Did you ever play connect the dots as a kid? If not, it’s essentially a puzzle that presents you with a series of numbered dots on a page. Your job is to join the dots sequentially with a line until the outline of an image is uncovered. The dots in isolation mean very little, until you connect them with a line and thus form a complete picture.
Tracking progress is a similar concept. When you track, not only do you bring awareness to your actions, but you also supply yourself with a series of dots. Once you have enough of these dots, you can then connect them. In time, this will reveal a picture—one that illustrates how your actions impact your results.
While many of us track how we spend our money, we may not think to track other behaviors. But tracking is a powerful tool, and it’s often the missing link between spinning your wheels and achieving the results that you want. You may have heard the quote, “what gets measured gets managed.” This is as true for your fitness as it is for your finances.
Tracking can be especially helpful for beginners, as when we first start out, we typically lack at least some degree of awareness about what we’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have enthusiasm and a plan. Without data, however, it’s nearly impossible to determine whether you’re making progress. That’s where tracking comes in. Tracking can help fill in those gaps and point you in the right direction.
Here are some of the benefits of tracking your progress:
- It increases your awareness of what you’re doing
- It creates a built-in sense of accountability
- It allows you to connect your actions to your results
- It shows you potential areas for improvement
- It helps you determine which approaches work best for you
- It allows you to look back and appreciate how far you’ve come
If tracking forever sounds like a daunting proposition, know that tracking doesn’t necessarily have to be a long-term solution. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Some people do great tracking for a little while, then tapering off once solid habits have been established. Others do better when they constantly track, as long as it’s something they enjoy and feel that they benefit from. Neither one is better than the other. It’s all about what works for you. Moreover, what works for you now may change over time.
It’s important to note that tracking doesn’t always have to mean weighing all your food to the nearest gram and plugging it into an app–although it can look like that, if that’s something you enjoy and that works for you. Tracking can take many forms. Basically, anything that brings awareness and establishes data points can be a form of tracking.
Another important point is that tracking shouldn’t be a source of stress. If it does begin to feel stressful or unsustainable, it might be time to consider a different way of tracking that’s better suited to you. Remember, the exactness of your tracking matters far less than the fact that you’re consistently bringing awareness to what you’re doing.
Below are some ways that you can use tracking as part of your fitness program. You certainly don’t need to use all of these simultaneously. You may want to start by picking just one method from each category. Start with the easiest method, then decide over time whether you’d like to upgrade that method or add another method.
Physique tracking is very helpful during periods of time in which you’re actively working to change your physique. In other words, when you’re trying to lose fat or gain muscle, you’ll probably want to keep an eye on how your body is changing. Routine physique tracking can also be very helpful for athletes who compete in a weight class sport such as powerlifting.
During times in which you’re relatively weight-stable, you’ll probably be able to reduce how much physique tracking you do–unless, of course, you enjoy it and would like to continue. Below are three ways you can track your physique progress.
Scale weight is a straightforward tool for evaluating physique change, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all. There are a lot of legitimate reasons why scale weight might budge, or why it might fluctuate up and down, that have nothing to do with your actually having gained or lost fat.
Common reasons for weight fluctuations include: lack of sleep, stress levels, changes to food intake (including things like increased or decreased volume of food, sodium, and/or carbohydrates), changes in fluid balance, whether you’ve had a bowel movement, the menstrual cycle for females, and more. So keep in mind that while the scale provides useful feedback, that feedback must be used in context with other data.
It’s probably best to weigh yourself in the morning, after going to the bathroom but before eating or drinking anything. As for frequency, I’m a fan of daily weighing, but if seeing the day-to-day fluctuations makes you anxious, weighing once per week is fine.
Whether you’re looking to increase muscle mass or decrease body fat, circumference measurements provide an additional layer of feedback about your progress. Measurements should ideally be looked at in combination with scale weight. Examples of where to measure include: chest, waist, bicep, hip, thigh, and calf.
You can measure all of these if you wish, or just a few. At the very least, I recommend taking a waist measurement from time to time, as that one seems to be the most telling. For example, if your waist measurement is going down, you’re probably losing fat regardless of whether the scale has budged.
One important thing to keep in mind with circumference measurements is that you want to make sure to measure in the same spot every time, as going as little as an inch higher or lower can give a significantly different result. It also helps to be consistent with the time of day at which you measure. As for frequency, every other week to once a month is a good place to start.
We see ourselves in the mirror so frequently that we tend to be pretty bad at spotting subtle changes in our own physiques. That’s where photographs come in. I encourage everyone to take periodic progress pictures, as there’s nothing quite like a side-by-side visual to show you how far you’ve come. What’s more, pictures often pick up on changes that scale and circumference measurements may miss.
While I understand that it can be difficult to look at progress pictures when you’re not happy with how you look but, remember that you don’t have to actually show the pictures to anyone. They can be just for you. But down the road, you’ll probably find that you appreciate having taken them. As for frequency, anywhere from weekly to monthly works fine, depending on your goal.
Food tracking is usually done for a finite period of time in relation to a specific goal; for example, during preparation for a physique competition or photo shoot, when cutting weight for a competition in a weight class sport, or when undertaking any number of other weight loss or muscle gain goals.
Two important factors with your choice of food tracking method are: that you don’t find it stressful, and that you can realistically sustain it for the period of time in which you want to use it. Additionally, the meticulousness of your food tracking should relate to how specific your goal is. In other words, very specific goals require very specific tracking, while less specific goals require less specific tracking.
Below are three options for tracking food intake, though I want to emphasize that none of these methods is absolutely necessary. They’re extremely helpful tools, but they are not requirements. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend food tracking if you have a strained relationship with food or if you tend to feel overly neurotic, isolated, or stressed out from tracking.
Tracking your food in a mobile app is the most direct and precise way to quantify how much you’re eating. My favorite tracking apps are MyFitnessPal, MyMacros+, and FitGenie. For some people, tracking this way is a hassle and not something they can realistically keep up with long-term. And that’s okay. Still, I think that tracking your food in an app can serve as a valuable learning experience, even if it’s not something you choose to do for more than a week or two.
The preciseness of your tracking should depend on your goal. For an individual who is preparing for a physique competition or photo shoot, hitting nearly exact calorie and macronutrient targets daily is a necessity. On the other hand, for the average person looking to lose a little weight and improve their fitness, tracking as a method of self-reflection, as well as to gain an overall awareness of calories and protein, can work great.
A food journal is a less precise, but still valuable, tool for looking at your food intake. When keeping a food journal, you simply write down everything you eat every day for a period of time. You don’t necessarily have to worry about calories or macronutrients, though you can include them if you’d like to record that level of detail manually. The most important thing is that you write everything down–including liquids, condiments, sauces, dressings, and so forth.
After you’ve got a week or so worth of data, you can look back over your journal and figure out where you could improve. If you’re looking to lose fat, look at where you may be able to reduce calories by eating a little less, or by reducing the calorie density of your food choices. If you’re looking to gain muscle, look at where you might be able to squeeze in a few more calories by adding more food, or by increasing the calorie density of your food choices.
Another idea for tracking your food intake is to take a photograph of everything you eat. This is a great option for someone who is very busy or simply not interested in using an app or keeping a written food log. You can send the photographs to a coach if you have one, or you can keep them for your own reference.
You can use the photographs to identify opportunities for either reducing or increasing your caloric intake, depending on your goal. You can also use photographs in conjunction with other data, such as scale weight and circumference measurements, to see how your meals differ visually during times when you’re making progress versus times when you’re struggling.
Exercise tracking is one of those things I recommend doing long-term, at least as it relates to strength training. The reason I say this is that one of the key principles in strength training is a concept called progressive overload–which is just a fancy way of saying that in order to continue to see results, you need to do more work over time.
Having said that, if you don’t record how much work you’re doing–in other words, your sets, reps and load for each exercise–it’s difficult to know whether you’re making progress. Below are three ways of tracking exercise progress. You can choose between the first two for tracking your strength training, while the third is an option for tracking your daily movement.
I enjoy using a mobile app to track my strength training for several reasons. First, it keeps an easy-to-access record of what I’ve lifted for the past several years, which makes it a cinch for me to see when I’m achieving a personal record (PR) as I’m working out.
Additionally, using an app to track my training allows me to quickly glance at previous workouts to make sure I’m increasing my weight or reps for the current workout. I also appreciate the ability to pull up my workout on my phone and check off sets as I go.
Lastly, as a data nerd, I like that the app I use provides graphs and charts for statistics such as estimated one-rep maximum, max weight, workout volume, total reps, max reps, weight and reps, and so forth. It also has a few other nifty features, such as a history for each exercise, the ability to denote supersets, comments, a plate calculator, and easy options for backing up and restoring your data.
The app that I’ve used and loved for many years is called FitNotes. Unfortunately, FitNotes is only available for Android phones. (You’ll find an app of the same name for. iOS but, unfortunately, it’s not the same app.)
While technology is great for some, others prefer a pen and paper to software. If this sounds like you, a training journal can work just fine for recording your workouts. I know a few exceptionally strong and successful lifters who keep track of everything with a simple notebook and pen that they keep in their gym bag.
One benefit to this method is that it keeps your nose out of your phone during your workout, which will almost invariably increase your ability to focus. And if you still want to analyze the data later, you can always plug your numbers into a spreadsheet and do your reporting from there.
While a step tracker isn’t necessary by any means, it’s a handy way to keep an eye on your daily movement. Having said that, I suggest only using it as a step counter. While all the fancy bells and whistles such as calorie expenditure, heart rate, sleep data, floors climbed, and so forth are interesting, they aren’t particularly accurate.
That’s not to say that the actual step count is exact, either. Still, what it does well is that it serves as a consistent measurement of how much you’re moving around. Given that our subconscious activity level tends to go down when we’re dieting (which I touched on in this article), a step tracker can serve as a tool to mitigate that reduction somewhat.
To wrap up, whether you’re tracking your finances or your fitness, tracking is a powerful tool. If you can find methods of tracking that you enjoy and see benefits from, you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to fat loss. In fact, tracking could mean the difference between seeing steady incremental progress and no progress at all.