In January of 2018 and January of 2019, I made two small but significant changes to how I approach working out. Last year’s change was to track all of my workouts in a small notebook, one page for each day. This year’s change was to train all muscle groups twice a week and to vary the exercises between the first and second time.
Last year, I’d read James Clear’s post about how he tracked his workouts so he could see progress and check back to make sure he was always pushing himself. You’ll see my notebook takes a lot of inspiration from his: Date, muscle group, and body weight across the top. Exercise, weight, sets, and reps on each line. A tick goes beside each exercise as I complete them so I don’t have to remember what set I’m on. And if a weight is too light or heavy, I put a little up or down arrow beside it for me to consider next time. Until I started putting everything into a notebook, I’d been relying on my memory (which couldn’t recall data from further back than a week or two) and what I felt like lifting that day (which may have been higher, lower, or the same as the week before). I’d played with tracking over the years but it tended to be at the start of a new program and would fall off once I’d settled into the routine. I couldn’t tell you with any degree of certainty how much I progressed (if any) from one year to the next. That’s all changed: in one year of tracking, I’ve seen significant increases in my bench, squat, deadlift, and pull-up and made solid gains across all muscle groups and exercises. All I had to do was write it down, do the work, and push myself to do a bit more the next time.
The second change came from talking with a co-worker about high frequency weight training (fun fact: he used to play for the Calgary Stampeders). I’ve tried different workout plans over the past 15 years but progress and gains would tend to plateau because I wasn’t paying attention to program structure and couldn’t tell what worked for me. Because I started tracking everything last year, I could see the impact of different set and rep combinations (3x10s, 5x5s, 4x15s, etc). While the sets and reps varied, I was still only training each muscle group once a week and during those sessions I was piling on so many exercises that I’d be too fatigued to really push for bigger gains. So I split my five-day routine – Chest, Legs, Back, Shoulders, Arms – into a six-day routine: Chest+Biceps 1, Back+Triceps 1, Legs+Shoulders 1, Chest+Biceps 2, Back+Triceps 2, Legs+Shoulders 2. There are fewer exercises for each muscle group on a day but total volume in the week is the same (or a bit more), I train the muscle group with different exercises on the first day compared to the second day, and I can push a lot harder without experiencing the fatigue I used to. I superset each pair of lines which lets me move through a workout quickly. In the seven weeks that I’ve been doing this, it’s been a night-and-day difference in terms of strength and size.
So there it is. Simple changes that have been truly lift altering.