Autoregulate Better Part 2: Muscle Growth for Physique Athletes

In part one, we learned the basics of autoregulation. 

  • Why autoregulation is important
  • How the RPE scale is incorporated
  • Different forms of autoregulation

Now, we'll start to dig - how specifically a strength or physique athlete will use these tools to improve their training.

Although autoregulation should be used by everyone, how it is used differs depending on goals. 

Improving Body composition

Although the popular RPE/RTS style of training is most common among strength athletes, lets not assume physique athletes shouldn't be paying attention. 

Every physique athlete has the same goal - improve body composition. 

Doing so by increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat.

Clearly, it gets more complicated.

Many females want to add muscle on there glutes, but not necessarily their shoulders. Men may want to build big arms that burst out of their sleeves, but don't care about their calves. 

Fat loss is going to be achieved via energy balance by regulating caloric intake and cardio, so this article will only touch on training/muscle growth.  

Although a physique athlete will never be asked to perform a lift on stage, progressive overload is still the primary mechanism for muscle growth. [1] Regardless of the sweating, grunts and squeezing of muscles - for maximal muscle growth you need to be getting stronger over time. 

Compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses & rows are primarily suited for progressive overload. Whereas single-joint movements, such as bicep curls, delt concentration, calves, abs, etc. are better utilized as a means of accumulating metabolic stress, which is another component of hypertrophy. [2]

When comparing the training differences in strength and physique athletes the major difference is training volume. For a review, training volume is the total tonnage of work done. 

For example, 315lbs x 7 reps x 4 sets = 8,820 lbs of training volume. 

You can do this for all exercises performed.

Doug Miller - commonly referred to as the best natural bodybuilder today is notorious for some insanely high-volume training sessions. Above is hamstring training, if that's not enough check out this back day

So setting the table with progressive overload, we know this is key for muscle growth regardless of your training style, but coming in second is total training volume. [3] Combining the research and anecdotal evidence of bodybuilders, the goal to for muscle growth should be: 

A) Progressive overload over time with compound movements

B) Metabolic stress with single-joint movements

C) Increasing training volumes over time 

If you're a quick one - you'll understand that progressive overload and training volume actually tie together. If you get stronger over time that will inherently increase training volume, even with the same sets and reps performed. 

So what should physique athletes autoregulate? Volume. 

Physique autoregulatory Programming

Our programs should navigate towards progressive overload, via some type of periodization.

Since I believe linear periodization is the most appropriate for novice trainees, let's look at an example of how autoregulation could be implemented. 

Periodization type: Linear (High volume to low volume)

Week 1 goal - High volume

Week 2 goal - Moderate to high volume

Week 3 goal - Moderate to low volume

Week 4 goal - Low volume

It's important to note that terms like "high" and "low" volume are relative. A high-volume bench press week for me right now is between 20,000-25,000 lbs. For some advanced trainees, that may be super low volume and for some novices that would be overkill. 

It's not about the absolute amount of volume each week as much as volume compared to each week. 

Even though we're autoregulating our training, it's not totally random and we don't want to lose focus of the big picture. 

Technique #1 - Autoregulate Reps

Autoregulating reps is the easiest way to autoregulate volume. 

In part one, we discussed plus sets. In which a trainee would be given the load, but perform as many reps as possible with that load. My favorite style being LSPS (last set plus set), with a goal RPE. 

Example: 5x7+ (LSPS) @ 75%, RPE 9 (definitely 1 rep in the tank)

The trainee would perform their first 4 sets of this workout for 7 reps. By the time they get to their final set, they'll likely have a good idea of their energy levels and performance on the last set. If they feel great they may get 10-15 reps, if not, they may stop at 7. 

This is just another form of minimums/maximums, only with the number of reps. 

Let's look at how this would actually affect volume. 

1RM Back Squat = 315lbs

75% = 235lbs. 

4 sets x 7 reps x 235 lbs = 6,580lbs 

Through the first 4 sets this trainee would accumulate 6,580lbs of squat volume. Now autoregulation kicks in. 

Scenario 1: Don't feel great. Want to hit minimum number of reps. Hit 7. 

7 reps x 235 lbs + 6,580 = 8,225 lbs (this would be the minimum amount of volume for the day)

Scenario 2: Feel amazing. Want to go for 10+. Hit 13

13 reps x 235 lbs + 6,580 = 9,635 lbs

By autoregulating the training volume with a LSPS the trainee was able to accumulate 1,410 lbs more volume on this day. More importantly, they did so by training at the same level of effort. They felt good - so they did more. Flow


A more drastic was to affect volume is by autoregulating sets.

Using the example above, let's say that 5 sets was in between our goal for that day. On paper our program actually looked like. 

4 to 6 sets x 7 reps x 75% @ RPE 9

Our thoughts & feelings will not change. Only the direction. 

At 75%, you shouldn't have an issue hitting a few sets of 7, but by the 3rd and 4th set you may be feeling decent, bad, or good. Don't forget that we aren't just autoregulating how we feel. It could be we have less time to train today because of other obligations, that could be another reason to do 4 sets and move on. 

After performing the 4th set (minimum) and accumulating 6,580lbs of volume, you'll have to make a decision if you can perform another set at an RPE 9 or below. If so, then hit another set. That adds another 1,645lbs of volume (7 reps x 235 lbs.) Did that set feel like an RPE 9? If so, move on. Did it feel like less than RPE 9? Great. Perform another set. Boom - another 1,645lbs of volume. 

By autoregulating our sets in this case we see a difference in 3,290lbs of volume from the minimum to maximum. 

That's over double the difference when only autoregulating reps. Of course we do not have to decide between only autoregulating the sets or reps. We can do both, which in this case could easily total 5,000+lbs of training volume difference between minimums and maximums, quite the difference. 

A plan

Let's keep our overall training goal in mind (4 weeks of linear periodization) and set up a plan to both autoregulate sets and reps - so that we can train to our capabilities each day, but still have a general training plan. 

Lift: Squat

1RM: 315 lbs

Week 1 goal - High volume - 4-5 sets x 8-10 reps @ 65% 

Week 2 goal - Moderate to high volume - 3-4 sets x 6-8 reps @ 75%

Week 3 goal - Moderate to low volume - 3-4 sets x 5 reps @ 80%

Week 4 goal - Low volume - 2-4 sets x 3 reps (LSPS- Cap at 8) @ 85%

I like the LSPS to be at the end of the training cycle because it'll give the lifter/coach good data on what they should do next cycle. If they crushed the top set, increase the training max. If not, stick with the same routine or switch something up. 

I don't want to take you through a math quiz - so just trust my volume calculations here. 

Week 1 volume - Min: 6,552lbs Max: 10,237lbs 

Week 2 volume - Min: 4,230lbs Max: 7,520lbs

Week 3 volume - Min: 3,780lbs Max: 5,040lbs

Week 4 volume - Min: 1,605. Max: 4,551lbs

Notice the moderate fluctuations in possible tonnage each week, but regardless the training plan is still followed. The intensity will still increase linearly with percentages and the volume with linearly decrease. 

PS: This is just something I made up in 2 minutes, not an actual program, but it does follow the premise. 

Extra credit

Those are the 2 techniques that physique athletes should use to make the biggest difference in their results.

Progressive overload via compound exercises and total volume are your king and queen, treat them accordingly. Too many people get caught up in bullshit like which bicep curl should they do, this is the equivalent of stressing over the placement of a pawn. Do which one you enjoy and gives you a wicked pump. Next question. 

With that being said - here are a few other short ways in which physique athletes could benefit from autoregulation. 

  1. Assistance work - While majority of your muscle growth will come from the compound movements, progress can still be had with exercises like leg extensions and curls. As a physique athlete, these should be autoregulated just like the main work. If you're feeling great that day, don't be afraid to bust out some serious volume on concentration movements. Who doesn't like 5x15 on leg extensions?
  2. Exercise selection - Unlike a strength sport, there are no required movements to perform and perfect technique. Your body does not see a barbell and sense "Rawwrr. Thick, dense muscle" or a dumbbell/cable set up and think "Ooo. Smooth, round muscle." All it can do is sense tension. So if you feel like doing DB work instead of BB, go for it, as long as you're tracking your weights for each exercise and training hard you'll progress. Just make sure the exercises are interchangeable and you're being consistent enough to monitor progress. DB bench vs. BB bench works (both horizontal presses.) DB bench vs. BB OHP does not work (horizontal vs. vertical press.) It may actually be advantageous to use a large bank of exercises, due to research showing that muscle hypertrophy is not always uniform. Movements in different angles can change the location of stress on muscles. [4]


That's it for round 2. 

Summary: If your primary goal is muscle growth, use autoregulation to adjust overall training volume. More when you feel good/more fatigue resistant & less when you feel sluggish/less fatigue resistant. Don't forget about having some sort of plan (macrocycle) and getting stronger with compound lifts over time.