Unsplash: Sam Sabourin
Bulgarian method. In weightlifting circles, the very term conjures up images of stern men in singlets with shaggy hair and consonant-laden names hoisting barbells overhead again and again throughout day after day in some torturous yet mysteriously effective program, and all while hidden away behind the Iron Curtain. In the ’70s and ’80s, when the Bulgaria weightlifting team dominated world competition, its unique training methods caused a sensation in the iron game that still reverberates today. We investigate the Bulgarian method and how you can apply its philosophy to your workouts.
Meet Ivan Abadjiev. He died in 2017, but back in 1957 he won Bulgaria’s first weightlifting medal. More importantly, he was Bulgaria’s weightlifting coach from 1968-89 when the small, poor country of less than nine million citizens dominated Olympic-style weightlifting. Whereas other weightlifting programs avoided frequent work with low reps and focused on auxiliary exercises like high pulls, Abadjiev took the opposite approach. He believed the way to get better at an activity was to perform it over and over. This is called the law of specificity. Want to get better at shooting basketballs? Take hundreds of basketball shots every day. More to the point: Want to get better at shooting contested threes from the corner? Shoot contested threes from the corner hundreds of times every day.
Weightlifting success is measured in competition by hoisting maximum weights overhead in two lifts—the snatch and the clean and jerk. So, according to the law of specificity, to improve your maximum weights in those two lifts, you need to do them almost exclusively and with near-maximum weights. Abadjiev’s athletes practiced these two lifts (and a third, front squats) for very low reps, often for singles. And they were doing this with a seemingly crazy frequency—up to four workouts per day as often as six days per week. You’d think this would lead to a full-speed wall-splat—utter physical and mental exhaustion. And yet the Bulgarians were thriving, rapidly growing stronger; and regularly carrying home gold medals from weightlifting world championships.
In fact, Abadjiev did cycle in light and heavy periods for his athletes. He also broke up monotony and upped intensity by regularly staging mock competitions, complete with full audiences. Nevertheless, the continuous repetitive grind of his program screams overtraining. This was avoided because of the regularity of the stress. Just as a swimmer adapts to constantly performing the same strokes or a boxer adapts to throwing the same blows, doing only two or three lifts again and again allowed the body to more easily adapt. Furthermore, doing near-maximum single reps triggered what is called protein memory, strengthening neurological pathways and causing adaption in the muscle cells specifically for the act of doing increasingly heavier, near-maximum single reps.
BULGARIAN METHOD FOR WEIGHTLIFTING
Let’s go into further detail about the five principles behind the Bulgarian weightlifting method.
The focus is almost entirely on the two competitive lifts: snatch and clean and jerk. The only assistance work is front squats (and sometimes back squats) and variations of the two competitive lifts: power snatch and power clean.
The competitive lifts or their variations are done in every workout. During intense training periods, there are often two or three daily workouts. Again and again and again, weightlifters do the same lifts the same way.
3. VERY LOW REPS
Most lifts are done for only one or two reps. Three reps is the occasional “high-rep” set!
4. MAX EFFORT
Several times weekly, weightlifters work up to a maximum weight for a single rep. Instead of light snatch days, they max out on the power snatch; and instead of light clean and jerk days, they max out on the power clean and jerk.
5. EXTREME SEGMENTATION
The workload is divided into two or three daily sessions, and those sessions are divided into units. An example of a session with three units: (1) snatch for 30 minutes, rest 20 minutes; (2) clean and jerk for 30 minutes, rest 20 minutes; (3) front squat for 30 minutes.
BULGARIAN METHOD FOR POWERLIFTING
The Bulgarian method can easily be applied to powerlifting with the only difference being there are three competition lifts—squat, bench press, deadlift—instead of two. However, because Bulgarian weightlifting programs also have three lifts—snatch, clean and jerk, front squat—even that difference vanishes.
Focus on maximum singles and doubles and triples of the three powerlifts with frequent workouts and those workouts segmented into 20-minutes units for each lift. Three reps seems to be the most common number for powerlifters following a high-frequency system based on the Bulgarian method.
On occasion, work modified versions of the powerlifts: the front squat or safety bar squat, the incline press, and the rack deadlift or deadlift with a different stance (conventional if you lift sumo, sumo if you lift conventional). For these you can use slightly higher reps, up to five per set.
BULGARIAN METHOD FOR BODYBUILDING
Members of the Bulgarian weightlifting team had one job—Olympic-style weightlifting. They had the time and resources to workout several times daily. We’ll assume you won’t be going to the gym more than once daily. Furthermore, unless you’re a competitive weightlifter, you’re unconcerned with how much metal you can raise overhead one time. In that sense, the chief goal of the Bulgarian method is antithetical to bodybuilding, which is all about stimulating growth in all muscles and not at all about single-rep strength in the snatch and the clean and jerk.
Still, the Bulgarian method has applications for muscle-making. First, it can be adapted to a program more conducive to growth. As in our first sample routine, select four to six compound exercises that together hit most body parts. Keep your reps in the 6-10 range, and push sets to failure. Perform this same routine three times weekly with 48 hours rest between workouts, and continuously strive to use more weight or get more reps. Alternate one week of Bulgarian-style training with one week of a more traditional bodybuilding routine.
BULGARIAN METHOD BODYBUILDING ROUTINE #1
Deadlift — 5 x 6-10 reps
Bench Press — 5 x 6-10 reps
Squat — 5 x 6-10 reps
Barbell Row — 5 x 6-10 reps
Shoulder Press — 5 x 6-10 reps
BUGARIAN METHOD BODYBUILDING ROUTINE #2
You can also do one exercise throughout a day. No, you won’t need to live in a gym. For examples, here’s three exercises you can do anywhere with minimal (or no) equipment:
BICEPS: Dumbbell Curl — 5 x 10-15 reps
TRICEPS: Close-grip Pushup — 5 x max reps
SHOULDERS: Dumbbell Side Lateral — 5 x 10-15 reps
For more exercises, check out our bodyweight training guide.
Choose one such exercise and do it for five sets in four to six sessions throughout the day, each separated by at least an hour. Strive for a good pump in each workout. Go through this one-exercise overload day once or twice per week in addition to your regular training, and skip working this targeted body part in your regular workouts.
THE GENIUS OF THE BULGARIAN METHOD
Whether you’re contemplating doing the same five-exercise workout five times per week or you hit one body part five times in a day, at first blush it probably seems crazy. That’s what they said about Abadjiev’s innovation, until the Bulgarians repeatedly brought home the most medals. One of the biggest modern advocates of the Bulgarian method for all advanced weight-trainers is Matt Perryman, who wrote a popular e-book called Squat Every Day. Perryman doesn’t quite advocate squatting seven days per week, but he does postulate that working the same few lifts virtually every day can help anyone overcome plateaus in strength and muscular development. The Bulgarian method’s “craziness” is its genius, because it forces your muscles to adapt to frequent and unexpected stress by growing stronger and bigger.