Bulgarian weightlifting is a topic that has really raised some curiosity among many athletes and the fitness community as a whole. The Bulgarians are known for their obscure programmes, lack of exercise variety and their overall loading techniques. Why is it a source of wonder? Because it works. Take a look at the success of Bulgarian weightlifters, they have won many world championships and Olympic medals. This is coming from a country with a mere 8 million people. There is speculation that they win due to various reasons unrelated to their training. So lets explore a few…
Performance Enhancing Drugs
The drug issue is the first one to be used when a nation dominates a sport like weightlifting. I mean Bulgaria is small and they produce a large number of champions. Naturally the negative nature of humans kicks in and assumes it’s drugs. Well guess what, they have been caught for drug use. But then so has just about every other country. Weightlifting is a sport rife with drug history. So Bulgaria is not on their own with the use of performance enhancing drugs. We cannot use this argument to suggest that this is why they succeed. Their steroids are no better than everyone else’s steroids.
Hmm, the genetic argument. This one is used all the time. African runners are explained away by their genetic potential and the same is true in Bulgarian weightlifting. But is it really likely that Bulgaria has a gene pool that is so much more dominant for weightlifting? What about Scotland? What about Iceland? These nations are known for their world’s strongest man champions. Why don’t they dominate weightlifting? If it were genetics then they would dominate just about every strength and power sport, but they don’t. However the Bulgarian training system is adapted for strength and power athletes of other nations to produce champions in shot put, discus, power-lifting etc.
Genetics is not a valid argument. It is not only the Bulgarian weightlifting team that dominates, it tends to be the Bulgarian weightlifting system that is dominant. Those schooled in the Bulgarian system generally perform well.
The Basic Bulgarian Weightlifting Methodology
So what is so special about the Bulgarian weightlifting methodology? What do they do that others don’t? The answer is not in magic exercises, miracle supplements or the new latest and greatest techniques. The truth is that it has been around for years. The system was developed in practice, not in the research lab or in the brain of some scientist. The Bulgarian weightlifting system has developed organically using a clever mix of strength-physiology and trial and error.
Multiple Training Sessions Per Day
The Bulgarian weightlifting system uses multiple training sessions per day and they train every day. There are a number of reasons behind this method. For one they train with relatively short sessions. The average session is 45 minutes duration. The volume of training in a given day is not extremely high and could probably fit into a single session of about 2.5 hours. The reason for splitting the day up is to allow rest between training efforts. This provides an environment where the athletes can apply maximum effort to each work session. The reasoning is that if they train too long in one session they will not be lifting at their accurate planned percentage for that workout, resulting in unpredictable results.
Another reason for multiple training sessions per day is that testosterone levels peak during heavy training but decline after about one hour. By splitting the day up they allow their body to recuperate so they can elevate testosterone again in subsequent sessions.
Finally the multiple training session day and high frequency of training greases the neuromuscular groove. To help understand this think of a big strong athlete like Svend Karlsson or Phil Pfister. They both won the world’s strongest man competition but why are they not champions in Olympic weightlifting? Could they be? The answer is no. Well not using their current training they couldn’t. They train specifically for their sport, which is consequently more broad and far less specific. They haven’t developed the skill level required for the specifics of weightlifting. So in reality they probably could be champion weightlifters but they have not trained their nervous systems to lift heavy in this manner.
Training frequently tells the nervous system that it must get more efficient and stronger at these specific movements. It is a combination of skill and neuromuscular pattern development. An inexperienced weightlifter can still snatch more than a power-lifter at his peak because they have trained the lift so many times that their nervous system knows how to recruit the right pattern of motor units. Perform a movement such as a bench press over and over every day without over-training and you will be extremely good at bench press. This is how the neuromuscular system works and why training a few movements very frequently is best practice for specific lifting sports.
Lack of Exercise Variation
The Bulgarian system has a characteristic of using very few exercises in their programmes, the reason has been explained in the paragraph on greasing the groove. Other weightlifters might use half a dozen auxiliary exercises and specific exercises such as deadlift, back squat, front squat, overhead squat, rack pulls, hang cleans, power cleans, power snatch, full snatch, overhead press and possibly bench press. Bulgarians use only a select few. A Bulgarian programme can typically consist of only 3-4 exercises. They will, of course, use the snatch and components of the clean and jerk but beyond that they might only perform deadlifts and squats and that’s it, without many variations of each.
This is not necessarily a key to their success as weightlifters, however it does lend itself to highly specified athletes that know their lifts and can do them well. Extra exercises are often used too much in many strength and conditioning programmes. Sometimes these extra exercises cost the athlete energy and physical resources that could be better put to use on the specific exercises of competition.
Loading and Periodisation
Bulgarian weightlifting operates on a loading and unloading cyclical pattern. Take a look at uneducated strength athletes or the guys you see pumping iron in your local gym. They try to progressively get stronger all the time by increasing the weight on the bar constantly. Eventually though they hit a plateau and cease to progress. It is a mystery to them why they are not getting stronger and may even be getting weaker. It is because the muscular system has finite adaptive resources. The common method used is to change the structure of the programme while keeping the same intensity, but this often produces minimal results.
Bulgarian weightlifting coaches use a system of periodisation that involves many cycles and cycles within cycles. Their training is highly layered. This seems complicated to the untrained eye but it really isn’t. The premise behind this is that athletes need a recovery phase in order to make further progress. Recovery does not necessarily mean complete rest, this would reverse previous results. So the Bulgarian system uses unloading phases where they still train the movements but they do so at lighter loads with more focus on technique than on volume, intensity etc.
So how does it work? Well lets look at it in a broad sense without getting too complicated…
Bulgarians have loading months and unloading months. A loading month is generally three weeks of high intensity, high frequency and high volume followed by one week of lighter loads, intensity and frequency. An unloading month is the opposite, with three weeks of lighter training and technique work followed by one week of intense training.
This probably does not make sense to the average gym goer or even to many trained athletes but it works. As mentioned earlier, the body has a finite level of adaptive energy. Eventually you will stop progressing if you don’t unload and recover then begin again at a higher load for the next loading phase.
In addition to the highly planned programming structure there is also flexibility in Bulgarian weightlifting programmes in terms of training intensity. If an athlete comes to the bar unable to lift at previous intensities he/she is obviously fatigued and needs rest or unloading. So the unloading or recovery period is applied immediately, for a session or a cycle, in order to restore the athlete to their desired training intensity.
Training Intensity and Specific Loading Percentages
To accurately understand training intensity we must first provide an understanding of what intensity really is. Intensity in strength training is not what most people in gyms think it is. Just because you’re huffing and puffing and reaching muscular failure does not mean you are using a high intensity. For instance you might do a set of 12 reps for a squat where the last rep is almost impossible to do. This does not imply a high intensity. The fact that you did 12 reps suggests a low training intensity, despite how difficult the end of the set was. Performing a single repetition with a weight you could probably only do two reps with is a high intensity. It is unlikely you will be huffing, puffing and sweating afterwards but this is intensity. Training intensity is a percentage of the maximum amount of weight you can lift once for a given exercise.
Where it gets confusing for many people is when we start talking about training percentages as opposed to actual percentages. Calculating your actual maximum for a lift is good for predicting performance but not much use for calculating percentages used in training. In order to calculate accurate training percentages Bulgarian weightlifters use a training intensity, where intensity is based on the previous workout and the conditions of the current one. A maximal lift attained in competition is unlikely to be repeated in training due to different environmental factors. So if you snatched 100kg in competition and were training triples at 75% for training you would not necessarily be lifting 75kg. It is more likely that your training max would be about 90-95% of actual max. So your 75% is now based on 95kg instead of 100kg.
Now lets take a brief look at the Bulgarian weightlifting system’s actual training percentages.
Weightlifters, including those schooled under the Bulgarian weightlifting system use a broad spectrum of different training loads and intensities. For instance loads under 60% are typically used for warm-ups and recovery phases, which accounts for approximately 8% of all lifts. Lifts above 80%, which are considered actual training weights account for 25-35% of all lifts. Lifts above 95% account for only 7-10% of all lifts. However Bulgarian lifters are known for training at higher intensities and can average upwards of 4000 lifts per year above 95%. This is more due to the way they calculate their max as opposed to such a higher percentage of near-max lifts.
Bulgarian lifters generally train their specific exercises at an intensity of 75-90% of their maximum training intensity for the bulk of their lifts. However they also tend to include a lot more near-max lifts than lifters from other systems. These include lifts such as snatch, power-cleans, push-press etc. These lifts have an attached skill component so the training intensities for the bulk of these are generally lower than in auxiliary lifts in order to repetitively control lifting technique and not ingrain incorrect patterns of movement. For auxiliary lifts such as the back squat or deadlift the intensity is generally raised to an average of 93% due to the smaller skill component. Intensity does, of course, decrease as the reps increase. This example refers to their singles for such lifts. As for rep ranges, Bulgarians use similar numbers to most other weightlifters. This includes between 1-3 reps for specific exercises and 3-7 on auxiliary ones. The further an exercise gets from specific movements the more reps can be performed. It is rare though to see sets of anything above seven.
A Brief Sample Bulgarian Weightlifting Routine
Sessions per day = 4
Training days per week = 7
Training session breakdown for two days in the split…
DAY ONE: Session 1. Snatch 2. Cleans 3. Back squat and deadlift 4. Jerk
Day one’s training intensity is high. Specific Olympic lifts are performed at 80-90% of max for singles, doubles and triples. Auxiliary lifts are performed at 90-95% of max for reps ranging from five down to singles.
DAY TWO: Session 1. Cleans 2. Snatch and jerk (trained separately) 3. Back squat 4. Deadlift
Day two’s training intensity will be lower and use higher reps in the range of 3-5. The focus is on technique. Intensity will be in the range of 70-75% of max for Olympic lifts and 75-85% for auxiliary exercises.
To provide an example of a loading phase the Bulgarian weightlifter will perform this routine seven days a week for three weeks then have a week of only five days with significantly reduced training loads and lower volume per session.
Applications For Non-Weightlifters
The Bulgarian weightlifting system is great for elite weightlifters, but not everyone can spend their day training or waiting to train. The general population has jobs and other things to tend to and other athletes have to train specifically for their sport. Athletes other than weightlifters can’t afford to dedicate all their time to strength and conditioning. The average Joe might want the strength of a weightlifter or power-lifter but can’t dedicate their life to it.
The purpose of this article, the real purpose, was not to show elite weightlifters what they should be doing and why. The primary purpose is to provide a model based on the Bulgarian weightlifting methodology that can be used by Tim the architect that wants to be strong, Sven the shot putter, John the rugby player or Phil the semi-elite tennis player. (Those were fictional people used to express a point).
The General Population
By general population I am referring to those that are not elite athletes and whose training goals are less specific to actual performance and more general in nature. General population can include goals such as general health and fitness, weight loss, muscle gain for aesthetic value, increased ability to perform daily tasks or any number of other personal reasons that are not specific to a sport.
It is obvious that the general population cannot apply the Bulgarian weightlifting system in its full capacity, nor do they need to. People have full time jobs, kids and many other things to tend to other than training. For this reason an approach is required that is sufficient for the development of adequate strength and power and at the same time is realistic to fit into one’s lifestyle. So how, with its high volume and frequency, can the Bulgarian weightlifting methodology be adapted for the general population? To answer this I will provide a few points that can be applied to the training of the average gym goer so they can reap the benefits of such a successful strength training system.
Frequent, brief sessions can be applied to the training regime. It is typical for many people to attend the gym 3-4 days per week for an hour at a time. Many people believe they haven’t the time to attend the gym every day for the same length of time. But what if training sessions were limited to 20-30 minutes? This would allow people to sacrifice only a small part of their day for training. Hence you would be able to train 5-7 days per week. This high frequency approach with lessened volume is useful on a number of levels including greasing the neuromuscular groove. It also stimulates the muscular system every day, which tells the body that it must continually keep adapting to the increasing demands, which means more strength.
Further to this approach, including two training sessions per day is ultimately more useful if circumstances allow it. The double training session is usually easier to apply for those that train at home as opposed to having to attend the gym. For instance you may perform only three sets of a single exercise in the morning and the same for another exercise in the evening. Each sessions can be as long as 30 minutes or as little as 10 minutes. Still not a significant time investment.
The Bulgarian weightlifting system incorporates a limited number of exercises. This allows for higher specificity and greater development of trained movement patterns. The guy that does 10 sets of bench press per week will lift more than the guy that does seven different chest exercises. My suggestion is to create a programme (or follow one from this site) that incorporates two different strength sessions with no more than five exercises each workout. For those training only a single exercise each session it is recommended that only 5-7 exercises are chosen. Each time a new programme is created (every four to six weeks) incorporate small changes by adding and subtracting an exercise, doing different versions of an exercise etc. Also avoid isolation movements unless they are specifically required for rehab or lagging strength in a particular area. Perform compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, cleans, push press, overhead press, push-ups, pull-ups, bent over rows etc.
Periodisation is important no matter which system you’re following. By training at full-on intensity on a continual basis the body eventually protests and won’t allow further strength gains. The Bulgarian weightlifting system utilises loading and unloading cycles, which is a rather simple system for periodisation and to prevent “hitting the wall”. The easiest way to follow this is through unloading and loading months. For three months a loading phase is applied. This involves three weeks of solid training intensity and one week of lower intensity for recuperation. After a three month loading phase an unloading phase is applied. This involves a single month the other way around, being three weeks of lighter weights and one week back at maximal intensity. The max intensity week should be the third week of the month. Then once a year include a double unloading phase, which is essentially two months of the unloading method.
This is periodisation at its simplest but is easy to follow without having to divide into macro and meso-cycles.
Intensity is the most important factor determining gains in any domain of fitness. Lets try to do this with minimal scientific mumbo-jumbo. When training a muscle it needs to be trained at an optimal intensity for each given goal. Muscles increase in strength when they are subjected to loads that force activation of the maximal number of motor units in as synchronous pattern as possible. This only occurs at high training loads with low repetitions. So if strength is the goal then low reps and a high training intensity will work best.
Training at lower intensity but higher training volume is an optimal environment for muscular hypertrophy because protein breakdown occurs at an optimal rate and to an optimal total level to trigger a super-compensatory reaction during recovery. This super-compensation is responsible for increases in muscular size.
Training intensity for strength gains should be up around the 85-95% range with the occasional maximal lift to test your capacity. At this intensity the repetition range should be kept to between 1-5 per set.
Training intensity for muscular hypertrophy should be in the range of 75-85%. The repetition range at these intensities will be in the range of 5-8 with minimal training occurring in the 10-12 range.
Powerlifters and Strongmen
Power lifters and strongmen are unique in that skill is not as much of a factor as it is in elite weightlifters. The Bulgarian weightlifting system, in my opinion, actually works even better for these athletes than it does for weightlifters. Since most lifts in these sports don’t require the extensive learning curve and each lift is more of a maximum physiological effort the athlete can afford a slightly higher repetition range.
We will keep this section brief since the basic premise of the system has been previously explained.
Powerlifters and strongmen, like weightlifters, have the unique advantage of being able to dedicate almost all their training time to conditioning. Other athletes require specific skill and strategy work, whereas this aspect is limited in these athletes.
All I will add here is that powerlifters and strongmen can follow almost all methods applied by weightlifters when following the Bulgarian weightlifting techniques. The only differences being that the movements will differ to suit their individual needs. Further, repetitions will typically range from between 1-7 with the bulk of training being in the 4-5 range per set.
Athletes other than weightlifters, strongmen and powerlifters are at a strength disadvantage because they cannot dedicate a significant portion of their training to conditioning. For this reason the Bulgarian weightlifting system must be modified to suit their individual needs. Since there are so many other sports that fit this category it is impossible to completely systemise the approach with a one size fits all method.
For athletes requiring high levels of strength and power like shot putters, sprinters and hammer throwers, the portion of strength work can be high. It is recommended that the system be applied in a similar fashion to that of the general population but leaning closer to that of weightlifters. For athletes requiring less specific strength such as rugby players, ice hockey players, middle distance runners etc, it is recommended that an approach be adapted from that of the general population with a lean further from that of weightlifters and even almost identical to that recommended for the general population previously.
The Bulgarian weightlifting system has been proven to be effective through countless medals. It has been attributed to wins outside of Bulgaria and continues to mystify even sports scientists to this day. One thing can be derived from the system, and that is that it works. If elite athletes were to rely on proven scientific evidence before applying training methods they would get nowhere.
Best practice is to apply what is proven effective and has been somewhat scientifically validated. The Bulgarian weightlifting system is such an approach. This system can and has been applied to a broad range of training purposes and has shown constantly, through its many variations, that adaptations of it are effective across multiple arenas.
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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.