Stop Being a Jock and Start Being a Fitness Nerd (part 1)

There are many types of athletes in the world, and this title can apply to those who participate in sports activities as well as those who don’t. Everyone is an athlete, it’s just a matter of drive and ability that determines their level. In general you can split athletes into four categories: Bad, Mediocre, Good, and Great.

We’re not going to spend much time on the Bad and Mediocre groups today, because it’s really easy to be one of those. To be a Bad athlete: don’t train regularly, put in little to no effort, and don’t care about your physical health. If you want to be Mediocre: put in minimal effort, care a little bit, and train when you feel like it. These categories will cover about 80% of the people in the world, as evidenced by just about every statistic about health and wellness we currently have available. On the bright side, it does seem like the Mediocre group is growing while the Bad group is dwindling. This 80% represents the “couch potatoes” who really aren’t doing much for their health, and the “weekend warriors” who only exercise when it’s convenient.

Good athletes put in the effort to better themselves. They stick to a schedule, though they may miss days here and there, and they care about their physical selves. Many Good athletes get that way through one of three paths, all of which are a combination of inherent potential plus training intensity.

Training
Potential High P + High T High P + Average/Low T
Average/Low P + High T Average/Low P + Average/Low T

Of the combinations available, the Low/Low combination will almost always result in a Mediocre athlete at best, but the others have the ability to produce Good or Great athletes over time. Unfortunately we can’t control our Potential, and the majority of people fall into the “Average/Low” category here, but what we can control to a great extent is our Training.

If becoming a Good athlete is a matter of Potential and Training, what makes a Great athlete? Data. Most Great athletes know & track their data, follow patterns, and improve based on quantifiable measurements. The modern athlete is not just a “Jock”, they are a “Fitness Nerd” that pays attention to detail in every aspect of their fitness. They track workouts, compare results, estimate working capacities, and make adjustments all for the sole purpose of improving over time.

At their very core, measurement and training go hand in hand. The human body becomes stronger, faster, and healthier by meeting, overcoming, and adapting to challenges. In order to keep adapting, new challenges greater than those already conquered need to be introduced on a regular basis. Once the challenges stop, so too does growth and improvement. The problem is that intensity is completely subjective: a marathon runner will hit their level of intensity at 20 miles, while someone just starting will hit theirs at 2 miles. This rule applies for all sports: the more capable you become, the greater the intensity needed to see improvement.

The only true way to know if your workout today is more intense than your workout yesterday, last week, or last month is to actually know what you tried and how well you did. Instead of hoping that your workouts are granting you benefits, you should be measuring and know that they are.

What to Measure

If the power is in the data, then you need to know what data to track. Every workout you complete has several factors you can use to determine your progress over time. There are three simple measurements that every athlete should start with: Lifts, Times, and Rounds.

Lifts

This refers to your maximal abilities with the major barbell, kettlebell, and dumbbell movements. If you are a CrossFit athlete, you should have the following lifts on your tracking list:

  • Deadlift
  • Press (Strict, Push, & Jerk variations)
  • Clean (Hang, Squat, & Power variations)
  • Snatch (Hang, Squat, & Power variations)
  • Squat (Back, Front, Overhead variations)
  • Thruster
  • 2-hand Kettlebell Swing (max weight for 5, 10, 25 unbroken reps)
  • Wall Ball (max weight for 5, 10, 25 unbroken reps)

In addition to these basics, you can also track kettlebell and dumbbell versions of most movements. Each entry should include the date, weight, and an indicator if the entry is a personal record. Note that with each movement you are always aiming for the best form you can possibly manage. If your form breaks down during the movement significantly, do not record the weight as a record. You never want to sacrifice safe, effective form for the sake of getting a heavier lift.

Times

These are workouts that provide a set amount of work to be done as quickly as possible with good form. For example, you can track how long it takes you to complete:

  • 25/50/100 squats
  • 25/50/100 sit-ups
  • 5/10/20 pull-ups
  • 15/30/45 push-ups
  • Sprint 200/400/800 meters
  • Run 3k, 5k, 10k

If you are a CrossFit athlete you should also keep track of your benchmark workouts that score by time to complete:

  • Grace (30 Clean & Jerk)
  • Isabel (30 Snatch)
  • Karen (150 Wall Ball)
  • Etc.

For the full list of CrossFit HQ benchmark workouts, go to CrossFit HQ Benchmark Workouts.

For all of the suggested trackables, record the workout (and name, if applicable), weights used, and time to complete. Also make note of any weight changes you needed to make and when, so you know if you scaled for future attempts.

Rounds

Some workouts provide a set amount of time, and the measurement is the amount of work you complete in that timeframe. An example might be “max squats in 2 min” or “as many round as possible in 10 minutes of 10 push-ups, 10 sit-ups, and 10 pull-ups”. In these cases, it’s very simple to know if you improve: did you get more reps in the same time as before? You can track specific movements to test individual capacity, as well as movement sets.

Individual Movement Test: Max reps in 2 minutes

  • Give each movement it’s own 2 minute time period, and focus on completing as many reps as possible (AMRAP) in that time.
    • Squat
    • Sit-up
    • Push-up
    • Pull-up (strict and kipping)
    • Box Jump (record box height)
    • Wall Balls (record medicine ball weight)
    • Handstand Push-ups (strict and kipping)
    • Dips (record box, bar, or rings)
    • Muscle-up (strict and kipping)
    • Toes to Bar

Movement Set Test (as many rounds as possible in the given time):

  • Presented here are four workouts at four different time-frames, representing sprint, short term, medium term, and long term energy systems. The reps are suggestions based on in-class experience of what meshes well with the time allocated.
    • 5 minutes: 5 squat, 5 push-up, 5 sit-up
    • 10 minutes: 10 box jump, 8 handstand push-up, 6 pull-up
    • 15 minutes: 10 deadlift (135# male, 95# female), 10 two-hand kettlebell swing (44# male, 26# female), run 200 meters
    • 20 minutes: run 600 meters, 15 Wall Ball (20# male, 14# female), 15 push-up

Most of the CrossFit benchmark workouts (linked above) also fall into the “Movement Set Test” category for rounds completed. You should be tracking those as well.

Subjectives

The quantifiable things we can actually measure – times, reps, etc. – are a large part of the overall training picture. A fourth category of trackable information is what I call “subjectives”. These are data points that don’t have a lot of hard and fast rules, but can be helpful as you progress.

For example, if you completed “Grace” yesterday and felt that the movements were almost beyond your abilities, mark down that feeling with your quantified result (time to complete, in this case). You may find that in 6-8 weeks you retry the workout, but the feeling of extreme fatigue is gone, and you instead feel only moderate fatigue with the same or better time. This is a mark of improvement just as certainly as being faster or lifting heavier.

Other than how you felt with a workout, you can also record meals before the workout, sickness, weight loss/gain, supplements, and any other factor that might affect your performance.

How to Track Progress

Options

You have quite a few options for tracking your workouts and progress. Whether you choose a smartphone app, MS Excel/Open Office spreadsheet, digital freehand notes, or good old fashioned notebooks you need an option that lets you keep the information we discussed earlier (times, reps, etc.) and ideally you want the option to be convenient enough that you can carry it with you to the gym and back without undo issue.

In the app category, myWOD and myFitnessPal are two good options that have versions for both iPhone and Android. The benefit to this option is most people always have their phones, so it makes it very convenient to open an app, record progress, and move on. Now, the issue is you need to have your phone, a good enough signal to use the app, and you need to learn how to track your workouts. Not all apps have the same features, so you may find that certain abilities (like adding notes to workout results) are missing, while other features are really handy (such as having benchmark workouts pre-loaded). As long as the app works for you, that’s what matters.

With spreadsheets, you have the ability to set-up tracking and calculations in whatever way works best for you. They are a blank canvass, and include the ability to custom calculate the things you’re interested in (such as figuring out what percentage of body weight you can deadlift). Google, at least, also has smartphone versions of it’s Office applications though using them can be a little weird on the smaller screens. The down side of these is, of course, you have to set-up the tracking sheets yourself, input the formulas, and know how to use the program. There is a learning curve but there are also many resources available to help you learn quickly. For the very nerdy (like me), this is a good option.

A simple digital option is to use the built in Notepad (or similar) app on your phone or computer. It’s text only, so have a calculator handy if you need to do any math, but it’s generally free-form and simple. If you don’t need much, and you don’t feel like paying for/learning new applications, this can be a great way to do it.

Lastly, sometimes it’s just nice to write stuff down with pen/pencil and paper. A dedicated tracking notebook can be a perfect addition to your gym bag that is simple, efficient, and relatively hardy (if you spill coffee on it, it dries). The downside is, it’s paper. It can be destroyed without backup and you always need a writing utensil to use it. But it’s also completely free-form, which means you can put anything, anywhere, anytime. My recommendation is to keep a dedicated 4-5 pages at the front for benchmarks (lifts, times, etc.) that you fill in with pencil for easy editing, and then track workouts day to day using the remaining pages. You can often get a few months out of a single notebook, and there’s something just viscerally satisfying about writing stuff down on paper.

Consistency is Key

Regardless of your tracking method, you need to remember that being consistent is the key to getting value from this activity. You can’t record half of what you do, whenever you feel like it, and expect to get any benefit from it. If you’re going to track, track every workout, every lift, every record. And do it consistently, which means every single time.


That’s it for today! In part 2 (coming next time) we’ll talk about using the statistics you track in order to take your training to new levels.