• Hot Topic: Practical Auto-Regulatory Strength Training
    This article focuses on subjective feedback and intra-workout performance to customize training for the individual and improve training outcomes. Practical methods to implement "Auto Regulatory" training based on available literature and current practice are presented.
  • comment 
    Tell us what you think of this article in the new
    "comments" section below.
  • Practical Auto Reg Strength Training

    IntroductionPeriodization is the strategic organization of training to optimize progress while avoiding setbacks and injuries (1). This method of organizing training elicits superior results when compared to non-periodized training (2). However, even the best planning cannot account for all variables that affect athletes’ acute readiness. 

    Sleep, emotional stress, illness, and diet all significantly influence training. Furthermore, professionals who work with teams train groups of athletes. In this case, not only must they account for individual variability, but also they must try to apply training strategies to many athletes each potentially at a different level of readiness.
    Elite athletes have extraordinary abilities of perception, intuition, split-decision making, and anticipation (3).  

    This mind and body awareness manifests from innate talent and years of experience, allowing them to train near optimal capacity, if self-regulation is encouraged. The question becomes, how can a coach transfer this ability to athletes without this innate talent or experience?

    One method that attempts to achieve these ends by matching training stress to athlete-readiness is Auto-Regulatory Training (AT) (4, 5). This approach to training is designed to adapt to individual changing needs to allow optimal training more frequently. Sometimes a workout intended to be hard can be easy if the athlete is particularly well recovered or energetic. 

    Likewise, a workout intended to be light can be fatiguing if under-recovered. A practitioner implementing AT uses specific criteria that dictate training variables based on athlete readiness, theoretically improving training efficiency (6, 7).Due to the flexible nature of AT, its investigation is rare because it is difficult to set up appropriate study designs and controls. Despite this, existing research is promising (4, 5) and several reviewers have noted its potential as a training tool (6, 8). Furthermore, numerous practitioners already utilize AT with success, evident in commercial training (9) and in observational research (10).

    This article focuses on subjective measures of readiness and ways to use them to guide training. Depending on the resources of the practitioner, objective measures such as heart rate reserve (11), salivary testosterone and cortisol ratio (12), or others may be available to further augment these measures and inform training. Following is a discussion of the literature on AT, a system of AT currently used in the private sector and practical methods to implement AT for strength development.

    Auto-Regulatory Progressive Resistance ExerciseOver 60 years ago, DeLorme et al. (13) first detailed the Progressive Resistance Exercise (PRE) method to rehabilitate quadriceps strength after injury, and it became the basis for contemporary resistance training prescription. 

    Nearly 30 years later, Knight et al. (14) modified PRE to adjust to patients’ daily abilities, naming it Daily Adjustable Progressive Resistance Exercise (DAPRE). In this 1979 study, DAPRE proved more efficient in strength rehabilitation than traditional methods. This was a novel modification to PRE at the time and over thirty years later, DAPRE is still lauded as safe and efficient for rehabilitation of patients at all levels (7).

    Most recently, Mann et al. (4) modified DAPRE for strength training. Coined Auto-regulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE), APRE was compared to traditional Linear Periodization (LP) in training college football athletes. The LP group progressed weekly for six weeks from three sets of eight at 70% 1RM, eventually to 4 sets of 5 at 85% of 1RM, with a test of maximal strength on week six. Volume and intensity were not matched since the APRE group’s protocol was dictated daily by individual performance. The 6RM protocol outlined in Table 1 was used for the majority of the 6 weeks, and the 3RM and 10RM protocols were utilized less. 

    Helms Table 1

    The APRE group improved by an average of 21 lb more in the 1RM bench press test, 35 lb more in the 1RM squat test, and three repetitions more in the bench press to fatigue test than the LP group. Auto-regulatory progressive resistance exercise is a four set system in which the first two sets are preparatory sets for two subsequent sets taken to failure. The repetitions performed in the third set determine the load used in the fourth. There are 3, 6, and 10RM protocols, designed to elicit adaptations in strength and power, strength and hypertrophy, and hypertrophy, respectively. By utilizing Table 1 and cross-referencing Table 2, load assignments can be made and put into practice in training.

    Helms Table 1

    A limitation of APRE to consider is how the fourth set adjustment is made. While a 5–15 lb adjustment may be appropriate for some athletes and lifts, it may be too much for some and not enough for others. Consider the load difference with maximal deadlifts between an experienced 200-lb male strength athlete and an inexperienced 130-lb female team sport athlete. Conceivably, one could be triple that of the other. Instead of adjusting in absolute poundage, it may be more versatile to adjust by percentage as seen in Table 3 so the system can be applied to wider varieties of individuals and lifts.


    Helms Table 1

    Flexible Nonlinear PeriodizationAnother method of AT is Flexible Nonlinear Periodization (FNP)(5). Flexible nonlinear periodization takes Nonlinear Periodization (NP) and adds elements of AT. In nonlinear periodization, training parameters are varied acutely each workout or weekly (15). Nonlinear periodization is suggested by some researchers to be superior to linear periodization (8, 16), however the results of other studies are to the contrary (17). Nonetheless, researchers continue to explore NP for its potential to optimize training.

    McNamara et al. (5) compared NP to FNP in a college weight training class for 12 weeks. The volume, intensity, exercise selection, and number of exercises were the same in both groups. Both utilized 10, 15, and 20RM loads in their programming. The NP group followed these protocols in a pre-planned fashion, while the FNP group chose one protocol each session based on daily readiness. To quantify daily readiness, they assessed their energy from 0 to 10; with 10 indicating maximal energy and readiness, and zero indicating no energy. 


    The premise being that when energy was high, heavier loads would be used and training would be more successful. The FNP group increased their leg press by an average of 62 kg over 12 weeks, while the NP group increased on average by 16 kg. This simple system is detailed in Table 4 and it only requires athletes to gauge daily energy. Presumably, this skill improves as athletes gain self-awareness and improve their ability to self-monitor.  

    Helms Table 1

    A limitation of this method arises from the potential to misunderstand load selection. A true repetition maximum, be it 10 or 20 repetitions, is still demanding if the set is taken to failure. Thus, it may be better to apply the concept more broadly. A coach can simply match the difficulty of the workout to the energy of the athlete.   

    For example instead of a 10, 15 or 20RM load selection as shown in Table 4, a workout could be assigned based on a qualitative evaluation of its difficulty (i.e., light, moderate, or hard, respectively).

    The specific loading parameters in this study are also designed for a beginning weight training class. Higher intensity loading assignments more specific to strength and power could be implemented for a more experienced population. Another limitation is that this method may not be applicable to athletes training in-season or at the end of pre-season that are required to compete at specific times. 

    Athletes with these requirements need to be at peak performance on game day. Even if high energy levels allow for a high-intensity session, it may be inappropriately timed if too close to competition. Thus, it may be more appropriate for off-season training designed to provide general fitness and strength rather than preparation for competition at a specific date.

    Ratings of Perceived Exertion in Resistance TrainingAn assumption of AT is that the athlete is in the best position to determine their own abilities. Therefore, if this awareness is translated into programming, performance may improve. This premise requires a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), or in the case of McNamara et al. (5) a rating of readiness. The study of RPE began over thirty years ago (18, 19) to assess aerobic training, but more recently it has been studied in resistance training.

    While not all researchers deem RPE a reliable measure of performance (20), the majority conclude it is a reliable way to quantify resistance training intensity (21-25). A rating of perceived exertion correlates with training strain as measured by hormonal response (26), can be used to estimate percentage of 1RM (27), and can be used for load selection in certain populations (28-30).

    However, the use of RPE in resistance training is not without limitations. Some researchers suggest RPE does not reliably report set-to-set intensity, and is more effective at measuring the difficulty of entire sessions (31). In adolescents, reports of RPE can be inconsistent (32). 

    Also, RPE accuracy is enhanced with training experience (33, 34), indicating it is less effective for novices. Furthermore, RPE without training structure provides differing results depending on the population. For example, untrained women who self-selected the intensities of their workout chose loads too light to promote optimal adaptations even though RPE accurately reflected the loads chosen (35).

    To put RPE in context, it is likely a better rating of fatigue than intensity per se, as reducing inter-set (36) or inter-repetition (37) rest intervals results in a higher RPE, which is related to many variables affecting fatigue, including multi- versus single-joint exercise, range of motion, isolated muscle fatigue, training to failure, loads above 90% of 1RM, and total volume (38).

    Testa et al. (34) showed that with enough volume performed, novice and experienced lifters can accurately gauge RPE. However, with lower volume, RPE is more accurately gauged by experienced lifters. A RPE may be a function of the volume performed relative to the volume of which the subject is capable. 

    Singh et al. (38) found strength (3 sets of 5 reps at 90% 1RM) and hypertrophy (3 sets of 10 reps at 70% 1RM) protocols provided nearly equal RPE values (5.9 ± 1.8 and 6.4 ± 1.6) while power training (3 sets of 5 reps at 50% 1RM) provided a lower session RPE (3.2 ± 1.4) in men with at least one year of resistance training experience. It appears that RPE measures training stress experienced, rather than quantifying training itself. Thus, RPE should be used in the context of a structured program. Also, RPE appears to be more effective when applied to experienced populations, and becomes more accurate with use.

    Literature currently validates RPE as a monitoring tool; however, it has not been researched in exercise prescription. The theoretical benefits of RPE warrant discussion of ways to implement it as such. In an effort to provide a framework, a RPE system currently used for training powerlifters and strength athletes known as, Reactive Training Systems (RTS) is detailed below (9). Reactive training systems utilize RPE adapted to strength training as outlined in Table 5.


    Helms Table 1

    Programs based on percentage of 1RM can be converted to RPE using Table 6. Find the repetitions prescribed along the top axis, and scroll down to the corresponding percentage of 1RM prescribed. Along the left axis is the RPE for those prescriptions. Thus, 6 repetitions at 75% of 1RM would convert most closely to 6 repetitions with the final repetition at RPE 9.


    Helms Table 1

    In theory, adapting programs to RPE allows training at desired stress levels, even when readiness is not what is anticipated. Traditional programs do not have this flexibility; invariably there are times when more or fewer repetitions than prescribed can be performed. With that said, until research compares this system (or those like it) to traditional programs, the benefits remain theoretical.

    ConclusionMatching training stress to athlete readiness with AT may be an effective approach to optimizing strength and these frameworks can assist in implementation. Science often follows practice and if professionals use AT with success, researchers will step in to study, validate, and hopefully devise novel applications for AT that advance the science of strength development.

  • silhouette

    About the Author:

    Eric Helms, MS, CSCS

    Eric Helms, MS, CSCS, is the co-owner of the consulting business "3D Muscle Journey LLC" where he is a coach and trainer for natural bodybuilders and power lifters. He has been a trainer for over a decade and is a competitive natural bodybuilder and power lifter himself. He has his MS in Exercise Science with a concentration in performance enhancement from the California University of Pennsylvania and is continuing his graduate work at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. His graduate work focuses on nutritional aspects of strength, hypertrophy and fat loss. Copyright (c) 1999-2012 National Strength and Conditioning Association. Use with permission. All rights reserved.


    1. Anthony T. The science and practice of periodization: a brief review. Strength Cond J. 2011;33(1):34-46.
    2. Rhea MR, Alderman BL. A meta-analysis of periodized versus nonperiodized strength and power training programs. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2004;75(4):413-22. Epub 2005/01/28.
    3. Yarrow K, Brown P, Krakauer JW. Inside the brain of an elite athlete: the neural processes that support high achievement in sports. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009;10(8):585-96.
    4. Mann JB, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, Sayers SP. The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2010;24(7):1718-23 10.519/JSC.0b013e3181def4a6.
    5. McNamara JM, Stearne DJ. Flexible Nonlinear Periodization in a Beginner College Weight Training Class. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2010;24(1):17-22 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181bc177b.
    6. Fisher J, Steele J, Bruce-Low S, Smith D. EVIDENCE-BASED RESISTANCE TRAINING RECOMMENDATIONS. Medicina Sportiva. 2011;15(3):147-62.
    7. Wilson E. The Daily Adjustable Progressive Resistance Exercise System: Getting Reacquainted With an Old Friend. Strength Cond J. 2008;30(2):76-8.
    8. Fleck SJ. Non-Linear Periodization for General Fitness & Athletes. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2011:41-5.
    9. Reactive Training Systems. Available from: http://www.reactivetrainingsystems.com. 
    11. Chen JL, Yeh DP, Lee JP, Chen CY, Huang CY, Lee SD, et al. Parasympathetic nervous activity mirrors recovery status in weightlifting performance after training. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(6):1546-52. Epub 2011/01/29.
    12. Filaire E, Bernain X, Sagnol M, Lac G. Preliminary results on mood state, salivary testosterone:cortisol ratio and team performance in a professional soccer team. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2001;86(2):179-84. Epub 2002/02/02.
    13. Delorme TL, West FE, Shriber WJ. INFLUENCE OF PROGRESSIVE-RESISTANCE EXERCISES ON KNEE FUNCTION FOLLOWING FEMORAL FRACTURES. The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery. 1950;32(4):910-24.
    14. Knight KL. Knee rehabilitation by the daily adjustable progressive resistive exercise technique. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 1979;7(6):336-7.
    15. Bradley-Popovich GE, Haff GG. Nonlinear Versus Linear Periodization Models. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2001;23(1):42.
    16. Prestes J, Frollini AB, de Lima C, Donatto FF, Foschini D, de Cassia Marqueti R, et al. Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(9):2437-42. Epub 2009/11/17.
    17. Apel JM, Lacey RM, Kell RT. A comparison of traditional and weekly undulating periodized strength training programs with total volume and intensity equated. J Strength Cond Res. 2011;25(3):694-703. Epub 2010/06/29.
    18. Smutok MA, Skrinar GS, Pandolf KB. Exercise intensity: subjective regulation by perceived exertion. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1980;61(12):569-74. Epub 1980/12/01.
    19. Pandolf KB. Influence of local and central factors in dominating rated perceived exertion during physical work. Percept Mot Skills. 1978;46(3 Pt 1):683-98. Epub 1978/06/01.
    20. Brink MS, Nederhof E, Visscher C, Schmikli SL, Lemmink KA. Monitoring load, recovery, and performance in young elite soccer players. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2010;24(3):597-603. Epub 2010/02/11.
    21. Day ML, McGuigan MR, Brice G, Foster C. Monitoring exercise intensity during resistance training using the session RPE scale. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2004;18(2):353-8. Epub 2004/05/15.
    22. Duncan MJ, Al-Nakeeb Y, Scurr J. Perceived exertion is related to muscle activity during leg extension exercise. Research in sports medicine (Print). 2006;14(3):179-89. Epub 2006/09/14.
    23. Gearhart RF, Jr., Goss FL, Lagally KM, Jakicic JM, Gallagher J, Gallagher KI, et al. Ratings of perceived exertion in active muscle during high-intensity and low-intensity resistance exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2002;16(1):87-91. Epub 2002/02/09.
    24. Gearhart RF, Jr., Lagally KM, Riechman SE, Andrews RD, Robertson RJ. Strength tracking using the OMNI resistance exercise scale in older men and women. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2009;23(3):1011-5. Epub 2009/04/24.
    25. Tiggemann CL, Korzenowski AL, Brentano MA, Tartaruga MP, Alberton CL, Kruel LF. Perceived exertion in different strength exercise loads in sedentary, active, and trained adults. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2010;24(8):2032-41. Epub 2010/07/17.
    26. Charro MA, Aoki MS, Coutts AJ, Araujo RC, Bacurau RF. Hormonal, metabolic and perceptual responses to different resistance training systems. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 2010;50(2):229-34. Epub 2010/06/30.
    27. Buckley JP, Borg GA. Borg's scales in strength training; from theory to practice in young and older adults. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme. 2011;36(5):682-92. Epub 2011/10/08.
    28. Lins-Filho Ode L, Robertson RJ, Farah BQ, Rodrigues SL, Cyrino ES, Ritti-Dias RM. Effects of exercise intensity on rating of perceived exertion during a multiple-set resistance exercise session. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2012;26(2):466-72. Epub 2012/01/12.
    29. Naclerio F, Rodriguez-Romo G, Barriopedro-Moro MI, Jimenez A, Alvar BA, Triplett NT. Control of resistance training intensity by the OMNI perceived exertion scale. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2011;25(7):1879-88. Epub 2011/03/15.
    30. Row BS, Knutzen KM, Skogsberg NJ. Regulating explosive resistance training intensity using the rating of perceived exertion. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2012;26(3):664-71. Epub 2012/02/09.
    31. Sweet TW, Foster C, McGuigan MR, Brice G. Quantitation of resistance training using the session rating of perceived exertion method. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2004;18(4):796-802. Epub 2004/12/03.
    32. McGuigan MR, Al Dayel A, Tod D, Foster C, Newton RU, Pettigrew S. Use of session rating of perceived exertion for monitoring resistance exercise in children who are overweight or obese. Pediatric exercise science. 2008;20(3):333-41. Epub 2008/08/21.
    33. Eston RG, Williams JG. Reliability of ratings of perceived effort regulation of exercise intensity. British journal of sports medicine. 1988;22(4):153-5. Epub 1988/12/01.
    34. Testa M, Noakes T, Desgorces FD. Training state improves the relationship between RPE and relative exercise volume during resistance exercises. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2011. Epub 2011/12/02.
    35. Focht BC. Perceived exertion and training load during self-selected and imposed-intensity resistance exercise in untrained women. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2007;21(1):183-7. Epub 2007/02/23.
    36. Senna G, Willardson JM, de Salles BF, Scudese E, Carneiro F, Palma A, et al. The effect of rest interval length on multi and single-joint exercise performance and perceived exertion. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 2011;25(11):3157-62. Epub 2011/10/14.
    37. Hardee JP, Lawrence MM, Utter AC, Triplett NT, Zwetsloot KA, McBride JM. Effect of inter-repetition rest on ratings of perceived exertion during multiple sets of the power clean. European journal of applied physiology. 2012;112(8):3141-7. Epub 2012/01/05.
    38. Singh F, Foster C, Tod D, McGuigan MR. Monitoring different types of resistance training using session rating of perceived exertion. International journal of sports physiology and performance. 2007;2(1):34-45. Epub 2007/03/01.

  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
  • Add Comment

    Text Only 2000 character limit


    • Avatar

      Very well written. Opens another door for better and more effective workouts from the planning stage to full execution. It gives the ability to "audible at the line of scrimmage". Motivating! I will be reading more. Thank you very much for yourmore» work!

      Bryan Ferree, CSCS; CPT-NSCA; MS«less

    • Avatar

      Awesome Article, Have seen some of the 3D Muscle Journey's videos on youtube and have saw some of Alberto Nunez clips on it after hearing Layne Norton talk about him! really cool stuff thanks for the article!

    Page 1 of 1