Are You Training? Get A Notebook!
Take Home Points:
- Having a notebook is central to making progress while training.
- A notebook helps you remember things you learn, helps you take the next step in your training, helps you track the unexpected, and helps you track how you responded to changes inside and outside the gym.
- Your notebook should be a physical book with strongly bound pages.
- A digital record is not a notebook and should not be used to replace a notebook.
- Digital records are slow, inefficient and prone to failure/connectivity issues. Feel free to have them in addition to your physical notebook.
After all these years, one thing I constantly find myself saying to my clients/athletes is, “Get a notebook.” I want them to have a permanent record of what they are doing when they do sessions with me. Even when I give explanations as to why it’s important, my conversion rate is low. To be fair, there are many more reasons to have a notebook than can be said in a quick discussion. Therefore, I decided to write this article to explain in more detail why a notebook is so important.
The Assumption: You Are Training
There is an important assumption I have made when writing what follows below. The assumption, which appears prominently in the title, is that you are training, not just engaging in non-structured physical activity or exercise. There are important distinctions between these types of activities which I cover in my previous article Are You Exercising or Training? I encourage you to read that article now if you have not yet done so. As a refresher, the key distinctions are:
- Non-Structured Physical Activity: Any type of activity performed without the intention to improve/maintain fitness (e.g., walking, gardening, a pick-up game of soccer, etc.).
- Exercise: Physical activity performed with the intention of improving/maintaining fitness (e.g., cardio classes, lifting weights in the gym, etc.)
- Training: Physical activity performed with the intention of improving/maintaining specific fitness goals through the execution of a well-designed (structured) program.
In non-structured physical activity or exercise, the high level of variability and lack of intentional progression does not necessitate tracking what you are doing. However, the best fitness results will be achieved through training, and achieving those results is most productive when done with a notebook.
Why A Notebook
There are a variety of reasons you should have a notebook if you are training:
A Notebook Helps You Remember Things You Learn. During each training session or class you may receive some interesting pieces of information or some tips on how you can improve. For example,
- Your coach gives you a better way to break up your reps in a conditioning piece.
- You get a tip on how to make that first muscle-up easier.
- Your coach recommends a different scaling option.
- You realize you need to use self-spotting arms and have to remember what pin holes they should go in.
- Your form is a bit off on a movement and you have to remember to work on it.
- You realize you perform better when you take an extra warm-up set in your heavy squats.
- Your coach explains how a specific type of mobility is holding you back on your front squats and gives you a routine to improve.
- Your progress/score in a workout requires that you write a score for each 30 second work interval during your 10 sec rest periods.
If you write the above observations/data in your notebook, they will be there to remind you in future sessions. You’ll see them as you flip through your notebook. If you don’t have a notebook to write the observations in, you will be leaving it up to chance if you’ll remember them correctly (or at all) - odds are you won’t.
A Notebook Helps You Take The Next Step. What you do in each training session is dependent upon what you did in prior sessions. Some possible examples are:
- 70% of your 1RM.
- 5lbs heavier than last time.
- 80% of your max heart rate.
- Aim for more reps than last time.
The above are all common training directives that reference past performances. Using a notebook will make sure this information is available when you need it. Otherwise, you’ll just be guessing, and more times than not you will overshoot or undershoot what is appropriate for you.
A Notebook Helps You Track The Unexpected. Maybe when you started training things didn’t go as planned that day. Maybe you weren’t feeling good from something you ate or from not getting enough sleep. You might still be able to train, but your performance might be less than ideal. If you make a note of this in your notebook, you’ll be able to refer back to it and plan future sessions properly (i.e, not changing your programming because you just had an off day). Similarly, if you’re having a particularly good day and you decide to change things a bit (i.e., going heavier/harder), you’ll want to make a note of that so that in the future you don’t mistake that day for a typical one.
A Notebook Helps You Track How You Respond To Changes. There will be times during training when your routine is slightly altered here and there. Sometimes these "unimportant" details will be important down the road. For example:
- You couldn't use a particular piece of accessory equipment and had to do something else that day.
- You decided to do hard physical activity (i.e., rock climbing) on one of your normal rest days.
- You had to switch the order of exercises you did in a workout.
- You had to re-order the barbell movements you normally do over the course of a week, swapping the heavy and light days for a lift.
- You decided to integrate a sport or martial art into your weekly regimen.
- You used a different barbell and are not entirely sure how much it weighs.
In each of the above cases, both your short-term and long-term results of training could be impacted - either positively or negatively. Having a record of what happened (and when it happened) can prevent you from stalling down the road or even help you improve you training in the long run.
What Kind of Notebook Should I Get?There are many options here. I prefer the type where pages cannot easily fall out. Therefore, a bound book instead of a spiral book, is my preference. In any event, you should invest in a physical notebook.
Rebutting The Digital "Notebook" Argument
The biggest problem I run into when asking clients to use a notebook is their desire to keep a "digital" notebook instead. This is ultimately not a notebook, but a digital record. Sometimes it will be an excel spreadsheet, other times a notes sheet on their smartphone. Complicating things even more these days are the many online platforms coaches use to deliver workouts and track training data.
Online or digital tracking should not be used as a replacement for a physical notebook. Here’s why:
Digital Is Inefficient While Training. Since most people aren't bringing a laptop to the gym when they train, a digital notebook will have to be accessed on a smartphone. Smartphones are small and it is extremely difficult to parse through pages of notes covering days or weeks of time.
Digital Can Fail. Servers can crash or go down for maintenance. In addition, cellular and wifi networks can go down or have connectivity/reception issues. This can make accessing your digital training information inconsistent, hard, or even impossible. If you are trying to access or upload information and you run into one of these problems, you start wasting valuable training time. Also, there’s really no guarantee that any online data is safe. So, think of your physical notebook as a fail-safe master copy.
Digital Is Slow. It is substantially quicker to jot notes down in your physical notebook compared to unlocking your phone, launching an app, finding the right place to write your notes, typing the notes in (likely having to correct typing errors) and then saving the notes. The same kind of time investment occurs when you use online tracking platforms to retrieve your information. Extra time is taken each way. And if you do intense conditioning, you certainly don’t want to be accessing your phone when you’re drenched in sweat, dazed and confused.
Digital Has No Nostalgic Value. There’s nothing like going through your bookcase years in the future and thumbing through your old training notebooks. The notebooks will literally have your blood, sweat and tears in the pages. It’s a great feeling.
The above being said, feel free to keep an additional digital record of your training if you like to crunch numbers and analyze data (like I do). Just don't let that lead to your abandoning the physical notebook.
To sum up, if you are training, get a physical notebook. If you’re not training and only exercising, then you likely don't need a notebook, but you also can’t complain about not achieving specific results, skills, and so on. Well, of course you can complain, but your coach is going to give you side-eye for the reasons listed above.
On a more philosophical note, if we ignore goal achievement for a moment, training means you are on a journey and that you are trying to be better than who you were yesterday. It’s really about trying to become the best version of yourself that you can be. In other words, it’s a growth process and a physical notebook is a symbolic reminder of this process. There’s always another page, chapter, or book waiting to be filled.