The Profound Fitness Manifesto Part V: Test. Track. Tweak.
By Jeremy Markum
In the previous installment of The Profound Fitness Manifesto we learned the value of seeing fitness as a Process, instead of a "recipe" or "destination," and we learned that the fastest way to optimize the results produced by a process is to focus most of our time and energy on eliminating the current biggest bottleneck--whether it be a transformational action or a needed resource "upstream" in the process...
In this Practice, we're going to talk about another crucial aspect of processes, namely, that all processes can be measured, tracked, tweaked, and improved.
Implication: if you don't measure, track, tweak and improve the most important aspects of a process (especially your current biggest bottleneck), don't expect it to improve too much.
The 3 T's Of Process Improvement:
Test. Track. Tweak.
Really, "testing" is nothing more than intelligent doing. "Testing As Doing" just means that right before you take action (performing a workout for example) you write down specifically what it is you intend to do, and what you hope these actions will accomplish. Then, you go about your business as usual.
For example, let's say you plan to train some Upper Body Pressing movements today. Instead of doing your workout and writing down how many sets and reps of Handstand Pushups and Dips you achieved like you normally would, you would first write down the exercises, loads, reps, sets, and rest periods you intend to perform before going and working out--ideally with a short statement of purpose for the upcoming workout somewhere on the page.
This simple exercise of "mini-planning" your intended actions beforehand accomplishes three important objectives:
* It saves time.
If you're already written down what exercises you're going to perform, how many sets of each exercise to complete, and how many reps to achieve on each set--plus the rest periods between the sets--then at a minimum you've saved yourself the time it takes to write these down during your workout. All you'll need to write, is what you do differently than your plan, say, for example, if you were able to complete more reps on a particular exercise, or, if you had to rest longer than intended between one or more of the sets.
You'll also save time because now there's no "wondering what to do next" that inevitably occurs with the unplanned workout. you'll be able to attack your exercise session with a sense of urgency. All of these factors combined can turn an hour-long session into a much more effective (higher Density) 45-minute session.
* It increases awareness and focus which translates directly to added intensity and therefore results.
What you think about intensely, so you will become. And that's exactly what writing something down will cause you to do: think. According to cognitive psychologists who study brain function, the act of writing is the single most difficult conscious process the brain can perform. So writing out your workouts ahead of time, and your reason for performing it, will add tremendously to the act of manifesting fitness and health in your life. If you've never tried this before, get ready to be shocked about the added intensity and drive you experience during your next exercise session.
* It transforms a mere "training log" into a rational tool for reasoned learning and the basis of future progress.
Essentially, writing out your workouts (and meal plans) ahead of time--along with a statement of purpose for each--turns them into something very close to a scientific experiment. With a traditional log, your only insights come after you've completed the workout and reflect back on what you've written. With this approach, you take a more active approach in the learning process. You'll ask yourself questions like, "I wonder what will happen if..." and then you'll construct an exercise protocol to test it out.
You'll transform yourself from a "reactive" seeker of fitness, who simply does what others tell them and ponders the results (or lack thereof), into a proactive enthusiast who actively creates the results you seek, and even customizes the tactics others have successfully used to your individual quirks--such are the possibilities "Testing As Doing" makes possible.
The way I described Testing As Doing above already implies that you'll be tracking the important parameters of your fitness pursuits. But that still leaves exactly what types and which specific parameters to track...
Essentially there are two types of parameters:
Performance based parameters are what most folks usually think of tracking. Stuff like pounds lost, inches gained, body fat percentage, etcetera. And these are indeed important, as they help describe, in empirical terms, the results we seek from our fitness routines. But they're only half the picture, and if you spend all your tracking energy just on the performance-based parameters, and none of it on process-based parameters--then guess what--you won't see a whole lot of performance improvements. You'll be like the ill-fated NFL quarterback who obsesses over the scoreboard, but forgets its connection to watching game film of his opponents. More On Tracking Process
Remember that a process can be characterized by its RARs (Resources, Actions, And Results). Eventually, you'll want to track one important parameter addressing each of these for each of the Big 3 fitness processes (nutrition, training, recovery).
Delineating all of these parameters, and the best way to track them, is beyond the scope of this manifesto (and I've done so elsewhere in-depth--refer to The Tao Of Functional Fitness for more). But I would like to discuss the most fundamental type of process-related tracking: adherence.
Remember: consistent, focuses action is job number one when it comes to staying in great shape. I've already said this in the introduction to this manifesto, but I'll say it again: it doesn't matter what you do to get in better shape, unless you DO. Tracking adherence helps you develop the consistent habits necessary to make significant changes to your body.
So let's talk measures With regard to exercise adherence, it's pretty simple. Ultimately, you want to work your way up to exercising 5 days per week, for 45-50 minutes each session (resistance training + a 15-minute bout of Strength Endurance style exercise at the end). The standard you want to meet with all types of adherence is 90%. According to nutritional genius, John Berardi (in his awesome course "Precision Nutrition" which I highly recommend), there's just not much difference between 90% and 100% when it comes to adherence. Fortunately, staying in great shape isn't about perfection! So with 90% as a standard, and 5 days per week as our goal, that means you can miss 1 session every 10 days (two weeks) and see no ill-effect.
Similar calculations can be applied to your nutrition plan. If you plan to eat 5 low-sugar, non-processed, lean protein rich, veggie containing meals a day, then that amounts to 35 total feeding opportunities a week. 90% adherence would allow about three skipped meals total (or a combination of 3 "junk" meals / skipped meals total).
Here's the bottom line take home point when it comes to adherence and its effect on your body:
If you're not seeing the results you want to see from your fitness routine, and you're wondering what you're doing wrong, first check your adherence rate. If it's less than 90%--that's what's wrong! It's not that what you're doing is wrong, it's that you're not doing!
For the most basic way to track adherence, I suggest using a simple calendar. For every day that you workout put a "/" through the day. For every day that you eat 5 healthy meals and no garbage, put a ". Ideally, you'll have a bunch of "X's" filling up your calendar at the end of a month. Eventually, you might want to get more sophisticated and use an Excel spreadsheet for this kind of tracking.
Once you master the standard of 90% adherence in your eating, training, and recovery, then it's time to start tracking other process-based parameters associated with these processes, stuff like: Load, Rest Periods, Amount Of Sleep, Number Of Starchy Carb Meals, Protein Content, etcetera. Again, see The Tao Of Functional Fitness and my other writings for more on these... Tweaking
So what do you do with this Testing and Tracking?
You tweak it to optimize your ate of Progression, which remember, is the name of the fitness game.
And if you're smart (and you obviously are since you've read this far), you'll tweak your fitness processes in a simple, semi- scientific way. Here's how:
* Only change one variable at a time. Put another way, only seek to progress along one measure at a time.
For example, let's say you're in the middle of a Strength phase, and for your last Lower Body Pressing workout you performed 5 sets of 5 reps of 1-Leg Squats To Front while holding a 10 lb. dumbbell. Now you could try to increase the Load, the number of Reps, and also decrease the Rest Periods during the next workout--but that wouldn't be very scientific. Sure, the workout would probably be more difficult, but of the three factors you changed, you wouldn't know which variable contributed the most to the value of the workout...which is why you should only progress along one variable (probably Load since in the example we said you were in a Strength phase) in most cases.
This takes a little discipline, but the payoff is that you are able to start seeing patterns in your training more easily (or in your diet--the same concept holds true for Testing, Tracking, and Tweaking your nutrition process). For instance, I tend to respond most favorable to increases in Average Load But how would I know that if during every workout, I changed every training parameter I could think of? Instead, I've learned to only manipulate Load for a period of 3-6 weeks, then only manipulate Rest Periods for a similar length of time, then number of sets, and so on. By cycling through these parameters in a disciplined, logical way you'll start to learn far more about your body and how it responds than any book can teach you. Conclusion
Test, Track, Tweak. It's all about making the process of fitness work for you. Save time, eliminate hassle, and replace fickle motivation with a system. But before we move on to the next Practice of The Profound Fitness Manifesto, a few more quick points on the 3 T's I sorta glossed over:
* Don't obsess with the Tracking of progress variables until you've mastered adherence. Adherence is one of those 80- 20 relationships. It's just one variable, but accounts for the majority of your progress!
* Even once you've achieved a consistent 90% adherence rate with your exercise and nutrition regimen, you still shouldn't get too geeky with the tracking of process- related variables. The more advanced you become (as in competitive athlete advanced) the more these types of things matter, but it's easy to get caught up in tracking to the point you're wasting valuable time analyzing and crunching numbers that could be better spent elsewhere. I speak from experience here. I guess it's an occupational hazard. All you really need to know is how to calculate Density and Average Load (when you're in a Density or Strength Phase, respectively--see Part II of the manifesto for help with these calculations).
* The danger with fitness-related numbers is that they appear very "scientific" on the surface. But the reality is, even with something as simple as the Load used on an exercise, we're dealing with a very inaccurate measure. The fact of the matter is, your muscles don't see the Load you use during an exercise, they only see the Force they must produce to counter the Load and cause it to move, whether this Load is provided by your bodyweight, from an elastic band, or from a dumbbell. Problem is, when it comes to tracking, the Force required depends on a whole host of factors that simply aren't practical to measure, for instance: joint angle (which changes constantly throughout a rep), acceleration during the movement, stability of the environment, length of an individual's limbs, etcetera. The best we can do is sort of a weighted-average of all these factors by assuming they're the same for everyone, and for all exercises (which of course they're not). Bottom line, the value in tracking comes more from the process of writing stuff down--and the awareness and focus this act brings--than with the actual numbers themselves.
Because of these points, and as a natural extension of the previous Practice (Eliminate Your Biggest Bottleneck), the very first thing you track beyond simple adherence to your routine is the variable associated with your current biggest bottleneck, whatever that might be. That keeps the tracking simple, and gives you the most bang for your buck, effort wise.
Copyright 2006 Jeremy Markum
About The Author
Jeremy Markum is an author and coach dedicated to helping people live fully and profoundly, starting with a solid foundation of fitness and health, upon which he believes everything else is built.