but unless you’re needing to seriously shed weight for health reasons, losing weight just for the sake of a number is pointless. I always refer to the scale as a liar, or at least a half-truth teller. It really gives no meaningful information. Measuring bodyfat isn’t always convenient for most people, so the photographs and video help to track your story in the best way.
Taking photos or video doesn’t mean that you need to share them with anyone else, but as long as you set them up properly, they are probably one of the most valuable and motivating methods of tracking progress. That’s because you can absolutely see if you’re reaching your goals, and you can use that information to motivate you to stay on track, or to work harder. While it may be tempting to skip the camera and use the mirror instead, I’d really suggest against that. The mirror is a tricky temptress who likes to play head games based on the way you feel at any given moment. She is not to be trusted!
When setting up to take your progress photos, make it as simple as possible. You don’t have to be in your birthday suit, obviously, but make sure as much of you is visible as is comfortably possible. Wear shorts and no shirt if your a man, or shorts and a sports bra or bathing suit if you’re a woman.
Tips for Taking Your Progress Pictures
If you have someone with whom you’re comfortable, ask them to take the photos for you, or simply use a tripod. Make sure you use the same exact location for both you and the camera, as well as the same lighting, and then just be sure to take a series of photos with you in the same poses. There’s no need to become a bodybuilder for the day if you don’t want, since shots from the front, rear and each side should be enough, but a few typical bodybuilding-type poses will help gauge progress quite a bit. Again, whatever poses you use, just be sure to stand in the same spot and hold yourself in an identical way each time if possible.
Don’t take photos too often, as that could work against you since it does take time for changes to be visible, but once every 7-14 days should be sufficient. Since week-by-week progress may appear slow on the surface, it’s usually best to compare new photos to those from the beginning, or at least a few weeks prior, rather than the most recent photos. Whether your trying to put on muscle or reduce bodyfat, looking back at the pictures and comparing them will help to show exactly where you were, where you are, and how close you are to achieving your goals.
Below is a sample of doing it almost right. The location and lighting are identical for each shot, but you can see from the background that the camera wasn’t in the exact same position, and it was zoomed in a bit closer for the last photo, and the pose wasn’t duplicated exactly. You can see the progress fairly well, however, and these also show that a little bit of sunshine can help a lot.
Remember that keeping track of your progress not only will help to motivate you during your bodybuilding journey, but also, will help to troubleshoot your program when needed. It will also provide you with a roadmap of what works for you and what doesn’t so be sure that you start tracking your progress today!
About the Author
Jonathan Lawson has been working in the health and fitness industry for over 20 years; weight training for 21 years, competed in numerous bodybuilding competitions, worked for IRON MAN Magazine for 17 years, co-owns X-Rep.com where he has co-published over 15 e-books and writes a daily training blog. He has appeared on the covers of, and been featured in, dozens of international magazines, books and e-books.