Working out is really a competition--against yourself. And the best way to know if you're winning is to track your progress. Sounds great, except it's hard enough to remember to pack a sports bra, much less recall how much weight you hoisted last Tuesday. That's why you've gotta write it down. Every detail you put on paper will let you know when to scale back and when to jack it up a notch. Even better, you'll know you're getting fitter. We talked to fitness gurus to find out the five most important things you should record after every workout. Any pad will do (our pick: the very cute Hable Construction spiral-top notebook, $16, seejanework.com). Tackle all your goals just by jotting down a few notes? We'll ink that deal.
Log this: Date, Day, Time, Location, and whatever strength moves or cardio you do that day
To figure out: Your ideal workout conditions
How to use the intel: At the end of every week, place a star by the days you were especially productive and an "X" by the ones when you felt like hell. After a month, note the trends and adjust your schedule accordingly. "Maybe you'll notice that you can lift more weight first thing in the morning and push yourself harder on the track after work," says Kelli Calabrese, M.S., C.S.C.S., a trainer in Flower Mound, Texas. (Yes, that's the name of her town. We asked--twice.)
Log this Reps, sets, and weights
To figure out: How to tweak your strength workout to achieve max results
How to use the intel: To keep improving strength and tone, you need to up the number of sets, reps, or weight each time you do a particular workout. Whichever you choose, increase that same factor across the board, like this: If last week you did one set each of 8, 10, and 12 reps per exercise, today aim for 10, 12, and 15 reps. This might sound like a big fat duh, but when you're doing 10 different exercises in a workout, it's hard to remember info like this, says Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., author of Fit to Live. "It takes the thinking out of it and helps you set goals, so every workout you're challenging yourself a little more," Calabrese says.
Log this Intensity
To figure out: Whether you're doing your best
How to use the intel: After each set of a strength exercise, note your Perceived Exertion (PE)--how hard you worked on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 feels like you could do a hundred more reps, and at 10 you're shaking to eke out the last rep). After a cardio workout, write down your max PE (1 = You can chat easily; 10 = Speak? Ha!) and how much time you spent at that level. Too subjective for you? Record the percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR = 220 minus your age) you reached for a sustained period during the workout. If your efforts don't rise above 7 on the PE scale or 60 to 85 percent of your MHR, it's time to challenge yourself more. "Second only to showing up, intensity is the most important factor for achieving any fitness goal," says personal trainer Gregory Florez, CEO of FitAdvisor.com Health Coaching Service and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. "Over time, the body adapts to the weight you lift or the distance you run; when that happens, it stops toning and burns fewer calories. Increasing intensity prevents this."
Log this Energy Index
To figure out: Whether you're about to break up with your fitness plan
How to use the intel: Women whose primary workout motivation is weight loss spend 40 percent less time exercising than those who do it for other reasons, like maintaining overall health and relieving stress, according to a 2006 University of Michigan study. To make sure your regimen is making you happy, note your Energy Index (EI): how you feel on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being in the dumps and 5 being ready for anything. Also note the reason for the number you selected: Were you sore? Tired? Agitated? Eyeball the chart every Sunday. If your score dips below a 3 for five workouts in a row, one of a few things is happening: You're overdoing it, you're slacking, or you're stinking bored. The bottom line: It's time to tweak your routine. Instead of the treadmill, try a step or kickboxing class, or do a circuit: Between sets, jump rope, run in place, do jumping jacks or knee lifts--for one minute.
Log this Body Fat
To find out: How much fat you're replacing with muscle
How to use the intel: Watching your body fat shrink is proof that you're getting not only stronger but also healthier, since excess body fat increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Use this number to motivate yourself to get your ever-more-chiseled butt to the workout room. Many gyms have "bioÃ‚Âelectrical impedance analysis" scales that compute your body-fat percentage by tracking how quickly an electrical current travels through your body (don't worry, you won't feel a thing). Because muscles are nearly 70 percent water and fat contains almost no H2O, the faster the signal travels, the more muscle you have. Don't have access to one of these scales? Use a measuring tape to calculate the circumference of your waist at the belly button. Say it comes out to 30 inches, and last month it was 32. That's 2 inches of fat you've lost--fat that's being replaced by Ã‚Âmuscle, which takes up less room. Either way, measure and log this number only once a month: That's about how long it can take to achieve a noticeable change.