If strength training is already a part of your fitness regimen, good for you! It’s one of the most vital aspects of any workout routine. This is mainly because it utilizes your own bodyweight as a resistance tool to strengthen your muscles and increases your ability to produce force. Strength training brings many great benefits—but, it’s important to keep track of your progress.
It’s different from other types of exercise that primarily increase endurance or flexibility, explains Robert Herbst, C.P.T., weight-loss coach and powerlifter. “Strength training is important because it not only builds muscle, which people naturally lose as they get older, but it also raises metabolism. So, people burn more calories, which helps them lose fat,” he says. “Also, by stressing the spine and the long bones of the arms and legs, it causes the body to make new bone. [This] improves bone density and slows or reverses the onset of osteoporosis.”
Just like its name implies, one of strength training’s greatest functions is making your muscles stronger over time. But to ensure you’re getting the full benefits—namely increased strength and muscle size—you must be able to know when to increase your volume or workload and lift more weight, explains Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., personal trainer, doctor of nutrition, and owner of eatrightfitness. You can do this by tracking your progress. Here, fitness experts share the best ways to track your strength training workouts so you’re on the road to muscle-building success.
Keep a workout journal.
Logging a workout journal is one of the simplest and most effective ways to track the amount of weight you lifted in previous workouts. This way you’ll know if you’re getting stronger. “The body adapts to exercise quite easily, to whatever workouts we’re consistently performing. So if we continually do the same weights and the same exercises, the body will no longer elicit a response to change. The muscles will not grow or get stronger,” Adams explains. “A major mistake I see in the gym is people doing the same workouts each week, with the same amount of weight.” A workout journal, however, can help you switch up your strength training programs. This will keep your muscles in a constant state of being challenged.
Track the amount lifted by the amount of weight.
You can do this in your workout journal. Or, you can also simply add it in the notes section of your smartphone and update it during each workout. “Keeping a log of how much you lift and trying to add weight or reps each workout for a six- to eight-week cycle is a very objective way to keep track of your strength training progress,” Herbst says. “When progress slows or stalls, simply go back down and start a new cycle with five pounds more or do another rep more than you would normally do.”
Check your body composition.
Another way to track progress is by checking your body composition, meaning the percentage of muscle versus fat. “As you strength train, you will build muscle and burn fat. Your body fat percentage will go down,” Herbst says. “Many health clubs have skinfold calipers or electric conductivity testers that give a rough approximation of body fat percentage. [This] can tell you if your progress is trending in the right direction.” Because you will hopefully be putting on muscle, simply weighing yourself may not reflect your progress. Herbst explains that if you lose a pound of fat but gain a pound of muscle, your weight on the scale will be the same, but you’ll be fitter. Similarly, he warns against relying on your body mass index. It just reflects your weight and doesn’t take into account how much of that weight is muscle.
Test yourself once a month.
Once every four to six weeks, Adams recommends testing your strength on various lifts. Use lower reps on an exercise and record these amounts. “Go for as heavy as you can safely lift with good form. Then when you do this again, compare your progress to the previous time” he says. “This way, you can measure how much your strength has increased and have documented knowledge to back this up.”
Take a look in the mirror.
While you’re taking that selfie to track your fitness journey overall, take a close look at each and every muscle in your arms, legs, and shoulders. These areas tend to lean out faster than others when you start a strength training program. “When we see ourselves every day, we don’t always notice the changes. But comparing photos from four to six weeks apart will definitely show differences,” Adams says.
Use a tape measure.
Another easy, old-school way to track your strength training progress is with a tape measure. Adams recommends using a fabric tape measure to record circumference measurements around different parts of your body, namely your shoulders, chest, waist, hips, legs, and arms. Repeat the measurements every four to six weeks to gauge your progress and see how your body is—or isn’t—changing.