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How to assess progress in your training program

In life, assessment is necessary. If you don't think so, you're doing it wrong. At times, it is important to look at back at where you were to determine how far you've come, or in bad cases, how far you've regressed. This idea applies to anything in life, be it work, relationships, fitness, general health, finances, or any other "thing" that is a part of your life. If a person never assesses then he or she will never be able to quantify success or a lack thereof. If you don't know where you once were—that is, if you don’t have a baseline to compare against—then you cannot complete an assessment. This assessment is important in determining if your actions have been successful and helps you plan for the future. Today, we're viewing self-assessment as it applies to fitness, but as we work through a few ideas, do keep in mind that the thoughts presented can apply to anything worth assessing, adjusted for relevance, of course, since when assessing fitness versus another area, such as finances, different assessments will occur. The basic tenets for everyone Some basic ideas apply to anyone assessing fitness progress, whether looking at progress in a strength training program, crossfit training program, or another program, such as a marathon running program. Whether you are the average Joe or Jane, the hardcore exerciser, or the athlete, you should consider these points:

  • Previous goal(s)

  • Current plan

  • Future goal(s)

  • Honest assessment

  • Previous goal(s)

To assess progress, you must first consider the thing or things you're trying to achieve. These goals must be specific to the training program. For example, if you follow a marathon running program, then the assessment should look at running progress, not lifting progress. If you follow a strength training program, then the assessment should look at strength progress, not running progress. If pursuing both, the assessment should look at the overall program, but should also consider the different elements independently of each other.

Concerning fitness, this can be any physical goal, but may also include mental goals. For example, physical goals may be:

  • Lose 10 pounds

  • Gain 10 pounds

  • Run five miles

  • Run a six-minute mile

  • Complete 10 pull-ups

  • Complete 10 push-ups

  • Deadlift 500 pounds

  • Squat 500 pounds

Mental goals may be:

  • Stay consistent with exercise

  • Stay consistent with nutrition

  • Don't obsess over the scale

  • Don't stress over slow progress

  • Learn more about weight training

  • Learn more about running

  • Don't focus on one area as a measure of success

  • Do focus on overall progress

  • Current plan

Your current workout routine is thing you're assessing. That is, when assessing you're reviewing the progress made toward your goal and determining if the plan moved you toward the same. Now, you must also consider if you followed the workout plan. Saying you did not achieve your goals so the plan must not be good is too simple. You must look at your adherence to the plan. If you only followed the plan 50 percent of the time, then it should be no surprise you did not achieve your goals. Plans are in place for a reason. Future goal(s) Even if your current plan has allowed you to achieve your previous goals, you must determine if it will help you reach your future goals. For example, if your previous plan was a hypertrophy training program to help you achieve the goal of gaining ten pounds of muscle, but now you want to lean out, there will need to be some changes. You likely can still follow the same training plan, but will need to change the nutrition strategy. Conversely, if you reached your goals, such as the 10-pound gain, and want to pursue more of the same, such as adding another 10 pounds, but progress has slowed or plateaued, then this may signal the body has reached the end of its adaptation to the given plan. A change to the plan may need to occur or you may need an entirely new plan. Honest assessment Without an honest approach to this assessment, the review process does not matter. This applies to all programs, whether for followed a strength training program, crossfit training program, or another program. A dishonest, or perhaps inaccurate is better wording, assessment, is going to skew the process and negatively effect changes to the program.

Saying you did not achieve your goals so the plan must not be good is too simple. You must look at your adherence to the planning in an honest way. If you only followed the plan 50 percent of the time, then it should be no surprise you did not achieve your goals. Plans are in place for a reason and you must honestly say you did not follow it. On the other hand, maybe you really like the plan—you enjoy the exercise, foods, etc.— and want to continue it, but the plan is not helping you reach you goals, then you need to honestly assess the need for change. Putting it together Look at previous goals and determine how close you are to them. That is, determine if you have not reached them, reached them, or surpassed them. Look at your plan and your adherence to the same, assessing if the plan is well-aligned with your goals and whether your adherence to the plan was good. Think about your future goals and if the path you're on—the plan and progress you've experienced—suggests continuing the current approach is ideal. Honesty Again, the most important part of this process is the honesty. An honest assessment is the only way to truly quantify your results over time in order to make a decision about historical success and future planning. Do not lie to yourself or self-sabotage. You'll never get to where you want to be if you do. The hardcore exerciser The basic tenets apply to the hardcore exerciser as well. That said, these persons need to take the assessment a step further. The average gym goer can look at goals in a kind of general perspective. For example, that person might look at their overall fitness as a measure of progress. While the gym rat, weekend warrior, or hardcore exerciser—any name works—may include this measure as well, this person should look at goals in a more detailed way. The hardcore exerciser is not trying to "get a little fitter" or "lose a few pounds" but rather has specific, often lofty, goals he or she is trying to attain. For example, the hardcore exerciser is the guy squatting 400+ pounds, the woman who clean and jerks 200+ pounds, the runner hitting sub-seven-minute miles, and the teenage kid walking on his hands. These are the kinds of goals these people are trying to achieve. To assess progress a person needs to look at each of these very specific goals in detail and then consider if the plan used allowed this person to reach these goals, if the progress is sufficient, and if the plan will allow the person to continue toward those goals or the next goals. Again, the three things to consider are:

  • Did the plan enable the person to reach the goals

  • Was the progress sufficient

  • Will the plan allow the person to continue working toward goals

Goal completion is not an all or nothing consideration. Even if a person did not reach the goals over the course of the current plan or training cycle, a person needs to look at what he or she did achieve. For example, the person may have the 400-pounds squat as a goal, but reached 300 pounds. This could be looked at as a failure to reach the goal, but if the individual's starting point was 200 pounds, then he or she added 100 pounds to the squat. On the surface this is good progress and could seem like a win, but again, we need to look deeper. Continuing the 400-pound squat example, we consider if the 100-pound increase was sufficient. To do this we look at the time it took to achieve this level of progress. If a person added 100 pounds during a 12-month period, this is an excellent rate of progression. This statement becomes especially true if that same person pursued multiple goals in that same period and made progress in those areas as well. On the other hand, if that progress took five years and improvement in the squat was a singular goal, then the rate of progress is not ideal. That might be a dramatic example, so allow us to provide another. If a person only adds five pounds to a lift, shaves off only a few second times, loses only 5 pounds, or otherwise has limited progress during a 12-month period, then the plan, adherence to the plan, or both is a problem. The examples are broad and simplistic, but the underlying idea here is this person must look not only at "general progress" but look narrower at progress for specific goals, considering the rate of progression as well as other factors, such as the pursuit of multiple goals concurrently. In that same vein, when this individual looks back at his or her plan, the individual must consider if the plan utilized made proper use of training approaches such as:

  • max recoverable volume—the maximum daily, weekly, monthly, or training cycle volume a person can safely handle and still make injury free progress

  • peaking—reaching maximal results at a specific time

  • max effort testing—testing the maximum effort a person can put out for a given movement such as runs or lifts

  • deloads—structured reductions in training difficulty through adjustment of volume, weight, or other training aspects

  • active recovery—days or weeks during which a person still trains but may take time off from primary training to give the mind and body a break

  • sport-specific training—the hardcore exerciser likely has goals similar to those of athletes, meaning programming in a sport-specific manner is encouraged

  • Will the plan allow the person to continue working toward goals

Once current success has been determined a person needs to assess if the plan will continue to move him or her toward the set goals. Using the 400-pound squat example again, if the program enabled the person to add 100 pounds to the squat, then the program may be worth continuing. However, if toward the end of the program, progress slowed or stopped, it may be time to change the program. In our experience, persons can follow a well-structured program for up to six months and still see results. Once this six-month period has passed, progress will start to slow or even stop. At this point, a person must determine if he or she should continue to use the plan. If the person has reached all the set goals and just wants to maintain, staying on the same program may be ideal. However, if the goal has not been achieved or new goals have been set, then a program change is likely in order. The above statements are not universal. Sometimes a person can continue with a program longer than six months and still see progress, while other people need to change a program after three months. There are many variables that come into play here and the individual's situational factors must be considered in order to properly assess the program, progress, and need for change. In summary, the gym rat, hardcore exerciser, or weekend warrior—whatever wording you want to use—has different needs than the average gym goer. This person must assess progress in a more detailed manner than the average gym goer, since the goals of this person are greater than that of the average gym goer. The athlete As we've said before, the athlete is a different breed of client. This client type has a higher physical demand than the average gym goer or hardcore exerciser. If you don't understand how we differentiate between these types, remember that we have the average gym goer (the average Joe or Jane), the hardcore exerciser (the gym rat), and the athlete. The average gym goer is someone trying to "get a little fitter" or "lose a few pounds." The hardcore exerciser is someone who has specific, often lofty, goals he or she is trying to attain, embodied by persons such as the guy squatting 400+ pounds, the woman who clean and jerks 200+ pounds, the runner hitting sub-seven-minute miles, and the teenage kid walking on his hands. The athlete takes things to another level. In "Performance improvements for the athlete—what to focus on" we talked about key areas the athlete should focus on and how these areas differentiate from those of the average gym goer, though the hardcore exerciser does have some notable similarities to the athlete. While the average gym goer may not follow a plan or pulled one out of some fitness magazine, the hardcore exerciser and the athlete follow a structured plan customized to their goals. Continuing the ideas of differences, self-assessing progress for the athlete is different from that of the average gym goer and the hardcore exerciser, though again the hardcore exerciser has more in common with the athlete. The average gym goer trying to "get a little fitter" or "lose a few pounds" can look at goals in a kind of general perspective while the hardcore exerciser should look at goal in a more detailed way and the athlete takes this a step further. While the hardcore exerciser can miss goals with little impact, the athlete's livelihood often relies on them reaching goals. For example, a hardcore runner may want to run a 5-minute mile for personal reasons or for a local race. If he or she misses this, they may be disappointed if it was for personal reasons or in worst case scenario, not place high in the local race. Either way, aside from personal satisfaction and bragging rights, the failure is not a big deal. For the athlete runner, the inability to achieve the five-minute mile time may mean they do not win that college race and they miss the opportunity to compete at higher levels—for example in international competition—and do not get the exposure that might take them the next level, such as the Olympics. A single competition can change the life of an athlete. For a high school student, it could mean the difference between getting a scholarship versus paying for college with a loan. For the college athlete, it could mean their career ends in college and those dreams of playing in the pros are gone. What does this have to do with self-assessing While the athlete has people—coaches, other athletes, vested family members—assessing their progress and providing feedback, the athlete has to self-assess as well. It is simple enough for the athlete to leave it to the coaches, but the coaches are not always there. For example, we have a few athletes who did what they needed to in sessions with us and with their coaches, but outside of sessions, these same people slacked. Nutrition was one key area, as was recovery. Now these two areas tie together. Without proper nutrition and without proper recovery, the athlete will not be well-prepared for training sessions or competition. While these people can get away with this for some time, eventually it will affect them, in the form of diminished performance and/or injury. Outside of sessions with trainers, coaches, and other members of their team, these athletes are responsible for making sure they complete the tasks they need to complete to be their best in training and competition. Only they can assess what they are doing right and wrong. Don’t get us wrong, we and other coaches, trainers, etc. can assess as well, but we're doing so from the outside. The athlete is always with themselves. They know if they stated out too late, if they did not eat right, if they did not work on skill practice. We have a remote client right now who is prepping for an event. This person has performed poorly at this event twice, with the second event occurring during their time working with us. After the last attempt, the client came to us saying there programming needed to focus on this and that. The thing is, the programing we created for this client already does focus on all necessary areas, but the person has not been following the programming as needed. This is always a problem, but even more so with remote clients. With face-to-face clients, we have a chance to engage in corrective action in real time, to look these people in the face, and call them out on their slack behavior. Remotely, the process is different. Our programming for this client is/was good, but the client must follow the program to be successful. Instead of realizing that adherence is/was the issue, the client tried to blame the program. The program cannot be blamed if the client is not following the program as needed. Livelihood is on the line If you are an athlete reading this, whether you are a client of ours or not, you have to self-assess. Don’t rely on your coaches to do everything for you. You must take the initiative. There are many coaches in the world who note that numerous trainees with potential come through their doors, but a large number fail to reach that potential due to a lack of motivation and self-accountability. Let the coaches do their job. We're clearly not telling you to overstep boundaries. The coaches are the coaches for a reason. But there are areas in which you are in control, and those are all the times when the coaches are not around. If you want to be that top athlete, you have to act like it. Thanks for reading. If you want an online personal fitness trainer we can help. We create post baby workout plans, plans for athletic competition, running plans to lose weight, and plans for other goals. We create some of the best online fitness programs and online diet coaching you will find. Visit our site to learn more.

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Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, and the International Sports Sciences Association. Nathan has 17 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.

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