Auto-regulation is the principle of using athlete performance to influence training variables within the programme. The physical state of the athlete is always in flux, as are non exercise stressors like immune, environmental and emotional stress. As a consequence, the amount of training that an athlete can perform on any given day may rise and fall based on these factors. If we apply the same programme week in week out, we will inevitably over train when the athlete is worse than normal, or under train when he or she is feeling fresh and ready to go.
A quick note: I would recommend that athletes perform auto-regulation in their training when attempting to maximise one particular ability within the training day, and during periods where on-field performance is not the number one priority e.g. pre-season. Attempting to auto-regulate everything during the programme will likely result in significant fatigue being accumulated throughout the day/session. Likewise, during in-season I would advocate minimal training volume to be dedicated to all abilities to free up the greatest possible recovery resources for on-field work, as this is the stuff that truly makes the difference to match performance.
What follows are my top three methods of auto-regulation…
Speed is perhaps the most stubborn and least trainable quality of all. If you aren’t expressing extremely high levels of force and coordination, you probably aren’t developing speed. Perhaps the best sprint coach of all time, Charlie Francis, believed that all reps should be run at 95% of better of the athletes best for that day. Anything less will not provide the kind of physical or technical stimulus the body needs to be persuaded to adapt.
Consequently, the simplest way to auto-regulate speed training is by time. Sprint all reps as fast as possible with good form, and time every rep you do. Your first rep sets the benchmark for the day. If you fall short of 95% of this time, stop the session and move on to the next part of your training day. If you set a new best for the day. recalculate 95% and repeat the process.
If at any point you set a lifetime personal best, stop and move one. By definition you have just exposed your body to a level of force and speed it has never experienced before. That means the gap between where you are operating at and your body’s limit is getting smaller and smaller. Be grateful you got a record, then move on.
Perhaps almost as difficult to develop as speed is power. Rugby athletes perpetually make the mistake of either not applying enough intent to the bar, or resting too little between sets. The end result is reduced bar speed, and an insufficiently intense enough stimulus to result in increased power. So total volume must be carefully monitored when training this ability.
The added complication compared to speed is that set duration must also be monitored. If the reps go too high, again, the bar speed drops and the set ceases to be productive. Too few reps however just makes for an unnecessarily long session. In this instance, velocity based tools like Gym Aware, Power Band and the Tendo Unit are incredibly helpful. One simple but highly effective protocol I have used is that proposed by Matt Van Dyke and Max Schmarzo in Applied Principles of Optimal Power Development.
In this protocol, the athlete performs reps until the velocity drops by 0.1ms from the highest velocity achieved within the set. When the athlete drops below this threshold, the set is terminated. The exercise/power section of the session terminates when the athlete is unable to get within 0.05ms of the session’s highest velocity within the first two reps of the set. I have personally used this method to successfully increase the back squat of Japan captain, Michael Leitch, by more than 10kg in only a couple of months. If it works for an elite athlete with a high training age, suffice to say it will probably work for us mere mortals.
“But Keir, I don’t have the money to afford a velocity based training tool”- well, you can get around this with lower body jump variations by performing all reps on a jump mat (typically far more affordable). Stop the set when the jump height drops by 10%. Stop the workout section when you are unable to get within 5% of your session best on the first two reps. If money is REALLY tight, you can also go the route of a stopwatch. Time your sets, and when you are unable to get within 5% of your fastest set for the day, move on to the next element of your workout.
There are a variety of auto-regulatory programmes out there for strength training. Dogg Crapp, the method utilised by Dante Trudel has served bodybuilders well for close to twenty years. Delorme and Watkins devised probably the first widely known auto-regulatory progression in their work with the military (where we also get 3 sets of 10 from). However for my money the best way to auto-regulate strength training is APRE as popularised by Dr Bryan Mann.
APRE (Auto-regulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise) begins with setting a target number of reps which correspond to a desired strength quality e.g. maximal strength (around 5 or less), mixed strength and hypertrophy (5 to 8), hypertrophy (8 to 12), local muscular endurance (12 or more). The coach or athlete estimates how much load will result in failure at the desired number of reps. Two warm up sets are performed at 50 and 75% of this load, then the athlete performs an all out set at 100% of the predicted load.
If the athlete goes over his or her target reps, the load goes up for the second and final all out set. If the target is missed, the load goes down. This process is repeated one final time, and the performance in the last set dicates the first all out set on the subsequent work out. Im a big fan of this method because it can be trained with multiple qualities, it is simple enough that athletes can understand it, it is an efficient use of training time, and it WORKS. I used this method for almost all of pre-season with my rugby athletes in Japan and we saw significant increases in 1RM strength across the squad.