Autoregulation adjusts to the lifter’s actual, not expected, performance during a workout. Get an overview of this strength training method.
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Autoregulation – The Concept
The underlying concept is fairly simple: adjust the work sets to the lifter’s performance during the workout.
During novice linear progression, a lifter adds typically 5 pounds each week. The lifter adapts quickly while also lacking the ability to stress himself with a heavy work set like an advanced lifter can.
If the lifter misses a rep or set, a programming change probably needs to occur. If the lifter has a bad workout but hits all the reps, then she learns about just how heavy “heavy” can be. It can be a qualitative experience in RPE 8.5+ sets.
As the lifter advances, weight is often added less frequently, though you often see a linear progression of supplemental and accessory lifts.
Without autoregulation, a lifter performs work sets based on a past one-rep max or similar maximal effort (e.g. 5RM) or her expected performance. Past performance does best predict future performance, but occasionally a lifter experiences workouts on the tails of the bell curve.
A lifter may suddenly fail to hit prescribed reps or have to perform the reps at RPE 9+ effort, whereas the intended difficulty was closer to RPE 7.
The other extreme is the unexpected easy day, when a PR might be available. Especially as a lifter progresses, these days come less and less frequently, so taking the PR may be warranted.
The lifter can attempt to make a more-or-less educated guess on his 1RM from his subjective assessment using rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or reps in reserve (RIR).
Work up to a single at RPE 8. This means you assess that you can complete 2 more reps. Then, perform 1×3 @ 93% and 3×5 @ 80%.
If your RPE assessment is fairly accurate, the training stress and intensity that day will be appropriate – sufficient but not too much.
The other primary subjective autoregulation method is the coach’s eye. The coach can watch your warm up sets and help pick your work set intensity based on his assessment of your performance that day.
This is an informed input, if you have an experienced coach, but it is still subjective.
Lastly, the two methods can be combined. Whether in-person or online, this method works better. You have two independently-gathered albeit subjective data points that help determine the work sets for the workout.
Online, the coach obviously cannot pick the intensity that day, but the coach can help provide feedback on the lifter’s RPE assessments and notice patterns.
For example, a lifter may tend to assess RPEs fairly accurate most of the time, and especially for upper body lifts. On bad days and for squats – this hypothetical lifter’s least favorite lift – he tends to rate them higher than they were. This growing awareness can inform the lifter’s decisions.
AMRAPs or working up to a 1RM are objective, as long as the lifter gives her full effort for the set.
The problem, is maximal effort sets, whether for one rep or as many reps as possible, are physically and mentally exhausting, will negatively affect the remaining work sets, and provide an extremely high-intensity training stress that must be accounted for in the training.
Velocity-based training, therefore, offers an objective autoregulation method that doesn’t require a maximal set. The lifter has to give her full effort during warm ups, but this does not come with the same difficulty or downsides as a truly maximal work set.
The downside is mainly the cost, though they’ve become more readily available and more accurate.
If you’re an advanced lifter that is serious about chasing PRs for the long haul, you might consider investing in this for your training.