Autoregulate Better Part 1: RPE Scale & Progressions

Autoregulation is all the buzz. Maybe it's the novelty from the popular percentage based programs or it could be the cool acronym "RPE."

Whatever it is, people have bought in. This series of articles will attempt to: 

  • Define autoregulation and why should you do it (Part One)
  • Define the RPE scale (Part One)
  • Explain the different forms of autoregulation (Part One)
  • How to autoregulate training as a physique athlete (Part Two)
  • How to autoregulate training as a strength athlete (Part Two)
  • Using minimums and maximums (Part Three)

What Is Autoregulation and Why Should We Do It?

Autoregulation is the adjustment to training in the short-term based on both external and internal responses. 

Here are a few examples of autoregulating volume.

Scenario 1:

Only slept 4 hours the night prior. Program says 5x2 @ 90 % 1RM. You feel sluggish all day. Get to the gym and don't feel much better. Start warming up and the weights feel heavier than normal. Your mind is set on hitting that 90%, so you perform your first set and barely grind out the second rep. At this point, you realize hitting 4 more sets at this load is not going to happen. You autoregulate your volume and decide to only go for 3 sets at this load then move on to assistance work. 

Scenario 2:

You normally don't take any stimulants pre-workout and train alone. Today, your buddies are back in town and the three of you are going to deadlift together. You guys meet up early at IHOP and crush a big breakfast. About an hour before training your buddy asks if you want to try his new pre-workout supp. You chug the sour green apple mystery drink and within minutes your skin is itching. Your crew roles to the gym bumping some Drake and you know it's going to be a great day. You guys start warming up on the platform and it feels like you're throwing weights around. The bar speed is FAST! Looking at your program, it's a pretty conservative day, 3x3 @ 80%. One of your buddies mentions that he's not on a program right now, he feels good though and is going to attempt a new 3RM PR. You've been running a percentage based program for months and it feels odd not to follow the plan. You hit your first set at 80% and it's lighter than it's ever felt. At this point you make the decision to autoregulate your training intensity (% of 1RM.) After some encouragement from your training partners you decide to increase the load 25 lbs for the next set. Crush it. For the final set you go for a 3RM PR. It's a little grindy, but no doubt a good lift. 

Hopefully those short case studies gives autoregulation more concreteness. Autoregulation is about paying attention to nutrition, sleep, work/school/social stress, music, training partners, soreness, bar speed and even if a hot chick/dude is squatting next to you. 

All of these things change what you're capable of that day, for better or worse. 

That's the beauty of autoregulation. It understands that our biology is not fixed and we are not in control as much as we'd like to think. On paper your bench 1RM is 315, but if you were to max out on bench everyday that week or even once a week, what are the odds you'd bench exactly 315 each session? You'd likely have a few sessions under, a few over and a few right at 315. 

As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as warriors who aren't affected by our surroundings, that's an ignorant mindset that will have you training mostly in an understressed or overstressed environment. 

I've written before about the inverted U curve and how it applies to fitness (also known as Yerkes-Dodson law.)

The original Yerkes-Dodson model explained the relationship between "performance" and "arousal" in which there seems to be a sweet spot. I call this spot "flow."

Since the apex of the inverted U represents optimal performance that's the training goal. In order to consistently train around the apex we must realize the dynamic nature of our biology. If we ignore this fact, we risk our training falling below the apex (low stress/boredom) and this will result in under stimulation of our body, which will cause no adaptation. We equally risk reaching beyond the apex (high stress/anxiety) in which our bodies in that given state are not prepared to handle that stressor. 

Autoregulation better allows us to appropriately stimulate our bodies to reach the apex of the performance/arousal inverted U every training session.

We don't need every ounce of training/nutrition philosophy to be based on a study, but if you're into that - research in 2010 showed the APRE method to outperform standard linear progression in a 6 week study on collegiate football players. [1]

APRE has also been used as a method during the late stages of rehabilitation. [2] I find this interesting because we're commonly seeing athletes return from injuries much quicker than was previous thought. There is most likely a large variance in recoverability and the APRE method would allow practitioners to individualize their practice. 

Although not the target audience of this piece, autoregulatory training is even more crucial for athletes participating in non-barbell sports, naturally having larger fluctuations in performance levels due to multiple sport demands (weight training, sport-specific work, conditioning & competitions.)

How To Autoregulate

If I have a client that is not familiar with autoregulation I like to use a three step process to move them along the "autoregulation continuum." I say continuum, because whether they're aware of it or not, everyone autoregulates already. This article is about creating quantifiable tools to control that autoregulation. 

Here are some examples of autoregulation everyone can relate to:

  • Certain body part is super sore (lower back), so we take an extra rest day before performing a movement that could be negatively affected (squat.) 
  • Typically train for 90 minutes, but only have 45 minutes this day because of extra work responsibilities. Decide to cut out assistance work, like arms. 
  • Don't know why, but I felt great in the gym. Went for a PR.
  • Don't know why, but felt horrible in the gym. Only did a few sets and went home. 

My job as a coach is to explain the concept clearly and give the appropriate tools to adjust on the fly. Empower them to make the decision. This has to happen - because the stress response is highly individual. Everyone needs to pay attention to their own personal cues. 

Take relationship stress as an example, for person A, this could serve as a motivating tool and allow them to train at a higher level. For person B, it could serve as a technical distraction and cause them to need to back off the load. 

So while the stressor may be the same, the unique response of the individual will dictate how exactly they autoregulate. 

To add a final layer, even the same stressor applied to ourselves in different time or environment could alter the response. Sometimes people walking in front of you during a squat doesn't get in your head, but the totality of other stressors allowed that normally meaningless act to push you over the edge and lose concentration. 

Hopefully you can begin to see the complexities in autoregulatory training. 

My goal is never to intimidate or overwhelm. This is why I walk my clients through a three step process that eases this transition. 

Step One: Begin using the RPE scale on their normal program (Introduction)

Step Two: Continue using the RPE scale, add in LSPS. (Autoregulate volume)

Step Three: Implementing top sets and percent fatigue (Autoregulate intensity and load)

Although this article may lead the reader to believe that the RPE scale is mandatory, there are plenty of strong people who have never even heard of it. For a good discussion about the usefulness of the RPE scale, check out videos by Jonnie Candito and Mike Tuchscherer

My bias towards the RPE scale comes from personal and client success, but I certainly don't claim it's needed for everyone. 

Before going into each step in detail I want to make it clear that not everyone will want or need to move on to the next step. You may find that simply rating your top sets on a program like 5/3/1 or The Cube is good enough to progress and you enjoy it, so maybe top sets and plus sets aren't for you. Maybe you really enjoy using plus sets, but not top sets. So you would settle down in step two.

No form of autoregulation is universally better - one must select the type of autoregulation appropriate for them. 

These types of autoregulation are dynamic and can be used in conjunction. There are times I'm using a lot of plus sets. There are other times I'm utilizing no plus sets, only top sets. I will touch on how to specifically program different forms of autoregulation in parts two and three, for now, learn the basics. 

Step One

No doubt the easiest. All this requires is that the athlete record the difficulty of their current workload. First, they must be familiarized with the RPE scale.

RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. 

The original RPE scale was created as a way to monitor effort of aerobic training and was on a 6-20 scale. 

 

You may be thinking "Wow, why would they scale it 6-20? That's confusing." I agree, but the scale was meant to match up perceived effort with heart rate by simply adding a zero. So a 11 RPE would correlate well with 110 heart rate. It doesn't make sense to start the scale at 1, sense people who are alive don't have heart rates of 10. 

Due to the confusion this causes and it's aerobic background I don't find it useful for strength/physique athletes (unless you really want to nerd out and your training includes a good amount of aerobic work.)

The second example of the RPE scale is much easier to follow. 

Easier to understand with a more digestible 1-10 scale. This is a good starting point for most people. Give yourself some loose guidelines. For example, the bar is a 1 on the scale and failure on a exercise would be 10. Based on that, grade all of your working sets for a few weeks. Don't change anything just track. 

If you want something a little more concrete, but still simple. You can rate it based on how many more reps you think you could have performed before failure or better yet technical failure. If you think you had 3 reps in the tank, then it would be a 7. Like the example above, I wouldn't change anything to the program. Just do it as it, but rate the sets with RPE.

The third example of an RPE scale is both the most effective and mildly complicated. It was created by Mike Tuchscherer

Start in the top/middle of the scale and ask yourself that question. From a practical standpoint, any working set (that isn't technique or speed work focused) is going to land in the 7+ range. You can see this is similar to the example I gave above, only with an added layer of complexity with half points and using terms like "definitely" and "maybe." This grey area isn't so great if you're just starting off, but for more advanced lifters and those experienced with monitoring autoregulation, there is a true difference between an RPE 8.5 and RPE 9.  

Although from the peripheral it may look busy - most people can go from not knowing anything about the RPE scale to using this comfortably in a few months. When I say "comfortably" I don't mean mastering it, but they will be amply prepared for step two. 

Step Two - Addition of LSPS

After a few months of rating your current workouts with the RPE scale - the next move would be utilization of LSPS.

LSPS stands for Last Set Plus Set. The most popular form of LSPS is found in Jim Wendlers 5/3/1 program. I use the term "last set" because normally my programs will only have the final set be a plus set. So it may be 3x3 (LSPS), which means the first 2 sets will be at the given 3 reps, then the final set will be a plus set. 

Video from January 2013 performing a 5+ set on bench pressing during my 7 months stint of 5/3/1. 

This is an easy progression into autoregulation since regulating how many more reps you can do at a given load is much easier than determining the weight on the bar. 

By using plus sets the load is already given to you. Say 5+ at 80%, 1RM of 300 lbs. That would be a set of 240lbs for 5+ reps. The program can then go on to specify what the specific RPE of that plus set should be. Maybe 5+, RPE 9.5, 80% would be a very high intensity set, near failure. This would be an example of intensity intensive approach, since you obviously won't be able to maintain a training level of RPE 9.5 for very many sets. While 5+, RPE 8, 80% would be more of a volume intensive approach. By leaving 2 reps in the tank it allows you to accumulate more volume in that workout. 

These plus sets can be used frequently as every training session - or rarely as a few times per month. 

Since this article is meant as an introduction to autoregulation I would recommend you start with only one plus set every 2 weeks, per exercise. Going a small step further, you can use this top set performance as a way to monitor your progress and adjust your training max. Here's an example of using it while benching 2x/week.  

Week 1

Day 1 - Bench Press - 5x6 @ 75% - Self-rated RPE of 7.5 on final set. 

Day 2 - Bench Press - 6x3 @ 85% - Self-rated RPE of 8 on final set. 

Two points can be seen here. First, the training week went very well. If you can hit these numbers of your training max with those RPE's it's a good sign. Second, this is moderately high-volume week. 

As I talk about in this video, training volume and intensity are inversely related. So it's not wise to have BOTH a high-volume and high-intensity workout or overall week. Instead, we should organize things to be either high-volume/low-intensity or low-volume/high-intensity or even moderate-volume/moderate-intensity. 

Sense week 1 was high-volume/low-intensity, week 2 should be lowered volume with higher intensity. We can decrease the volume by knocking off a few sets and increase the intensity by adding in LSPS. 

Week 2

Day 1 - Bench Press 2x6+ (LSPS) @ 75% - Performed 11 reps at 75%, RPE 9

Day 2 - Bench Press 3x3+ (LSPS) @ 85% - Performed 7 reps at 85%, RPE 9.5

During the plus sets, they perform 11 reps at 6+ and 7 reps at 3+. How do you know if this is good or bad? If it's good, how good? 

According to a few research papers by Brzyci and Baechle, when pushing to failure, 75% of a 1RM should be about 10 reps. 85% should be about 5-6.

Since both of your training days you performed a few reps over what was projected - you should increase your training max. After increasing the training max, one could simply perform this type of periodization again, alternating high-volume weeks with low-volume weeks, performing the LSPS's on the later.

So the only difference between the next two weeks would be using weights that are 5-10 lbs heavier. You would again test your progress with LSPS on week 2 with the increased loads. This is only one example and we'll get into more programming in part two of this series. 

As we all know - progress isn't that easy and we won't be smashing PR's every other week till the end of time. As you become a better lifter and your progress slows, it's wise to use plus sets less often or possibly use them just as often, but maybe only raise your training max when you've had 2 good responses, as oppose to one. 

Don't forget that it is possible to progress without adding weight to the bar or performing more reps. Although we all like the simplicity and quantifiable result, we can also progress by hitting the same load and reps, but at a lower effort. If 315x5 was an RPE 9.5 last month, but now it's a RPE 8.5, that's progress.

As you become better and better you must learn to gauge progress in centimeters, if not, the perceptual lack of progress can easily creep in and cause demotivation. 

STEP Three - Top Sets + Back off Work/Percent Fatigue

After a few months of using the RPE scale and some training cycles utilizing plus sets. You can then move onto incorporating top sets into programming. *Remember, you don't HAVE to. It's an option. 

The main difference between the top set method and the plus set method, is that the most intense set is now performed first. The other difference, is that you will now be determining the load you'll be training with and aim to hit a given amount of reps. I want to make this clear that this practice is not easy, yet it's worth it. 

The next concept of importance is percent fatigue. This refers to what percent of weight will be removed from the heaviest set.

Finally, we incorporate a total amount of sets/volume we want to get accomplished for the day. Although not everyone agrees, I think this is important in order to properly periodize volume and intensity in a program. 

Ok, let's go through an example. 

Back Squat - 5RM (top set), RPE 9 (goal intensity) -5-8% (percent fatigue), 2-3x5 (# of back off sets)

After completion of the workout it could look like this. 

Back Squat 315x5 RPE 8.5, 295x5 @ RPE 8, 300x5 RPE 8.5, 300x5 RPE 9. 

So let me talk you through what I did and how I came up with those numbers. 

The first - and most difficult part will be determining your top set. In the next blog post, I will discuss minimums/maximums in more detail, but for now here's the simple way to set it up. 

The minimum and maximum scale is set up in order to better help gauge your top sets. 

Take your PR at that rep. In this case 5 reps. Now, understand that you probably weren't 100% on that day you PR'd. So, to be conservative, let's set our maximum load at 5lb's above our previous best (this also always keeps us hungry for PR's.) For the individual above, let's say his best 5RM was 325x5, so his maximum is 330. 

The minimum is something you could hit against all odds. No music, shitty barbell, haven't eaten in 5 hours, no caffeine, etc. etc. Wow, that sounds like a shit day. The minimums are going to be highly individual. If you're someone who has a very structured life (trains at the same time everyday, eats the same meal before training, minimal fluctuations in stress) the difference between minimum and maximum may not be that large.

I would also give the generalization that the less qualified athlete, the less difference in their minimum and maximum. Klokov may have a 100 lb difference between minimum and maximum. Myself only 50 lbs. A novice only 20. 

Emotional vs. rational lifters will also affect the min/max difference. The more you rely on emotion to train, the bigger difference you'll likely see. 

These are only examples - you have to experiment to grab ownership of mins/maxs. Pay attention when you train. 

Ok - moving on. 

Let's say Joe is an average guy. With a maximum of 330, I'd say a safe minimum of 5RM would be 275. Now we're getting somewhere. Min/Max = 275/330. 

Joe, being a responsible trainee has a min/max table, like all MyoBrain athletes. 

 My current min/max scale. 

My current min/max scale. 

Setting up a table helps dictating the load on the top set much easier. 

To learn how to warm-up to top sets check out these videos. By paying attention to how we feels, bar speed, environment, soreness, motivation to train, sleep and nutrition Joe should be able to choose his top set wisely. Some days it will be 285. Others 305.

That's the point of autoregulation - training to our abilities on that day. 

It's important to not over complicate things.

Feeling like shit = hit minimum

Feeling eh/ok  = hit slightly above minimum

Feeling good = hit near maximum

Feeling amazing = hit maximum

In all actuality, we're talking about a difference of 5-20 lbs in this case, not huge adjustments. 

Understand how to regulate the top set? Good - let's revisit our example. 

Back Squat - 5RM (top set), RPE 9 (goal intensity) -5-8% (percent fatigue), 2-3x5 (# of back off sets)

Back Squat 315x5 RPE 8.5, 295x5 @ RPE 8, 300x5 RPE 8.5, 300x5 RPE 9. 

After the top set, we must rate the set and figure out how much weight we'll take off the bar. Rating the set is simple. Revert back to the RTS/RPE scale to decide how many more reps you had in the tank. In this case we were aiming for a RPE 9 (definitely had 1 more rep), but it was slightly easier than we thought it was going to be. We rate at 8.5 (maybe had 2 more reps.) 

So now we see that our percent fatigue range is 5-8 percent. This means that we'll take off between 5-8 percent of the top set. If Joe crushed his top set, he may decide to only take 5 percent off the bar. If he felt decent, take off 6-7 percent. If it felt like death, 8 percent.

So don't over think and say "OMG, should I drop 6 percent or 7, ahhhhh." If you still have that mentality, odds are you aren't mentally ready for top sets and fatigue percent. Don't minor in the majors.

Minimums/maximums and fatigue percents are created to make training easier, but also to quantify our work. 

Since Joe rated the top set at 8.5 and his goal for the day was 9, it likely was a good top set. So he would likely opt to take off 5-6 percent. Let's go with 6 percent, which would give us the load of 295. Joe then hits his first back off set at 295 and rates it just like the top set. As seen above, it's rated at an 8. Since the goal for the day is to hit 9's, Joe decides to add 5 lbs. His second set of 300x5 is an 8.5, slightly harder. This is good, because knows his goal was 2-3 back off sets. From experience, he knows he can perform one more set at 300x5 and it will likely be at a 9, so he sticks at that weight. Performing the last set he rates it at a 9, perfect. 

What if he felt different?

If the second back off set was an RPE 9 and Joe didn't feel like he could repeat the set at an RPE 9, then his work for that lift would be over at only 2 back off sets. If you're just starting off I would recommend only giving yourself a small window of back off work. Like 2-3, or 3-4. These small ranges make it easier to dictate your volume capacity. After awhile you can open up the range, like 2-4 back offs, but again, take baby steps. 

That's it.

Step one - Perform top set

Step two - Rate top set

Step three - Pick fatigue percent based on RPE of top set

Step four - Perform as many back off sets as it takes to hit given RPE

It's important to not get overly fixated on certain numbers, whether it's with the top set, percent fatigue or number of back off sets. That's why you see ranges. 5-8 percent fatigue, 2-3 back off sets. Although it's easy to get lost in the clutter of graphs and numbers, don't forget the purpose of autoregulation is to find flow - the sweet spot of work. 

5 Take home Points

That's it for round one. Let's review what we learned

  • Autoregulation is adjusting training in the short-term based on both external and internal responses.

  • Autoregulation better allows us to appropriately stimulate our bodies to reach the apex of the performance/arousal inverted U every training session.

  • Training autoregulation exists on a continuum. There is no correct or better way to use autoregulation. 

  • When using the top set method of autoregulation - utilize minimums and maximums. 

  • These methods don't change the fact that most of your results will still come down to training hard, eating well and recovering appropriately. Don't forget the big picture. 

Join me in part two of this article series, where I'll dig into programming autoregulation in micro and macrocycles as both a physique and strength athlete. 

If programming & periodization are still cloudy in your mind, read these periodization articles beforehand

Resources

1. Mann, J. B., et al. (2010). "The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes." J Strength Cond Res 24(7): 1718-1723. 

2. Horschig, A. D., et al. (2014). "Utilization of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise in transitional rehabilitation periodization of a high school football-player following anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction: a case report." Int J Sports Phys Ther 9(5): 691-698.

Periodization Part 1: Linear, DUP, Block Definitions by Greg Farris

Periodization Part 2: 16 week training cycle by Greg Farris

My Squat Everyday training log; average lifter gone wild by Joy Victoria

Auto-regulation in Strength Training by Mike Tuchscherer