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  • Chi-Linh

Analog and the Gym: In Praise of Using a Pen and Paper for Workouts

I am what many people call a Gym Brat. Some people like to gender their terms, but I think Gym Brat encapsulates it the best: I like going to the gym, I like picking up heavy shit and putting down heavy shit. Rinse, repeat.

About a decade ago, when I started into my first programs, I made it a point to do things analog. It was a sort of hybrid approach, because the program I followed had excel sheets that calculated my expected reps and sets for each workout.

Every week, I dutifully printed out my sheets then worked out on my allocated days. I wrote notes. I scribbled in the margins. I eventually developed emoticons for how I felt about the workout sets. Don't knock it until you've tried it, but happy and sad faces are surprisingly helpful in evaluating workout effectiveness.

But fo'real, these help with RPE
Listen, I need to know if my squats are happy, OK?

"Hold on," I hear you say.

"You've been consistently working out for 10+ years? You must be a ripped bastard."

Uh, okay, so I never said I'm the world's most dedicated Gym Brat. Obviously I haven't stuck to the same program for 10 years.

Shit's happened, I've fallen off the bandwagon sometimes, I've gotten into accidents that throw my life out of whack. At some point in there I thought, 'Hey, let's give these triathlons a shot!' and veered really into the weeds for a year. In between, I went on outdoor climbing trips and hiking trips and biking trips. I even spent a month in the Himalayas, finding out that I hated trekking (a bad place to find out) which definitely threw off my training and just killed my gains. But listen, that stuff, that's just living. However, the common denominator is that my core workout plans, when I did them, have always been (and is) pen and paper based.

I got was bored last week and decided to dig out my old workouts, and whoa. It got me feeling a little nostalgic. And proud. Here's what I found:

Chonk chonk
I started back in 2012-ish with bodyweight workouts. Mad stacks.

I'm slightly better now.  Slightly.
Back in the day, when a 5 rep set of pushups killed me. But I recorded regardless.

And apparently I tried to save paper.
Eventually I switched to the squat sets from hell.

It's been a few iterations now, but here's how I have my current plans set up:

New notebook setup, who dis?

This is a little pocket-sized Clairefontaine book that has an elastic around it so I can sandwich my pencil inside. I take this thing to the gym in a little basket and write in it after every set.

One page a workout.

I'm a huge stationery nerd so I wanted a notebook that had good paper. I choose to write out my weekly plans with fountain pens (yes) and then scribble notes with my pencil.

My plans tend to be straight forward with set and rep schemes. All sets are rated on a happy-neutral-sad face scale, because gauging your feelings is important and also it makes me giggle.

And healthy to gauge RPE
Just to remind. Feelings are important

The end section allows me to make notes on how it went.

As long as they're legible to me, it counts.

Now that times have changed and the whole world is social distancing, I've found solace in still keeping up my workout routine and scribbling away in my little book.

World changing times call for a different split.

I miss my gym and I miss my weights and I miss the strength gains, but working out has always kept me stable and a good thing for my mental well-being, so I've continued on a modified routine.

Did I mention volume? So much volume. Wanna puke.

Analog - it's the best.


There are some disadvantages, of course - some people prefer to just have their percentages and set/rep schemes on their phone when they workout.

On top of that, these days, there's a million apps that record things for you. Some even give you a plan to follow so it ends up being completely painless. If you're a cardio nut, if you write out plans, if it's not on Strava and you didn't really do it. And so on, and so on.

So yeah, I totally get the arguments for not paper and pen. It's not for everybody.

But look -- the Advantages

For me though, these are the reasons why I do it:

  1. I can scribble notes in the margins and change out exercises with notes

  2. I can modify on the fly by crossing out stuff easily

  3. I can just bring my notebook to the gym and suffer less fuckarounditis (shame shame) of fiddling with my phone every 2 seconds and just concentrate

And the most important:

4. I get to use my pens and inks and swap things up every week.

It's now been about 2.5 months since the start of this social distancing, and my happy little notebook is actually starting to fill out. It's served me well for about 2 years now, and it's time for me to pick out a new one to start. My old one will eventually be retired and join the rest of my papers and notebooks as a record of my... fitness journey (sorry, barf, I know).

New planned notebook - gonna give the Midori A6 size format a try.

I hope to continue to fill up my little notebooks with plans and scribbles for a long time. So here is my praise for pen and paper for workouts! Perhaps I've convinced you to give it a shot!

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