How to Apply Autoregulation in a Personal Training Setting by Gregg Slater
Autoregulation – What?
Sounds “sciency” and fancy but in fact, isn’t and I’m positive most of you reading this article will already be implementing it in some form or another (even if you don’t use the term). Today I want to outline the principle of autoregulation, how it can help your clients achieve better results and ultimately help you can continue to provide the best hour in someone’s day.
Let’s start as all good articles tend to do, with a story.
It’s 10:50 am and you have just sat down for your mid-morning coffee.
As you sit there drinking, you the diligent trainer, read over the carefully planned programme you have laid out for Jane, your next client.
Everything is perfect, the exercises, the volume, intensity have all been periodised into a beautifully crafted work of art.
You take a second to run through today’s session in your head, finish the last sip of caffeine powered liquid gold and head off out to meet Jane.
Jane comes through the door and immediately you notice something’s wrong.
There’s no spring in her step.
The bounce and chitter-chatter that ordinarily radiates from her just isn’t there.
Instead, you’re greeted by a rather exhausted and exasperated looking Jane.
“Hey Jane, how are you today?”.
“God don’t ask. Steph’s been off sick at work so I’ve basically been living at the office for the last three days and to cap it off Ollie is ill so I’ve been up all night”.
It’s obvious Jane is stressed, has had little sleep and is under-recovered. So what to do? Head down, push hard and get through this workout? Or take a step back and go easier on her, no point putting stress on top of stress, right? Maybe. Each client is different and sometimes after an extended warm-up people can feel good and want to push hard, sometimes not. So how do we know how hard to push and how much to pull back. This is where autoregulation comes in.
What is Autoregulation?
“Auto-regulation is simply trying to match training stress to the athlete’s readiness” – Eric Helms.
As trainers, we can incorrectly assume that training stress can be compartmentalised from other stress. However, this simply isn’t the case and if we are getting higher levels of stress from work, family, relationships or lack of sleep then we have a lower ability to recover in other areas.
Think of your pool of recoverability in the bucket below.
Certain activities such as active recovery, good sleep and proper nutrition will “fill you up” increasing your recovery reserve. While hard training, poor sleep, poor nutrition and “life stress” will deplete it. Autoregulation is matching the training volume and intensity to the reserves your client has in the bucket on that day. We push hard when we can and we recover when we can’t.
What Methods Can we Use to Match Training Stress to Client Readiness?
Firstly we have to identify their level of readiness.
This can be done in a myriad of ways but below are a list of the metrics I have found to be particularly useful. These can be scored on something like an excel document or simply by asking the client a few questions during the movement prep.
In no particular order:
- Muscle Soreness
- Desire To Train
- RPE Load
- Jump height*
- Grip strength*
* More applicable to athletic populations.
Putting the answers to these questions together you should be able to ascertain how well-rested, fed and watered they currently are. With this in place, we can now look at a number of autoregulatory methods you can use on their own or in conjunction with other methods simultaneously.
Reps In Reserve
No piece on autoregulation would be complete without a discussion on reps in reserve. Originally implemented as an adapted rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale in more recent times the reps in reserve method (RIR) has been more prevalent as it helped to remove some of the earlier confusion lifters had when using RPE.
Typically, when prescribing intensity on a lift it’s common to see a plan state a percentage of 1 repetition maximum (RM) or prescribe a set weight to be used. However, as we previously discussed, this doesn’t allow for daily fluctuations.
What if your client has a huge work project and stress up to their eyeballs?
What if they are currently enjoying some downtime from work and are full of energy?
Do we still use the arbitrary weight on the bar?
Setting an RIR target means the client works to THEIR ABILITY ON THIS DAY. Nothing more, nothing less. This would see 3 x 10-12 reps at 100kg become 3 x 10-12 reps at 1-2 reps in reserve. Therefore, the client would select and adjust a weight that allows them to hit the desired repetition goals (10-12) with the required amount of intensity based on their current settings.
Performed 12 reps with four or five RIR? Add load until you hit 10-12 reps with 1-2 RIR. Got one rep short of failure on rep 6? Reduce load to allow you to hit your desired rep and RIR target. We set the sets and reps and autoregulate load based on your current settings. It should be noted weight prescription and RIR are not mutually exclusive and can be used concomitantly or interchangeably to set intensity. Next issue we will discuss how the RIR method can be utilised to set volume.
Daily Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (DAPRE)
Our second autoregulatory method, DAPRE, builds on the RIR method to prescribe load during the training session.
DAPRE’s routes originate in the world of rehabilitation and have more recently been implemented within resistance training sphere with favourable results when compared with linear periodization (Mann et al, 2010). DARPE allows the client to progress load at their own pace based on daily fluctuations. Whilst different protocols will be implemented for different training goals, the principles remain.
In this example, we will focus on a hypertrophy based theme around a daily 8 RM.
As you can see from the table sets one and two are preparatory sets for testing in set three, in which the client performs as many reps as possible to a 1RIR with their current 8RM weight. The performance on this test dictates load on the subsequent two tests. Let’s walk through as if for someone who has an 8RM squat of 100Kg.
If on set three they manage 6 reps with 1RIR at 100 kg then 5% of the load (5Kg) will be removed for sets four and five. If, however on set three the client was feeling particularly good that day and performed 11 reps then it makes sense to push harder and increase the load for sets four and five by 5% to 105kg.
Performance on set three represents the daily fluctuations in training load. We push hard when the client is feeling good and back off when feeling little tired or under-recovered, true to our autoregulation mantra.
Hot exercises are your client’s main point of focus for a training session. To paraphrase Pareto’s principle, they provide you more bang for your buck and will produce the most favourable training outcomes for the most efficient training input. An example would be a squat for a client looking to improve leg strength. As the squat will have the biggest return on investment for the client’s goal it can be labelled a “hot exercise”. By identifying an exercise as “hot” it highlights to the client where the most mental and physical effort is warranted. Doing the most with the least.
Had a very tough day? Let’s really dig deep for the “hot exercise” hitting all the required numbers and backing off on the subsequent exercises. Feeling great? It might be the right time to hit a new rep or RM PR for the hot exercises. If a hot exercise is still too much then we can further focus the client’s efforts onto a singular “hot set” in which they push hard for one set only before backing off. It takes the pressure off the client to “beat their log book” on all exercises each week whilst ensuring effort/intensity is focused in the right amount to the right exercises. Take care of the big rocks and don’t sweat the rest.
The concept of “hotness” is not confined to the exercise level of programming and can be extrapolated out to the session level, forming what is known as flexible non-linear periodization. Over the training week, the client will have training sessions of greater importance than others. These priority sessions are the client’s “hot sessions”. Therefore, based on how they are feeling, the client can choose to perform their most important and demanding sessions when they are feeling their best, and performing less important sessions on days they are fatigued, thus providing a further level of flexibility or autoregulation.
With intensity ticked off how can we manage training volume? I will provide two methods. One that can be used with all of our clients, the traffic light system, and one for our more advanced clients, RPE or fatigue stops.
Traffic Light System
The traffic light system is a simple method to determine which exercises get done and which are better left for another time. It autoregulates exercise deletion.
To start, when constructing your client’s programmes identify which exercises are green, amber or red. Green exercises being the most important exercises, amber being secondary lifts and red being accessory lifts. Think “nice to haves” not “need to haves”.
A summary of the key points can be found below.
This system is also excellently implemented with a client-specific recovery score at the start of each session. After their movement preparation, the client simply scores their current perceived recovery status (Laurent et al. 2011) on a scale of 1-10 and the session is adjusted accordingly.
For the more advanced or detail-orientated client, a traffic light system may not fit the bill and we can look to implement a fatigue or RPE stop.
The premise is to use RPE to determine how many sets are performed per exercise within a session. The client performs a top set to the desired RPE (or RIR). Using this top set weight either 2,4,6,8 or 10% of the load is removed from the bar for “back-off” sets. The client then performs sets until fatigue builds to such an extent that the top set RPE is once again matched. This allows greater volume allocation for a greater number of sets when greater RPE stops are implemented.
Got it? Hopefully, this quick example clears things up. The client works to a top set of 100Kg x 8 reps @ 1RIR. The fatigue drop for this week is allocated at 6%. As a result, the first back off set is performed at 94% of the top set (100Kg x 0.94 = 94Kg). The reduction in load lowers RPE and the client can now perform 94 x 8 @ 3 RIR. The client continues to perform sets of 8 at 94Kg until the clients RIR score reaches that of the top set (1RIR), we have reached a fatigue stop.
So there you have it. Whilst the application of autoregulation reaches far beyond simply adjusting in session volume and intensity I hope this article has given you some actionable information in which you can provide your clients with “flexible structure”, matching their training stress to their life stress. For more information on these methods check out the foundations of general population programme design course on the member’s site.
Find Out More About LTB
If you’re an LTB member you can check out Gregg course on general population programme design to learn more about autoregulation. If you’re not an LTB member you can find out more information about our 2-week free trial and how to access those courses here.
- Chronic psychological stress impairs recovery of muscular function and somatic sensations over a 96-hour period – Stults-Kolehmainen et al ( 2017)
- Novel resistance training-specific rating of perceived exertion scale measuring repetitions in reserve – Zourdos et al (2016)
- The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. Linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes – Mann et al (2010)
- A practical approach to monitoring recovery: development of a perceived recovery status scale – Laurent et al (2011)
- Rating of perceived exertion as a method of volume autoregulation within a periodized program – Helms et al (2017)
- Flexible nonlinear periodization in a beginner college weight training class – McNamara and Stearne (2010).