In Defense of the Training Log
By: Barbell Logic Team
There are many reasons to keep a training log. Most are practical, a few esoteric. The training log is part of the lifting culture. More practically, however, the act of writing something down on paper is an act of organization, making your training log the organic memory of your training. You “get” the significance of the set of “fahve” and how such a small number can impact your whole day. Even the basic recording of exercises, loads, sets, and reps, when viewed over weeks, months, or years, provides a great deal of insight into your unique responses to training variables.
How to Keep a Training Log (and Why)
“A training log is kept by every serious trainee as a record of his history under the bar. It is an important source of data for determinations regarding staleness, overtraining, the effectiveness of newly added exercises, and the overall effectiveness of the training program. Sometimes it may be necessary to make large-scale changes in the program due to an unexpected lack of response, the inability to recover from the program because of individual lifestyle factors outside the trainee’s control, or a change in the athlete’s training goals. The log records trends in both training and schedule compliance that have a definite bearing on progress. It should include the athlete’s impressions of that day’s workouts, useful cues discovered, and any other subjective information that might serve a purpose later. It might also include notes about sleep, diet, and other information pertinent to recovery. It is an essential tool for both trainee and coach, and as such is not optional.” Practical Programming for Strength Training, Rippetoe and Baker (Aasgaard 2013) (3d ed.)
A Log is for Serious Training
If you are at all serious about your training, you need to keep a training log. If you keep a training log, it needs to be filled out by you (as opposed to a coach or someone else). And when you fill it out, it should be in some form of hardcopy notebook. Everything else is a redundant backup—in case of fire, flood, hurricane, or other force majeure ruins your hard copy.
There are many reasons to keep a training log. Most are practical, a few esoteric. Let’s get the latter out of the way. We believe that strength training should be commonplace, it should be part of everyone’s daily regimen. The benefits are too great that it should be otherwise. But, it is not. In most people’s circles, strength training is fringe and barbell training specifically may be considered extreme. Whether you intend it or not, you are part of a relatively small population who gets what it is like to actually train. And you get the significance of the set of “fahve” and how such a small number can impact your whole day.
The training log is part of what we do. It is part of the lifting culture. Can you write your training log in a spreadsheet and apply all kinds of cool formulae to it? Sure, but you should still write it down on paper. Can you have your program delivered via email and automatically logged? Also, yes, but you should still keep a hard copy at home. The act of writing in a training log is part of the ritual of training. You start with a warmup and you end with a record, every time. Doing otherwise breaks the cycle and, while it may seem inconsequential, it is one less thing you are doing consistently, one less practice that keeps your training serious.
More practically, however, the act of writing something down on paper is an act of organization and memory as well. When you write, your brain engages the information differently than if you simply type or record it otherwise. Sometimes called “the paper effect,” when you write something down you force the information through a conscious organizational process. For most people this process allows them to attach not only information to the writing but also impressions, sensations, and articles of memory. When we type, the method is more about mindlessly recording base information, but when we write more of our senses are engaged in the act, making the information more memorable, easier to recall, and easier to consider critically in different contexts.
And that, really, is what a training log is for. It is the organic memory of your training. At some point, there is no other motivation to train than past progress. If you cannot recall the feeling of your last PR or even when it happened or what was on the bar, you cannot easily call up the motivation to grind away and work for the next one. This is the value of your training past.
That past also affects your training future. Programming decisions become more individualized and more complex the further along you get in your training career. These decisions are made more effective by a body of training data to draw from. Even the basic recording of exercises, loads, sets, and reps, when viewed over weeks, months, or years, provides a great deal of insight into your unique responses to training variables.
A Log Records Trends
Future training benefits from hindsight. There are always more things going on in your life than just lifting, eating, and sleeping. Remember how you trained when you had your first child? (Probably not, because you also weren’t sleeping much.) When the second one comes along, or the third, you already have a great source of data to show how you respond to the additional stress and subtracted sleep. How about when you had an injury? Or during last year’s competitive season? What did your training look like? What worked? What didn’t? The more complicated your life is, the more trial and error there will be in your training. As you build a training history and record the trends, you will help to reduce future trial and error.
What You Write in it
You should put in your training log whatever you like. Some people are minimalists and only want to record the most essential data. Others are prolific and want to “Stephen-King” their training logs. That’s fine too. You should include, at a minimum, a few items, however:
- Date and Day of the Week. Include the basic organizing information. When you look back, you won’t remember if October 24th was a Tuesday or a Wednesday or if you trained on the scheduled day or it was moved for some reason. The frequency of your training is an important variable, so include it here.
- Exercises, sets, and reps. This is the most basic and necessary information. Include the lift, the load, and the work sets. This records not just the training stress, but over time tells the story of the varying stress and your progress. You must include this information.
- Highlight your PRs. Make a note when you hit a new PR. An asterisk, highlighter, underline, anything works. Just make it easy to see. These are your fuel when things get hard.
- Basic Impressions. Not everyone recommends this, but your training log should include some basic impression of the session. This might be descriptive metaphorical verse:
Today squats taught me to pity him,
Condemned to the first rep of an eternal five,
Atlas that most unlucky of Titans,
He cannot stress-recover-adapt and thrive.
Or, you can use a plain-language, standardized descriptor. However you do it, this is part of the important record of your training.
One of the most difficult things to do is to make training a habit. Small rituals like always keeping a training log can help. In that simple act, you elevate the priority your training takes in your life. It will help you stay more consistent. And, consistency is the most important part of training. So, write it down!