You need to follow a program to get the best results from your training. Your program will specify what exercises to do for each muscle group, how many sets and reps you should perform, and even how much weight you need to lift, usually expressed as a percentage of your one-repetition maximum (1RM).
As your body adapts and you get stronger, your program will gradually get harder, which is called progressive overload. Progress should be steady and relatively predictable, especially if you are a beginner or early intermediate lifter. In other words, you should get stronger from one week to the next. However, increases will probably be very small as you get closer to your genetic potential.
Unfortunately, despite following a program, we all have days when our bodies don’t respond as we expect, and our planned workouts don’t match our physiological state.
Training with The Monday Blues…
For example, maybe it’s Monday, and you’ve planned a big workout to kick off your week. But, too much beer and not enough sleep over the weekend mean you show up at the gym feeling about 80% and unsure that you’ll be able to complete your workout.
What should you do?
One choice is to pull up your big-boy pants and do the workout anyway, even though doing so pretty much kills you. Unfortunately, this kind of bloody-minded attitude means you’ll be even more tired tomorrow, and your training week will probably go downhill fast.
Or, you could skip your workout and wait a day or two to train. However, that will unbalance your entire training week, and who wants to miss chest day?!
Neither of these options is optimal, so it’s good news there is a third choice – autoregulation.
In this article, we explain what autoregulation is and how to use it, so every workout is as productive as possible.
- Training with The Monday Blues…
- What is Autoregulation, Anyway?
- Factors That Effect Training Performance
- How to Use Autoregulation for Better Workouts
- Drawbacks of Autoregulation
- Autoregulation FAQs
- Closing Thoughts
What is Autoregulation, Anyway?
Autoregulation is a training method you can apply to almost any bodybuilding or strength training program. With autoregulation, you modify elements of your workouts based on how you feel and are performing on that particular day.
For example, instead of doing the three sets of 10 with the 120 pounds specified by your program, you can do more or less work depending on your physiological and mental state on that particular day.
In simple terms, autoregulation allows you to adjust each workout to ensure it’s as productive as possible. It gives you a license to back off when you feel under-recovered or go harder when you feel good.
Studies suggest that autoregulation is an excellent tool for all types of lifting, from bodybuilding to powerlifting to Olympic weightlifting. This method should enable you to keep every workout in the perfect sweet spot for maximizing gains (1). It could even mean the end of unproductive training sessions.
Factors That Effect Training Performance
In a perfect training world, autoregulation would not be necessary. Instead, you’d just show up at the gym and do your workout as planned – no muss, no fuss. Unfortunately, your body has other ideas!
Your readiness to train can change from one day to the next, and even hour to hour. As such, your planned workout may not match your physiological or psychological state. Some of these things are under your control, such as diet, while others are less so, such as your emotional state.
Factors that affect training performance include:
While you know you NEED 7-9 hours of sleep per night, that’s not always possible. Even if you hit the hay early and plan on sleeping late, your body may not cooperate, and you could end up tossing and turning all night.
A coffee or shot of pre-workout can help, but, in many cases, too little sleep will rob you of the energy you need for a good workout.
Food provides your body with nutrients and calories. Your muscles need glycogen from carbohydrates for energy and protein for recovery and repair. Diet plays a big part in your training success but eating perfectly is not always possible. A couple of nutritionally poor or missed meals could undermine your training performance.
our last workout can affect your next one. If you took it easy yesterday, you might feel more energetic today. But, if your previous training session crushed you, your next workout may feel far harder than usual.
Your mental and emotional state heavily influences physical performance. For example, suppose you are stressed, upset, or distracted. In that case, you may feel disconnected from your workout and unable to train with a high level of intensity. In contrast, you can also “fire yourself up” and work harder than usual.
Time of Day
Energy levels fluctuate throughout the day. This is linked to your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s sleep/wake cycle. You may feel stronger at some times of the day and weaker at others.
If you are able, you should try to train when you feel your best. For a lot of people, this is around the middle of the afternoon and early evening. But, of course, that’s not always possible or practical. So, if you have to train at different times on different days, it’s only natural that your energy levels will ebb and flow, too.
The X Factor
We all have workouts when, for no discernable reason, we’re just out of sorts. Weights feel heavier than usual, and we’re tired even though we don’t know why. On the flip side, there will be days when we feel fantastic even though we’ve done nothing different. Maybe it’s the stars, or perhaps it’s our biorhythms. Either way, good days, as well as bad days, sometimes just happen.
Regardless of why you feel the way you do, autoregulation means you can adjust your workout to match your physical and psychological state at the time of training.
How to Use Autoregulation for Better Workouts
There are a few ways to use autoregulation. Each one works, but each one is slightly different, so it’s worth trying them all to see which one you prefer. However, the end result should be the same – a customized workout that closely meets your physiological and psychological state for that given time.
1. Reps in Reserve (RIR)
Many workouts specify how many reps you should do, e.g., sets of five reps. However, depending on how you feel, that could be too many or too few reps. So, instead of using a fixed rep scheme, you simply take your set to a predetermined number of reps within failure. This is called the reps in reserve method, or RIR.
For example, after warming up and loading up your training weight for the day, you simply rep out until you feel you only have 1-3 good reps left on the tank. In other words, you leave 1-3 reps in reserve.
Then, after a rest, you do another set and leave 1-3 reps in reserve again. Depending on fatigue, you may do the same number or fewer reps, but the intensity will be the same.
RIR means that the number of reps performed is unimportant and can vary depending on how you feel. This frees you from the constraints of trying to do a specified number of reps per set.
2. Movement Speed
Another alternative to counting reps is to pay more attention to movement speed. Movement speed decreases as you begin to tire and approach failure. If you feel less than 100%, movement speed will decrease sooner during your set.
In contrast, if you are feeling good, things won’t slow down as quickly, and you can do more reps before it does.
So, start your set using a controlled tempo, e.g., two seconds up and two seconds down. Continue your set until you are unable to maintain this tempo. Again, there is no need to count reps, as loss of movement speed will determine when you should end your set.
3. Benchmark Sets
With benchmark sets, you do your first programmed set as usual and then make intuitive adjustments to the rest of your workout as needed.
For example, let’s say your first set of squats calls for eight reps with 225 pounds. So, you unrack the bar and crank out your set with relative ease; it’s a good day! In that case, you can add a little more weight to the bar or, if you prefer, plan on doing ten reps for your remaining sets.
But, if you barely hit the required number of reps, or the weight feels much heavier than usual, scale your next sets back by reducing the weight by 10-20% or planning on doing sets of 5-6 reps instead. You may even decide to do fewer total sets, e.g., just two instead of 4-5.
Using a benchmark set lets you test the waters of your workout so you can fine-tune the weight, reps, or sets based on your real-time performance.
4. 50% Workouts
This autoregulation method adjusts the volume of your workout depending on how you are feeling. It’s an excellent method for bodybuilders as it involves doing several sets close to failure and also accumulates a decent amount of training volume.
Using an appropriate weight, rep out on your chosen exercise to within 1-3 reps of failure. Rest exactly 60 seconds, and then repeat. Because of fatigue, you won’t be able to do quite as many reps. Rest another 60 seconds, and then do it again. Continue this process until you hit 50% of your first set.
If you are feeling energized, this could take 5-6 sets. However, if you aren’t feeling so good, it may only take three. Regardless, your training volume will be determined by your energy levels.
|Set||Feeling good 🙂||Feeling less than 100% 🙁|
|1||12 reps||12 reps|
|2||10 reps||9 reps|
|3||9 reps||6 reps and done (50%)|
|5||6 reps and done (50%)|
5. Ramping Up to Your Daily Max
Many workouts are based on percentages of your 1RM. However, your 1RM can change from one day to the next, depending on all the usual factors, such as sleep, nutrition, stress, etc.
Basing an entire training plan on what is essentially a variable performance marker means your program cannot account for how you are feeling on any given day.
One way around this problem is to work up to a daily max each time you train. The easiest way to establish your daily max is to use ramped sets in your warm-ups.
To do this, simply do progressively heavier sets using the number of reps called for by your workout. E.g.:
- 6 reps 45lbs (RPE 2)
- 6 reps 90lbs (RPE 4)
- 6 reps 135lbs (RPE 6)
- 6 reps 180lbs (RPE 8)
- 6 reps 195lbs (RPE 9 – and today’s max/training weight)
RPE stands for Rating of Perceived Exertion and is a scale of 1-10 used to describe how hard your workout feels. In most cases, an RPE of 7-9 should be sufficient to increase strength and muscle size. RPE 10 is your absolute maximum effort, i.e., muscular failure. RPE 7-9 roughly equates to 1-3 reps in reserve (RIR).
6. Volume Autoregulation
Depending on how you feel and how you perform during your first set, you can go on to adjust the total volume of your workout. For example, if your first set kicked your ass, you could leave it there and skip the rest of your sets so your workout will be less voluminous and not so fatiguing.
Alternatively, suppose you crushed that first set. In that case, you might consider doing an extra set or two to make use of your boundless energy and strength.
In other words, don’t feel you have to do the number of sets prescribed by your workout. Instead, slide the volume scale up or down depending on how you feel and perform.
Drawbacks of Autoregulation
Autoregulation is a valuable training tool that can add a lot to your workouts. It’ll save you from pushing yourself through intense workouts when you are tired, but it also gives you permission to open the taps and train harder than planned when you’re feeling good.
However, there are a few drawbacks to consider, too…
Autoregulation is not ideal for beginners
Beginners are not very good at judging how hard they are working simply because everything feels hard when you are starting out. As such, autoregulation is best left to intermediate and advanced exercisers, who know what it feels like to train to true failure.
Autoregulation takes practice
It’s not always easy to determine your rating or perceived exertion or reps in reserve. Initially, you may find it hard to judge your fatigue levels. However, with practice, you will get better at doing this, making autoregulation much easier and more effective.
Autoregulation can be used as an excuse for being lazy
The only person who knows how hard you are working is you. As such, it would be easy to use autoregulation as an excuse for being lazy or convince yourself you are working harder than you really are. Autoregulation requires complete self-honesty to work.
Do you have a question about autoregulation? We’ve got the answers you seek!
1. What is autoregulation?
Autoregulation is a training method where you adjust the weight, reps, or sets of your planned workout up or down depending on how you feel or perform. It saves you from having to follow a set program that may be too hard or too easy for you on that particular day. Autoregulation allows for the natural fluctuations in energy will all experience from time to time.
2. Who can use autoregulation?
Autoregulation is best left to intermediate and advanced lifters who can accurately determine their physical and psychological state on any given day. It can be used by bodybuilders, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and any other strength athletes.
However, because autoregulation requires a high degree of exercise and training awareness, it is not usually suitable for novice lifters.
3. Do I use autoregulation for all the exercises in my workout?
Autoregulation works best for big compound exercises as they are most affected by fatigue, nutrition, sleep, etc. For example, you could use autoregulation for squats and deadlifts but not bother with leg curls and calf raises.
However, there is nothing to stop you from autoregulating your entire workout if you wish.
4. Is autoregulation safe?
Autoregulation training is very safe as it allows you to vary your workout based on how you feel at that time. In fact, it may make your workouts safer as it will save you from having to try and do more reps or lift heavier weights than you are safely able on that particular day.
5. How can I practice estimating RPE and RIR?
The easiest (or maybe even the only) way to get better at accurately predicting how many more reps you can do in a set is to train to failure from time to time. Monitor how you feel, your technique, and your speed of movement, and notice how things change as you approach and then reach failure.
Knowing how failure feels will make it much easier to judge when you are getting close, and it’s time to bring your set to an end.
6. Do I have to use autoregulation?
Autoregulation is a valuable tool, and like all tools, it’s there for you to use as needed. You don’t have to use it all the time, and you don’t even have to use it at all if you don’t want to.
However, suppose you sometimes struggle to complete your planned workout or feel like you want to do more. In that case, autoregulation can help ensure that your training is always effective.
That said, if you are having a really bad gym day, you may actually benefit more from taking an extra day off and resting instead of training. Any training, even with less weight or fewer reps or sets, could make matters worse if you are severally fatigued and approaching overtraining.
7. Can I use autoregulation for cardio?
Yes, you can! Use a heart rate monitor or RPE to determine how hard you are working.
Some days it will take more effort to get your heart rate up to, for example, 70% of your heart rate maximum. However, on other days your heart rate will reach 70% at a slower speed or lower resistance level.
Adjust your workout based on this feedback.
Autoregulation isn’t a program. Instead, it’s a bolt-on tool you can use to adjust your workouts to ensure they’re as productive as possible.
Feeling tired? Use autoregulation to dial back your training intensity or volume to avoid excessive overload and fatigue.
Feeling strong? Use autoregulation to turn up the heat and make the most of your increased energy and drive.
On the downside, successful autoregulation does take a well-developed sense of self-awareness, so it’s not for beginners. But, for intermediate and advanced lifters, it’s a very useful tool that can help keep you in the sweet spot for more productive workouts.
- Larsen, S., Kristiansen, E., & den Tillaar, R. V. (2021, January 12). Effects of subjective and objective autoregulation methods for intensity and volume on enhancing maximal strength during resistance-training interventions: a systematic review – PMC. PubMed Central (PMC). Retrieved October 18, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7810043/