Autoregulation - An Alternate Approach to Periodization

We’re nearing the conclusion of the 2014 Winter Olympics and one thing I have to say...these athletes are absolute freaks! Although genetically gifted, you can bet that there’s more to it than that. These athletes have training programs in place that allow them to be at their best when it matters most. Essentially, training is enabling these athletes to ‘peak’ for major competitions. Peaking too early or too late could cost them a shot at an Olympic medal.

This week, we’ll briefly review how athletes ‘peak’ for competition and arguably, suggest a more optimal approach.

Periodization Reviewed

Periodization can be defined as dividing training into separate phases or ‘periods’. Why segment training into different phases? The stressors that are placed on an athlete during training can be very taxing and, from a physical, psychological and emotional level, cannot be sustained indefinitely. There are therefore, periods during the year that are more intense while others that are less intense. This approach will promote the greatest response in terms of recovery and adaptation.

Figure 1

Before we continue, I should note that there is an important relationship that exists between volume and intensity (Figure 1). Training volume is made up of the number of reps per set, the number of sets per session, the number of sessions per week and the number of weeks per year. Training intensity is made up of the load being used. As volume decreases, intensity increases...and vice versa.

On top of volume and intensity, you’ll often hear the term ‘volume load’ thrown around strength & conditioning circles. This term simply combines volume and intensity into one number and expresses it in tonnes of weight (reps x sets x load). Volume load (Flanagan) can be used to visualize training over time (Figure 2).

Periodization Models

Linear Model

This model (Figure 2) is characterized by high initial training volume and low intensity (load). As training progresses, volume decreases and intensity increases (Bompa). Before the modern era of sport, this model was widely implemented. The reason - if you were an Olympic athlete (long track speed skater for example), you likely only had a couple competitions per year. With long periods of time with very little to no competition, this approach was possible.

Figure 2
Undulating (or Non-Linear) Model

This model (Figure 3) is characterized by variation in the planning and implementation of training programs throughout a training session, training week and annual cycle (Bompa). Example, look at figure 2 again, the volume load varies (or undulates) from week to week while intensity does the same, inversely. Note that there are times when intensity and volume are both high or both low (this depends on the phase within a season and the state of the athlete).

Compared to the undulating model, the linear approach to periodization is a bit dated. Studies suggest that the linear model may be impractical because of the varied schedules of most sports in the modern era. Although research is limited in regards to periodization, the undulating model has been shown to aid in recovery/adaptation while producing the greatest gains in strength and power (Rhea and Alderman).

Figure 3

The Future of Periodization

Now that we’ve established the basics, let’s take a look at a slightly different approach to training that many coaches are implementing with elite athletes.

With the advent of technology in the world of sport science (force platforms, accelerometers, linear position transducers etc.), coaches are now able to become more objective with their approaches to training. Enter autoregulation.

What is Autoregulation?

A form of periodization that adjusts to the individual athlete’s adaptations on a day-to-day and/or week-to-week basis.

Autoregulation, or Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE), was first implemented by DeLorme over 60 years ago with rehab patients coming off knee injuries. It was adapted by Siff and is characterized by adjusting the load from set to set to establish an RM (repetition maximum) on that particular day. APRE uses the following RM range to target different strength qualities:

Strength/Power - 3RM

Strength/Hypertrophy - 6RM

Hypertrophy - 10RM

Now, remember velocity based training from last week? Recently, Mann suggested that APRE can be employed with velocity training, rather than using RMs. In Mann’s study, APRE was more effective than a linear approach in improving strength, probably because APRE is more undulating in nature (Figure 5).

3 Reasons VBT and APRE are a Match

Reason #1: Numbers Don’t Lie

The traditional approach to APRE is still subjective in nature. Athlete’s need to be in tune with their bodies to decide whether an increase or decrease in load is appropriate. Velocity thresholds can be put in place to help dictate loads (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Reason #2: Push or Pull?

Velocity can be a measure of neuromuscular efficiency and will allow the coach to either pull back or push an athlete, on a given day. This is a tremendous tool for overtraining/undertraining and will be discussed in a later post.

Reason #3: Individual Differences

Each individual adapts to stress at different rates. Because velocity will govern the load being used on a given day, this will dictate periodization, i.e. how long to stay in a certain phase of training (Figure 5). Some athletes may need 4 weeks to gain muscle size, while other may only need 2 weeks.

Figure 5
 **NOTE - notice the inverse relationship between %1RM and velocity. Next week we’ll outline how velocity can be used to predict 1RM!


VBT can be a great tool to dictate training loads and time spent in different training phases. That being said, it’s not enough to rely solely on VBT - a deeper understanding of periodization is needed to help athletes ‘PEAK’ for competition.


Bompa 2009. Periodization.

Flanagan 2011. Practical Programming in Professional Rugby. University of Edinburgh Lecture.

Mann et al 2010. The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Rhea and Alderman 2004. A Meta-Analysis of Periodized Versus Nonperiodized Strength and Power Training Programs. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.

Siff 2009. Supertraining.