Autoregulation is a method of training in which you allow your effort on any given day, or more specifically on any given set, to determine the amount of weight you will use next. This method of training can be integrated into just about any existing workout structure and style, and is easy to remember.
The major benefit of autoregulation is that you are pushed during a workout based on how your body is performing. If you are having an off week, and the weights feel heavy, autoregulation will adjust the weight used for your next set based on today's performance. The same goes if you are having a great training day. If the weights feel light, autoregulation will challenge you accordingly. The autoregulation method will also help determine the amount of weight you start with the next time you perform the same exercise.
Autoregulation does have some drawbacks. You will need to change weight for every set, which can stretch out workout time if you're not careful. Try to limit rest between sets to 90-120 seconds, or up to 3-5 minutes between heavy, taxing sets. Be prepared, and have 2.5, 5 and 10 pound plates handy.
Because you are varying the weight from set to set, based on performance, it will be difficult at times to gauge how many reps you will perform. Either train with a partner, or bench, squat, etc., in a rack, so that you have safety bars to catch the weight should you reach failure.
Training to failure on every set is not recommend. Push yourself until you believe that you may fail on the next rep. Stop the set at this point. If you are eager to test yourself, limit failure training to one set per exercise, preferably your last set. Using autoregulation, your last set will be your heaviest set. It would make best sense to test yourself at this time.
Auto Regulation Basics: Your First Set
Let's begin by looking at your first set. For this set, you will have a rep goal. This rep goal might be 15 reps, 12 reps, 10 reps, 8 reps or 5 reps, depending on the program you are using. Use a weight that allows you to perform a few more reps than your goal. For example, if you are shooting for 12 reps on the bench press, use a weight that allows you to perform 14 to 16 reps. Now here's the point to remember:
For every rep you perform above and beyond your goal goal, add 5 pounds to the bar for your next set. Other variables come into play that will force you to modify this approach, such as 5x5 training, and heavy set first training. We will discuss these systems at detail later in this article.
So while benching, if your goal was 12 reps with 185 pounds, and you completed 15 reps, you would use 200 pounds for your next working set. You exceeded your goal by 3 reps...3 x 5 pounds equals a 15 pound addition.
Note that a five pound addition works well for most exercises, but will not work for lighter isolation exercises such as flyes and laterals. For these exercises, you will either need to microload (add weight in half pound or one pound increments), or add about 5 pounds for every 3 reps above and beyond your rep goal. Unfortunately, most gyms do not have micro-plates, which limits your options.
Auto Regulation Basics: Your Last Set
Using the autoregulation method, your last set is very important. The amount of reps you perform on your last set will determine the weight you start with the next time you perform the same exercise. Here's how it works:
- Exceed last set rep goal - If you perform at least one more rep, add 5 pounds to your first set the next time you perform this exercise.
- Equal last set rep goal - If you equal your rep goal, do not add any weight the next time you perform this exercise.
- Fail to hit last set rep goal - If you fail to hit your rep goal, subtract 5 pounds from your starting set the next time you perform this exercise.
IMPORTANT NOTE: You only add weight to your next workout if you exceeded every rep goal for that exercise by at least +1. If you equaled a rep goal, or failed to hit a rep goal for that exercise on any set, do not add weight the next time you perform this exercise. If is quite possible for you to have a bad day, miss several rep goals, drop weight, and then exceed the rep goal on your last set. You should not be adding weight on the first set of your next workout when this happens.
Resist the urge to add or subtract weight in greater then 5 pound increments. Adding or subtracting large amounts of weight can cause dramatic "rep swings", and your adjustments may be all over the board. Keep it simple and basic, and stick to small changes. 5 pound additions add up quickly.
Auto Regulation Examples
Pyramid Rep Structure
Autoregulation fits most naturally with a pyramid rep scheme. With a pyramid rep structure you will begin with lighter weight and higher reps, and end with heavier weight and lower reps. There are many popular pyramid rep range structures. Here are some common ones:
- 12, 10, 8, 6
- 15, 12, 10
- 20, 15, 12
For this example, I will look at 4 sets of squats that utilize the 12, 10, 8, 6 pyramid rep structure and autoregulation. For the first set you decide to use 185 pounds. In the past you were able to perform 12 reps with 200 pounds, so you feel this is a safe place to start. You surprise yourself and perform 17 reps. This is 5 reps above and beyond your rep goal of 12, so you will add 25 pounds to your next set (5 reps above x 5 pounds).
For your second set you are able to perform 11 reps using 210 pounds. Your goal for this set was 10 reps, and because you have exceeded that goal, you will add 5 pounds to your third set (one rep above x 5 pounds). Using 215 pounds on your third set, you perform 8 reps. This equals your rep goal, so you will stick with this weight for your fourth set. During your fourth set, you are able to perform 7 reps - one above your goal of 6. You have exceeded your rep goal on your final set, which means that the next time you perform squats you will start with 190 pounds. This is a 5 pound increase above the 185 pounds you started with today. Here is another look at this example:
- Set 1 - 185 x 17. This is 5 reps above your goal of 12, so 25 pounds is added to the next set.
- Set 2 - 210 x 11. This is 1 rep above your goal of 10, so 5 pounds is added to the next set.
- Set 3 - 215 x 8. This equals your goal of 8, so no weight is added to the next set.
- Set 4 - 215 x 7. This is 5 reps above your goal of 6, so 5 pounds will be added to your first set the next time you perform this exercise.
5x5 Rep Structure
The 5x5 is a classic muscle and strength building approach that generally requires the use of the same weight for each of the 5 sets (some 5x5 systems will "ramp" weight). Because sets are limited to 5 reps, it can be difficult to understand when it's appropriate to add weight. When using autoregulation with the 5x5, you will try to beat the 5 rep goal on your last set only. If you exceed 5 reps on the last set, add weight the next time you perform this exercise. If you can't perform 5 reps on the last set, drop the weight by 5 pounds the next time you perform this exercise. If on any of the first 4 sets you fail to achieve 5 reps, drop the weight by 5-10 pounds for your next set.
Here is an example of how a 5x5 deadlift workout should be handled if you fail to reach 5 reps on one of the first 4 sets:
- Set 1 - 315 x 5. Rep goal achieved. Move on to the next set.
- Set 2 - 315 x 5. Rep goal achieved. Move on to the next set.
- Set 3 - 315 x 4. This is 1 rep below your goal. Drop the weight by 10 pounds for your next set.
- Set 4 - 305 x 4. This is 1 rep below your goal. Drop the weight by 10 pounds for your next set.
- Set 5 - 295 x 6. You exceeded your rep goal of 5. The next time you deadlift, start with 300 pounds.
Just a reminder that you must try to exceed 5 reps on your last set, even if you fail to achieve 5 reps on any earlier sets. In our example, the lifter overestimated his abilities but autoregulation kicked in and brought him back down to a more manageable weight. During his next deadlift workout, our lifter should have a very good chance of completing 5 sets of 5 reps with 300 pounds.
Reverse Pyramid Rep Structure
A reverse pyramid rep scheme has you performing your heaviest sets first, and then as you fatigue, you will move on to lighter sets and higher reps. It is a little more difficult to autoregulate a reverse pyramid rep approach. Rep goals will not be your only variable. You will also need to consider the increase in reps from set to set, which will require a decrease in weight.
When moving from set to set using a reverse pyramid structure, for each additional rep required on the next set, you will subtract 10 pounds from your working weight. You will also need to factor in how you performed on your previous set (did you achieve you rep goal? Adjust the weight accordingly).
So, for example, let's say you are starting with 135 pounds on the military press and your goal is 4 reps. You perform 5 reps. You are one rep above your goal, so you will add 5 pounds to your second set. In addition, you must factor in the jump from 4 to 6 reps (a 2 rep difference) and subtract 20 pounds form the bar. This would be a net result in the use of 120 pounds for your second set.
Confused? Let's take a deeper look at a reverse pyramid, 4, 6, 8, 12 rep approach for the military press:
- Set 1 - 135 x 5. This is 1 rep above your goal of 4, so 5 pounds is added to the next set. Because you are jumping to 6 reps (a 2 rep difference), you will also subtract 20 pounds for your next set. This results in a net of 15 pounds removed from the bar (+5 for reps, then subtracting 20 pounds for the rep difference).
- Set 2 - 120 x 6. This equals your rep goal of 6, so you do not need to add or subtract weight for your next set based upon your rep goal. Because you are jumping to 8 reps for your third set (a 2 rep difference), you will need to subtract 20 pounds from the bar.
- Set 3 - 100 x 11. This is 1 rep above your goal of 8, so 5 pounds is added to the next set. Because you are jumping to 12 reps (a 4 rep difference), you will also subtract 40 pounds for your next set. This results in a net of 35 pounds removed from the bar (+5 for reps, then subtracting 40 pounds for the rep difference).
- Set 4 - 65 x 13. This is 1 rep above your goal of 12, so you will start with 140 pounds on your first set the next time you perform this exercise.
Please note that autoregulation for reverse pyramid rep scheme may require adjustments. For some exercises you may need to subtract only 5 pounds for each rep increase from set to set. It may take several workouts for you to figure out the best way to autoregulate this training style. In addition, you may need to tweak rep ranges to better fit a weight used for a given exercise. Large jumps, say from 10 to 15 reps, could lead to ineffective autoregulation.
Generic Rep Range Structure
Generic rep ranges are rep ranges that appear as 6-10 or 10-15 in workouts. Generic rep ranges can be autoregulated in several ways. Pick an approach that works best for you. There is no hidden magic in any approaches, meaning that one is not better than the other.
For our example, we will consider autoregulation for an exercise that calls for 3 sets of 6-10 reps.
- Pyramid approach - If an exercise calls for 3 sets of 6-10 reps, turn it into an autoregulated pyramid approach of 10, 8 and 6 reps.
- "Average" approach - Take the average of the rep range, in this case 8 reps, and use it in the same manner as you would an autoregulated 5x5. Only push for more then 8 reps on the last set.