All this talk about autoregulation and about getting strong in more general ways has had me doing a lot of thinking. This workout scheme in particular was inspired by this post of mine and the paper it references.

Autoregulated Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE) is similar to plain old PRE, which some of you may know as linear progression. You show up, do a workout, and next time you throw more weight on the bar. Pretty simple. It also has a tendency to build you up to a plateau that is very hard to break through. Usually you have to go on some more complicated and varied workout to keep improving.

That’s where the A-for-autoregulated part comes in. Instead of just mindlessly adding weight each workout, the APRE protocol introduces a little testing and adjusting. Which means I’m a fan.

I’ve discussed elsewhere how I think some kind of linear progression is probably the best idea for most people looking to get strong. The problem is in finding a smart linear progression. I laid out a few options in that post which are worth a look.

At the same time, the results of the comparison between APRE and that simple linear progression are intriguing. This fits with a long-held belief of mine: an autoregulated program that has built-in ways to adjust itself will prove superior to any pre-planned workouts. Despite what we’d like to believe, the body doesn’t like to fit itself into nicely planned weekly schedules and monthly training blocks. A program that can account for that fluctuation will be a step ahead.

I’ve gone over other options for this process of autoregulation in another article. Here I want to discuss this particular protocol and some ideas I’ve had on incorporating it into a strength-oriented workout routine.

The APRE system is not a workout in itself. This is more like a set of guidelines that you follow to determine your work sets. In quick summary:

3RM Protocol 6RM Protocol 10RM Protocol
50% of 3RM – 6 reps 50% of 6RM – 10 reps 50% of 10RM – 12 reps
75% of 3RM – 3 reps 75% of 6RM – 6 reps 75% of 10RM – 10 reps
Reps to failure with 3RM Reps to failure with 6RM Reps to failure with 10RM
Adjusted reps to failure Adjusted reps to failure Adjusted reps to failure

And to adjust after the test set:

Reps in third set (6RM protocol) Adjustment for fourth set (kg)
0-2 -2.5 to -5
3-4 0 to -2.5
5-7 No change
8-12 +2.5 to +5
> 13 +5 to +7.5

The adjustments vary slightly for the 3RM and 10RM protocols, but this is the basic idea.

As you can see, that’s not a workout. That’s just some suggestions. But they’re powerful all the same, so what we have to do is decide how to use them in a gym-friendly routine.

The templates are influenced by a lot of things.

First Option – More Frequency, Less Volume

This arrangement has you training four days a week with each major movement pattern being trained each session. You’ll be alternating between A and B workouts, so that each exercise will be trained twice a week. This is very compatible with the heavy-light setup I’ll describe below.

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4
Overhead Press Back Squat Front Squat Bench Press
Front Squat Bench Press Overhead Press Back Squat
Deadlift

Now let’s take a look at what to do here. First things first, I’d group this into two days on, one day off. That is, train Monday-Tuesday, rest Wednesday, then again Thursday-Friday and take the weekend off.

This is designed for a heavy-light rotation between the lifts so that everything gets one heavy day and one light day, except the deadlift which doesn’t seem to like that much volume. The top lift is the main lift for the day to train hard, the bottom lift gets the easy work.

Finally I’d make it a point to add in an upper-back movement on each day for shoulder health and overall balance of development. You can get away with skipping this on the day you deadlift. I wouldn’t do much assistance work beyond this; maybe a few sets of abs or arms would be about it.

The pros: you’ll get a lot of practice with and exposure to the lifts.
The cons: if you aren’t conditioned to frequent training, if you have a lot of real-life stress, or both, this will probably beat you up pretty good and may not be the best choice.

Second Option – More Volume, Less Workouts

If that template isn’t your cup of tea, here’s an alternative.

This is a more traditional type of upper/lower or body-part split arrangement that will probably be familiar to most of you. Each day will focus on a big lift and then follow up with assistance work, much like any old powerlifting workout or the 5/3/1 template.

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4
Push Press Back Squat Bench Press Deadlift
Close-grip Bench Front Squats Military Press Barbell Row

This is straightforward and should be pretty familiar. You do the big lift, do some lighter assistance work on another lift, then whatever you feel like after that. You can throw in some pump ‘n tone body-part work, you can do more specialized assistance, you can just go home. Pretty much your call.

I’d make the usual suggestions of getting lots of upper-back work for shoulder health, some kind of loaded ab work, and I’m partial to back raises and glute-ham raises. Not mandatory, but can be helpful.

The pros: pretty basic and effective template that’s hard to screw up. Compatible with other kinds of training and can be modified to include more or less work.
The cons: not many. This template doesn’t have many drawbacks.

Other Options

As with any of these templates, you’re free to adjust them as needed as long as you don’t screw up the intent behind them. If you can only train three days a week, then rotate through the four workouts in order. If you don’t like an exercise I picked, then replace it with something else. Use your head: if you want to replace a bench press with weighted dips, that’s fine. If you want to replace back squats with leg extensions, never speak to me again.

Which protocol?

The APRE gives us three options to choose from: 3RM, 6RM, and 10RM. The paper by Mann et al said they used all three over the six weeks of the study. The paper didn’t go into a lot of detail regarding how they used the three, except to say that they used the 6RM option most frequently as it was most compatible with the goals of their football players (i.e., strength and muscle mass).

In Supertraining, Siff suggests using the 6RM option for the first 6-8 weeks, then switching to the 3RM version. He suggests that the 10RM version can be used at any point as a way of stimulating hypertrophy and local muscular endurance. It’s also noted that the 3RM version is best for strong athletes interested in increasing maximal strength.

So there’s your answer. If you’re after size, stick to the 10RM version most of the time and toss in the 6RM protocol for a little variety. If you’re after strength gains, focus more on the 3RM.

Fine-tuning the test sets

The APRE protocol calls for training “to failure” in order to establish your RMs. If you’re using one of the once-a-week options from above, that’s probably going to be okay assuming you have reasonable recovery ability.

If you’re using one of the high-frequency options and you take your test sets to real grinding failure, you will die. As the frequency of workouts increases, the stress and workload of each workout must decrease. If this doesn’t happen, you will know it quickly. I think that given time and training, most people could adapt more than they realize.

Because of this, you have to grade your effort. I’ve not been explicitly logging RPE numbers, but rather making it a point to pay attention to the feel and execution of the lift. I, personally, can tell the difference in a lift that stays fairly smooth & explosive, versus a lift that was a holy-shit grinder. The more often you train, the less often the holy-shit grinders need to show up.

If you’re using the Mike T RPE scale, then you’d want to cut your sets around a hard 8 or easy 9. Leave a rep or two in the tank, for the rest of you.

Having tested the 5/3/1 in the past, you’re going to find that this won’t be terribly different. You’ll spend most of your time doing higher reps than suggested by the protocol, and this is a good thing. The key difference is that there are no percentage-planned work sets (although there is a pre-planned workout) and no planned out cycle. This may seem dodgy, but remember that cycling is built in to this program automatically. Your work sets and your weights for the next session are determined by how well you do on any given day.

You’ll only wind up working as hard as you’re good for, and the actual workload of a session will auto-magically adjust itself based on that. So there is cycling involved; it’s just not a month-long cycle sitting in a spreadsheet.

Heavy and Light days

The heavy day will obviously be the protocol as written: train to a RM or as close to it as you’re comfortable going.

If you have a light day, that’s easy to draw up: take 90% of your heavy day’s work weight and cut the reps in half. If you’re using the 3RM, do singles; 6RM, do triples; 10RM, do fives. Yes, I know that one isn’t half of three. If you want to do 1.5 reps, go right ahead. You could do doubles also, I guess.

If I hit 200×5 on my 3RM heavy/test day, then I’m going to use 180 for singles on the light day. Look too easy, you say? Good. That’s what a light day is for.

Back-off sets for more volume

I can see this question coming already so I’ll go ahead and tackle it.

If you’re doing the high-frequency arrangement, do your sets and go home. If you feel great, then take 80% of your top weight and half the reps. Be aware of the workloads, however, and don’t whine to me if you wreck something.

If you’re doing the less-frequent template, you’ve got more room for backoff volume. The way I have it written, you’ll be following the main lift with a second compound exercise, and in most cases you may be content to use that as your backoff work; that’s how I intended it, anyway. That doesn’t mean you have to listen to me.

Regardless of what you do for the second exercise, I’m going to suggest keeping it to fast and snappy work for higher volume. That is, sets of 3-6 reps and leaving a lot in the tank. The goal is to do a lot of sets and keep a reasonable rest interval, rather than “all you bro” sets.

If you want to back off with the main exercise, then I’d suggest either 90% of your top weight for half the reps, or 80% of top weight for the same reps. So if you hit 100 as your top weight on the 6RM protocol, then either do 90 for triples or 80 for sets of six. If you switch to the different exercise I have listed, then follow the same idea. You should have a reasonable idea of where you stand on those lifts, and if you don’t, you can figure it out pretty easily.

How many sets? Why are you asking me? Go until you feel fatigue set in. Or if you don’t want to trash yourself, just do one. Or don’t do any. Use your best judgment.

Another option worth looking at if you’re bodybuilding is this cycle by Barry Merriman. Combine Barry’s approach to backoff sets with the 10RM APRE method and you’ve got a winner. That is, do the 10RM set and the adjusted 10RM set, then two backoff sets as he describes.

Examples

It’s push press day with close-grip bench as the second exercise. I’m starting the cycle with a push press of 80×3, so the warmups are 40×6, 60×3, and then the 3RM test set with 80. I hit 6 reps with 80, which means that I should go up to 82.5-85 on the next set. I go to 85 and knock out three reps, so that’s where I’ll start on the next workout.

If I’d only hit say 2 or 3 reps, then I’d probably clock it back to 77.5 or even 75 on the fourth set, and use it for the next workout. You see how this is not at all unlike 5/3/1, only the number of reps you get determines the weight you use next time.

For backoffs – it was a good day, so I decide to take 90% and do a few doubles. Top weight was 85, so I’ll use 75 for doubles. Since I’m still doing close-grips, I don’t want to go to fatigue so I do two doubles and call it done.

For close-grips, I know I’m good for 110 for 6 reps, so I’ll stick to around 80% (90) of that for six reps.

Upper back work is weighted chins, so I start throwing them in between the backoff sets of push presses and the close-grips. Do a set of pushing, then a set of chins.

And that’s it. I would add that if you want to do more bodybuilder-ish work, there’s nothing stopping you. Do your big lift, maybe the second light lift if you care, and then have fun with chest/shoulders/triceps as you see fit. I’d still limit that to a few quality sets of 8-10 reps on a few solid exercises, rather than the usual 5-set pyramids on eight different kinds of curls, but hey that’s your call.

Sources and Further Reading

The APRE protocol is from Supertraining, 5th edition (2003).

Inspiration for using this in a real protocol, and evidence that it works in real athletes, came from The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes. Mann JB, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, Sayers SP. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun 10. PMID: 20543732