“There is more than one way to bake a cake,” may be the perfect analogy for training. In order to bake a great cake, you must first have the right ingredients, then you must mix them together and put them in the heat of the oven, and at that point, exhibit a good amount of patience. If we think of different exercises, sets, reps, and intensity zones (weights) as ingredients, there are thousands of combinations you can use. Most programs, like a recipe for a good cake, call for a very specific amount of sets, reps and weights. And of course, results on any program take time. “Auto-regulating” programs like APRE are a bit different. There are a few different auto-regulating programs to choose from, but one method I’ve had great success with is APRE, which stands for Auto-Regulating Progressive Resistance Exercise. This method works well because the weight selections you make are based on empirical numbers and results, as opposed to a personal feeling (like the now very popular RPE or Rate of Perceived Exertion method). APRE training allows the athlete to work at their absolute maximum potential. Instead of ending a set because the athlete has lifted the prescribed number of repetitions, APRE allows the athlete to continue until failure (or very near failure), and then make adjustments to the load based on their performance.
The Three Different APRE Protocols: 10RM, 6RM, 3RM
There are three protocols of APRE. Let’s start with the 10 rep protocol. First you pick a theoretical 10 rep max. If you don’t know what a 10RM is, it’s the maximum weight you can perform 10 reps with. Since we don’t usually know someone’s actual 10RM, we pick a theoretical number. Typically we use 70% of someone’s 1RM as a starting point. If you don’t know what your one rep max is, I would recommend testing that first before beginning the APRE program. This means that APRE is not a great program for beginners. You should have some foundational training before testing your one rep max, and if you aren’t to that point in your training yet, there’s not a whole lot of reason to do APRE training. You can get better and safer results with simpler methods at this point in your training. Let’s say that someone’s 1RM squat is 100kg, 70% would be 70kg, so we’ll use that number as a starting point in their APRE training.
The 10RM protocol calls for 4 total sets, two of which are warm-up sets, and two are “working” sets. After warming up with the bar, the athlete would load 50% of their theoretical 10RM and perform 12 reps, then 75% of their theoretical 10RM and perform 10 reps. After these two warm-up sets, the athlete would go to their theoretical 10RM and perform as many reps as possible. After they are done with the set, they consult the APRE chart, and the chart tells them how much weight to add or subtract for the fourth and final set. On the fourth set, using the new weight, you perform as many reps as possible again. It’s important to note how many reps you perform on the fourth set does not affect the program in any way. The next time you perform that workout, whatever weight you used on your fourth set becomes your new theoretical 10RM, and it’s the weight you base your first three sets on. Here’s the chart:
Using our example of an athlete with a 100kg squat, their 10RM protocol would look like this:
70kgxAMRAP (as many reps as possible)
Now let’s say our athlete performed 15 reps. At that point we’d add 3-5kg. This is up to the discretion of the athlete and/or the coach. I like to err on the side of caution here. So we’ll add 3. It’s worth noting that most athletes perform 50% of their 3rd set reps on their 4th set +/- 1 rep. So if you did 15 reps on set 3, expect to do 6-8 reps on the 4th set with the adjusted weight. The next week would look as follows:
Featured in the video below are Katie’s 3rd and 4th sets of an APRE workout, using the 10RM protocol.
After using this method with dozens of athletes, I’ve noticed some common mistakes people make
1. Stopping at the minimum number to increase the weight
In the 10RM protocol, if you do 13 or more reps, you are allowed to increase the weight on the fourth and final set. Often times athletes will do 13 reps and then end the set. This defeats the purpose of APRE. You are supposed to do as many as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean going to absolute muscle failure, you may decide to end a set because your form is deteriorating, or you’re feeling dizzy or light headed, or maybe you feel like you’re one rep away from failure. Any of those scenarios are acceptable in ending a set, but when an athlete hits 13 and ends the set when they had 2+ good reps left in them, they’re not going to get the most out of the program.
2. Increasing weight when they didn’t hit the required number of reps
APRE only works if you follow the program. It’s designed to get you working at your maximum potential, not more, not less. If you don’t hit the required number of reps to make a weight increase, but you add more weight anyway, it’s only going to snowball out of control. I’ve had athletes who should have been getting some good work in with higher volume, which builds muscular size and endurance, only to find out they’ve been adding weight when they shouldn’t be. Instead of ending up with sets around the 15 rep mark like I expected, suddenly they’re down in the 5-6 range, which creates a very different stimulus from what the 10RM protocol is designed to elicit. APRE works best when you leave your ego at the door.
3. Starting too heavy
The beauty of APRE is that if you’re too conservative your first week, you’ll do a ton of reps, and the protocol will allow you to make a big jump in weight, and by the next week things will be smoothed out. I’ve found it doesn’t work so well the other way. If you’re doing the 10RM protocol, and you only manage to squeeze at 3-5 reps, even with a big weight decrease, you’ll probably fall short of the necessary reps on the subsequent weeks. Banging your head against the wall in the gym kills motivation and progress. It’s better to start conservatively and get some momentum in your training.
4. Not knowing how many reps you need to do to increase weight
This usually happens when athletes switch from the 10RM protocol to the 6RM protocol, or from 6RM to 3RM. The 10 rep protocol requires you to do 13 reps to make a weight increase, where as the 6RM protocol only requires 8 reps. Know how many you need to do before the set starts so you have a minimum target in mind. Too many times I’ve seen someone rack the bar one rep short of the goal because they were getting tired but didn’t realize they were only 1 rep away from being able to make a weight increase. After all the goal of the program is to lift more weight.
5. Having the wrong mindset about the fourth set
I like to think of the fourth set on APRE as “the icing on the cake.” Don’t beat yourself up if you only manage to perform 1-2 reps, even if you’re on the 10RM protocol. On the flip side, don’t just do a handful of reps and rack it when you can keep going. Do your best, but if you’re spent after set 3, don’t worry about it. How people perform on the fourth set usually depends on their muscle fiber type. Some people simply have better endurance than others!
6. Not taking advantage of the weight decreases
There are some rep ranges where the chart suggests you decrease 0-3kg. Most often people don’t want to take weight off of the bar, but I actually recommend it when possible. A big advantage to APRE is it’s an easy way to get some good volume in your program, if you’re barely getting your reps in, you won’t be taking advantage of that benefit
7. Taking the biggest jumps recommended by the chart
This really comes down to the exercise you’re doing. If the chart calls for a 3-5kg increase, and you’re doing squats with a max of 100kg, a 5kg increase is only a 5% jump. BUt if you’re doing bench press, and your max bench is only 50kg a 5kg increase is a 10% jump, which is not really recommended. It’s also important to consider where in the rep range you landed. For example if you barely get 13 reps in the 10RM protocol, by the chart you can increase 3-5kg. I’d err on the lower side since you were on the bottom end of the rep range. Where if you 17 reps, you can probably take the bigger 5kg increase and be okay. Again, be smart, and don’t let your ego get in the way.
Although the APRE protocols only call for 4 total sets, sometimes athletes need or want to add in additional warm-up sets. For example my max back squat is 230kg. If I were performing a 10RM protocol, using 70% of my 1RM as my theoretical 10RM that would be barx10, 81×12, 121×10, 161xAMRAP. Those 40kg(88lb) jumps are quite big. It’s acceptable to add in 1 or 2 bridging sets to make the weight increases more manageable. I’d recommend splitting the difference, and doing very low reps. So it may end up looking like this:
Now that you understand how the program works, you may be wondering when/why you should use it. APRE ensures that you are working to your full potential. For example if a program calls for 10 reps at 70%, but you’re an athlete that excels in high rep ranges, 10 reps at 70% may not be enough work to stimulate adaptation. The 10RM APRE protocol will allow you do hit those 10 reps and then some, getting the maximum results for your efforts. On the flip side if you struggle with heavier weights, and a program calls for weight increases each week on sets of 3, you’ll likely be grinding against weights that are too heavy for you, where as the 3RM APRE protocol will allow you to stay at a steady weight over a few weeks time based on your performance if you struggle with heavier weights. This means you won’t be biting off more than you can chew, and you won’t be missing lifts, or grinding out ugly reps, both of which don’t do much for your training.
Since APRE calls for you to work toward failure or very near to it, it’s not recommended to do APRE training all the time. Typically I recommend running each protocol for 3-4 weeks, and each protocol in sequence. Doing this will create a nice 9-12 week training program that leads toward heavier and heavier weights. Another approach would be to do a protocol until you can’t make a weight increase for 2 or more weeks in a row, then switch to the next rep scheme. After you’ve run all three protocols, it’s a good idea to switch to a different method for at least half the amount of time you ran the APRE protocols. Training to failure for months and months and months can lead to injury, burnout, or even regression.