Weightlifting: The Bulgarian Blitz!

So why do the Bulgarians have such a successful national weightlifting program? Do they use anabolics in excess? Do they need to use them? I will answer this question and more right here.

This article was written for the single purpose of exploring Bulgarian training methods as they can and should be used by your run-of-the-mill American weightlifter.

Well, that and for the purpose of firing off a little rant. But, if you can get through the ranting, I promise there will be some training stuff somewhere in there ...

Begin Rant

As of late, it seems that an increasing number of people have taken to saying that the Bulgarians have lost their edge, and that Bulgaria is 'no longer dominant' in international weightlifting.

I am not altogether sure exactly what results these folks are looking at. The 2000 Olympics, for example, which was about the worst meet in 3 decades for the Bulgarians, still saw 4 Bulgarian-trained lifters on the medal stand.

Six students of the Bulgarian system medaled at the 2002 World Championships. As of March 2003, if one were to look at the IWF men's rankings one will find that the Bulgarians have a lifter ranked in the top 3 in ALL SIX classes that are 69 kilos and above. Not only that, but in 4 of those classes the Bulgarian is ranked number one.

So, it seems to me that in the 'ever-expanding world of the 21st century', the Bulgarians are continuing to more than hold their own in weightlifting. Especially when one considers that Bulgaria is a nation of about 8 million, while countries of half a billion sit and flounder with no lifters and no medals.

But I digress... the fact is that the Bulgarians are still good. They are better than good. And the single most important reason for their success is their training methods.

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This is an extensive and thought-provoking article about the different leg training protocols that were popularized by the dominant Bulgarian weightlifting teams of the latter half of the Twentieth Century.
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Yes, after comments about how the Bulgarians are not that good anymore come out one side of the mouth, comments about how their training is worthless usually comes out of the other. The most common version of this old song and dance is a statement to the effect of "Oh, that routine would KILL you!"

Inherent in this excuse is one of two common premises.

  • First is that the Bulgarians succeed with their training solely because of enormous amounts of drugs.

  • Second is that only their hand-picked genetic freaks could handle that kind of workload.

Drug Offenders?

      The problem with the first point is that the Bulgarians are not that high on the list of IOC drug offenders. Sure, there are Bulgarians that use banned anabolic substances. But, the same can be said for EVERY international team, and I do mean *EVERY* team.

The fact is that the Bulgarians dominate the middleweight classes, where excessive use of anabolics might just put a lifter over his class limit. Some countries which will remain nameless (*cough*Russia*cough*), always seem to have their best lifters drifting through the 94s and the 105s on their way to being 135 kilo heavyweights.

This type of situation seems much more indicative of drug use, but of course the whiners do not want to hear logical arguments. Additionally, the Bulgarian training system is not the type that would draw too heavily upon the benefits of using anabolics.

The Bulgarian-type workout consisting only of a moderate number of not-quite-maximum singles imposes a heavy burden on the CNS, but if one is looking for CNS stimulation or recovery there are better places than steroids to find it.

Central Nervous System:
The central nervous system along with the peripheral nervous system comprise a primary division of controls that command all physical activities of a vertebrate (a life form with a spine).

Neurons of the central nervous system affect consciousness and mental activity while spinal extensions of central nervous system neuron pathways affect skeletal muscles and organs in the body.

Again, contrast this with traditional training programs in the Russian regimen where athletes of high sports mastery would be training on up to 80 different lifts/exercises a year, with about 25% of these done for sets of 5 reps or more, and you can see a training protocol that drastically has its effectiveness increased by substances that will increase protein synthesis and help recovery at the cellular level.

Genetic Freaks?

      The second point (that of genetics) has a grain of truth in it. The best Bulgarian lifters have been in the system for quite some time, and have risen to the top from among the best of the best.

However, one can look down the Bulgarian ranks to see if it is the 'system' or the 'individuals.' Bulgaria usually has a deep team of lifters, so much so that they can afford to sell half of them to foreign countries.

I somehow doubt that, again, in this nation of only 8 million people there are that many more 'perfect weightlifters' born than anywhere else. The other thing is these lifters have slowly worked up to what they are doing over that long time that they have been in the system.

Bulgaria does not throw its 14-year olds into a situation where they go from doing nothing to doing 27 workouts a week where they snatch to a heavy single.

In fact, many Eastern European nations that start lifters as young as 12-years old have them doing only about 30% of their training as specific preparation for as long as 3 years. It takes them a long time to ramp up to the volumes they are handling once they are competing at the world level.

A Brutal Training Program.

      Finally, as an adjunct to both points, people need to realize that the training program, as the elite Bulgarian lifters follow it, IS brutal. However, drugs are not as big a piece of the pie as they are made out to be. Neither is genetics.

The Bulgarians have massages before, during, and after workouts. Do you?

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      The Bulgarians take all sorts of herbs and 'adaptogens' and are deeply involved in legal sports performance pharmacology. Are you?

The Bulgarians on the national team don't have to keep a 9-to-5, 40-hour a week job. Do you?

The point here is that there are many recovery factors that can come into play that make a Bulgarian routine more accessible to their lifters than to the average American.

That said, if you are willing to do some homework on herbs and learn a little bit about sports self-massage, etc., you also can reap the benefits of increased recovery.

The Bulgarian Blitz

All that having been said, I simply refuse to accept the idea that there is nothing to learn from their training.

In fact, I have arrived at what I believe is a way to work *anyone* into a system that at least draws upon the same principles as the Bulgarian training methods, and have been using it with myself and others.

You might never get to 'Full-on Bulgarian' status, but you can definitely make their type of workouts work for you ...

Step 1:
Basic Routine Template




      • Snatch: work up to true 1RM
      • CJ: work up to true 1RM
      • Front Squat or Back Squat: work up to true 1RM

        Click Here For A Printable Log Of Friday.

        [Basically this is a 'Total Day' or a simulated competition. Again, you don't want to psyche up like this is the Olympics, but you do want to 'let loose' and push yourself to darn near what your absolute max for that day would be.]


Weight Lifted

Reps (1-10)

One-Rep Max

There you have it. Pretty simple, eh? And who could complain about that volume or frequency? If you cannot handle the above workout schedule, then you have some serious recovery issues. You may want to consider retiring from weightlifting and taking up cross-stitch, or something else less stressful.

Maximum Training Resistance.

        Now, one of the important concepts here is that of "Maximum Training Resistance." This is what some of you may have heard referred to as a 'daily max' before.

The definition of the MTR is "the maximum resistance that can be overcome one time without a strong effort of will or emotional stress." This is key in this program; at least as I have it structured to work for the individual.

We want to use the MTR so as not to burn out the nervous system. Thus, on Mondays and Wednesday, the singles in the classical and power lifts must NOT be 'balls to the wall, my youngest son is hanging suspended over a Judas Cradle' type of lifts. They are 'I can walk up to the bar and pull this weight' lifts.

What Is A Judas Cradle?
The Judas Cradle, also known as the Judas Chair, was a torture device used in the Spanish Inquisition. The Judas Cradle was a pyramid-shaped seat. The victim was placed on top of it, with the point inserted into their anus or vagina, then very slowly lowered by ropes. The intended effect was to stretch the orifice over a long period of time. Saving a person from such a device would require the equivalent of a rather intense power lift.

Of course, you have to toe the line. Also, you have to learn whether you are missing lifts because you are actually working above your MTR, or because your form sucks.

For me, it is an issue of pulling in the snatch and clean and the drive in the jerk. If I am pulling the bar high enough to snatch it or clean it, and driving it high enough to jerk it, I don't feel that I have exceeded my MTR, whether I am making the lifts or not.

If I am missing my snatches out front, it is likely just because of my crappy first pull and lack of a full shrug, and not because I am going too heavy. As a lifter progresses, he will learn exactly where that line is.

At the start of the program, Mondays and Wednesdays only will be done using the 'MTR Matrix'. This matrix will appear at the end of the article, and I will place appropriate comments with it.

Step 2:
Adding A Session.

      Alright, the first step beyond the basic workout on your way to becoming a Bulgarian. What is it?

On the middle day of the week, you are going to do 2 sessions. The session you have already been doing will be the a.m. session, and the following will be done in the p.m:

Middle Day PM

      • Snatch 80%/2 (3-4 sets)
      • CJ 80%/2 (3-4 sets)
      • Snatch Pulls; 3-4 sets of triples with a weight 10 kilos over what was used for the snatches.

Click Here For A Printable Log Of Middle Day PM.

The issue here becomes on what day of the week are you able to add a session. So, if you can do an a.m. and p.m. workout Thursday, that becomes your 'middle day', and you are now lifting Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday.

Though, if adding an a.m. (or basically just a session 2-3 hours earlier in the day) session is a big stumbling block, continuing on with the progression of the program might be next to impossible.

The other issue here is when to take these steps. That, I am afraid, is up to the individual lifter and/or his coach. I would say that once you have been 'through the matrix' a couple of times at each and are able to keep making progress, add the next step. Your body is ready for the challenge.

Step 3:
Adding A Day.

      So, you have added a session. A few months later, you should be ready to add a fourth day. What previously would have been the M, W, F workouts, respectively, will now take place on Mon, Tues, and Sat. What do we add in?

On Thursday, you will do a workout that looks exactly like Monday's. That wasn't so hard, was it?

Step 4:
Adding A Session.

      You have now been lifting 4 days a week, twice on Tuesdays. Your hair has gotten a little longer than is stylish, and you tend to wear T-shirts bearing '80s slogans that were not even cool in the '80s. It is time to move on ...

You will add an a.m. session to Monday (with the previously done Monday session moved to the p.m, or done second). What will that a.m. session look like?

Monday a.m. Session.

Step 5:
Adding Two Sessions.

      This is it. The final bump in the road. It may have taken you a year and a half to work through the prior steps. You now can answer your cell phone between the clean and the jerk portions of the lift, and you got a new driver's license that says "Boevski" instead of "Dave Smith". You are ready for the final step in truly becoming a Bulgarian ..

What is added? It's simple, really. On Thursday you add an a.m. workout that looks the same as Monday's a.m. workout, and on Saturday you do the following workout (though it is more of a CNS warm-up than a workout) in the a.m:


    • Back Squat 80%/3 (3 sets)
    • Power Snatches: 'light'
    • Power Clean and Push Jerk: 'light'

Click To Enlarge.
Barbell Push Jerk

Click Here For A Printable Log Of Saturday.


So, there you have it. You now do 8 workouts a week. Craziness? Hardly, if you have added the steps only once you were ready. Not quite as extreme as the Bulgarians?

Think again, because you are now using almost the exact same routine that the Bulgarian team has been doing since new Head Coach Plamen Asparukhov took over for Abadjiev in 2001 and reaffirmed the Bulgarian team's commitment to staying in line with IOC doping regulations.

You now train just like Boevski and Jeliazkov, so good luck and go lift like them ...

The MTR Matrix

      This is basically a system of volume/intensity progression that was used by the old Bulgarian regime that has not fallen out of favor. You can play with and rearrange the weeks as you like, but my preference is to go A-B-B-C-A. Some people can handle A-B-B-C-C-A. Try different things and see what works for you.

Also, to start with a lifter is probably best off basing the entire mesocycle on the MTR that was used during the first week. So, the weeks will just build upon each other.

As the lifter becomes more comfortable with the system and his own capabilities, however, he will become more in tune with what his true MTR is on any given day, and during weeks B and C, respectively, will basically just do a second wave and a third wave back up to that weight irrespective of what MTR was used during week one.

"A" Week:

      • Predicted MTR -20kilos for 2 reps.
      • Predicted MTR -10 kilos for a single.
      • MTR for 3-4 singles.

"B" Week:

      • Perform A week progression.
      • MTR -10 kilos for a double.
      • MTR -5 kilos for a single.
      • MTR +5 kilos for 2-4 singles.

"C" Week:

      • Entire B week progression performed.
      • Double with MTR -20 kilos.
      • Double with MTR -10 kilos.
      • 3-4 more singles with MTR plus 5 or 7.5 kilos.

So, if you were doing a simple A-B-B-C-A progression over 5 weeks, and you found that your snatch MTR was 100 on the first Monday, for the next 5 weeks your Monday snatch workouts might be as follows:

Week 1: 80/2, 90, 100 (3-4)
Week 2: 80/2, 90, 100 (3), 90/2, 95, 105 (2-4)
Week 3: 80/2, 90, 100 (3), 90/2, 95, 105 (2-4)
Week 4: 80/2, 90, 100 (3), 90/2, 95, 105 (3), 80/2, 90/2, 105 (2), 107.5 (2)
Week 5: 80/2, 90, 100 (3-4)

At this point, the lifter would start over, this time likely using 105 as the MTR for the first A week in the mesocycle.