Autoregulation & Its Effect on Training for Physique Athletes

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Written by Kim Leggett (Clean Health Online Master Coach)

Say your client wants to push themselves to the limit each and every time they hit the gym. How else are they going to make gains, right? This however is like a double edged sword as fatigue, burnout and injury can all occur in the process. 

In other words, there may be some weeks where your client walks into the gym and feel like a boss and other days where they’d rather be on the couch because everything feels too heavy. This is normal when it comes to training – even elite level athletes have their good and bad days. This is where something called Autoregulation can be a useful tool to ensure that your client is continually progressing whilst avoiding burnout. 

What is Autoregulation?
Autoregulation is a way of adjusting your client’s workload within each training session based on how you’re performing relative to previous sessions. You change the intensity and volume of their training based on how difficult it is to the last time they performed. If your client is a physique athlete, they don’t want to be smashing your athlete 5-6 times a week as they are going to be over-trained, under-recovered and have more bad days than good. This is why autoregulation is important for these athletes to help accomodate for days when your athlete isn’t feeling so great. 

Another way of looking at autoregulation is a way of making decision about your training during their session instead of beforehand. You’ve also probably used auto regulation before whether you realise it or not. 

  • Rested an extra minute before the next set to push harder? 
  • Added 2.5kg instead of 5kg because you weren’t feeling as strong? 
  • Dropped the load when form started to break? 

All of this is autoregulation. In saying that, this doesn’t mean you make up the workouts as you go, you still need a PLAN. Autoregulation simply allows you to execute the plan in a better way. 

What’s the science behind this? A recent review found that auto regulated rest periods were as good if not better than structured ones for strength and muscle gain (2). Another study showed that beginners who autoregulation their training increased their leg press more than linear periodisation (4). 

Why should your physique athlete autoregulate their training?
Most programs are based on linear progress however it is impossible to predict exactly what loads will be used months in advance. You will have a plan but one that has structure flexibility within it as some part of training should change. 

Being able to gauge ones daily state and how loads are affecting the body takes a fair amount of time to develop. It’s for this reason that many physique and strength athletes have coaches whose roles is to prep them in the most effective way possible. 

Stress, recovery status, motivation, distractions, environment, work, travel, food, family, illness, bills, insecurity and sleep can derail a workout. There are so many ways you can be impaired either physically or mentally for the gym that it’s simply not possible for you as a coach to control these variables or even know which variables are going to impact your client on a day to day basis. The only person who knows and experiences all this stuff is the client. If you stick to what you both know, you, training and comp prep, and your client, their own feelings and circumstances, you get the most optimized distribution of weekly training volume possible when you have an honest relationship in which biofeedback is at the centre. 

It’s also important as a coach, not to get too carried away with autoregulation. You should not anticipate that your client’s going to have a bad day each week, don’t program for failure. Instead if your client has 2 programmed squats days per week get them to do the easier session on a day they don’t feel as good. 

How to apply autoregulation: 

AMRAP sets (As Many Reps As Possible) 
Take a weight that is a decent proportion of your 1RM and rep out until you reach technical failure. This approach should be done with caution as it can tap into recovery but knowing that you’ve complete 10 reps at 85% of your 1RM in week one compared to 12 reps the following week is one way to show that your AMRAP is progressing. Another approach of doing this is by giving your client a given time to complete AMRAP provided they do a minimum amount of sets. This approach again allows the client to start a new set once they’ve had sufficient rest provided whilst completing a minimum target amount of sets to ensure adequate work is done. 

RPE – Rate of Perceived Exertion
RPE is a 10 point scale where a set at RPE of 10 is done to absolute failure. An RPE of 9 means you could have done 1 extra rep. RPE is a great tool as it allows you to autoregulate your volume as you get stronger. 

Derived from

RIR – Reps In Reserve 

RIR is simply the number of clean reps you have left in the tank, for example RIR of 1 equates to having one more rep that you could have done and so forth. 

A general rule of thumb is that you want to be ensuring the majority of your sessions are done at RPE 6 to 9 or RIR 1 to 4 as this ensures you’re fatiguing your muscle fibres enough to maximise motor unit recruitment whilst managing stress and fatigue. Training to true failure is incredibly taxing and will impact subsequent sessions that will hinder an athletes performance on stage. Remember that comp prep is not easy and there’s no value in adding discomfort to your clients program rather allow them flexibility to adapt when their body is calling for it – they’ll thank you in the long run. 


  1. Boly, J. (2019). Autoregulation: Can it be beneficial for every type of strength athlete? BarBend. Retrieved from:
  2. Henselmans, M and Schoenfeld, B.J. (2014). The Effect of Inter-Set Rest Intervals on Resistance Exercise Induced Muscle Hypertrophy. Sports Medicine. 
  3. Legge, A. (2015). The Definitive Guide to Autoregulated Training. Complete Human Performance. Retrieved from:
  4. McNamara, J.M. And Stearne, D.J. Flexible non-linear periodisation in a beginner college weight training class. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 24(1), 17-22. 
  5. Norton, L.(PhD). (2020). Training The Physique Athlete. Clean Health Fitness Institute.

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