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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
Train because you want to.
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.Using Autoregulation to Make Continual Progress, Even on Bad Days by Jarlo