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Autoregulation in Strength Training and Athletics

What is Autoregulation?

Autoregulation is an approach where training intensity and volume change from workout to workout based on the trainee’s daily readiness. It’s based on the fact that many factors (e.g., sleep and stress) affect one’s ability to perform, so it makes sense to adjust the difficulty of each workout accordingly. For instance, if an athlete feels particularly great one day, they might do more volume at a higher intensity. But, if they feel more tired than usual, the scheduled workout’s difficulty could be lower to account for that.

A Deeper Look at Autoregulation

Trainees adapt to training at different rates. Even when put on the same workout plan, some people will progress quicker than others. This has been documented in research and confirmed by countless coaches over the decades. 

Autoregulation is a way for coaches to adapt workouts individually based on each trainee’s unique needs instead of forcing each athlete to adhere to a specific progression.

Additionally, daily readiness depends on many factors and can sometimes be unpredictable. For instance, high stress combined with poor sleep could lead to a significant dip in energy levels and performance. 

In essence, autoregulation is a programming tool that allows coaches to acknowledge their athletes as humans, not robots. 

In an ideal world, clients would do great each time and hit all the milestones at the right time. However, that rarely pans out in the real world, so having the ability to adjust workout difficulty can be better in the long run.

Some Arguments Against Autoregulation

“It’s not supposed to be easy.”

Autoregulation has received some pushback from coaches and dedicated trainees for good reasons. One school of thought is that working out isn’t supposed to be ‘easy’ or ‘pleasant’ and that real results come from doing the work even when we don’t feel like it. 

While there is truth to this idea, we could also argue that pushing through and trying to create an overload all the time, regardless of how we feel, is not a good long-term approach. At some point, the training stress imposed can become too much for the body to handle, leading to an injury, overtraining, or burnout. 

“It doesn’t provide the right level of challenge.”

Another argument against autoregulation is that getting to adjust the difficulty of individual sessions can lead to long stretches of easy workouts for people who aren’t as dedicated and don’t want to put in as much effort.

Similarly, more dedicated trainees can push themselves to their limits in each workout and put themselves at risk of injuries.

This is also a valid idea, and there is such a risk. However, the coach’s job is to monitor each athlete to ensure that doesn’t happen. If an athlete needs multiple easier workouts in a row, it might be time for a deload week or to evaluate the difficulty of the training plan.

By monitoring each athlete and considering other factors (e.g., the trainee’s current diet, how stressed they are, and whether they do other training alongside resistance exercise), the coach can better understand each client’s natural tendencies, find ways to optimize the training plan, and develop motivational strategies.

“You can’t be objective with subjective feedback.”

Given that daily readiness and progression are often tracked through scales based on subjective effort (e.g., RPE), some people who critique autoregulation claim it’s not any better than simply training by feel.

While this is also a fair argument, athletes can get better at estimating their daily ability to perform and how much effort they put into each bout of exercise. Is it always perfect? No, but it’s still a tool for coaches to collect feedback and write better workout plans.


1. How is autoregulation different from regular training plans?

Regular training plans follow a more rigid workout structure where trainees must cover certain goals and progress accordingly. In contrast, autoregulation is a more flexible approach, where workout difficulty changes based on the trainee’s daily readiness.

2. Can you use autoregulation in team sports coaching?

An autoregulated approach can be used when coaching weight training for sports players since the same rules apply. You can adjust workout difficulty based on each athlete’s daily ability to perform.

3. How do you track progress with autoregulation?

Track progress by monitoring changes in performance along with the rate of perceived exertion on individual sets. 

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