Bulgarian Powerlifting Training

Ever since coach Ivan Abadjaev (you will see this spelled about 12 different ways) reinvented training for Olympic lifting in the 70’s or thereabouts, it’s common for his ideas to propagate through other non Olympic lifting sports.

Every five years or so (usually as someone new comes into the game), someone will get a hair up their butt and decide to try to apply the ideas from one sport to the other. Recently, a book was written to exactly that effect, I won’t name it but I imagine most of you know what I’m referring to.

And since I’m killing a week until next week’s big announcement, I want to continue an article I started a few weeks back before I got distracted by other stuff.  Mainly I want to look at what the Bulgarian approach actually is, then look at how it’s usually attempted to be applied to PL’ing.  And then I’ll tell you why it never actually works.

Pre-Abadjaev OL Training

Prior to Abadjaev’s rewriting the rules, most Olympic lifting training of the day followed a more or less Soviet and classical periodization model.  There were preparation, competition and transition phases and usually more reps of varied movements at lower intensities earlier in the year that would move up towards higher intensity specific work for peaking.

The US actually hadn’t done it that way during it’s short heyday but by the time the US had fallen off the map, most of the Europeans did it that way.  So during preparation it was a lot of partial movements (cleans from the hang or blocks), lower intensities of 75-85% of max for higher reps with some full competition work and it would shift closer to competition.  Generally.  Then came Ivan.

A lifter of some accomplishment himself, and having been openly critical about how stupid he thought most OL training was, Abadjaev was thrown into a coaching role by the higher ups to shut him up.  A few years later, Bulgaria was kicking ass.

Abadjaev had been one of the first lifters to train twice per day and he basically felt that most of the Olympic lifting exercises then in use (some of the Russian theorists had hundreds of the damn things) were useless.  He took a purely specificity approach to training and is claimed to have said “You don’t become a great violinist by playing the flute.”

He would gradually decrease the movements in use and by the end of his career, he was using about six.  Competition clean and jerk, competition snatch, power clean and jerk, power snatch, front and back squats.  With the occasional pull.  That was it.  Supposedly he theorized that a top lifter could do nothing but front squat, clean and jerk and snatch but never tested the idea.

Realize that this was with the elite team who had already come through years of preparation work.  Their technique was stable and by definition they could handle the training; they wouldn’t have been elite otherwise.

They were also using steroids and basically lifted full time and there are reports of boredom and injury from the program along with Bulgarian lifters who made more progress not following his program.  Mind you, Abadjaev really didn’t care how many lifters he broke so long as a Bulgaria won.  And they did.

Abadjaev also introduced the concept of splitting workouts into small chunks.  Typically a lifter would work on a movement for 30 minutes tops, take  30 minute break and then move to the next exercise.  This was done for about 8 hours per day.  And while Abadjaev claimed some nonsense related to testosterone levels, most think it was just a way to control his athletes; by exhausting them they couldn’t go out at night and drink and chase girls.

He also didn’t believe in classical periodization, feeling that the months spent pissing around with lighter weights and higher reps was not relevant.  General prep?  Gone.  GPP?  Gone.  Again this was elites but he got rid of all of the “required” aspects of training.  And his results backed it up.  At most he’d insert easy weeks (3 weeks hard, 1 week easier) or the occasional easy month (1 week hard, 3 weeks easier) but that was it.

But even in easy months, the hard week was hard and lifters were training to the daily max, a concept I still haven’t defined but will shortly.

Specificity and The Daily Max

As I said above, Abadjaev took specificity to it’s logical end extreme in terms of exercise selection.  If the goal is to lift the most weight in the clean and jerk and snatch, that’s the movements you practice.  Power movements are more for speed and a bit lighter and back/front squat are for leg strength.

But he went further than that.  The goal of OL’ing is to lift the most weight you can for one repetition and Abadjaev saw no point in doing more than that.  One rep.  The very very occasional double but none of the 3’s and 5’s that were common in the Soviet style systems.

And the reps were done at maximum.  Daily maximum. And that’s where people get confused.   First ask yourself what you think of when I say your maximum lift.  If you’re a powerlifter, you probably think in terms of your best gym lift or best competition lift.  Other athletes don’t usually think in those terms but no matter, this is about OL’ing for PL’ing.

Where people get very confused by the Bulgarian system is what daily max means.  Because what it does NOT mean is the maximum that the lifter has ever handled in competition.  Rather, it’s the maximum he can lift on that day.  Which will be impacted by his fitness level, his fatigue level and other factors.

The basic structure for any given exercise was this, the lifter would start light and single up until they hit that day’s daily maximum.   If it was 20kg below their best competition max, that’s fine.  It was their max for the day.  Sometimes they would handle above their best weight (or above the current World Records) but OL’s usually train at a heavier bodyweight than they compete.

If they missed a lift at daily max, they might be allowed to try again depending on why they missed it.  Was it technical or a lack of strength?  If they missed a few times, their max for that day was probably a touch lower.

Ultimately it didn’t matter, Abadjaev felt that the key was working at 100% for the day regardless of what that 100% was (within limits, Charlie Francis’s approach to sprinting was no different; your best was your best for that day but maximum speed training means training at maximum).  I am told that over time, Abajaev expected the fluctuations in daily max to narrow but that’s neither here nor there.

Once the daily max was set, the lift might take repeat repeat sets at that weight or they might drop down by 5-20kg and for a few sets, or pyramid back up to the max.   But the maximum was defined by what they could lift on that day.   It had nothing, ultimately to do with any previous weight or their competition max.  Daily max; the maximum for that day only.

Abadjaev didn’t believe in percentage training and the decreases were absolute weight drops.  But when you’re looking at elites lifting in a fairly narrow range, those absolute drops end up not being too different in terms of percentages (i.e. 20kg off of a 200kg lift isn’t that different than off of a 180 kg lift).

And while it’s often claimed that the Bulgarian system has no variety and that’s true in terms of exercise selection but you can actually get a lot of variety in terms of loads per workout with the above.

Six singles with your daily max is not the same same as 1 single with your daily max, 3 reps at 20kg below then 2 reps heavier.  Or whatever, you can load the body a lot of different ways.  And the power movements are usually about 80-85% of the maximum movements which introduces some Heavy, Light, Medium Training.

OMFG

And this type of training was done six days per week, 8 hours per day with often Sunday being taken “off” with only light squats.  You have to be elite (and drugged) handle this level of training in the first place and even there it takes years to build up to it (a Greek coach, using a similar system said that building up to the full program takes 10 years or you will die).

Everybody thought he was nuts with this program.  How could you throw out everything they knew about training?  You had to have preparation, specificity, lots of variety.  And when the Bulgarians started winning and winning (usually in lighter weight classes) all of that changed.

Then the Bulgarians started stomping everybody.  One factor often ignored in other systems is that the lifter might not go heavier than 95% of their predicted weights in training and they are expected to figure it out on the platform.  And the difference in timing, etc. between 95% and 100% in an OL can be profound.

The Bulgarians were handling maxes all the time.  It makes you fearless when you are constantly jumping under a maximum weight.  When you train heavier regularly handle world record weights in practice, it’s easy to do it in competition.  Just do what you did in the gym last week  And in the modern era, most countries use a system not unlike his although most have their own flavor to them.

Some are basically modeled on the Bulgarian system entirely, some use aspects of that with specific assistance movements (the Chinese appear to do that combining heavy full lifts, specific assistance work and then bodybuilding training).   The Polish team, described in an old Milo apparently uses more Soviet style training in the off-season and switches to Bulgarian style about 3 months out to peak.

And while many have tried and failed, without the 10 years of buildup, the drugs, and natural culling of athletes who can’t handle the system, the Bulgarian system breaks most OL’ers off.   Without out massive modifications (like cutting the volume and frequency of training way down so perhaps 3 maximum singles only once per day), it’s usually felt that the full Bulgarian system is not doable except for the elites who are using drugs, have been lifting for years and basically lift (and juice) full time.  Mind you, there have been some previous approaches to using the basic system with some modifications.

Why it Doesn’t work for Powerlifting

Which is a very long introduction to my main topic, why the idea of performing Bulgarian powerlifting is flawed and really doesn’t work (it’s been tried for years and always fails).  And there are actually a few reasons for it but they all sort of come down to the same thing which is the difference between the sports.

Olympic lifting is about throwing the bar into the air, simplistically speaking.  To catch a snatch means throwing the bar high enough to get under it with your arms overhead.  To catch a clean means the same with the bar on your chest.  You can lift more in the clean since it doesn’t have to go as high.  And the really key part of this is the explosive bit that happens at the end.  It lasts about 0.2 seconds, is an explosive (albeit maximally explosive) movement and defines whether or not you make the lift.

In the snatch, the pull off the floor is never limiting.  The recovery is never limited by leg strength.  The movement is limited completely by the ability to explode in the final part of the second pull and throw the bar high enough to get under it.  Yes, I know there is more to it than that, hitting the right positions, back stability to hit the power position and all of that.  None of it matters if you can’t throw the bar high enough.  That is the ultimately weak link.

The clean is certainly more strength oriented but it’s still ultimately limited by what you can throw at the end of the pull.  The start off the floor is never at maximum, the squat recovery can be hard if the bar is out of position but it’s usually not maximum (just hard).  And that’s before you add the jerk.  If a lifter’s jerk is limiting, that means that their clean will be lower than maximum to begin with.

So while both of the Olympic lifts are a maximum effort, they are only maximum for a tiny part of the movement.  The start, middle, recovery is not maximum; only that throw.  And contrast that to a maximum squat, bench, or deadlift which will be more or less maximal all the way through.

Pull a maximum deadlift and it’s hard off the floor, in the middle to lockout. Yes, fine it changes a bit, most guys can finish a squat or bench if they make it through the sticking point and gear modifies all of this.  But the movements are fundamentally different in the amount of maximum effort they require.

And their duration of effort.  A maximal explosive effort lasts 0.2 seconds.  A maximal deadlift can be seconds of all out effort.  And these have profoundly different effects on the nervous and muscular systems.

Louie Simmons, love him or hate him, at least factored that in when he applied the Prilepin table, cutting the optimal number of reps in half due to the longer duration of the PL’s vs. the OL’s.  A maximum bench might take 2-3 seconds of grinding effort, a maximum clean is not even close.

There are also misses.  OL’ing is very go/no go.   You don’t get the bar high enough in the snatch and you dump it.  Don’t get it right on the clean and you dump it.  At worst you get crushed into a front squat, try a bounce and grind the squat.  Or dump it and try again.  Contrast that to a missed squat, bench or deadlift, where the lifter may grind and grind and still miss.  It’s totally different.

Ol’ers often only take a fairly short rest between maximums and less for snatch than clean and jerk.  I’m talking like 60-90 seconds.  A PL doing maximums may be taking 3-5′ and 10′ is not unheard of.  That alone tells you the difference in effort.

The sports are different.  But there’s another issue, often unconsidered by folks who write simplistically about this.   And now I have to get a bit technical.

The Force-Velocity Curve

I talked about the force-velocity curve in the overwritten Categories of Weight Training Part 11and want to re-address it in a slightly different way here.  But it fundamentally explains why trying to directly apply Ol training to Pl’ing without recognizing the differences, and the Bulgarian system specifically, doesn’t work.

The force-velocity curve basically describes the relationship between how much force you can produce and how quickly the movement will be.  So at the highest part of velocity, the force you can generate is very small.  At the higher part of force, the speed is very low (think a grinding maximum deadlift).  Everything else is in the middle.  And here I’m assuming maximum effort, clearly you CAN lift a weight of 75% of maximum slowly if you want but it can be lifted faster than a weight of 90%.

And here’s where it all falls apart.  Powerlifting is a maximum strength sport, a 1RM is basically at the far right of the F-V curve.  The only thing that generates more force are isometric and eccentric work and nobody does those.  For all practical purposes 1RM is a maximum.

But the OL’s do not require maximum strength, they require maximum power to throw the bar high enough.  In the clean, the pull off the floor is not maximum and neither is the squat; it’s maximum during the explosion.

And here’s some trivia: there are often strength relationships between the lifts, how much you should squat, front squat, clean relative to snatch that represents common numbers.  The ones I’m going to present come from Greg Everett’s excellent book Olympic Weightlifting A Complete Guide – Greg Everett.  Apologies, the new WordPress build screws tables up.

Exercise %age
Clean and Jerk 80-85% of deadlift
Snatch 80-85% of clean and jerk

Ok, what do you see, the clean and jerk should be about 80-85% of your best deadlift.  Yes, pulling strength off the floor is important but it’s not a maximal pull because the only maximal part is the explosive bit in the middle.  So if your best deadlift is 100kg your best clean and jerk (your maximum) should be 80-85kg.

Think about the implications of this: a 1RM clean and jerk is only 85% of a 1RM maximum strength movement.  It’s called strength-speed for a reason.  It’s a maximal effort to be sure.  It is NOT a maximal strength movement (in terms of the F-V curve.

And the snatch is 80-85% of that.  Mathing that out, the snatch is 64-72% of a max force move.  Again, maximum effort?  Absolutely. Maximum force on the F-V curve?  Absolutely not.  It’s why snatches are used by athletes for speed-strength.  It’s an explosive speed movement.  Not a strength movement. I’ve shown this graphically below.Force Velocity Curve

And you can see clearly that “maxing” in the Olympic lifts is not even remotely the same as maxing in a powerlift.  A maximum clean and jerk is the equivalent of maybe 80-85% of a powerlifting 1RM.  Does anybody think that doing singles with 80-85% (roughly 5-8 reps maximum) that percentage will do anything?  Snatch is even worse, unless you think singles at 75% is going to build strength in a powerlift.  Which I hope you do not.

And that’s why this approach doesn’t work.  Even if you take the recommendations to work at 90% of your best PL, you’re already above what the Bulgarians were doing.  It’s not the same system, it can’t be.  The durations of the lift are different, the loadings are different, the PL is heavier over the full duration of the lift compared to the OL and missing is totally different.

This has been tried for years.  It really just doesn’t work.  About the closest anybody has come was Jim Williams who supposedly went to 90% in the bench daily and if he felt good went for a true 1RM.  But trying to apply the Bulgarian system as outlined, with it’s 8 hour workdays, daily max (which isn’t the same as PL maximum), and high volume is not going to work by doing a couple of triples at 90% of 1RM.

I didn’t even touch on that above but although each block of a lift was only 6 daily max lifts, the Bulgarians repeat that multiple times per day.  The daily volume of a given “maximum” lift might be 12-18 repetitions a maxiumum.  Per day.  Every day.  Do you think you can handle 90%+ in the powerlifts f0r 12-18 reps per day.  Every day.  Me neither.

Doing a couple of reps at 90% even daily isn’t Bulgarian training no matter how you cut it.  Done 6 days/week it’s less total volume than the Bulgarians did in a day.  The simple fact that you can do so much more work in OL at “maximum” tells you that the systems are different.  12-18 reps of max PL work daily would kill a man.  It’s doable in OL’ing because the sports are different and a maximum OL is not anything like a maximum PL.

Despite everyone’s continuing hardon for Bulgarian training, it’s an Ol’ing system and the nuances of the sport make it generally inappropriate to apply to anything else.  Yes, there are elements, specificity, training heavily enough to be ready for competition that are generally applicable.  But leave daily maxing to the Olympic lifters for whom an explosive max is not a true max on the Force-Velocity curve (where the mis-named powerlifting lives).

Addendum

After writing this piece, it was brought to my attention that the individual who wrote the particular book I referred to was unhappy and posted on his FB “The Bulgarians were some of the strongest squatters” as if that changed my point.  But consider

1. Ol’ers do not need huge squats.  A big squat may be 300kg.  660 lbs.  Coan did 1000.  An old rule of thumb is that an OL’ers should be able to front squat for a triple his best clean.  So a 200kg clean needs a 220kg front squat (90% is about a triple so add 10% to get a maximum single).  Front squat is about 85% of back squat.  So add 15%.  253kg back squat. Some go a bit heavier but only for a buffer.

Guys found out early on that a bigger squat doesn’t equal a bigger OL.  Alexeev, one of the greatest only had a front squat 10% higher than his best C&J because his technique was flawless.

2. Abadjaev doesn’t let his guys grind back squats.  It’s not relevant to the sport and I have a friend who trains with the man.  He doesn’t grind squats.  So their singles are SUBMAXIMAL.     Hell, watch Rezezedah front squatting 280 kg here.  See that speed.  It’s not maximal.  It doesn’t ever have to be.

Watch the Chinese guys squat.  Yes this is a multiple rep set.  It’s not a grinder.

Here’s an older video of a Bulgarian max single in the back squat.  Slower, yes.  Not a grinder

Bulgarian Ivan Ivanov 210 kg front squat at 115kg.  This is maximum in OL.

A Cuban lifter who’s name I cannot spell doing a double.  Note speed.

Now go find a true 1RM powerlifting squat.  Not the monolift half squats.  A true max.  Compare the speeds.

Basically this individual shows a simplistic and incomplete understanding of actual OL training as most do.  What they *think* the Bulgarians did is NOT what they actually did.  They didn’t grind squats and they didn’t train at a max that is equivalent to a PL max.

And while this individual can keep circling around the issue, simply he is wrong.  This idea comes through the game about every 5 years and in two decades the idea of training to a DAILY MAX (not training daily as one commenter misunderstood) it’s never really worked.

People get hurt (so did the Bulgarians who had a 10 year build up and used drugs) and PL makes it worse. WSBB with it’s 3 max singles year round injured people.  Now do that daily without years of build up, elite genetics and all the drugs.  And you will get injured.

Addendum: For people reading this late, I turned off comments as the ignorance an illiteracy is just too much.  I read the book, I know what it says.  I know what the Bulgarians did.  Greg does not and his book has nothing to do with the system no matter how much it’s modified or adapted.  It’s not Bulgarian just cuz it’s high-frequency.  When everyone gets hurt (as they always do trying this) because they jump into it without years of leadup, you can all come tell me I was right.  Because I am.

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