How a pen and paper could improve your fitness

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Ask almost anyone who works out regularly what they do in the gym and you’ll usually hear, “Well, I usually do some chest exercises, some arm exercises and then I go for a run.

On other days I do leg presses and some ab work and I go for a swim.” Just a simple description of their personal routine as they try to get or stay in better shape. Is there anything wrong with that? No, of course not, but I would argue that these people are missing a crucial element. It’s not a super secret exercise or supplement or killer attitude; it’s the simple act of writing things down.

Routine in the Gym

Writing down absolutely everything you do in the gym gives you a powerful tool to measure progress. You can have a handle on things —how you look in the mirror, how your clothes fit, some of the weights you use, or your treadmill setting—without writing them down. But your personal appearance changes incredibly slowly (especially once you’ve been working out for a while), clothes aren’t going to fit much differently unless it’s a suit you wear once a month, and who can really remember how many reps you did on the bench press two weeks ago with 155lbs on the bar?exercicies gym

Writing everything down means you know exactly what is happening with your body. It could be as simple as your strength on a single exercise or notes scrawled in the margin about little aches and pains. I can’t remember how many times I’ve looked back over my log and recognized patterns of accumulated stress and injury which I would never have noticed without my notes.

What if you’re just trying to get in shape and don’t care how strong you are or how fast you can run?  What’s the point of knowing that on August 12th you benched 180 lbs 6 times, then did 3 sets of 5 pullups and ran 2 miles in 15 minutes?  It’s this: ‘getting in shape’ means getting stronger, losing fat, and/or improving metabolic fitness and flexibility.

How do you objectively measure those things? By recording them each and every time you go to the gym, and making incremental improvements on every measure! You CAN’T get that much stronger (bigger or more “toned” muscles) without consistently lifting more weight. You CAN’T get “fitter” without running/rowing/biking faster or for longer periods of time. Without the notebook it’s very difficult to force yourself to systematically improve. If 5 pullups were hard last week, they’ll be hard this week. But doing just 1 more pullup every week means that in a month you’ll be doing 9; in two months, 13!

Not only does tracking all this information allow you to work out more intelligently, it also gives you a fantastic motivational tool every time you crack it open! Without exception, every one of my clients begins training without really caring about the numbers, they just want get in “better shape” and don’t mind working hard while they’re in the gym. Beyond that they don’t really care about what weight is on the bar, the times of their workouts, or how fast they can run.

But a funny thing happens after about 3-4 weeks of personal training. Each person begins asking me about the weight on the bar: “What are we doing today? How much more than last week?” They begin to care about keeping track, and measuring progress. But, the best part is always when I tell (or show) them how far they’ve come. However much better they feel or look, it’s still not as great as the satisfaction in their faces when they see an entry from their first week training saying something like, “Back Squat: 3 sets of 5 with 95lbs” and one month later, “Back Squat: 3 sets of 5 with 165lbs”.

There’s no other way to get that same feeling, and it all comes from putting just 5 or 10 more pounds on the bar each and every workout.

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