Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Value of Weightlifting Journals

A recent daily email from the Writer’s Almanac reminded me of the great diarist Samuel Pepys, who began his diary on January 1, 1660, and kept it going for almost 10 years.1 Today we value Pepys’ observations as a “delightfully detailed portrait of Restoration English,” as the Almanac put it—not only those describing historically significant events, but also those describing the daily experiences of Pepys himself. In his first entry, for instance, he writes, “Dined at home in the garret, where my wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand.” Hardly the stuff of legend, and yet taken together such tidbits form a fascinating window into the life of an individual dead for over three hundred years.

Like Pepys, I keep a consistent journal, though I limit its scope to weightlifting. Every time I lift weights, I record the type of exercise, the amount of weight involved, and the number of repetitions I do. I am now on my third journal, having started with a sparkly pink one in September 2004, moved to a plain black one in June 2008, and begun my current purple and gray plaid one in September 2012.

The value of a weightlifting journal, I have come to learn, extends beyond simple record-keeping. Of course referring to my previous entries helps me decide what weight to use on a given exercise and how many reps to shoot for, and were that its only function it would be worth toting around the gym and keeping carefully updated. But a weightlifting journal serves more functions than this. In different ways, it is a teacher, companion, and ally.  

Recent entries in my weightlifting journal

One great benefit of my journals is that they are tangible, detailed reminders of how far I’ve come since I first started lifting weights as a college undergraduate. Pull-ups have always been one of my most important targets at the gym, and my journals are records of how persistent I have been when it comes to this difficult exercise. I finally achieved my first pull-up on January 9, 2006—nearly two years after beginning the Weight Training for Women class that started it all—and wasn’t consistently doing two pull-ups until February 2008. Now I usually do six to seven, occasionally dipping down to five or rising up to eight and a half. Yes, in this pursuit I can confidently say I have shown persistence. It’s right there on the page. And it’s not just pull-ups—I have hundreds of pages proving I went to the gym week after week, sometimes when I would have much rather been doing something else.  

Another benefit of journaling is the opportunity to write sporadic remarks venting frustration or sharing pleasant thoughts with my future self. On November 2, 2005, I was apparently exasperated enough by my squat sets to note, “I hate these!” A few times I have jotted down “Yes!” next to a feat of strength and determination. Smiley faces are slightly more frequent, though still uncommon (most days have no descriptive comments or doodles at all), and the occasional workout prompts a frowny face or “Ow!” Looking back at these remarks weeks, months, and years later is an amusing and every so often poignant activity.

I would love to get comments on these thoughts from any readers who keep their own weightlifting journals. For any weightlifters reading this who don’t journal, I advise you to start. You’ll be glad you did. For readers who don’t lift weights or do similar strength training routines, I hope the ancillary but meaningful gains you would experience from keeping a journal can help convince you to start.

1. London-based web designer Phil Gyford has put the entire text of Pepys’ diary on