Autoregulation Rules!

In a perfect world, we could use our preferred choice of periodization (systematic planning of training) forever and consistently get stronger week in and week out.  Just follow the program, and we’ll reach our goals at the end, right?  Unfortunately, unless you’re a beginner, things don’t actually work this way.  Why not?

Because we’re people… I think?

Many hard working citizens live very busy lives.  Work, nutrition, sleep, and time spent with family and friends can vary from day to day, and they can all have a significant effect on our training efforts.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably not getting paid to be in superb condition all year round.  Sure, many will still take their fitness seriously and might be better at sticking to a program, but usually there are other priorities to take care of before getting to the gym.

This is where autoregulatory training can really shine.  But before I get started, there are a few prerequisites that must be covered before you can truly reap the benefits of this method.

Prerequisites

  • You’re at least at an intermediate level of fitness.  Autoregulation requires you to be very in touch with your own body.  In order to have this ability, you should have at least a year of smart and reasonably successful training under your belt.  By “smart” I mean you’ve been following a well-designed regimen that includes knee dominant, hip dominant, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull, and core stability exercises.  By “reasonably successful” I mean that you’ve gotten stronger in these movements, you’ve improved your physique, and that you’re movement skills are up to par.  You should have decent joint mobility and be able to comfortably perform compound lifts through a full range of motion.
  • You’re disciplined.  This means you’ve achieved a good level of consistency with your training.  You don’t skip sessions unless you have a good reason for doing so and you put real effort into your workouts every time you show up.
  • You’re patient.  Autoregulation is all about patience.  You must be able to take it easy when things aren’t going the way you expected. Progress is progress, let it come to you rather than forcing yourself to do things you might not be capable of on that particular day.

The Basics

To define, autoregulation (also called cybernetic periodization) is a method in which the intensity of training is self-regulated by the trainee based on variations in performance.  In other words, you base your effort and intensity throughout the workout on biofeedback from each previous rep and set.

Therefore, when you feel great and the weights are easy, get after it!  These are the days when you’ll be able to handle more volume and heavier loads, and possibly shoot for some type of personal record.

But on the days when you just don’t have “it,” you take it down a notch and don’t push yourself to the limit.  This isn’t an excuse to not work hard, as you should still be getting quality work done.  However, know when to take it easy and avoid missing any reps or getting through reps with poor form.

Let’s say your best deadlift is 315 pounds.  You get to the gym feeling pretty normal and proceed with your warmup, foam rolling and mobility work for example.  Expecting to work up to some heavy sets around 85-90%, you’re feeling loose and energized and do your first few sets of deadlifts with 135, 185, and 225 pounds.  The bar is feeling lighter than usual and moving fast.

You begin your working sets at 255 and pull it for 5, still feeling great.  Next set, 275 for 4 and it’s not difficult.  Now 275 is already more than 87% of your max, but you’re not fatigued at all so you move up to 295 and pull it for 3 with a rep left in the tank.  At 295, you’re nearing 94% of your max, so this is heavy shit!  But hey, the bar’s moving and you’re building confidence, why not move up to 315 and match your max?  You pull it for 3 reps and set a new PR, even though you weren’t planning or expecting to even work up to 300 today.  Well, my friend, you just autoregulated your training.

From this point on, it’s up to you to make the right decision and either add more weight to the bar, perform a back-off set or two, or move on to your next exercise.  It all depends on how you feel.  The beauty of this method is you can literally adjust your training on a set-to-set and even rep-to-rep basis.

To illustrate a not so fortunate workout, picture the opposite.  You might get the gym feeling stiff, tired, or lethargic.  Your warm-up sets don’t have the energy you’re used to, and your concentration just isn’t where it needs to be.

In this type of scenario, it would be a good idea to keep the weight light and really focus on technique.  You might not be satisfied with your lack of production, but these sessions are just as important as the great ones.  Honing in on form with lighter loads is still very valuable and will help reinforce good technique the next time you go heavy.  Remember when I discussed patience?  This is why it matters.  Don’t let yourself get discouraged, you still accomplished some quality work.

Why is it effective?

When you autoregulate, you’re making yourself more efficient.  By understanding and listening to your body as well as observing your own performance, you can then make the right decisions at the right time to get the most out of every training session.

Say you follow a strict program and complete every prescribed set and rep with the prescribed loads each and every training session.  Your workout on Monday calls for 4 sets of 6 with 185 pounds on push presses.

However, you had trouble sleeping sunday night and followed that up with a stressful day of work and poor nutrition throughout the day.  But the program calls for it, so no matter what it takes, you’re gonna complete 4 sets of 6 with 185.

This is asking for trouble.  You might be fine on the first set or two, but you soon find that there’s no way you’re hitting 6 reps on the next two sets.  If you push it too hard, your form might break down on one of the two next sets and you could tweak a shoulder or hyperextend your low back with 185 pounds over your head, resulting in pain and discomfort that could keep you out of the gym for days.

Another possibility?  You stick with 185 but only get 4 on the third set and 3 on the fourth.  A little bit better than a minor injury, but now you’re bummed because you didn’t accomplish what you planned, leaving you frustrated and stressed.

On the other hand, autoregulating could have avoided these problems.  If the first set felt way heavy, you understand that you need to adjust accordingly.  So maybe you knock off 10-15 pounds but still hit 6 reps on the second set while keeping good form.  From there, you keep autoregulating.  The whole time you’re monitoring your energy levels and fatigue, and because of that you can make better decisions that result in a more successful (and enjoyable) training session.

The same goes for the opposite side of the spectrum.  You might be feeling especially good that day, and by the time you complete 4 sets of 6 with 185, you have more left in the tank!  But if you follow the program to strictly you’ll end up stopping there, leaving some valuable reps on the table.  In this case, you undertrained when there was more potential to get better.

Essentially this method allows you to perform to your maximum potential at all times.  You avoid overtraining, you avoid undertraining, and you finish your workouts knowing that you did the most you were capable of that day, which builds confidence and keeps you satisfied with your effort.

Things to remember

  • I’m not advocating you throw out you programming entirely.  Autoregulation doesn’t mean you wing it and randomly select what you do in the gym.  Programming is still important and you should still have a plan for each training session, just don’t be so strict about it!
  • Autoregulation is not an excuse to skip workouts because you’re not feeling 100%.  This is why I listed discipline as a prerequisite.  Get to the gym and get done what you can, just don’t be stupid.  Nobody is invincible.
  • Just because you’re feeling shitty during the day doesn’t mean that feeling is going to last.  Sometimes training is the best cure!  It is very possible you could have an amazing session on a day you feel weak and tired, or a disappointing session on a day you felt fueled and strong (rare).  You truly never know, and that’s why the feedback after every set and every rep is so important!
  • If you find that you’re consistently having those dreaded “off” days, there’s a good chance something is wrong.  Consistently feeling tightness or pain in certain areas might mean you have some type of overuse injury.  If you’ve been dead tired for a week straight, you could be overworked or overstressed, and it might be time to deload a bit.  But if you’re on a hot streak and have been putting up big weights while consistently feeling great and eating well, keep it up!  Clearly what you’re doing is working, and it’s time to take advantage.

To sum it all up

  • Programming is essential, but you must be able to adapt.
  • Autoregulation is a sustainable method of training.  It can applied to load, volume, training frequency, and even exercise selection!
  • Unless you know exactly how you’re going to feel 2-3 weeks from right now, I encourage you to have some more flexibility with your routine.
  • This is an essential skill to have if you want to consistently train to  the best of your ability while staying pain and injury free.

Further Reading

Autoregulatory Training vs. Linear Periodization [Research Review]

Texas Hold ‘Em Autoregulation by Anthony Mychal

Cybernetic Periodization: Modifying Strength Training Programs on the Fly by Eric Cressey

How You Feel is NOT a Lie by Dave Dellanave

My Problem With Autoregulation by Bojan Kostevski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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