making it personal: using autoregulation in your programming to maximize results
Resistance training has been the staple of many gym goers for decades now. The evolution of picking up heavy objects and putting them back down has seen many advancements, unconventional novelties, and trends throughout the years.
However, one thing that has remained fairly consistent is programming. It is well established that when designing a program, you first establish what the goals are, then indicate which exercises will facilitate reaching those goals, and then determine the appropriate dosages of exercises to improve desired traits (ex: strength, power, hypertrophy, endurance).
Most programs are based on percentages of an established or estimated one rep max (1RM), though it is not uncommon to see 3,5, or even 10 rep maxes in some cases. The program will likely progress week to week, finding ways to further challenge the body as adaptations are made. There might be some extra nuance involved, with adjustments in the programming designed to encourage the development of two or more desired changes (ex: strength AND power). By the end of the training cycle, it is typical to see a deload and/or retesting of maxes.
There is nothing wrong with this model. It has worked for decades. However, there is one major challenge that comes up quite often.
Working based on percentages does not take into consideration the fluctuations and chaos that life outside of the gym can bring. It lacks adaptability.
You can write up the most organized, well-thought-out program in existence, have all your proverbial ducks in a row, and then have it all fall apart when you get sick, or injured, or just have a bad day. Conversely, you may feel like your program is holding you back. You may have a day where you’re feeling like an unstoppable juggernaut for the session, but your program doesn’t have a planned 1RM testing day for another 3 weeks. These scenarios culminate into the quasi-philosophical questions, “Is this 70% of my 1RM bench press actually a 70%?” and “Am I actually training at the desired intensity that is intended?”
The concept has been around since the 1970s with cardiorespiratory training, but didn’t find a home in resistance training until the early 2010s. Instead of going off of percentages, weight, sets, reps, etc. workloads are chosen based on subjective effort level (aka rating of perceived exertion or RPE) and reps in reserve (RIR).
The biggest advantage of autoregulation is that it allows for adjustments to be made day-by-day, or even set-by-set. This allows you to increase or decrease the intensity of the session based on how you are feeling that day. Feeling worn out and sluggish? You’ll automatically go lighter and easier to accommodate. Feeling strong? You’ll be able to push your limits.
Here’s what RPE based on RIR typically looks like. It may vary from protocol to protocol.
*Some scales will include half-steps to denote that either slightly more weight could be lifted OR a slight chance (50/50) the athlete could have performed another rep
**Using 4 or below is typically not advised/used because of poorer accuracy and the fact that this is not the training range for most resistance training anyways.
Now that we have our variables defined, let’s look at how we can implement autoregulation. Let’s start with a fairly traditional weightlifting set:
With a fairly traditional weightlifting set:
Exercise: Back Squat
Percent 1RM: 80
If we replace the percentage with autoregulation, it looks like this:
Exercise: Back Squat
Intensity: RPE 7
Again, the beauty in the autoregulated setup lies in its flexibility. After finishing your first set, you may realize that you could have done 5 or more reps at that weight. You proceed to add 10-15 lbs to your next set, and determine that to be the sweet spot for your weight, feeling that you could only do 3 more reps if you had to for that particular set.
Challenges to Consider
It can be difficult to explain the concept of autoregulation to novice lifters who may underestimate their own capability for performing an exercise at a specific intensity. Another common misconception is that the rating of perceived exertion and reps in reserve DO NOT EQUATE to percentages. For example, many athletes make the mistake of thinking that an RPE of 8 equates to 80% of their 1RM which is, unfortunately, inaccurate. Honest, open feedback between the coach and lifter is paramount when learning autoregulation so that the desired stimulus is reached with each lift and session.
Autoregulation can also be a great tool for class or team settings because it eases the burden of programming for coaches by allowing them to create a more general program for their team, but still allowing for individualization to occur by letting athletes select their appropriate level of intensity.
For those who are concerned that they may not make the same level of gains with this methodology, the latest research shows that when compared to percentage-based training, overall strength gains and muscle mass gains were about the same with a slight edge in favor of autoregulation.
Autoregulation can be a good alternative to the more traditional model for individuals who are looking for more flexible programming that considers how variable we can feel each day. There can be some initial difficulty with getting a feel for the intended intensity levels, but beyond the learning curve is the potential for better results when compared to traditional, percentage-based programming.
Ryan Chaney is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who operates a hybrid physical therapy and strength training business, Invictus Physical Therapy and Sports Performance, PC out of his hometown Colorado Springs, CO. He has over ten years of experience training athletes of all levels and specializes in helping CrossFitters, swimmers, and outdoor athletes recover from their injuries and perform at their highest level. Outside of work, you’ll find Ryan climbing, mountain biking, skiing, lifting weights, or spending quality time with his fiancée and their two dogs, Kona and Winnie.