Autoregulation, periodization, deloading, recovery, fatigue… these concepts are thrown around a lot without specification of what they mean, often because the person using these terms only has a vague notion him- or herself and is mainly using the term to sound sophisticated. To cut through the confusion, in this article I’ll share 2 concrete and well defined autoregulation methods you can use to improve your training progress.
Before we get to the actual methods, we first have to define “autoregulation”.
Note: This article consists of excerpts of the online Henselmans PT Course Certification Program. While it refers to other sections of the course, you should be able to understand the article fully on its own. Beware that this article, being about training programming, is relatively dense reading specifically for serious trainees that engage in structured strength training. If you work out doing more or less random stuff every time you’re in the gym, this article is probably too advanced for you.
What is autoregulation?
True autoregulation is a form of programming that automatically regulates a certain process, like fatigue. You can think of autoregulation as a system or a ruleset instead of a fixed prescription.
For example, a non-autoregulated program might have the following workout: ”Perform 5 sets of 8 reps with 75% of your 1 RM in the squat with a 2 minute rest interval”. An autoregulated variant of this workout is: ”Perform sets of 8 reps with 75% of your 1 RM in the squat with a 2 minute rest interval until your repetition speed decreases to the point that you experience the sticking point”. The amount of sets and thereby the training volume is hereby autoregulated by the person’s work capacity.
(See the course topic on repetition tempo for the usefulness of using bar speed to monitor proximity to failure.)
Other examples of true autoregulation have already been discussed in this course, such as the muscle-specific hypertrophy method (autoregulates training program volume on a muscle-specific basis) and autoregulated rest intervals (autoregulates inter-set rest intervals).
Autoregulation is an incredibly useful programming method, because it automatically individualizes the training program. As you’ve seen in the course topic on individualized program design, there is huge interindividual variability in many aspects of fitness. People differ significantly in how many reps they can do at a certain training intensity, how much rest they need for full recovery, how fast they can gain strength, etc. Autoregulating these factors in the program is thus preferable to the traditional fixed program prescriptions, which require making arbitrary decisions, relying on averages or predicting future performance with improbable accuracy.
For example, many one-size-fits-all Powerlifting programs base the training of the next month on the person’s current 1 RMs. On a certain day, the program may call for 6 reps at 85% of 1 RM. Most people can’t do that with a true 85% intensity, but because this is based on last month’s strength, this is the program’s way of planning progression. Now, what if on this particular day you can’t nearly reach 6 reps because your diet has been less than ideal? And what if yesterday you could have done it but the program called for a light workout?
Many coaches that have tested these programs are aware of these problems, so they often plan for little progression to ensure almost everyone can achieve the program’s planned rate of progress. However, this inherently also requires that almost everyone will make less progress than they could have on a more individualized, autoregulated program.
Autoregulation vs. cybernetic periodization
A related concept to autoregulation is cybernetic periodization. Although the definition of cybernetic periodization has become blurred over time, many people use this term interchangeably with autoregulation in meaning that it’s a form of flexible periodization that allows program modifications based on how you feel during any workout. For example, when feeling poorly going into a workout, you may opt to make this a light training day even though it was planned as a heavy workout.
This form of cybernetic periodization is, however, not true autoregulation by definition, since nothing is being autoregulated and in fact, very conscious decisions are required.
Distinguishing between true autoregulation and cybernetic periodization and making ad hoc, on the fly programming decisions based on how you feel is important. True autoregulation is a highly useful programming concept. If you can autoregulate any process, that is almost always preferable over trying to plan it in advance or making arbitrary decisions because it automatically individualizes the program. However, the usefulness of cybernetic periodization is far more debatable. As you’ve learned in the course topics on the different kinds of fatigue and willpower, the fundamental idea that your subjective feelings truly represent your physical readiness to perform or level of recovernedness is flawed in several ways.
Now that we’ve defined autoregulation and why it’s useful, we can get to the actual methods.
Autoregulatory volume training (AVT)
AVT is a programming method in which you only plan the weight and number of repetitions of the first set, e.g. 260 pounds for 8 reps, for a multiple set exercise. This first set is your “benchmark set”. The subsequent sets are “volume sets”. They’re performed with the same weight and proximity to failure, but you do not plan how many repetitions you’re going to do in advance. In fact, you don’t even need to count your reps in these sets.
The purpose of AVT is to autoregulate training volume based on the difficulty of the first set. The more neuromuscular fatigue the first set induces, the lower the total volume for that session will be. If the first set had you bust out your tomato face to grind through the sticking point in the squat and feeling so lightheaded you wondered how you even managed to rack the bar afterwards, then you will naturally perform fewer reps in the subsequent sets. In contrast, if the first set had you progress as planned with more left in the tank, then you will naturally perform more reps in the subsequent sets.
The result is that AVT normalizes the training stress over time to prevent overreaching yet also ensure a sufficient training stimulus.
Importantly, AVT is implemented at an exercise-specific level, which is highly preferable to the more common regulation of training volume at the whole body level. As you’ve learned in the course topics on the physiology of strength training adaptations, structural balance theory and what neuromuscular fatigue really is, muscle fatigue is largely a local process and it makes little sense to take it easy on your biceps curls today because your quads haven’t recovered yet.
Here’s a simple example of AVT. Let’s say we’ve got a novice lifter who can still put on 5 pounds on the bar every squat session and perform 8 reps with that. He squats on Monday (because screw national bench press day) and Friday (because screw “early weekend”) with a volume of 3 sets. Last Friday he performed 200 pounds x 8, 7, 6 reps. Next Monday he was feeling frisky because he got laid for the first time in months and had slept like a baby that weekend. So he was very well recovered, he hit 205 pounds x 8 reps with ease and he managed to do 8 reps in the 2 subsequent sets as well. On Friday that week he was mildly sleep deprived and more stressed from the work week, so he hadn’t recovered that well and it took everything he had to hit 210 pounds x 8 reps. In the subsequent sets he only managed 3 reps, which is fine, because the near-failure squat set induced a lot of fatigue already.
Another benefit of AVT is that individuals learn to mentally break free from the constraints of performing each set while counting the repetitions, mentally as well as physically. This allows you to focus more on your exercise technique and tends to greatly reduce the mental stress of feeling like you “have to perform X reps or I’ll have failed today” every set.
Physically, AVT increases force production throughout the set. During exercise with a defined endpoint, like a certain number of repetitions that you want to achieve, you will subconsciously pace yourself by holding back during the early part of the exercise. This is good for endurance and the achievement of the goal you have in mind in terms of quantity, but when you don’t need to hit any specific performance goal, it can detract from the quality of the exercise in terms of muscle activation, exercise technique and force production.
One obvious caveat to the use of AVT is that it only works for serious, motivated strength trainees that have no problem pushing themselves and won’t see not counting their reps as an excuse to slack off. If your idea of training intensely is experiencing difficulty reading Shape magazine during your leg extension set, AVT is not for you.
In sum, AVT normalizes the training stress of your program over time by autoregulating the training volume of your subsequent “volume sets” based on the difficulty of your first “benchmark set”. Not having rep targets during your volume sets allows you to focus on your exercise technique, improves force production and can help reduce performance anxiety to make your workouts more enjoyable.
Sometimes, AVT is not enough to prevent overreaching from occurring. This is when deloads are applicable. A deload is a reduction in weight to reduce the training stress. Sometimes the word deload is also used to refer to a more general reduction in training stress, like a reduction in training volume by reducing the amount of training sets.
A traditional implementation of deloading is to take each 4th week of your program off from the gym or to reduce the weight in this week. This is commonly seen in Powerlifting programs employing block periodization. Traditional deloading methods vary in the degree of deloading, ranging from no training at all to only a reduction in the number of sets, and in the duration of deloading, ranging from single workouts to a full week. But by and large, they have 2 aspects in common: the deloads are arbitrary and proactive.
The arbitrariness and proactivity of this type of deloading is that it’s planned in advance at a set date or time in the program. At best, it’s an educated guess about when overreaching is likely to occur, but in practice it often just comes down to one-size-fits-all programming in an attempt to make the program look fancy and sophisticated without more than abstract theory as its rationale. You can’t accurately predict in advance when an individual will experience higher stress in their life, sleep less well or deviate from their diet, so overreaching in any program can occur at many different time points for different people, if it occurs at all.
Autoregulated deloading: reactive deloading
Autoregulation can solve the problem of the interindividual variability in when deloads are needed. The Bayesian Bodybuilding method employs an autoregulated form of deloading called reactive deloading. As the name suggests, a reactive deload is not scheduled ahead of time. Just like AVT, reactive deloading is only applied to the affected exercise(s) in a single training session.
Specifically, a reactive deload is implemented whenever a trainee does not progress as planned for that exercise and it is deemed likely that this was due overreaching, not an external factor that reduces performance but not recovery status, like simple lack of focus during the set or a circadian rhythm disturbance.
Several factors determine whether reactive deloading is warranted for an exercise in your training program. (See the course topic on exercise selection for more detailed definitions of these criteria).
- Compoundedness: The more muscle mass and the more joints involved in an exercise, the higher the total and central neural stress and thus the higher the potential need for deloads. Isolation exercises generally don’t require much deloading.
- Terminal consistency: Exercises that score poorly on this principle have an inherently higher variability in performance. As such, there is a decreased probability that lack of progress is due to overreaching. Therefore, reactive deloads are not needed as much.
- Microloadability: The larger the increment, the less likely the need for reactive deloading is. If the increment is too large a jump in weight to realistically achieve on a regular basis, reactive deloading will cause you to enter a cycle of perpetual deloading and result in undertraining.
- Recovery capacity variability: The more variable someone’s rate of recovery, the greater the need for reactive deloading. If someone has a very irregular recovery capacity due to, for example, a variable sleep pattern or circadian rhythm, due to poor diet adherence or due to concurrent sport-specific training, there is a greater need for reactive deloading. Reactive deloading will then take care of under-recovery. For someone with a very stable lifestyle and good recovery capacity, it is more likely that a plateau signals the need for more fundamental program change than a mere reactive deload.
Based on the above factors, bilateral deadlift exercises usually benefit from reactive deloading, since they have excellent microloadability and terminal consistency and they’re very compounded and neurally taxing. An example of an exercise that rarely requires a reactive deload is the delt lateral raise. It generally has abysmal microloadability, it’s an isolation exercise (sort of), it induces very little muscle damage or central fatigue and it has mediocre terminal consistency.
When you’ve established that reactive deloading is useful for an exercise in your program and a plateau occurs in any workout, you implement a reactive deload as follows. You replace your remaining sets with low rep, explosive technique work: 1 to 5 reps per set at 60 – 70% of 1 RM (roughly equal to a weight you could do 12-20 reps with). This type of speed work allows you to reach high muscle activation levels, perform a decent amount of work and work on your technique while only inducing a minimal amount of neuromuscular fatigue. It’s important to realize that to reap these benefits without the cost of high further fatigue, it has to stay speed work. If your movement velocity decreases noticeably at all during any set, you are going far too heavy and only digging yourself deeper into your recovery hole.
In the presence of more severe fatigue, it is better to deload reactively by 100%, i.e. by skipping all subsequent sets altogether. Speed work is appropriate if you only just missed the last rep needed to progress as planned or you feel like you could have hit your planned number of reps if your technique was a bit better. When you didn’t come close to your planned performance, when your trained muscles were still extremely sore or when you experienced pain, speed work may still be too much and you’re better off just moving on to the next exercise.
Let’s look at 2 examples. Say an advanced bodybuilder is planned to perform 350 pounds for 5 reps in the squat this workout, which would be a new best in the program. He’s already implementing AVT and undulating periodization with a training volume of 4 sets and progress is generally consistent, so reactive deloading is implemented for the squat. First work set, he manages only 4 instead of 5 reps. Since he likely hadn’t recovered sufficiently yet, he reactively deloads to prevent overreaching: for his remaining sets he drops the weight to 250 pounds and performs 3 more sets of 3 as speed work.
Example 2: Say that same bodybuilder does Bayesian flys later in the same training session. Here too he doesn’t progress as planned, but since flys have an inherently higher variance in their performance and they’re not a very centrally taxing exercise, he doesn’t implement a reactive deload and performs his remaining sets as planned (possibly with AVT).
In sum, reactive deloading allows you to program deloads in your program in a systematic but individualized manner so that you reduce your training stress only when and if needed and only for the muscle groups that actually need it, in contrast to proactively and arbitrarily scheduling a whole-body deload in your program when you guesstimate it may be needed.
Interested in more information like this? This article is an excerpt of the online Henselmans PT Course Certification Program. The course contains similar evidence-based information about everything related to muscle growth and fat loss.
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