The Importance of a PHYSICAL workout Journal

The Importance of a PHYSICAL Workout Journal (SI)

You lift heavy weights, move daily, eat healthy foods, and you get your recommended sleep, but you don’t progress. In an effort to find out why, you reach for your workout journal where every rep of every set, your body-weight, total workout volume, and other data points from each of your workouts have been written down only to find out that oops, you don’t have a workout journal! If this sounds like you, or you are currently using a phone application to track your workouts, keep reading to learn about the importance of having a physical lifting journal, either as a notebook or even a sheet of paper.

The lifting journal is a way for the lifter to connect the past and future of their lifting career to the present moment. If you already keep track of your body-weight and/or your body fat percentage, it makes sense to track the sets and reps of your workouts too. Using a workout journal, you can quickly and easily connect past details from previous workouts/routines, examine what worked and what didn’t work, and use that knowledge to plan for the future. The workout journal also allows one to reexamine previous personal records (PR) for exercises at particular rep ranges, time limits, or more subjective criteria (like RPE). Let’s discuss that first.

Wendler’s 5/3/1 Example

Workout journals are invaluable whether you follow a structured routine or instinctive routine. Let’s take a relatively simple routine like Wendler’s 5/3/1 and examine how a workout journal would be helpful. Click here first to read about 5/3/1 if you do not know the details of the program, or go ahead and buy the book/eBook (which I highly recommend). In our example, we have have a hypothetical lifter who does not have a workout journal have a 1RM in the press, bench press, squat, and deadlift at the following weights, and as the program calls for, let’s calculate each starting training max (TM) by taking 90% of the hypothetical lifters actual 1RM.

Press (lb) Bench Press (lb) Squat (lb) Deadlift (lb)
1RM 100 200 300 400
TM 90 180 270 360

Now with the training max calculated for the four main exercises, let’s calculate the weights to be used for the final set done during the 5+, 3+, and 1+ weeks for each exercise. 5/3/1 calculates the weights for these working sets as percentages of the TM, with each working set also having a prescribed repetition goal (like 5 reps). We’ll calculate these working sets out over several months too, increasing the TM for the press and bench press by five pounds each month and increasing the TM for the squat and deadlift by 10 pounds each month like the program calls for.

Press (lb) Bench Press (lb) Squat (lb) Deadlift (lb)
Month 1 TM 90 TM 180 TM 270 TM 360
5+ 80 155 230 310
3+ 85 165 245 325
1+ 90 175 260 345
Month 2 TM 95 TM 185 TM 280 TM 370
5+ 85 160 240 315
3+ 90 170 255 335
1+ 95 180 270 355
Month 3 TM 100 TM 190 TM 290 TM 380
5+ 85 165 250 325
3+ 90 175 265 345
1+ 95 185 280 365
Italicized and colored are the times that the same weight that was previously used for a final set is repeated. The first set of a weight that is eventually repeated throughout this 3 month example is not italicized and colored as it has not been repeated yet.

As you can see (like with the press exercise), the lower the TM of an exercise, the more likely a future working set will be performed at the same weight that a past working set was performed at. 5/3/1 is based off of 5% jumps, and there are less ways to split 100 pounds via five pound increments with 5% changes. If this is confusing, reading over the 5/3/1 routine is guaranteed to help in understanding the above example.

Taking into account the deload weeks (which occur every fourth week), it is three weeks before the first repeated weight* is performed again for the press, seven weeks for the bench press, seven weeks for the deadlift, and no weights are repeated for the squat during a three month period (the first repeated weights occur during month 4 for this starting hypothetical training max)!

If you didn’t have a workout journal, you would have to remember all of your previous workout information for about two months if you wanted to try to beat your previous performance in the gym at the programmed weights. What makes 5/3/1 such a great program also makes it nearly impossible to follow without a journal, because even though it is simple, your memory becomes the weak link. Unfortunately for those without a workout journal, a lot of effective strength routines behave similarly.

*Note – Having run 5/3/1 for over a year, I can tell you that I have never failed to hit my reps for any set other than my final 5+, 3+, or 1+ set, so it is very unlikely that the sets performed before the final set are a useful metric in determining progress in terms of gaining strength (that is unless they are also attributed a RPE value, which is subjective in nature anyways).

Instinctive Workouts

As for instinctive workouts, a workout journal is just as important for instinctive routines as it is while following a structured routine. To make sure you are progressing in the gym when your workouts are varied, you need to be able to go back and compare previous exercise personal records (PR’s) quickly in the gym, so if you decide to repeat that exercise, you can choose your weight, tempo, time under tension, etc accordingly in order to progress.

Whenever I do a period of instinctive training for a few months, my workout journal is the main reason I am still able to progress in the gym without following a structured training program. If training arms for example, I can easily flip back two weeks worth of workouts and see what weight I last performed for tricep pushdowns for five sets of 10 reps, and increase my weight accordingly since I have gotten stronger.

Physical Workout Journal Pros and Cons

With all that said, nothing is perfect, the workout journal included. Below I have listed some pros and cons of the physical workout journal, especially compared to the popular cell phone based solutions now days.

Physical Workout Journal Pros

  • Easily accessible at the gym, requiring no wifi, cell service, or battery to work.
  • It is much faster to access previous workout information by flipping back a few pages than it is to navigate the necessary cellphone interface to accomplish the same task.
  • Writing workout data down will allow it to be accessible for however long the journal exists. Your memory isn’t as perfect.
    • If your workout application stops being developed for, I guess you’re out of luck too!
  • While it can’t synthesize data into graphs and percentages like an application can, leafing through the journal allows you to discover insights into your lifting (what works for you, what doesn’t) that isn’t easily replicable on an application.
  • Not fragile like a phone.
    • If I had a dollar for every time someone I knew smashed their phone screen with a dumbbell at the gym, we’ll just say that I would be able to buy quite a few burritos.
  • Allows you to track lifting data however you want (such as RPE, time based activities, etc), which might not be possible given the constrictions of an application.
  • Keeps you accountable and progressing in the gym. No one likes going back through their workout journal and seeing that they haven’t made any recent strength gains.
  • In a zombie apocalypse scenario, the pages can be used as emergency kindling.

Physical Workout Journal Cons

  • Cannot easily track progress on main compound lifts with graphs and other data analysis tools like many workout applications can unless software like Excel is used.
  • If lost, a physical lifting journal is not backed up to the cloud like an app and all of your workout logs are lost forever. Hence why it never leaves my gym bag!
    • A photo taken of each page auto-uploaded into a Google Drive folder fixes this issue.
  • Can take time to write down your workouts, but generally rest periods are long enough to account for this.

Journal Purchasing Recommendations

After nearly 3 1/1 years, I finally reached the last page of my first workout journal in December of 2015, so it was time to buy a new one. Based off lessons learned from my past No Cell Appsjournal (ring binding was a terrible idea for the gym), I settled on the 5 x 8.25″ Ruled Moleskin Notebook (pictured at the top), which can also come with plain or squared pages. I like the moleskin because it’s the right size, it has a page marker (making it very easy to find where I last wrote), it’s durable, and it has an elastic closure which ensures that chalk, sweat, and gym gear don’t muck up the pages. Another benefit of the elastic closure is since I write everything in pencil, because the cover and pages are all closed nice and tight, the pages, and therefore my writing, isn’t rubbed out and made illegible. Another common workout journal choice is the Mead Composition Notebook, which you might remember from high school. The Mead notebooks are a cheaper option for those looking to save some money, but I find the moleskin to be a better long term investment considering its advantages (hardcover, elastic closure, smaller) over the Mead.

If you have any further thoughts on the importance of a physical workout journal, or more pros and/or cons, please comment below!


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Stefan Burns

Stefan Burns

Fitness, nutrition, and powerlifting buff. Created Strength Cooperative as a way for hardworking, natural lifters to share advice on how THEY got results in the gym.
Stefan Burns

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