How to Properly Track Your Progress

“That which gets measured gets improved.”

Today, I’m going to convince you that the MOST important thing you can do for your health and fitness involves a pencil and paper:

Write everything down!

We’ve had some incredible success stories here at Nerd Fitness. Guys like Saint who dropped 60 pounds of fat and got in shape for his wedding:

And women like Staci who started strength training and transformed her life:

These are just two examples of hundreds and hundreds I could share with you. 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: their measurements, their food intake, and their workouts.

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.

I bet you’re here because you’re interested in transforming and losing weight like Saint and Staci above. I know how tough this stuff is – it’s not just KNOWING what to do, but ALSO knowing how to do it correctly and sticking with the plan for months.

It’s why we created a few free resources that will help you attack this strategy the right way! Grab our 10-Level Nerd FItness Diet Strategy guide and our Strength Training 101:Everything You Need to Know (along with a ton of other goodies) when you join the Rebellion and sign up in the box below. It’s free:

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:

1) 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!

2) 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?

3) 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.

4) 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:

1) 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.

2) 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)

3) 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.

We’ve actually factored all of this stuff in, and created the 10-level Nerd Fitness Diet – pick the level you’re comfortable with, then follow the instructions in our strategy guide (free when you sign up in the box below), and level up your nutrition (and your physique) permanently!

I understand writing down your calories can  be a pain in the ass, which is where sites like 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.

A quick note: strength training has transformed my life and the lives of every success story at Nerd Fitness. If you want to transform like them, and you’re interested in Strength Training but don’t know HOW to get started, we’re here for you!

Grab our Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know guide when you sign up in the box below – it’ll teach you how to do each movement and what workout plan to follow for your level!

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

PS: If you’re looking for EVEN MORE instruction, guidance, and a supportive community, check out our flagship course, The Nerd Fitness Academy. We help you with each phase of your fitness journey: your mindset, your nutrition, and your workouts – we also have workout boss battles, real life quests, and a character system that allows you to level up your life, literally!

Join 40,000 other students and start leveling up today.

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  • Anonymous

    I could not agree with this more.  The first thing that I ask someone who is not seeing results is if they are keeping a food journal. . . and 99 out of 100 times they are not.  A trick I used for keeping track of my food when I was on the go, was a voice recorder (which damned near every cell phone has now).  At the end of the day I would transcribe the voice notes so I would have a written record.

  • Ree

    Steve,
    How have you handled people who get… um… obsessive about this? :::shyly looks around and raises hand:::

    I’ve tried to record things in the past, but the regiment becomes overwhelming and I SNAP!  I’ve had a history of disordered eating in the past, so I’m really scared to try again–even though I know my normal weight is about 30lbs less than where I am now.

    Thanks,
    Ree

  • Amy

    I started using an app on my iPhone called “myfitnesspal” to track my calories. It is the highest rated free app. I decided to try it about two months ago. It really helps so much to write things down, because when I feel like I am failing, I can look back through my progress and prove that I am doing a good job 🙂

  • Xadus06

    I don’t track my food or my workouts. Though I can remember basically everything I need to to be able to to adjust my workouts. My eating is definitely under control (as I have lost 20lbs in 6 weeks with nothing but diet change). I will be “attending” the next 6-week challenge…and during that time I will be tracking everything; I will also be adding in those measurements you mentioned here so I can track more of what I lost.

    Nice post. Thanks!

  • Dustin | Fit Marriage

    Fantastic, back-to-basics advice, Steve!  Whether it’s our fitness, our finances or just about any other area where we want to Level Up, writing it down and having a game plan is a vital first step.

    And that first 6-step scenario you laid out…well, it does look a bit familiar from my not-too-distant past. 🙂

  • Christopher Hubbard

    I’ve been using Jefit to track my workouts and routines on my Android phone.  It works great, plus it has a database for tracking your body measurements.  It is the only app that I’ve actually bought the paid version of for only $5.

  • Christopher Hubbard

    I’ve been using Jefit to track my workouts and routines on my Android phone.  It works great, plus it has a database for tracking your body measurements.  It is the only app that I’ve actually bought the paid version of for only $5.

  • http://leanmeanvirilemachine.com Darrin

    I track these things weekly:
    -BMI (good for getting an idea of absolute rather than relative levels of muscle/fat.)
    -Body Fat % (Calipers)
    -Shoulders, hips, and waist circumference (Lots of studies have been done analyzing the importance of these ratios for sexual attractiveness.)

    I’ll also take a pic once per month, but will switch to doing this once per week.

  • http://leanmeanvirilemachine.com Darrin

    I track these things weekly:
    -BMI (good for getting an idea of absolute rather than relative levels of muscle/fat.)
    -Body Fat % (Calipers)
    -Shoulders, hips, and waist circumference (Lots of studies have been done analyzing the importance of these ratios for sexual attractiveness.)

    I’ll also take a pic once per month, but will switch to doing this once per week.

  • Liz

    This may be a “no-duh” thing with a simple answer that I am overlooking, Steve, but … how important is measuring your chest for fitness, and how does one do it if one is female?

    Also, I tried one of those online food trackers and found that, unless you’re eating mostly brand-name or packaged foods (or measuring everything obsessively), they’re not much use!  They’ll tell you exactly what nutrients are in a Subway sandwich, but not a darn thing about what’s in a homemade sandwich.  Learning how to eyeball portions and get in tune with your body so you know when to stop is probably more useful.  Perhaps you could do an entry on that.

  • http://www.lovingfit.com Tatianna

    I definitely don’t like to count calories, I never use the scale.  But I do measure my self, I also like your idea of taking a picture, I’ve never thought of that before.  I also measure how my clothes fit me.  I do like to track all of my workouts, but I have to become even more strict with that, sometimes I forget to write the dates.

  • http://profiles.google.com/anivair Joe Auerbach

    i track everything in a google doc.  It tracks how much I slept, whether or not I’m sore or tired, supplementation  everything I eat, what I do to exercise, whether I took a walk, what sort of rehab I do, and what I weigh.  Very handy. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/anivair Joe Auerbach

    the chest measuring isn’t entirely about fitness, it’s about tracking it. For a female it might be a touch less important, but if I were a female, I’d like to know if I was going up or down in that area, i guess.  it’s also handy for doing math of your BFP, if you’re going that route. 

    As for a food tracker, try fitday.com.  Huge database and it’s easy to fin what you’re looking for.  Great tools.  Anytime I want to track down to the littlest details, I use it.  Bonus:  you can custom enter food, so that salad that I eat every Wednesday at a local restaurant?  I just entered it in one day and now I never have to worry about it again. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/anivair Joe Auerbach

    Hey, why not give paleo a shot?  it’s the easiest way I’ve found to eat unweighed, unmeasured, and still have a really good diet.  I find that doing that, if I don’t see the loss I want I just cut back a little bit (maybe cut out a handful of nuts or eat just a hair less than i usually would at means) and that works.  

  • Jerzy

    Nice article! I’d add one of my favorite tracking tips (I must have seen it on your site before, but can’t find it now):
    Instead of increasing the number of reps directly, consider tracking the rest time between sets.

    For example, with pullups, I started off barely able to do two at a time. Trying to add another pullup each week, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. But then I made a lot of progress by working on resting for a shorter time between sets, week by week.
    2 pullups, rest 60 sec, 2 pullups, rest 60 sec, 2 pullups… then 45 sec rest periods next week, then 30 sec the week after, then 15… THEN 3 pullups per set and back to 60 sec rest. Rinse and repeat.

    As for weight-tracking: I agree there are random fluctuations in your weight throughout the day, and lasting weight changes take longer to happen.
    One more way of dealing with this is to measure your weight regularly (say, daily at a consistent time, like before breakfast) BUT then take the running average of the past few days, and treat THAT as the thing you really want to track. (This is pretty straightforward in Excel.)
    So ignore the daily number on the scale — whether it’s higher or lower than yesterday, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about your long-term weight change.
    But if the average of your weights for this week is much different from last week’s average, then it’s more likely to be a real difference. You’ve smoothed out the random daily fluctuations and are looking at the actual trend.
    (If you want to get more complicated with this, look up the Hacker’s Diet, but I think his tracking system is overkill — a simple running average will do.)

    Thanks for all you do!

  • Will

    Great article, I think all too often people set goals but then they fail to track and chart their progress. The real issue with this is that if you are not tracking progress then how are you going to know when it slows or stops all together? Great job keep up the hard work.
    Will.
    NCSF Certified Personal Trainer 
    B.S. in Exercise, Sport, and Health Education
    Black Belt Martial Arts Instructor

    My Blogs:

    http://changeisachievable.blogspot.com/

    http://willsbodybuildingblog.blogspot.com/

    Websites:

    http://www.fitlifestyles.com

    http://www.wmarble.tsfl.com

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  • JayB1rd76

    Just created a profile at DailBurn. So far, it’s a very handy tool to have. Between updating on my iPod and on the PC, it makes logging every.damn.calorie really easy. Their database of foods is huge and their workouts section is quite well done as well, if a bit limited with the free membership. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Amber-Bosch/1015170012 Amber Bosch

    Haha this post came at just the right time! I was just emailing you about how I wanted to just lose the fat first and blah blah blah! It will be kind of difficult to incorporate “regular” work out routines into my schedule since I’ve always thought they were kinda boring but I WILL need the strength. I’m gonna try my best.

  • Blake Robinson CSCS Evolve

    Hey Amy, have you tried the free Nike Training Club app? It’s specifically for women (I’ve amittedly done a few of the workouts) and it’s freakin’ fantastic. It automatically tracks your progress, gives you incentives (smoothie recipes) and is slick.

  • Blake Robinson CSCS Evolve

    Hey Amy, have you tried the free Nike Training Club app? It’s specifically for women (I’ve amittedly done a few of the workouts) and it’s freakin’ fantastic. It automatically tracks your progress, gives you incentives (smoothie recipes) and is slick.

  • Blake Robinson CSCS Evolve

    Agreed Joe, most females will experience decrease in breast size when loosing wgt because it is adipose tissue (no offense intended, just anatomy) I’ve only ever seen loss of a cup size in women who have lost over 30 lbs. As far as a guide for how to measure chest circumference it’s the same as for a male, measuring tape goes evenly around the middle of the chest at nipple level be sure the tape doesn’t drop too low in the back. It’s best if you have a good friend who’s willing to help. Hope that’s helpful.

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  • marianne

    If you are looking for a different way to track either how much you are exercising, eating your veggies, or looking for some new workout plans you might want to check out Fitango.com they have everything on there and I find it really helpful while dieting.

    http://www.fitango.com/actionplans/Weekly-Cardio-Tracker/13784

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  • sabrina

    I use the myfitnesspal app on my blackberry, as well as the site… I love it, there’s such a huge database, you can add your own recipes and foods, and keep track of exercise there as well 🙂 and it has a great online community! ok, i’ll stop plugging the site now :$ hehe

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