Uzbekistan’s Ruslan Nurudinov competes during the men’s 105kg weightlifting competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Bulgarian. In weightlifting circles, the very word conjures up images of stern men in singlets with shaggy hair and consonant-laden names hoisting barbells overhead again and again, 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. What is the Bulgarian method, and can it be applied to bodybuilding?
Meet Ivan Abadjiev. He’s 84 now, but back in 1957 he won Bulgaria’s first weightlifting medal. More important, he was Bulgaria’s weightlifting coach from 1968–89, when the small, poor country of fewer than nine million citizens dominated Olympic-style weightlifting. Whereas other 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.
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 on those two lifts, you need to do them almost exclusively. Abadjiev added back squats or front squats to his program, but otherwise his athletes were practicing their lifts for low reps, often for singles, at near-maximum effort. 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.
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 allows the body to more easily adapt. Furthermore, doing single reps triggered what is called protein memory, strengthening neurological pathways and causing adaptation in the muscle cells specifically for the act of doing increasingly heavier single reps.
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