Autoregulation: Can It Be Beneficial for Every Type of Strength Athlete?

It’s Monday, work was long and stressful, you barely slept the night before, and you have heavy squat triples. Going into the workout your mind is elsewhere, far from the weights in front of you. You begin warming-up and feel tighter than normal, and notice that the weight feels exceptionally heavy for how it’s programmed.

After you work up to about 80% of your working set you decide to scale back the intensity a bit and shift your sets and reps around to accommodate for the energy levels you have to work with and the goal at hand. What you just did, whether it was conscious or subconscious, is what’s known as autoregulation, or the means of adjusting your training around the feedback your body is providing for that day.

What Is Autoregulation?

In biology, autoregulation is how mechanisms in the body interact and work with one another to overcome different stimuli. There are multiple autoregulatory mechanisms throughout the body and everyone acts a bit differently depending on the mechanisms they’re working with at hand.

In the weight room, autoregulation is a focus on providing one the ability to adjust intensities (volume & percentage of 1-RM) accordingly to their present state, and embracing their current individual readiness for the stress at hand (programmed workout). It is not a set workout plan, but a way of approaching a workout to adapt progress and variations around one’s current state without causing excessive burnout or worse, injury.

Essentially, autoregulation is the feedback loop the weight (stress) provides our body and how we then interact with it in the moment. It’s a way to self-monitor what we can handle to the best of our ability in the smartest way possible.

Where the Autoregulation Line Blurs

“Listen to your body” and “Just push through” are both common sayings in the weight room, and they both have some connection to autoregulation. The issue and where the line blurs is when either one is taken to the extreme. For example, “listening to your body” may make you more susceptible to letting emotions dictate intensity compared to how your body is actually feeling. This can then limit your progress and build poor habits when truly gauging intensities.

Conversely, if you have the “always push through” mindset when your body is continually presenting red flags, then you may be tiptoeing around injury or burnout. Now, this isn’t to say either camp is entirely wrong in their thought process, but there needs to be a higher understanding outside of these finite thought processes.

That all being said, this is where it gets tough to truly use autoregulation and reap its full benefits. Gauging your daily state and the weights being imposed on the body is a skill, and it takes a fair amount of time to develop. It requires an understanding of reps and sets at multiple intensities for a long duration of time, along with the ability to be honest with yourself and separate emotional disparity from training.

For this reason, many strength athletes employ coaches because a coach’s main role is to prep lifters in the most effective means possible, which will entail autoregulation. In a coaching setting, this might look like a coach adjusting a weight last minute because he sees how an athlete is handling the load under the bar, or decreasing volume in a workout because he notices signs of high fatigue levels.

It’s not impossible for a strength athlete to autoregulate for themselves, it’s just a little tougher. If you’re a newer lifter, then it’s typically recommended to stick with a linear periodization workout model to gradually increase load over time because more than likely this will be ample stimulus to create a favorable training response.

For the intermediate and advanced lifters, below are three ways to autoregulate your training. Is one better than the other? It’s tough to say. That’s going to come down to individuality and how you respond to different methods and understand how to use them. The goal should be to find what works best with you, not discredit one or another.

1. Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE)

Probably the most popular autoregulation methodology in the strength world right now is RPE. This is a methodology that has been made popular in modern day strength circles by renowned powerlifting coach Mike Tuchsherer. Instead of basing your training intensities on numbers alone, you base them off of what you perceive you have left in your tank.

What the Research Says

There have been multiple studies performed on RPE and strength training. One of the better studies catered to strength athletes and more recent in regards to RPE is this study from 2017. In this research, authors compared how a strength athlete’s RPE related to a bar’s movement velocity in a 1-RM squat, bench, and deadlift.

Authors found and suggested that an athlete’s RPE were all fairly consistent with their 1-RMs. The squat, bench press, and deadlift RPEs were as follow: 9.6, 9.7, and 9.6 with a +/-.5 variation. These numbers are all consistent with having no reps left in the tank and how one could apply a speed aspect to RPE intensity, which would suggest the RPE scale does an adequate job at assessing intensity.

The RPE scale looks similar to the chart below.

  • 10 – Maximum effort, no more reps left.
  • 9 – Could have done one more rep. 
  • 8 – Could have done two or three more reps. 
  • 7 – More than three reps left, could be used to focus on power.
  • 6 – 3+ reps left, weight moved quickly and could be trained for speed. 

In terms of programming, a lifter may have something like: 6×3 at RPE 8 for their deadlift day. They’d then select a weight they perceive as an 8, or a weight they could perform with 2-3 reps remaining after their triple, then adjust accordingly for the six sets.

RPE is useful for both athletes and coaches because it allows the variance of autoregulation, along with building an understanding of what athletes are capable of and what their varied levels of exhaustion can look like. For example, a coach can begin to understand what an athlete associates an 8 with and what an 8 actually looks like.

2. Reps In Reserve Based RPE Scale

The reps in reserve (RIR) scale takes the concept of RPE a step further and is based off of it. This scale has athletes self-gauge how many reps they believe they have left working at certain intensities. As noted in the study cited below, this scale was introduced in “The Reactive Strength Training Systems Manual” in 2008 to facilitate powerlifting-style training. Since it’s introduction, a few studies have been performed to validate its credibility and accuracy for strength training.

A few things to keep in mind when considering the use of the RIR scale. First and foremost, it’s not a stand alone means of training and should be incorporated into a well-thought out periodized plan with some form of RPE understanding. Second, it’s observed to be most accurate when used at higher training intensities where an athlete is closer to volitional failure. Third, research it still growing on the topic and as of right now the scale is slightly limited for populations outside of experienced and some novice athletes.

What the Research Suggests

This 2016 research headed by Eric Helms examined how accurate the RIR scale was for resistance training. Researchers analyzed current studies performed on RIR based RPE training and suggested that the RIR scale can useful for improvement in muscular hypertrophy, muscular endurance, maximal strength, and power. When applying this scale to the various adaptations one should pay attention to their training intensity, as too low of intensity could make using the scale a moot point.

To conclude their study, researchers note that research has only been performed on novice and experience athletes performing free weight barbell back squats, and on experience lifters performing squats and bench presses. This being said, if one chooses to employ this self-regulatory strategy, then they should do so with a mindful eye on their training goal.

The RIR Based RPE scale looks similar to the chart below used in this January 2016 study.

  • 10 – Maximum effort
  • 9.5 – No more reps, load can increase
  • 9 – 1 repetition left
  • 8.5 – 1-2 repetitions left
  • 8 – 2 repetitions left
  • 7.5 – 2-3 repetitions left
  • 7 – 3 repetitions left
  • 5-6 – 4-6 repetitions left
  • 3-4 – Light effort
  • 1-2 – Little to no effort

The biggest two takeaways with this form of auto-regulatory scale are that it’s a little limited in terms of research, and an athlete should have a solid understanding of how to use RPE before experimenting with RIR. More than likely, only a small strength athlete population with ample training experience will be best served with this method.

3. Relative Intensity

Another form of autoregulation that can be used best with experienced lifters is something called relative intensity. In short, this form of autoregulation could be described as using the RPE scale and matching pairing it with personal training intensities.

Ben Pollack does a great job explaining this method of autoregulation below, along with using the scale as a visual tool, if you have 5-minutes, then I suggest watching the full clip to get a better grasp of this scale.

As pointed out by Pollack in his video above, this scale can be increasingly useful at intensities under true maxes, as the relative intensity chart allows some leeway.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Autoregulation

Below I’ll cover a few benefits and drawbacks of using autoregulation for both experienced and novice strength athletes. Are these the only benefits and drawbacks that come with autoregulation? No, but they’re a few things to consider and think about for different strength athlete’s training ages.

Experienced Strength Athletes

Benefits

  • Can be useful to self-gauge accumulated fatigue and stress when working at higher intensities, which can help a lifter avoid burnout & injury.
  • Build an understanding of what one’s body is capable of and what they can do when training for different muscular adaptations.
  • Useful for avoiding possible injury by self-regulating daily training, which can help a lifter recognize red flags.

Drawbacks

  • Emotion can cause a lifter to be subjective when it comes to true autoregulation for their training. For example, one’s current state of mind could heavily influence training productivity etc.
  • Can be difficult when working at truly high intensities and may be variable to change due to an athlete’s perception.

Novice Strength Athletes

Benefits

  • Help bridge an understanding of what the body is capable of and can be useful to help avoid burnout working at higher intensities.

Drawbacks

  • Constantly changing 1-RMS, which can make it increasingly more tough to work and gauge one’s abilities to train at various intensities, aka lack of true 1RM.
  • Lack of training history, so there may be a gap in one’s ability to acknowledge what their body is truly capable above.
  • Increased chances of emotion and mental aspects getting in the way of training.

Wrapping Up

Autoregulation isn’t a training program, but a way of self-monitoring daily training within a program. It can be useful for strength athletes to gauge their current readiness for training, and can be a useful means for prolonging the longevity of one’s lifting career by limiting instances where overreaching may occur.

Although, like everything, it should be used sparingly, knowingly, and with a grain of salt. Novice lifters will experience less benefits with autoregulation simply due to the lack of self-awareness they possess in the gym. What’s arguably most important when using autoregulation in your training is consistency, understanding, and honesty with your current state and training at hand. 

Feature image screenshot from @hayden.bowe Instagram page. 

Editor’s Note: BarBend reader and EndurElite founder Matt Mosman had the following to say after reading the above article:

“Good explanation of the scales. Autoregulation isn’t just assigning perceived effort to loads, though. In my opinion, the best way to implement a regulated strategy (auto- implies that the program adjusts itself) is all based on a predesigned periodized plan. Each week is programmed. If you feel normal you stick to the plan. If you feel awesome, do your heavy day. If you feel crappy, do speed/mobility/volume. This can involve a scale like RPE if desired, but in reality, these are just assigning % 1RM, which is how any periodized plan should be structured for powerlifting anyway.”

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Jake holds a Master's in Sports Science and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Jake serves as one of the full time writers and editors at BarBend. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has spoken at state conferences on the topics of writing in the fitness industry and building a brand. As of right now, Jake has published over 1,100 articles related to strength athletes and sports. Articles about powerlifting concepts, advanced strength & conditioning methods, and topics that sit atop a strong science foundation are Jake's bread-and-butter. On top of his personal writing, Jake edits and plans content for 15 writers and strength coaches who come from every strength sport.Prior to BarBend, Jake worked for two years as a strength and conditioning coach for hockey and lacrosse players, and was a writer at the Vitamin Shoppe's corporate office. Jake regularly competes in powerlifting in the 181 lb weight class, and considers himself a weightlifting shoe sneaker head. On the side of writing full time, Jake works as a part-time strength coach and works with clients through his personal business Concrete Athletics in Hoboken and New York City.