Autoregulating Workouts for Bodybuilding, Strength, & Fat Loss

I hate programs. I mean, I like them, but I hate the thought process behind them and how they lock people into a mindset that they can’t ever change anything because the program is so well designed. Just because it’s written down on a piece of paper doesn’t mean it reflects the needs of your body.

That’s why I like cybernetic periodization. No, I’m not talking about the cool kind of cyborgs that are really killbots from the future. I’m talking about using feedback loops to self-regulate a process. That’s what ‘cybernetic’ originally meant before it became killbots from the future. In this post I’ll be talking about autoregulating workouts, using cybernetic feedback to adjust your volume and intensity on the fly.

Everybody talks about changing things up to shock your body and all that. There’s truth to it, but man, people make that ridiculous. There’s smart change and then there’s just stupid change. Some things need to stay consistent. If you’re changing crap around all the time, how are you measuring progress? Yeah I know the answer, you made ‘good gains’, whatever the hell that means.

Exercises probably don’t need to change all that much. If they do change, it should probably be special exercises that closely resemble what you’re doing. I don’t see anything wrong with doing box squats or front squats, or doing deficit deadlifts or deadlifts against bands, instead of the regular versions.

What really does need to change is your volume and intensity. The total number of reps you do, the total amount of weight moved, and the weight on the bar do benefit from frequent changes. You can do that without switching to a whole new program every few months or every six weeks like the Internet says.

What is autoregulation training?

Manipulating the changes in volume and intensity is a job for periodization. But I hate most popular kinds of periodization too because the training cycles always depends on percentages of a 1RM you feed it. If only there were a way around that.

It turns out there is, and that’s what cybernetic periodization is all about. Some things need to stay constant, and other things need to change. Cybernetic periodization lets us set the constants and then adjust the variables on the fly – a process called autoregulation.

Exercises are one thing that should stay fairly constant. But the rep range, the total number of lifts done, and the intensity/weight on the bar should change on some kind of cyclical or periodic basis. So what you’d do is set up a basic framework first.

Pick your weekly template and pick the main exercises you want to focus on. Pick some targets – are you trying to rack up a lot of volume to build some muscle? Are you trying to improve your conditioning or lose some fat, so you only need to maintain? Are you trying to build strength on a particular lift?

Each of those goals will have different needs. Building muscle mass might have you using higher average reps (maybe 5-10) and higher volumes of work, along with more gradual changes from week to week. Pure strength training might rely on lower reps (1-6) and much more frequent changes. Fat loss or conditioning emphasis might have you doing very minimalist templates with low volume.

You get the idea. You need a theme, and from that the rest of the variables will flow.

I like to boil auto-regulation down to a handful of variables. Once you’ve got your constants drawn up, you just sketch them in. The main variables I like to consider:

  • Rep Range – As a rule lower will be better for strength development and maintenance; higher will be better for muscle mass training or endurance.
  • Subjective Effort Level – Your Rating of Perceived Effort, a subjective rating of how hard any given set felt to you. This can tell you how hard to push any given exercise, and in return it tells you how hard you’re working.
  • Fatigue Level – This is a little harder to quantify, but it boils down to a combination of how high your RPE is and how much total work you do. Both RPE scores and time limits are used to control this variable.

The use of RPE scores to auto-regulate training has had an explosion in popularity lately, largely thanks to Mike Tuchscherer and his Reactive Training System. But they’re not a new concept; they come right out of Supertraining, and I’ve been using them for years myself.

I think Mike’s scale is the best thing out there, because it sums things up nicely. Realistically, the scale you use doesn’t actually matter as long as you’re consistent about it.

Along with RPE, I’d also use the Rating of Technique (RT) whenever possible to assess your form. This doesn’t have to be complex, and you know when your form is breaking down (or you should). There’s a difference between a set @9 that was flawless and a set @9 that was very ugly. Like RPEs, you can rate this numerically, on a scale from perfect to horrible, or you can just write down “great!” or “ugly set” or whatever.

I think most productive training will be done with RPEs between 7 and 9 on Mike T’s scale. A 9 leaves you with one good rep left in the tank, while an 8 leaves you with maybe 2-4 left. An 8 is still pretty hard, but you’ve got plenty in reserve. A 7 would be ‘heavy speed work’, a weight that you can move fast but only with focus and mental effort on your part.

Fatigue level is going to mainly depend on how much work you do, but also how high your RPEs are. If you’re knocking out a lot of sets in the 9-10 range, heavy grinders and maximum-effort sets, then it’s going to hit you a lot harder than doing the exact same amount of work in the 7-8 range. So RPE is one way to control fatigue, which is a fatigue stop (i.e., you stop when the RPE reaches that chosen value).

Setting a time limit is the other way to control this. You’ll be able to knock out a lot more sets in 25 minutes than you will in 15 minutes. The time limit is a hard stopping point; no matter how tired or fresh you feel, you stop when the time’s up.

Autoregulating Workouts & Strategies

That gives us a checklist of things we need going in to written workout: the rep range, a goal RPE, and a time limit. Here’s some different ways to put it together into workable strategies.

Percentages

Earlier I was complaining about percentages, but I don’t think they’re totally worthless as long as you can regularly update them, say every month or so. I wouldn’t really suggest testing a new 1RM every month, but you should have some way of being in the ballpark of where you are.

The big problem to get around with percentages is their inaccuracy. You might think you’re at 75% when you’re really at 70% or 80%. Or maybe you really are at 75%, but you’re so beat up that it ends up being too much on the day. Percentages aren’t flexible.

You can solve one part of the problem by keeping your 1RM value up to date. The other part is solved by keeping percentages as a starting point.

Not to long ago I drew up an auto-regulating strategy using the numbers from Prilepin’s Table to select starting weights and rep ranges. I think it went like this:

Week 1 – 5 reps, 75% starting weight
Week 2 – 3 reps, 80% starting weight
Week 3 – Singles, 85% starting weight

You warm up to the starting weight, using the number of reps listed for each week. If it’s too easy, you add a little weight until you’re in the right spot. Usually the percentages were pretty close to the mark though. Once you hit the right weight, you do sets until a reasonable time limit or until you reach the fatigue stop. I think a 15-20 minute time limit is fine for most things.

I’m pretty sure I was aiming for an RPE of 8, leaving a couple of reps in the tank, and stopping when I hit a 9, or only one rep left. That ends up being a productive workout without killing you.

There’s lots of possibilities here.

The Daily Max and Back-Off Sets

Instead of using percentages as a starting point, you can just go in an freestyle it. I’d still pick a rep range and a time limit, but otherwise just show up, warm up, and ramp up to a top set for the day. After you hit that top set, do your back-off sets.

I didn’t really touch on the back-off sets or fatigue drop-offs earlier. This is pretty easy to understand. The harder you want the workout, the bigger the fatigue drop-off. And vice versa. All you do is set some percentage of your daily max, and then work to a fatigue stop with that weight.

If you want a really easy session, stop once you hit the top set for the day (your daily max). If you want a hard workout, set a target of 10% off the weight of your top set and work down in 5 lb (2.5kg) increments with lower reps (1-3). If you want more volume, drop straight down to that back-off weight and do sets with higher reps (5-6).

Say you’re doing triples for the day and you work up to 210×3 @9. That’s your daily max. You want a fairly hard workout so you’ve set your back off to 5%. That puts your back-off weight at 200, so you’d do sets of 200×3 until they hit an RPE of 9 or until you reach the time limit for the day.

Or if you do the same workout but feel like crap, you can cut the back-off sets entirely and just go home.

You can also work ‘down the pyramid’, backing off with lots of smaller increments. In the example above, you’d drop back to 207.5, then 205, then 202.5, then 200, all for triples. This will probably be better for intensity-type training. If you want to get more volume, then just go straight to the back-off weight and do your sets. I think I’d probably use that as the default approach.

This is the easiest system of all because you don’t really have to calculate anything in advance, but you have to be honest about what’s going on. If you can’t tell yourself the truth about how hard a set was, then you’re going to screw this up completely.

One thing I’ve found is that you should always lean towards conservative. If a set might have been an 8 or a 9, go with the 9. Being conservative will help you in the long run. Trying to push your numbers up just makes you stall out.

So to summarize:

  1. Pick a rep range. I like sets of 5-6 reps, triples, doubles, and singles. If you like sets of 8-10, that’s fine too. If you’re using higher reps like that, you’ll want to plan ahead. Otherwise you’ll just tire yourself out as you ramp the weights up.
  2. Warm up and then ramp up your weights (that is, make reasonable weight jumps from set to set). Keep your RPEs conservative as you ramp up, so you don’t wear yourself out too soon.
  3. When you hit a comfortably heavy set, around a 9 RPE or only one good rep left in the tank, that’s your daily max for this session.
  4. Pick a back-off value depending on how hard you want the session to be. If you want an easy session, stop at the top set (daily max). If you want a hard session, drop back 10-15% from your daily max. If you want something in between, shoot for 3-7% off your daily max weight.
  5. Do back-off sets with the same rep range until you hit the fatigue stop (again shoot for an RPE of 9) or until the time limit.

Of course you can set other parameters. You might want to do some rest-pause clusters with your top set, the Myo-Reps strategy that has been working pretty well. You might want to use strict timed rest intervals on your back-off sets to add a little more fun to the mix. If you’re a fan of wave-like loading, where you move the weights up and down, you can do that too.

Daily and Weekly Variation

Daily variation, or undulating periodization as the cool kids call it, just changes the variables from workout to workout.

If you’re following anything like the basic templates or undulating routines I’ve suggested elsewhere, then this is simple. Instead of doing strict pre-written workouts, just do what I suggested and pick your variables according to your goals.

For bodybuilding, I’d probably alternate heavy, medium, and light sessions by rep range. Heavy would be 5-6, medium 8-10, and light would be 12-15 reps. I’d probably focus on higher fatigue levels instead of stopping at the first signs of fatigue; so back-off sets are a good idea, or maybe extended cluster sets (like Myo-Reps).

For strength or athletic kind of training, I’d probably stick to six or less reps and manage things by RPE and fatigue stops. Fatigue is less important here so I’d tend to lean towards high-quality reps instead of trying to grind things out. I’d also play around with ramping up to top sets, sets across with the same weight, and wave-like loading.

I’d stick with upper-lower or push-pull templates in both cases. Maybe full-body if you can pull that off without overworking yourself. Just rotate them by setting up A, B, C, and D workouts, or however many you need.

If you’re doing the H/M/L setup with an upper-lower split four days a week, you’d get

Day 1 – Heavy Upper
Day 2 – Heavy Lower
Day 3 – Med Upper
Day 4 – Med Lower
etc.

Or push-pull over three days

Day 1 – Heavy Push
Day 2 – Light Pull
Day 2 – Medium Push
etc.

Fix up something you like with a good template and you’ve got a system.

Changing the variables every week is a solid way to do things if you’re pretty strong and if you need regular changes. Here’s an example:

Week 1 – Fives
Week 2 – Triples
Week 3 – Singles

Each time you repeat the wave, you’d add a little weight to the lifts. There’s no reason you have to stick with those rep ranges either. You can do anything you like, 8/6/4, 7/5/3, 3/2/1, whatever.

Work up to a comfortable weight for each rep range. Use fatigue stops to know when to quit. Simple.

Block Periodization

Block periodization fits well with auto-regulation, because all it does is give you some guidelines for your workout variables according to each block. There’s there kinds of blocks that you’ll come across. Verkhoshansky calls them A-B-C. Issurin calls them Accumulation, Transmutation, and Realization. They both do the same thing.

A or Accumulation – Lots of volume in the form of sub-maximal sets in the 2-5 range; this would translate to RPEs of 7-8. Fast, smooth lifting. You’d want to train things pretty often, so either full-body sessions or something like Sheiko does with the Squat/Bench and Deadlift/Bench sessions.

Lasts 2-6 weeks.

B or Transmutation – Very heavy, very intense training. High RPEs, working in the 9-10 range with special exercises (board presses, box squats, rack pulls, etc.). The trade-off is less frequency per exercise, so you’ll want to split things up, probably into upper-lower, and maybe even cut back to just three days a week with the A-B-A rotation.

Lasts 2-4 weeks.

C or Realization – Basically a taper. Drop reps back to just singles, staying around 80-85%, and cut back the number of workouts. This phase only lasts a week or two, and it’s so you recover from the fatigue you built up and can peak properly in your meet or whatever.

I don’t think I’d mess with this as a bodybuilder or casual lifter, but Landon Evans and Jeremy Frey seem to be having good success with this setup for powerlifters.