Powerlifting and Autoregulation: Broken Backs and Thigh Gaps

Nikkolas Trillo is a competitive powerlifter in the OPA/CPU. He's an OG in the powerlifting community here in Ontario. He was the OPA champion in the 83 kg weight class in 2014 and in the 74 kg weight class in 2016. He's competed in the national level where he got the bronze medal in the 83 kg weight class in 2014 and won silver in the 74 kg weight class in 2017. He also holds the Ontario open deadlift and total record in the 74 kg weight class.

More than all of this accomplishments though, Nikkolas is a straight up dude when it comes to training and coaching his athletes. He started Panda Powerlifting about a year and a half ago and since then he produced nationally and internationally qualified athletes. He coaches all levels of powerlifting with his own principles that philosophy that he has developed over the years.

Nikkolas is one of friends (even though he'll tell you otherwise :D ) so we asked him to write about his coaching philosophy when it comes to autoregulation. We hope you learn a thing or two from this article!

     It was late 2015 (or maybe even early 2016). I had retired from powerlifting for a 6th time after suffering a devastating lower back injury and a complete adductor tear. I had a hole in my inner thigh and I couldn’t tie my shoes. Training would always be a passion of mine, but it slowly moved to the bottom of my priority list. After 12 years of barbell training, it was time to give it up.

     I don’t recall how much time had passed, but I was becoming increasingly unsatisfied with the direction my life was going, without powerlifting. My life lacked any form of direction. One can only dominate the Call of Duty pro circuit and make hundreds of thousands of dollars playing videogames for so long. I was ruining my life with recreation drugs and copious amounts of alcohol. It was time to make a drastic lifestyle change, or I knew I would never come back from these injuries.

     As I laid in bed during one of my Blue Magic induced trips, the room became dark. My bedroom door opened, and a blinding light shone through. Wearing a beige robe, out-stepped Mike Tuchscherer baring the RTS Manual. In a soft, monotone voice he spoke, “Autoregulate your training and form the greatest powerlifting team Canada has ever seen.” In that moment I knew what I had to do; modify my training based on my recovery status. I was tired of planning training that was just too difficult or too easy. I was tired of risking injury and overtraining. I wanted a tool that told me to “put the right weight on the bar and lift it the right amount of times.” 

 

     Although only about 10% of what I mentioned actually happened, somewhere in mid-2016 I began to take an RPE-based autoregulated approach to training.

     I had seen Mike’s programming, coaching style, and the incredible results his athletes were achieving in competition. I learned as much as I could from Mike’s articles, and other top level coaches, and shaped my own coaching style and philosophy. From mid-2017 to present day, I built a team of over 40 lifters with 20 national level, or higher, medals and 30 provincial level medals (Disclaimer: I am not responsible for all, or any of these medals for that matter). And so that brings us to the first our mysteries; what is this RPE training style I am speaking of?

 

Autoregulation 

     RPE refers to “rating of perceived exertion”. First and foremost, “RPE” is not a training program. It does not replace programming. It does not replace periodization. It does not replace planned percentages. RPE based training is simply a tool to effectively maximize your training. To understand what RPE based training is, you must understand what autoregulation is.

      Autoregulation, in the simplest terms, is using some sort of indicator or tool that tells us when to make a training change. One result of autoregulation may be to increase the load of an exercise when our measuring tool indicates it is necessary. Another result may be to decrease the load of an exercise when our measurement indicates it necessary. Using RPE to gauge difficulty is just one of these measuring tools. The reason many choose to use RPE to measure an athlete’s training difficulty over some other available tools, is because it is easy to use (once practiced), as well as it is accessible to everyone. Other tools, such as velocity-based measuring tools, may only be accessible to a limited population due to their often large price tags.

     At least in the most popular usage of the RPE scale, the name “RPE” is slightly misleading, as we are not rating a feeling. We are prescribing a value that indicates the number of repetitions we can achieve, compared to a maximum effort. This is slowly being replaced by an RIR (Reps in Reserve) scale, which seems is simple an inverse RPE scale.

 A quick run down of the RPE scale is as follows:

10: I can’t complete any more repetitions.

9.5: I might be able to complete one more repetition.

9: I can for sure complete one more repetition.

8.5: I can for sure complete one more repetition, possibly two more.

8: I can for sure complete two more repetitions.

7.5: I can for sure complete two more repetitions, possibly three more.

7: I can for sure complete three more repetitions.

6.5: I can for sure complete three more repetitions, possible four more.

6: I can for sure complete four more repetitions.

      If the athlete can’t decide how many more repetitions they could complete because the effort was too minimal, I have them prescribe a 5.5 RPE. Like any skill, gauging RPE takes practice; however, the scale ends up being pretty damn accurate after some break in time. 

 

Why would I use RPE based training?

     The number one reason to implement any form of autoregulation in your training is to try to match your training stress with your recovery status. Using RPE, you can select loads, or modify existing planned loads, to match the athlete’s recovery status. If the athlete has had great sleep, adequate nutrition and hydration, low life-stress and is fully recovered, they may be able to handle heavier loads or volumes. If the athlete has had poor sleep, hasn’t eaten all day and are in the middle of exam season, they may need to pull back on the training stress. We are trying to maximize the potential outcome of every training session. In the ideal situation, all coaches would be able to see into the future and plan training stresses accordingly. Unfortunately, not every coach is like me. But we do have autoregulation to plan training just as accurately.

 

 How can I implement this in my training?

      There are a number of possible uses for the RPE scale and using it to dictate training direction. Here are some ways I use RPE to plan my athletes’ training:

  1. I have planned a set using percentages. The set is rated as too difficult for the difficulty I have planned for that session. The subsequent set’s load is lowered.
  1. I have planned a set using percentages. The set is rated as too easy for the difficulty I have planned for that session. The subsequent set’s load is increased.
  1. I have planned a set using RPE. The athlete works up to the prescribed difficulty. This may be higher or lower than average. The results of this set will dictate the subsequent sets. If the load is higher than usual, loads for that session will be higher than average. If the load is lower than usual, loads for that session will be lower than average.
  1. I have planned an AMRAP to a prescribed RPE. The athlete has a predetermined load and performs as many reps as possible to a specific RPE. If the recovery status is good, the athlete may achieve more reps than average. If the recovery status is poor, the athlete may achieve less reps than average.
  1. I have planned a session average RPE. If the session average RPE has not been achieved, sets will be added until the session difficulty has been achieved.

     If you’ve made it this far then I really urge you to check out every article that Mike Tuchscherer has ever written on the Reactive Training Systems website and every video he’s posted on YouTube. He’s a much smarter coach and athlete than myself and has provided a massive foundation for my knowledge of autoregulation and training.

     Hopefully you can use this information to optimize your workouts, make the most of your bad training sessions, and hit some personal bests during your good training sessions.

Follow Nik on Instagram at @pandapowerlifting74 ! You can also hit him up for coaching inquiries at pandapowerlifting@outlook.com - he provides the best bang for your buck online coaching service out there!