Using Autoregulation to Make Continual Progress, Even on Bad Days

Have you ever given up on your exercise program?

Poor motivation, lack of expected results, never really enjoyed it in the first place… these are all common reasons for beginners to give up before they really even begin making progress.

If that’s you, the solution can be as simple as recognizing your true motivation and re-aligning your training with those goals.

 

Autoregulation

 

But what if you’re past the beginner phase?

If you’re a seasoned athlete, or at least someone with a consistent and diligent fitness practice, and you still fight the urge to give up, there may be bigger issues at play. Not the least of which is the frustration of knowing that you’re not making the progress you could be.

Quitting a program leads to an on-and-off cycle where you train consistently and hard for a few months, quit, then start again only to stop once more a few months later.

Sometimes it’s because of an injury, and sometimes you just plain burnout.

Luckily, you can control this (and keep your progress going) by utilizing a little known tool called autoregulation to monitor your progress within each session.

 

Identifying the good and bad training sessions

 

Beach handstand

Momentum is easy in the beginning, when frequent gains have you feeling like you’re well on the way to achieving this.

Getting started on an exercise program can be difficult.

Sure. We’ve all been there…

But once you get past the first few weeks and get into the groove and rhythm of your routine, you’ll probably find that you enjoy the training, especially because gains and improvements happen pretty much every time you workout (in the beginning).

It just feels easier, you don’t get as sore the next day, and you lose pounds/gain muscle/run faster, or whatever your metrics are.

Eventually, you hit a bad training session or two, but you push through it and you kick ass at the next go-around. But the next time it goes south, it’s not as easy. A few times through this cycle and every bad day feels worse and worse.

That’s when doubt creeps in.

You think about changing programs or even just stopping altogether, because you start to think, “Shouldn’t I be getting better every time I workout?”

Well, not really.

The more experience you have, the fewer and further between sessions will you notice tangible improvement. That doesn’t mean you aren’t getting better in the big picture, but it’s sure as hell difficult to see from up close.

 

The Reality of Good Days and Bad Days

Not every training session is going to be great - that’s obvious - but what’s less obvious is that the great (and/or bad) day is harder to predict than you might think, so you’ve got to base your training on something more reliable.

You must practice going into your training sessions without preconceived expectations of how your session will turn out.

You won’t really know if you’re going to have a good training session, or a bad one until you’re a bit into the actual session. The natural ups and downs of performance happen fairly randomly, and you have to practice going with the flow. If you fight against it, you’ll become more vulnerable to injury and burnout.

Autoregulation is a great way to monitor your training sessions and practice a “go with the flow” approach.

 

How to Practice and Use Autoregulation in Your Training

 

I know, I know, “autoregulation” is a fancy-sounding word with a Greek prefix… it must be complicated, right?

Nah…

You just have to train yourself to notice a couple of things.

 

How difficult are the movements compared to last time?

Autoregulation is nice fancy term for changing how you approach and work in a training session based on how you are performing now, relative to your previous sessions. You change your intensity and volume of today’s training based on how difficult it is compared to what you’ve done before.

Autoregulation isn’t just about how you “feel,” but is based on your actual performance of the exercises at the time.

Here’s an example:

Two days ago you did 3 sets of 10 ring pull-ups without a lot of struggle, and today your first set feels likes somebody is hanging on to your feet on the 8th repetition. This should start setting off some alarms in your head!

Here’s how we translate that into useful data you can use to autoregulate your next session.

 

Using Technique and Exertion as Gauges of Performance

 

In all of our training programs we advocate using two scales to gauge your performance. The first one is called the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), and entails being aware of your exertion levels during your exercise.

 

Rating of Perceived Exertion

Usually, we simplify things by using a scale of 1 - 10.

Usually, we simplify things by using a scale of 1 – 10.

You should always ask yourself throughout the movements:

“How hard was it to complete that movement?”

The Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) has been around for more than thirty years, and was originally developed by Gunnar Borg.

As I learned in therapy school, his scale was designed on a scale of 6 to 20, with 6 being no difficulty at all and 20 the most exertion you’ve ever experienced.

The numbers may seem funny but they were meant to correlate with heart rate (multiply by 10) and were found to approximate your actual heart rate during the exercise very well.

 

Relative Prettiness

The second scale we use focuses on measuring the accuracy of your technique, based on your form and how smooth and technically proficient your performance was within the movement.

As Ryan always says,” Make it pretty!

One important thing to remember is that you can only measure your technique relative to your own level. In other words, just being a beginner doesn’t automatically put your technique at a 1.

That wouldn’t be very useful at all.

Instead, we measure technique by how close to perfect - for you – you perform each movement.

 

This Stuff Really Works

In recent years, these scales have also been applied to more than just aerobic training (check here) and found to be fairly reliable tools to use as a marker of how your training compares from day to day.

As you get more experienced in your training, your awareness improves and you become very accurate in judging your effort.

So if you feel that an exercise is suddenly more difficult and your form is breaking down, take that as a cue that you aren’t likely to be breaking any personal records in the session, and it might behoove you to chill out.

 

How Autoregulation Helped Me Conquer the 21-Day Squat Challenge

 

I’ve used the last year and a half to experiment with a lot of different exercise programs.

Last month,I had a great crash course in realizing what autoregulation means for me. I finished a program designed by Nick Horton where I did Front Squats daily to a maximum weight for single and triple repetitions, sometimes up to 20 sets a session.

Front Squat

I know it looks like I’m just standing next to a squat rack, but I actually just front squatted 275.

Crazy? I would say yes.

But also very effective for improving that exercise. And aside from handstands, I really didn’t do much else for those few weeks.

But much more important than the physical gains from the program, were the lessons I learned about how to train productively for the rest of my life.

It’s actually not that difficult to push yourself for a few weeks and make a lot of improvement.

But it’s no good if you stop after that.

 

I’m in this for the long haul, and I hope you are too.

I’ve known about the methods and autoregulation for long time, but the extreme physical and mental concentration of this program really drove those concepts home into my gut.

If I hadn’t heeded those lessons, I’d have burned out or hurt myself before the end of the program, and I certainly wouldn’t have gained much.

When I started, I knew that I had to go into each session in an almost blasé manner, if I had to hype myself up every session, I would burn out very quickly. And after the first few days, there were days where I had to drag myself to the squat rack while thinking “Why the hell am I doing this?!”

But interestingly enough, those days didn’t correlate with how well I actually performed.

 

The Unpredictability of Real Training

Some days I thought I’d do great, and I did, yet other times I felt pumped up but did poorly. And the reverse was also true, I felt like hell, and yet it turned out to be a great session. Sometimes it was a good performance two days in a row and sometimes it was two bad days in succession, etc.

They happened randomly and I couldn’t predict it.

It wasn’t some pretty wave that I could plot on a graph and know what to expect.

And that’s the beauty of autoregulation, you don’t need to predict it beforehand, you just simply evaluate as you get into the workout and do your first few sets of exercise.

The daily work on this routine made me let go of my expectations, and I went into the day’s training without any preconceived notion of whether it was going to be good or bad.

I just started and then saw what happened.

I trained hard and really pushed it when it felt right, and I stopped and just did the minimum when I needed to.

This is such an important lesson to learn, and I believe it’s the key to lifelong training.

 

You Are Not A Robot

 

Robot

You’re less predictable (and better looking) than this guy.

Here’s the thing: you cannot expect to make improvements every day.

There are no exceptions to this rule.

Yes, when you start on a new program you’ll get those beginner gains, but even then you are going to run into some “bad days.”

It’s simply a given.

And no, you shouldn’t “fight through it.” It’s not a matter of will power or “wanting it more.”

If you push through on bad days often enough you are not just going to burn out, you’ll likely injure yourself. We’re not here to punish ourselves, we’re here to improve ourselves.

There are a lot of very good programs out there that are designed to bring you towards a peak performance over the course of several weeks. This works well and is a very real phenomena, train correctly and you’ll get in your best condition for a competition or event.

But continually creating a peak every week in training is not realistic.

It may seem so for a few weeks, but it’s not sustainable nor is it as predictable as people will want you to believe.

I often tell patients and clients “when in doubt, do less.”

This is antithetical to a lot of trainers that want you to push your limits everyday and yell at you to go harder and “dig deeper” and all that other crap.

This doesn’t mean that you should be lazy, it means that you should be smart.

Eventually consistency reigns supreme.

 

Practical Lessons

 

  • Always start a program easy and leave room to grow.
  • Don’t judge how a session is going to go based on how you feel before you start training, see how well you do as you begin the exercises.
  • Know what your minimum levels of performance should be based on how you were doing previously. This is the best way to use autoregulatory principles.
  • Take advantage of the great days and go ahead and push harder and work a bit more. On those blah days, do the minimum, don’t force it and get the hell out.

Don’t expect that this will just click into place either. You’ll need to practice and play with these principles for a few weeks before they really start to pay off.

But if you take the time to pay attention, you’ll eventually be rewarded with the ability to ensure that you never have to give up on another training program – that you can always make progress over the long haul, regardless of what challenges you face or how bad your bad days happen to feel.

 

Training is a Lifelong Endeavor

 

Here at GMB we always emphasize that training is for the rest of our lives, not just for a little bit here and there.

There is no benefit to pushing yourself to exercise for a few weeks then quitting and then starting again, always trying to catch up. Just like yo-yo dieting, it’s simply not good for you.

 

Do it for you
Remove the sense of competition, especially with others, and maybe even with yourself. Your fitness training doesn’t have to be a battle, and in a lot of ways, that “warrior” attitude is counterproductive – or at least artificial for most of us.

Train because you want to.

You’ll get FAR more out of your workouts when you know what you’re really doing them for.

 Do better when you can, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t.

 

If you have experiences with autoregulation, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Likewise any questions.

Photos via: bionicteachingThiago Floriano?olo, Phase5Fitness

Jarlo Ilano

GMB Content Manager - Jarlo is our resident Physical Therapist, Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist, and martial arts instructor. He writes articles and manuals and keeps us clear of any BS.

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Using Autoregulation to Make Continual Progress, Even on Bad Days by
  • http://www.facebook.com/mellytesta Melanie Testa

    Thank you for writing this article. I have been experimenting with listening to my body and responding to it responsibly. I am new to the fitness journey and have come to it after a cancer diagnosis. Before diagnosis, I did not exercise with any form of consistency, now I seek consistency with a balanced approach for my body and its needs. There is a fine balance between listening to your body, pushing through hesitations, working out, and mentoring the self for the better good. I like the RPE chart, now that is dead useful. I also really appreciate the calm tone of this article, I don’t like the overlord, “dig deep”, get this thing done talk. I much prefer to quietly congratulate myself for each truthful bit of progress.

    • JarloIlano

      Thank you for sharing your story!

      I hope you continue to be as consistent as you can, and that you have lots of quiet congratulatory moments.

  • Kam

    Good man. Good message. I used to try to do Crossfit but I could never get into that mental attitude of “train hard all the time no matter what or else you’re weak.” I could maybe do it for a month at a time but then I would burn way out and I would never get any real gains. I don’t have any kind of real system now, but I’ve noticed hat since I’ve relaxed and just tried to have fun in the gym without beating myself up, I have been making pretty good gains. I’m a Marine and I’m one of the fittest guys in my platoon even though I don’t train nearly as hard or as often as many of the other guys. I hope more people can start to develop this kind of attitude toward training! Americans, as a society, kind of have a all or nothing approach when it comes to fitness, and I bet that’s part of our obesity problem. No one can stick to a diet or exercise program because they keep being too hard on themselves and quitting! So, I hope this message can spread. Thanks!

    • JarloIlano

      Sounds like you are doing right by yourself!

      You’re right I think. People feel that they need to punish themselves with exercise or diet and end up bagging the whole thing. It’s terrible.

    • http://www.goldmedalbodies.com/ Andy Fossett

      “All or nothing” is a great observation. When we “fail” at all, we revert to nothing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/duffmcduffee Duff McDuffee

    Makes me want to train every day

    • JarloIlano

      Do it! And don’t listen to anybody else! (Wait so should you do it or not listen to me? *head explodes*)

      • http://www.goldmedalbodies.com/ Andy Fossett

        Ha! That’s trippy, dude.

  • JarloIlano

    Thanks. Yes, I think a lot of people can relate to this.

  • Al

    Hi Jarlo.

    Thanks for the article. Many people need to have someone give them permission to RELAX in their training. I never really did that, if one day I felt down or “not into it”, I would simply do something lighter, like sit on the bike and “stroll” or walk around the track just to take advantage of my time in the gym.

    Now, I use the Intuitive Training method that CST teaches. I use it even during my karate class, to focus always on technique, and I basically ignore my teacher who tries to push me into bad technique just for the sake of going faster or jumping higher. I do the best I can and I even gauge it per set. My main goal is to always ensure proper technique and let the effort gauge to adjust according to how I feel on that particular day. If I am completely out of it, I do some prasara yoga or some mobility instead and then leave the gym.

    • JarloIlano

      It sounds you’ve found what works best for you, Al. That’s great!

  • http://blog.superbootcamps.co.uk/ George Harris

    I think autoregulation is vastly under-appreciated, and under-used. I use it in a different way with myself and my clients. As an adaptation of the myo-reps method (which I also like for fat loss periods) and Mike Westerdahls programs, I have my clients work toward rep ranges and pay total attention to technique; they’re instructed to keep form focus above all else. When they’re able to work outside the rep range, that’s the time to increase the weight, or change it up some other way. It also means they’re not always aiming to do more reps, just to do as much as they can with total quality.

    I’ve written about this on my blog, here: http://adventuresinhealth.co.uk/2011/weight-training/autoregulation-for-optimal-increases-in-strength-and-muscle-mass/

    I hope this is of use to someone!

    Questions welcomed…

    Cheers
    George

    • JarloIlano

      Thanks for sharing your experiences George!

      That translation on your site was one of the things I read last year when I was trying to find more about Borge’s work. Great to see you commenting here. How did you find us, just through the google?

      • http://blog.superbootcamps.co.uk/ George Harris

        Hi Jarlo,

        I’ve been a subscriber via google reader for about a year now, I think the article I originally came via was a shoulder training one, something to do with rehab, as far as I remember….

        I subscribed because the articles here are always well written and offer a good contribution to the fitness field (which, as we both know, can be very varied in its quality!).

        Keep up the good work,
        George

        • JarloIlano

          Ah, that’s great George. You are a great resource too! Take care!