“Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche



Photo credit: Liz Bridges


Autoregulation; your key to continued progress

I’ve written previously about what I feel is the major drawback to linear periodization: namely, that life just has a real funny way of consistently getting in the way of that perfectly mapped-out program.  Check that — if it were consistent, it would be a hell of alot easier to program around.  But we all know that life is anything but consistent, and that the Chaos Monkey will make an appearance when he damned well pleases (i.e., when you least expect it).  And yet, we have so many people attempting to second-guess what this little bastard…er, kindly monkey, has in mind, only to crash-and-burn miserably in the process.   How many times do you have to start — only to quickly abandon — a linear/periodized program to realize that it just ain’t gonna happen?

Now, linear periodization and/or “block” training is certainly not based on an unfounded, crackpot idea.  Far from it.  In fact, if you’re an athlete, whose life revolves around a particular sport, it’s likely to work (with some occasional tweaks here and there) just fine.  However, there are two substantial problems here for the “Jacks of all trade” type.  First, athletic prowess in no way infers health and, two, the vast majority of folks in the iron game are not competitive athletes per se, but those more interested in the health benefits of the activity; those aforementioned “Jacks”.  And I’m using the term “athlete” here in its classical sense — not in the CrossFit sense of anyone who ponys-up the  monthly membership fee is thereby deemed an “athlete”.  This is in no way a slight to all the “Jacks” out there (I too am one), but c’mon, let’s get serious here; a 35 year-old soccer mom who can manage a couple of kipping pull-ups and a 100 lb clean and jerk is probably leaps and bounds beyond her peers.  But is she an athlete?  Not in my definition.

Anyway, back  to the point: even if you are a competitive athlete, there are very few instances where linear periodization is going to work, and those always involve events where (1) the barbell is part-and-parcel to the sport itself (i.e., powerlifting, Oly lifting) or, (2) where explosive power and singular technique reign (think track & field sprints and throws).   For all others (and myself included), autoregulation and “wave and weave” is the way to go.  And I’ll go a step further: it’s mandatory to get a solid handle on this if you want to stay in the game for the long haul.

With old school PRE (progressive resistance exercise), the trainee shows up, dives headlong into a workout, and the next time out simply throws more weight on the bar. Wash, rinse repeat. Pretty damn simple indeed.

Note: There is *much* more involved with advanced linear progression/periodization/block programming.  But if you’re involved with that, you’re not going to be reading this.  Or, if you are, you already understand the intricacies of what I’m getting at.

And simple PRE works, too — especially for newbies…until, that is, it doesn’t. This method has a nasty tendency of building a trainee up to a plateau that is very hard to bust through. This usually then necessitates the trainee go on some more complicated and varied workout to keep improving. And this then leads to program hopping, training ADHD, or worse; out-and-out frustration and abandonment of the iron game altogether.

The cure?  Well, this is where the A-for-autoregulated part comes in. Instead of just blindly adding weight each workout, the APRE protocol introduces a little testing and adjusting each time the target exercise (or complex or circuit) is performed. This “testing and adjusting” is done to account for the total cumulative stress that may be acting on a trainee at that particular outing, and is baked into the workout itself. Think here of feedback loops that nicely self-regulate a process.

In simple terms, no biological system progresses in linear fashion. Progress (or regress too, for that matter) is always measured in fits and spurts. Think of the US stock market trend over the past 100 years — replete with peaks, valleys and plains in the short term, but an overall upward trend when viewed from the 30-thousand foot view. This fits with a long-held belief of mine: that an autoregulated program that has built-in methods of self-adjustment will prove superior to any pre-planned workouts. Despite what we’d all like to believe, the body simply doesn’t like to fit itself into nicely planned weekly schedules and monthly training blocks. Human bodies are much more dynamic than that.  A program that can account for that fluctuation, yet still prod the trainee forward, will be light years ahead.

Note: the APRE system is not a workout in itself. It is simply a set of guidelines that help determine loading and rep-ranges for work sets. In other words, consider APRE a roadmap, not the method of transportation itself. What follows are 3 basic, rep-range, autoregulation templates:

3RM Protocol
1. 50% of 3RM – 6 reps
2. 75% of 3RM – 3 reps
3. Reps to failure with 3RM
4. Adjusted reps to failure (see below)

6RM Protocol
1. 50% of 6RM – 10 reps
2. 75% of 6RM – 6 reps
3. Reps to failure with 6RM
4. Adjusted reps to failure (see below)

10RM Protocol
1. 50% of 10RM – 12 reps
2. 75% of 10RM – 10 reps
3. Reps to failure with 10RM
4. Adjusted reps to failure (see below)

After the “reps to failure” set (set #3 in the example templates) we’ll then need to adjust the weight for the final set (set #4). Here’s the template for making that decision (using a 300 lb, 6 RM protocol as an example):

Completed Reps in third set (6 RM protocol), followed by the 4th set adjustment:

0-2 : reduce load 5 to 15%
3-4 : no change to 5% reduction
5-7 :  no change to 5% increase
8+ :  5 to 10% increase

Note that there is much art involved in the 4th (or last) set adjustment, and in the number (and loading) of lead-in sets, for that matter.  For example, a trainee may well have popped-off 8 reps at a previous 6 RM load, but totally annihilated himself in the process.  Obviously throwing another 5 or 10% on the bar is not going to happen.  Use good judgment here.   Don’t get greedy, take the higher rep PR,  and from this guesstimate a new 6 RM.  All this fine-tuning will eventually work itself out.  Remember: we’re in this for the long haul.

The adjustments vary slightly for the 3RM and 10RM protocols, but this is the basic idea. And, too, a trainee’s perceived exhaustion, intensity level, desire/willingness, and exercise form must be taken into account. There’s a huge difference between a clean, snappy 8 reps, and an all-out, lay-it-on-the-line, form-on-the-brink-of-cracking 8 reps. Loading in the final set must account for these variables.  The lead-in sets need to be closely observed as well for signs of big things to come…or the need to back off, keep “the table set”, and simply “punch the clock” on a particular workout.

Note, too, that this 4-set protocol is only a basic template, and that sometimes additional “lead-in” sets prior to the last 2 “working sets” are required. What follows is an example from an actual workout, followed by an explanation. The exercise of choice here, was dips.

The trainee’s previous best was 6 reps at 90 lbs, so this is what all initial loading calculations were based on. In this example, dips were supersetted with power cleans — but for the purposes of this explanation, we’ll disregard the inclusion of that exercise. Just note that the power cleans did impart a significant amount of overall fatigue, and that that level of fatigue had to be accounted for, both in the lead-in sets, and in the final, “gut-check” set.  Again, this is where art and judgement come into play.

1. body weight (approximately 215 lbs) x 12
2. 45 lbs x 10
3. 70 lbs x 6
4. 90 lbs x 9(PR)
5. 100 lbs x 7(PR)

In this example, the first 3 sets are “lead-ins” (or “feel sets”) setting the table for the last 2 “money” sets. The number of lead-in sets will depend upon the nature of the exercise being autoregulated. In other words, it takes a bit more “prep” leading into a deadlift or squat, than say a dip. Had this been a deadlift session, there probably would have been an additional set of 6 reps at about an 80 – 85% mark. The goal of the lead-in sets are simply to prep the body (joints, tendons, CNS, etc.) for an all-out assault on the last 2 sets. But we have to be mindful of inducing too much fatigue in these sets — and this again is where the “art” of coaching comes into play.

Note that the lead-in set percentages in this example were based off of a previous 6 RM max of 90 lbs. Again, all of the preliminary sets are directed toward nailing a rep PR at a given load on the second to last set. The last set is more a heavy, gut-check working set — hitting another PR here is unexpected “gravy”. Since, in this example, the trainee blew his previous 6RM best out of the water (and still seemed to have some more in the tank), we added weight for the last set, and simply swung for the fences. Of course, the trainee was actually pretty well fatigued by this time, so we would expect that the next time he shoots for another 6-ish rep PR (with the new 100 lb at 7 reps PR having just been established) it ought to go up rather easily. From here (and over time), it’s just wash, rinse, repeat…with, of course, the required art of the game in the mix.

Now going forward (and the next time dips are autoregulated at this rep range), 100 lbs at 7 reps will be the new target with all lead-in percentages being based off of that. Or, we could bump the load up to, say, 105 lbs and see what happens at 6 reps. Again, these fine-tuning decisions are where “art” and judgement of the coach/trainer comes into play. The only hard-and-fast rule is to do no harm.  And this is what separates blind program following from using the program as a template from which to make informed, experienced decisions.

Here’s another example: in the following clip, you’ll be able to see how “using the template as a guide” plays out in real time, with what coaching and form adjustment decisions I make along the way.  Coaching is a messy process because people are not programmable machines, and a plethora of internal and external variables must be juggled!  As a trainer/coach, you have to be able to make best-case form/load/etc. decisions in the moment.  I’ll use roughly the same template as above, though I’ll have to make many adjustments along the way according to the dictates of the situation. And Lesley will be gunning to PR on 2 exercises in the same session. A lofty goal, no doubt. Anyway, there’s lots to be managed — and plenty to learn — in this session.

A couple of questions:

Why 2 working (or “money”) sets? Why not one…or three or…seven?
A proper lead-in followed by two working sets sets seems to be — according to available science and years of accumulated, empirical evidence — the best compromise between results, recovery management, and trainee return on time investment.

What types of exercises can be autoregulated?
Any compound exercise is a good choice. Deadlifts, squats and all manner of presses? Yes; fair game. Biceps curls and triceps extensions? Not so much (EDT is probably a better option). And this particular method of autoregulation is not well suited for the more power-oriented movements (power cleans, for example), or plyometric movements.

Is this for newbies, or only the advanced trainee?
Newbies will advance nicely enough on straight-up progressive resistance exercise. No need to overly complicate things.  But once the trainee has (1) learned the proper form and subtle nuances of a particular exercise, and (2) begun to level-out on progressing under a simple PRE format, then autoregulation may be introduced. Introducing autoregulation any sooner is just an unneeded complication.

Free weight or machines?
Yes…and yes! Even ARXFit work can be “autoregulated”. The advantage to using machines is that a repetition count can be substituted for time under load (TUL). For instance, we could choose time limits of 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 1:30, as a rough equivalent to 3 reps, 6 reps and 10 reps performed with free weights. On the ARXFit, we could shoot for maximum work output under the same time constraints.

Speaking of repetition ranges, why 3, 6, and 10?
There is no magic to a particular repetition count, other than its rough correspondence to (so long as each rep tempo is held relatively consistent) to a time under load that is best suited for a particular, desired result. In other words, 3 rep protocols will primarily affect strength, 10 reps will primarily affect sarcoplasmic muscle size (hypertrophy), and 6 reps is a good compromise between those two extremes. Note that this must be considered a “shades of grey” issue, not black and white. Just as there is no energy system switch within the body that toggles between aerobic and anaerobic, there is no similar switch that flips between “strength” and “hypertrophy”.  Personally, I maintain rep PRs from singles up to 15 RM for all exercises, with all manner of variables included (grip, incline/decline angles, ect.).  This is a very “Westside” idea that I think works extremely well and keeps the iron game interesting and fun.

…and speaking of repetition tempo…

For compound, free weight exercises (and those bodyweight exercises that can be externally loaded), I like to use a 20×0 or 30×0 tempo. That is, a 2 or 3 second eccentric, no pause in the turn-around, as fast as possible concentric, with an immediate return to the next rep’s eccentric. On a machine, I like to use a 30×0 or 40×0 tempo, with smooth (no herky-jerky) turn-around. And note that “x” or “fast as possible” in this instance is effectively limited, due to the loading (and no jerky, stretch-reflex turn-around) to a 2 or 3 second concentric. Of course, as fatigue sets in, concentric times will drag out. More so on machines, where form breakdown is not so much an issue, but on free weight exercises as well. Just ensure that form is maintained in those free-weight “grind-it-out” reps, and cut the set short prior to a trainee’s form breakdown.

Additional reading?
You bet. Check out the following:
– The APRE protocol is covered extensively in Mel Siff’s Supertraining.
The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes. Mann JB, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, Sayers SP. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun 10.
The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance
training. Schoenfeld, BJ. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72

Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world~



  1. Some time ago I decided to choose a route of simple, progressive strength training twice a week – HIT with an A/B routine. I like it, it works, it’s time efficient and I need just dumbbells and bench.
    But I am not close-minded and I read some truly fascinating books on training, like Schoenfeld’s Max Muscle Plan. The problem always is a) it’s complicated and you need to know how to programme/periodise/autoregulate etc. b) lack of equipment.

    Recently, many authors publish books on bodyweight training. I really thing this is the solution, because suddenly, almost everybody can train 4 times a week for an hour IF all he needs is his body. But you still need expert advice on progression and programming, which is lacking currently. There was no decent source on bodyweight training.
    Drew Baye is writing new bodyweight book that I preordered. It will be great, no doubt, but he is firmly rooted in HIT philosophy, while bodyweight training actually is an opportunity to try some of the stuff Schoenfeld or Contreras promote. More volume, more variety…
    And today, when I opened Amazon after a long time – I don’t read much about fitness anymore and focus on doing – I found Bret Contreras publishes this:
    I think this might be the last training book I’ll read for some time, as I plan to switch to purely bodyweight training. I know it has limitations and I’d rather workout at EE, but the freedom is priceless for me. Let’s see if my expectations are met.
    Great article, by the way.

    • Right on. How about bodyweight training most of the time, with the occasional HIT (or HIIRT) session thrown in for good measure? No rhyme or reason, just when you feel like it and have the opportunity. That’s the beauty of this method!

    • “I really thing this is the solution, because suddenly, almost everybody can train 4 times a week for an hour IF all he needs is his body.”

      In my experience, most people aren’t looking to train MORE than they’re training now.

      • True, but most people don’t comment under this kind of article either. I found that I invest about an hour daily to activity anyway, whether it’s proper exercise or walking, so I don’t really need ultra time efficient workouts, as long as I invest under 1h a day, which I want to do because otherwise I am pretty sedentary. I agree though that so far the short time efficient workouts were also the most effective, and safer. It’s quite possible that longer, less intense workouts won’t work that well. And i really like the feeling after the HIT style workout.
        I don’t get however, how there can be so many differences between let’s say Contreras and Baye. Both present very good arguments, but issues like stretching, number of sets, rest intervals, variety, periodisation, tempo – everything is different.

        • Great points. As far as your situation, why not do both? Do a HIT-style workout once per week and then enjoy all the bodyweight fun you can stomach throughout the week. In my experience, the BW stuff is too skill-dependent to be deeply fatiguing. I can practice handstands all damn day and it doesn’t really dent my recovery abilities.

          As far as Baye & Contreras, they’re both right. Really. It just depends on your goals. Contreras even has his girlfriend on a HIT-type routine because she’s so busy with school. Circumstances, personalities, and goals dictate modalities.

        • To put this into a more practical example, I’m currently doing the following: I like deadlifting, but have never really “worked” the bench press (long arms) so Doug Holland helped me out by putting together the following for me to practice the DL & BP within a HIT framework:

          Day 1
          Low rep warm ups dead
          Low Rep warm ups bench
          -Work set dead: train hard, until form deteriorates (1-2 reps above rep goal, add 5lbs) 3-4 min rest, second set dead
          -Work set bench: train hard, until form deteriorates (1-2 reps above rep goal add 5lbs) 3-4 min rest, second set bench
          -Shrugs, dynamic long pause, 2 sets
          (Since I deadlift sumo, I added glutiator work here)

          Day 2
          Superslow chin
          Superslow dip
          Superslow leg press
          Superslow row/pullover (alternating weekly)
          chest press/TSC Overhead Press (Alternating Weekly)

          Now to Keith’s “Autoregulation” idea, you can see that in the deadlift and bench work; there’s still a linear periodization but room to weave depending on life’s circumstances. The slow work is microloaded but allows for TUL fluctuations; as long as it is within range the work gets a small iron dose next time.

          And I get where you come from: no HIT workout has ever left me “beat up” like heavy iron can but there is *something* exciting about lifting heavy, if only for a few months out of the year.

          • Great comments!
            Pre-order version of Project Kratos tries to make bodyweight training as demanding as weight training even with no equipment at all if necessary. You can’t really solve all disadvantages though. The workout system has 5 levels of difficulty, so it’s pretty complicated and the soutions are creative. Drew Baye reportedly put very weak and very strong people through this and it scaled well.
            Anyway, weights are still choice number 1…

      • What I meant was that I was intriqued to thry hypertrophy oriented protocol which requires more volume, but I can’t travel to the gym three to six times a week. If we assume bodyweight training could be as effective, which I am not sure about, this could be the solution.

  2. We’ll see how it works, it may be that 1-2 HIT sessions will be the basis after all. It depends on how this new stuff works, beause I have no experience with other methods.

  3. I’ve been doing auto-regulated powerlifting for a while now, with an ultra-high frequency, and I think the method you described is excellent. I stumbled onto something pretty similar myself, whereby, given how I feel, I chase a 3-5 or 8 rep max PR, and then use a formula to calculate a new max.

    To me, this combines the best of both worlds, you have an easy template for linear progression, but you auto-regulate, so that it might take two weeks to beat your previous 5 rep max, or you might beat it 3 days later because you are just reading high.

    I’ve personally noticed a lot of newbies flame out completely with the stress of having to hit a prescribed number of sets and reps on a prescribed number of days, they can’t adjust on the fly and, emotionally speaking, can’t handle missing weight after progressing so easily. Seeing this leads me to think that this article should be required reading for new lifters even more than advanced ones.

  4. This is what I have been looking for, along with other missing pieces I’m sure. I had ADHD training for a while, and then since marriage and children have just been getting by with any workout I could muster whenever I had the energy and the chance, most of which were bodyweight. We recently joined the YMCA in our area and today was my first “weight” room workout in a few years. It was completed all on machines and felt like a lackluster performance, probably the poor nights sleep, thank you children. At this point in time I’m just trying to find my baselines on various exercises and figuring out how I want to proceed. The info here will definitely help.


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