The Bulgarian Method: A Review
Inspired by a recent video from Zack Telander called ‘You don’t train Bulgarian, bro‘ I thought it was about time I reviewed the Bulgarian method. Now, as an early spoiler I don’t train Bulgarian, but if I can refer you to Mr. Zelander’s video above, nobody does really. However this doesn’t mean I don’t understand how it could be so incredibly effective and what the pros and cons are of training in the Bulgarian style.
A method created by Ivan Abadjiev (Wikipedia link), a man who was the Bulgarian national coach for almost 50 years. He was a coach training under the monolithic Soviet sport system – a highly standardised form of training that was based on volume, volume and more volume … This was meant to ensure absolute technical mastery and is the absolute crux of the old Soviet system. Klokov himself has said that he did almost no technique work past around the age of 10.
The entire Soviet system is based upon taking kids at an incredibly young age and turning them into weightlifting machines. This isn’t solely a weightlifting phenomenon from the old Eastern bloc – almost any sport is based upon taking kids from impoverished areas and giving them a chance to find a profitable way out. Even if only 3% of kids make it through, their chances of being world champion is so high because they’ve made it through the toughest of camps in the toughest of systems.
Different times of the year and training cycles involved an enormous amount of GPP (General Physical Preparation) that is designed to lay the groundwork for more specific physical preparation. Overall fitness, strength, flexibility and coordination are all emphasised with the long-term goal of specialising in one sport. This is the crux of the Soviet system.
Abadjiev coached this from an incredibly early age, but felt he had his own way of working which had a better chance of forming elite level lifters. Once Alex Krychev (a youth champion trained by Adabjiev) won, he was put in charge of the Soviet system. He then moved away from the system slightly and moved to a much higher intensity, more specific form of training.
By increasing the overall intensity, volume and frequency of the program (as a quick sidenote, yes they were practically all on steroids) Abadjiev made his lifters work harder and harder to become the elite. Most of the athletes he was given were at the least national level and were in their own right ‘elite level lifters.’ If they weren’t there’s absolutely no way they could survive the amount of reps +90% of their 1RM the Bulgarian method enforces.
The Benefits of the Bulgarian System
- Increased Absolute Strength: Absolute strength is different to relative strength. Absolute strength is the ability to grind out your 1RM – something powerlifters are much more efficient at than Olympic lifters
- Increased 1RM and propensity to increase all main lifts
- Simple and Effective: You don’t need to think or plan your sessions, it’s max effort, each lift every day
- Specificity: Incredibly effective at practicing your primary lifts and improving your strength to skill performance
- 1RM technique: Getting the technique on point for your top effort sets is nigh on impossible. This method of training is perfect for improving that
The Cons of the Bulgarian Method
- Overtired and Overtrained: There’s no way around it, you will fry your CNS and push your body beyond it’s capabilities if you follow the true Bulgarian method
- Adrenaline: The positive physical and mental effects of mitigating adrenaline from your training are awesome. You’ll recover better and train smarter throughout. But for the majority of people, max lifts require adrenaline.
- Increased injury risk: There;s also no way around the fact that your risk of injury will be far higher if you’re training at consistent maximum and beyond*.
- Fun and Life: Work, relationships and fun will all fall down the ladder. You won’t have the energy…
- Limited Muscular Development: If your goal is to improve your condition and muscle development, then this program absolutely is not for you. The time under tension is miniscule.
*When Buzz Lightyear talked about going to infinity and beyond, he didn’t mean by front squatting to max every day
So they main differences between the Soviet system and the Bulgarian system are that the Soviet system adopts a periodised approach to training and incorporates (even encourages) time off and a lower frequency. There’s very little 90%+ lifts in the Soviet system and more of an emphasis on perfecting the technique, multiple repetition sets with a huge exercise selection. You should be able to see how GPP factors in to all of this now.
The Bulgarian system in some ways opposes this. Abadjiev ensured the majority of lifts were done in the +90% range and drastically reduced the volume outside of this rep range, along with the variety of exercises. It became so specific, it was almost exclusive the classic lifts and front squat – even the back squat was primarily sidelined. He demanded mock meets every month and encouraged competition to drive such a powerful competitive spirit. Essentially the Bulgarian method is as specific as possible – almost 100% consistent intensity and specificity. This is far beyond your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume) and pushes the body ability to recover and adapt to it’s very limit – all of which you can read more about in my biological specifics of weightlifting post.
Day 1: Maximum Attempts
Day 2: Maximum Attempts
Day 3: Maximum Attempts
Day 4: Max…
You see where I am going with this I assume?
It’s a brutal system designed to weed out the ‘weak’ where only the toughest and luckiest survive; like a miniature weightlifting natural selection. The only variable that changes is intensity as you get closer to competitions and according to Max Aita, a man who trained under Abadjiev, they would be at above 90% intensity for 40 days out (or more) from competition. You can find out more about the system in Aita’s amazing YouTube clip.
Imagine working out to your maximum every single day, at 90% and above. Can you imagine what that would do to your CNS, muscles, ligaments, tendons, risk of injury etc. This program design is meant to psychologically prepare a lifter to win a competition with a sub-maximal weight; in training they want to hit a PR above what they would need to win the competition, so that when the competition comes round they can win with a 93%+ lift for example. By making it to the competition, the lifter had basically already won.
It’s important to also note that the system is not based on ‘relative’ 1RM, it’s entirely based around absolute numbers. If your maximum clean and jerk was 140kg but 125kg felt like 100% on one day (we’ve all been there), then your day doesn’t end at a ‘relative’ 1RM just because it felt hard. You were forced to reach your true 1RM each session. So it’s absolutely not feasible for individuals who aren’t athletes to run this system (the true Bulgarian method). The muscular development is limited, your CNS is quickly and continuously exhausted and the amount of volume a lifter can get in is only sufficient for the very elite – so clearly it’s not a system designed for us mere mortals.
I like this T-Nation article that discusses the Bulgarian method and I think the ‘modified’ 12 week powerlifting program is a nice touch, but to even say it’s based on the Bulgarian method is a falsehood. It bears absolutely no similarities to the true method at all. In the true method, your feelings regarding how much you THINK you can lift or how your body feels is irrelevant – it’s essentially focused around brute strength and mental fortitude. Missing weights and poor technique are absolutely fine and you will almost never go past 1 rep, even on warm ups. You’re training to maximum, or you’re out!
Should I try the Bulgarian Method?
In short, no. If you haven’t worked that out form the above then you might be a maniac. The true method will make living your life, having relationships and working very difficult but yes it will obviously improve your lifts if you manage it correctly. If you are a near elite level lifter and need to improve your competition potential and drive up your absolute strength, then this program is designed specifically for that and maybe trying something like the below (*modification klaxon*) would be a fantastic way to improve this aspect of your performance.
Days 1, 3 and 5: Snatch (Max Effort) | Snatch variation | Back Squat – max effort double or single
Days 2, 4 and 6: Clean and Jerk (Max Effort) | Clean and Jerk variation | Front Squat – max effort double or single
Pair the back squat with snatch and snatch variations and the clean and jerk with the front squat, just because those muscle groups make sense to use together. Initially I wouldn’t recommend any other back off sets or volume, especially on a 6 days / week schedule. This level of intensity requires minimal additional volume, so take it easy until your body is used to these stressors and then adapt accordingly.