(Make sure you check out my updated “5 Myths of Bulgarian Weightlifting“)
It is an understatement to say that Olympic weightlifters are obsessed with Bulgarians. No, not the people, or the great food (my Step Dad is Bulgarian, I can testify), or the copious consumption of vodka (well … maybe a bit of that). No, Olympic weightlifters are obsessed with Bulgarian weightlifters, and even more so with their previous head coach Ivan Abadjiev.
Much of this obsession culminates in an attempt to use the ‘Bulgarian method’ of training in some manner on their own. The problem with this is two-fold. First, it is hard to pin down just what the method was in the first place that catapulted a tiny nation of only 8 million people into weightlifting superstardom and kept them there for decades. Second, whatever the exact methods used by the Bulgarians, we do know that they were far out of the zone of practicality for most Americans.
That said, it is still instructive to first evaluate just what the Bulgarian system was actually like. And then to find a way to incorporate some of the best of it into your training.
While you can’t train exactly like a Bulgarian, you CAN get much stronger applying some of the same principles upon which their system was founded.
Also, this is my own interpretation of the stuff that is out there about the Bulgarian system. As I mention below, there is little to go on, so we’re forced into the position of interpreters of scarce data (like paleontologists). Not enviable, but inevitable.
[side note: It is a fact that the Bulgarians – along with nearly ever other dominant country in sports – used a shite-ton of steroids and other drugs. Abadjiev hasn’t shied away from this fact, though he calls them (cryptically) ‘recovery agents’. The two main reasons you CANNOT train like a Bulgarian are: 1) you don’t have the time, this was their job; 2) you aren’t on a bunch of drugs that enable you to recover so fast. I’m not going to make this a steroids post. I still believe you can gain a lot from a modified Bulgarian approach. But, it would be naive to pretend that steroids didn’t play a big part. That said, most of the countries have their lifters on steroids, so the Bulgarians were hardly unique in this respect. In other words, drugs were a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for their success.]
Sadly, Ivan Abadjiev has never written a book outlining precisely how he trained his lifters (in the late 90’s there was talk, but it never came to fruition). And none of his lifters have come out with a ‘tell all’ book, either. We’re left with interviews of Abadjiev and his lifters, a few articles, some writings by those that have spent time with them (e.g. guys like Randall J. Strossen), Glenn Pendlay, and John Broz (to name a few). It isn’t perfect, but we do have a few things to go on. See my reference list at the bottom for a few good reads.
The first key principle that we can glean about the Bulgarian system is the principle of Adaptation. The point is simply that you adapt in direct response to a stimulus. Different stimuli produce different adaptations. The adaptations that come from sub-80% lifts are different that the ones that result from >90% lifts.
The point then, under this idea, is to focus your energy at the top-end weights in training so that you encourage the proper adaptations that are the most sport-specific.
In a general sense we know this to be true. How specific we can take it is debatable. But, on the balance, Abadjiev is on to something. If you want to prepare to lift heavy weights, it makes sense to lift heavy weights.
The next principle is Specialization. Exercises that are not directly related to the sport shouldn’t be relied upon. The thinking is that they don’t result in the right adaptations, for one. But, the other reason is that Olympic weightlifting is one of the most unique sports on the planet. No other sport requires maximum intensity, high level technique, at such a rapid pace. It doesn’t matter how good your technique is at 80% or even 95% of max. All that matters is how good your technique is at 100% of max weights.
The only way to train yourself to handle yourself with utmost technique at high intensity at max weights is to do just that with the competition lifts themselves. No exercise can mimic them. They are your prime strength builders and technique builders. Add in some front squats and you’re good.
Abadjiev even dumped the back squat:
“Our athletes do not do any “supportive exercises” they stay with full clean and jerk, snatch, and front squat. We have found that taking back squat out is more effective for the healthy lifter. Sticking with the three lifts named above as the only training for the advanced and healthy lifter…. If the athlete is injured they will do back squat or parts of the lift the full lifts (ie. high pulls, push press, etc…). You must be extremely careful with the stresses you put on your athletes. You must have direct benefits from each exercise because the athlete has limited recovery capacity.” IA
Abadjiev believed that the best training experiences were contests themselves. He had his lifters in so many contests that they were happening nearly every 3 weeks! And in the weeks leading into the contests, they were still attacking max weights. Training sessions mimicked contests – except that they were worse, because you had to take more attempts at weights you missed, not to mention you still had a ton of squatting to do.
Make your training sessions as much like contests as you can in terms of intensity, exercise selection, and reps. And then compete as often as humanly possible.
A point that is often overlooked is the importance in their system of intuition. Since there is virtually no variety in training at all, it becomes paramount that the lifter learns to interpret what their body is telling them – it’s the only ‘periodization’ available to them. On days they feel good, they should push it and go for broke. On days they feel crappy, lay off. You’ll be back in a few hours anyway.
The other mental point is a total willingness to embrace failure. Under this system, athletes will miss and miss and miss. All the time, missing. They go in, go heavy as hell, and fail. As time goes on, they fail at higher and higher weights, thereby increasing the weights with which they succeed.
It is through missing that you learn the character of a lifter.
With intuition, lifters create their own version of periodization:
Lifters might take as little as 1, or as many as 10 attempts at maximum. They might hit a maximum and immediately drop back to 80% before progressing back up (sometimes with minor adjustments in the weights attempted). Alternatively, after one or more maximum attempts they may perform drop down, ‘flushing’ sets at various intensities. Additionally lifters change the order of exercises or repeat exercises within the same session to add extra stimulus where required. Finally, the coach might change the training frequency in a given week to permit greater time for recuperation. These and other variables can be continually adjusted to keep training both mentally and physically stimulating (See Appendix). It should be stressed that Bulgarian lifters utilize daily ‘training’ maximums rather than absolute (best ever) maximums. On a given day, depending on fatigue and arousal levels, these two loads could vary significantly.
[I’m going to refrain from the myriad jokes that could result from the “arousal level” comment!]
That is a gross oversimplification that leads to some wildly problematic training – and overtraining. Abadjiev was highly worried about recovery capacity – or more accurately, the lack thereof. While his lifters had the benefit of ‘recovery agents’ (roids!), constant massage therapy, ice-baths, etc, they still weren’t machines. No one, even on steroids, can lift like that. No one.
Instead, there were heavy days/workouts, and lighter workouts. On the heavy days, one might do ton of lifts at the maximum. But, on a light day or workout, they may only do power snatches and power cleans and front squats. Or full lifts, but lighter. If doing the power versions, those would be to maximum, but because a power clean is necessarily lighter than a full clean, you are still doing a “light” day!
One of the more frequently seen examples is the most basic:
9am – 12pm: snatch to heavy single; half-hour break; clean and jerk to heavy single; half hour break; front squat to heavy single.
They may also include back-off sets (singles of course) in the 90% range of whatever the heavy single was. (When I say up to a heavy single, I mean full-on as if it were a contest. Keep going up till you miss, then try it again.)
3pm to 6pm: same as morning.
9pm: Front squat to heavy single.
Same as Monday, but only do power versions (or light full versions). Also, dump the evening front squats.
9am: Front squats to heavy single.
Yep, every day – even the Sabbath.
Another option that I’ve seen is to do only Snatch and Front squats on Mon/Wed/Fri, only Clean and jerk and Front squats on Tue/Thur/Sat, then Front squats on Sunday. Go heavy when you feel like you can, lighten it up when you have to. Keep recovery in mind. (I particularly like this model, it’s intuitive, and basic, and easy to implement.)
The Bulgarian training system kept the exercise selection down to a minimum: snatch; clean and jerk; front squat; and sometimes the power versions (at one point they did a lot of back squats, but they took them out eventually). They kept the reps exclusively to singles and doubles. The sets varied depending on how they felt. The volume (sets x reps) was low. The load (sets x reps x weight lifted) was moderate. But, the frequency and intensity were both very high.
The key to the system is high intensity, high frequency, specificity, and an intuitive approach to volume (more sets when feeling good, less when not).
You can take from that menu what you think will benefit you most.
Here’s an example of one of my all-time favorite Bulgarian variations for people who can hit the gym every day, but not for very long. It is particularly well suited to older athletes (post-40) whose recovery may not be what it used to be.
am/pm: Snatches, Front squats
am/pm: Clean and Jerks, Front squats.
Alternate these workouts 4 to 6 days a week. (Workout should take between 20 to 40 minutes.)
Do only singles or doubles. Work up to as heavy a lift as you can on the classical lift for the day, then if you feel good, do some back off doubles at 90%. Front squat to a max-ish weight (remember not to miss!). Do 1 or 2 back off doubles on a good day.
On days you feel strong, you’ll be able to do a lot. On days you are dragging, let it be. Just work up to a heavy lift, then front squat whatever you can for a single and go home. If the crappy days are really crappy, that’s normal. Don’t feel bad. That’s part of the program.
You can do the workout only once a day or twice a day, depending on what you have time for, and what your goals are. It’s a simple and intuitive training routine that most anyone can thrive on.
Is it realistic for you? Maybe not. If you can only come in 3 times a week, you’ll need to make up for the lack of frequency with higher volume in each workout. And you can’t just do 1 classical lift in each workout or you’d only be doing it 1 to 2 times a week which isn’t enough.
If that is you. Do both lifts all three days, go heavy and hard and finish with back squats. Same workout every day you come in. You can progress remarkably far with this. Go up to something heavy on the classical lift, do some back off sets (2 to 6), move on. The workouts should be less than an hour and 15 min’s.
The fact is that most recreational lifters only have so much time to lift. A variation that I’ve used with success with my lifters at PDX Weightlifting is the following 5 day routine:
Clean and Jerk
Some upper body work
Clean and Jerk
Clean Grip Deadlifts or RDL’s
Some upper body
Clean and Jerk
some more upper body
Everyday, every lift (except RDL’s), go to a max. On Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, do backoff sets of doubles or singles starting at 80% and working your way up if you can. Do this for snatch, C+J, and squats, but NOT for Deads. For RDL’s only do 5′s.
There are at least four major downsides to the Bulgarian system.
The first is injury rates. It is a fact that lifting at the maximum of your ability every day, all year, is not good for you. It’s hard on your joints, it’s hard on your muscles, and your connective tissues. There is a reason that Ivan Abadjiev’s nick-name is ‘The Butcher’.
I am a big believer that if you are never missing on the Oly lifts, you are going too light. I advocate (in intermediate and above lifters only!) missing regularly. It teaches you more about your flaws than anything else, and it confers great mental fortitude skills. Taking 2 or 3 attempts on the snatch and clean and jerk at your heaviest weight for the day should become routine.
But, I don’t think you should miss on any other exercises – ever! That’s a lofty goal, that won’t be met. But, missing on other exercises is far more dangerous. When you miss on an Olympic lift, you were only under tension for a few nano-seconds. Your technique broke down, and you dumped the bar. It’s not something that puts your body under great strain. It was not a miss at the muscular level, it was at the technique level.
The same cannot be said of other exercises like front squats, where the action is slow, and your muscles are under tension for far longer. In these cases you miss because you couldn’t put in enough force. You strain to put in max force, fail at the muscular level, and something pops …
No fun. The Bulgarians missed front squats all the time. But, that doesn’t mean you have to.
The second is more pedestrian, but arguable nearly as important: boredom. When all you are doing are the 5 lifts – snatch, clean and jerk, power snatch, power clean, and front squats. That’s it. Forever. You get bored. There is just no way out of that. If you’re a top lifter, getting paid to lift, then fight the boredom. But, if you ain’t … what’s the point again?
Variety is not only the spice of life, it is the spice of lifting. Most of us really enjoy doing other exercises too. We don’t want to skip doing deadlifts or Chin ups just because it isn’t directly related to performance of the Oly lifts. Come on! Them’s fun to do!
Third, the Bulgarian program is not at all good at producing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy – an increase in the fluid in your muscles. This is the kind of muscle size that bodybuilders have. It looks good, but it doesn’t make you all that strong in comparison to your appearance.
But, I say, “who cares?”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you are NOT a high-level Olympic weightlifter (National level at least), and that you NEVER will be (neither am I, by the way). Most of us will always be intermediates. Forever. And that is totally fine. Most of us are doing this because it is fun. We ain’t going to the Olympics.
So, if we pop out of our weightclass, are bigger than we should be to be supremely competitive, etc … who cares? While sarcoplasmic hypertrophy doesn’t result in massive strength gains it is good for you in other ways. For one, it increases you metabolism, so it becomes easier to stay lean. It also looks good.
Let’s face it, this is America. We don’t like to put the value of function over the value of form. If a guy has large arms and shoulders, he’ll be more inspired to keep at it. Similarly, if women notice that their butts and legs are more shapely because of lifting they’ll be more likely to stay.
Consistency is key. Paying attention to aesthetics increases consistency. It’s a fact, and it can’t be ignored in the American market.
Finally, number four. Most lifters need a lot more work on assistance exercises to perfect their technique. Remember that when we are talking about the ‘Bulgarian system’, we’re really talking about the top lifters in their system. You and I are not that, and never will be (at least them’s the odds).
I like to divide the lifting world into two camps: Divers and Pullers. Divers are aggressive on the 3rd pull and get themselves under the bar very fast. But, they tend to cut their 2nd pull short, and so leave the bar out front too much and will miss out front (there are lots of other reasons people miss out front of course, but this is a big one). Pullers love the 2nd pull. They got lots of power when it comes to getting height on the bar. But, they don’t even bother with a 3rd pull. They instead try to race the bar down – and lose. If they can’t power it up, they can’t make it.
Over time, each type will get better and better. But, certain assistance exercises make a major difference (pulls for divers, full-muscle snatch/clean for pullers, etc).
It comes down to your goals and your level. The Bulgarian system in its entirety is for very advanced lifters – only. The rest of us should take from it what we can, but not get carried away.
I’m still a fan of Bulgarian-ish lifting, even though much of it is not applicable to us. I like heavy singles; I like sticking to the basics; I prefer frequency + intensity over high volume; and I agree that if you don’t train at the high end of performance regularly, you won’t be ready when it counts.
But, there are downsides that can’t be ignored. “Take what is useful, discard what isn’t,” said Bruce Lee. Applies perfectly well here.
You can find some opinions about the Bulgarian methods as interpreted by Mike Burgener, Glenn Pendlay, and Steve Gough on these audio podcasts here.