The Bulgarian Method Is Worth a Look

Some love it. Some hate it. But what’s the truth on the Bulgarian Method?

Extreme

The Bulgarian Method (made famous by the late Coach Ivan Abadjiev) was a system comprised mainly of the snatch, clean and jerk, front squat, power snatch, and power clean. The athletes in this system would work up to a max for the session with a few back-off repetitions, and this would take place two to three times per day and seven days per week.

Yes, this is an extreme system. It worked in a country riddled with drugs and a national system with a funnel of athletes. I don’t believe it to be the most optimal system due to the obvious risk of injury and overtraining. However, I don’t ever recommend throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Bulgarian…ish

A.S. Prilepin worked within the Soviet weightlifting program from 1975-1985, allowing him to extract data from thousands of top athletes. To me that makes his studies more applicable than any kind of study performed at a university with a few college students. Prilepin determined that intensities over 90% were the best loads for getting stronger. Without a doubt, if you want to get stronger, you are going to need to go heavy.

I have developed twenty athletes for Team USA since 2015. Every athlete on my team goes through a Bulgarianish block of training. However, how often and for how long depends on the individual.

When I say Bulgarianish, I am simply referring to a high intensity and high frequency block of training. No one I know truly trains year-round two to three times per day to a maximum. But if you want to get an increase in a particular lift of two, there is nothing better than high intensity and high frequency.

nathan snatch

Constantly Evolving

My programming has evolved multiple times over the past four years. We tested out high intensity and high frequency as a base program, and it worked for some. We’ve tested out programs that averaged right around that 80% intensity range, and that style worked for some. However, a mixture has proven to yield the best results in our experience.

Our programming looks something like this:

  • Accumulation: get the body acclimated with movements that are out of the ordinary, giving the joints and the mind a bit of a break. This block is hypertrophic in nature.
  • Hypertrophy: this block is similar to the accumulation phase, but the movements become a bit more specific.
  • One to two strength blocks with average intensities of around 80%: the focus is efficiency in sport specific movement. The volume will be higher during this type of a block to produce a neural efficiency response. The secondary focus is strengthening weaknesses and strengthening the muscles directly related to the sport specific movement.
  • One to two High Intensity and High Volume Blocks with average intensities around 90%: The overall volume during this phase is a bit lower to allow for as much recovery as possible. Now we are preparing the body both muscularly and neutrally to withstand higher loads. This phase is the most specific.
  • Peaking/Taper Block: this is normally four to six weeks depending on the person. The focus is on specificity of the competition movements, while maintaining the special strengths developed in the previous blocks.

Each of these blocks is specific to the individual. All of my athletes will at least perform each of these blocks for some amount of time. Within each block, there are several variables that must be considered to produce the optimal program for the individual. Here are just a few variables that must be considered:

  • Average weekly and daily volume
  • Average weekly and daily intensity
  • Exercise selection
  • Weakness and asymmetry driven accessory work
  • Duration of the phase (two to eight weeks)
  • Frequency of the individual movements

A lot of these variables are determined by the characteristics of the individual athlete. Here are a few of the characteristics that we look at:

  • Training age
  • Chronological age
  • Gender
  • Individual asymmetries
  • Individual weaknesses
  • Level of performance

For a more detailed explanation of all of these variables and how we customize programs to the individual, check out our guide Mash Files.

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Sample Week

We don’t even come close to performing a Bulgarian block, but almost all of my athletes perform a high intensity and high frequency block.
Here’s a sample of what a week of “HIHF” might look like:

Day 1:
Snatch (from blocks with bar at knee): 1RM
Clean and Jerk: 75% x 2, 80% x 2, 85% x 1, 78% x 2, 83% x 1, 88% x 1, then work up allowed 1 miss
Front Squat : 1RM (paused 3 sec)
Clean Pulls: 4 x 3 (work up heavy, starting at 90%)

Day 2
Power Snatch: 65% for 2 x 3, then 3RM
Behind the Neck Jerk (from racks/blocks): 75% x 3, 80% x 3, 85% x 2, 75% x 3, 80% x 3, 85% x 2, then 3RM
Front Squat (with belt): 75% x 4, 80% for 2 x 3, 85% for 2 x 2, then find a 2RM
Reverse Hypers: 3 x 45 sec

Day 3
Snatch: 75% x 2, 80% x 2, 85% x 1, 78% x 2, 83% x 1, 88% x 1, then work up (allowed 1 miss)
Clean (from blocks with bar at knee): 1RM
Upper Muscluar Imbalance Superset:
1a. DB Tricep Extensions: 3 x 10 reps
1b. DB or KB Push Presses: 3 x 10 reps
1c. Plate Front Raises: 3 x 12 reps

Day 4
OH Squat: 3RM
Power Clean: 65% for 2 x 3, then 3RM (9RPE)
High Bar Back Box Squat + Bands or Chains: 40% bar weight + 30% bands or chains for 6 x 3 (60-90 sec between sets, velocity goal of 0.8 m/s)
Sled Bear Crawls: 4 x 30 yd

Day 5
Snatch: Max
Clean and Jerk: Max
Front Squat (with 100 lb of chain): 1RM
Snatch Pulls (from blocks): 4 x 3 (work up heavy, starting at 90%)

Day 6
Back Squat: 5RM, then -10% for 2 x 5
Clean Grip Deadlift : 3RM (first rep paused 3 sec at knee), then -10% for 2 x 3 (not paused)
Leg Curls (DB, Band, or TRX): 3 x 10
Unilateral Farmer’s Walk: 3 x 30 yd each hand

Travis coaching Jacky

In this sample week, we are snatching four times plus an overhead squat. I mention the overhead squat in relation to the snatch simply because it’s specific to the snatch. We are performing a clean four times and jerking three times with one of those times being separate of the clean. I think it is important to split the clean and the jerk up at least once per week for a block or two to ensure that each movement is perfected separately.

We are squatting five times, but we are using a few variations to avoid accommodation. Chains and using a box are both ways of minimizing recovery time. Chains deload when the range of motion is at the most extreme angles preventing some of the muscle damage. The athlete will still experience maximal weights up top, and they will improve in the area of compensatory acceleration, as they learn to recruit more and more fibers while standing up and overcoming more and more chain resistance.

We use pauses to limit the load and to encourage proper receiving positions in the clean. Pauses are also a way of stabilizing in the bottom position, which enables the athlete to absorb force more quickly during a clean. This allows them to catch the weight and change directions more quickly. We also use velocity as a tool to focus on maximal speed with moderate weights, which is what the sport of weightlifting is all about anyways. This is a time to focus on strength-speed, taking a break from the accelerative and absolute qualities of strength.

As you can see, we use much more variety than a typical Bulgarian Program. We also use a bit more volume because our athletes need more practice with the movement. When my athletes such as 15-year-old Morgan McCullough and 16-year-old Ryan Grimsland have been competing for more than seven years at a high level, I might consider a “HIHF” block with less volume because they will have hopefully perfected the movement at that point. Most of the Bulgarians started their training much younger than most Americans. General physical preparedness was handled in the school system, and from there the athletes were placed in the sport that fit their genetics. In America we get athletes, such as Hunter Elam, who is amazingly strong and athletic but didn’t start weightlifting until she was in her twenties. She still needs more practice at the lifts to perfect the movement.

I will always use accessory movements to strengthen the weaknesses of my athletes. Do I believe that accessory work will lead to a bigger snatch? In some cases it does. Accessory work definitely helped to improve Hunter Elam (who had a pretty big overhead deficiency). But accessory work doesn’t always help to improve the snatch and clean and jerk in all athletes. I still use accessory work a lot, however, because accessory work prepares the body to handle the beating placed upon it by the sport of weightlifting. Accessory work also helps to correct asymmetries, which can cause injuries over time.

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SUPERIOR FOR IMPROVING

I will conclude with this quote from a man much smarter than me:

“Muscles and the CNS can only adapt to the demands placed upon it. Thus the… maximal effort method is considered superior for improving intramuscular and inter muscular coordination”
Science and Practice of Strength Training – Zatsiorsky

Yes, going heavy is the quickest way to getting stronger. However, a lot of athletes who have come and gone in America have proven it’s very hard to withstand day-in and day-out and year-after-year.

But that doesn’t mean to throw out the baby with the bath water. You definitely want to add in block of high frequency and high intensity, depending on the individual needs of each athlete. I recommend using this method with a bit more of a balanced approach in regards to accessory work, strength work, and volume.

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