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 The importance of measurement and goals in fitness.

For many, when starting a new training program, one of the biggest mistakes is not taking initial measurements of current strength and fitness to be used as a baseline for all future comparisons and goals. By failing to do this, you make continued progress and development more difficult down the line.

Let me explain with an example, let’s take your average individual looking to build a bit of muscle and lose some belly fat. He signs up with a gym, starts out with enthusiasm, going 4 or 5 times a week. 

He absent-mindedly lifts some weights, doing all the popular exercises, curls, 
bench-press, leg extensions etc (you know, the ones you see everyone doing at the gym). Then he spends some time on the treadmill, exercise bike or elliptical trainer, burning maybe 300-400 calories. 

He feels good, thinking he’s on the right track. But, the reality is that directionless, unfocused exercise of this sort will not yield results for long, and one is likely to quickly become bored.

So now let’s take a second individual, whom at the outset, tested how many push-ups, dips and pull-ups he could do in a specific amount of time. He also tested his 1 rep-max (1RM) on all the important exercises (big compound movements, not just the popular ones everyone does). He also tested how fast he can run 2.4km, how fast he can row 2000m etc. 

He then came up with specific goals as to how he’d like to improve on all of these. Then he put a plan in place to reach those goals within a specific time-frame, for example 12 weeks.

Which of these two individuals do you think is likely to have better results and more likely to stick to a program for 12 weeks, the individual who ‘just went to the gym 4 to 5 times a week’, mindlessly doing his workouts for 45 minutes to an hour, or the individual with a plan for continuous improvement and specific goals? The answer should obvious.

The reason the second individual will achieve greater success, is that his training program was designed to induce and force what is known as the training effect. The training effect is your body’s adaptation to the stresses imposed by exercise. 

Your body achieves this by making several cardiopulmonary and metabolic changes at the cellular level, each time it is stressed beyond what it’s currently comfortable with.

The problem with just going to the gym, lifting a couple of weights and then running on the treadmill or using the elliptical trainer, is that there is very little measurement done and no baseline or benchmark from which to plot future improvement. 

By not plotting future improvement, you do not force your body to keep adapting, essentially lessening the training effect and changes your body makes each time you exercise.

So how do you keep proper records and take proper measurements?

Well, it’s simple really. It all begins with defining what you’re trying to achieve. For the rest of this article I will be referring to what I think most individuals are trying to achieve, being lean and muscular. The approach will be a different for powerlifters, outright bodybuilders and endurance athletes, but the core principles remain the same, measurement, and continued improvement.

Once you’ve decided what you are trying to achieve, you need to see what level you’re currently at. You need to determine your current 1RM for your exercises, your time for various cardiovascular benchmarks (2.4km run, 2000m row etc), you should also look at an exercise that allows you to test your power output. 

What I mean by power output, is where you measure the time taken to perform a certain amount of work. For example, how long it takes you to do 50 push-ups or 30 pull-ups or whatever. Think back to your high school physics days when 

Power = work / time, yip, that’s still relevant here.

Once you’ve tested all of this, you need to note it down and decide on appropriate goals of improvement for each of these measures, within a specific time-frame. 

For example, if you row 2000m in 11 minutes, maybe you want to do it in 8 minutes after 12 weeks, and if your 1RM for the bench press is 80kg, maybe you want it to be 95kg after 12 weeks, and you want to knock 30 seconds off your time it takes to do 50 push-ups.

The specifics of how you would achieve each of these improvements is beyond the scope of this article, and I will cover it in a future article. But for now, a general rule of thumb would be to take a given measure and work out what 60-75% of it would be. You then also want to work out what percentage above your current level your goal is.

Then start at 60-75%, increasing it by 2.5-5% each week. It will seem fairly easy at first, but as you progress it will become harder and harder to keep adding those percentages each week, and your body will be forced to adapt. 

If you go slow enough and allow yourself enough time for recovery and adaptation, you should be able to keep adding those percentages each week (or every 2 weeks as you get towards the end) and you will eventually get to your goal, which will be at a level higher than what you are currently capable of.

If, you’re just starting out, it will be much easier to make massive improvements on your current level, compared with if you’re already in really good shape.

So, in conclusion, remember that you need to always be cognizant of the amount of time it takes you to do a certain amount of exercise, how much weight you lifted, how many times you lifted it and how long it took 
you to do a certain number of repetitions. 

When you do this and adjust upwards accordingly, you keep forcing your body to work harder. When it works harder than it previously has, it changes, it will not change unless you push it to a level it’s not accustomed to. 

The only way you can be certain that you’ve worked harder is by keeping records of time, weight lifted, number of reps etc. Working harder induces the training effect, and the training effect results in your heart and capillaries  becoming stronger and more dispersed in order to allow a more efficient flow of oxygen and nutrients. Your muscles will grow larger, your tendons and bones will strengthen and your body will start to release unnecessary fat from its frame. All of this equates to you becoming more lean and muscular.

The best pieces of gym equipment are often a notebook, a pen and a stopwatch. Stick to the basics, do more work in less time. 

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