No more boring exercise stats – 1

As I previously mentioned in earlier post my life circumstances have changed and thus so have my exercise activities. I’m now using gym, instead of my own machines, for both general fitness and now adding strength training. This is generally a good change but it messes up my ability to accumulate statistics (daily workout numbers from the machines) and thus do analysis. I’ve used that kind of analysis to both motivate me and also monitor any improvements, but now I’m unable to do that.

I’m doing three types of strength training on regular basis: 1) while sitting at computer I have a “nag” and data recorder that stimulates me to do four particular upper body exercises, with and without weights, but other than counting total reps and doing approximately the same amount of each exercise per day I have no way to reduce this to a simple metric (like I was using calories burned before), 2) I found (in my ancestral house) an old and simple piece of equipment, some springs with handles to stretch – by altering body position it would be possible to use these as substitute for free weights but I’m only doing one exercise with them and recording results (more on this), and, 3) after experimenting with most of the strength machines at the gym I’ve more or less fallen into a pattern of using six for upper body, one for back and one for legs, but like my sitting exercise I have no way to consolidate these workouts into a single metric (plus just recording data at all at the gym is problematic).

Now with the springs just doing simple chest stretching exercise I do have a single metric and have been tracking it. When I first found this old piece of equipment I could not even do full extension of just two springs (out of five possible), but in less than a week I gained enough strength to do full extension and then I began to increase total reps and reps/set and with this simple exercise I do have useful (but still boring) stats:


The blue markers and line are my total daily reps (in an average of 8.5 sets) and the orange markers and line are my 7 day moving average, plus the dotted blue line of the linear regression. What this graph shows is that for about 10 days I did little to increase daily reps but then began to start to push it, then leveled off again, and now am pushing it again. The graph clearly shows what I’ve been subjectively feeling, i.e. some gain in strength (and/or just getting used to this exercise). Looking at the data another way:


This shows the same pattern I described above – for a while I was just doing a few reps per set and then, around day 13 I decided to start moving more aggressively to increases reps per set, thus both driving up this average metric and also my total. So for this one exercise it seems I can collect data and make some sense from it and gain a real sense of progress (or again not absolute increase in strength but merely adapting to accommodate this particular exercise).

But soon I’ll face an interesting challenge on data collection and analysis. I feel I’m improving enough on this one exercise that soon I can add another spring (I’m using two now, five is the maximum and while rowing crew in college I could manage all five so this shows what 50 years (plus minimal upper body workout) has done). It’s a bit of a pain to modify the device so I won’t even attempt three springs until I’ve reached doing over 100 total reps/day and average of >11 reps/set. btw: I don’t have any way to translate the force required to fully extend the springs into actual weight, which of course on the machines at the gym I can control and measure. But the real question, vis-a-vis keeping data and analyzing it is how to have a single metric, adjusting for greater effort of more springs, so this early two-spring data is connected to the future set of three-spring data (btw: this is the same and significant issue faced by climate change researchers where they have multiple types of data sets (actual temperature measures, tree ring data, mud or ice cores, etc., how to combine the disparate data into a single metric, i.e. average annual temperature). So, IOW, should I do something like multiple reps with 3 springs times 1.5 (3/2) to have the data comparable (and an extension) of 2 springs data? Or use some other factor? And if so, what is the basis of choosing that other factor? So even for this simplest exercise I do getting adjusted data for analysis is a challenge.

Now attempting to create a single metric for my “sitting” exercise is even harder. Subjectively it feels like the bicep curl (esp. without weights) is the easiest, the overhead press is the next easiest, and what I label as fan up/down (no idea what the standard names for this motion is) are the hardest and significantly harder than the other two. So I could do something, to create a single metric, of assigning an adjustment factor of 1.0 to bicep curl, 1.1 for overhead press and, say, 1.4 for fan up or down. Fine, but what is the justification for any of these factors – none, I can find or determine. Plus it’s really hard to then decide what factor to use for using weights (hand barbells) vs no weight. Now that will matter because I’m considering getting heavier barbells (have access at the gym to experiment with) but what is the factor for  no weight, 5lbs, 10lbs – hard to say. But even if I could develop an adjustment to then have a single metric (adjusted reps/day) what does that really mean for my strength training goals.

I’ve now been doing the sitting exercise for 43 days. Subjectively I can’t determine that it’s making any difference, i.e. the exercise now seems much easier and/or I can easily do more reps, either total per day or number per set (as the springs device seems relatively easy to calibrate, as per discussion above).  The main two graphs I’m keeping for these look like:


This graph is not very informative although by adding some addition information it makes some sense. But let’s add the other graph before discussing it:


The blue markers and line are my 7-day moving average of daily reps which removes some of the “noise” from the previous bar graph of raw data. I started out aggressively, then as my sister was visiting for a week I dropped off a lot (hitting minimum at day 17), then I resumed all-day long exercise and 7MA rose to previous earlier starting levels, then I started gym (mostly subtracts time available to do the sitting exercise) and the 7MA dropped again and now seems to be almost steady (no improvement, unlike the springs data). The orange markers and line is the average (over all data) and it shows the clear downtrend, approaching what appears to be my near steady state of doing about 650 total reps per day.

So that’s the story but what does it mean? And what difference does it make to measuring my strength? Since I do the sitting exercise all through the day:


This shows, in hour increments, when I’m doing these sitting exercise (just number of reps within each hour, could be any of the eight exercises). Interestingly I have two peaks, the 11AM hour and the 11PM hour. This is simple to explain: these are the times of day where I am almost always both awake and at my computer. The big drop in the afternoon and early evening hours (15-21) is simple: I have other things to do (errands, the gym, visiting my mother at nursing home, fixing dinner).

So even though I have fairly good data for this activity analysis of the data is (thus far) not telling me anything about whether I’ve gained any upper body strength. In fact, the most recent data is only about 60% (in simple metric of reps/day) of my starting workout 43 days ago – does this mean anything? Am I gaining any strength? (No way to tell from either this data or my subjective feeling).

And how does any of this compare to my workouts at the gym (now having done 13 workouts in last 16 days)? I actually got a surprise there compared to the subjective guesses I made (in discussion average) of adjustment factors for difficulty of each of the sitting exercises.

At the gym, after just experimenting with the many strength machines (plus a few tries at free weights, the hardest of all to adopt a simple metric) I’ve fallen into a routine (takes about 20 minutes). For a while I was not doing bicep curl machine on the grounds this is my easiest sitting exercise, so why bother. But then I got a big surprise: on the various machines I will adjust the weights between 20-60 pounds. Again I have no explicit measurements but I have some subjective feeling. So I decided to add in bicep curls anyway (at much heavier weight than my sitting exercises) and was shocked that this was actually my weakest exercise of all! Some of the machines I use are fairly comparable motion to the sitting exercises I’m doing and some are not, but the bicep curl is almost the same. I couldn’t (and still can’t) even do 10 reps with 30lbs and can just barely do one set of 10 reps with 20lbs and have to go down to 10lbs to do three sets of ten reps. Other machines (work different muscle groups) are rarely any problem for me to do three sets of ten reps, so, IOW, what I felt was my easiest exercise in the sitting group is my hardest at the gym. I was able to confirm this (approximately) with free weights (the gym has large set of barbells in 2.5lb increments up to 20lbs, then 5lb increment). I could, with difficulty, do a few reps (bicep curl) with 20lbs and couldn’t do 30lbs at all (with free weights, on machine I can do 30lbs).

So all this shows the challenge of getting data, adjusting it for different motions and/or weight to a single metric and measuring progress. And with 43 days of sitting exercise, 20 with springs, and 13 at gym, do I feel I’ve made any progress – really hard to say.

Now the gym, with its diversity of machines and easily adjustable weight load, gives me a sense of several subjective metrics: 1) the maximum weight I can do (I’m being careful on this to avoid risk of injury), 2) the number of reps I can do because I’m so tired I can’t do another rep (what I’ll call ‘fatigue’), and 3) the number of reps I can do before I start feeling a lot of muscle pain (presumably the standard lactic acid buildup in muscle fibers). You might think #2 and #3 are closely correlated but what I find is that one some machines (i.e. some muscle group) they are about the same, but on other machines #3 kicks in well before #2. And my value on #1 (just one rep at maximum weight I’m willing to try) has little correlation with #2 or #3. But this is all subjective and thus highly likely to be wrong. Getting data and analyzing it, over time, is much more reliable than how I “feel” while doing the exercise, esp. as I have good days (feeling strong) and bad days (lazy and weak, pain and/or fatigue sets in sooner than another day).

So, net-net, the strength training thing is still a mystery to me, both how to do it and more importantly how to measure any progress (I have some subjective sense that the exercises at the gym are getting a little easier).

And, as I said in previous post, these attempts to measure progress also have to somehow fit in with my goals. While generally increasing my upper body strength is a vague goal, what are my specific goals? I still don’t know, but I can think a bit more clearly about three possible goals: 1) seeing other guys at the gym I can just compare my upper body (arms and shoulder, size and definition) but this isn’t entirely accurate as body shapes vary – i.e. some guys look like the bulky muscle builder types, other leaner guys seem to handle just as much weight but without all that bulk; these younger guys may care about what they look like, but I can (mostly) reject that goal for myself, I’m not trying to impress anyone with how strong I look, 2) what is it I want, reps or maximum strength? Most of the sources (which I view very skeptically) seem to emphasize maximum strength, but that’s the body building mentality, not general fitness. While I went from doing 2 laps (before pain, more than fatigue) up to 80 laps in swimming while training for triathlon I had a clear goal – do 1.5K swim, so reps were most important. But now, with no particular event to aim for (any kind of competition) which matters and just generally I’d say it’s a balance.

At my age I guess what I’m feeling is two things (compared to when I was younger and stronger). For tasks that matter (lifting something into a car, even as simple as carrying groceries) I am much weaker than I used to be and that is emphasis on maximum weight. And likewise if I try carrying something for a long time (as I used to notice lugging just a carryon suitcase in airports) how quickly do I get fatigued, as in I’d really declined at that and it would be good to do better (I recalled, while younger, once carrying two large hardside suitcases completely filled with champagne and having to go a long distance from airport terminal to car parking lot, had to stop and rest, but then later having to rest in even shorter amount of time just carrying much lighter carryon bag in airport (or my worst case I can remember, carrying my 8 day loaded back pack, two suitcases, day pack and camera from the train station in Banff Canada to motel about 1.5 miles away (I’d expected to have a taxi for this))).

IOW, I know I’m weaker, both maximum strength and endurance, than when I was younger, but what goal can I set today and how do I know whether I’m making progress to that goal. A tough problem with: a) little help from other sources, and, b) little success in my own attempts to define and measure.

So I have little to work with except just keeping up the workouts, as in I should be heading to the gym right now.




About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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