Have Fun, Get Strong

Strength coach, trainer educator, writer, mom to three awesome kids, pie enthusiast. Creating monsters since 2009.

Autoregulation: Part 1

Autoregulation is a hot topic in strength training: there’s many articles written about it.  I’m going to be up front and admit my bias:  I’ve been coached by Mike Tuchscherer for about 3 years, and I’m a big fan of Reactive Training System.  Much of what I write here is heavily influenced by Mike, and the conversations we’ve had over the years, as well as how I’ve learned to approach my own training.


Self-regulation: the basics


I use the term autoregulation a little bit differently than other writers:  many equate autoregulation with “Automatic Regulation:”  a process whereby training loads are automatically regulated, through some means, to provide a customized experience for the athlete.  I like to think of autoregulation as “Self Regulation:”  a process whereby we recognize the individual’s limits / strengths and incorporate this process into our training program.  These two usages are really quite close; I just like the additional emphasis placed upon “The Self” by my usage. 
Stress is stress, no matter the source.
Most of us have  a concept of our self:  it’s that entity which went to this school, which graduated with this diploma, which is married to that spouse, which has given birth to these children.  It’s that self which goes to church every Sunday, which works in a high-stress position in the legal market.  It’s that self which enjoys reading a novel.   My point, and this is key:  there is only one self.  There’s not a work self, a church self, a mommy self.  We don’t have clones running around to divide our workload and share our burdens.
Oh, and by the way:  if you’re reading this, chances are you have some interest in training as well.  And sometimes, as important as our training is, other life priorities put training dead last on the list.
When we introduce autoregulation  into a training program, we’re trying to regulate the workload our training imposes on our body.  We’re at least implicitly acknowledging that the body has a limited capacity to deal with workload, and that other stressors – career, school, relationships – tap into that capacity.  So, on any given day, we try to tune our program so that we don’t overtax our capacity for handling stress.  We do this, essentially, by listening to our bodies and regulating the intensity of our lifts and the volume of the workload, or stress.
It’s important to distinguish between stress and intensity; the two are often confused.  Stress is a function of volume.  Intensity (for the strength athlete) boils down to the weight used for an exercise.  Yes, at the limit case of zero intensity – say, a piece of PVC pipe – we will generate zero stress, which might lead one to confuse intensity and stress.  But, as strength athletes, we’re really not too interested in lifting PVC pipe, and the limit case doesn’t tell us much.
So, while it might not be perfect, I equate “stress” and “volume”, and I equate “intensity” with “weight lifted.”
Just as there can be too much stress, which impacts our ability to recover, we do need our workouts to generate a certain amount of stress to force adaptations.  There’s a “sweet spot”.  As mentioned in the first paragraph, however, a workload that generates the perfect amount of stress one day might, because of other stressors, generate too much stress on another day.  Some athletes respond well to a high-volume program; others crash and burn just hearing “Sheiko” whispered near the lifting platform.
Intensity, too, is the other side of the “workload coin” which must be regulated: having an athlete do, say a 5×5 squat routine with near max weights, telling them to always keep an eye towards increasing the weight on the bar is ultimately going to stop yielding results – and quite possibly lead to injury, frustration and diminishing returns.    Telling an athlete to “keep it light” for a couple workouts is again not optimizing a program for that specific athlete.  To be sure:  many “prescribed” programs work, for a period.  But how often have we marveled at the simple wisdom of “every program works, for 6 weeks”, or something equally pithy?
This, then, is the first job of autoregulation:  to govern the intensity of exercise, so that the athlete is working at the correct intensity, rather than worrying about moving a specifically prescribed weight.  In this article, I’ll present this aspect of autoregulation.  In part two, I’ll present the second job of autoregulation:  regulating volume –  stress – by managing the number of work sets performed by the athlete.

A Detour: Understanding the Tradition


In order to better understand  self-regulation, let’s take a quick look at another approach to training,  employed by beginning and intermediate lifters.  Trainees will typically perform a prescribed number of reps for a prescribed number of sets: 3 sets of 3 reps, 5 sets of 5 reps…whatever the specifics might be, the total workload is prescribed at the beginning of the training session – if not weeks in advance.

This is fine for the beginning trainee, who is struggling to learn form, to understand how her body works, to figure out how much weight he can bench.  Prescribing a fixed number of reps and sets removes a whole lot of variables and thought from the puzzle, encourages reaching goals, and let’s face it – just plain works.  However, it’s relatively easy to understand that a more advanced trainee might, on a given day, be subjecting herself to too much stress to complete a 5×5 routine – but any motivated athlete is going to push herself too hard rather than say “Too much” if her coach has told her to get 5 sets of 5 reps with a given weight.
And if this continues, if the motivated athlete continues to push himself, overreaching will set in.  Every intermediate athlete has better things to do with their time than deal with overreaching.  Or, if you’re nickname is “Warrior” or “Killer”, not dealing with the symptoms of overreaching and ending up injured, or ill, and missing valuable training time.
This is something else I want to emphasize, again:  many training programs work.  But they are not the most efficient way for the athlete to make continued progress.  Ignoring autoregulation compromises training progress.[1]  It’s just that simple.

Making the Leap

So, then, the question becomes: how can an athlete make the leap from a prescribed routine to a routine which accomodates their own unique recovery ability?[2] How does the athlete move from doing a 5×5 or a 3×3, to listening to their body, adjusting the workload, and continue to make progress? How can an athlete make the move from doing the “Madcow 5×5” program, to doing a program specifically tailored for that athlete?

A large part of the answer to this question is autoregulation, and the use of RPE’s and drop sets to manage fatigue, both on a daily basis, and in the longer term.  RPE stands for “Rate of Perceived Exertion,” and was originally introduced in the context of aerobic exercise, where it’s a means for measuring and controlling the intensity of exercise based upon how hard that exercise feels to the trainee.

We’ve borrowed the term from aerobics, and use it in weightlifting to “measure” how hard a given set is for the trainee.   When I rate a set with an RPE of 10, that means there was no way for me to get another rep – I was done.  An RPE of 9 means I could have definitely done one more rep, and started on a second rep.  An RPE of 7 corresponds roughly to “Speed Work” or “Dynamic Effort Work”.  That is, there’s some useful load on the bar, but I could keep working with that weight, and not have the bar slow down, for any number of reps.[3]

Almost by definition, RPE’s nicely reflect the particular trainee’s capacity.   There are, however, a couple issues with RPE’s that I’d like to acknowledge:  the first is that the lifter must be pretty self-aware and honest to use them.  If I have no idea what it means to have “1 rep left in the tank” at the end of a set, well, I’m going to have problems using RPE’s.  Likewise, if I have a training program put together based upon RPE’s, and perform a set and I’m maxed out, barely grinding through the last rep, I’d better be honest with myself – even if I don’t like that I was maxed out – and call this a “10”, and not “fudge” the facts and call it a 9.  Likewise, if an effort was truly an 8, I’d better not get lazy and call it a 10.
I’ll talk a little about this first issue at the end of this article, and hint at a way to resolve it.  The second issue I’d like to mention:  it is difficult to accurately gauge RPE for a complex exercise or a high number of reps.  The RPE concept works very well “out of the box”  for a typical powerlifter, where anything over 5 reps is cardio, and done sparingly.  It takes some adaptation to use RPE’s in the context of training strongman events.
RPE gives us a way to regulate intensity – clearly doing a set of 3 reps at an RPE of 10 is more intense than doing a set of 3 reps at an RPE of 8.  An RPE of 10 for a one rep set is my 1 rep max, and represents 100% intensity. 
RPE’s are used in place of prescribing a fixed weight for the trainee.  Suppose that we’re putting together training for somebody, and we want them to squat, and work up to a top set with 3 reps, at a high intensity.  Prior to RPE, we would program this as 1 set of 3 reps with 225lbs, based on the athlete’s historical performance on this lift.

In the new world of autoregulation, we could program this work as 1 set of 3 reps at an RPE of 9 – that is, we want the athlete to work up in weight, based on how the weight feels during the actual session.  That weight may turn out to be 225; however, it may turn out to be 200, or 240 – the key is to have the athlete use the weight which achieves the desired intensity. 

The difference?  Well, it’s easy to see how 225 is an approximation, and might result in the athlete missing the precise intensity we want them to hit for the appropriate training effect.   The athlete might be tired, fatigued from not eating properly the day before, stressed from work…or making better progress than we anticipated when we programmed this day.
Assuming that we’re programming to reach a certain training effect, and that this exercise is part of a planned macrocycle, it’s easy to see how prescribed weights can have our athlete missing the desired intensity, and not getting full benefit from the macrocycle.  Certainly this is not optimal for continued progress.

Wrapping Things Up


So, where does this leave us? We’ve talked about using RPE as a tool to help our athletes regulate the intensity of training.  Rather than guessing at what weight will constitute the proper intensity, we turn things on their head, and worry about our athletes performing at the proper intensity, regardless of the specific weight used.   This gives us a powerful tool, used properly.
A Tendo unit.

I also mentioned that it takes a certain kind of athlete to accurately use RPE’s.  However, there’s another more objective method which maps well to RPE’s: bar speed.   Bar speed is well correlated with RPE; if the athlete trains in a group, having a dedicated observer to monitor bar speed can give the athlete great perspective on how much intensity the last set generated. 

For the solo trainer, the Tendo unit can provide an objective measure of bar speed with great accuracy.  Once the athlete / coach acquires enough data, measured bar speed can likewise give great perspective on exactly how much intensity was used to complete a set.
RPE, and bar speed, give us a way to autoregulate (self-regulate) intensity.  In Part 2 of this series, I’ll examine how stress (volume) can likewise be self-regulated.


[2] Mike Tuchscherer writes about this here:  http://www.reactivetrainingsystems.com/articles/training-articles/81-an-rts-overview as well as in his book,  The Reactive Training Manual.  Mike feels that this is one of the most important (perhaps THE most important) questions in making the move from intermediate to advanced powerlifter.
[3] It should be pretty obvious what RPE 8 correpsonds to: definitely 2 reps left in the tank, and maybe 3.  For a detailed presentation of RPE’s, including a generic RPE <-> Max Chart, see http://www.reactivetrainingsystems.com/articles/training-articles/49-chapter-2
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Categories: autoregulation, rate of perceived exertion, RPE, strength training, stress

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