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Why & How: Keeping a Training Journal

Keeping a training journal is Fundamental #1 when it comes to beginning any physical training program.  It ensures you stay focused, progressive, and accountable.  By recording your workouts and then reviewing them before the next workout you’ll be empowered to make better training decisions.  


From personal experience I can share that all the training periods of my life when I experienced the most dramatic, consistent and sustainable progress with the times I was dedicated to keeping a training journal.  


This is a lesson I learned from my dad, who kept training journals of every training run he ever did over the course of 30 years, or more, of competitive running.  He encourages all of his junior golf students to do the same.  


About 10 years ago my dad’s former students organized a reunion.  These were all people in their late 30s and 40s that my dad had coached when they were teenagers.  There was a point when each person spoke about what the program and my dad meant to them and their development.  Everyone to a person said that one of the most valuable things they learned was how to keep a consistent journal where they planned and tracked their training routine, and how that was a skill they carried with them long after they retired from competitive golf.  


How to Start and Keep a Training Journal 


  1. Decide how you want to keep it -  I prefer to keep a handwritten journal.  We have some cool 34° North journals at the front desk that are a great option if that’s your jam.  Keeping the journal in the notes application in your phone can also be really handy. The method you choose doesn’t matter as much as the consistent execution.  

  2. Record the programming and you’re performance - Everyday, we write the programming for the day on the whiteboard, which I recommend taking a picture of and then copying into your journal later.  Our instructors will be laying out clear guidelines for sets, reps, tempo and intensity prescriptions for every skill and strength exercise. Pay careful attention to these instructions, train within the context of them for your ability level, and then record your performance.  Pro tip: insert notes about the qualitative aspects of your workout and intensity prescriptions, for example, Deadlift 5 x 5 @ 70% of 1RM (translates to deadlift 5 sets of 5 reps at 70% of the weight of your 1 rep max).

  3. Review your performance prior to the next workout of its kind in order to prepare a plan going into the next workout.  In other words, know what you did last time so you can make educated decisions about what you should be doing next time.  If you don’t know what you deadlifted last time and for how many reps how can you possibly hope to make a good decision in the next workout?  Under those circumstances you’re just guessing or doing whatever weight your partner puts on the bar, which in all likelihood means you’re either lifting too heavy, risking injury in a worst case scenario and developing dysfunctional movement patterns in a guaranteed best case scenario, or lifting too light to stimulate any progress.  


Programming Language 101


The programming language we use is the most common used by strength and conditioning coaches and trainers throughout the world.  


Here’s an example of a basic program that we can breakdown.


A1. Squat @ 185# 3 x 8 / 31x1

A2. Pullup @ bw 3 x 5 / 30x1

Rest 90s after A1/A2

B1. KB Swing @ 32kg 3 x 10 

B2. Ring Row @ 70% 1RM 3 x 8 / 30x1

B3. MB Rot throw @12# 3 x 8/8

Rest 120s after B3

C. ERG Row @135bpm 10’ steady state


Let’s break this down from left to right:


First are the letters and numbers that indicated the order exercises are to be done in.  A1 and A2 represent exercises that are to be done together alternating back and forth between the two until the prescribed sets and reps are completed.  You don’t move on to the B’s until A1 and A2 are completed. In the case of B1-B3 we have three exercises done together.  


Second from the left is the exercise.  


Next are the prescriptions on intensity.  That can be in the form of specific loads, like 185# (translates 185 lbs) and 32kg (32 kilograms), percentages relative to 1 rep max (1RM), and even heart rate beats per minute (bpm).  With the percentages relative to 1RM the goal is to be working at a percentage of your max ability. In some cases it would be difficult to actually figure out how to achieve working at the prescribed intensity, for example with inverted ring rows, so in those cases you have to go by feel.  In our example the trainee should be doing 8 rows at an intensity that feels like 70% of the hardest row they could possibly do one time, not 8 rows at 70% of the hardest 8 rows they could do.  


Last are sets, reps and tempo; always in that order.  Sets are first, reps are second followed by any tempo prescriptions.  


In the case of A1 the program calls for 3 sets of 8 squats.  Next to the sets and reps (3 x 8) there are tempo numbers, which in this example for A1 are 31x1.  31x1 is actually a collection of four different tempo prescriptions that always go in the same order. 


  • First number is the eccentric phase, aka the lowering part, of the movement.  Think going down on a squat or push-up.  

  • Second number is any pauses after the eccentric phase.  0 means no pause, 1 means a 1 second pause, 2 means 2 second pause and so on.  

  • Third number is the concentric phase, aka the way up, of the movement.  Think coming up on a squat or push-up.  

  • The last number indicates any pauses at the top of the movement after the concentric phase between reps and follows the same logic as before with the bottom pauses.  

  • An ‘x’ always indicates moving as fast as possible on the eccentric or concentric.

  • Be mindful that some exercises start with the eccentric movement, like a squat, while some start with the concentric, like a pullup, but regardless the tempo numbering system is always the same - eccentric phase, pause after eccentric, concentric phase, and pause after concentric phase.


In our example from A1, the tempo prescription is saying 3 seconds on the way down, 1 second pause at the bottom, move up as fast as possible on the concentric phase and then a 1 second pause at the top before the next rep.  


Below each superset or circuit of exercises there will be instructions on rest.  Sometimes there are instructions to rest between each exercise and other times only after the entire superset or circuit is finished.  In this example there is meant to be 90 seconds rest after each set of both A1 and A2.  (It reads rest 90s after A1/A2, which in programming language means rest 90s after A1 and A2).  For the B1-B3 circuit there is not rest after B1 and B2, but 120s rest after B3 before starting over again at B1.  


A common acronym you’ll see is AMRAP, which stands for as many rounds as possible.  If you see this, it means you’re to do as many rounds as possible of a superset or circuit of exercises within the given time constraint.  


Calculating 1 Rep Max


It’s important to know your 1 rep max (1RM) for certain compound strength lifts, like the deadlift, back squat and overhead press because it’s the data point from which to determine relative lifting intensity.  You may, for example, see in a program that you’re supposed to deadlift @ 70% intensity for 5 sets of 5 reps.  


This is the only way we can make prescriptions in group classes.

If you don’t have a good idea of your 1RM then you’re guessing when your given instructions on lifting intensity, which means you’re likely to be lifting too heavy or too light. 


I learned this formula from Jim Wendler in his 5/3/1 book on strength training that allows you to calculate your 1RM without having to actually test your maximum strength in training.  It’s incredibly accurate in my experience. In order to use the formula you’ll need to lift a moderately heavy weight as many times as you can safely then plug the info into this formula.


Wt = weight lifted

R = reps completed


Weight x reps x .0333 + weight = 1RM


Other Considerations


There are other qualitative aspects and quantitative data points you may want to consider tracking depending on how detailed you want to get and what goals you’re training for.  


If you’re training to improve skills, like hand balancing, it can be helpful to take notes about how movements you’re training feel.  I’ve found it helpful to track my success rate when kicking up into a free-standing handstand to judge my progress and to judge when I may be getting burned out and need to take a day off from training.  


If your goals are focused on fat loss or conditioning based you will find it helpful to use a heart rate monitor to ensure you’re training within the proper heart rate range to stimulate those mechanisms.  Personally, there are times I like to use a HR monitor to determine my rest periods when I’m training for strength or skill. Rather than have set rest periods I’ll wait until my heart rate returns to a certain point before I commence my next set to ensure I’m recovered and primed to get the most out of the set.  


Knowing your heart rate variability (HRV) is a good data point to know when it comes to understanding your level of recovery from prior training and readiness to train today.  Within a few minutes of waking up you can get an HRV reading that will tell you how hard you should train that day.  


Keeping a training journal is an invaluable resource and the first line of defense against haphazard, result-less fitness.  You’ll have a clear picture of your performance measurements at the beginning and end of training phases which guarantees you’re more aware and making better decisions throughout the phase, which in turn leads to better results.  

- Tanner Martty

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