The Definitive Guide to Autoregulated Training

You’ve been training for years, but your results have slowed.

In the past, you followed your program, ate smart, and kept getting stronger and building muscle.

But for the past few months, you’ve been stuck in “strength purgatory.” You have good weeks where you add 10-20 pounds to a lift. Then, after a few bad workouts, you’re back where you started.

You know you can do more, but you’ve hit a plateau.

You’ve been following a solid program. Maybe you found it online or in a book. Maybe you made it yourself. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not working anymore.

It’s time to try something new.

What is Autoregulation?

Autoregulation means making some of the decisions about your training *during* your workout, instead of having every detail planned beforehand.

In other words, you have more immediate control over the variables in your workout than with most programs. You’ve probably used autoregulation before, whether you realized it or not.

– Rested an extra minute so you could push harder the next set?

– Added 5 pounds instead of 10 because you felt good?

– Dropped the weight when your form started to break?

That’s autoregulation.

This doesn’t mean that you make up a workout at the gym. You still need a plan. Autoregulation helps you decide *how* to execute that plan.

Autoregulation isn’t the same thing as “listening to your body” — you don’t go home at the first sign of fatigue. Instead, you make changes to your training based on how you *perform*, not necessarily how you *feel*.

Autoregulation is not a specific program. It’s a concept — a framework — and there can be as many different versions of autoregulation as there are people lifting weights.

You can use autoregulation with any sport, as I do when I’m training for endurance events. Since most of you want to get big, lean, and strong, however, we’ll focus on strength training in this article.

Why You Should Autoregulate Your Strength Training

Most programs are based around the idea that progress is linear. For beginners, it is, but after about a year that stops being true.

It’s impossible to predict exactly what weights you should use a month from now, how much rest you’ll need between workouts or sets, or how much total volume you can lift. You should still make a plan, but that plan needs *structured flexibility.*

Some parts of your training should change, and they’re going to do so in an unpredictable manner. Autoregulation gives you a framework within which you can make those changes when they’re needed.

That’s not to say that programs are bad, but you don’t need to have every detail decided before you walk into the gym.

In terms of research supporting autoregulation, there isn’t much, but the little we have is promising.

The Science Behind Autoregulation

A recent review by Menno Henselmans and Brad Schoenfeld found that autoregulated rest periods were as good or better than structured ones for strength and muscle gain.(1)

After six weeks of autoregulated strength training, Division 1 college football players increased their bench and squat strength more than with linear periodization.(2)

Another study found that in beginners, autoregulated training increased their leg press more than linear periodization.(3) On the other hand, their chest press wasn’t any different.

The only other studies I could find on this topic were done on injured athletes and injured old people.(4,5)

Nevertheless, these studies have all shown positive results. As you’ll see below, some of the best bodybuilding and strength coaches also use autoregulation with their clients.

How Autoregulation Works

The first study on autoregulation was designed to see how it could help athletes recover from knee injuries.(4)

The rationale was that if the athletes decided how much weight to add in each workout, they wouldn’t progress too fast and re-injure themselves.

In the study, they athletes used four total sets. Here’s what it looked like:

Set 1: 50% of your working weight (the heaviest weight you used in your last workout) for 10 reps.

Set 2: 75% of your working weight for 6 reps.

Set 3: 100% of your working weight for as many reps as possible.

After the third set, you adjust the weight based on how many reps you were able to perform. If you performed fewer than 5-6 reps, you’d lower the weight. If you performed more than that, you’d raise the weight.

Set 4: As many reps as possible with your new weight.

Here’s the original table:

The number of reps you perform in the fourth set decides whether or not you raise or lower your weight in the next workout, based on the guidelines below.

You don’t need to use this exact system, and newer studies have changed this slightly, but it shows the general concept. You decide what to do in your next set based on the previous one.

Menno Henselmans, a bodybuilding coach and researcher, uses what he calls “Autoregulatory Volume Training.” In this case, you work up to a single set at one rep short of failure. Using the same weight, you perform as many reps as possible for the prescribed number of sets.

You take every set one rep short of failure, or a 9 on a scale of 1-10. According to Menno, you rest “until you feel fully recovered and can go all-out again.” If you can’t perform more than 3 reps, lower the weight by 10-20%.

Another bodybuilding coach, Børge Fagerli, uses some elements of autoregulation in his Myo Reps system. You go just short of failure on an exercise after 20-30 reps. Then you re-rack the weight, take a short break, perform another smaller set almost to failure, and repeat several times.

Mike Tuchserer’s Reactive Training System (RTS) uses time and RPE limits, along with several other metrics, to autoregulate the training of some of the best powerlifters in the world.

RTS isn’t a specific program. It’s more of a methodology built around autoregulation. To give you an idea of how it compares to other programs, here’s a table from the [Reactive Training Systems Manual](http://store.reactivetrainingsystems.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=3) that converts relative perceived exertion, or RPE, into one-rep-max percentages:

None of these programs are necessarily better or worse than another, some are just more appropriate for different goals. The first two are more geared toward muscle growth, and the last one is for powerlifters. Børge’s system is also mainly for smaller muscle groups, like biceps training.

Here’s a table to show how each program manipulates different constants and variables.

Autoregulation also helps you learn how to start coaching yourself. If all you ever do is follow other people’s workouts, you’re not going to learn as much about your abilities as you could.

Stop thinking about changes to your program as a necessary evil. Think of them as an essential part of your training, like adding more weight to the bar over time.

There are infinite ways to autoregulate your training, so let’s walk through the basics.

How to Autoregulate Your Training in 4 Easy Steps

1. Decide on rep ranges.

If you’re trying to get stronger, it’s generally best to use lower reps, say around 1-5. If you’re trying to gain muscle, [you generally want to use slightly higher reps](http://evidencemag.com/the-best-rep-range-for-building-muscle), say around 6-12.

The important thing is that you stay consistent over time. In other words, if you did squats for reps of 4-5 last Monday, then do the same next Monday. Rep ranges are generally one of the things you want to stay constant.

2. Create fatigue stops

One of the biggest advantages of autoregulation is that it lets you more accurately manage fatigue.

Instead of guessing that you’ll need three minutes of rest between sets ahead of time, you can decide that during your workout.

Here are two of the easiest ways to manage fatigue with autoregulation:

1. RPE limits.

2. Time limits.

RPE, or relative perceived exertion, is a fancy way of saying how hard your training feels.

Most studies have shown that it’s an accurate gauge of fatigue while strength training,(6-10) although not all have found this to be true.(11)

RPE isn’t perfect though. It doesn’t always work well for kids and inexperienced athletes.(12) But the more you train, the better you get at estimating your rating of perceived exertion.(13,14)

My favorite RPE scale was developed by powerlifter and coach Mike Tuchserer. It goes from 1-10, with 10 meaning you have no reps left. RPEs below 4-5 don’t matter, so they’re not included in the chart.

To use RPE limits, set an upper and lower RPE for your reps. For example, you could plan to do 4-5 sets of squats at an RPE of 7-8.

Here’s what your sets might look like:

300 x 5 @ RPE 7

310 x 5 @ RPE 7

320 x 5 @ RPE 8

320 x 4 @ RPE 8

320 x 4 @ RPE 9

Once you hit an RPE of 9 within your rep range, you stop or lower the weight.

You can use any RPE scale you want, but you need to stay consistent.

If you’ve never done this before or you’re new to training, just start tracking your RPEs. Keep doing your normal workout plan, and write the RPE next to each set. This will give you a better idea of how hard the sets feel. After you’ve got the hang of it, you can start using RPE to plan your workout, as in the example above.

If you want, you can also record an RPE for the total workout instead. Some data RPE may be better at gauging fatigue than intensity.(15,16)

To use time limits, you set a cap on how long you’ll spend on work sets for an exercise.

For example, in my last workout, I set my timer for 20 minutes for work sets of squats. This means that after warming up, I spent 20 minutes doing squats, including rest periods.

Within that time limit, you can use whatever rest periods you need to complete the next set.

Time limits largely determine how much volume you perform on any given day. The longer you give yourself to train with an exercise, generally the more volume you can do. A good starting place is to give yourself enough time to do at least 3-4 sets.

Setting time limits can also make it easier to plan training into your schedule.

Time and RPE limits aren’t the only ways to manage fatigue. In the above example, Menno Henselmans lets his clients decide how many reps to perform after doing one set just short of failure. They do the prescribed number of sets, but they get to choose the number of reps in each set.

If you already have your rep ranges planned, it’s probably easier to use time and RPE limits instead.

3. Record what matters.

One of the most important rules of autoregulation is that you pay attention. You need to [gather data](http://evidencemag.com/track-your-workouts) from your training and use it to make informed changes.

After every workout, you should track the following:

– Your exercises.
– Your number of sets.
– How many reps you completed in each set.
– How much weight you used in each rep.
– How hard each set felt on a scale of 1-10, using Mike’s RPE scale (or an alternative).

Read this article if you want a super easy way to record all of this stuff.

There are a lot of other variables you can track as well, but these are the most important when you’re starting.

4. Show up and take it slow.

Whenever you try something new with your training, your goal is to get in the habit first, and then really push yourself.

Many people push too hard when they start autoregulating, and they aren’t honest about their rating of perceived exertion. Then they stall after a few weeks.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’re unsure of how hard a set was, use the lower number. If you’re not sure if a set felt like an 8 or a 9, it was an 8.

I’m still learning this myself, and it’s much harder than you think.

It’s Not All-Or-Nothing

Just about everyone autoregulates some aspect of their training, but most don’t do it in a structured way.

As a result, they don’t get as strong or as muscular as they could.

Even if you don’t change anything about your training, the big takeaway here is to pay attention. Many smart lifters show up at the gym and push as hard as they can all the time. They fall into the same rut of making progress for 3-4 weeks, then lose it all after a few workouts.

In other words, they don’t manage fatigue properly, and they plateau as a result.

You’re free to mix and match the constants and variables to suit your goals and preferences. The two things I’d caution against are a) changing too many things at once, and b) changing your exercises too frequently.

You should only change 1-2 variables at a time. Try to use the same exercises for 6-8 weeks before making substitutions.

Even if you don’t change anything about your current program, start looking at your training differently.

Your goal is not to stick to your program exactly. Your goal is to get bigger, stronger, or leaner; and in many cases, you’ll reach those goals faster if you autoregulate your training.

Not only is it okay to make changes to your training on the fly, it’s sometimes best if you do.

To help you get started, I’ve created several autoregulated workouts for you to check out. To get them, enter your email address in the little blue box on the bottom left of your screen.

References

1. Henselmans M, Schoenfeld BJ. The Effect of Inter-Set Rest Intervals on Resistance Exercise-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy. Sports Med. 2014. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0228-0.

2. Mann JB, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, Sayers SP. The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(7):1718–1723. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181def4a6.

3. McNamara JM, Stearne DJ. Flexible nonlinear periodization in a beginner college weight training class. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(1):17–22.

4. Knight KL. Quadriceps Strengthening with the DAPRE Technique: Case studies with Neurological Implications. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1990;12(2):66–71.

5. Ardali G. A daily adjustable progressive resistance exercise protocol and functional training to increase quadriceps muscle strength and functional performance in an elderly homebound patient following a total knee arthroplasty. Physiother Theory Pract. 2014;30(4):287–297. doi:10.3109/09593985.2013.868064.

6. Day ML, McGuigan MR, Brice G, Foster C. Monitoring exercise intensity during resistance training using the session RPE scale. J Strength Cond Res. 2004;18(2):353–358.

7. Duncan MJ, Al-Nakeeb Y, Scurr J. Perceived exertion is related to muscle activity during leg extension exercise. Res Sports Med. 2006;14(3):179–189. doi:10.1080/15438620600854728.

8. Gearhart RFJ, Goss FL, Lagally KM, et al. Ratings of perceived exertion in active muscle during high-intensity and low-intensity resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2002;16(1):87–91.

9. Gearhart RFJ, Lagally KM, Riechman SE, Andrews RD, Robertson RJ. Strength tracking using the OMNI resistance exercise scale in older men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(3):1011–1015. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a2ec41.

10. Tiggemann CL, Korzenowski AL, Brentano MA, Tartaruga MP, Alberton CL, Kruel LFM. Perceived exertion in different strength exercise loads in sedentary, active, and trained adults. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(8):2032–2041. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d32e29.

11. Sweet TW, Foster C, McGuigan MR, Brice G. Quantitation of resistance training using the session rating of perceived exertion method. J Strength Cond Res. 2004;18(4):796–802. doi:10.1519/14153.1.

12. McGuigan MR, Dayel Al A, Tod D, Foster C, Newton RU, Pettigrew S. Use of session rating of perceived exertion for monitoring resistance exercise in children who are overweight or obese. Pediatr Exerc Sci. 2008;20(3):333–341.

13. Eston RG, Wiliams JG. Reliability of ratings of perceived effort regulation of exercise intensity. British Journal of Sports medicine. 1988;22:153–155. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1478740/.

14. Testa M, Noakes TD, Desgorces F-D. Training state improves the relationship between rating of perceived exertion and relative exercise volume during resistance exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(11):2990–2996. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824301d1.

15. Senna G, Willardson JM, de Salles BF, et al. The effect of rest interval length on multi and single-joint exercise performance and perceived exertion. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(11):3157–3162. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318212e23b.

16. Hardee JP, Lawrence MM, Utter AC, Triplett NT, Zwetsloot KA, McBride JM. Effect of inter-repetition rest on ratings of perceived exertion during multiple sets of the power clean. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012;112(8):3141–3147. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2300-x.

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Armi Legge

Armi Legge is a writer and fitness consultant who competed on the Youth and Junior USA Triathlon circuits for nearly a decade. He also trains as a powerlifter.

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