Introduction to Autoregulatory Training

Man, what a mouthful! As in any field or industry, terminology is at once important and overblown in an attempt to sound fancy and confuse people. Autoregulation probably sounds more like something you’d expect to hear come out of your car mechanic’s mouth than your personal trainer or strength coach. Electrum Performance uses the following definition for autoregulation:

Autoregulatory training is a system based on an individual athlete’s physiological and mental state, automatically configuring programming variables to the athlete’s specific needs at the time. This method attempts to adjust for athlete’s adaptations, allowing for increases in load and strength at an individual pace by catering training stress to daily performance measures. This allows for complete personalization even within a structured program.

But what  does that actually mean?? Well at some point in your training or athletics career, or even at the doctor’s office, you’ve probably heard the term “listen to your body”. Our body is constantly interacting with its environment in countless ways, and we are perpetually sifting through that information even if we’re not aware of it. Well, how do we actually listen in a way that changes from abstract to quantitative? In essence, that’s all that autoregulation is; adjusting the day’s training to fit the needs of your body based on how you feel. Had a great night’s sleep and ate a full breakfast? Great, maybe you can train harder today! Broke up with your significant other and ate a full gallon of ice cream? Maybe we need to take a step back.

Every single  training system in the world that has demonstrated repeated success at the highest levels of strength training or athletics has incorporated  autoregulation in some way. Every. Single. One. Not all use the same tools, but they all adapt to the fluctuating capabilities of the lifter or athlete. Most autoregulatory systems depend on continued monitoring by a coach.  The coach watches and adjusts the program as needed to fit the athlete’s needs. But many of us aren’t so lucky as to train with a top coach, and so we’ve brought the coaching to you!

It is important to remember that autoregulation is a constantly evolving process, and it often takes time to learn how to listen to your body and ask yourself the proper questions. Understanding the history of autoregulatory training and how it has entered the field of strength and conditioning can help shed some valuable light on how the process works. Coach Alex Bryce’s Master’s Thesis covered this exact topic, and below is an excerpt from his thesis that details autoregulatory training and other important scientific concepts surrounding it.

The goal of any strength-training program is to optimally balance training stress and recovery in order to elicit the necessary physiological adaptations to improve performance. For coaches and practitioners, determining optimal training and recovery is of paramount importance to their athletes.

Though strength training programs can vary greatly in structure and use of the acute program variables, the principle of progressive overload underlies any successful program. Progressive overload is defined as progressively placing greater than normal demands on the exercising musculature, typically through manipulation of training frequency, volume, and intensity. In order to continue to adapt, the body must be subjected to increasingly greater/continuously increasing stress to avoid accommodation or stagnation.

While the magnitude response and adaptation to any program is highly individualized, Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) has elucidated a consistent, systemic response to all types of stress. Selye’s theory manifests itself in three general stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. The alarm stage is analogous to “fight or flight”, at which time stressor resistance is diminished. Resistance is the effect of the stressor and increasing performance under stress. Finally, exhaustion is represented in the overriding of positive adaptations and leading to deleterious effects of reduced performance. If the training stimulus and recovery are properly prescribed, stages of alarm and resistance are induced, and the individual will experience supercompensation (i.e. improved performance).

Periodization is defined as the deliberate manipulation of the acute program variables in an effort to maximize sport performance. The acute program variables are defined as choice of exercise, order of exercise, intensity, volume, and rest, and can explain the working parameters of every type of resistance training session. Traditional periodization models (also known as linear periodization) progress from high volume and low intensity to low volume and high intensity, with the intention of improving hypertrophy, strength, and power. Traditional periodization has been consistently validated as an effective method for improving performance, especially when compared to non-periodized programs. Traditional periodization models are based upon GAS, and assume a uniform response to a given training stress. However, GAS is a non-specific theory, and the individual response to training depends on numerous factors such as age, gender, hormonal profile, anthropometrics, training status, genetic expression, etc. These factors dictate the magnitude of the alarm, resistance, and supercompensation phases. Furthermore, non-training stresses such as academic/professional work, personal and familial relationships, mental health, etc., can impact recovery. Traditional periodization makes no attempt to measure the impact of these factors or the individual response to training, consequently resulting in inappropriate training stress and decreased training tolerance or readiness. Many of these factors can fluctuate constantly, and subsequently training tolerance will fluctuate as well. While undulating (also known as nonlinear) periodization models attempt to match some of this fluctuation with daily or weekly variances in volume and load, training stimulus is typically prescribed via 1 RM, which is assumed static over a training cycle. Work by Flanagan & Jovanovic suggested as much as an 18% daily variance in estimated squat 1 RM relative to pre-cycle performance, suggesting that other methods are needed to account for daily changes in performance ability.

Autoregulation training is a system of periodization based on an individual athlete’s physiological and mental state. This method attempts to match readiness with training stimulus to adjust for specific adaptations, allowing for increases in load and strength at an individual pace by catering the program to daily performance measures. A specific autoregulatory program, developed from DeLorme’s progressive resistance exercise (PRE) method and outlined by Siff is the autoregulating progressive resistance exercise (APRE) method. With APRE, loads are determined/modified in-workout based upon repetitions to failure performed at a specified RM (e.g. 10, 6, 3 RM) in an attempt to individualize training stimuli and maximize performance per cycle. Mann et al. 2010 compared this approach to a traditional linear periodization program in Division I football players, and found that the APRE method led to significantly greater improvement in 1RM bench press strength (APRE: 20.97 ± 23.16 lbs. vs. LP: -0.09 ± 11.15 lbs.) 1RM squat (APRE: 43.32 ± 44.74 lbs. vs. LP: 8.36 ± 34.85 lbs.) and 225-pound bench press repetitions performed (APRE: 3.17 ± 2.86 repetitions vs. LP: -0.09 ± 2.4 repetitions).

To more accurately define daily exertion, both coaches and researchers have begun assigning resistance training loads using a rating of perceived exertion scale (RPE). RPE scales were originally designed for aerobic exercise exertion. Multiple RPE scales and methods have since been developed for intra-training feedback, both for aerobic and anaerobic exercise. These scales are validated relative to each other, are associated with exercise intensity, and blood lactate accumulation/fatigue. Recent evidence indicates an athlete’s ability to properly assess RPE improves with experience and training status, suggesting that exertion alone may not be appropriate. Instead, a combined scale of RPE and repetitions in reserve (RIR) may be a more appropriate measure of resistance training intensity. Reactive Training Systems have employed these scales in practice. Recently, Zourdos et al. examined the scale at various intensities, recording average velocity of each repetition, and found a strong inverse relationship between average velocity and RPE at all percentages. The observed relationship suggests that using RPE to gauge RIR seems to be a practical and effective method to autoregulate intensity relative to %1 RM, and may serve as a potentially unifying measure for different aspects of autoregulation.

The RPE/RIR scale that Electrum Performance employs is shown below. It is an extremely simple, yet highly valid, means to determine exercise intensity. Using the scale correctly accounts for daily stress and fatigue levels of athletes in ways that percent-based training simply can’t. The RPE scale is all inclusive; we can’t possibly determine every single variable that impacts performance, but it doesn’t matter. A 9 RPE is a 9 RPE, it tells us what  appropriate training stress for that particular training session is, whether the set is 500 lbs for 10 repetitions or 95 lbs for 3. 


Confused? Don’t worry, while the concepts surrounding autoregulation may be complex, it is extremely easy to implement, and the ability to properly assess RPE improves significantly with some experience.  Give it a try and see what happens! As stated on electrumperformance.com, the most important part of autoregulatory training is to be honest with yourself, and to attempt to objectively measure your fatigue without an ego. Failing on a set of 5 at rep 3 and saying “yeah that was an 8.5” will only hurt you, the lifter.

Suggested Readings

  • Baechle TR and Earle RW. Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human kinetics, 2008
  • Fleck SJ and Kraemer W. Designing Resistance Training Programs, 4E. Human Kinetics, 2014
  • Helms E. Hot Topic: Practical Auto-Regulatory Strength Training, in: NSCA Hot Topic. National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2012.
  • Herrick AB and Stone WJ. The Effects of Periodization Versus Progressive Resistance Exercise on Upper and Lower Body Strength in Women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 10: 72-76, 1996.
  • Jidovtseff B, Harris NK, Crielaard JM, and Cronin JB. Using the load-velocity relationship for 1RM prediction. J Strength Cond Res 25: 267-270, 2011
  • Lagally KM, McCaw ST, Young GT, Medema HC, and Thomas DQ. Ratings of perceived exertion and muscle activity during the bench press exercise in recreational and novice lifters. J Strength Cond Res 18: 359-364, 2004
  • Mann JB, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, and Sayers SP. The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes. J Strength Cond Res 24: 1718-1723, 2010
  • McNamara JM and Stearne DJ. Flexible nonlinear periodization in a beginner college weight training class. J Strength Cond Res 24: 17-22, 2010.
  • Selye H. The stress of life. 1956.
  • Siff MC. Supertraining. Supertraining Institute, 2003.
  • Zourdos MC, Jo E, Khamoui AV, Lee S-R, Park B-S, Ormsbee MJ, Panton LB, Contreras RJ, and Kim J-S. MODIFIED DAILY UNDULATING PERIODIZATION MODEL PRODUCES GREATER PERFORMANCE THAN A TRADITIONAL CONFIGURATION IN POWERLIFTERS. Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2015.

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