Flexible Training For Faster Gains

3 Ways to Master Autoregulation

Your Body Knows. Listen To It.

Our bodies already know about autoregulation. They do it every second of every day.

Cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems respond to environmental changes. Climb a mountain at high elevation and your blood vessels will dilate in response to the lack of oxygen to carry more blood and O2 to your organs.

Sleep in a cold room and your body temperature will rise. Eat a meal and your endocrine system will release hormones to accommodate the nutrients.

Your body adapts to what you throw its way. And when it comes to training, you can do the same by planning for flexibility in your workouts.

You can get strong, shredded, and athletic by adjusting your training to accommodate your environmental stresses.

It's not just an excuse to take it easy. The extent of your gains will depend on your ability to regularly accommodate daily fluctuations in energy, focus, and intensity in your training within the structure of your program.

Whatever training program you're doing, you need to be able to adapt and respond to it on the fly. That's what autoregulation is all about.

Yes, follow the structure of a periodized program. But within that periodized program, allow for tweaks and adjustments as if they're built-in. Build them in.

Factors like sleep, nutrition, and stress play huge roles in your performance no matter what exercise selection, sets, reps, and intensity you planned for in advance.

Instinctively, you already have a sense of autoregulation. You can usually tell when your energy has tanked or your drive is out of whack, and you know when you've pushed yourself too hard for what you had to give.

But to confirm that instinct, there's some credence to autoregulation. A recent study examined the effect of autoregulatory progressive training (APRE) versus linear periodization using college athletes. It found APRE to be more effective than linear periodization for increasing the bench press and squat.

It's not as hippie-dippy as it may sound. You're not just letting your feelings determine the course of your workout. There are three calculated ways to use autoregulation in your training.

RPE Chart 1
RPE Chart 2

You've probably heard of RPE (rate of perceived exertion) before, but have you actually used it?

You assign numerical value to your effort, and as a lifter you aim for somewhere between a 6 and an 8. Don't do strength, explosive, or power work if you can't muster up enough energy to at least train at a 6. Ideally, you'd train at a 7 or 8 most of the time.

Sure, you need to put in serious work, but not at the cost of progress. And that's exactly what happens when you train fatigued, don't put in enough effort, and then top it off with more fatigue. Recovery will take longer and gains come slower.

RPE isn't perfect, especially for novice lifters who aren't used to fatigue or aching and burning in the muscles. But practice recording RPE after your sets to see how hard you regularly tend to push it.

You'll see patterns surface associated with training time of day, neural demands, nutrition, training volume, and overall periodization. Then you can autoregulate your program based on those associations and stay within the framework of your progression.

The +2/-2 method gives you the freedom to add or subtract two reps from your training plan. This is the easiest method to adapt on the fly. You don't have to psych yourself out during a bad day, which may happen with the RPE scale.

So if your last working set is supposed to be 5 reps at 85% of your 1RM and you're demolishing your workout, you're free to add two more reps and go up to 7.

If your lift makes a tortoise giggle at your sluggish bar speed, drop it down to 3 and call it a day. You're not being a wuss; you're "investing in your next training session" as Christian Thibaudeau says.

+2/-2 Sample Progression

  • Week 1 squat: Warm-up, 1x8, 1x6, 1x4 (+2/-2 reps)
  • Week 2 squat: Warm-up, 1x7, 1x5, 1x3 (+2/-2 reps)
  • Week 3 squat: Warm-up, 1x6, 1x4, 1x2 (+2/-2 reps)
  • Week 4 squat: Warm-up, 1x5, 1x3, 1x1 (+2/-2 reps)

Allow your reps to fluctuate slightly and you'll be able to make the strength adaptations you're aiming for within your program.

Tip: Don't miss reps. If you're pushing for two more reps and you miss them, then you misjudged your abilities.

Force Velocity Curve

Use the force velocity curve to determine the best load for the intentions of your workout.

If you're doing box jumps, speed work, and plyo then keep your weight light and focus your attention on being explosive. The intensity comes from the speed at which you're moving.

If the goal is heavy strength work, the intensity is already built-in with the load you're lifting.

If you're training too heavy for the pace you're expecting to move, you may be doing more harm than good. That said, if you're absolutely geared to destroy a set within your capabilities, you can push a little bit harder and blast out an extra rep or two.

Don't continuously go above and beyond ramping sets, especially when velocity is a factor in your training. And if you're peaking for a competition be as conservative as possible and go for only your prescribed reps.

The more experienced you are the more judicious your flexibility will become within your training programs.

While it sounds "hardcore" to suck it up and slog through every workout regardless of the way you feel, maturity means using your head and preventing the overuse injuries and bottomless fatigue before they set in.

Life is too chaotic to be determined by perfect percentages and precise repetitions. Take a cue from nature: Allow for autoregulation so that you can have more good days and be able to push yourself harder when you have them.

  1. Baechle T. Resistance Training. In Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2008 3rd ed.
  2. Mann JB et al. The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes. J Strength Cond Res
    . 2010 Jul;24(7):1718-23. PubMed.
Eric Bach is a highly sought-after strength and conditioning coach, located in Colorado. Eric specializes in helping athletes and online clients achieve optimal performance in the gym and on the playing field. Follow Eric Bach on Facebook