Apr 25, 2017In Control
A look at the APRE protocol of strength training, in which each lift’s reps and loads are based off previous performance, giving athletes command over their own gains.
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
For decades, athletes in weightrooms have been hammering out exercises in a familiar protocol: the ever popular three sets of 10. It’s a seemingly ingrained aspect of strength training, as common as dumbbells and squat racks. However, a different protocol called Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE) has been gaining popularity due to its flexibility and results, and it turns the old three sets of 10 model on its head.
The history behind APRE goes way back, starting after World War II with a U.S. Army surgeon named Captain Thomas DeLorme. He began using strength training to address the muscle atrophy associated with recovery from fracture. The volume of three sets of 10 was selected arbitrarily, and he increased the load for each set simply because he had three weights on the first day. Eventually, this process evolved into the Progressive Resistance Exercise protocol-or what is more commonly known as the DeLorme Method-which requires a load of 50 percent of a 10 repetition maximum (RM) for set one, moving to 75 percent of a 10RM for set two, and finishing with 100 percent of a 10RM for set three. This was the strength training standard for many years.
Researcher and athletic trainer Kenneth Knight, PhD, ATC, FACSM, came along in the 1970s and made three adjustments to the DeLorme Method. First, he switched the repetition goal from 10 to six. Then, he added a fourth set. Finally, he came up with a chart to standardize changes in load from set three to set four based on the number of reps completed in set three. Knight’s method came to be known as the Daily Adjustable Progressive Resistance Exercise (DAPRE) protocol.
In the early 1990s, renowned strength and conditioning researcher Yuri Verkhoshansky, PhD, changed the DAPRE in his first edition of Supertraining. He adapted it to traditional strength training movements by not requiring athletes to do a heavy training movement every day. For this reason, he dropped the “Daily Adjustable” in the name, changing it to “Autoregulatory.” This new moniker was far more representative of what athletes experienced in the protocol, as they adjusted the load from session to session based off of previous performance.
Once the concept of APRE was solidified, it gained a moderate following. Proponents embraced APRE because it allowed athletes to progress at their own pace, depending on how they felt in a given training session. This also enabled them to make faster gains in the weightroom. As a result, it was an effective way for beginner and intermediate lifters to become stronger.
I first came across APRE almost 10 years later in the fourth edition of Supertraining-it’s mentioned on page 267, which is still dog-eared on my bookshelf. It seemed intriguing, so I decided to try it. The results I saw were astounding, and I published some of them in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2010.
This helped re-ignite the interest in APRE among strength and conditioning professionals. Since then, APRE has become a valuable tool in my toolbox and has gained traction with my colleagues. As it continues to draw interest, performance coaches should know what it is, how to incorporate it into a training regimen, and its potential benefits.
HOW IT WORKS
There are three basic APRE protocols. The APRE 10 is utilized for hypertrophy, the APRE 6 is utilized for base strength, and the APRE 3 is utilized for absolute strength or power.
As you can see from the chart “Figure 1” below, all of the APRE protocols have the same basic progressions. There are two scheduled warm-up sets (sets one and two) and then two work sets (sets three and four). The first set starts with a load of 50 percent of the given RM (10RM, 6RM, or 3RM), the second uses 75 percent of the given RM, and the third requires the given RM for a max number of reps. Set four uses an adjusted load based off of the number of reps completed in set three. This new load is determined by consulting the chart titled “Figure 2” below. For example, performing six repetitions in set three for the APRE 10 routine would lead to a decreased load of five to 10 pounds for set four.
|50% of 10RM
|50% of 6RM
|50% of 3RM
|75% of 10RM
|75% of 6RM
|75% of 3RM
|10RM=75% of 1RM
|6RM=83% of 1RM
|3RM=92% of 1RM
|4 to 6
|– 5 to 10 lbs
|0 to 2
|– 5 to 10 lbs
|1 to 2
|– 5 to 10 lbs
|7 to 8
|– 0 to 5 lbs
|3 to 4
|– 0 to 5 lbs
|3 to 4
|9 to 11
|5 to 7
|5 to 6
|+ 5 to 10 lbs
|12 to 16
|+ 5 to 10 lbs
|8 to 12
|+ 5 to 10 lbs
|+ 10 to 15 lbs
|+ 10 to 15 lbs
|+ 10 to 15 lbs
Then, the number of repetitions in set four determines the starting weight for the subsequent training session. This also goes off of the adjustment chart shown in Figure 2. For example, if an athlete does 13 repetitions in set four of the APRE 6 routine, they would increase the starting load 10 to 15 pounds for their next workout. This load becomes the new RM, and the athlete would use 50 percent of this weight for set one, 75 percent for set two, and so on. (See “Making Gains” below for a sample three-week progression using APRE.)
So far I’ve covered the standard protocol for APRE, but the warm-up sets can be tweaked. I have never followed the prescribed weights for the initial first and second sets. Rather, I choose a load that allows all athletes to achieve the repetitions with no risk of injury. I do this for three reasons: form perfection, volume accumulation, and psychological momentum.
Form needs to be addressed and improved to acceptable levels in the early stages of APRE before heavy loads are used. If an athlete lifts too much weight too soon and with poor form, it sets them up for injury in future sessions.
Going along with that, technical failure is a big component to APRE. This means that the athlete should stop a given exercise following any deviation from proper technique. Not only does this keep the athlete from hurting themselves with incorrect form, but it also allows us to ensure exercises transfer appropriately to athletic activity. For instance, if you allow an athlete to continue performing squats long after their form breaks down, you prevent them from reaping the true benefits of the exercise in their sport. Plus, they would face increased injury risk with poor technique.
Volume accumulations are a part of all periodization styles. Simply going with a lower load in the beginning of an APRE protocol encourages a higher volume and thus higher volume accumulation during the initial phases. This aids in form improvement and sets the stage for larger strength gains later on in training.
Psychological momentum refers to an athlete becoming accustomed to achieving enough repetitions to move up in weight each workout or even each set. Starting APRE with lower loads allows for this. Once the athlete gets used to completing high repetitions no matter the weight, they are more apt to push through heavier sets in the future. This is essential for beginner and intermediate athletes, as they need overall muscular development.
PUT INTO PRACTICE
Now that we’ve covered the basics of APRE, let’s discuss how to implement it into a training regimen. The APRE is best started when athletes are coming off of a layoff because it’s a great way to ramp back up to previous levels. It allows each athlete to move at an individualized pace, not a prescribed pace that may be too fast or too slow.
The APRE is most effective when used in small blocks within a typical periodization plan. The periodization schemes using the APRE are actually quite simple. Most traditional programs involve a hypertrophy phase, a strength phase, and a strength/power phase. To convert this to APRE, simply replace all hypertrophy weeks with APRE 10, all strength weeks with APRE 6, and all strength/power weeks with APRE 3.
However, this is not the only way APRE can be implemented. Shorter programs aimed at building strength are also doable. I’ve had success using a five-week model before. Weeks one through three utilized APRE 6 and week four followed APRE 3. Then, we tested in week five to see our results.
In terms of what movements to use for APRE, it can be applied to any exercise that is important to a specific sport or activity. Yet, it’s not recommended to do more than one or two exercises per session or four to six total exercises per week using APRE. The reason is because this program takes a lot of time and energy to do. Completing too many exercises with APRE leads to overtraining in a very short amount of time, likely due to the intensity of the protocol.
With a thorough understanding of how to follow and program APRE, it can produce fantastic results. I first decided to try it with the field hockey and women’s soccer teams at Southwest Missouri State University while I was a Graduate Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach there.
After using the APRE 6 protocol on a whim, I was amazed by my athletes’ gains. Three weeks into the program, they were doing six to eight repetitions with their old 1RMs! If only one athlete had seen these results, I would have thought she was an outlier or taking a supplement that really worked for her. But since these benefits were seen across both teams, I was convinced that APRE was truly effective.
When I joined the University of Missouri performance staff in 2004, the football team needed to get stronger, and then-Director of Strength and Conditioning Pat Ivey, PhD, CSCS, SCCC, MCCC, USAW, asked us for suggestions. At that point, I had been using the APRE for several years and had it fairly refined, so we decided to give it a shot.
Our initial results with the football team were astounding. Over four sessions of training squats, with a fifth for testing, we saw an average increase of about 25 pounds per person. These were the results we published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2010.
I revisited this topic for my doctoral dissertation, using an expanded data set that also included bench press and hang clean measurements. It compared the outcomes of a five-week APRE training session to those of a traditional periodization model. Overall, we saw a 7.5 percent increase for the three lifts using APRE and a 1.8 percent decrease using traditional periodization. For squat specifically, numbers rose 8.8 percent with APRE versus an average decrease of 0.5 percent for traditional periodization. On the hang clean, loads increased 9.2 percent with APRE versus a 2.3 percent decrease for traditional periodization. And bench press results improved five percent with APRE versus a one percent decline for traditional periodization.
There are a few potential reasons why the APRE was so effective with the Missouri football team. For one, it accounted for the various stressors that the athletes encountered and the ways stress affected their bodies. When they had the capacity to allow for adaptation, they could make it. When the ability ran out, they no longer saw adaptation. Traditional periodization doesn’t allow for this-athletes can’t make greater gains if they have more reserves in a given session because the loads and volumes are prescribed in a pre-planned manner.
In addition, the athletes liked having control over their own results. They were able to see increases and decreases based off their effort. This elicited the desire for them to work harder so they could impact their own improvement.
Furthermore, it’s likely that the APRE works similarly to the concept of undulating periodization. When the body is constantly presented with different repetition schemes, it can’t adapt to just one. Essentially, this means that the athlete can gain strength for a longer period of time before they plateau.
Weightroom work does not need to be rocket science. In that respect, APRE is the essence of simplicity. Instead of worrying about what happened six to 12 weeks ago using periodization and 1RM testing, strength coaches can utilize the performance of the previous set or session with APRE to localize performance and maximize results.
Below is a sample three-week squat progression using the Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE) protocol. For this example, the athlete is performing the APRE 6 with an initial estimated 6RM of 300 pounds.
Set 1: 10 reps at 150 pounds
Set 2: 6 reps at 225 pounds
Set 3: Maximal reps at 300 pounds
We are in the first week of the block after a layoff, and we have chosen a light starting weight. As such, the athlete does 13 repetitions. After consulting the adjustment chart shown in Figure 2 of the main article, the load is increased 15 pounds.
Set 4: Maximal reps at 315 pounds
The athlete performs 13 repetitions. However, the last two repetitions use improper form, so they are disregarded, and we go off of 11 repetitions for the adjustment. Week two will use a RM of 325 pounds as a result of the set four performance.
Set 1: 10 reps at 165 pounds
Set 2: 6 reps at 240 pounds
Set 3: Maximal reps at 325 pounds
The athlete does 13 repetitions at this load. Consulting the adjustment chart, an increase of 15 pounds is warranted.
Set 4: Maximal reps at 340 pounds
The athlete is in a rush and doesn’t rest long enough between sets. They only achieve five repetitions, indicating that this load should remain as the RM for the next week.
Set 1: 10 reps at 170 pounds
Set 2: 6 reps at 255 pounds
Set 3: Maximal reps at 340 pounds
The athlete achieves 13 repetitions, but only 10 are good. Consulting the adjustment chart indicates a recommended load increase of 10 pounds.
Set 4: Maximal reps at 350 pounds
The athlete achieves six repetitions. Since this number is the goal of the APRE 6 protocol, this demonstrates that the athlete has reached a desired weight range to elicit adaptation.