Brandon Senn competes in Powerlifting and is the Head Coach at Kabuki Strength Virtual Coaching. His mission is to support athletes through global management systems that directly influence their performance within the competitive realm.
Over the past decade the idea that you can fluidly manage training loads based on defined scales has gone from a distant idea, to now being adopted as a critical tool that many lifters use every day in their training. Some coaches even base entire training philosophies on this concept. That’s not to say the formalization of autoregulation was the beginning of its application. Since man began training for sport or towards desired physical outcomes we have been managing how heavy, or how hard we push at any given time mostly based by feel. Not since the creation of specified scales have we began to put a name to it. But as with formally attaching a name to this idea, everything must evolve. This article is going to expand on the idea of autoregulating training load from its first use in medicine, into current trends in fitness, and to velocity and objective regulators. This article isn’t intended to overload you with information, but rather provide detailed instructions on how to implement each specific method into your training immediately.
AMRAPs the Beginning of Autoregulation as a Method
Ever wonder where the ever popular 3 sets of 10 came from? The Progressive Resistance Method was designed as a method for increasing maximal strength, where the weight lifted gradually increases as proprioceptive feedback (the body’s awareness to a stimulus) increases. The DeLorme Method (as used in the rehabilitation of soldiers after WWII) requires the individual to lift 50%, 75%, and 100% of 10RM loads (respectively) over the course of 3 sets for 10 repetitions. So what’s this have to do with autoregulation? As an expansion to the DeLorme Method the Daily Adjustable Progressive Resistance Exercise (DAPRE) has been used in physiotherapy as a means to test, train, and rehabilitate patients. Unlike the Delorme Method, this method requires 4 total sets as follows: (set 1) 10 repetitions with 50% of the estimated 6RM, (set 2) 6 repetitions with 75% of the estimated 6RM, (set 3) the estimated 6RM is taken to failure, and (set 4) load for the final set was based on the number of repetitions completed during set 3. The number of repetitions completed during the final set was used to determine starting weight for the following training session.
With the narrow structure and limitations of the DARPE, an expanded version with intentions of greater versatility was developed. This method was termed the APRE (Autoregulating Progressive Resistance Exercises). Conceptualized from the DARPE the APRE still includes the 6RM routine but also includes 10RM, and 3RM routines. Reviewing the above table, you should be familiar with the means of execution so below is provided the APRE with adjustment table.
As we can see from the above table, the modality of load regulation comes from an “as many reps as possible” test which provides an objective instruction on load alteration. Keeping in mind the above methods were constructed primarily as part of rehabilitation programs. These specific methods likely won’t provide enough overload for qualified lifters as standalone programs and as such may still be used, but in part of a bigger scheme. To create your own autoregulated program structured around AMRAP testing you must first define the outcome of testing and structure progression/regression accordingly. For all AMRAP testing based training programs early micro cycles should determine baseline testing scores before implementing testing periods.
RPE, RIR, and DRE. Subjective Methods of Autoregulation
RPE, RIR, DRE, and what does it all mean? If you are interested in autoregulation you are probably familiar with the first acronym (Rating of Perceived Exertion) originally conceptualized by Gunnar Borg. The Borg scale had intended use in medicine and sport and ranged from RPE 6-20 with incrementally increasing ratings. Later the CR10 scale (Borg) was developed to measure various types of perceptions and experiences, from pain, taste, smell, and other sensations. If autoregulating aerobic training is your goal, this scale (or a similar version with descriptive respiratory thresholds) is the one to use.
The Borg scale offers useful application across many disciplines including medicine and sport. However, most individuals (especially lifters) reading this with experience using RPEs are likely more familiar with Mike Tuchscherer’s evolution of the Borg scale. The Tuchscherer version might not be as versatile as the Borg scale, but what it lacks in diversity it makes up for in specific application to barbell sports.
When talking about RPE’s as they are used in autoregulation, it is sometimes in comparison to percentage based programs which tend to be structurally fixed instead of fluid. Lucky for us, autoregulation and percentages are not mutually exclusive to one another. In fact, there may very well be a direct relationship to the form of autoregulation used and a lifters loading profile. Mike Tuchscherer has a system for creating a custom RPE chart. This chart aims to define load as it relates to RPE based exertion.
Similar to RPE, RIR (reps in reserve) is a form of autoregulation that leads to a similar rating result. Though not exactly the same as the RPE.
So what can we learn from these two charts? Notice that instead of 7 subjective indicators with the RPE chart, we now have 4 subjective indicators with the RIR chart. Neither is inherently good or bad. Some may find convenience in the simplicity in the RIR chart while others may be objective enough with themselves to accurately rate to the nearest half point. Rating a set according to the RPE scale (for higher RPEs) usually asks some form of how hard was that? How many more could you have done? Was the bar speed fast or slow? While the RIR scale simply asks how many more could you have done. Review percentage blocks for each measurement we can see the RIR chart gives a bit more freedom in ratings which may be suitable for a more aggressive lifter. You may have noticed that we haven’t yet touched on Descriptive Rating of Exertion (DRE). Probably the greatest downside to the RPE or RIR scale is the further you get from the left of the chart, the less user friendly it becomes and the more qualified a user needs to be in order to maximize the charts effectiveness. Well that’s where the DRE scale comes in.
Instead of using a numbered scale, the DRE chart gives a more flexible definition for each indicator similar to the Borg scale. This is likely more beneficial the further you get from the left of the chart as each rep performed adds another set of variables that must be accounted for during the rating process. Trying to figure out how many more reps you could perform may be somewhat difficult during phases of submaximal training, thus descriptive ratings may show usefulness. Another critical comparison between RPE and DRPE is in the actual range of common ratings. When using RPEs (Tuchscherer) it is likely much easier to work up to the ceiling of the prescribed RPE when choosing training loads. This may cause training that is intended to be lighter/easier to become more difficult. Because of the broader range between ratings in the DRE scale lifters may be able to choose loads across a greater spectrum of intensity.
Velocity as a Method of Autoregulation
As training methods and theories evolve so does the advancement and introduction of technology. Much of the excitement currently is the accessibility of velocity measuring devices. This technology has been around for about 50 years so it may be a bit misleading to put at the end of the list. However, only recently have devices become more affordable and available for the average lifter. Velocity (in meters per second, m/s) and percentage of 1RM share a linear relationship. With this understanding and through proper testing we are able to correlate 1RM percentages with velocity or associate a training adaptation within a velocity zone/range. Unlike RPE, RIR, and DRE (subjective) methods, velocity is a 100% objective measure. Subjective methods require the lifter to answer a question while velocity represents a single definite number that tells you exactly how fast the bar is moving. One of the greatest uses for velocity is with custom velocity profiles for each lift. Because velocity is more closely related to the percentage you are working with (not the load), we are able to map percentages with their corresponding velocities to give some meaning behind the raw velocity data. If we have an idea of where our velocity needs to be on any given percentage, we can then make interventions to raise or lower a training weight based on objective feedback from your measuring device. This may be useful when deciding if how a weight “feels” is actually accurate to how well you are performing. To put all of this in perspective, below is our previous RPE chart now integrated with velocity.
An alternative option to velocity profiling are velocity zones. Zones are likely a good option for multi quality sports, non-profiled lifts, or lifts with unknown 1RM’s. A very important note when implementing velocity zones is that velocity is movement specific. A squat will typically move faster than a bench press, and a deadlift may move even slower at similar percentages. When using velocity zones, you will likely need separate charts for squat, bench, and deadlift variations (or any other lift not related to those variations).
Free Kabuki Strength Velocity Profiling Tool
Blending Methods and Which Method Should You Choose
Now that we’ve covered the most notable forms of autoregulation, how do you choose which to use? Everything we’ve covered thus far should (in theory) lead to the same end result but through a different path, but is that actually true? A recent study compared RPE values using RIR in experiences squatters and novice squatters while monitoring mean velocity. The results showed a slower mean velocity at 100% 1RM for the experienced squatters and faster for the novice squatters however, there were no differences at 60-75% 1RM between the groups. In addition to these findings the experiences squatters rated higher RPE values at 1RM than the novice squatters. There was a strong inverse relationship between velocity and RPE at all intensities. With these findings we can reasonably assume that for novice lifters a subjective rating scale may not be the most optimal form of autoregulation. As such, a more appropriate option is likely AMRAPs and/or velocity. To gain greater awareness it is recommended for novice lifters to start out by only recording RPEs rather than basing load alterations on them. There is currently no evidence advocating one system over another for experienced lifters. Do we have to choose one system to use and not the other? The following chart offers insight into the various methods of autoregulation and how they relate to one another. This may be a powerful tool when attempting to blend systems.
By examining this chart, we can observe the relationship between the various systems of autoregulation. As mentioned in the study above, novice and advanced lifters may respond slightly different to each system. With my personal philosophy of autoregulation considered, my recommendation on use is as follows.
- Novice or lifters new to autoregulation who want to implement one of the above methods are best suited to use AMRAPs, or velocity while only recording RPE, RIR, or DRE.
- Intermediate lifters may use AMRAPs (with careful consideration to placement in the training plan) and/or velocity. Subjective forms (RPE, RIR, DRE) may be used if sufficient experience has been gained in recording ratings prior to basing load alterations on them.
- Advanced lifters are likely better served using velocity, or subjective methods. AMRAPs may still be used but because of the higher potential to generate force (this is especially true for heavier lifters) AMRAP testing may consume excessive training economy that could be spent in more profitable areas.
- Hackett, Daniel et al. “A novel scale to assess resistant-exercise effort.” Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
- Zourdos, Michael et al. “Novel resistance training-specific rating of perceived exertion scale measuring repetitions in reserve.” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.
- Mann, Bryan. “Velocity based training.” NCAA. Web. 05 Jan. 2016.
- Tuchscherer, Mike. “Customizing your RPE chart.” Reactive Training Systems. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
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