Auto-regulatory Training has been utilized for years by coaches and athletes; however, its specific name, technique and the research behind it, has only recently started to emerge.
In short, Auto-regulatory Training revolves around the concept of flexibility within your periodized routine or training split to account for how you feel, recover etc. As mentioned, this has been utilized for decades by certain athletes and coaches based mainly on common sense.
For example, if an athlete is extremely tired, fatigued or sore, the coach or athlete may change their planned session for something less intense or damaging to their muscle/immune system and overall recovery.
While people often systematically manipulate key training variables (such as volume, intensity, sets, reps, etc.) to enhance the adaptive response to strength training, fewer people do actually manipulate their overall split and training session based on biofeedback, or, in other words, how they feel and the signals they get from their body .
If you’ve ever performed back-to-back workout blocks or played high level sport you can likely relate with the need to recover and be strategic with your programming. While a periodized plan is great and has been shown to provide benefits over no plan at all, some flexibility may be needed to account for each individual, their physiology, recovery capacities and even their lifestyle.
This is where Auto-regulatory Training comes in; here’s an overview of its benefits and how to apply it to your own or even your client’s/athlete’s routine.
Why Should You Tailor Your Recovery, Programming & Workouts?
Evidence suggests that individuals possess their own rate of adaptation to a given training stimulus. Essentially if you provide 3 individuals with the same training stimulus each of their responses and adaptations to training may be completely different as there are low, moderate, and high responders to training, both in terms of results (i.e. strength/muscle gains) and also recovery .
For some individuals at certain points in the year a pre-planned workout/load may be too intense on a given day. In contrast, some lighter or shorter loads/workouts may not be sufficient to elicit a response or allow the individual to maximize that workout if they are well recovered, motivated and fresh.
As a result, if you go too hard when you are run down, fatigued or have aches/pains/injuries you may increase your likelihood of injury and actually hinder your overall progress.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you take regular rest days per week or lighter sessions when you are actually feeling 100%, strong and motivated, then perhaps you could be doing a little more and progressing faster. While some rest is obviously vital, there’s no textbook amount of rest we need per week or month. Just like diet or anything else, it should be tailored – some people may need 3 days per week, some people may need 1 day per week.
What’s the solution? Enter Auto-regulatory Training!
Auto-regulatory training was adapted from De-Lormes progressive resistance exercise model which was initially developed for rehab purposes. Since then the core concept of individualizing training loads and progression based on of the individual’s readiness on a given day has led to the development of several new exciting practices.
Currently there are multiple different ways you can apply an Auto-regulatory approach to training. Let’s take a look at two recent studies that have investigated the potential efficacy of Auto-regulatory training and increasing strength gains.
Bryan Mann and Auto-regulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE)
Bryan Mann has some of the most well-known research behind Auto-regulatory training.
A study conducted on the University of Missouri’s football team investigated the effects of a 6 week APRE protocol compared to a traditional linear model and the subsequent effects on maximal strength adaptations.
In this initial model of auto-regulatory training the load of each set was determined based on the performance of the previous set.
For example, if you’re utilizing the 3rm protocol and are using a 3RM of 300lbs your first set will be 150lbs for 6 repetitions. Your second set would then consist of 6 repetitions at 225lbs for 3 repetitions. Your third set is classed as your ‘test set’ where you perform as many reps as possible with your previous 3RM.
This is where things get interesting: the load for the following set is determined by how many reps you achieve on the test set.
For example, say you come into the gym feeling great and pump out 6 reps at your 3rm! On the following set you may increase the weight by 10-15lbs. However, say you are tired and fatigued, only making 2 reps then you would actually decrease the weight by 5-15lb and aim to hit the full 3 reps on your next set.
In theory, this has been suggested to allow individuals to respond to training at their own individual rate of adaptation! Additionally, this model of progression also accounts for the individual’s readiness for exercise on that given day as there are many factors that affect readiness.
In this study, the APRE group demonstrated significantly greater improvements in maximal strength and strength endurance compared to the traditional group who did not vary their workouts based on their test lifts and the APRE method.
Other forms of Auto-regulation – Rep Ranges
Since then other researchers have taken this concept of auto-regulation and applied it to different training variables. Recently, one group of researchers analyzed the effects of auto-regulating rep ranges on maximal strength.
One group was allowed to come in each day and select which rep ranges they felt most prepared to perform that given day (e.g. 10RM, 15RM and 20RM), while the other condition was given a pre-determined rep range each day.
In a similar fashion to above, the auto-regulatory condition demonstrated greater strength gains compared to the non-auto-regulatory group, simply by altering their workouts to fit their perceived level of energy and recovery for that day .
How to Apply Auto-regulation to Your Own Workouts?
Current research suggests that there may be some efficacy in individualizing training loads based on your readiness for exercise on that given day.
Of course, APRE is only beneficial if you get it right. Just like many aspects of program design, it’s a tool that can be beneficial. However, if you are not in tune with your training, body and capabilities it may cause more harm and confusion than good. If, however, you’ve been lifting or coaching for years, you can likely pinpoint your status for that particular workout and use APRE effectively.
If maximal strength is your primary goal, then you can go ahead and try to replicate the APRE 3RM protocol shown above. However, if you don’t want to commit to training with loads around your 3RM, another practical way to apply these findings is to generate an easy, medium and hard day and simply perform the session you feel most prepared for on that given day.
Another technique to use APRE is to just swap your strength and hypertrophy days around as needed. For example, if you have a very heavy, performance-dominated workout coming up but feel very fatigued, a more metabolic or hypertrophy-based session may be a great alternative. With this, you could then just perform the strength workout in 2-3 days’ time when you were initially supposed to do the hypertrophy session.
The opportunities are endless with auto-regulation and, while research is still being gathered, ultimately as long as you are following the main principles of training you can experiment yourself and see which methods of auto-regulation work best with you!
The Benefits of Auto-regulatory Training
As you can see, Auto-regulatory training, or APRE, makes a lot of sense for athletes or individuals who are pushing the boundaries of performance and testing their recovery capabilities.
If you are a coach, you may see the need to apply APRE at certain times if the visual and verbal feedback from your client/athlete suggests they are struggling to recover, or if their performance takes a sharp drop.
Here’s a recap of the points discussed in this article:
- While the exact model of periodization that optimizes strength training adaptations is still up for debate, recent evidence suggests that “auto-regulation” may be beneficial to add into your programming.
- By selecting the weights for your next set based on your performance in the previous set you can ensure you’re training based on your own response and recovery rate.
- You can also use other aspects of feedback as a form of APRE, such as how you feel, your energy/motivation before the workout, aches and pains, etc.
- By applying this you may potentially avoid injury and also have greater performance in your workouts as you can mix and match them, based on how you feel that day.
- Fleck, S. J. (1999). Periodized strength training: a critical review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 13(1), 82-89.
- Rhea, M. R., & Alderman, B. L. (2004). A meta-analysis of periodized versus nonperiodized strength and power training programs. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 75(4), 413-422.
- Rhea, M. R., Ball, S. D., Phillips, W. T., & Burkett, L. N. (2002). A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. The Journal of strength & conditioning research, 16(2), 250-255
- Ahtiainen, J. P., Walker, S., Peltonen, H., Holviala, J., Sillanpää, E., Karavirta, L., … & Hulmi, J. J. (2016). Heterogeneity in resistance training-induced muscle strength and mass responses in men and women of different ages. Age, 38(1), 10.
- Mann, J. B., Thyfault, J. P., Ivey, P. A., & Sayers, S. P. (2010). The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes. The Journal of strength & conditioning research, 24(7), 1718-1723.
- McNamara, J. M., & Stearne, D. J. (2010). Flexible nonlinear periodization in a beginner college weight training class. The Journal of strength & conditioning research, 24(8), 2012-2017.