How To Autoregulate Your Training

Making almost every training program better.

Autoregulating training programs are the new way to go when it comes to program design. They have a lot to offer, leaving the old cookie-cutter templates from muscle magazines outdated by comparison. Still, autoregulative training isn’t for everyone. Let’s dive into the pros and cons of this great tool in this article!

The Purpose Of Autoregulation

To understand autoregulation, we first have to take a look at non-autoregulative training protocols, also known as “cookie-cutter” templates. Traditional cookie cutter templates let you go to the gym a fixed number of times per week, on fixed days, doing a fixed exercises for a fixed number of sets and fixed number of repetitions.

The highly rigid nature of those programs has led us to autoregulation. Because we are no machines, we need some wiggle room in our program, taking daily fluctuations of performance into account. Because life happens! Nobody wants to go to the gym on tuesday to do heavy squats just because their program tells you so, if you had a really bad night of sleep. Wouldn’t it be great to just postpone that workout by one day or to modify it in a way that doesn’t leave you frightened by the mere thought of doing said workout?

That’s the reason why autoregulation is great: it allows life to happen!

How To Autoregulate

Okay, I think we now agree that autoregulation has tremendous advantages over traditional programing, as it allows more flexibility, creating more adherence, making your program just better in the long term.

But how is it done correctly? In theory you could autoregulate all the “classic” training variables known in existance, but not all of them lend them perfectly to autoregulation. Let’s go through it:

  • Frequency: How often do you train each muscle? This is often done intuitively by skipping a training session if you really feel bad that day. Deciding when to take a day off, can be tricky. I think it helps to keep the risk-benefit-ratio in mind. “What is the risk of pushing through” versus “What is the benefit of pushing through”? The value of a single training session is relatively small in the long term, but the risk of pushing through is quite high most of the time. A simple, almost harmless cold can turn into full-blown influenza easily!
  • Volume: How many sets do you perform per exercise? There are several ways to autoregulate volume, one could be that you go “all out” on the first set as the benchmark set, counting reps. Them you keep doing all out sets until you reach a predetermined “drop off” in reps. Example: you do dumbbell bench press for 13 reps in your first set. Plan tells you to keep going until you drop 4 reps, which happens to be set number three, where you are only able to perform 9 reps.
  • Pauses: How long do you rest between sets? There is no reason to skip pauses, therefore do not omit them: take as much rest until you feel ready for the next set. Do not shorten rest periods unless you are using special intensity/metabolite techniques. More rest = better performance!
  • Intensiveness: How hard should you train? How many reps should be left “in the tank”? Generally speaking, there is little reason not to go to your limit (=going to technical failure: the last rep should still be technically flawless) when training for hypertrophy. Unless you don’t feel very good, or you are still recovering from illness. In those cases it is better to leave 2-3 reps in reserve, get a nice and easy workout done and don’t risk to worsen anything. Health is nothing to gamble with!
  • Intensity: How heavy should you lift? If you have a given RIR (reps in reserve) you should hit and combine it with a certain rep range, the weight you have to use is a function of those parameters. Example: your training plan calls for biceps curls “all out” (RIR 0) in the 12-15 rep range. Last week you did 15kg for 12 reps, but you didn’t sleep well and everything feels so much heavier today. Therefore you decide to take the 12kg dumbbells to stay in the rep range.
  • Exercise selection: What exercises should I use? Sometimes you don’t feel like doing a certain exercise. A minor injury might be the cause for this or just sleeping in a weird position and waking up with, for example, back pain. Nothing too bad, but doing heavy back squats on that day might not be the wisest decision. Therefore you switch to an exercise for your legs that you can load heavy and doesn’t put your back at risk, like belt squats.

Who Doesn’t Need This?

As great as autoregulation is, it is not useful for everybody. Certain personality types have problems objectively rating how they feel. Some people are too cautious, which results in training not hard enough, and some people are too aggressive, which slowly drives them into overtraining. Those people may be better off with a well structured “normal” training plan and a coach who checks how they are doing.

Autoregulation also isn’t usually necessary for beginners. They train with very low weights, challenging their body only minimally (which is okay for a beginner). Beginners also have a really hard time assessing how hard they train. Studies have shown that they underestimate their maximum number of possible reps by up to 12! That’s normal! How should somebody know what his body is capable of, if the hardest thing he has ever done is getting out of his car? Beginners have to learn how to exert themselves before they can implement autoregulation. They also don’t really need it because even on a bad day, they can push through their workout and recover from it perfectly, because they usually (almost) “undertrain”.

I hope you have a better understanding of autoregulation after reading this article. If there are any questions left, do not hesitate to write them down in the comments. If you want to stay up to date with training optimisation, join the Beary Email List. No worries, there is no spam, just pure knowledge once a week!

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