It’s Time to Forget About Bulgarian Training

I’m actually not entirely sure how to introduce this piece, it’s just been something that’s been going through my head when I walk my dogs in the morning and I’m not even sure what stimulated it in the first place.  But as the title suggests, basically I think it’s time for the majority of the general training world to forget Bulgarian training.

Now, I’ve been in this field professionally for nearly 2 decades at this point and I have watched this endless fascination with what the Bulgarian OL’ers are supposedly doing come and go for the entire time.  And it was around far longer than that.  From about the time that the Bulgarians came on the scene (in roughly the 80’s) and started handing the Russians their asses in Olympic Lifting (at least in the lighter weight classes), all while using a training system that went more or less against the beliefs of the day, people have been fascinated with their training.

Since that time, various athletes, mostly Western Olympic Lifters (but every so often powerlifters) have attempted to apply the Bulgarian system to their training.  Without fail, it fails.  They get broken off, injured and unless they use it in fairly specific ways for fairly short periods of time, they get injured or worse.   They don’t have the buildup, the background, the drug support and it simply breaks them.

But to understand that, first let me look at the system in brief.

What is Bulgarian Training?

At the time that Ivan Abadjaev took over Bulgarian Olympic lifting, the common model was fairly stock standard periodization moving from transition to general prep to specific prep for competition.  You worked at lower intensities and higher volumes (typically more sets of relatively more repetitions and here I’m talking about 3-5’s depending on the lift) in the preparation phase only using lower repetitions and higher intensities, nearing maximum near competition.  Generally more assistance or partial movements were used during preparation with more specific competition work done nearer competition.

Abadjaev, who apparently was one of the first lifters of his day to train twice daily, threw all of that out.  He believed in pure specificity, moving his athletes over the years to doing roughly 6 lifts: power clean and jerk, power snatch, full clean and jerk, full snatch, back squat and front squat with little to nothing else.  Lifts were done to a daily maximum, the most weight the lifter could lift on that day (it has nothing to do with his true maximum).  He is, most likely apocrophally, claimed to have said (roughly) “You don’t become a flute player by practicing the violin” and took that to it’s logical end extreme.  To improve at doing X in Y fashion, you do X in Y fashion and nothing else.  Olympic lifting is about lifting the heaviest weight once.  So that’s what his lifters did every day at every workout.

But there was more.  To ensure maximum training quality, he went to an extremely broken style of training where each lift would be worked for roughly 30 minutes (working up to at most 6 maximum single lifts) before taking a 30 minute break and then training the next lift.  The rationale given had to do with testosterone levels but this is mostly nonsense.  Really it just ensured ultimate training quality.

But he went further than that as the elite group typically did the above for like 8 hours per day.  They’d train a few hours in the morning on a 30′ on/30′ off schedule, get a couple hours of rest, train again, rest again, train again, collapse into bed.  Heavier days of 3X/day training might be alternated by a “lighter” day of 2X/day training and on the power versions of the lifts but it was basically a ton of training every day sometimes including Sundays.

Now, on top of any other reasons for the development of the system, one that is commonly accepted is that Abadjaev’s goal was to simply keep his athletes exhausted to such a degree that they wouldn’t stay up all night partying and chasing tail.   And while it accomplished that, there were negatives: stories of burnout, boredom and injury abound and several of his athletes who trained on different programs showed superior results.

I’d note that the above training was among his elite, professional lifters, who had survived the decade of build-up training.  This is important, as a Greek coach who adapted the Bulgarian methods once stated “This is big training.  If you don’t build up to this for 10 years, you will die.”  That’s right.  YOU WILL DIE.  Even considering jumping into this style of training without that gradual buildup is insane and yet that’s what most seem to attempt to do.

Getting back to the injury/selection topic, the March 2016 (Vol 23, Issue 4) of Milo has an article by Ollie Whaley titled “More or Less: Which is Better” about exactly that.    In it he addresses the issue of whether more or less training is superior, focusing primarily on Olympic Lifting.   In it he comments that Angel Spassov, a Bulgarian coach who lectured on the method, stated that for every world champion Bulgaria produced, 66 lifters failed.  That’s a 1.5% success rate.  The author suggested that that probably means that, for every great lifter, 60 were left broken in the system’s wake which means that 1.5% of lifters actually survived Bulgarian training.  Let that roll around in your head for a second.

Even if this number is double the actual numbers and only 30 out of 31 got wrecked (raising the success rate to a whopping 3%) it makes the point: most guys didn’t survive or truly succeed on the program even with everything in place.  They were selected from a young age, trained full time for years, had drugs, massage, etc. and most of them still broke from the program.  Ivan didn’t care of course, Eastern European countries rarely do.  They want medals and so long as they get them, the trail of destroyed athletes is irrelevant to them.  History only remembers the medalists and their coaches, not the list of guys who couldn’t hack it.

But keep the above in mind every time you see someone suggesting Bulgarian training or some bastardized version of it.  It’s not just high frequency, it’s not just high specificity, it’s not just training at maximum but rather a combination of a bunch of training factors that, while it worked for a handful of elite athletes, destroyed most of them.  Maybe 60 out of 61 of them.

Yes, fine, I get it, everyone online is the exception, everyone reading this is the 61st guy who will survive the training with none of the above factors in place.  Or that would be the case if the word “exception” didn’t mean something very different.  Because the reality is that most who try this training under any circumstance fail on it.  It’s not even debatable.   American Olympic lifters have tried for years to make the system work and it never does.  And it never will.  Now they don’t even try so far as I can tell.  They learned the lesson that nobody else seem to have.

Yes, fine Jon Broz got popular for about 15 minutes claiming that his athletes were clean and how they squatted to max daily with lots of impressive Youtube videos and a couple of guys with monster squats (who so far as I can tell didn’t do much in international competition).  Then his best lifter got popped for using drugs and that was basically the end of that.  The only people who seem to keep coming back to it are folks new to the field who doesn’t realize that the system has a long history of complete and abject failure for all but the most elite, drug fuelled athletes (most of whom still fail).

To be honest, that alone should be enough to dismiss it as a viable training approach but I think there’s more to look at here and I need a longer article.

The Principle of Diminishing Returns

In basically any field you care to name there is always a rapid point of diminishing returns between the effort being invested and the results which occur.  In business this was first formalized as the Pareto Principle which roughly says that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort.  That is, the majority of what you get out of anything is the initial time or effort investment (assuming it’s correct of course).  To get that final 20% results takes incrementally more time and effort which provides incrementally less results.

And you see this everywhere. The initial few years you put into learning about something invariably gives you the majority of your knowledge.  To become a true master or expert may take a decade or even a lifetime but it’s those first three years that do the heavy lifting.  Supposedly Buckminister Fuller applied this to his own studies and work: he’d stay with no field for more than three years before switching.  He’d get 80-90% of the knowledge he needed but rather than spend triple the time to get the last 10-20%, he’d change fields.  He could reach 80%+ mastery in three endeavors in roughly the time it took someone specializing to reach 90% in one.

If you read some articles on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), you will see most tell you that getting a handful of major factors in terms of on- and off-page SEO right do most of the work in terms of your rankings.  Yes, fine, there are hundreds or thousands of minor factors that get you the last few percentage points or to the top three but it takes almost exponentially more effort to get the few final percentage points.   Small amounts get you huge returns and the small amount after that takes enormously more work.

And this applies to training.  In endurance training, for example, you get most of the results from a fairly moderate amount of volume of training (don’t ask me to define it).  Three to four times per week of 30-45 minutes or whatever gets you most of the results you’ll get; for the hell of it let’s just say it’s 4 hours.  To maximize everything, to get every percentage point improvement might take 20-40 hours per week or 5-10 times as much training.

The same goes for the weight room.  In beginners, for example, one set gives either nearly identical or like 80-90% of the results as three sets.  Tripling the training time only yields 10-20% more results.  Two workouts per week gives something like 80% of the gains of three times per week as well so the same dynamics hold: 33% more training frequency gives you maybe 20% better results.  Don’t swear me to these exact numbers, it’s been a long time since I looked at this data set.  But it’s in that range and my point is simply that significant increases in training time result in less than significant gains.

Looking more long-term, the above still tends to hold.  In most sports, the best gains will be made in the first few years, tapering off enormously after  that (unless drugs are used to keep people on the high-progress part of the curve).    Natural bodybuilders will make the grand majority of their muscular gains in the first three years or so of training.  Maximizing that, adding that grinding pound or two of muscle per year until they reach totheir genetic limits can take an entire career of 5-10 years.  You get 90% in the first 3 years and it takes the rest of your life to get the other 10% (until you get old and start losing it again).

Hopefully you’ve gotten my point but that brings me to the relevant next question?

Is the Extra Investment Worth It?

And hopefully you can see where this is going because the facts of the above raise the question of whether or not doing the extra work is worth it in the first place.   Is it worth putting in double or triple or more of the energy to get the incrementally (if not exponentially) lower benefits that accrue?   And this, as always, depends completely on context.

From a business standpoint, a multimillion dollar business better spend endless energy optimizing every SEO signal they can these days.  1% improvement there may mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales.  For a small business, or yours truly, it’s energy not well spent.  If I can get 80% of my SEO with no more than filling out the Yoast plugin and getting basic stuff right, that leaves me more time to play Arkham Knight.   Doubling or tripling my effort gets me too little of a return for me to bother.

But let’s focus on training.  Is it worth doubling or tripling training time or intensity to make progressively smaller improvements?  Again, context is key.

For a rank beginner, it’s easy to see that it’s not.  Tripling training time per workout to get 20% more results?  Why bother.  Adding a third day of training to get 20% more results?  Why bother.  It’s hard enough to get beginners into the gym consistently and if you can get most of the results with minimal training, why do more?   I think it’s better to do an hour split into 30′ low-volume weights and 30′ cardio then 60′ of weights when that extra training time doesn’t generate major results.  Using that third day per week to do something else makes more sense as well.    Fine, that may change later as trainees decide they want more results but in the early stages for someone looking for basic health and fitness, the increased time and energy investment for what amounts to minimal additional gains seems pointless to me.

In contrast, an elite athlete is looking to maximize every percentage point of performance that they can and if that means doubling or tripling training to get an extra 5-10% it’s completely worth it.  I talked about the UK Track Cycling team and how they approached their overall training culture: if they could optimize every system by only 1% and did it over 10 systems that means a 10% gain.  But it took exhaustive energy and research to get every 1%.  Endless time in the wind tunnel, optimizing mattresses, nutrition, supplements, etc.  They also had millions of dollars to throw at the project.

The same holds true for all athletes who are looking to absolutely maximize their performance.  An Olympic lifter who is training three times per week who adds a fourth workout may get a few percent more benefit.  Add the fifth day and it’s a smaller increase.  Add double days and it’s a smaller increase still.  That’s up to the point that the training overwhelms them and they break completely.  This type of increase has to happen over years if it happens at all.  But for a highly competitive athlete, maximizing performance is the goal and you do what it takes to get there.

An endurance athletes running 30 miles per week or cycling 4 hours per week who increases that 25% may get another 10% improvement (numbers are illustrative only).  Add another 10% and they get a 5% increase.  And every increase in training volume, frequency or intensity gives a smaller and smaller return.  Eventually the return may actually be negative if the athlete gets injured or overtrained.

If doing triple the training gives you that additional 10%, and you just happen to be within 10% of the top, this matters.    This still assumes that you don’t break from the training but up to the point that you do, more training gets you slightly (again, almost exponentially decreasing) results and this matters when that 1% is the difference between first and third place.

But if you’re not within that 10% or less of the top it doesn’t make any difference what you do and whether or not you do the minimal or maximal training.  Because the simple fact is that suck + 10% still equals suck.  If you’re never gonna get past suck (and realistically if you’re not getting pretty close to not suck by year 3 you’re never getting there), just accept it and get on with your life.  Go find other things to do like having a life, going to the park, spending time usefully getting laid or arguing with me on Facebook instead of toiling away in the gym 7 days a week when you’ll never get past suck anyhow.  Taking your squat from 315 to 335 because you trained 12 times as much as before is not a good return on investment (ROI).  If you’re squatting 900, 10% matters.  Most of the people who get fascinated with Bulgarian Training are not.

A Reality Check on Bulgarian Training

In addition to the above, I want to make a few reality check comments.  Consider that Tommy Kono, one of the greatest lifters to ever touch the bar (who recently passed away) constantly advocated training three times per week.  He lifted in an era before the Soviets and then the Bulgarians brought full-time athletes (and lots of drugs) to the table and still lifted more than most of us ever will on that schedule.  Would he have lifted more doing more training than that?  Perhaps.  But the fact is that he reached absolutely insane levels of strength with the most moderate frequency of training.  He believed in quality training rather than quantity training and it got him to the highest levels.

He’s not alone and some of the biggest and strongest guys in the history of the sport trained no more than three to four times per week and reached strength levels most of us would kill for.  Perhaps the greatest powerlifter of all time, Ed Coan trained each lift once per week and trained 4 days/week most commonly and you can find plenty of examples of this.

Yes, there are exceptions, Jim Williams benched every day and worked heavily at each one but exceptions don’t disprove the rule or the fact that most have reached absurd strength levels on fairly moderate amounts of training.  And that style of training, typically more popular in the US where we didn’t have thousands of lifters to sacrifice to injury still took them to the highest levels of performance.  Or if not the highest levels, to levels that most people training won’t reach anyhow.

The Bulgarian system may have generated world class results but it destroyed most of it’s athletes.  Throw hundreds of wannabes into the grinder and whomever survives dominates.  But most fail to survive and 99% of lifters aren’t the exception to that because that’s still not what the word “exception” means.

Grinder systems only work when you have the athletes to sacrifice to the beast of elite sport training.  And if anybody has taken that approach to a new extreme, it’s the Chinese which brings me to my next point.

Olympic Lifting in the Modern Era

Let’s face it, the Bulgarians are so, well, so 80’s.  Now I love the 80’s but that era is gone (much to my sadness).  And the Bulgarians are basically a shadow of their former selves.  This is primarily because of money (they apparently put about 6 million Bulgarian dollars into sport in the old days), they are a poor country, Abadjaev is in California and they simply don’t have the resources to apply to sport anymore.  Invariably when they keep getting popped for drugs (and can’t pay the fine to the IOC), it’s either for Lasix or old 70’s steroids that nobody uses anymore.  They couldn’t afford anything else.

The Soviet Union is a shadow of it’s former self for roughly the same reasons and other countries were dominant in OL’ing for a while as they fell off.  The Greeks, who used a modified Bulgarian system were big for a while.  Their coach claimed for years that they were clean, then they got popped for drugs, he quit in disgrace and have kind of fallen off.  The Germans have usually had good lifters all while claiming that it’s good science and not drugs driving the bus.  Given their history, I find that a challenge to accept but maybe.  A lot of Middle Eastern countries have produced a bunch of good lifters too recently.  And keep getting popped for drugs.  Yes, there’s a theme here and to deny the role of drugs in high level training or the benefits they provide would be nonsensical.  Elite training can’t be approximated or survived without them and this isn’t even debatable.

Why No Hardon for Chinese Training?

But let’s face it, in the modern era, there is one country that is dominant in the sport and that’s China.  Their lifters have been destroying Ol’ing for years now setting new records up and down and this is true in both the women and men’s classes.  As I wrote about previously, in a lot of ways they are the logical end extreme of what the Russians and Germans did before them.

Like the Russians, they have a huge population to throw into sport, just huge numbers.  Like the Germans, they have focused on a handful of sports that they are built well for which happens to include Olympic lifting (which they also have a history in).   So unlike the Russians who threw a ton of athletes into all kinds of sports, the Chinese are throwing a ton of athletes into a few sports which means more potential worldbeaters per sport.   They have thousands of well-trained coaches do a huge amount of athlete selection, throw thousands of poor wannabes into the grinder and the ones who survive dominate (the rest don’t matter)   Like the Bulgarians, they also leave tons of athletes destroyed in the wake of the training but they don’t care.  Yay, Communism.

Not much is really known about the Chinese Olympic lifting system (a book is apparently being written by the folks at Ma Strength and I can’t wait) but they seem to have formed an aggregate of everything that other teams did before them into a logical whole by taking the best and eliminating the worst from each system.  If it works, they use it and that seems to be their dominant ideology.

In Bulgarian style, heavy (90% of best lift or higher) snatch and clean and jerk are done almost daily to keep those movements grooved.  As I wrote about previously, due to the nature of those lifts, maxing out in them is very different than maxing on a squat or bench.   These are explosive lifts and while maximum in effort, they aren’t maximum strength lifts with the snatch falling about 60% of a 1RM maximum strength effort and the clean and jerk at maybe 80%.   They are different physically in terms of stress on muscle and joints along with neurologically and going to 95% on a snatch isn’t anything like going to 95% on a back squat.

But this is what the early Russian system really lacked with truly heavy work only coming in later in the training cycle and which sometimes left lifters unprepared to lift big weights on the full lifts.  A 95% snatch is very different than an 80% lift and maxing/near-maxing out frequently enough is key to the timing of the lift.

In Soviet style, assistance work of varying types is done to fix weak points.  So far as I can tell, their highly trained coaches identify weak points, program in an assistance exercise for 2-3 weeks to fix it and then rotate to something new.  This is what Bulgarian training lacked and it’s been said that Bulgarian training works best for lifters with certain mechanics and no glaring weak points.

But the fastest way to fix a weak point is to do specific work in my opinion; it’s just more efficient than hammering the full lift and hoping it corrects itself.  Got weak triceps on bench?  Fine, you could just bench more.  But direct triceps work of varying type will likely fix it faster.  Do it along with full competition work to make sure it integrates into the full movement (doing only the assistance work doesn’t work) and then rotate out when you find a new weak point.

Bodybuilding work is done by the Chinese well.  Apparently the lifters pick two bodyparts or exercises at the end of their workouts and do something like 8-10 sets of 8-10 reps or “until they get bored”.  They figure that a larger muscle is a potentially stronger muscle and the most efficient way to gain muscle is with straight-up hypertrophy zone training. The Olympic lifts are actually kind of crap for building muscle and if people wonder why the Chinese lifters are so jacked, it’s because they do bodybuilding work which is by far and away the most efficient way to get bigger muscles.

Make no mistake, the do train with high frequency.  At least the elite team does after years of buildup and, again, elite training selects for the survivors.  What you don’t see are the dozens or hundreds of guys who broke along the way.  But they exist.  And of course there are drugs (or maybe even genetic engineering) at work here.    But currently they are the best in the world and I think it’s useful to look at what they are doing and how it differs from teams that haven’t been great for decades.

Squatting Chinese Style

But you may notice that I left something out of the above which was squats and this is what I want to focus on next.  For some reason, the usual hardon for Bulgarian training is applied mostly to squats or more generally to the powerlifts.  As I mentioned, American Olympic lifters basically gave up on it years ago since it never works for them.   As I stated above but bears repeating, they learned the hard way what others can’t seem to.

But what about the Chinese, the country currently just dominating the sport and setting records right and left?  Well, they simply don’t squat that often.   The elite guys squat twice weekly with younger lifters going three times per week.   That’s it, 2-3X/week squatting and their guys put up some big numbers.    Seriously.  Not daily, not multiple times daily and not maxing so far as I can tell.  They also seem to do a higher variation of squats and tend to pause in the bottom to keep the knees from exploding.  This is critical since it’s generally the connective tissues that give out.

Because just as so many great lifters over the decades got enormously strong with moderate frequencies, the Chinese build their squat strength off of a fairly moderate frequency although the volumes may be high.  Yes, fine, the legs are being trained by the Olympic lifts to some degree.  Anybody who has done a heavy squat clean knows that it works the legs to catch the clean and stand up.  But it’s not anywhere near maximum since the lift is limited by what can be pulled high enough and not leg strength.  At most its a lot of submaximal work with a couple of heavy focused days.  There is a lesson in this.

The point is that heavy squats are done by the dominant Olympic lifting team of the current era 2-3 times per week.  And they all lift more than you can.

Norwegian vs. Bulgarian Training

Since someone WILL bring it up in the comments, I should mention the new Norwegian Frequency Project that is floating around the web.  Currently unpublished in full form, this represents a study where ELITE Norweigian Powerlifters were trained on either a 3 or 6-day per week frequency (all three lifts trained every day).  On AVERAGE, the percentage gain in strength and muscle was higher with the higher frequency although there was a fair amount of variability with some lifters doing better on one program versus the other (note: this is not meant to be a statistical analysis of the data.).

And I’m sure someone will be using this to point out how I’m wrong about the Bulgarian system.  But here’s a few things to consider.  The first is that part of the entire point of the training protocol was to move the lifters from their normal diet of infrequent very high-intensity (as a percentage of maximum) training to more frequent but lower intensities.  Quite in fact, the average intensity of the lifts during the week was a mere 73%.  So even if it was high frequency, it wasn’t anything like the Bulgarian system or how most suggest applying it which is to go to 90%+ or daily max.

Also, as usual, this was in the elite team.  These were already high level athletes with years of training and for whom a few percentage difference in performance is important.  When you’re at the World Level, getting 5-10% better gains matters.  As a reminder, 5-10% added to suck is still suck.

I’d note that due to the increased gain in muscle in the higher frequency group (at least on average), some have been taking this to mean that they should train for growth with a super high frequency.  Yet, the guy who implemented the project even said that for muscle size he’d train less frequently with a higher volume per workout.   Just something to keep in mind when you see this being desperately misrepresented.

Forget About Bulgarian Training

Make no mistake, Ivan Abadjaev was a brilliant coach who changed the face of training and I am in no way discounting that.  The Bulgarian team was dominant in their time and that’s incontrovertible.  But it’s time for this endless fascination with and attempts to apply the system to the non-elite of the elite to end.

The Bulgarian system barely worked for it’s own country unless you count roughly 1 out of every 30-61 athletes actually surviving it.  Yeah, for that one guy it worked gangbusters but that’s it.   And that was under the best circumstances possible: full-time athletes, selected for the highest levels with drug and other support.   Most people have none of those things.

Bulgarian training (and I don’t mean the scaled down crap that people “call” Bulgarian training without knowing what it actually was) broke most of it’s athletes, it breaks the athletes who try to use it now.  It was mainly used to keep the athletes exhausted in the first place and it’s clear that similar if not SUPERIOR results can be had by NOT training that way.

As much as that, unless someone is already elite, any small gain that *might* occur still won’t take them out of the suck category under most circumstances.  It’s an enormous amount of energy (that usually breaks people) that won’t take most much past suck in the first place.

But let’s say that you just must try to perform a lift every day, still talking about squats.  If you consider the recent Norwegian study (where a high frequency was used but at a low average intensity), or the Chinese (where a mere two heavy days are done with some amount of submaximal leg training occurring with the competition work) or how most of the strongest men who have ever lived have trained (with 1-2 truly heavy days per week either by themselves with other lower intensity work), there is a lesson to be learned.  If you must train a lift frequently, most of that work should be submaximal and of a much lower intensity with no more than one to two truly heavy days.

But the idea of going to anything near a maximum at any sort of high frequency needs to die for most trainees.

It’s time to forget about Bulgarian Training.

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