There’s a famous scene in the story of Alice on the Interwebz (that I just made up) that goes something like this:
“Internet cat, how do I get fit?” asked Alice.
“That depends,” said the cat. “How fit do you want to be?”
“Umm… I dunno. I just wanna look like the beautiful people on Instagram,” replied Alice.
The cat responded, “Then just jump on the latest fitness bandwagon. Everyone else is doing it.”
Poor Alice. She doesn’t really know where she wants to be, nor does she keep track of where she’s going. She wanders aimlessly and follows whatever fitness trend comes her way. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.
Are you in the same boat?
When you go the gym, do you know what you did last time? And do you know exactly what you hope to accomplish this time?
Or do you show up and do a few random exercises based on which body part you think needs the most work?
How is your current approach working for you?
These might be tough questions to ask, and even tougher to answer honestly.
Unfortunately, most people don’t really know whether or not they’re truly improving. They might have some vague indicators like how they feel or how they look. But it’s all subjective.
If you’re serious about changing your body, you need a solid “definition of victory,” and you need to measure your progress toward it. Otherwise, you have no real direction and no definite path toward improvement. You can buy products and follow programs, but you’ll be running on the proverbial (or literal) treadmill indefinitely.
So how, exactly, do you go about measuring and tracking your workouts? How do you use that information?
- First, set specific, measurable goals that are performance-oriented.
- Next, measure your workouts in detail (preferably with software).
- Then use your measurements to progressively adjust the demands you place on your body to bring about adaptation.
- Lastly, review the data, and make adjustments if something isn’t working.
Sounds easy enough, right? These principles are fairly straightforward, but putting them into action is a struggle for many. Let’s take a closer look.
Set Performance-oriented Goals
Mark Twight, trainer of the actors for the film 300, once said that, “appearance is a consequence of fitness.” This is a true statement. Avoid appearance- or attribute-oriented goals like “losing 15 pounds of fat” or “gaining 15 pounds of muscle.”
Instead, set performance related goals, like running a half marathon within a given amount of time or lifting designated amounts of weight for all four major lifts (bench press, shoulder press, squats and deadlifts).
Your goals might look something like this:
If all you’re tracking is the pounds of fat you’ve lost or the muscle you’ve gained, you’ll have no way to know exactly what’s contributing to your progress, or what’s holding you back.
Performance-oriented goals align directly to a specific adaptation that can be measured and tracked over time. For example, increasing your max bench press from 225 pounds to 250 pounds will require certain muscles in the upper body to adapt by getting bigger and stronger.
But focusing on performance measures what really matters in terms of actually bringing about those adaptations, which is the ability to perform the specific task. This also focuses your efforts on workouts designed around that task. There’s no point in wasting time on things that do not improve performance. Because if you don’t actually improve performance, you won’t change your appearance.
Measure Your Workouts
Like I said before, you’ve got to be diligent about measuring your workouts. And sorry, a Fitbit doesn’t count. That will cover your most basic activity levels, but you need real data on specific movements. That’s the only way you’ll be able to track your progress toward the performance-oriented goals we just talked about.
This isn’t a very complicated process. The main challenge is just doing it. Even when you have a paper worksheet or a spreadsheet, many times you just don’t bother with it. But I actually get that. I avoid using paper whenever possible, and a workout spreadsheet gets clunky. They’re especially inconvenient to use on your phone.
Whatever method you end up using to record your workouts, you’ll want to keep track of as many details as you can. When tracking a lifting workout, for example, record the amount of weight and the number of reps for each set.
On Fytt, a workout measurement looks like this:
The important thing is that you can easily review your performance and use that data to progressively improve on your next workout.
Unless you barely started exercising, or unless you’ve pushed your body close to the limits of human performance (few people do), the body adapts and improves in a fairly linear fashion. You can’t double your bench press or cut your average mile time in half over a short period of time. Progress should be fairly steady, logical and incremental. And sometimes it takes a while.
But you can’t progressively improve performance unless you progressively change the demands placed on your body. And you can’t make progressive changes unless you’re measuring what you’ve done in the past.
The goal is to do better than you did last time, even if it’s just a little bit. So each time you step up to the bar, or get on the track, or perform whatever task you’re working on, aim for incremental improvement.
Don’t get discouraged if performance dips every once in a while, or even a few times in a row. Given the nature of our bodies and the stress of our lives, it’s virtually impossible to achieve peak performance every single time. The important thing is you’re trending in the right direction overall.
Your trend might look something like this:
This is good. Things are progressively getting better, even though it’s not a perfectly smooth trajectory.
By measuring your workouts, you’ll know if you’re headed in the right direction. If you’re not progressing, you can analyze your performance and make adjustments.
Keep in mind, however, that the body is a very complex organism. There are many systems and environmental factors at play, so you have to look at the big picture. Your workout routine might not be the problem. Other components to consider include the following:
Your body needs adequate sleep in order to recover from stressful physical activity. If you consistently get less than 7-9 hours of sleep, you’re probably sleep deprived. Improving performance will be more difficult under these circumstances.
Time Between Workouts
You also need to give your body plenty of time to recover in between workouts. Don’t focus on the same system or set of muscles too often, or those muscles and systems will get fatigued. The body has trouble adapting if you overtrain.
In order to recover from physical stress, your body needs adequate nutrition. This includes a healthy mix of carbs, fats and protein, as well as vitamins and minerals. A dietary deficiency in any of these components can inhibit your body’s ability to function properly. This is a whole topic in and of itself, but Micheal Pollan gives the most sound and succinct advice here: “Eat [whole, unprocessed] food. Mostly plants. Not to much.”
As you become more fit and your body becomes more accustomed to a sport or a movement, recording and tracking your performance becomes even more important. You can get away with keeping sloppy records in the beginning, but detailed tracking and deliberate programming become critical for continued improvement.
However, even if you don’t consider yourself an advanced athlete, you can still benefit from recording and measuring your workouts. Anyone who truly wants to improve their fitness should be tracking their performance. It keeps you honest, it keeps you motivated, and it keeps you on the right track.