What is Auto-Regulation?

I recently spent several months at the elitefts compound in Ohio with Dave Tate and all the elitefts crew. During that time, Dave said something to me that resonated with me:

“The most important thing a lifter can learn is auto-regulation.”

Normally I am fantastic at playing devil’s advocate, coming up with different viewpoints or answers, but in this scenario, it's difficult to come up with anything other than “Yes."

Auto-regulation refers to the lifter's ability to alter the demands of their training based on their perception of their needs and state of physical readiness. Knowing things such as:

  • When to push a workout or movement hard because everything feels good or is “clicking” on that day.
  • When to dial back the intensity based on something feeling “off” or because you are feeling under-recovered.
  • If your program needs adjusting due to trends in your performance/recovery.

This requires an individual to be very introspective and aware of their own performance and how their body feels (which most are not). Also, to be knowledgeable enough about training to know what variables need to be adjusted to address an issue (which, again, most are not).

Achieving these things requires a decent amount of education and taking full responsibility for your own training program and physical progression.

Why Most Struggle with Auto-Regulation

Being able to auto-regulate involves paying attention to your performance and your state of physical preparedness. If you don’t track your workouts and spend time in the gym more concerned about getting a good selfie than how your last set felt, then you are incapable of auto-regulating.


Because you’re not making the effort to gather the information needed to analyze your performance.

In a perfect world, I have clients give me the following information with each workout:

  • Body Weight – To see if there are fluctuations compared to the same workout last week or over the last few days.
  • Energy Level/Mood – Not just in the gym but throughout the day.
  • Sleep – To make people aware of it.
  • Workout Performance – How well THEY perceive they performed.

Most of this information is more for them. It makes them think about these variables and how they may be affecting their performance as well as analysing the workout itself.

To assess your physical readiness, you must first gather the information needed. I will address some good indicators that you can use for this later. But one thing I will address now is the use of fitness trackers.

Fitness trackers can help monitor variables such as RHR, HRV, and sleep quality and quantity.

In my opinion, even though they can be useful, they will never be as reliable as your own intuition if you’ve spent years becoming “in tune” with your body. The reason I say this is because there are so many variables that affect your real state of readiness, more than these trackers can accurately monitor, and take into account.

I’ve also just seen far too many examples of fitness trackers telling me that an athlete is essentially on the verge of death and still put in fantastic performances and vice-versa. Often in these scenarios, the athlete has said they disagreed with the tracker’s perception of their readiness.

Am I saying they’re completely useless? No. If they are going to be used then they should be used in conjunction with other methods of assessing readiness (grip strength, self-perception, etc.).

Not only do you need to monitor these variables and their effect on your performance, but you need to do it for an extended period of time. The longer you do it, the more data you have and the better you get at learning how these variables affect you. It takes time to identify trends, so this isn’t something you can do for a week or two and expect to have it all figured out.

Most of the people I know who have this really dialed in have training logs going back for years that are full of all sorts of weird and wonderful details about how they felt, how specific lifts moved, and so on. This probably isn’t a coincidence.

Why Auto-Regulation is Important

I mean, this all sounds like a lot of effort, right? Why can’t I buy my 12-week program and run through that?

Well, you can. But this is rarely going to be optimal for you. If you are someone who trains quite “casually,” then running through a pre-set program as written (from a reputable coach/source) is probably fine for you. If you are serious about progressing as much as possible, then you need to learn how to take that program and adjust it to your needs and abilities.

There is only so much progress we can stimulate from a single workout. Once we have ticked that box, we have two choices:

  • Go home.
  • Keep going and perform extra work for no extra reward (and potentially even reduce our progress by giving our body too much work to recover from).

But how much work we can do before we hit our limit in terms of productive work for that workout will vary based on our level of recovery/readiness and will vary from workout to workout. This is something that is almost impossible to consider when using a pre-written program (even one done by a coach who knows you well). If we did, then your program would go from looking like Workout Example 1 to Workout Example 2 (below):

Workout Example 1

  1. Back Squat – 3 sets of 2 @ 90% 1RM
  2. Pin Squat (from mid-point) – 3 sets of 2 @ 100-105% 1RM
  3. Front-Foot Elevated Split Squat – 3 sets of 6-10 each side, RPE 8
  4. Seated Hamstring Curl – 2 sets of 8-10, RPE 8

Workout Example 2

  1. Back Squat – 2-4 sets of 1-2 @ 85-92% 1RM – if you’re not feeling good, then go lighter and/or drop the reps down to singles. If you’re feeling good, then push the % to 90-92. If you’re feeling REALLY good, then go ahead and do an extra set.
  2. Pin Squat (from mid-point) – 0-3 sets of 1-3 @ 95-110% 1RM – if you pushed hard on the main lift and killed it, maybe skip this entirely or drop the sets and reps down. Although, if you’re still feeling super awesome after the main lifts, feel free to push the sets/reps/weight up on this. If the main lift went OK, strive for 1-3 sets of 2-3 at a weight around 10-15% higher than what you used on the main lift.
  3. Front-Foot Elevated Split Squat – Honestly, there are so many variables by this point I can’t give you any more guidance than “If you feel good, do some sets. If you don’t, then don’t”.

You get the picture…

A pre-written program doesn’t know that you had a double shift at work today. It doesn't care that you’re run down with a cold, or that you were up until 3 am surfing on Por...Facebook. Only you can account for these variables. Determine what needs to change to make your workout productive in the presence of them.

In most cases, it is not simply a case of skipping a workout but ADAPTING a workout.

A lifter who can auto-regulate properly will follow the STRUCTURE and progression system of a plan. He or she can tailor the individual workout to ensure the stimulus falls in that optimal zone between being enough stimulation to progress and not so much stimulation that we won’t adequately recover.

When you take that and amplify it over several years’ worth of workouts. You can see how that starts to become significant in terms of its effect on your progress.

Auto-Regulation for Beginners - Assessing Readiness

Here I will discuss how to dial DOWN the intensity of your training in response to feeling under recovered. Yes, auto-regulating can also involve pushing harder when you feel good. But I am yet to find a serious lifter who needs help or encouragement pushing harder or doing more work than prescribed. As a coach, you spend 99% of your time reigning people in, so that is why I will focus on this element.

My only advice when it comes to feeling good and increasing workout stress is this… DECIDING YOU CAN HANDLE SOME EXTRA WORKLOAD/STIMULUS THAT DAY DOES NOT MEAN YOU MAX OUT.

That is all.

When you start auto-regulating your workouts, that doesn’t mean that you throw a perfectly planned, well-structured program out of the window. In fact, most of the time, you shouldn’t need to make any changes at all. It also doesn’t mean we can play the “auto-regulation card” to conveniently skip all the stuff in our workouts that we don’t like.

Auto-regulating is kind of like dieting using the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) approach. Some people use the freedom of the system to allow them to eat a wide variety of whole food sources and enjoy social events, etc. Others, however, use the IIFYM approach to justify surviving on primarily protein shakes so they can spend all their calories on Twinkies and gas-station hotdogs. The same system but utilized very differently. I’ll let you figure out which group tends to get the better results.

To begin auto-regulating, you need data to analyze and estimate your own state of readiness. Here are some useful data variables:

  • Sleep - Quantity and quality
  • Level of Soreness/Stiffness - Left from the previous workout
  • Resting Heart Rate and/or Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
  • Blood Pressure
  • Body Weight - A sudden drop in body weight could illustrate a lack of nutrition/calories or dehydration
  • Grip Strength - A drop in grip strength indicates neurological fatigue. A digital grip device works very well here
  • Power Output - Again, lower power output indicates neurological fatigue. Your performance on a simple power movement like a vertical jump can be used here.

Some of these, along with your general perception of how you feel, can give you a decent estimate of your state of physical preparedness before you start your workout. But I would emphasize here that unless you do feel significantly run down, as in not in a state to train at all, you should not use these markers in isolation.

Your warm-ups can often give you a good indication of how your workout is going to go. So I like to use the above in conjunction with how my warm-ups are feeling to make a decision:

  1. A good day to try and push things –My indicators say I’m good to go, and my warm-ups are moving fast and smooth
  2. A day to stick to the plan and just get done what needs to be done – Both my indicators and warm-ups tell me I’m “OK” but not great. OR my indicators tell me I’m good, but my warm-ups feel like crap (or vice versa)
  3. A day do the bare minimum to be productive – Indicators tell me I am not in a great place, and warm-ups don’t feel good

I like this approach because with some of the new technology that we have to help us assess our “preparedness,” it can become easy to become too reliant on it.

I’ve had lifters skip workouts because their fitness tracker told them they were tired. Likewise, I’ve had lifters push up their work weights and do extra sets because they were told they were ready to smash it. Yet, when I get to watch the videos, it’s like watching a train crash.

This approach gives us a blend of using our own intuition and perception along with the extra information provided to us by technology.

Auto-Regulating for Beginners - Altering Your Workout

Every serious lifter should know the basics of training principles and programming. It is easier to be motivated when you understand WHY you are doing something and knowing these basics will allow you to alter your workouts based on the information we discussed above.

When it comes to determining how taxing a workout is going to be from a recovery standpoint, there are three main elements that we are going to be concerned with:

  • Volume
  • Intensiveness - Not intensity as in % of 1RM but how difficult a set is in terms of proximity to failure.
  • Psychological Stress – Movements or workouts that you find stressful/intimidating will cause a higher cortisol release

Other factors play a role in determining the stress of a workout, but these three are going to make up the lion’s share of that stress and give you more than enough options to alter your workout as required.

How many of these variables you alter, and how much, is obviously going to depend on exactly how much you need to reduce (or increase) your training stress for that workout.

As a general rule of thumb:

  1. Feeling a little under-recovered or “just not feeling it today”– Reduce one by 20-30%
  2. Moderately under-recovered or “feeling a bit shit mate” – Reduce two by 20-30%
  3. Severely under-recovered or “feel like I’ve been mauled by a gaze of particularly feisty raccoons” (Yes, a group of raccoons is referred to as a “gaze”) – Reduce all three by 20-30%. At this point you should be asking yourself, “Should I be training?” and “What have I done to offend those raccoons?”

Reducing Volume

I mean, this is a pretty self-explanatory one, right? You’re going to reduce the amount of work you do by 20-30%.

Now, when we reduce the volume of a workout, we want to reduce the number of SETS.


If you lower reps you also end up affecting intensiveness (which we will address below), whereas we want to leave intensiveness stable and only reduce volume (in this example).

So, you are simply going to reduce the number of working sets in your workout by 20-30%. That doesn’t mean that you need to evenly reduce the work sets of every exercise in your workout, however. For example, if you want to keep intensity quite high, then you could get that 20% reduction purely from your accessory and isolation work, leaving the heavier, compound work untouched.

Conversely, if your joints or nervous system are fried, then you could heavily reduce (or even remove) the work sets for your heavy work and leave all your accessory work as is. Now this will obviously reduce training stress slightly less (heavy compound work will likely be more taxing than whatever your accessory work is), but this is a way that we can tinker with the workout to fit our needs.

So long as the TOTAL VOLUME of the session is reduced by 20-30% then we’re still “de-loading” to a significant degree. But you can alter exactly how you do that based on the goals of the session and how beat up you feel.

Reducing Intensiveness

Intensiveness refers to the difficulty of a set. It is a separate metric to intensity, which is related to the load used relative to your 1RM. Intensiveness is essentially looking at the “RPE” of a set. A set of cable curls taken to failure (RPE 10 or no reps in reverse, RIR) has higher intensiveness than performing a double at 80% of your max squat (probably RPE 7 or three to four reps in reserve), despite the squat having a much greater load.

So, when we want to reduce intensiveness, we have two options:

Keep the load the same but reduce the number of reps per set—this works better where you are doing sets of higher reps. It’s hard to reduce the number of reps by 20% when you are doing sets of two to three… And yes, this WILL also reduce the total volume of the session by reducing the total number of reps performed. The reduction in intensiveness will have a more significant effect, but this can be a nice way to lower both metrics, should you need to.

Keep the reps the same but reduce load. It's easier to apply to the strength or heavier work that you are doing compared to the above example. We’re essentially looking to reduce the load enough to give us an extra one or two reps in reserve or reduce RPE by one to two. How much you need to reduce the load to achieve this will vary depending on your muscle fiber make-up and your strength endurance. If you’re very fast-twitch dominant, you may need to drop the load by 15% to get an extra two reps in reserve. Whereas if you’re quite slow twitch dominant or have great strength endurance, you may only need to lower it by five to eight percent.

Psychological Stress

When we refer to psychological stress, we refer to movements or methods that you find intimidating or particularly difficult. The lifts that you are built for the least will cause the most psychological stress. Why? Because you probably suck at them, and they will be harder to coordinate and perform well at from a mechanics point of view.

This category includes movements or, perhaps, methods that you find very uncomfortable or painful. For example, bicep curls aren’t a particularly stressful exercise unless you’re me and you hate training arms so much you’d rather have your tongue beaten wafer thin with a steak tenderizer and then nailed to the ceiling with a croquet hoop; but I digress. However, if we were to add blood-flow restriction (BFR) to our bicep curls, that will make them considerably more stressful, purely because it causes a large degree of discomfort.

So what options do we have here?

  1. Perform a workout for your “most natural” lift – Let’s say you naturally find squatting very easy to perform, and it’s a lift you’re very confident with. Perhaps you could perform your squat workout rather than your deadlift workout (which you find considerably more taxing and stressful).
  2. Drop intensifying techniques – If your workout involves rest-pauses, drop-sets, super-sets, etc, then drop these. Just do normal work sets, and don’t pair exercises together. The intensification techniques usually take sets from feeling OK to feeling hell-ish. So, if you need to dial things back, then drop them. You can always do an extra work set to make up for some of the lost volume if you like. We’re just trying to eliminate any methods that you must psych up in any way essentially.
  3. Swap exercise variation or to machines/cables – Let’s say your main lift is front squat. Heavy front squats suck. You’re getting choked out the whole time (which I’m informed not everyone enjoys, go figure…), it’s uncomfortable, you probably have to warm up your shoulders and wrists for ages to get in position, etc. Maybe a Zercher squat or SSB squat would be much less stressful to perform? You can keep the sets/reps the same but use a variation that you find less stressful. The other option is to swap some of our exercises for machine variations. With machines, there is a lot less to coordinate. You don’t have to warm up as much, there are no real safety issues, and so on. This may not work for strength work (although doing a 5RM on a plate-loaded chest press can be fun), but for accessory work, this can work very well.

Before you mention it, yes, I know it’s extremely hard to quantify reducing psychological stress by 20-30%. I mean, what the fuck would the metric even be here?

So my rule here would be this: the workout should involve nothing that you either dread or that you have to psych yourself up for. You shouldn’t need your “I’m a Fucking Viking Warrior Beast Playlist” on Spotify. You shouldn’t need to sniff ammonia and slap yourself in the face. Heck, you shouldn’t really even need a spotter (there shouldn’t be any doubt that you will dominate whatever sets/reps you are doing).

Go Forth and Auto-Regulate

So, there you have it, the Auto-Regulating for Dummies Guide. Now you have all the information you need to adjust your training to your level of physical readiness. In theory, you will never over-reach (unintentionally) again.

Will you follow it? Meh, we’ll see.

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Tom Sheppard is a UK-based strength and powerlifting coach. As a coach, he has worked with professional athletes from a wide variety of sports worldwide, including rugby, baseball, MMA, and high-level powerlifters. Tom is the co-owner of Phoenix Performance and the Head Coach at Thibarmy. He also contributes content for companies such as elitefts and T-Nation. Tom presented at the 2022 SWIS Symposium alongside some of the biggest names in the fitness industry.