Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Autoregulatory Training vs. Linear Periodization [Research Review]

I know I’ve been slack on the blogging lately, but I really have had a few interesting things going on training wise, both theory and application side of things. There’s goodies on the way. For now, since this segues into the concept, I want to have a look at this paper which I got a few days ago:

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. [Epub ahead of print]


Autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise (APRE) is a method by which athletes increase strength by progressing at their own pace based on daily and weekly variations in performance, unlike traditional linear periodization (LP), where there is a set increase in intensity from week to week. This study examined whether 6 weeks of APRE was more effective at improving strength compared with traditional LP in division I College football players. We compared 23 division 1 collegiate football players (2.65 +/- 0.8 training years) who were trained using either APRE (n = 12) or LP (n = 11) during 6 weeks of preseason training in 2 separate years. After 6 weeks of training, improvements in total bench press 1 repetition maximum (1RM), squat 1RM, and repeated 225-lb bench press repetitions were compared between the APRE and LP protocol groups. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) and analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) were used to determine differences between groups. Statistical significance was accepted at p </= 0.05. Autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise demonstrated greater improvement in 1RM bench press strength (APRE: 93.4 +/- 103 N vs. LP: -0.40 +/- 49.6 N; ANCOVA: F = 7.1, p = 0.02), estimated 1RM squat strength (APRE: 192.7 +/- 199 N vs. LP: 37.2 +/- 155 N; ANOVA: F = 4.1, p = 0.05) and the number of repetitions performed at a weight of 225 lb (APRE: 3.17 +/- 2.86 vs. LP: -0.09 +/- 2.40 repetitions; ANCOVA: F = 6.8, p = 0.02) compared with the LP group over the 6-week training period. Our findings indicate that the APRE was more effective than the LP means of programming in increasing the bench press and squat over a period of 6 weeks.

If you’ve been following any of my recent thinking (which hasn’t been posted here much if it all; you have to follow me @ImpulseStrength to keep up), you know that I’m all about the autoregulatory training. I think that, provided the rule-set is strong enough and the lifter in question is experienced enough (or, ideally, has a good coach to work with), autoregulation is the way to go.

Autoregulation is synonymous with “making it up as you go”, though as you can imagine there are safeguards in place to make sure you don’t go off the rails into stupid-land. A better way to put it might be to say that you gauge each set based on how the last set felt and looked. If you’re going strong, keep going. If you’re going badly, stop. It’s a simple decision tree.

This particular paper had a look at a specific form of autoregulatory training called Autoregulating Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE for short). APRE is a modification of the original progressive resistance exercise that’s long been considered the foundation of basic strength training (three sets of 10, anyone?). This is actually the origin of the term autoregulation, which is to say we all stole it from Supertraining.

APRE was implemented with the original three sets of 10: one at 50%, one at 75%, and one at the 10RM. APRE added a fourth set, and here’s where it gets interesting. The weight for the fourth set was determined by how many reps you got on the third (10RM) set. The reps on the final adjusted set determined your 10RM for the next session. This is determined by a chart that contains a set of guidelines to adjust the weight (up or down) according to how you do on that third testing set.

That original DAPRE system (D is for Daily) evolved into the generic APRE which added two extra protocols: the 3RM and 6RM. These both use the exact same warmup and testing/adjustment method, only with triples or sixes as per the protocol.

Adjustment Chart for the 6RM protocol

  Adjustment for fourth set (lbs)
  -5 to -10
  0 to -5
  No change
  +5 to +10
  +10 to +15
Reps in third set
> 13

Example time: you come with 100×6 as your predicted 6RM for the day. Warmups are 50×10 and 75×6. Third set is 100 for max reps. You get 9 reps. According to the chart, that’s the trigger to adjust the weight up 5 lbs/2.5 kg. On the fourth set you get 105×7 reps. The chart says thats your starting weight for the next session.

That’s all well and good, simple progression over time. But what happens if you have a bad day? Well, the chart has allowances for that too. In fact I’d suggest that’s where this approach really shines. If you’re having a crappy day, a legitimately crappy day, then your workout can reflect that and scale downwards accordingly.

One of the biggest hazards of using planned weights is that you may end up doing more harm than good by psyching up enough to push through weights that are just too much for you. I realize that this is rarely an issue with most gym-weenies, who often have trouble doing any real work, but when you’re talking dedicated lifters doing lots of work-sets on squats or even bench press, it can be all too easy to get too anxious and “train on nerve”.

That’s fine for maxing out on a test day or in a competition. It’s not so fine for regular training. Blowing out your CNS on the regular with psyched-up work is probably not the best of ideas. Hence the power of autoregulation. You can keep your daily work in check.

Each work set is also a test of your capability to determine where you’ll be at the next set and/or next workout. That’s what autoregulation is: using your current performance to control the training.

What Happened Here

In this case, the conclusion is pretty transparent: a group of 23 D1 football players were split into groups that either did autoregulatory training (like the APRE outlined above) or linear periodization for six weeks of off-season training. The tested lifts were the squat and bench press. After six weeks of training, the autoregulated group posted better gains in those lifts when compared to the linear periodization group.

Unfortunately there was some ambiguity about how the workouts were structured and how the different APRE protocols were rotated in. It was mentioned that all three (the 3RM, 6RM, and 10RM methods) were used, with the majority of workouts done with the 6RM method.

The linear periodization group used a simple setup starting at 70% and progressing by 5% each week as the number of sets and the rep range both decreased.

The authors speculate that autoregulation may wind up being a form of undulating periodization (where the intensity and volume shift from workout to workout) simply due to the variation that will occur automatically from session to session. Instead of having the variation planned, it simply happens as an artifact of the process. Which is pretty cool.

Good Things About This Paper

This has a lot of good things going for it. It uses real athletes. It uses real exercises, instead of some isokinetic dynamometer or leg extensions. Which means it’s a lot more applicable to you and I (and by you, reader, I’m assuming that you pick up barbells as a regular part of your exercising). I’ve never used isokinetic equipment and I couldn’t tell you the last time I used a leg extension. I squat and bench press 3-5 times a week on the other hand, so I’m interested when protocols deliver results in those areas.

Yeah there are some statistical weaknesses which the authors point out, but frankly I’m getting a little tired of all the papers done in rats or untrained college kids with isolation exercises. As is rightly pointed out, these results are very compelling and demand more research be done.

Further Reading

I have a lot to say on this topic and sadly I haven’t written most of it down. I’ve hinted at this sort of thing in a lot of posts here, mainly in the one on autoregulating workouts I wrote not too long ago. Autoregulation in some form or another can be seen in the programs of many (maybe most) exceptional lifters.

A good many classical powerlifting and general-strength programs do this on some level, and this is basically the norm in Olympic weightlifting programs. Doug Hepburn’s routines autoregulated themselves. Doug Young is reputed to have done something similar to DAPRE. Alexeyev’s training is still mostly a secret, but interviews with him have suggested he very much worked by feel. The list goes on and on.

It’s just that in recent decades we’ve become so dazzled by the idea of strictly-planned periodization cycles and workouts that you “just follow and don’t screw with” that it’s almost heresy to consider the idea of adjusting things.

Note that this isn’t to imply that linear periodization won’t work. I’m past that claim; if it’s a solid progression and you show up to put in the work, it’ll yield results. I’m partial to the cybernetic approach because 1. it sounds really cool and 2. I enjoy the flexibility. It also doesn’t mean you can or even should abandon pre-planned workouts or cycles; it means that you keep your proverbial eyes open and adjust the weights up or down as needed. If you consider each set as a test of your capability, then you will eventually learn your limits (both in the sense of intensity/weight and your overall level of fatigue in a workout).

Some methods like the Bulgarian daily-max approach or Max Effort powerlifting workouts throw out planning entirely. You show up, work hard, and base your work for each session off your capability at the time. Most systems are a more moderate compromise between that kind of daily fluctuation and a written-down plan, like the DAPRE methods described earlier. You can autoregulate as much or as little as you need.

Results like this paper are promising to be sure, and I do think that to excel requires you to be closer to autoregulating principles than not. One way or another, I think you have to apply some form of dynamic adjustment even to a written-down pre-planned workout if you want to see the best results. Whether that’s in the form of an autoregulating program, good training partners, or an awesome coach (or all three), I’m not sure it matters all that much.