Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Percent-based training vs. Auto-regulatory? Can they be complementary?

I have been writing recently on the behavioral aspect of exercise prescription (click HERE) and my ’quest’ to blend the pros of percent-based approach and auto-regulatory approach, while avoiding their cons. In the following table there is a short list I quickly made for the purpose of this article.

·         Decreasing decision making by the athletes and wiggle room
·         Sometimes result in better productivity
·         Avoiding over-thinking and irrational behavior
·         You go in, and do your s*it and you are out

·         It doesn’t take into account day-to-day variability and non-linearity/complexity of improvements
·         Sometimes hard to be ’spot on’ in terms of weights/reps, especially for assistance exercises
·         You might end-up pushing too much, which might result in injury, or dragging your ass to the gym since you know what weights are expecting you
·         Too much focus on the end goal

·         Takes into account day-to-day variability and complexity/non-linearity of the improvements
·         Easy to assign loads for assistance moves
·         Focus on the journey/process
·         Too much wiggle room (“Was that 10 or 9 RPE?”)
·         Need constraints/limits to avoid showing of the ugly chimp (irrational behavior)
·         Too many warm-up sets, especially when done in “daily max” – you need to search for the right weight and that takes time and energy (especially if you don’t log your workouts) – especially if you plan doing multiple sets of that weight

Basically, percent-based programs have more ‘behavioral’ pros and auto-regulatory have more ‘physiological’ pros.

You might wonder what the hell am I talking here – but let me give you two short examples of what ‘behavioral’ aspect of exercises prescription means.

Exhibit A – Housewife on a personal training session

You give the lady a program sheet showing her reps and sets with an exercise description, maybe a picture. She needs to fill the weights she used and compare it to the last time she did the exercises, so she utilizes progressive overload principle. Guess what? She forgot the last paper. Or worse, she just had a crappy day at the office and she just want to get the workout done without too much thinking (yes, for some people that is too much thinking). You try to explain the importance of progressive overload, but somehow she just keeps taking the damn pink dumbells for lunges. The results are not there and the vicious cycle repeats.

Exhibit B – Twenty soccer players in the gym

You gather up the guys, tell them they are going to do RDLs and Push-ups for 10reps for the first part of the workout. Everybody get their sheet and needs to fill the numbers. Pretty much the same scenario as above. Everything seems to work, for a second. One athlete starts to complain about the sore hamstrings from practice while you try to explain RDL to new guys. Peter took the paper from Michael and wrote “you mamma’s jokes” and crazy numbers for RDL. Stan lost his paper under the lifting platform. The damn John asks you about how much he needs to be lifting every 30 seconds. Couple of slackers always chooses really light weights, while two beach-boys slap each other while going to the failure.

No choice-yoga :)

And in all scenarios you are trying to ‘teach them how to fish, instead of giving them a fish’. Trying to teach them principles of progressive overload and other dangerous words they can’t even pronounce.

These strategies might perfectly work in different scenarios and with different people, but in these specific ones you need to adapt. You need to change your exercises prescription so you can focus on the coaching, and avoiding explanation of ‘the fishing process’. Your exercise prescription should have behavioral impact as well.

The simple solution – prescribe exact reps, sets and weights. Cut back on their decision making. Sometimes more choice end up being worse than no choice at all.

The problem with this percent-based approach is that it is not flexible to day-to-day fluctuations. But there are couple of solutions how to blend auto-regulatory training into percent based approach.

Here is couple:

Prescribe EXACT exercise intensity in terms of weight needed to be lifted. Intensity is the most important variable and will dictate training effects

Instead of prescribing exact reps that need to be done, prescribe REPETITION ZONES. For example, a given workout might call for 3 sets of 3-7 with 80%, instead of 5 reps. This will create some wiggle room for non-linear readiness. Hidden auto-regulation. If you know they are tired, instead of prescribing 5 +-1 (4-6), you might prescribe 3-5.

Instead of prescribing number of sets (or in addition to it) prescribe and impose time limits. For example 15 minutes to do hang clean from a warm-up sets, or 5-8 minutes for the main sets. This way you might stop f*cking around and reading women magazines and chatting with the receptionist of the gym. If you are tired that day, guess what – you will have longer breaks and end up doing less sets. If you are using back-off sets, especially in the ‘daily max’ workout, make sure to impose time limits on those as well. Again, hidden autoregulation.

If you don't know their maxes - APPROXIMATE, or use old scored but decrease them for 10-20%. Use their body weight as a starting point. It is better to under-estimate than to over-estimate. No perfect you say? Strength training is a journey (damn I need to remind myself of this too... damn ugly chimp) - you will know more after the first open set (see below).

Prescribe compulsory & optional exercises – prioritize. In optional exercises chose the ones that particular athletes like. They are not slaves after all. Give them wiggle-room and decision making in the stuff that is less important and have less injury potential.

Every now and then do ‘open’ sets. Go to a technical failure on the last set. Use this to adjust exercises maximums and gauge improvements. No need for designated 1RM testing, at least not with non-strength sport athletes.

Don’t give players sheet and don’t expect them to fill anything. That’s your role, along with coaching them. Their role is to lift. Put couple of big tables with names and weights, taped on the wall. They easily check what they need to lift. You can create groups of similar ability to avoid too much plate movement.  

You can use also use GymAware to prescribe velocities and quality thresholds – when to stop the set (i.e. when velocity of rep falls below 80% of initial rep), and when to stop the exercise (i.e. when average reps speed during a set decrease below 80-90% of the initial).

The full prescription might end up something like this (without sounding too much like DB Hammer)

Pause Squats with 80% of 1RM for 10minutes (Time limit)
Stop the set when rep velocity drops below 85% of initial rep
If your average set velocity drops more than 10% switch to the next exercise/block


Pause Squats with 90% Relative intensity[1] for 4-6 reps (77,4% 1RM) for 10minutes (Time limit)
[Do at least 2-3 sets in that time frame]

Periodization of this type of prescription (a blend of percent-based and autoregulatory[2]) might involve progression of the RI% and rep zones (example 2), absolute intensity, time limits, higher-lower quality threshold (using GymAware) to induce higher/lower fatigue/stress/volume, etc.

Relative intensity %
Performance / Test



Variation / Circuit


Active rest

Core lifts

Those are couple of my tips. And most of them were motivated by my discussion with Donnell Boucher, and by reading latest article by Charles Staley on T-Nation.

I have modified my strength training tables/prescription by using rep zones and relative intensity concept (see THIS article)

[1] Relative intensity (RI%) is a way to calculate ’effort’ or intensiveness, similar to RPE scale. For example, if 5RM is around 86% of 1RM, using 90% of RI would yield using 77,4% for 5. See more HERE.
[2] In autoregulatory system of Mike Tuchscherer one prescribes reps and RPE (i.e. Squats for 5 @8RPE), while intensity is self selected and volume regulated by fatigue stops/percents,  drop sets with time limit, etc.  Here I took the different approach – intensity (percentage) is prescribed, while reps are auto-regulated (by using zones) or regulated by using GymAware.

1 comment:

  1. I like this breakdown. I use %s as a measure of what the athlete can do on the day, not on what they can do as an all time best. So, somedays 100% might be 95kg, somedays it might be 87.5kg.
    This takes into consideration on training factors such as stress or sleep. It also allows team training where one part of the team have been doing a lot of running, the rest have been standing.