You want to make every workout count and progress, so you push yourself to the limit as much as possible. After all, how else will you keep making gains?
Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for getting burnt out, or worse, hurting yourself.
If you get sidelined for too long, all those “gains” you’ve been working so hard to get go out the window. Working your way back from that takes not only time, but emotional energy as well. It’s a roller coaster that can prevent you from being your best.
There’s a better way that will ensure you keep making progress while avoiding injury and burn-out.
It’s called autoregulation, and below, I’ll show you how it works and how to make it a part of your training. Trust me, it’s worth it.
What Autoregulation is and Why You Need it
Autoregulation is a fancy term for adjusting your workload within each training session based on how you’re performing relative to previous sessions. You change your intensity and volume of today’s training based on how difficult it is compared to how you’ve performed before.
It isn’t just about how you “feel,” but is based on your actual performance of the exercises at the time.
Sometimes, this will mean pulling back your workload if your reps aren’t feeling snappy and strong like they did at your last workout, even with the same loads or exercise variations. This can take some getting used to if you’re used to pushing yourself to the limit each and every workout.
But, whether you want to or not, if you push yourself to the limit every time you train, at some point you’ll be forced to slow things down.
You Can’t Improve With Every Workout
We’re all used to the difficulties of starting a new routine. Even if you’ve been training intensely for a while, when you change things up, you’re bound to have a week or so of sore muscles while acclimating to new stimulus. But eventually, that dissipates.
Once you get past the first few weeks and get into the groove and rhythm of your routine, it just feels easier. With each workout, your metrics improve and you get better and better.
But this can’t last forever, of course, and you hit a bad training session or two.
You can push through it and kick ass at the next go-around. But the next time things go south, it’s not as easy. A few times through this cycle and, with every bad day, you feel worse and worse. Until, eventually, you lose your motivation to train.
Or, you push through a little too hard even while your body is feeling more and more worn down and–pop!–something gets jacked up in your back or knee or shoulder.
You get the idea.
Without autoregulation, and with the goal of the “most intense” workout every time you train, you are quite simply putting yourself on the road to a breakdown. Also, if you expect that you’ll be able to progress intensity and load with each session–that’s simply not possible.
How Autoregulation Helps You Stay On Course
When you’re on an intense training program and you push yourself hard, you’re likely to make really steep progress for the first few weeks. But as we’ve seen, that steep progress can often result in a steep decline due to any number of reasons–mental and/or physical fatigue, injury, or lack of motivation.
Conversely, when you use autoregulation to adjust your workload with each training session to match that day’s performance, your progress may not be as steep, but it will be much more steady and reliable.
In the next section, I’ll show you how to make autoregulation a part of your routine, and you’ll see that when you’re doing it right, you’ll naturally have ebbs and flows in your performance–just like we have ebbs and flows in other areas of our life as well.
But even with a lot more “low” days than you might have with a maximal effort training program, the overall trajectory will be steady progress over time.
I Crushed the 21-Day Squat Challenge Using Autoregulation
A couple of years ago, I went through Nick Horton’s 21-Day Squat Challenge, where I did Front Squats daily to a maximum weight for single and triple repetitions, sometimes up to 20 sets per session.
Crazy? I would say yes.
But it turned out to be a great crash course in the importance of autoregulation and in how to train productively for the rest of my life. If I hadn’t heeded the concepts of autoregulation, I’d have burned out or hurt myself before the end of the program, and I certainly wouldn’t have gained much.
When I started, I knew that if I had to hype myself up for every session and expect to fully max out as hard as possible every time, I would burn out very quickly. And after the first few days, there were certainly days where I had to drag myself to the squat rack while thinking, “Why the hell am I doing this?!”
But interestingly enough, those days didn’t correlate with how well I actually performed.
Some days I thought I’d do great, and I did, yet other times I felt pumped up but did poorly. And the reverse was also true. Sometimes, I felt like hell, and yet it turned out to be a great session. Sometimes it was a good performance two days in a row and sometimes it was two bad days in succession, etc.
They happened randomly and I couldn’t predict it.
And that’s the beauty of autoregulation. You don’t need to predict it beforehand, you simply evaluate as you get into the workout and do your first few sets.
The daily work on this routine made me let go of my expectations, and I went into the day’s training without any preconceived notion of whether it was going to be good or bad. This allowed me to train hard and really push it when it felt right, and stop and just do the minimum when I needed to.
3 Steps to Autoregulate Your Training
As you can see from my own experience, using autoregulation can help you achieve goals that wouldn’t really be possible with a maximal effort program.
I’m not suggesting you go through the 21-Day Squat Challenge (although it was a great experience for me and I made significant progress), but that you start implementing autoregulation into your training so that you can get the most out of each session, while staying safe and fresh in your technique.
The following steps will help you make autoregulation a part of your routine.
1. Assess Yourself at the Start of Your Session
Before you start your session, take a minute or two to check in and see how you’re feeling.
- Did you get enough sleep last night? Are you feeling overly tired?
- Are your muscles feeling particularly sore or tight?
- Have you had enough to eat and/or drink today?
- Any other major stress preoccupying you?
We always recommend using your warm-up as a way to prepare yourself for your session in this way. As you go through your preparatory movements, pay attention to how your body is feeling before your session.
Bear in mind, though, that the way you’re feeling at the start of your session should not dictate how you go into your training for the day.
As I showed with my squatting example, our expectations about how a session is going to go often don’t correlate well with how our actual performance is in the session. But it’s important to start each session with this check-in so you have a baseline to compare to.
2. Rate Your Performance and Adjust as Needed
As you start and continue through the meat of your workout for the day, pay attention to the quality and ease of your movements. Is your performance matching what you expected from your warm-up? Do you need to pull back a bit on your workload today, or can you handle a bit more than anticipated?
In many of our programs, we use this scale to measure Quality and Ease. You can use it to rate each set you go through:
If your Ease rating is Maximum Effort and your Quality is Rough or Broken, that’s a good indicator that you’ll want to take it down a notch today. This can either mean cutting your session down to the bare minimum sets and reps, or it can mean dropping down the difficulty of the exercises.
On the other hand, if you expected this to be a crappy session, you may find your Quality and Ease ratings are really good today, which might mean you can ramp things up a bit. Just make sure you’re keeping your quality at a good level.
This may seem pretty subjective but it actually does correlate very well with objective devices that measure your intensity. Alex Hutchinson says in his Outside magazine column, Sweat Science, “if you’re measuring RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) and doing it well, this suggests that you’re getting as much information about your training effort as you’d get with a power meter and a bunch of sophisticated analysis.”
So after a few times of getting used to it and practicing rating your efforts and quality, you’ll be tracking just as well as fancy devices. And you don’t have to buy or wear anything special!
3. Reflect on Your Session
The last step is an essential part of autoregulation, and that is reflecting on your session. This will help you compare your next session to this one so you can gauge how you’re performing relative to previous sessions.
Reflection doesn’t have to mean writing pages and pages about your session, but it’s a good idea to jot down a few notes.
Here are some ideas you can reflect on:
- How did you feel your session went compared to how you thought it was going to go at the start of the session?
- Were you pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised by your performance?
- Did you learn anything that you want to remind yourself about next time?
When you start your next session, glance over this reflection to compare your assessments to your previous session.
In it for the Long Haul
Here at GMB we always emphasize that training is for the rest of our lives, not just for a little bit here and there.
There’s no benefit to constantly pushing yourself to the max and risking injury or burnout, which can throw you off the rails for a long time. Just like yo-yo dieting, it’s simply not good for you.
Remove the sense of competition, especially with others, and maybe even with yourself. Your fitness training doesn’t have to be a battle. Train because you want to. Do better when you can, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t.
The principles of autoregulation are built into each of our programs. If you’re used to pushing yourself hard and want to build strength and conditioning in the context of a program that can be adjusted to your needs each day, our Integral Strength program is a good place to start.
It’s a good introduction to the balance between intense training and mindful reflection.
Learn to Autoregulate While Building Serious Strength
With Integral Strength, you’ll build serious strength, while learning to adjust your workload to keep yourself safe and strong.