Imagine each morning you roll out of bed, stumble downstairs, fill a cup to the brim with black coffee and get faced with an equation that you must solve. At the head of the page reads “solve this problem to achieve ultimate diet and training success”. There are hundreds of variables, complicated symbols and square roots of square roots. You persevere and after many hours of work you tease out the answer, happy and content you get on with your day, safe in the knowledge that you’re well on your way to abs and a 200kg squat – easy.

The next morning, you rise and bound downstairs with a smug confidence, “I already know the answer”. To your shock and horror, it’s a totally different equation – the hours you devoted wasted. “How will I ever get abs now?!”, you exclaim.

Of course, in the real world there is no equation, but that’s not to say a reasonable parallel can’t be drawn. After all, our body is nothing but a sequence of systems and variables each permuting in a random manner. It’s up to us to predict this as best as possible and do our best to make decision that will lead us in the direction of our goals.

The birth of auto-regulation 

This problem serves as the foundation to the approach dubbed “auto-regulation”, meaning simply the continual automatic adjustment or self-regulation of a system. In other words, checking yourself for feedback and making adjustments based on results and process.

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved this idea, it jibed with my understanding of physiology and supported my thoughts that no two days are the same, how can we ever know how many reps we can handle and how many carbs we need?

Logical fallacy 

I followed this approach for over a year; dropping carbs when I looked soft, capitalising on days I felt good by upping the weight and pushing the volume. It worked well…or so I thought.

I’ve spoken about the idea of Ceteris Paribus before, I believe it to be the most powerful tool when determining what to do and why. After some thought it occured to me that despite initial appearances, auto-regulation contradicts the foundational concept of this theory. Simply put, NOTHING is held constant. Success could be a mish-mash of accidental coincidence and failure could be the best knowledge and intentions mis-applied. You’re left at the finishing line with a random sequence of decisions to look back on, still in the dark.

My issue with auto-regulation is primarily that I feel the biological permutations that actually occur are, in reality, less than what is implied by followers of this principle. How many days do you train and feel noticeably worse or better than the previous session? If ‘yes’ then how many times can you not narrow the cause down to either poor sleep or caffienne? Equally, if you’re holding water, you possibly over-egged the carbs the previous day but it could also be a host of other factors – in actual fact, if you keep your diet constant these unexpected variations in appearance are usually very rare or have an obvious (chocolate coated) cause.

The real problem with auto-regulation is that you’re placing a random system on top of an already random system. Some days you’ll get it right but more often than not, due to our limited understanding of the human body, you’ll get it wrong.

 

The Propane Solution 

I decided to form a solution to this problem. After all, I’m still dead set against linear progression models and planned diet changes, they simply don’t make sense outside the borders of a piece of paper.

What we need to establish is a baseline of consistency that can be moved as and when is needed, without destroying the consistency and measurability of the method.

I set blocks of time, usually 4 weeks or less. For this time I’ll decide on a certain structure of how I wish to eat and train, I keep it simple and don’t make ANY changes until the time is up:

Diet

  1. Fast for 18 hours of every 24
  2. Eat 2 meals per day 
  3. Eat 600g carbs on training days, 100g on rest days 
  4. Eat 1g/pound of protein 
  5. Eat fat to fill your energy requirement, eat 0.8x maintenance on rest days and 1.2x maintenance on training days  

(you guessed it, I’m following the PropaneProtocol)

Training 

  1. Train 4x per week (squat/bench/press/deadlift)
  2. Do cardio 2x per week 
  3. No matter how good or bad you feel on a training day, always perform the main exercise , keep the weight the same and aim for rep progression.
  4. On a day you feel unusually great add 1  assistance exercise/muscle group, don’t change the main work. Don’t exceed this volume. 
  5. Do RPT for main movements, Myo-reps for assistance 

This may look simple in practice but it allows me to see whats going on. I track every day in the same meticulous manner but rather than looking at daily changes I examine the results of my approach over a longer time period. It means that the irrelevant flux is removed and all that I observe is the relevant data.

Now if I get progressively stronger on a movement over 4 weeks, I’m doing something right. If I lose strength I know I need a change. Whats more, I know what rep/set scheme worked and what needs changing. 

With diet, I ignore the daily weight/water gain and focus on the trend movement, If I’m losing fat and performance is improving, I keep things the same, If performance is dropping I add carbs after workouts, If I’m not getting leaner I look at lowering calories on rest days or adding a cardio workout.

Whats crucial is that, subject to those guidelines, no matter what happens, everything is kept as constant as possible for the time set. This way, we’re applying a certain baseline to randomness and over a long enough timeline we’ll be able to observe meaningful change without being distracted by small permutations on a daily basis that may or may not mean what we think.

Give a this approach a try and auto-regulate your training and diet without the downsides.

 

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4 responses to “The Pitfalls of Auto-Regulation

  1. Does the propane protocol not comprise of three lifting sessions a week as opposed to the four in your article?

  2. It does, sorry I wasn’t more clear there. I’m following the diet portion of the PropaneProtocol, not the training.

  3. Do you essentially run this protocol year round? I’m sure a lot of it becomes second nature once you’ve established a base line.

    I would think it would be simple to cut or lean bulk by simply adjusting carbohydrate numbers on rest/training days (once the initial 4 week period to establish a base line is complete)

    It helps me to write it out and see how the progression would work:

    Month 1- Rest day; 180 protein, 100 carb, remainder fat ( to reach .8 x maintenance cals)
    Training day; 180 protein, 400 carb, remainder fat ( to reach 1.2 x maintenance cals)

    At the end of the month, assess, and change. So if I lost a little fat and maintained strength I would just continue with those numbers to cut. If I gained fat I would just slightly reduce calories via carbohydrates on rest and training days?

    Jonny, are there macros you “tweak” first? I would assume carbohydrates would be the first to be adjusted where fat and (obviously) protein would remain constant.

    I’m not sure if I actually said anything in the preceding paragraphs…I just re-stated what was in the article. Oh well…

  4. Hi Adam, I run something pretty similar all year although there are periods where I’m less restrictive with measurements.

    Currently I’m running the above almost exactly.

    With regards to adjusting macros. Generally you want protein between 1-1.5g/lb, higher when dieting. I’d then set fat at 20-30%, probably on the lower side of that. After that carbs are cycled. I’d mainly adjust the carbs, you don’t want the other two macros to move too much as their is an internal logic to their quantity – lower protein below a bare minimum and you dice with catabolic processes equally fat much below 20% and you chance hormonal down-regulation. I hope that answers your question.

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