Clearing Up My Thoughts on Auto-Regulation

Written by: Kevin Cann

I made a post last night explaining the reasons why I do not use auto-regulation to dictate day to day training loads.  I titled it “Why I am not a fan of auto-regulation.”  Perhaps this title was a bit misleading?  I am not sure.

I went on to explain my thoughts and reasoning for it within the contexts of our programs. I think alot of people assume that auto-regulation is the adjustment of in session training loads based off of RPE. I went with this understanding instead of the the research definition of an emergent process to individualize training. This I absolutely do and use.

 I get asked about RPE a lot and just wanted to get out my reasoning for not using it to dictate day to day training loads.  This was never meant as a disrespectful statement to those that use the RPE approach.  In fact, I even wrote that statement as the first line.  The powerlifting world is big enough for many different methods.

Auto-regulation is a means to individualize training.  I am not arguing against the individualizing of training.  I think this is a very necessary component of coaching.  I use RPE as a means of communication between the athlete and myself.  They record a last set RPE on each training exercise to let me know how difficult it was.

I do not give them an RPE to target on these days, but a percentage with a set and rep scheme.  The rep schemes are selected to be 1/3 to 1/2 of a rep maximum at a given intensity.  For example, if you can perform a 10 rep maximum at 75% then the reps will fall between 3 to 5.  This is based off of Russian research performed on athletes of all levels, astronauts, and soldiers.  They found these loading strategies were best to keep the athlete healthy and making progress.  Much of this data was collected over multiple Olympic training periods.  Each Olympic training period consists of 4 years so there is a long term element to it.

If I were to give RPEs to the lifters it would not work because the range would be very low.  What makes these days more difficult in terms of perceived effort, is the training days that precede it.  There is an accumulation of fatigue that builds up from training consistently.  This will make 3 to 5 reps at 75% feel much heavier than if we were fully fresh.

This can decrease the average training intensity of the program.  Then the discussion moves to internal vs external loads and what matters most?  They both matter.  For reasons we may not understand, the Russians found that 67% of total lifts should be performed between 70% to 85% yielded the highest levels of success.  We have also seen studies that show the importance of internal loads.  They both matter, and this is why I actually use percentages to dictate training loads, but RPEs to gauge the difficulty for the lifter.  From there, the training weeks are organized appropriately, but still with the average intensities that have shown to be most successful in strength training programs. This is auto-regulation, but a coach driven process.

We hit max effort lifts in the beginning of the week.  These may not be very physically taxing, but there is a psychological toll that these days take on the lifter.  Mental fatigue can lead to increases in perceived effort.  The difference between elite level athletes and everyone else is their abilities to push through higher perceived efforts.  This is where the whole “He or she just wants it more” comes from.  I do think desire plays a role, but there are many factors here to why they are capable of pushing themselves harder at times.

In most cases the athlete will take the easy way out here.  Even if they do not, that perceived effort may be higher, but they are still capable of executing the work as written but may decide to drop weight to fit within that subjective framework.  The mind can often play tricks on us.

I think this is actually a defense mechanism that protects us from utilizing all of our resources and dying.  It makes sure we got something left in case that we need it.  This does not mean that we are not physically capable of performing the work.  This makes it very difficult to tell the difference between actually being physiologically overtaxed, or if it is just the brain increasing perceived effort as a defense mechanism.  RPE only reflects the physiological pieces somewhat, and not entirely.  Sometimes training should be hard, and sometimes we just need to do the work.

How you feel does not necessarily correlate with how you are performing.  This is important to understand for every lifter that wants to be a serious competitor.  I can’t say this enough, sometimes training is hard, it has to be.

This is why you have a coach.  The coach should be an expert on load management planning within a training plan.  There should be enough high days to stress adaptive processes, medium days for maintenance, and low days for recovery and technical practice.  The coach helps bring accountability to the athlete as well.  Like I said, sometimes you need to just do the work.

This does not mean that we just follow a program blindly.  No one is saying that.  The coach is the expert and should be using that expertise to take the information they receive from the lifter to make the best decisions possible for them moving forward.  

This analogy was used to explain the stock market, another chaotic and non-linear complex system.  It is like a person walking a dog in the park.  The dog will go all over the place and even piss on itself, that is the day to day fluctuations we see.  The person walking the dog walks in a straight line through the park.  This is the long term progress.  Both the dog and the person get from A to B because the person guides the dog with the leash.  However, within the radius of that leash the person has little control.

Using RPE to dictate day to day loading strategies is more like the dog walking the person.  If we allow those day to day fluctuations to dictate the decisions, we may never get to point B.  This is how I see it at least.  Again, to re-emphasize, I am not criticizing anyone that uses this approach, I am just explaining my perspective on it.  Complex systems are messy, and we can only control what we can control.  

The unpredictability of subjective feedback makes me want to stay away from it dictating decisions.  This does not mean that it is not important.  When we walk the dog, sometimes we need to stop so it can take a piss.  We walk a different dog and maybe it just runs right through the park.  That subjective feedback is important.

We utilize a step-loading protocol of planning training.  We repeat numbers over and over again.  The subjective feedback from the lifters allows me to see how well they are adapting to the program.  If they are adapting well, they get more high days, if not, more medium and low days, but volumes and average intensities stay relatively similar.

If we perform 75% of 1RM for 5 sets of 4 reps in week 1 and they record it as an RPE 8, but then 2 weeks later record the RPE as a 6, then they are adapting to the program.  We can add weight, or reps at this point.

The question then would most likely be, “Why not let them add weight when it feels like a 6?  Wouldn’t this lead to greater increases in strength because we are loading weight when appropriate?”  This is a fantastic question, but 1 day does not make or break strength gains.  Patience is a virtue that pays off in the end.

Also, the intensity is not all that matters.  We have max effort days; we get plenty of sport specific intensity.  When the RPE is lower it allows the athlete to execute the reps at the highest levels in the block in terms of technical proficiency, allows them to get work in, and also allows them to recover more.  

If we are adapting and getting stronger there is no need to rush progress.  Why risk becoming overtaxed?  Let the athlete adapt and stabilize within those higher levels of adaptations instead of immediately trying to layer on more adaptation.  Let the weights mature and ripen before they grow.  This is how stable progress is achieved.

I am not saying that everyone should do it this way.  There are many coaches that will strongly disagree with me here and that is fine.  Disagreement is ok and actually a good thing.  At the end of the day I am a fucking nobody so take this for what it is worth.  

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