Initial reflections on a lifetime of tracking my workouts

I still remember my first experience tracking my efforts in the gym.  I joined a weight training class at the local public high school, taught by my summer basketball coach.  There, I learned all the Nautilus and Universal machines, ventured into the free weight area to learn core lifts like bench press, and filled several cards with exercise names and weights amounts.  In the fall, my mother convinced the local YMCA to let me use their weight room so I could continue to build my strength between sports seasons.  I worked with a trainer, perfecting my exercise technique and using a 4 sets of 6 strategy to build up my weights with barbells, dumbbells and machines.  At the peak of my strength, I was able to bench press my body weight (135) and squat well over 2x that amount.

Looking back, I didn’t appreciate how unique this early experience in the weight room actually was. My summer weight lifting class was filled with female athletes seeking strength as a means to improve performance in their sports.  Self-conscious about my own weight, I compared myself to several high-level competitive gymnasts in the class. I was surprised to see them lifting just as much (or more) than me, despite their much smaller size. After this experience, I never bought into the false notion that holds many women back in the gym-that women should only train with light weights to avoid getting “too big.”  Even at a young age, I had seen too many counter-examples to believe that women who trained heavy would naturally develop large and manly looking bodies.

Unfortunately, I don’t have my training data from that first summer class long ago.  I also lost the training notebook that detailed my YMCA workouts.  But I do have a series of notebooks dating back to 1998 that detail the exercises, sets and weights I used during various training periods starting in graduate school.  My training has been far from consistent over that time period, but I estimate that I have workout data covering ~10 of the past 17 years, and only have a few years’ worth of that data entered so far.  I recently started using the Full Fitness app to track workouts I do when my notebook isn’t in front of me.  Full Fitness exports CSV files that I can add to my growing electronic workout history.

Whether in a notebook or an app, tracking detailed workout info is useful for short-term (what set am I on in this workout?), medium-term (what weight did I use last time I did this exercise?), and long-term (what’s the most weight I’ve ever used for this exercise?) assessment.  While I default to tracking in my workout notebooks because I have been doing it so long, I do look forward to the day when entering my workout data is a more automated process.  I’ve already seen that automated data collection and export has meant a quicker path to visualizing and analyzing my general activity data-I have been using an accelerometer-based activity monitor to automate data collection on my baseline movement levels for 4 ½ years now. You can read posts on that topic and others in my Fitness and Food blog series on the JMP blog.

More recently, I’ve read about monitors capable of detecting the details of weight training workouts (see a review of some here).  While I haven’t yet tried using a device to monitor my workouts, between various bands and the possibilities of technology-infused clothing, I suspect the future will bring many more options for automated weight workout data collection, along with more meaningful and accessible visualizations of it.  Thanks to GPS-enabled activity monitors and smartphones with data export capabilities, it’s become routine to see summaries of training volume and graphs of running or biking training routes superimposed on map locations.  You don’t even need to export your data to create custom visualizations, as many apps include embedded mapping features that leverage Google Maps or other such sources.

In contrast, the most common weight workout visualizations I have seen are pretty basic, tracking relatively simple metrics like maximum weight lifted over time for one or two core lifts. Obviously, maximum weight lifted is relevant for strength athletes who compete, and is commonly tracked by casual lifters seeking bragging rights in the gym. The next most common metrics to track appear to be summary statistics like total sets by body part and total weight lifted by exercise or body part over time. A general goal of progressive weight training is to push a little farther than you did the workout before, increasing weight or volume, so various training metrics can change in a positive direction even if max weight lifted on core exercises plateaus.

Most experts recommend periodicizing workouts, varying the number of sets and reps performed over time to maximize muscle hypertrophy and strength gains.   Periodicized training programs often change the mix of exercises performed over time to expose muscles to a variety of movement and muscle stress profiles.  All of this information becomes visible in the records of a detailed training history, but it’s hard to pull out from the pages of a notebook. Having workout data in electronic form is essential to learning beyond simple assessments like “My max bench press increased from 95 to 135 over the past year.”

Now that I have some of my own data imported into JMP, the software developed by the group I work in at SAS, I have concluded that weight training is THE ultimate sport for a data geek.  Without having my data in electronic form, though, I never even considered trying to ask the kind of questions I can now answer about my training history:

  • How often have I worked out over the years?
  • Have I gotten stronger at specific lifts over time, either within the context of a specific workout program or between programs?
  • What exercises do I do the most often, and which exercises have appeared in more than one workout program I have done?
  • How many total pounds did I lift per exercise or body part per training period?
  • What does my last month or year of workouts look like compared to past years?

Considering many metrics of training success has been especially helpful to me as I begin looking back on my long training history and looking ahead to future workouts.  My big strength improvements were relatively early in my training life, and I don’t train for strength competitions now, so focusing on strength as my only metric would be rather unsatisfying.  With my historical workout data, I can still track strength in the form of max weight lifted for all exercises, but I can also easily calculate training volume (# sets, # reps, total weight lifted) by exercise and body part and visualize how my workout patterns have shifted over time.  I hope you’ll join me for later blogs here as I begin to share personal reflections on what I’m finding while exploring my data.  You can also follow my Fitness and Food blog series on, which follows some of the ways in which I have used JMP to visualize my data!


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