Max-Out Mania: The 5 Biggest Myths Of Bulgarian Weightlifting
It’s harder to unlearn something than it is to learn something. Once your brain latches onto a piece of information – no matter how erroneous it turns out to be – it doesn’t want to let it go. What you learned first becomes your set-point against which all other information now must be compared.
Marketers use this fact about how brains work all the time when presenting price – so do I, by the way. First, you tell someone how much the normal price is. Then you tell them the sale price. In that exact order.
If I told you that I was going to sell you a bagel at the price of $3, you’d probably laugh at me. After all, you can buy a lot of bagels for that price. Why in the world would you spend that kind of money for just one bagel?
But imagine instead, I’d come up to you and said, “Normally I sell these bagels for $6 each. They are THAT good. But you can grab yours for half off … just $3 bucks. I only have a few left, so hurry.”
I bet you I’d sell more bagels.
That’s all interesting when it comes to selling stuff and marketing … but it works EXACTLY the same way with ALL of the information our primate brains gather up. What we learn first becomes the reference point. This fact is seriously problematic when your goal is to understand something clearly – and without bias.
The good news is that you CAN reset your brain. It just takes work.
What I Want To Do …
As you know, I’m in the middle of an entire series on Bulgarian Weightlifting which I kicked off with a just-for-fun 21-Day Squat Challenge and a quickie explanation of a simple program for when you have NO time: The 4-Hour (Bulgarian) workweek.
The goal of all of this is to make clear what I think are the most important ideas inherent in the philosophy, what the philosophy is, and how we can utilize that info in our own training to make faster progress.
The problem is that we’ll first have to unlearn all the myths and misinformation regarding “Bulgarian Weightlifting” before we can fill our brains up with the right stuff.
In other words, this post is all about what Bulgarian Weightlifting is NOT. I will outline what I believe it IS in the next article.
However, in order to avoid too much confusion, let me quickly list out the primary components of the philosophy.
As I see it, Bulgarian training is primarily driven by a full acceptance of two ideas:
- Chaos Theory and the concept of the human body as a Complex System (I mean that in the Physics and Mathematics sense, NOT the colloquial sense)
- Auto-regulation in training in response to #1
Don’t worry if you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about. I’ll get detailed next time.
NOTE: I will also quite often use the word “philosophy” when I might have been served well to use the word “theory” or even “hypothesis” in my description of Bulgarian Weightlifting. But I am sticking with “philosophy” because I am not at the point where I believe a true working theory or hypothesis has been put forward – that is, something testable. Till then, “philosophy” makes more sense, as I believe this discussion fits well under the umbrella of the philosophy of science.
MYTH #1: If you aren’t in Bulgaria, you aren’t doing “real” Bulgarian training
Purists of all stripes abhor progress. They believe any change to the “classical” system is a degradation of perfection. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it … right?
REMEMBER: Wagner was mocked …
The word “Bulgarian” will always be used by me as the name of a philosophical point of view, NOT a particular training system being done in a particular country. That kind of narrow world view has no place in our discussions if we are honestly trying to advance exercise science.
Let me make it clear that any connection with the in-the-gym realities of the training halls in Bulgaria have absolutely nothing to do with my own definitions of the term in this context. Again, I’m defining a philosophical point of view, not giving a record of what did (or did not) happen at some point in time and space.
That kind of thing is very interesting, and has great historical and etymological value. But it plays NO role in the underlying philosophical discussion at hand.
MYTH # 2: You have to “Max Out” every day
I’d argue that, along with frequency, the concept of going up to a maximum single repetition on your main lifts every day is regarded as the “essence” of Bulgarian Weightlifting. That is highly problematic.
Because it misses the point entirely of what a philosophy IS.
The “essence” of a philosophical view can’t possibly be limited to a particular set and rep range! What if a Bulgarian weightlifter decided to do a heavy 5×5 on back squats once a week? Would that make them a Texas-style Bulgarian?
Ridiculous (though pretty cool sounding, now that I think about it).
Programs are defined by their sets and reps. Philosophies are not. Philosophies go to the reasons BEHIND why one might choose a particular set/rep scheme. They are not defined by them.
In practice this means that you can be well within the scope of what I’d define as Bulgarian even if you NEVER maxed out.
MYTH #3: High Frequency, OR, You have to workout twice a day, every day
The argument against this one is nearly identical to the one above. Using frequency of training as a defining characteristic of a philosophical system is rather arbitrary.
Is only once per day, 7 days per week enough? How about 5 workouts per week?
You can be Bulgarian and train only 2 days per week. You can train 13 sessions per week and not be Bulgarian at all. Frequency is irrelevant to the discussion.
Further, weightlifters of this stripe hardly have a monopoly on high frequency training! Nearly every high level athlete in nearly every sport trains upwards of 15, 20, 30, or more hours per week. That is standard no matter what philosophical school you ascribe to.
MYTH #4: Bulgarian training is sport-specific
Specifically regarding Olympic lifting: you only snatch, clean and jerk, and front squat to a heavy single max attempt every day, multiple times a day – that’s it. Anything else, and you aren’t REALLY a Bulgarian.
Yet … John Broz proscribes Back Squats and Pulls – daily. Glenn Pendlay has his lifters do stuff off of blocks and crazy complexes. Jim Moser has his lifters doing all manner of multi-phased pull complexes and other “special” exercises to fix a lifters weaknesses.
These are three of the most famously pro-Bulgarian coaches in the country! And even THEY aren’t orthodox enough. What gives?
The issue is two-fold.
First, defining the term “sport specific” is hardly an easy task. Other than the actual sport itself, every other exercise you do is technically not as sport specific as the competition. Even if you simply snatch and clean up to a max today, that is STILL different than a contest.
- Did you only allow yourself 3 attempts?
- Did you have a weigh-in two hours before?
- Did you wear your singlet?
A workout is a workout. A competition is a competition. The point of a workout is to prepare you to do better in a competition. The point of a competition is to win. One is subservient to the other.
The Sport Specific ideology is not as simplistic as “the more this workout is like a contest the better” … It is, “the more this workout prepares me for the contest the better.”
The above two sentences might seem quite similar. But the subtle difference is important.
Second, EVERY school of thought, every workout program, every philosophy of training purports to be sport-specific as defined above. Bulgarian training is not unique, here. The sport-specific-ness of the tenets of the system are at best no greater than those of other competing philosophies that make similar claims about how useful they are in preparing you for competition.
In other words, we can discard this idea outright as a defining characteristic of the philosophy.
MYTH #5: You have to use steroids.
I hate this one … but it’s everywhere.
The argument usually goes something like this, “Hey … look at all those guys who got popped for steroid use who were doing Bulgarian training. Clearly you need to be on steroids to do it.”
That’s not an argument. That’s simple association.
It’s also rather strange given that EVERY athlete at the top of the sport of Olympic lifting on the world stage is on “meds”. Russians, Chinese, Cubans … and Bulgarians. They all take steroids because steroids WORK.
They make Bulgarian training easier. They make Russian training easier. They make Chinese training easier.
Steroids are a part of nearly every sport on the planet, every training philosophy, every program. They are everywhere.
When something works that well, of course people are going to use them when they can get away with it. But what in the world does that have to do with the MERITS of a Bulgarian program?
A somewhat better argument is, “You can’t survive Bulgarian training without steroids because it’s too hard.”
I say “better” simply because it’s less blatantly illogical – not because it’s in any way true.
This confusion is derived from all of the myths above. Excise those from your definition of Bulgarian and you’ll realize how silly Myth #5 is.
Once you accept that Bulgarian training doesn’t require you to max out, to workout 13 sessions per week, or only do snatch and clean and squats … then it becomes far less daunting.
By the way, I have plenty of lifters in my club who are training under a Bulgarian philosophy, and as far as I can tell, they ain’t on steroids. Quite a few of them are over the ages of 30 and 40. And they are doing just fine.
I’m sure I could sit here and write up another 5, or 10, or 20 myths that pop up on the internet forums whenever the word “Bulgarian” comes out. But these are the primary myths that I see the most often, that are the drivers of the greatest arguments – even among coaches – and cause the most confusion.
I’ll come back next time with a detailed definition of Bulgarian Weightlifting Philosophy – one that we can use to further our search for greater progress in a chaotic world in which we have little control.