Autoregulated training: how personalization can optimize your performance

No two people are the same. In life or in the gym.

And everybody responds differently to training. Even with the same stimulus and exercise plan, no two athletes will react in exactly the same way.

That’s why it is crucial to have a training program to suit you.  

Many athletes and recreational lifters get bogged down in a long-term program and never stray from their plan. Or fall victim to a coach that rolls out the same program for all athletes – regardless of their abilities.

But if you really want to optimize your performance gains it’s important that your workouts can be adapted, tweaked and changed according to your individual progress.

In this article we look at autoregulation, the science behind it and how to personalize training to allow for athlete-by-athlete variation.

Key points:

  • Autoregulation is the ability to adapt training sessions to account for individual variation in progress, adaptive potential and fatigue status.
  • There are several ways to autoregulate training, such as RPE - Rating of Perceived Exertion and RIR – Reps in Reserve, effective reps, sets and load.
  • Research shows that autoregulation may help athletes build greater strength and muscle mass compared to more rigid, periodized approaches.

What Is Autoregulated Training?

The concept of autoregulation is a hot topic in the sport science world. Especially in strength training and bodybuilding.

Back in the day, coaches would spend hours formulating periodization programs. Plotting entire preparation plans from start to finish. Insisting athletes stick to them rigidly.

But this approach assumes that all athletes progress at the same rate and in the same way. Which we now know is not the case.

Your weekly plan might state you have a solid block of high-volume, high-intensity training to plough through. But some weeks you don’t feel quite right, or real life gets in the way - and you know it just isn’t going to happen.

And even if it does, the fatigue or lack of proper motivation could end up with you injured or burnt out.

Autoregulation considers the fact that progress isn’t linear

Autoregulation is about making a program individualized. Recognizing that progress isn’t a straight line from A to B. And that sometimes you have off days - and really good days too, for that matter.

It helps you avoid the “one size fits all” approach to training.

The key word for successful autoregulation is ‘individualization’ of training

There will be weeks when you feel great and can throw more weight on the bar. Then other weeks when you feel sluggish and your regular training schedule feels hard and heavy.

And while you can predict fatigue with a degree of accuracy, you can’t pinpoint it for definite. It’s too transient and can occur at any point.

Especially when you consider how complex the human body is and how many factors affect your ability to recover from training.1 

Even non-training stressors - such as money problems, exam stress and or even a few too many late nights - can negatively impact your strength. So there’s a lot to consider when trying to “gaze into the crystal ball” of fatigue.

Fitness coach Menno Henselmans says:

You can think of autoregulation as a system, or a ruleset instead of a fixed prescription

Autoregulation allows you to go light on a day you feel weak. And allows you to add more sets or load to the bar if you’re having one of those superhero-like days and your normal weights feel light.

Using autoregulation allows you to adapt exercise selection, volume load – and even complete workouts - based on work capacity. Rather than being tied to a pre-designed plan that was written days or weeks prior.

For example, completing as many sets as possible using velocity-based training until your bar speed decreases to a pre-selected point.

Be warned: Autoregulation isn’t simply training by “feel”

A word of warning…

Autoregulation is not a case of just winging it. And it’s easy to let the pendulum swing too far.

It’s not wise to think you can walk into the gym without a plan and start making things up as you go along. You need some structure to your workouts.      

Some athletes can be lazy and giving them such flexibility will lead to performance loss. While for others it can mean smashing the gym, doing far too much and struggling to recover.

That’s not what autoregulation is.

Taking this kind of relaxed attitude towards training will more than likely lead to poor progress and performance.

Successful autoregulation is still underpinned by a pre-planned program. But it allows a degree of flexibility and change based on how you feel that day, week or during that block of exercise.

Using autoregulated recovery periods between sets

Some days you might need a little bit longer to recover between sets. If not physically, then psychologically. Other days, you may feel so strong that you just want to crush each set as fast as possible.

One of the simplest ways to optimize a workout using autoregulation is to use appropriate rest times between sets.

Many athletes’ rest times are dictated by a stopwatch or timer in the gym. And while this can aid productivity and keep your workouts short and punchy, it can often lead to sub-par progress.

A recent review from Henselmans and Schoenfeld2 found that autoregulating the recovery periods between sets led to greater strength and muscle mass compared to structured timings.  

Before the report, many coaches had focused on shorter recovery periods to force metabolic-mediated muscle hypertrophy based on endocrinological response.

But this valuable research helped to illustrate that by giving an athlete longer to recover, they were able to lift more weight – and that helped to boost the stimulus for growth and strength.

Using RPE and RIR to autoregulate

The Rate of Perceived Exertion scale (RPE) is a 1-10 scale that allows you to chart the difficulty a set (or a sprint, or a round, etc. depending on your sport). One rates as insanely easy, 10 as excruciatingly difficult.

It’s used a lot in sports - such as powerlifting - to gauge exercise prescription and progress from training block to training block.

Similarly, Reps In Reserve (RIR) is an inverse RPE scale that records how many more reps you could have completed in a set before you reached absolute muscular failure. In other words, an RIR-2 rating means you could have only completed two more full reps before having to stop and rack the weight.

While both of these scales are subjective and rely on a good frame of knowledge for them to be reliable, they do help to guide progress when used effectively. Dr Mike Zourdos3 wrote about this in an article published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The RIR scale in particular allows you to autoregulate the number of effective reps per set. That is, the reps you complete towards the end of a set when fatigue begins to kick in as you get nearer to muscular failure.

For example, let’s say you had a week of training where you intended to train with an RIR-1. But you’ve accumulated too much fatigue from the previous week and you’re feeling a bit broken.

Using autoregulation, you could reduce the number of effective reps per set and shoot for RIR-3 instead. This would avoid adding more physical stress which could result in long-term damage.

Too much fatigue could eventually lead to overreaching, causing injury. Or even overtraining, which can take weeks to recover from. So it’s wise to manage it where possible.

Depending on your situation and fatigue status, you could do a couple of extra sets more than you’ve planned in order to complete the same number of effective reps within the session. Just fewer in each individual set.

Autoregulation and periodization

Periodization [LINK] has been around since Ancient Greece. The Russians – then still Soviets – brought it into the modern age during the 1950s. Integrating the concept of long-term planning into successful training cycles, to target Olympic success every four years.

Since then there have been several frameworks developed to optimize periodized training - from linear to undulating, and from block to conjugate.

One major criticism of periodization is that it’s too rigid. Many researchers4 consider it to be overly developed and relies on the presumption that all athletes will react to the same stimulus in the same way.

Senior lecturer in elite performance, John Kiely agrees:

Realigning periodization philosophy with contemporary stress theory thus presents us with an opportunity to recalibrate training planning models with both contemporary scientific insight and progressive coaching practice

Some research has shown that using an autoregulated approach as opposed to a rigid, periodized one can lead to better results.

One strength training study of beginners revealed “flexible nonlinear periodization” resulted in greater lower body strength5 measured by leg press (but not upper body strangely). That was after a 12-week block of lower body strength training that consisted of twice-weekly, 30-minute workouts including machines and free weights.

In another study6, college football athletes reported greater bench and squat strength after just six weeks of autoregulated training compared to another group completing linear periodized training.  

Takeaway…

To get the best possible results from your workouts, you need to be able to adapt.

Having a plan is fine – winging it won’t work. But the ability to tweak your sessions according to your progress, your fatigue and how your body feels is the key to your progress.

Sticking rigidly to a long-term program regardless of what your body is telling you could end up doing you more harm than good. And what works for one athlete won’t necessarily work for another. 

It’s your performance. Take it personally.