Autoregulation is the concept of listening to your body and adjusting your training to fit how well you can perform on a given day. It was first used in physical therapy for rehab workouts. Many physical therapy routines follow the pattern of performing four sets, with the number of reps in the third set determining the intensity of the fourth, and the number of reps in the fourth determining the intensity of the first set of the next PT session.
Autoregulation requires a deeper understanding of your body and learning how to tune into what it is telling you. The best way to start implementing autoregulation into your workout program is to start assigning a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) number to each set you perform in your workouts.
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The first RPE scale, called the Borg Scale, was developed to assess aerobic (endurance) intensity. It ranged from 6 to 20, with 6 being sitting on the couch and 20 finishing the last 50 meters of a 200-meter sprint. For resistance training purposes, this scale can be changed to 7 to 10. A set with a difficulty of 7 would mean that you had 3+ reps left in the tank, and the bar was moving very quickly with a maximal amount of effort. An 8 would mean that you have 2-3 reps left in the tank. A 9 would mean that you had 1 rep left, and a 10 would mean that the last rep you had performed was the last rep you were capable of:
- 10 = No Reps Left
- 9 = 1 Rep Left
- 8 = 2-3 Reps Left
- 7 = 3+ Reps Left & Quick Bar Speed
Using even this abbreviated RPE scale can make a huge difference in understanding your body and your workouts.
Hopefully, you keep a journal of your workouts. If you do, it’s easy to write “Back Squat, 3 sets of 5. It felt really hard today.” A month later, when you are reviewing your past few weeks of workouts in preparation for your next program, you may stumble across that notation and have no idea how hard “really hard” was.
Now imagine noting another workout “Back Squat, 3 sets of 5 at 8 RPE.” Boom! You now have a reference point around which to build the intensity of your next program, because you know exactly what an 8 means.
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The only drawback with RPE training is that it’s harder to accurately assess how difficult a set can be when using lighter loads. It’s easy to distinguish going to failure on a set compared to a set where you can perform two more reps, but it can be harder when performing a set of 10 to really know exactly how many extra reps you have left in the tank.
You can also manipulate the difficulty of your workouts beyond just the amount of weight you lift (represented by intensity). You can start by increasing or decreasing the difficulty of the workout by changing the exercises. Switching from a barbell to dumbbells or including more single joint accessory work are just two ways to manipulate the difficulty of the workout, depending on what you body is telling you that day.
You can also change your workout by increasing the rest intervals between sets. Resistance training relies heavily on the ATP-PC system. This energy system takes seconds to deplete, but over five minutes to fully recover. Allowing yourself more time between exercises can help your body better recover between sets, and it may allow you to use heavier weight, even though you may be at a higher level of fatigue. A recent review of the literature has shown that autoregulating rest periods may be better for both strength gains and muscle hypertrophy than following a structured rest period program.
Over time, as you begin to gain a greater sense how your body feels and reacts, you can shift the emphasis away from intensity-based training and focus more heavily on the weights you use in reference to how difficult it was on the RPE scale.
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With enough practice, you can develop a feel for your body that goes beyond numbers and percentages on a page. This greater understanding is what separates amateur competitors from serious lifters, and it should be a goal that every athlete strives to achieve.
Henselmans M, Schoenfeld BJ. “The Effect of Inter-Set Rest Intervals on Resistance Exercise-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy.” Sports Med. 2014. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0228-0.