As a powerlifting coach, i am constantly tasked with the goal of writing an individualized training program for each athlete that prescribes the proper training stimulus to safely prepare that athlete for the platform. In doing so, i'm often faced with many issues that arise during a training cycle, and one in particular stands out to me. That is, what should the athlete do when they feel like shit in the gym.
In a traditional training program, exercises are prescribed as a percentage of 1rm. That is a percentage of the max amount of weight one can do for one repetition (ex. 70% 1rm for 3 sets of 8 reps). This has proven to be a useful strategy, but it does not take into account that issue i previously mentioned. This is where autoregulation comes in.
Autoregulation is the ability to adjust training in response to that individuals readiness for that day. This basically means the ability to change training based on how you feel. I'm sure many of you have walked into the gym after a rough day at work, lack of sleep, family stress, etc.. and felt absolutely horrible. I for one have had days where i couldn't even complete one set of squats that my coach had prescribed, even though i had completed them no problem the week before. So what do you do when days like this occur? You adjust. If you were to try and complete the prescribed training on a day that you are feeling like this, you would most likely run yourself into the ground, which would result in a residual effect that will further hinder your training in the days and weeks to come. This is why i choose to set a contingency plan for all my athletes in case circumstances like this arise.
I utilize the repetitions in reserve rating of perceived exertion scale (RPE scale) with all my athletes as a tool to autoregulate training. The repetitions in reserve RPE scale was created by Mike Tuchscherer, who is a highly skilled powerlifting coach and athlete. The RPE scale is a 1-10 scale that subjectively measures how many repetitions the athlete believes they could have performed should they have taken the set to failure. You can see the scale below from the muscle and strength pyramids written by Dr. Eric Helms.
There are 2 main ways in which i use the RPE scale with my athletes.
1. I may prescribe load solely based off RPE. An example of this would be giving an athlete 2x1 @8 RPE, and so the athlete then does 2 single reps that correspond to an RPE of 8. I tend to use this approach only with well trained athletes, and for lower rep/higher intensity sets as its more difficult to judge RPE at higher rep ranges and less trained athletes are less accurate with the scale.
2. I often prescribe loads by %1rm but then give the exercise a goal RPE for the day. In this case the athlete would do the prescribed weights but if they fall outside the goal RPE range, they would adjust accordingly. This also brings me to another point.
Autoregulation isn't just for when you feel like shit. It's also for when you feel amazing. If i give an athlete 70% for sets of 8 and the goal RPE is 7-8 and they are experiencing RPEs of 6 or less. The athlete can then increase the weight to take advantage of when they are feeling better than usual. This presents another disadvantage to just programming weights by % of 1rm. The goal of a powerlifting coach is to increase their athletes strength on the squat, bench, and deadlift. Why would a coach want to hold their athletes back when they are feeling strong? You wouldn't, but if there aren't systems set in place to autoregulate training, this may just be the case.
In conclusion, i believe all training programs should have some sort of autoregulation parameters to keep athletes progressing and healthy. You don't have to use RPE as i do. There are plenty of other autoregulation strategies to use such as velocity based training and the perceived recovery status scale. I just recommend you have a plan set in place for when training doesn't go as planned for yourself or for your athletes.
- Sam Jansen