There I was, doing pushups in my bedroom. Twenty pushups per set, if memory serves me.
Not that I couldn’t do more, of course. I could easily have done more than fifty pushups per set- and I wanted to.
I knew I could have pushed myself a lot harder- hell, I could have been in the gym lifting daddy weights instead of at home doing pushups. But I remembered the times when I had pushed myself too hard, trained too much and too often. I remembered the injuries, the sleepless nights, the depression and apathy.
And so that’s why I was taking a deload week. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to be doing the pushups, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to not work out for a whole week.
I figured there had to be a better way- some way that I could push myself as hard as I wanted to, and avoid overtraining, without needing to take a week off every two months.
And there is. But first, let’s take a step back and look at why most programs incorporate de-loads.
Suppose you’re a trainer designing one of these programs. You want the people following your program to progress as fast as possible.
However, you know that some trainees will push themselves harder than others. You know that some people can recover faster than others. So how do you design a one-size-fits-all program that will work for most of the people who follow it?
If a trainee’s workload is less than what his body could handle, his progress will be slower than it could be. Maybe he’ll make no progress at all, but in all likelihood he’ll make progress- it will just be slow.
On the other hand, if you dial up the volume and intensity too high, many of the people who follow your program will develop overtraining syndrome. Their gainz will plateau and even start to reverse, they’ll be fatigued, depressed and sick all the time, and their dicks might even stop working.
Faced with this choice, under-training is clearly the lesser of two evils. And indeed, most programs err on the side of creating too little training stimulus rather than too much. Most dedicated trainees will be satisfied with any progress at all, even glacially slow progress.
But what if there was a better way? What if you could push your body to its limits- without ever going over?
Auto-regulation: The secret to making faster gainz, without overtraining
Auto-regulation is a set of techniques used to dynamically adjust the volume and intensity of your workouts. Properly employed, they allow you to build strength, work capacity and muscle mass as fast as physiologically possible.
In other words, auto-regulation is fucking awesome. But let’s be clear on what it is and is not.
There have been time when I worked out harder than planned, because I felt like my body could take it. There have also been times when I cut my workouts short, or used lighter weights than planned, because I felt more fatigued than expected and didn’t want to over-exert myself.
That can be useful, but it’s not auto-regulation.
Auto-regulation is more than just “listening to your body.” Rather than acting on subjective feelings, it’s characterized by the use of specific, objective, and pre-planned rules for adjusting your fitness programming on the fly.
Auto-regulation techniques come in a few varieties. Here’s a basic typology:
Positive techniques increase the training stimulus when possible, while negative techniques decrease the training stimulus when necessary.
Single-exercise techniques modulate the training stimulus applied with a single exercise, while whole-body techniques modify the training load applied to your whole body, usually by adding or subtracting rest days.
Finally, dietary auto-regulation adjusts your diet, adding or subtracting calories in order to either maximize hypertrophy without fat gain, or maximize fat loss without losing strength or muscle mass.
I know what you’re thinking- Cool story bro, but how do I use it? I gotcha. Here are for auto-regulation techniques you can start incorporating today.
Technique #1: Reactive deloading
One of the more commonly used methods of auto-regulation, reactive deloading is a single-exercise negative technique. Out of all the auto-regulation techniques, this is the one that most directly substitutes for traditional deloads.
Here’s how it works: when you fail to hit the expected number of reps on one of your sets, you lower the weight by about 20% for all remaining sets of that same exercise. All remaining sets are performed at high speeds in order to reach high muscle activation levels, and are still limited to the same number of reps despite using a lower weight.
Example: you’re bench pressing 245 pounds for five sets of five, at a low, controlled cadence. On the second set you only make four reps. You lower the weight to 195 pounds and perform the remaining three sets as sets of five, lifting with an explosive tempo.
Note that the weight is only lowered for that one exercise, and only for the remainder of that one workout. Once you’re done with the last set, it’s back to your regularly scheduled program.
Reactive de-loading is best used with heavy, compound exercises that produce the most fatigue, and therefore present the greatest risk of overtraining. For lower-weight and isolation exercises, you’re better off either using AVT, which I’ll describe later, or not auto-regulating at all.
Technique #2: Autoregulatory volume training
Another negative, single body part technique, AVT has similar goals to reactive de-loading, but takes a different approach. Reactive deloading holds volume constant while allowing intensity to be lowered as needed. AVT takes the opposite approaching, holding the weight constant while allowing reps per set to free-float.
How it works is, you perform your first set of a given exercise as normal, carefully noting how hard you exerted yourself on the last rep. For subsequent sets, you use the same weight but instead of completing a target number of reps, you stop each set after doing a rep that was as difficult as the last rep of the first set.
This frees your mind from the need to count reps so that you can focus on moving the weight. Not thinking about reps lets you focus on your technique, and it tends to increase force production since you don’t hold back during the first few reps of each set.
Another way to look at this is that traditional weight training hold both volue and intensity constant from one workout to another, while difficulty varies. By contrast, both AVT and reactive deloading maintain consistent difficulty by allowing either the weight or volume to be adjusted as needed.
AVT is a great tool for normalizing the training stress produced by your workouts. It works best with exercises that are performed for at least five reps, but can be used with pretty much any exercise. The main determinant of whether to use it is your psychology.
This isn’t a good choice for unmotivated trainees who will use it as an excuse to slack off. On the other hand, it’s also a bad idea for people who can’t hold themselves back- those people will find themselves going to failure on the first set, then doing it again on every subsequent set.
In order to implement AVT, you need the discipline and determination to push yourself exactly as hard as planned- no more, no less.
Technique #3: Conditional failure training
Conditional failure training is a positive single-exercise technique, and in a sense it’s the polar opposite of reactive de-loading or AVT. Instead of lowering the workload when you fall short, you raise it when you meet or exceed expectations.
Here’s how it works: when you hit your expected number of reps on every set of a given exercise, you continue until muscle failure on the last set.
For instance, say you’re doing three sets of eight dumbbell shoulder presses. You make your eight reps on the first two sets, so when you hit eight reps on set three, you keep going, squeezing out two more reps before you can’t go any further.
Obviously, you only want to do this with exercises for which going to failure won’t be dangerous- nothing like military presses or back squats where you could drop the weight on yourself.
It works best with higher-rep exercises where you’re only reaching full muscle activation later in the set, and is best reserved for the last exercise in your workout that targets a given muscle. In other words, it works well with pec flyes, but not if you have dips coming up in a few minutes.
Technique #4: As-needed rest days
This one’s pretty self-explanatory; take an extra rest day when you need one. That makes this a negative, whole-body auto-regulation technique.
The catch, of course, is that you have clear rules for determining when you “need” an extra rest day. And of course, you have fewer pre-planned rest days, since the point here is to replace, not add to, your existing rest periods.
If you want to start doing this, first cut back on your planned rest days. If you’re currently working out every other day, switch to a two days on, one day off schedule. If you’re working out four days a week, raise that to five or six days a week.
You’ll want to take an extra rest day when you see signs of a whole body plateau. That means you’re falling short on multiple exercises across several body parts. Of course, we all have bad workouts sometimes due to normal day to day variation in strength and sleep quality, so you only want to throw in an extra rest day when this happens several times in a short period.
Example: You’ve been working out three days a week. You raise that to five days a week. On any given workout, if you fall short of your expected number of reps on three or more exercises, you mark that on your calendar as having been a bad workout.
If you have three bad workouts within a seven-day period, you add an extra rest day after that workout. You never take two rest days in a row however, so if this happens on the day before a rest day, you instead take your extra rest day on the day after the next workout.
While single body part methods like AVT and reactive de-loading are my first choice for negative auto-regulation, as-needed rest days make an effective second line of defense for people who are particularly prone to whole-body overtraining syndrome. I commonly recommend them for people who chronically under-eat, or who have irregular sleep schedules, whether due to insomnia, shift work, or frequent travel.
Your next steps
Any serious intermediate or advanced trainee can benefit from autoregulation. The first three techniques listed here can be added to any existing program without changing the workouts or overall schedule, so that’s where to start.
Pick three exercises in three different workouts you’re currently using. Apply reactive deloading, autoregulatory volume training, and conditional failure training to one exercise each, in accordance with the exercise selection guidelines I’ve laid out here.
Next time you change up your program, use each of those three methods on two exercises each. Additionally, raise your training frequency by one or two workouts per week, but start incorporating as-needed rest days into your schedule
By combining these four techniques, you can optimize your training load to the precise needs and capabilities of your body.
Auto-regulation is one of the many tools that elite coaches use to get their clients very big and very lean, without making them very, very exhausted. I’ve compiled twelve of these techniques in The Dirty Dozen: 12 Techniques for Greater Gainz, my free primer on advanced weight training methods.
By applying the right training method at the right time, in the right amount, you can optimize your workouts around whatever goal you want- whether that’s hypertrophy, strength, strength-endurance, fat loss or work capacity.
If you want to upgrade your body, you need to upgrade your knowledge.