How to Properly Track Your Progress

A few weeks ago, I told you a story about my friend Saint who went from 60 pounds overweight to having 6-pack abs. Earlier this week I passed along four success stories from readers who saw freaking awesome results in just six weeks.  Last month, I shared my talk at Google that contained more success stories with fellow nerds who made incredible changes and drastically changed their lives over the course of a few months.

Some people gained strength and muscle while others lost tremendous amounts of weight and body fat; despite the differing goals and vastly different results, they all made one specific change that helped them truly get the results they wanted:

They wrote everything down.

If you’re serious about making changes to your life and getting in shape, I cannot stress enough the importance of tracking your progress, and I don’t mean just stepping on the scale every morning and freaking out every time it goes up 1/10th of a pound.  I’m talking about a plan that allows you to find and stay on the right path.

Luckily, I’m here to help you start putting these practices in place TODAY.

In the immortal words of that overweight Italian plumber, “here we gooooooo!”

The Importance of Tracking Everything

Does this sound familiar?

  1. You decide you want to get in shape
  2. You go for runs every day for a week and try to eat less food
  3. You step on the scale every day for a week and the numbers go down. Yaaaay!
  4. You go to a cookout on a Sunday, step on the scale on Monday, and its higher than before!
  5. You freak out, go crazy, and fall off the wagon
  6. Lather, rinse, repeat

I’d guess this is 80% of people who try and fail to get in shape. Fortunately, you’re reading Nerd Fitness which means you’re most likely smart, incredibly good looking, humble, and aware that doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  On top of that, you understand and value the importance of tracking your progress – as the saying goes “that which get measured gets improved.”  This is true specifically for these reasons:

  • Scales don’t tell the whole story. I’ve already covered my thoughts on scales. If you are training the right way (with an emphasis on strength training), your weight might not drop as fast as it would if you starved yourself and ran 20 miles a day.  Heck, you might be getting stronger and more muscular but the scale refuses to budge.  Now, if you only had a scale as your ‘measuring stick,’ you’d probably get super discouraged and depressed at the lack of “progress.”  However, if you were tracking your body changes properly, you’d realize that you are making far more significant and healthier progress by doing things the right way.  At the end of Saint’s journey to the Ab-promise land, his weight WENT UP while his body fat percentage went down.  The scale can lie!
  • You don’t know if you’re on the right path. Along with the scale not telling the whole story, it’s tough to tell if you’re losing the right kind of weight in the right kind of places.  There are so many other aspects to consider other than the number on the scale, including how you look, feel, and where the weight loss is coming from – your muscles or your stored fat.  It’s like driving cross country without a map, compass, road signs, or land marks to use – how do you know you’re going the right way if you have no idea where you were or where you’re headed?
  • You don’t know how much you’re eating. If you’re overweight, you probably don’t realize how many calories you consume on a daily basis.  If you’re underweight and “can’t gain weight no matter what you eat,” you probably don’t realize how many calories you consume on a daily basis.  Americans have such a warped sense of reality when it comes to proper “portion size” and what constitutes a meal.  We need to be better informed.
  • You can’t tell if you’re getting stronger. Our bodies need to be constantly challenged in order to adapt and get stronger.  If you do three sets of 10 push ups every day for a year…you will just be really good at doing 3 sets of 10 push ups and nothing more.  You need to constantly increase the difficulty of your workouts in order to get results.  If you didn’t know how you did last time, how the hell are you going to know if you’re doing better this time?
  • That which is measured gets improved! I’m sure there are actual psychological reasons behind why this works, but I know that I get better results when I exercise if I know EXACTLY what I need to lift or how fast I need to run to get stronger and better.  If I did 30 push ups in a row last week, then this week I have “31! 31! 31!” emblazoned in my mind while doing them…sure enough I’ll get to 31.  On top of that, if you’re constantly keeping track of what you eat, taking measurements, and tracking your workouts, you will always be thinking “healthy!” and thus make healthier decisions on a more consistent basis.

Hopefully at this point you’ve at least come to the conclusion that maybe you should start tracking your progress.  “Yes Steve, I have seen the light and I’m ready to start tracking my progress…tell me what the hell I need to do!”

PERFECT.  Here’s how to do it.

Track Your Body

THE NUMBER ON THE SCALE DOES NOT DEFINE YOU! When you strength train and eat properly, your body tends to only shed fat while keeping the muscle you already have.  Compare that to crash dieting and hours of cardio where your “weight loss” will be greater…but you’ll be losing both muscle and fat (and leave you looking and feeling like a weakling).

By tracking your body composition in more than one way, you’ll have a more accurate view of what’s working and what’s not working with your training.  If after a few weeks you’re not losing the right kind of weight, you’ll know that you need to make some adjustments.

Before we get into metrics, let’s set one ground rule: Don’t track everything on a day-to-day basis.  Our bodies are incredibly complex pieces of machinery where all kinds of crazy stuff happens all day and all night.  Our weight can fluctuate by many pounds over the course of a day.  Measuring EVERY day will promote an unhealthy OCD behavior where every tiny little change will be scrutinized and blown out of proportion.   So, measure yourself once a week at the same time, I advices after you wake up and before you eat breakfast.  Depending on your schedule, I’d either pick Friday or Monday mornings to track all of your measurements – if you tend to let yourself go on the weekends, I’d advise doing your measurements on Friday morning so that you’ll have a whole week to get back on track and see long-term changes.

Here are the best ways to track yourself OTHER than a scale:

Take a picture – My favorite method.  Stand in front of a mirror in a bathing suit or your underwear with your cell phone camera and take a picture.  Then turn to the side and take another picture of your profile view.  You might not like what you see.  You might not want to look at it again, and you probably won’t want to show it to anybody.  THAT’S FINE.  Just take the picture, hide it in a folder on your computer, and add to it once a week.  You live with yourself (duh), so it’s tough to notice changes on a day-to-day basis.  However, if you have two months of week-to-week photos to look back on, you’ll be able to tell if your body is transitioning in the right way.

Take measurements – Go to a craft store and buy a cheap tape measure or buy one of these self-help tape measures.  Make sure your measurements are taken in the morning and not after your workout.  Also, make sure you measure the same location each week – kind of weird, I know, but I pick freckles on my arms and legs so I know exactly where to measure each week.  Take a circumference measurement at each of these spots and write it down:

-Neck (for most people, this is the thing that connects your body to your head)
-Shoulders (both arms down at your side, at the widest point from shoulder to shoulder)
-Chest (lift up your arms, wrap the tape measure around your chest, just above the nipple, and then lower your arms)
-Bicep (either left or right, but be consistent)
-Waist (at the belly button for consistency)
-Hips (measure the widest part of your hips)
-Thigh (left or right, but pick the same spot on your thigh each week)

Measure your body fat percentage – This one is a little tricky depending on your resources and financial situation.  If you are severely overweight, start by I’d put your focus on measuring inches and how you look with your pictures and then add this one in once you’ve had some success.  Now, if you ARE interested in tracking your body fat percentage, your best bet would be to purchase a simple body fat caliper if you’re strapped for cash.  If you want to be more accurate, pay $40-60 per visit and get your body fat tested at a Bod Pod Location – a wise investment once a month (or every other month) to make sure you’re on the right path.

I am NOT a fan of body fat calculators that are built into your scale as I find them to be wayyyy too hit and miss.

Important info about body fat percentage tracking – no test is truly 100% accurate, and the specific number isn’t nearly as important as how it’s changing from month to month.  If you do the body fat caliper method, make sure you measure in the same place each time, take multiple readings, and get an average.  Even if your method of tracking your body fat percentage is less than optimal, you can at least make sure you measure it the same way each time to measure if it’s trending in the right direction.

In my opinion, measuring inches and observing changes in pictures is a far better estimate.

Track Your Food

Are you aware of how many calories you eat on a daily basis? When I talk to somebody who is trying to gain weight/lose weight, the response is the same: “I eat enough for my goals, but I’m not getting results…I guess it’s genetics!”  Unfortunately, 95% of the time, it’s usually ignorance and not genetics.  Unless you’ve taken the time to actually count calories for a few days of your normal eating schedule, you probably have no freaking clue how many calories you eat!

You CAN’T outrun your fork – 80% of your successes or failures will be a direct result of how you eat. Although the quality of your calories consumed is incredibly important, the quantity of calories you consume is the first thing that needs to be fixed.  Think of your stomach as a muscle that adapts to its surroundings.  If you continually shovel 4000 calories down your throat, your body will start to crave 4000 calories even though it doesn’t need that many.

Most people eat the same few meals over and over again on a weekly basis – I do. For that reason, I don’t think it’s necessary for you to track ALL of your calories EVERY day for months and months.  However, I think spending a week writing down every calorie is incredibly important for your education and awareness on what you’re eating.  I’m talking every freaking calorie: that half of a Kat Kat bar at Judy’s desk when you stopped by to grab some cover pages for your  TPS reports, the handful of M&Ms you ate while watching 30Rock reruns on NetFlix, the five cans of Coke you drank while finishing up that late night project, and the six beers and three slices of pizza you crushed to celebrate afterwards.

Every. Single. Calorie.

Once you have an idea of how much you eat regularly, take a look in the mirror.  Do you like how you look?  If so, GREAT!  Keep doing what you’re doing.  If not, it’s probably time to make some changes.  Start by eating less, and training your stomach to expect less.  Once you have your numbers under control, you can start making some other healthy changes.

I understand writing down your calories can  be a pain in the ass, which is where sites like DailyBurn.com, SparkPeople, and the DailyPlate come in handy. They all have massive food databases that allow you to simply plug in what you ate (Big Mac, one apple, a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, etc.) and it keeps track of calories, protein, carbs, and fats for the day.

If you eat out a lot, you’ll have to do some research – go to the restaurant’s website and they’ll probably have nutritional information on there.  If they don’t have it online, do your best to estimate by picking a similar meal option on one of the sites listed above and use its meal information instead.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, but tracking your food for just a few days could be one of the most eye opening experiences you have when it comes to getting in shape.

Write it down, sucka!

Track Your Workouts

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

When you exercise, do you do so with purpose? Do you know exactly what you’re going to do and how long it should take you?  Or do you kind of wander around the gym like a lost sheep, trying to figure out which machines look fun to use that day.  If you’re serious about getting in shape, you need to start tracking your workouts:

  • If you did 3 sets of 10 push ups last week for a total of 30 push ups, you need to be able to do 31 total push ups this week to be stronger.
  • If you did squats with 135 pounds last week, this week you better be squatting 136 pounds or more
  • If you did 3 pull ups last week, you know you need to get to 4 this week if you want to be stronger.

Have a plan, know what kind of results you need to get in order to be better today than you were yesterday, and then GET THERE!  You can certainly use any of the sites listed above for diet tracking to keep track of your workouts too, but I personally prefer just using an Excel or Google document (when I’m strength training), or a simple new entry in Evernote (when I’m exercising while traveling).  I always know exactly how I did in my last workout so that I know what I need to do in this workout to get stronger.

As we’ve learned from the Spartans, “appearance is a consequence of fitness.” If you are focusing on getting stronger and faster, taking a more active role in how you eat, and you are consistently tracking your progress to make sure you are heading in the right direction, you WILL get the results you’re after.

Any questions?

How are you tracking your progress? Have you made adjustments to your plans after tracking your results?  Do you have any questions on how to properly track your body, food, or workouts?

That’s what I’m here for.  Well, that and comedic relief.

Let me know in the comments!

-Steve

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  • Sam Paven

    awesome blog bro. spot on

  • Jennifer Vance

    This might sound very silly but how do you track your workouts in a excel/ google doc? Is there a sample template the could be modified? I just spent more than 2 hours reading through your site and I’m pumped (pun intended) to being strength training, never have before, and I just need some guidance. Please?

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  • Antonio Stevens

    Just came across this. Good basic stuff. I love the way it was written.

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  • Susanne

    Hi! I just found your article when I was googling nutrition and improvement in strength for females. I have been lifting weights for about two years now, and have seen great improvement, but now I’ve been kind of stuck with the same numbers for months. I’m not getting any stronger. So I’m thinking I’m doing something wrong with my nutrition. Should I eat more, does it matter what I eat, and should I look into some supplements? I would really appreciate it if you’d take your time to respond. :) best, Susanne.

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  • Joshua Gallahan

    Steve, I am trying to bulk up so with that, I track my gym days. I felt a bit nerdy bringing a notebook to the gym with my “menu” of exercises but after reading this, I feel so much better. When I get home, I plug in my day’s workout on a spreadsheet. I feel like that I am being as active after the workout as I am during. It has really kept me focused (though it has only been a couple of weeks). Great post…very helpful!

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  • Helen Risoer Stochholm

    Thank you for great reading and inspiration. I am all in :)

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  • Fitness Noob

    Great article! I was (still am) in stitches about the neck measurement description…

    -Neck (for most people, this is the thing that connects your body to your head)

    haha.

    Great blog, keep up the good work!

  • Lee

    I’ve found that for myself, my workout tracking is much more effective when it’s calendar-based. I still just use a simple notebook and pen, but I organize it into a large table with weeks and days, which really encourages me not to miss workouts, as they would end up as just large, shameful blank spaces in the log. (Rest days are also blank spaces, but I plan for them and mark them as “rest”, plus include any stretching or other activities I’ve done.)

    I find that if I just track workouts chronologically, I could miss 3 or 4 days or even a week and the next workout will still just follow the previous one in the lineup, with no indication that I’ve lost time, other than a numerical date at the top. I recommend moving to a calendar-based workout log for those of you who may have troubles with missing workouts. You’re sort of putting a time crunch on yourself, forcing yourself into a commitment, and keeping yourself honest.

  • http://strengthunbound.com/ Jay | Strength Unbound

    Agree that the tape measure is without a doubt the best way to track progress. To level up your goals, set waist measurement goals instead of weight goals. When it comes progress that matters, measurements show up in the mirror and are much more important for health than what the scale says.

    Measurements can also be used to calculate body fat %, and are quite accurate for the purposes of tracking change, which is what most people are really after.