Did you ever play connect the dots as a kid? 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.
When you track something, 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 diligently monitor how we spend our money, we may not devote any time or energy to tracking other behaviors like nutritional intake and training progress. But why not? You may have heard the quote, “what gets measured gets managed.” This is as true for fitness as it is for finances.
Fundamentally, tracking is simply a form of self-monitoring, which means your ability to observe and evaluate your behavior. This is an important skill, because it can be surprisingly hard to be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and how it’s affecting you.
Without any form of self-monitoring, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re doing everything right, even when that’s not the case. With it, however, you’re a lot less likely to veer off course into mindless behaviors that hamper your progress — or into flat out denial.
In fact, research has shown that not only does dietary self-monitoring play an important role in long-term weight control , but also that when you self-monitor consistently, increasing the frequency at which you do so will get you better results .
So what should you track? If you’re looking to make significant changes to your physique, there are three main areas you should track: nutritional intake, training progress, and body composition.
Tracking Your Nutrition
Nutrition plays an important role in everything, from weight gain or loss, to training performance, to mood, energy levels, and more. So of all the things you could possibly monitor, tracking your nutritional intake will probably give you the greatest return on investment.
The most accurate and straightforward way to track your food is to plug everything you eat into an app that does the calculations for you. There is a pretty steep learning curve to this type of tracking, as you’ll need to learn how to use specific entries rather than generic ones, how to correctly account for cooked versus raw foods, how to plan your day instead of tracking after the fact, and so forth.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, though, it becomes much less of a hassle and should only take you a few minutes every day. Having said that, for nutrition tracking to be effective, you need to be able to sustain it and do it consistently — not just when you feel like it, or when you’re having an on point day.
Food Tracking Variations
Accounting for every gram of food you eat isn’t the only way to do things. Rather, there are numerous ways of monitoring your diet that you can pick from. Here are some examples:
- Meal plan designed to hit exact targets
- Tracking to exact calorie and macronutrient targets
- Tracking to calorie and macronutrient ranges
- Meal template with options designed to hit ranges
- Calorie and protein-only tracking
- Calorie-only tracking
- Bodyweight-only tracking
- Standardizing portion sizes
- Habit-based approach
- Food photographs
The above tracking methods are roughly ordered from most to least rigid. While rigid tracking can yield big results, stricter approaches are generally less sustainable. And since your ability to adhere to a strategy is the number one determinant of how successful you’ll be, you should choose an approach that you can realistically keep up with for as long as you’ll need to.
Having said that, the more aggressive your goal is, the stricter you’ll need to be. For example, a pre-contest bodybuilder or a weight class athlete cutting for a competition will need to track with a high degree of specificity, while someone looking to get into a healthy weight range and improve their overall fitness can achieve their goal with a lot less tracking specificity.
So start with the minimum effective dose, then add stringency only when it becomes necessary. Moreover, stay fluid. Keep in mind that that you can move up and down the ladder of tracking specificity as your goals and circumstances change.
Tracking Your Training
One of the key principles in strength training is progressive overload, which dictates that in order to see continual gains in muscular size, strength and performance, you must gradually increase your training stress over time. In other words, you have to increase the amount of work you’re doing.
Having said that, if you don’t record how much work you’re doing — e.g., your sets, reps and load for each exercise — it’s difficult to know whether you’re doing more work, doing less work, or maintaining. This is why tracking your training is an indispensable tool.
Using a Mobile App
A training app provides an easily-accessed record of what you’ve lifted since you started using the app, making it quick to see whether you’re progressing from session to session, as well as over a longer period of time. It also makes it easy to plan out your program in advance.
Many tracking apps also provide graphs and charts for stats such as estimated one-rep maxes, max weight, workout volume, total reps, max reps, weight and reps, and so forth. They can also come with a few other nifty features, such as rest period timers, a metronome for tempo, the ability to denote supersets, a plate calculator, and easy options for backing up and restoring your data.
My favorite app is Strong, which is available for both Android and iOS.
Using a Training Journal
While technology is great for some, others prefer a pen and paper. If this sounds like you, a training journal works just fine for recording your sessions. 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 pen and paper 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.
Tracking Your Physique
Physique tracking is most helpful during fat loss or muscle gain phases, to ensure everything is moving in the right direction. During maintenance phases, you can reduce the frequency and specificity of physique tracking to periodic weigh-ins.
Scale weight is an effective, if not somewhat crude, 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 not budge, or why it might fluctuate up and down, that have nothing to do with actually having gained or lost body mass.
Common reasons for weight fluctuations include: time of weigh-in, lack of sleep, stress, dietary changes, fluid intake changes, being extremely sore from a workout, whether you’ve had a bowel movement, the female menstrual cycle, and more. So while the scale provides useful feedback, it needs to be considered in context with other data.
I recommend weighing yourself in the morning, after going to the bathroom but before eating or drinking anything. Daily weighing is helpful so that you can look at weekly averages, rather than over-focusing on individual data points. Having said that, if seeing the day-to-day fluctuations drives you nuts, weighing once per week is fine.
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 is the most telling. For example, if your waist measurement is going down, you’re probably losing fat regardless of what the scale is doing.
Try 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. For this reason, I encourage everyone to take periodic progress pictures, as they often pick up on changes that scale and circumference measurements may miss.
To wrap up, tracking is a powerful tool that you shouldn’t ignore if you want to maximize your results. Find methods of tracking that you can sustain, using the minimum effective dose for your goal. You can always scale up from there if and when it becomes apparent that it’s needed.