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Autoregulation - What it is, what the science says and how to implement it

We have all done percentage based training (week 1 - 5×5@70% / week 2 - 5×5@75%) and most of us have probably used autoregulation within our training at some point.

Autoregulation within training isn’t a programme as per say, but rather an approach to individualize a training programme. It can be an approach employed into powerlifting, crossfit, weightlifting and bodybuilding.

Not everyone progresses at the same rate and what might work for one person might not for another. Lifters with the same 1RM may be able to perform more or less reps at any given percentage of their 1RM. A study by (Richens & Cleather, 2014) found just that with inter differences between people on how many repetitions they can perform at certain percentages of their 1RM.

It is also beneficial to take into consideration how ready you are to train and if you are recovered, which could be down to several factors - sleep, stress, nutrition, previous training session, menstrual cycle.

In short, autoregulation is how you would adapt both load and volume in your training based on the above factors on any given day. It is not an excuse to ditch a well designed programme and throw out movements / exercises we know we should be doing but can’t be bothered to.

The main argument against auto regulation is it’s subjective nature. Someone who always trains hard may overreach too often, increasing their chance of overtraining and injury potential. On the other hand someone may just be skipping out on hard work and stop short, where a percentage based model would be a goal for them to hit. See below ⬇️

Auto regulation can be employed using the tools below:

  • Using the RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) Scale.

  • Using the RIR (Repetitions in Reserve) Method.

  • Using VBT (Velocity Based Training).

We will focus on RPE and RIR for this week’s newsletter as it is the most practical for most readers as you do not need an accelerometer device!

The RIR Method is an expansion of RPE scale and a simpler way to use it. RPE was introduced by Gunnar Borg roughly 50 years ago and was used on a scale of 1-10 to determine the level of fatigue from an exercise with 10 being maximal work.

Years later Mike Tuchscherer (an IPF champion and respected powerlifting coach) introduced the “RPE scale based on Repetitions in Reserve” in his book, the reactive training manual. The scores directly link to how many repetitions you believe you could have done in any given set. Basically, how many reps you had left in the tank before you stopped. See Below ⬇️

  • 10 - Could not do more reps or load

  • 9.5 - Could not do more reps but could maybe add a little load

  • 9 - Could do 1 more rep

  • 8.5 - Definetly 1 more, maybe 2.

  • 8 - Could do 2 more.

You get the picture. (Hackett et al., 2012) found that bodybuilders were able to estimate during the bench and squat more accurately using the RIR method instead of the traditional RPE scale introduced by Borg.


A Systematic review and meta-analysis by (Zhang et al., 2021) looked at 8 different studies with a total of 166 subjects which included athletes with over 1 year training experience and division 1 college football players. The results of the review suggest that Autoregulation could be more effective than fixed percentage based loading for Maximal Strength Training.

Conversely, a systematic review and meta analysis by (Hickmott et al., 2022) included a total of 15 studies, 6 on load autoregulation and 9 on volume autoregulation and found they produced similar outcomes as fixed percentage loading protocols.

RIR / RPE training validity was subject of a study by (Ormsbee et al., 2019) measuring average velocity against lifters who reported RIR / RPE in the bench press. 27 college aged men were split into either an experienced or novice group based on lifting experience. Their findings reported a strong inverse correlation between average velocity and reported RIR with the authors of the study suggesting: “RIR-based RPE scale may be an efficacious approach for AR of bench press training load and volume”

A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning by (Lovegrove et al., 2021) specifically looked at the RIR (Reps in Reserve) method for autoregulation within training. They took 15 novice lifters (under 1 year experience) to test the deadlift and bench press using the RIR method. They found the subjects were able to accurately use RIR to determine load for a given rep range, suggesting that even in novice lifters, the RIR method can be a reliable tool when autoregulating training.


You can use both autoregulation and percentage based progressive overload principles! You may prefer one over the other.

Most people don’t know what their 1RM is in most accessory lifts, (Incline Bench, Rows, Dips, Curls, Leg Curls etc) so basing a training programme using percentages just doesn’t make sense for certain movements. What we do know is, to promote effective intensity from an exercise to induce muscle size and strength gains, we want to train in close proximity to failure at any given rep range. Using the RIR method means you can set it as 2RIR (2 repetitions in reserve) or “2 reps from failure” on a 3×8 Incline Bench Press and you would select an appropriate load to achieve that. If you overshoot it, just lower the weight slightly for your 2nd set.

You could either decided to use autoregulation for your full programme, or stick with percentage based fixed loading for your main lifts and autoregulate your accessory work? It’s entirely your choice.

If you have a busy period in your life going on and you’re used to fixed loading, perhaps autoregulation could be a good method to use for a while as you may find yourself not meeting certain reps at certain percentages you should due to outside factors. Which would just bum you out!

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Until next week, Happy Lifting!