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Recovery Management: The Theory of Autoregulation

Posted by Issac Ishak on

“Listen to your body!”

“Okay, well how do I do that?”

Ever tried fitting in a suit that wasn’t tailored for you and being stuck in it?

Neither have I- but I’d imagine it’d be similar to jumping into a training program that wasn’t tailored for you. At the heart of science lies this one small fact: one size does not fit all.

While general principles apply to all individuals, putting them into practice is more art than science. Innate differences in health, aerobic capacity, biomechanics, muscle fiber type, etc. all influence how you will respond to a specific program or protocol. Only through trial and error will you be able to determine what works for you. Science is the framework that should guide the development and execution of a program, but there is no substitute for experience and common sense.

If you’re new to the industry, it’s very common to get different ‘camps’ of people who believe/disbelieve certain methods or are dogmatic with certain approaches- but it’s important to understand that everything matters and everything works. It just depends on:

1. For who, and

2. For what.

‘Training by feel’ sounds very vague, but it’s important to understand how you can better tune into the subtle cues your body provides you on a day to day basis- this is defined as your biofeedback signals which I wrote a pretty comprehensive article about the variety of applications behind monitoring biofeedback signals. It’s important to have that background understanding before diving any deeper, so if you haven’t read that article yet- I recommend you take 10 minutes to give it a read. The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback defines biofeedback as a process that allows people to alter their physiological activity in order to improve health or performance. As we relate this to training, this pays huge dividends for a client or athlete to help them learn how to be independent and make real-time decisions on the spot.

While statistical analysis at the group level helps us paint a picture on the importance of training variables like frequency and volume (1), if we step back and take a look at things from a global perspective- the data reveals large variations in hypertrophic adaptation all at the individual level, ranging from minute to great responsiveness where individuals can respond better with higher or lower frequency/volumes (2). Here’s why: people adapt at different rates and the ‘best’ training approach for one person might be a pretty awful approach for another person. Depending on the nature and intensity of a training session, full recovery can take anywhere from a few days to a week, or even longer depending on the type of training you’re doing. The Theory of Autoregulation stems from The Principle of Individuality. It’s a structured means for honoring individual variation within program design. Every single strength training system in the world that has demonstrated repeated success at the highest levels has incorporated some form of autoregulation. Every one. Not all use the same tools, but they all adapt systematically to the fluctuating capabilities of the individual. The Principle of Individuality dictates that the decisions concerning the nature of training should be made with each individual in mind.

  1. Your readiness to train, rate of recovery, and session performance are influenced by multiple variables that you may not have full control over (such as sleep, stress, state of mind, mental readiness, nutrition, recovery- for females mensural cycle phase).
  2. Trainees themselves can become a reliable source of information when determining rate of recovery and readiness to train (subjective data is just as important as objective data).
- Adapted from @ReviveStronger-


For a given routine (frequency/volume), training to technical failure or having a few reps in reserve can make a significant difference when comparing individual adaptations (3). This variance is a consequence of hormetic stress induced through resistance training stimulus. Too little stress can be suboptimal for producing meaningful adaptations or too much stress can be 'too much' and impede recovery/performance- the appropriate stimulus is a function of recovery (adequate sleep, sufficient calories/protein, lifestyle, general activity, supplementation, external stress management). Bodybuilders have preached for years that there are days to “give it your all” and sometimes there are days when it feels right to pull back on the gas, or move a session to a different day.

Here’s the secret…

The trick is to continuously cultivate an optimal overload stimulus by knowing when and how to aim for progression, whether that be reps, load, sets, which exercises are the “right” ones for that day, etc. (4) (5). Progression isn’t one dimensional and it’s also dependent on the context and practicality of the exercise in a given session. Ex. RDLs are probably more practical when it comes to progressing via load, or reps, rather than more sets due to the demand of the exercise. VS’s Something like a Tricep Pressdowns where reps or sets, are probably more practical than load due to a disadvantage in leverage.

Far too many people think they have to go all out balls to the wall all the time, or it’s not worth it. The reality is, there are levels to this. A majority of the population aren’t competitive athletes with timetables: So if you need, or want to, or realize you need to cut back and work more minimally to get quality work in over the long term, then make the appropriate adjustments. Most recent literature tells us that there’s a dose-response relationship of volume to results all the way up to 10+ sets, per muscle group, per week (5.1). Does that mean more work = more gains? Well, it depends on the person. Some may need more, some may need less. Understanding the dose-response relationship will allow us to be more efficient and effective with what we're doing in the gym- understanding the opposite end of the spectrum, minimum effective dose (MEV), is just as important. This may look something like 3 to 5 sets/week for most people depending on training level of advancement. Super easy to get done and while the results might be slow and weekly progress is less noticeable, it will allow you to consistently get the work done. Growing evidence is conclusive in suggesting “autoregulation” of volume can be achieved with manipulation of RPE/RIR, load (6) and exercise selection (7). Ultimately this will result in larger improvements with lean body mass strength, motivation and enjoyment- because at the end of the day, your training should be fun (8). It takes a unique individual to 'tap in' to a certain level of self-awareness, self-regulation (control), patience, and experience, to be successful autoregulating and “training by feel” in a subjective self-guided manner.

Now that we’ve covered what autoregulation is and given a few explanations in which it can be utilized- it’s time to talk about one of the more accessible and known autoregulatory methods: RPE-based training. RPE (rate of perceived exertion) was first introduced by Gunnar Borg 50 years ago as a means to quantify for one's perceived level of exertion during resistance training. When the scale was originally created it was from 6-20 which scaled to heart rate. As the years progressed it was simplified down to the 1-10 scale that is more commonly used today. The scores on these scales are determined by a subjective description of fatigue.

In 2018 Dr. Eric Helms published a study comparing the effects of two loading methods:

1) Autoregulation via rating of perceived exertion (RPE) based on reps in reserve (RIR)


2) %1RM based fixed loading

Results hinted at the benefits of RPE based autoregulation over fixed loading for strength development. Recent evidence by Graham et al. (2019) (11) further supports previous findings that training using RPE/RIR based autoregulation had greater strength outcomes compared to the traditional %1RM-based fixed load approach. The differences in strength gains were accompanied by greater weekly intensities of effort when training loads were autoregulated via RPE/RIR. This eludes that RPE/RIR based autoregulation provides an opportunity for an individual to select loads that are more reflective of the desired intensity. For instance, if the prescribed intensity for that day was 65%1RM for 10 reps, fixed loading means that the trainee would select a load equal to 65% of their baseline 1RM regardless of any development of strength since baseline, or level of readiness current capabilities. If this were the scenario on a given day, you’d be lifting a load that is not representative of 65% of your current ‘max’ strength. On the other hand, utilizing RPE/RIR based autoregulation would allow us to choose a load that after performing 10 reps would be able to have 4 reps left in the tank- this approach to loading would account for the individual's current strength capabilities and readiness which can vary based on a multitude of variables previously covered.

Bottom line is: our bodies adapt at different rates. 🤷🏽‍♂️

Auto-Regulation is a programming method that helps us better regulate fatigue or training volume. There are multiple scenarios it can be applied. Auto-Regulation is simply, a structured approach for honoring individual variation in program design- Think of it as a flexible form of periodization.

The human body is amazing, but despite our biological similarities, we’re all wired differently. Just because someone looks good, doesn’t necessarily mean they know what they’re talking about. So although someone may preach ‘x’ approach works for me, that approach might not work for the majority. Over time we tend to get a better feel for our ‘readiness’ to train, or how well recovery-status is. Our ability to train is totally dependent on how well recovered we are— keep in mind per session performance is influenced by sleep, stress, mood, emotional status, nutrition, etc... Just remember that Autoregulation is NOT an EXCUSE to not get a session in, or consistently skip training sessions. There's a fine line between using it as a means to better progress/manage stress and using it as an excuse. There’s something to be said for listening to biofeedback signals, and adjusting based on feel when and if necessary.

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