Dan John, one of the coaches I respect the most in this industry, loves to say "If you don't know where you are going, then any road will get you there". Let that quote simmer for a while, as it not only applies to strength training, but to life in general. If you don't have a specific goal in mind, how on earth will you ever know if you've reached it? Enter the training journal.
Likewise, if you don't know where you're coming from, you'll never learn where you are going. Dan John loves to talk about journaling in terms of mining for gold. He states, "About a decade ago, I worked with a young man--let's call him Ed--who had all the physical tools, listened to everything I said, worked hard in my presence, and then went home. But he couldn't get himself to follow my most important commandment: Keep a journal. The second year I worked with him, I found out that he did absolutely no training on weekends, virtually nothing all summer, and slumped over any extended break. Well, Ed never won a state championship. With a couple of years of hindsight, I am now convinced that he gave it away by refusing to use the most important tool in the athlete's toolbox: the training journal. Writing in his journal would have helped him learn one of the keys to athletic success: Try to only make the same mistakes over and over again a couple of times" (John & Tsatsouline).
Any trainer worth their salt will tell you that the folks who get the best results journal. There are a few reasons for this:
1. Journaling takes less effort than recalling
The brain is a powerful tool, but after a stressful work day, the last thing I would expect of myself or a client is for them to remember every exercise, rep count, number of sets, and amount of weight lifted from every session prior.
A client of mine recently told me he didn't want to journal because it was "too much work", and that he was afraid he "may not come anymore because he didn't want his training to become too mentally taxing". This is a totally valid argument, though slightly flawed in its logic. I responded, "The amount of time you will save having to remember your weights correctly will make your brain work harder than writing down a simple number on a page. Save your brain power for other more important things like spending time with family and friends". In the same way that learning how to do a movement for the first time is challenging, learning to journal can be difficult too. Don't let that stop you from providing yourself with a tool that helps to guarantee results.
Whether the journal is in the form of a printed program with boxes to fill in, or something hand-written in a composition notebook, either will provide a simpler way of remembering exercises, weights, etc. Like nutrition, find what works best for yourself and stick to it like bees on honey. Some things just don't need to be remembered, but rather recorded in order to save time and effort in the long run.
2. Journaling provides a jumping-off point
The first day you journal, you will have set yourself a baseline to forever refer to. For example, if my 5 rep max deadlift was 100 pounds on January 1 of this year, and one year later I suddenly notice I am still deadlifting 100 pounds, I have a problem! If you lift it, then log it, and you will never again be surprised at change (or in the example above, a lack thereof).
Depending on your frequency of training, injury history, and FMS screen, it's not unreasonable to expect a healthy, pain-free individual who moves well to gain 5-10 pounds of strength per month on a given movement. Extrapolate that number and apply to 12 months, and you have between a 60 and 120 pound gain within a specific movement. For most "average" folks who train recreationally, this is completely possible! The only thing to left is to do the work, write it down, and watch (and feel!) the progress unfold before your eyes.
3. Journaling helps you program better
I've written about my own injuries and how they helped my own programming by finding the movements/exercises that were causing me pain and systematically removing them from my training. But seriously, there is no reason why others can't do the same. Generally speaking, if it hurts, don't do it. Seek first an FMS certified coach to screen you for pain and/or dysfunction. If you are good to go, have them help you pattern a better movement. If you screen positive for pain, find a professional who can help you get out of pain, such as a physical therapist, and in the meantime avoid the painful movement(s). If this means your program gets whittled down to a few small movements and/or exercises, that's not a bad thing! A laser sharp focus on a few drills will help you to improve upon those areas, and your strength will skyrocket safely. Use your journal to take notes on what is working for you, and what isn't! It can be a great tool in avoiding or recovering from injury.
4. Journaling confirms results
Unless the Matrix turns out to be "real", for most folks, seeing is believing. If you were to journal all of your training sessions for the next year and you see an increase of 75 pounds in all of your lifts, would that help you to believe your progress more? If you start to see a difference in your body in the mirror, would that help too? Chances are you answered a resounding "yes" to both of those questions. So why not journal?
My friend and colleague Jeff Sokol, who plies his trade up in Seattle, loves to say that he isn't in the business of creating six packs and feeding egos, he is in the business of getting people stronger. He loves to say that "the body you earn is a result of your training". Ain't that the truth! If your strength levels stay the same, so will your body. Don't expect to get "leaner" or "more toned"if your strength isn't going up steadily. Results will be a pipe dream, otherwise. Use that journal to track your frequency, intensity, and duration of training, as well as your exercises and weights, and you'll be able to tweak things to help achieve the best results possible. A well written journal will confirm or deny your results.
5. Journaling provides direction
In some cases, the act of journaling will help a destination unfold before you. For example, when a journal reveals a trend of progress in stable two legged squat and hinge exercises, but a complete lack of improvement in asymmetrical or single leg stance drills, there is a problem. Chances are some rudimentary corrective work on the hips and ankles and upper back will need to be done. Nothing other than a journal would have been able to detect stagnation, and suggest a good course of action in order to correct it.
On a separate, but similar note, journals can help pick up on the things that we love and hate doing. Chances are the things we hate are the things we need the most. If we always train the our favorite exercises, the likelihood of achieving better movement and busting out of our comfort zones is slim. The journal will help dictate where you focus most in your training, thus providing you with a meaningful direction.
6. Journaling helps to avoid the same mistake twice
History, when forgotten, has a tendency to repeat itself. In his book, Easy Strength, Dan John references how humans have a tendency to repeat the same error over and over again, unsure why they continually run in to problems. Remember Ed? Poor Ed is a metaphor for many an athlete and training client. John states, "Without a journal, Ed relied solely on others to discover his path to success. He didn't understand one of the great tools of athletic success: mining your journal. Your training journal contains a gold mine of information--if you take the time, every day, to record your workouts, your attitudes, and your life in general. Years later you can sift through this material to discover what makes YOU tick!"
Why put in the commitment of doing the work if you don't plan to follow through on tracking it? Journaling, for me, has been the number one difference between steady results, plateaus, and even injury. A little over a year ago, I found that certain movements were causing me pain in my neck and upper back and shoulder. Overhead pressing was causing me headaches, and horizontal rowing movements were causing my upper back to lock up. The only way I was able to start whittling down which exercises were hurting me was from my journal. My notes helped me remember how I felt after specific sets and training sessions. Eventually I detected a trend, removed the problem drills, and felt much better after finishing my training. Not to mention I actually started to heal...but that's besides the point!