Any time I train with someone who is just starting to get serious, I get this question: “So what equipment do I really need?” There are certainly a few tools that are hugely helpful to a strength trainee: good lifting shoes, a belt, and chalk tend to top the list.
Still, as I got to thinking about the question, wondered: if I could pick only one “accessory,” one training aid to use for the rest of my training career, what would it be?
Shoes, belts, wraps, sleeves, boards, chains, and bands all have their place, but there’s only one tool that clearly fits the bill: a training log.
What other piece of gear can lay claim to the benefits of a well-constructed training log? At the mercifully low price tag of 2$, the humble training log can be a programming assistant, motivation-source, technique reminder, training archive, and warning light for injury. Whether you’re a CrossFitter, Ninja Warrior, powerlifter, Tour de France cyclist, or medieval sword-fighter, a good training log has its place in your kit bag… so long as you use it correctly.
Unfortunately, many athletes take the first step to start a log, but because they don’t know what to do with it, they just go through the motions and fail to really see the benefits it can provide. At a minimum, a good workout log has these essentials:
- Short and long-term goals
- Plan for the next training “phase” (at least one session in advance)
- Actual training completed (write it while you’re in the gym)
- Milestones achieved
That’s right: SPAM. You can make your workout log as detailed and complex or as basic as you want, but as long as you include these four, you’re cooking with gas.
Your goals keep you directed: We were all taught at school (at some point) that a goal should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable,
Results-Focused, and Timed.
You can tell the part I don’t agree with. Results-focused goals are great, but they’re not the only goals that count. A goal to, say, “Achieve an elite raw powerlifting total in the 181 pound weight class (1396#) by April 2019” is fine. Still, progress goals are how you get to the final result, and they shouldn’t be dismissed. Goals like “Get at least 180 grams of protein daily” or “Get to bed by 10:30 every night” are specific, measurable, achievable, timely, and they are definitely worth keeping in your log.
Your plan keeps you focused: If you’ve been to a commercial gym on this planet, you’ve probably heard something like this:
“So… what should we do next?” “I don’t know… maybe some calves. My calves need work.” “Okay… but we’ll need something full body after that. How about we superset lunges and curls?” “Sounds good!”
This is what happens when you get to the gym without a plan. 10 years from now, these two bros will be living in a van down by the river, subsisting on a steady diet of government cheese.
There is no greater time-waster in the gym than going in without a plan. Don’t be that bro.
Your training record keeps you informed: Even simple linear and quasi-linear programs like Starting Strength or your standard couch-to-5K program change based on your level of performance in previous workouts. During intense exercise, it can be hard enough to remember your rep count while you’re doing it, let alone hours or days after. Write it down.
Your achievements keep you motivated. When you start out on this journey, motivation tends to come pretty easy. The gainz train is rolling along, the weight’s dropping (or gaining) pretty fast, your power level is rising, you can see the immediate results.
Eventually, as everyone who’s trained consistently for more than a year or so can attest, that gainz train slows down and starts to look like the Little Engine That Just Won’t. You’ll be waiting a week, a month, or longer between PRs. When the grind begins, when layoffs, illness, and life issues set us back, and ‘the cloud’ settles over your training, there are few things more motivating than going back and realizing how far you’ve come- how many milestones you’ve already hit- how many PRs you made that you didn’t think were possible- how many pages of training data you’ve accumulated and the investment in your health, life, and awesomeness they represent.
If you don’t already have a training log, it’s easy to get started! My personal favorite: grab a composition notebook like the one above (the cheap ones that run about $1.50 in the school supplies section of the grocery store) and just start writing! Make sure to get at least SPAM in there and tweak it as you go along. It doesn’t have to be perfect when you start. Mine now looks totally different than it did 5 years ago, and it will keep changing, I’m sure.
If you’re the kind of person who needs structure, the basic model in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training is a great starting point, and if you’re following any other programs like 5/3/1, RTS, couch-to-5K, etc., I can almost guarantee you there’s an app/printout/excel worksheet for it online.
Lastly, keep your paper log concise to make it easy to go through your training. If you want to comment in tons of details, double it up with an online log like the one I keep here:
Check it out for an example, and while you’re at it, feel free to ask questions, share silly memes, whatever.
Fare forward, voyagers!