Why I Don’t Measure My Workouts

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One of the core principles to high intensity training and many other fitness programs is to record your workouts. I remember reading years ago that strength coach Charles Poliquin wants to see at least 6 months of workout data before he takes you on as a client. That may or may not be true, but the story always stuck with me. Back when I had a home gym, I recorded every workout. I have years of data.

gym-whiteboard

My home gym had a huge white board, where I recorded workouts. Later this data was moved to a notebook. The board allowed me see weeks of data at a glance.

More Data, More Injuries

My personal experience with recording workouts is that it never improved my fitness over a longer time frame. In fact, I believe it actually led to more injuries. When I was in my home gym looking at numbers listening to Marilyn Manson blasting through the speakers, I got over confident. I’d either try to do too much volume or too much weight. I’d use prior weeks of data as proof that I was capable of that and more. I became more focused on the numbers and beating them than listening to my body. This is before I understood recoverability as well as I do today. The result was I’d often push myself too far and hurt myself.

When I sold the house and returned to the Glitter Gyms, I stopped collecting data. My numbers went down, but so did my injuries. I fell into a predictable boring limbo, but at least I wasn’t getting hurt. Also, I realized I never liked recording numbers. By listening to my body and not numbers in a notebook, my progress was slower, but it was more sustainable.

High Intensity Training

When I entered the HIT world, I was advised to record every workout. I didn’t. I haven’t recorded a single one yet. Unless you can control for every variable, I don’t believe you can measure intensity. By every variable, I mean not just the weight, but the repetition speed, sequence of exercises, rest between exercises, room temperature, seat position and days between workouts. For example, I have found my intensity drops off considerably when the room temperature gets above 68 degrees.

If I was working with a HIT trainer, they could collect this data during my workout and keep me focused on completing my workout at the highest level of intensity and in the safest manner. If I am doing this alone, then that role falls to me. I can’t generate maximum intensity safely and document the process with meaningful data. I believe that is a 2 person job. Focusing on numbers during a training session is highly distracting for me.

With High Intensity Training, I’m only working out once every 5 to 7 days. My workout will vary depending upon my interests. Sometimes it will be very slow reps, sometimes static holds or I might do negative work. The rep speed might vary from 4 to 10 seconds, which may or may not be constant throughout the set. Sometimes I start with full range repetitions and then gradually decrease the range until I’m doing a static hold. How do you quantify that movement? You can’t. As long as I am safely varying Time Under Load and going to failure, I’m happy.

The Limiting Factor

Assuming one is exercising in a safe manner with enough intensity, the limiting factor is not collecting more data to prove that fact. It is about increasing recoverability. That is where I’m focusing my efforts. I believe I’ll make greater gains by figuring out ways to speed up recovery than chasing numbers on a spreadsheet. Plus a major limiting factor to muscle gains for the ectomorph is stress. Do I need the stress of knowing that I’m not lifting as much weight as I did last week? I don’t think so. Been there, done that. When I leave the gym, I’m always a winner. I battled the weights and I won. Time for ice cream!

I could be wrong. My position is that if I ever feel my progress has stalled, I will start to quantify my workouts. Most likely I would work directly with a HIT Trainer. Until then, I’m just going to listen to my body. It seems to be working.

13 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Measure My Workouts

  1. John D.

    Though I still ping my trainer for updates (“how’s that compare to last week?”) I stress far less about increases than I used to now that he tracks everything. And where I used to have a spreadsheet like you, I have no real idea how my weights are changing over time, and I don’t know if a weight is a “new weight” or not until I’m done with a set.

    (But I still obsess more than you. Getting there!)

    [Other benefits of a (HIT-specific) trainer:]

    (1) Real-time intensity corrections. My trainer will frequently sneak a pound or two, or lean on the stack, or pop a pin in/out to change the dynamics, near the end of a set.

    (2) Turning “one more” into “two more.” I reach a point in most sets where I think “just one more,” then, when I’m bringing the weight down after that last one, hear “one more!” from the boss. If you believe in inroading, those extra ten seconds make a difference.

    (3) Assisted lifts. When you’re on your own, you can’t add a static hold at the bitter end of a set because you can’t get the weight up.

    (4) Monitoring form. “Relax your jaw.” “Keep your legs still.” “Lower your shoulder.” “Too fast on the turn.” I never even realized all of my cheats until they were called-out.

    (5) Safety. This is one area I fight my guy on, as he is extremely safety-conscious and I tend not to be. But it took one hurt back — and 4-6 months of crawling my way back to my previous lifts — for me to (mostly) start to agree.

  2. Jim

    Great post MAS.
    I decided to just “give up” this year. I don’t even want to make progress (I know you are still progressing). Surprisingly, my workouts have still been fun, even without chasing any numbers. Maybe at some point I’ll got bored, and need to set goals, but it hasn’t happened yet, for a stretch of about 6-months.

  3. @John D – I totally agree with each one of your posts. I had 2 workouts at a true HIT gym in 2011 and I learned a tremendous amount.

    @Jim – Your comment made me think of the idea of “cycling off” data collection.

  4. Stuart G

    The approach that you’ve written about in this post is very reminiscent of the approach Richard Winett writes about in his publication “Master Trainer”. Inspired by Dr Ralph Carpinelli it’s labelled as “intrinsic training”….focussing on form,and non traditional methods of progression. Extrinsic markers of progression are less important than intrinsic markers such as form, focus, enjoyment etc. In his 60’s Winett realises that after decades of consistent training he is unlikely to make significant progress in the traditional extrinsic sense, instead if he can largely maintain the weights he is using then he is winning as he is fighting the drop off associated with aging. Using longer TUT’s he is not scared to drop weight on certain exercises if he feels that form needs tightening up. He still records weights and reps, but these are not pursued with the same aggression as in earlier years.

  5. @MAS:

    Your natural, intrinsic approach to resistance training makes a lot of sense. There is no system or method in the world that is more sophisticated than your own body’s regulating sense. To be accepting the message your body is sending to you during a workout is very wise. As you pointed out, it is rather logical that your approach of non-measurement is likely to produce less injuries.

    I am just wondering though whether you are getting the result you are looking for without quantifying your workouts. I recognise the fact that a workout should not be driven by pure numbers and the desire to get them up but one’s personal gut feeling. However, I have found that my workout numbers kind of guide me through a workout. At the same time, if I carefully listen to my body’s reaction I will adjust my weight numbers according to that feeling.

    There is no need to be dogmatic about achieving some wild imaginary numbers in the pursuit of better workout performance. But for me they are definitely an integral part of my workouts even though I work out with no personal trainer. I have developed a solid routine that allows me to measure for the most telling variables during a workout.

    As for the other changing variables which we can’t measure all the time – I think some variables are more significant than others.

    Bottom line is that your approach makes sense. Additionally, if you have fine-tuned your body to be guiding you through a workout well enough, then you have succeded my friend!

    Have a good one..

  6. @Stuart – Thanks for the info. I’m glad my “intrinsic training” has some merit with people much smarter than me.

    @Stephan – I started to write a response to your question, but then I realized it was worthy of a post in itself. I explain why I don’t measure, but not where I feel it is of most value. I should have that out in a few days. Thanks for the idea.

  7. @Scott – For me it is how many days does rest does it take me before I can return to the gym and perform at an equal or better level of performance provided an equal stimulus.

    I’m still very much a student when it comes to stress. I’m guessing that it is how we respond to stress and not stress avoidance that is most important.

    I purposely engage in stressful activities such as Intermittent Fasting, Cold Exposure and weight training to teach my body how to become more resilient to future stresses. My hunch is that ectomorphs that train tend to train too much, so the body never learns how to effectively respond to the stress.

  8. razz

    Hey Folks,

    I’m an ectomorph looking at getting into HIITs. I think a heart rate monitor would be beneficial, to record, and refer to after the work out. I’d like to see I’m near my max heart rate when I do my sprints. Can you guys recommend some heart rate monitors? Watch or chest monitor?

    cheers,

  9. @razz – I had a heart rate monitor when I first started training for triathlons back in 1994. Useless data. Just focus on recovery and eating well. The point of this post was that measuring is overrated and not where we should be directing our limited resources.

  10. razz

    @ MAS, so how do you track your progress though? Perhaps keeping rep-counts per interval? My other concern is if I’m going over my max heart rate. I’m just starting out and did a sprint-2 (can’t handle the sprint-8 yet), and my heart was pounding. How would I know if I’m pushing myself too far? Thanks for comments.

  11. @Razz – How I feel and how I look. Why complicate further? The goal of exercise is to look and feel great. I do. I win. Took me way too long to figure that out.

    The point I come back to again and again is we are focusing too much on the workout variables and not what happens outside the gym. Leave the gym or whatever your sport happens to be knowing you gave it your best. Return to the gym fully rested and ready to take on the world. Rushing either side of that equation by chasing number is a recipe for injury.

    It sounds like you already intuitively know that Sprint 2 is better for you than Sprint 8. I discovered the same thing. The benefit I got from the first 2 far exceeded the last 6. The more sets I added, the worse my body felt. Then I went back to Phil Campbell’s bio and saw that he has worked directly with 18,000 athletes on developing speed. This tells me there already is a form of selection bias and survivorship bias with the people he sees and that the average person could probably benefit with less volume.

    http://www.readysetgofitness.com/about.shtml

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