Autoregulation in strength training:
avoid overtraining and undertraining.
Autoregulation is just a fancy way of saying you’re adjusting your workload (reps, sets, loads) based on how you’re performing during a workout. Contrary to a pre-build fixed loading program that is set in stone, autoregulation takes daily fluctuations in fitness and fatigue into account. You can implement autoregulation in many ways, but this article talks about an evidence based approach: velocity based training (VBT). Let’s dive into 3 simple strategies that allow you to shift from a static or fixed-loading training program to a fully auto-regulated training program, using velocity based training.
Why you should autoregulate your strength training
Becoming a better athlete is about balancing training and recovery. During this process, fatigue is inevitable. Managing fatigue – both during training sets and in between workouts – is crucial.
Unfortunately, “fixed loading methods” that do not change in response to an athlete’s daily performance, are still common practice. They overload athletes who already have a bad day, which can cause injuries. They also underload athletes who are ready for a key workout, which hampers progress.
Not sure if daily fitness fluctuations are a big thing?
Jovanovic and Flanagan published a study in the Journal of Australian Strength & Condition, showing that (1RM) day-to-day fluctuations range from +18% to -18%.
In other words, your back squat 1RM could be 118 kg today, and only 82 kg tomorrow (!).
Ways to autoregulate your strength training
There are several ways to autoregulate your strength training. Let’s look at 3 methods:
- Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) – subjective score
- Autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise (APRE) – objective but strenuous
- Velocity based training (VBT) – objective way to fully autoregulate your program
Rate of perceived exertion (RPE)
The easiest way to autoregulate your training is by simply rating how hard a training session is.
Here’s an example.
A coach creates a workout and thinks the intensity is a 6 on a scale of 1-10 (1 = very light activity; 10 = max effort activity). The athlete – a high school athlete who is in the middle of an exam period – actually rates the resistance training an 8.
The coach now knows that there’s a gap between the intended exertion and the perceived exertion. He/she can adjust (autoregulate) future workouts based on this finding.
There are some downsides to this method of autoregulating strength training:
- The feedback loop starts when the mismatch (workout) already took place.
- RPE is subjective, which means many factors like judgment accuracy, motivation etc. can play a big role.
Literature shows that autoregulation based on subjective scores like RPE results in a smaller performance improvement compared to objective scores, like velocity.
Here’s a way to shift from a subjective score to a measurable metric.
Autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise (APRE)
Another way to autoregulate is by using the so called autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise (APRE). Without diving into the details, this method uses a specific warm up protocol with submaximal loads.
The amount of reps you’re able to perform – until failure – decides whether you should adapt (autoregulate) the training that you had in mind.
Even though this is a measurable method, its needless to say that is has some downsides:
- The APRE method requires a set of maximal efforts until failure, which by definition is seriously demanding.
- The test requires 4 sets of 3-12 reps each, before you have the desired feedback.
Although APRE allows us to have a measurable metric, it feels like autoregulation becomes a goal in itself, instead of a tool to optimize a training program. Let’s quickly dive into an autoregulation method that solves all these problems!
Using velocity based training to autoregulate strength training
Velocity Based Training (VBT) is a method of measuring and prescribing strength training, based on movement velocity. You can measure velocity with a velocity based training device like GymAware RS or FLEX.
There is a direct linear relationship between load and movement velocity: the heavier the load the slower the movement. You can try this yourself by performing an unloaded squat. Try to move as fast as possible. Now compare the movement velocity with a heavy loaded squat. You’ll find that the higher the load, the slower the movement.
There’s also a direct relationship between fatigue and movement velocity: the more you fatigue, the slower you move. Simply grab a heavy weight and start doing reps until (close to) failure. You’ll notice a decrease in speed.
The load-velocity relationship and fatigue-velocity relationship enables you to use velocity based training to autoregulate your resistance training.
Autoregulate by measuring velocity during warming
If you’re new to velocity based training, this method is the easiest way to start autoregulating your workout. It only requires you to measure velocity during warm up. For instance:
After a set of regular warmup exercises you pick a key exercise (e.g. squat) and you pick a weight that is somewhere close to 70% of your 1RM. The exact weight or percentage does not really matter, just try to move this weight as fast as possible.
Now track this rep velocity over time. If you become stronger, you’ll notice that the velocity starts to trend upward over the course of several weeks. However, we’re looking for daily fluctuations.
So if your velocity is, say 10% lower than the average velocity of the last couple of weeks, this is a red flag. You probably want to decrease the reps, sets and loads that you had in mind.
Learn more about this way of assessing daily readiness via this article: How Strength Coaches can assess athletes’ daily readiness using velocity.
Autoregulate by measuring velocity loss during exercise
If you want to autoregulate your strength training during exercise, start with measuring velocity loss. Velocity loss is the difference between your first/fastest rep and your current velocity. Velocity loss is automatically shown in the GymAware and FLEX app.
At first, just stick to your percentage based or load based training program.
This program could for example prescribe:
- Bench press: 4 sets, 6 reps, 70% 1RM
Try to move the bar as fast as possible. You’ll notice that within a set, every rep will become a bit slower. Simply because you start to fatigue. You could now autoregulate your bench press by adjusting the program a little bit:
- Bench press: 70% 1RM, stop set when rep velocity loss equals 30%, stop exercise when set starts with a velocity 30% below first velocity.
It would look something like this:
By using velocity loss to autoregulate, you make sure you stop every set and exercise before fatigue levels become too high.
Learn more about velocity loss via this article.
Autoregulate by replacing load targets by velocity targets
The final step would be to let go of (percentage base) load targets altogether.
For instance, instead of prescribing a load as 50 kg or 70% 1RM, you could also use corresponding velocity targets, and prescribe it as 0.6 m/s bar velocity.
Now the goal is not to adjust your bar velocity to match 0.6 m/s, instead the goal is to always move as fast as possible. If your velocity is above 0.6 m/s, you should autoregulate and increase the load. If your velocity is below 0.6 m/s, you should decrease the load.
Because of the fatigue-velocity relationship that we mentioned earlier, you’ll automatically lift heavier loads on good days and less weight on bad days.
Research shows that autoregulation with velocity targets increases strength by almost 50% more than non-autoregulated percent-based training programs. The best part: the velocity group trained with less training volume.
Summary strength training autoregulation strategies
Even the most experienced athletes have high fluctuations in day-to-day performance. Autoregulation is a way to adapt the training program, based on these fluctuations.
You can use several methods to autoregulate, but objective measures result in bigger performance improvements.
Velocity based training is the only evidence based method that enables you to autoregulate an existing percentage based training program OR create a fully autoregulated strength training program.
Learn more about the benefits of VBT via our comprehensive guide / use case: How to get started with velocity based training.
Human Movement Scientist | Content Marketing and Education