This article isn’t for casual trainees. It’s for those of you that are putting in a serious amount of effort with your training and nutrition. You owe it to yourself to take the 10-15 minutes each week to track your progress seriously, to ensure you get the results you deserve.
Without proper tracking data, you won’t be able to gauge whether or not you are progressing as hoped. You won’t have objective data points from which to base your decisions off of when you stall in some area, and there is a good chance that you will get stuck spinning your wheels not knowing what to tweak to get yourself back on track. Perhaps you’ve already experienced this frustration?
Consider the following:
If the way you’re currently tracking isn’t sufficient to tease out the differences, then you need to improve it. Fortunately, this article is here to help. It will guide you through the art of proper progress tracking that I’ve developed over the last five and a half years from working with clients online. It is easy to understand, quick to implement, and I’ve included a spreadsheet tracker you can download also.
1. Don’t weigh yourself just once a week. Your weight will fluctuate from day to day, and across the course of a day.
2. Don’t rely on the mirror. Your condition will change as your water balance and gut content fluctuate. Also, the brain plays tricks by adapting perceptions to new levels of stimulation through a phenomenon known as “perceptual adaptation.”
3. Don’t try to gauge progress by measuring body fat percentage. Body fat measurement methods all have accuracy and consistency issues. (I’ve written more about this here.)
Over longer time frames, this is sufficient. In the shorter time frames where all the decisions need to happen, this is woefully inadequate, and will more than likely just leave you in the shit.
There are eight key ways I now get clients to track progress. The data points taken together will help you determine whether an adjustment to your diet or training is necessary. It’s not perfect, but it will help you navigate the fluctuations in weight when dieting and bulking, help you determine whether you need to make an adjustment to your training, and stop you from doing something prematurely, screwing yourself up.
This is how your data will look if you track as per this guide:
Many of the points I will make here may seem very obvious in isolation, but they are things easily missed or forgotten when making decisions in the heat of the moment. For extra detail, click these →1
Do it after going to the toilet. You can choose to do this at night, but most people will find a morning habit easier to stay consistent with.
Scale weight will fluctuate day to day, and throughout each day. You can expect to lose 1-2% body weight overnight through the moisture lost when breathing. Here are other things that cause fluctuations in weight:
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As with the scale weight, I suggest you measure in the morning when you wake up, after going to the toilet. I get clients to do this on a Saturday. Do it yourself rather than relying on a partner, as you are the only person that will always be with you. Two different people measuring with the same tape will get a slightly different result.
To help with consistency:
You can find a picture and video guide to using this kind of tape here.
When used in combination with the scale weight, this will help you to gauge muscle growth and fat loss in different areas.
Click for more detail.3
Use the same lighting conditions, camera, camera angle, time of day, and pose.
Being able to see changes in definition month to month can be very useful for motivation. I’ve experimented with weekly and fortnightly photos with clients and I’m convinced that every four weeks is best as the changes are often too small to be noticeable at higher frequencies.
Competitors should consider adding a third picture from the back, as this can show major changes in lower back and hip+ass fat which the front and side photos will not towards the end of the diet.
Due to the subjective nature of photos, I prefer relying on data for decision-making purposes. There are three exceptions that come to mind. Firstly, when making a guess at initial body fat. Secondly, gauging whether a competitor is lean enough for competition or whether or not we are on, ahead of, or behind schedule. Thirdly, helping people turn things around into maintenance, and then a bulk, without unnecessary fat gain.
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Rate all of these on a 0-5 scale.
Everything affects everything:
For those that are new to tracking their food intake, I suggest you aim to hit your daily protein intake target to within 20g, and hit your calorie target to within 200kcal.
More experienced trainees will benefit from a higher standard of accuracy. This is what I usually use with my clients. Aim for “best” 75% of the time and the other days can be “better” or “good” targets:
Those toward the end of a contest prep will benefit from tighter targets. Those in a bulking phase should consider looser targets.
Perfection is not a reasonable or realistic target to aim for, it will just set you up for failure. You need to choose an accuracy target that is both appropriate for your experience level and current situation. It’s important to build flexibility into the system to make things sustainable or your life will revolve around your diet.
When bulking you can (and arguably should) have looser accuracy targets than when you are cutting. Life needs to be lived, you cannot be on point all of the time or you will burn out.
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This figure is not how well you thought you performed. Fluctuations in performance are normal and to be expected.
If you haven’t been sticking to your training plan then you can’t expect to progress with it. However, without the data staring you in the face it’s sometimes easy to miss the fact that you haven’t been faithfully following the program well enough to gauge the efficacy. If this number is consistently below 80% (meaning you’re missing one in five workouts) then you need to re-prioritize your schedule or adjust the number of days in your training plan (while making an effort to keep training volume the same) so that you can stick to it.
List each of your main compound lifts. Every two weeks, write one of the following three things to summarize the period:
‘Not recovered’ in this sense means you are unusually sore when you next hit that body part, or if after your warm up the weights feel heavier than usual for that exercise. This shouldn’t be considered good or bad, so don’t attach a meaning to it.
It is normal for strength to fluctuate as fatigue builds and dissipates across the training cycle, and as work-life stresses come and go. Keeping summary data like this separate from the full training log helps to avoid clutter, and helps you get the relevant ‘big picture’ details without being overwhelmed when making decisions.
If you see that you aren’t progressing as reasonably expected in certain areas, or are unusually sore, despite sleep, stress and adherence all being on point for a couple of consecutive periods, then you know you need to take a deload, tweak something in your training program, or perhaps raise your caloric intake.
Either in a notebook or a separate tab of your tracking spreadsheet, keep a full training log noting all sets and reps completed along with the weight used for all exercises. Avoid clutter, don’t note warm-up sets.
This is how I get clients to note things:
If you have a copy of The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid, you’ll see that this is a version of the novice powerlifting sample program on page 153.
If you’re not familiar with the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) notation, it is a method to help match the load used each day to your readiness. This will help you manage fatigue more effectively and make faster gains. Eric Helms and I have put a free email course together explaining how to implement it here.
1. This allows you to dig into the details of your program when you have determined that you need to make a change. Putting it on a separate spreadsheet keeps the main summary data from getting cluttered.
2. It allows you to focus. You need a record of what you lifted the week before so that you can choose what you lift this week. I keep a screenshot of my training program on my phone. I put the phone on airplane mode. This serves the dual function of making sure I’m not disturbed when lifting something heavy and keeping me away from social media distractions.
(Check your browser’s downloads folder after clicking.)
Looking at data is something I do half of my working week. How I get clients to present it to me is something I have thought very long and hard about. Think carefully before adding other data as it can overwhelm you with detail.
That said, the one additional item I would suggest you track is motivation, rated weekly on a scale of 1-10. This is something I have clients write in their email updates along with any questions or concerns because I want them to explain the reason they feel this way. Also, as a coach the text dialogue at the update points can provide invaluable insights.
Thank you for reading. This article is an excerpt from my book on diet adjustments, The Last Shred. My books are where you’ll find my best work, so if you’re finding the site useful and would like to support it while getting more great content, please consider buying those.
Thanks to fellow coaches Alan Aragon, Joseph Agu, Russell Taylor, and Børge Fagerli for sharing their experiences and methods and providing feedback to improve this.
If you don’t feel ready to do that yet but would like more info on diet adjustments, I’ve put together a free email course which you can sign up for below.
Thanks for reading, questions welcomed in the comments! – Andy
Top image credit, Brandon Wells photography.
Good job! Look for these throughout the text.↩
Scale Weight Obsessors – Weighing once a week is not ideal by any means as it leaves you as a coach open to random fluctuations in weight happening and screwing up your analysis.
The downside of this needs to be weighed up with the stress from daily weighing that certain personality types feel. Educating the client on the causes of weight fluctuations is a cure in most cases, but not all. Perhaps showing several data client sets with the daily weigh-ins and the trend line noted would help.↩
Accept nothing less than a 0.1 cm degree of accuracy, regardless of what system (metric or imperial) they are used to. Not only is it exceptionally useful for noting small changes and trends in the data, but it also sets the client up with a mindset on precision, and that they need to take the data seriously.
Without the data, you are blind after all. I hammer this point home to clients at the outset – no data, no assessment. People sometimes screw this up, so it’s worth checking that they have filled out the tracking sheet correctly in the first week so that there can be no misunderstandings at the time of the first update.↩
If someone comes to you with an initial set of photos where they have their stomach forcibly sticking out, get them retaken. Varying degrees of stomach flexion will lead to a dramatically different appearance from one minute to the next. Remind them that the goal with the photos is not to have the most striking before-after shots, but to have a reliable visual gauge of progress.↩
Some people are going to screw up their counting of things. Short of requesting a complete list of the client’s meals and their ingredients (which I think may be overbearing, and possibly counterproductive), there is no real way to check for this, you just have to be aware of it. So, if someone isn’t losing weight as it seems they should for the macros you’ve given them, miscounting may be a factor.↩