What is auto-regulation?
I’m a big believer in prescribing every rep of every set and every load for my athletes. It helps with tracking progression, setting goals and psychologically preparing athletes for sessions. Unfortunately precise prescription like this only really works in a precise environment where athletes’ external stress is closely regulated and the task of getting stronger and more powerful in the gym is really the only important thing that day.
Most of us work with athletes that are not subject to such an environment. In fact our athletes are exposed to the exact opposite environment. Let’s take student athletes for instance. Varsity athletes’ daily routine is pretty far from the daily routine of a professional athlete, but still we expect them to train like professionals. The life of a student is a balancing act of going to class, studying, eating, socialising, earning some extra cash and chasing girls. Then you have to add to that training rugby 3-4 times a week and the S&C coach getting his pound of flesh 2-3 times per week in the gym. All of these activities can be interpreted by the body as stress. This is a problem for training, firstly because the body can only handle a certain amount of stress and also the body cannot discern between different types of stress.
This external stressors or “life fatigue” will have an influence on our central nervous system’s ability to produce power output and since this is often the goal in the gym, could inhibit our ability to produce optimal training session.
The problem is that an athlete’s optimal readiness for training fluctuates day by day and even hour by hour. Besides, as coaches who work with teams not only must we account for individual variability, but also we must try to apply training plans to several athletes each potentially at a different level of readiness.
When we do performance tests on our athletes, we all try do it in the optimal environment for them to produce their best efforts, but unfortunately this is often not the case. I have had athletes who do exactly the same test in the morning and then repeating the test later on in the day with a significant increase in score. There could be various reasons for this, but mainly it shows that player’s readiness is not consistent and often our test results do not truly represent our athlete’s ability.
Training prescription is often done from these test results. Regrettably, the training session is often not similar to the testing environment. We might have done strength testing in the morning, but our session gym is in the afternoon or our warm up routine for testing might significantly differ from the one we use in gym or even something as simple as player motivation. The basic conclusion for this is that an 80% 1RM in a gym session, based on test result, might not be a true reflection of player’s capabilities of that day.
This is essentially because our nervous system is never constant. In a recent article published by the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association, they estimate a daily 1RM through the load-velocity profile. It was reported that 1 RM values could differ with as much as 18% above and below the previously tested 1RM, meaning that there was a 36% range around the previously tested 1RM.
For example, if you had 80% of the 1RM listed for that day, the actual relative load could actually be 98%, which would be way too heavy for that day, or the opposite where the relative load is too light at 62%. This is why some days we feel strong in the weight room and some days we don’t. The absolute load is not the same relative intensity that we had pre-selected. We wanted the 80% based on the previously tested 1RM, but today that prescribed 80% is actually 98% of the individual’s capability for that day, so it’s way too heavy.
Auto-regulation basically is a method that attempts to match training stress to athlete-readiness or nervous system variability by making some adaptation to your training session during the workout instead of following the pre-program training prescription. It is not the same as simply listening to your body and going home when you are not feeling great, but rather adapting your program to what your body and mind will allow you to do based on your readiness to do so. It’s based on how you perform, not how you feel.
Window open or window closed scenario
What this type of training is aimed at is to adapt to the individual athlete’s changing state of readiness to allow optimal training more frequently. What I mean with optimal training is the body sometimes just respond better to training than other times. This could be for various reasons like being better recovered or just more energetic. In such times the window for stress adaptation is wide open. Why should the athlete be sticking to the prescribed load when in fact he could be hitting a PB in a lift?
To give an example:
Two players enter the gym and based on the training plan, you prescribe 4 sets of 6 at 85% 1RM. Player A battles through the sets and can only do 6,4,2,1 in the four sets. Player B feels good and completes all four sets with ease and great form and speed.
This might be a simple example, but based on this, Player A’s window for stress-adaptation was closed and would probably been better off with a lighter load and less volume. On the other hand, Player B’s window of stress–adaptation might have been wide open and would have been an ideal time to push him a bit harder with a higher load and/or volume.
Even though nowadays we have various monitoring tools to evaluate if players are ready to train or not, I still feel this should not be the primary determinant. A player might feel great in the morning when he fills in the wellness app, but after having a one-on-one with the coach, he feels like crap and your wellness app means nothing whether this players can perform on the day or not. There are just too many variables that could affect performance and we can’t monitor them all.
Auto-regulation is not a specific program but rather a concept with various versions and application of it.
Enter the APRE system
The original study on auto-regulation system was done in physiotherapy. Known as the Daily Adjustable Progressive Resistance Exercise (DAPRE) method, it offer a combination of training and testing for the recovering patient based on how they felt under the load. This was done to ensure they don’t progress too fast and re-injure themselves.
The method worked like this:
Set 1: 10 reps @ 50% of your anticipated 6RM
Set 2: 6 reps @ 75% of your anticipated 6RM
Set 3: Maximal (until failure) reps @ anticipated 6RM.
After the third set, you adjust the weight based on how many reps you were able to perform. If you performed less than 5-6 reps, you’d lower the weight. If you performed more than that, you’d raise the weight.
Set 4: Maximal (until failure) reps @ your adjusted load
The load used during the last set will be the new estimate 6RM and the next session will use this load as a reference point.
This system has been modified to a system called the Auto-regulating Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE). The APRE system employs 3RM (strength/power), 6RM (strength/size) and 10 RM (hypertrophy) as various options depending on training effect you are looking for.
Below are tables of applying APRE methods with their various protocols: