Workouts are usually planned ahead of time. Most people go into a workout knowing how many sets you’re going to do at what weight, and usually how many reps you’ll try to do.
This is better than the obvious alternative — just doing whatever you feel like, with no plan. However, there’s still a better way.
It’s called autoregulation. Not laws about cars. I’m talking about self-regulating your workouts, so you always train as hard as you can benefit from — no more, no less.
What is Autoregulation?
There is a certain amount of training volume that is optimal for your body. Train less, and you’re leaving gains on the table. Train harder, and you’ll actually get worse results while suffering unnecessarily. Ideally, you’d always want to train at your optimal volume.
So, your optimal training volume is not static, rather it's a constantly-moving target that a pre-planned training progression won’t reliably hit. By adjusting your volume and intensity on the fly, you can consistently train the optimal amount, or at least come close. That’s autoregulation.
To be clear, autoregulation is not “listening to your body,” or training harder when you feel good and taking it easy when you feel tired. Three characteristics tend to define autoregulation.
1. It’s objective, not subjective.
Adjustments are made based on data, not vague feelings.
2. It’s specific to the exercises you’re doing.
You can adjust your push-up training load independently of your running distance, and so on.
3. Your autoregulation follows set rules with specific criteria for adjusting training load.
There are many ways to do this, and here are four of them.
Method 1: Reps In Reserve
Popularized by Eric Helms, reps in reserve is a method used for going close to failure on weight exercises without quite getting there, leaving yourself enough energy to have a productive workout and still recover in time for the next one.
In short, your “reps in reserve” are how many more reps you could have done after ending a set. If you do five reps but you could have done six, you had one rep in reserve.
A good rule of thumb is to leave one rep in reserve for every 5 reps you do. So do 5 reps at a weight you could do 6 reps for, leave 2 reps in reserve on sets of 10, and so on.
This approach is effective, but only if you do go fairly close to failure. You can generally tell if you have one rep versus two reps in reserve, but not if you have six versus ten. It also helps if you occasionally do go to failure, in order to be sure you know what it feels like when you’re close to failure. If you never train to failure, you’ll tend to think you’re closer to failure than you really are.
Method 2: Autoregulatory Volume Training
Most sets are planned for a certain number of reps, although some workouts instead call for doing as many reps as possible in a given amount of time. A third approach involves doing reps until you reach a target proximity to failure, similar to the reps in reserve method.
The way this works is you do the first set of a given exercise for a targeted number of reps. On subsequent sets, you don’t need to count reps, but instead stop once you reach the same proximity to failure as the first set.
This helps you focus on technique, and also tends to make trainees work harder. However, (as physique coach Menno Henselmans notes) it can also become an excuse to slack off, so it works best for highly-motivated trainees.
Method 3: Flexible Training Days
This method is applied across a whole workout rather than a single exercise. If you’re having an “off day,” do all of your exercises power-style, meaning low-weight, low-rep, high-speed.
Feeling a little tired doesn't warrant an "off day," however. We still need objective rules. Instead, switch to a power day if you see that you’ve lost strength and/or endurance on the first several exercises you perform, meaning you’ve backslid across the board rather than just with one exercise. Alternatively, if you use a fitness tracker, you can apply this when your heart rate variability is low.
When that happens, lower all weights by 40 percent or so (if possible– for bodyweight exercises you can just do fewer reps), perform all exercises at high speed, and stop every set after 6 reps (or when you noticeably slow down).
You shouldn’t have to do this more than once every two weeks. If you do, your problem is more likely stress or lack of sleep.
Method 4: Reactive Cardio Volume Regulation
This is like autoregulatory volume training for cardio. Essentially, you adjust the length of a workout after seeing how the first 20 percent of the workout goes.
Say you run 5K twice a week. Start timing the first kilometer. If you run that first kilometer faster than you did last time, extend the workout to 6K. If the first kilometer is slower than last time, reduce the workout to 4K. And as with AVT, this can be used as an excuse to slack off, so only do this if you’re well-motivated.