You’ve got your 12-week workout plan and know that consistency, intensity, volume, nutrition, recovery and progressive overload are the keys to muscle building success.
But how do you ensure you are utilising these concepts effectively and not just paying them lip service?
It’s all too easy to rock up to the gym and kinda make it up as you go along. Skipping certain exercises, changing up what you do each session or half-arsing it as you’re not ‘feeling it’.
You then look back after several months and are inevitably underwhelmed by the results.
Or, even worse, lose heart and motivation and bin off the gym entirely before you’ve truly begun.
This is where effective program tracking and review comes in.
Diligently recording what you do in the gym, and using this information to plan future workouts and training cycles, is essential if you want to maximise your gains.
As well as providing you with a benchmark to measure your progress, recording and reviewing your workouts can help with motivation as you can see your progress from week to week.
Conversely, recording and tracking your performance can provide early warnings of overtraining or fatigue, which can help you reduce the risk of injury or burnout.
But what should you be recording and how should you use this information to measure your progress and plan future gym sessions?
Let’s take a look.
What do we mean by program tracking?
Program tracking is the process of planning, recording and reviewing your workouts.
We do this to ensure we hit each and every training session with a clear plan of attack and so we have a means to measure our performance and progress over time.
In really simple terms it means writing down what you do each workout and then looking back at what you’ve written with a view to measuring progress and using the insights gained to plan future sessions.
Why is tracking your workouts so important?
If you can’t (or don’t) measure it, you can’t improve it.
Are you actually progressing? Are the weights, reps, sets increasing? Are you actually doing more work on the areas you previously identified as lacking? Are the bathroom mirror selfies more to your liking?
Conversely, are you not seeing any changes? maybe even a decrease in performance? Are you jaded each workout, lacking in motivation and not feeling the reps in the target muscles?
Without taking the time to formally review your workouts you can’t accurately answer these questions and are likely leaving gains on the gym floor.
What should you be recording and reviewing?
There are a few key metrics you want to be recording from session to session to give you the best chance of realising your muscle building goals.
If you already have a well defined programme and are diligently following along then much of the areas below will already be covered:
1. Each exercise you complete, and the corresponding number of sets, reps and weights
The obvious one to start, but as a minimum you need to be noting down exactly what you do each session.
This includes not only the individual exercises but also the number of sets, reps and weight lifted for each.
Working sets are what is important, although you may want to also note down any warm up sets/routines.
This way you have a clear overall view of the amount of energy you are exerting and may, over time, highlight where you are doing too little or too much with your warm up.
2. How you perform each exercise
Make a note of bench angles, hand/foot position, grip, range of motion, machine settings/positions, if part of a drop set or superset, or anything else required to ensure you are performing exercises consistently.
Changing up how you are performing exercises each week (or even in session), i.e. switching grips, bench angles, range of motion etc, means you won’t be comparing like with like. This makes it much harder to benchmark and measure progress over time.
*While there is merit in changing up your exercise selection from time to time to alleviate boredom and hit muscles from different angles, you don’t want to be doing it week to week. Try to stick with the same set up for 4-6 weeks, however, so you have a decent data set to work with and measure progress.
You should also time and record rest periods between working sets, using a watch or phone to make sure timings are accurate and consistent.
Changing up your rest periods will impact your effort levels (see below) with shorter periods obviously being more demanding.
As a general rule you want to be resting long enough to enable you to complete your next working set.
60-90 secs is a good rule of thumb. But when going super heavy and maxing on the big demanding compound moves, resting for multiple minutes between sets is expected.
3. Your effort level
There is a balance between working hard enough to elicit muscle growth and strength gains and working so hard that you inhibit your body’s ability to recover, which is when muscles actually do the growing bigger and stronger part.
This is why it is good practice to learn to gauge your efforts in the gym.
Not only does learning this skill enable you to stay in an effort sweet spot, it also provides another benchmark for progressive overload and increasing your effort over time.
Use either reps in reserve (RIR) or relative perceived effort (RPE) to ‘score’ your effort for your working sets for each exercise in your session.
You can either score all your working sets or the last working set for each individual exercise. So, score the last set of your bench press, your squat, your pull up and so on.
As a very general rule you want to be working to an RIR of 1-3 for each working set, but this may vary depending on your session goals and where you are within your training cycle. Take a look at our long read on reps in reserve for more information.
How to record your workouts
The method you use to record your data is entirely up to you. But make sure to go with an option that you find convenient and can do on the fly while completing your workouts.
A simple notebook is probably the easiest option, but you can of course use an app to do the same thing.
Or, you can download or create your own spreadsheet via sheets/excel and access it via your phone.
The digital options are more time consuming to set up initially but do allow for easier duplication and review once done.
Whichever option you go with, the notes you make don’t need to be pretty or complicated. What you want to end up with for each exercise is something like this –
You don’t have to make notes for each exercise. But it can be useful to jot down how you performed the move and/or your thoughts on effort levels.
Using RIR you may want to note down if you should be increasing, decreasing or maintaining the workload in your next session.
What should you look out for when reviewing training logs?
Writing down your workouts is only half the battle. You need to actually spend some time looking back at your notes, reviewing how you performed, and using this to plan future workouts.
But what should you be looking for and how do you use the data to measure and improve your performance?
1. Is your training volume appropriate?
Your personal gains will vary depending on your genetics, lifting experience, the quality of your training and nutrition and recovery.
Research shows that for maximum hypertrophy most of us want to be hitting each muscle group at least twice per week and for 12-24 working sets.
New lifters will see great results at the lower end of this scale. More experienced lifters may find they need to be operating towards the higher end to see continued gains.
Note that you don’t have to hit every muscle every workout. Indeed, as your volume increases, you may find it better to hit different muscles groups on different days as part of a 4 day, 5 or 6 day split.
If you are falling short of these ranges, or not seeing the improvements you desire, try gradually increasing your volume for specific focus areas (i.e. your quads or chest).
Conversely, if reviewing your workouts shows excessively high volume across a number of muscle groups, perhaps you’d be better served by reducing down to lower end fo the suggested range for a few cycle.
2. Are you utilising progressive overload?
Increasing your workload over time via progressive overload is vital if you are to realise continued gains.
When you look back at your logs have you changed up the intensity over the past 4 – 6 weeks?
Or, are you lifting the same weights for the same number of sets and reps? Is your effort (via RIR) the same every workout?
For example, if you bench 60kg for 2 sets of 12 in week one of your program, you shouldn’t be doing the same thing in week 6. Rather, you should be doing more and have gradually increased the intensity via additional weight, reps or sets.
If you are following a 3 day per week full body programme you may start week 1 with 2 working sets per exercise and build up to 3 or 4 sets over the course of 10-12 weeks.
You would then start a new cycle at 2 sets again but with an increase in weight and reps.
As a beginner or novice lifter, you will likely find that you can increase your training intensity across your whole body from week to week. As you become more experienced, however, you will likely be better served by concentrating on just one or two muscle groups each training cycle.
You still complete your minimum effective training volume for each muscle each week, but increase intensity for one, or maybe two, specific muscles over a 6-8 week period.
3. Are you training hard enough?
You have to work hard enough each session to elicit growth and you have to increase the intensity (how hard you work) over the course of a training program/cycle.
Being honest with yourself, are you working to an RIR of 1-3 for at least the last set of a given exercise? Is your ranking accurate or are you maybe selling yourself short?
If you can do so safely, it can be worth pushing yourself to technical failure every so often to keep yourself honest and to help you better learn what an RIR of 1-3 really feels like.
Seeing an increase in your RIR is a good thing, and shows that you are making progress. But where the numbers are creeping up make sure you do increase the intensity and get back within that 1-3 target range.
4. Are you seeing the results you want?
It’s a good idea to regularly look back at your fitness goals and make sure your training logs are aligned.
Your training should be geared towards what you want to achieve, be it strength, hypertrophy, olympic lifts or more general fitness and mobility.
At a more micro level, if there are certain body parts you want to focus on, is this reflected in your training? Are you actually scheduling more sets and sessions for the lagging body parts?
It’s smart to add in additional volume for areas that need more work. For example, if your chest looks great but your shoulders feel a little out of proportion, then add in additional sets that focus on your side delts. Or, start 1 or 2 sessions each week with a shoulder focused exercise so you hit them with maximum energy.
5. Are your nutrition and recovery on point?
As vital as your training is, you must be just as disciplined and diligent with your nutrition and recovery if you want to see noticeable positive change.
If you aren’t seeing the result you want, take the time to have an honest look at your diet and sleep.
Are they where they need to be?
6. Are you working too hard and struggling to complete your workouts?
Are you struggling to see an increase in how much you lift?
Maybe your RIR score has been decreasing over the past few weeks?
Where usually you’d blast through your workout feeling full of beans, you’ve finished the last few sessions feeling totally beat up, despite no major increase in intensity?
There are many reasons why you may not be performing at your best but the usual culprits will be your diet, sleep/recovery or stress.
If your training logs are showing a decline in performance it may be worth pausing to check in on your wider wellbeing.
Take a look at your recent diet and sleep patterns.
Have you cut your calories significantly? Maybe been partying a little too hard? Has work or family stress impacted your sleep?
If you journal (and you should) have your noted something that may be affecting your mood and thus having an impact on your workouts?
You should do what you can to improve or mitigate any negative external factors impacting your training.
But it may just be that you need a deload week or a few days away from the gym completely.
Yes, you need to work super hard to see results but if your performance is dropping a few days R&R is likely to be very beneficial.
7. Are you actually enjoying your workouts?
It’s easy to focus on the concrete numerical measures of your training.
They are easy to track and analyse and they provide a clear benchmark to measure your progress over time.
Don’t forget, however, that enjoyment is perhaps the biggest determining factor in whether you will get the most out of your gym sessions and keep up the hard work required to see results.
Happiness and enjoyment are very subjective and you can’t really put a score to them.
But it is important to regularly spend some time thinking about whether you are actually enjoying the work you are putting in and whether the outputs you are chasing will really bring you fulfilment.
Don’t just track the numbers. Think also about your mood after each session and make tweaks as required to ensure you are actually enjoying what you’re doing.
Or, at the very least, enjoying the outputs of your hard work.
Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to building muscle
Building a body you are proud of takes many months, if not years.
If you are an absolute beginner, and assuming your training, nutrition and recovery are on point, you’ll see solid noticeable gains in 3-6 months.
The more experienced of you will know that continued gains past this point become even harder won.
It will depend on where you are on your personal fitness journey. But you have to be patient and shouldn’t expect to see huge changes in your strength or appearance week to week.
This is another reason while logging and reviewing your workouts is so beneficial, however, as it allows you to see the smaller performance gains week to week.
Even though the scales and bathroom selfies may not be showing noticeable changes, you can see that the weekly volume is increasing and the weights are going up.
Seeing these small gains can really help with motivation as it reminds you you’re on the right track and that the hard work is paying off.
The discipline of recording and also reviewing your workouts is a sure fire way to improve your training programming and results.
Through consistent recording and review of your gym sessions you can ensure you’re utilising the key muscle building concepts, such as sufficient volume, frequency, effort and progressive overload, and maximising your time in the gym.
So get your pencil out (or your phone) and record everything you do in the gym.
Then schedule some time every 4 weeks or so to review your training logs against your goals and identify any areas for change or improvement.
Take these insights and use them to inform you next 4-6 week training cycle, work on any weaknesses and challenge yourself to continually be a better version of you.