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The purpose of this study was to observe differing responses to resistance training when subjects either chose their own exercises or were assigned a specific order of specific exercises.
Why Study This
Auto-regulation is a method of training that takes your current feeling and ability into consideration on a daily basis.
For example, you might work with a coach who programs back squat for a given percentage of your 1 rep max. The problem with doing this is because each day, you’ll have different ability. Some days you’ll feel strong, some days you won’t. Some days you might just be in a better mood, or perhaps you had a gigantic workout the day before, making you feel tired.
Essentially, by using auto-regulation, you can adjust the weight you’re using based off of performance and how you feel.
Hypothetically, this should allow the subject to put forth greater effort for their selected exercise by taking advantage of how they feel rather than blindly following a program. I mean, we’ve all been there. Some days, you just don’t really want to squat.
Let’s say you do some warm up sets and feel better than usual. Based on this feeling and how well your warm-ups are going, you can increase the weight or repetitions you’ll perform sets with to reflect feeling good i.e., you increase weight more than normal.
If however your warm up sets are poor and things are moving a bit slow, you can address this by reducing the weight you’ll use on future sets, or even make the decision to move on.
Essentially, auto-regulation allows you to adjust weight and reps based on how you currently feel, rather than sticking to a percentage that was programmed weeks or even months ago. This method takes the person into consideration rather than just the program.
However, most studies on this and even practitioners, use this method for quantitative measures only such as the weight you’re using, the sets and reps.
In this study, the researchers wanted to observe how auto-regulating the exercises themselves would pan out. For example, let’s say you had back squat programmed. With this method (as in the study), one group had the option to choose exercises rather than having a fixed selection.
Hypothetically, this should allow the subject to put forth greater effort for their selected exercise by taking advantage of how they feel rather than blindly following a program. I mean, we’ve all been there. Some days, you just don’t really want to squat. This team of researchers was trying to observe if selecting exercises in a similar manner to traditional auto regulation would provide similar benefits.
17, resistance trained (3+ years with high strength) underwent a 9 week training protocol that incorporated progressively increased mesocycles and daily undulating periodization. 1 Group had predetermined exercises while the other group was able to choose exercises for each muscle group. The researchers wanted to observe if selecting exercises on a daily basis based on performance or feeling is more effective than simply following a training program.
32 strength-trained males were recruited for the study. After initial testing for inclusion into the study, only 17 males were actually used.
Keep in mind that these were resistance trained individuals requiring the ability to squat at least 1.75 times body weight (200 lb. person = 350 squat) and 1.3 times body weight bench (200 lb. person = 260 bench). Further, these subjects had to be training for at least 3 years. Overall, it’s safe to say this was a resistance-trained population with proficiency in the target movements.
It’s important to point out that this is beneficial, as untrained individuals may see improvements that will make results almost useless. In addition to noob strength gains, untrained individuals can also display a learning effect with movements like squat and bench. I.e. the just get better at the movements and thus get stronger, which isn’t necessarily because of training variables but rather that they just get more efficient at the movement.
After initial 1 RM testing, subjects were placed into 1 of 2 groups, running in parallel. Group 1 was considered the ‘fixed’ exercise selection group (FES) while Group 2 was considered the Auto-regulated exercise selection group (AES)
Over the course of 9 weeks, subjects trained 3 times per week, using a resistance training protocol. Subjects throughout the course of the study were provided with the ability to use the following exercises:
Overall, the available exercises in my opinion were typical of most bodybuilding type workouts. Further, the fact that real exercises were used rather than a leg extension measurement machine, like most other research, brings more real world relevance to these findings.
For the Fixed Exercise Group, subjects underwent the following fixed protocol (but still used DUP).
For AES however, subjects chose 1 exercise per body group from this pool of exercises. Further, they were not required to use different exercises throughout each week. If they wanted to use leg press all three days, they could.
Subjects underwent 9-weeks of 3 workouts per week. Throughout this 9 week program, despite subjects having the ability to choose exercises (AES only) they trained using a daily undulating periodization model, while also progressively increasing volume from one mesocycle (3 weeks) to the next.
Essentially each week went like this:
Then, each “block” or Mesocycle (lasting 3 weeks) went like this:
It’s important to understand that doing so is quite relevant. Progressive overload or continually increasing the stress placed on the body is a primary consideration when attempting to build muscle and strength. Otherwise, there’s no reason for the body to improve.
Overall, the design of training in my opinion was very appropriate.
It should be acceptable to swap exercises in and out on the fly. If you have a leg day planned, it’s certainly acceptable to say you’d rather do goblet squats than leg extensions, for example. Additionally, the same can be said for the weight you use. If dropping weight on a given day will make the workout more effective, then that should be taken advantage of.
Selecting exercises (AES) led to a significant increase in volume load over that of FES, potentially leading to the conclusion that selecting exercises on a day to day basis, may result in greater growth over time. While other parameters measures didn’t provide drastic results, the time frame of improvement used in this study for trained individuals is short, thus hard to draw definitive conclusions. Overall, tendencies seemed to reveal a benefit of selecting exercises rather than having fixed ones.
As we can see, when subjects were able to select their own exercises, there was a significant increase in total volume load, a metric thought to be a primary driver behind muscle growth. Further, in figure B, we also see that over the course of the 9 week study, volume significantly increased from baseline for AES, while FES did not improve.
Overall, it appears that self-selecting exercises leads to greater volume, which could translate to greater growth.
Lean Body Mass
Technically (apart from some statistical procedures), there weren’t any glaring improvements of lean body mass as a result of the training procedures as you can see in the table above. However, there was a significant main effect of time for both, essentially meaning that both groups improved over time, just not significantly in relation to each other.
However, it’s important to point out that these subjects were fairly well trained, for years. At this point, increasing muscle size can become quite difficult and slow, meaning that 9-weeks of training (that might actually be less volume than they are accustomed to) is only a small amount of time to observe significant growth in a trained population.
Essentially, this lack of highly significant change might not be due to the training but rather the training status of the subjects.
As we can see, there was a significant main effect of time in terms of maximal strength, which really isn’t entirely surprising. There was potential significance for the AES group when using a statistical measure called confidence interval analysis, but overall, the difference between groups was not drastic.
Selecting Exercises May Increase Effort Put Forth
It’s important to keep in mind that selecting exercises you favor may have a benefit larger than most think. For example, let’s say you have a coach that prescribes squatting, but you absolutely hate doing them. You do them because you’ve heard “you have to squat” and because a coach told you to. But what if you enjoy leg press more?
Unless you’re specifically attempting to get better at the squat and use it for it’s potential benefit, you aren’t required to use a barbell squat. In terms of building leg size and strength, for most people the leg press will suffice. Not to mention, if you enjoy doing the leg press, it’s likely you’ll put forth much more effort, making it overall more effective for what you’re working towards.
While having a plan is essential, you should incorporate exercises that you actually enjoy doing.
Compound Movements May Have Been The Reason For More Volume
For the Fixed Exercise group, these individuals completed each exercise, 9 times throughout the study. For the AES group, they could complete each exercise as many times per week or as few as they desired, per muscle group.
As it turns out, the AES group opted for compound movements more often than the FES group was exposed to them. This is important because by and large, compound movements will allow for greater volume, per set than compared to accessory movements.
For example, the total volume you can complete per set for the back squat will be significantly higher than total volume per set for a leg extension. If the AES group selects leg press 14 times throughout the study while FES only completes it 9, the AES group will automatically have a higher volume.
Thus, this increase in volume may be simply because when choosing exercises, people opt for the compound movements more often. Something to be considered.
Untrained Individuals May Have a Different Response
If these subjects were untrained, the observations may have been different. I personally think that first and foremost, autoregulation is for intermediate to advanced individuals. As a beginner, you just don't have a grasp on how you really feel and how well you'll perform.
For instance, a newbie might just avoid squats outright than realizing sometimes you just have to "deal," potentially missing out on building a strong based on strength that the squat would provide. I.e a trained individual will know the difference between needing to rest or just being a bit sore, for instance.
I personally think as a beginner, there should be a base of key movements that should be used. As you become more advanced, you can begin to make smarter decisions with your training (using autoregulation sensibly). Decisions that you may not have been able to make as an untrained individual.
Just food for thought.
Based on these findings, while fairly small, there certainly seemed to be a tendency for more improvement when exercises could be self administered, rather than having a fixed schedule.
However, I think that it’s important to point out that this procedure is different from “just winging it.”
I still think that having some fairly pre-determined program is probably best for long-term progress. However, it makes sense to allow for flexibility, even with a pre-determined program.
For example, it should be acceptable to swap exercises in and out on the fly. If you have a leg day planned, it’s certainly acceptable to say you’d rather do goblet squats than leg extensions, for example. Additionally, the same can be said for the weight you use. If dropping weight on a given day will make the workout more effective, then that should be taken advantage of.
The differences between these two exercises won’t be drastic and will still at least hit the target muscle groups, all with the potential benefit of increasing your enthusiasm at the hand of an exercise you actually want to do.
Overall, I suggest building a training program that incorporates exercises you actually enjoy doing. Then on a day to day basis, adjust said program to fit your current feelings and ability, but do so in way that still pushes you in the direction you desire (i.e. don’t just skip workouts or exercises for no reason. Make smart changes that align more closely with how you currently feel).
Why This Should Matter To You
It matters because it provides us with direction for building program designs that takes the individual’s ability, perception and feeling into account on a daily basis. Each person is an individual with different goals, abilities and preferences. This research leads us to conclude that those individual differences should be leveraged when building programs.
It’s also important to consider how this information could be valuable for large athletic teams that often are prescribed with 1 training program for hundreds of individuals. Thus, rather than prescribing 1 program, coaches could begin applying principles of auto-regulation to improve the response of the athlete.
Note Of Conflict Of Interest
In light of transparency, I have worked with these researchers and consider some of them to be my friends. At no time was my interpretation of this manuscript biased or based on these relationships.