Ivan Abadjiev & the Bulgarian Weightlifting System
By David Woodhouse
Ivan Abadjiev was born in 1932 and was himself a world class weightlifter having placed 2nd in the World Championships in 1953. After retiring from the sport he took an administrative position in Bulgaria but was vocal in his criticism of the team’s training methods. In 1969, following their disappointing performance in the Mexico Olympics, as a desperation move, the governing body appointed him national coach. Just three years later, at the games in Munich, Bulgarian lifters won three gold and three silver medals, their first medals in any sport in Olympic competition. This medal count was duplicated four years later in Montreal and in Moscow increased to two golds, four silvers and two bronzes. In 1984 Eastern European countries boycotted the Los Angeles games and this cost Bulgaria several likely gold medals. Nevertheless, at the World Championships two years later they won gold in 6 weight categories (versus the Soviets 3) and became the most successful team in weightlifting history.
Abadjiev was nicknamed ‘the Butcher’ for the level of discipline and commitment he demanded from his athletes. However, in his initial 20 year tenure, he coached 9 Olympic Champions, 57(!) World Champions and 64 European Champions. All this was achieved in a country with a population of just 8 million people – less than that of Greater London.
Abadjiev’s most famous athlete was featherweight Naim Suleymanoglu who actually defected from Bulgaria to Turkey in December 1986. Over the next 10 years Naim proved to be the greatest lifter in the history of the sport. He was a senior world record holder at 15, at 16 became only the second man to jerk three times body weight and still holds the highest ever Sinclair total. Despite missing the Los Angeles games, where he would have been an overwhelming favourite, he went on to win three Olympic gold medals plus 7 World and 6 European Championships. In Seoul he broke 4 World and 6 Olympic records and won gold by 30kg. His total would have been enough to win the lightweight division against lifters 7.5kg heavier!
Application of the S.A.I.D. Principle
SAID stands for “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands” and states that “adaptation to a stressor is specific to that stressor”. Applied to weightlifting, this implies that performance is best improved by performing the snatch and clean & jerk with maximal weights. The SAID principle became the corner stone of Abadjiev’s training philosophy.
“Our athletes do not do any “supportive exercises” they stay with full clean and jerk, snatch, and front squat We have found that taking back squat out is more effective for the healthy lifter. Sticking with the three lifts named above as the only training for the advanced and healthy lifter…. If the athlete is injured they will do back squat or parts of the lift the full lifts (ie. high pulls, push press, etc…). You must be extremely careful with the stresses you put on your athletes. You must have direct benefits from each exercise because the athlete has limited recovery capacity.” IA
In 1969 when Abadjiev took over as national coach the team used 19 exercises in their training. Over the next 20 years, as he continually adapted his program, exercises were progressively discarded until 1986 when his lifters performed just 5 (Snatch, Power Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Power Clean and Front Squat) and exclusively for single repetitions. Throughout this period the team’s results in International competition continued to improve and Bulgaria became the top weightlifting nation in the world.
Popular weightlifting ‘assistance exercises’ such as pulls, deadlifts and back squats were discarded because their movement path and speed of execution does not exactly mirror that used in the competition lifts. Abadjiev states that all available adaptation energy must be committed to exercises with the greatest cross over (i.e. snatch, clean & jerk and front squat!). Additionally, these popular assistance exercises are often performed with loads exceeding those possible on the competition lifts, and for multiple repetitions. This type of training causes substantial skeletal and central nervous system fatigue that reduces the quality of future workouts.
Lifting from the hang or from blocks at various heights, is a popular method of teaching novice athletes and in this context these exercises certainly have merit. However, as soon as an efficient technique has been acquired the focus must shift to performing the full movement from the floor. It is a common observation that substantial work from the hang primarily serves to improve an athlete’s performance at… lifting from the hang! In some situations, a lifter’s maximum from the hang can actually start to exceed his best from the floor.
Abadjiev does acknowledge that when injury precludes a lifter from performing the full lifts, assistance exercises may need to be employed.
1st Man to Jerk
3 x Body Weight
Adaptions from Maximal Loadings
Consistent training with high intensity loadings can increase the density of nerve impulse that can be generated by the central nervous system. Over time this allows the athlete to recruit a greater percentage of their higher threshold muscle fibres and hence significantly improve power output. Additionally, there is evidence that Type IIa muscle fibres can actually be converted to the more powerful Type IIb fibre type. Abadjiev states that these adaptations are best achieved when loadings are near maximal
Employing single lifts at maximum improves both inter and intra muscular coordination. The former involves improved synchronisation of fibres within a muscle, and the latter, improved efficiency between muscles. This is especially important in the Olympic lifts which are highly technical whole body movements. Due to fatigue these adaptations cannot be optimally developed when employing multiple repetition sets. Additionally, as technique degrades rapidly under fatigue, there is a risk that lifters may be rehearsing a sub optimal movement pattern.
Zatsiorsky states that high threshold motor units are activated under two conditions, a single maximal repetition and the final repetition of a (maximum) set of multiple repetitions. However, the greater time under tension in a multiple repetition set increases both non functional hypertrophy and muscular fatigue. Non functional hypertrophy is an increase in the size of the muscle cell’s sarcoplasm rather than the actual contractile unit, the sarcomere. This can push a lifter into a heavier weight class without a corresponding increase in strength.
Finally, there are many lifters who have flawless technique at submaximal loads but whose technique deteriorates under maximal loading. The Bulgarian system obviously requires the lifter to attempt maximums on a regular basis. This translates into greater confidence with heavy weights, a more consistent competition performance, plus the advantages gained from heavier opening attempts.
SAID Vs Periodisation
Abadjiev used an extension of this argument to challenge the validity of classic periodisation:
“In Bulgaria, many other sports disciplines were built on the methods developed by the Soviet experts. The main concept is distinct periodisation, preparation stage, interim stage and competition stage… I threw it away… Is it logical to achieve outstanding results by hard work and then stop and go back to a lower level?” Norair Nurikyan: Olympic Gold Medalist 1972 & 76
In simple terms classic periodisation involves a gradual progression from high volume and low intensity to low volumes and high intensity. Abadjiev implies that any improvements yielded by the high intensity period will quickly be lost when the athlete subsequently reverts back to the higher volume and lower intensity work. A lifter should therefore never stray too far from the ultimate goal of lifting heavier weights!
SAID Vs Variation
This extreme application of the SAID principle has been criticised for it’s lack of variation, a factor regarded as essential for long term progress. At first glance, the small pool of exercises and the exclusive use of singles does appear to support this argument. However, if one looks closer, subtle but very significant variation is actually quite evident. Lifters might take as little as 1, or as many as 10
attempts at maximum. They might hit a maximum and immediately drop back to 80% before progressing back up
(sometimes with minor adjustments in the weights attempted). Alternatively, after one or more maximum attempts they may perform drop down, ‘flushing’ sets avarious intensities. Additionally lifters change the order of exercises or repeat exercises
within the same session to add extra stimulus where required. Finally, the coach might change the training frequency in a given week to permit greater time for recuperation. These and other variables can be continually adjusted to keep training both mentally and physically stimulating (See Appendix) It should be stressed that Bulgarian lifters utilise daily ‘training’ maximums rather than absolute (best ever) maximums. On a given day, depending on fatigue and arousal levels, these two loads could vary significantly.
It has been reported that Abadjiev favoured a sequence of three hard weeks followed by one lighter one. Some have described the light week as involving a reduction in intensity whilst others suggested they simply involved a reduction in the training frequency with no reduction in intensity. It is likely that Abadjiev experimented with all the variables and adopted different models depending on the individual situation.
Tapering for Competition
Abadjiev has stated that it is ‘paramount’ to maintain the intensity of training when preparing for competition. Tapering is therefore achieved by reducing training frequency over the final two weeks. Typically he would have his lifter’s drop to four sessions in the penultimate week and then two sessions during the final week. Of course athletes in his system were already very tolerant of such training.
“It is extremely important to maintain the adaptive state and keep the lifter used to the heavy poundages that will be experienced on competition day. . On the “off” days the lifter should do a generalized warm-up and no more.”
The Training Day
There are a number of schedules that have been presented by former Bulgarian coaches as examples of an average training week. Some call for absolute maximums only on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings and (maximum) power snatches and power cleans on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays. Other examples depict maximum lifts morning and evening on successive days. Please see the Appendix for examples.
Yanko Rusev – Yanko Rusev, Olympic Champion 1980
Abadjiev was one of the first coaches to implement multiple daily sessions and has been the most extreme in distributing the work load across the day. He performed 2 or 3 daily sessions and required lifters to take a 10 to 30 minute break between exercises. This helped to ensure the highest quality in each training segment and allowed a degree of physical and mental recuperation. Abadjiev also claimed a reason to divide the training stimulus was that circulating testosterone levels only remain elevated for a maximum of 60 minutes. The rest periods employed between exercises would, in theory, help keep this highly anabolic hormone elevated for longer. However, in light of the probable use of exogenous forms of the drug, this explanation is more likely a ‘red herring’.
It has been suggested by some former Bulgarian lifters that social reasons were actually more important than physiological ones. Abadjiev was reputedly a stickler for timekeeping and kept his lifters under extremely tight evening and weekend curfews. The divided daily program provided him with another avenue to control his lifters. If their entire day was filled with training and restorative treatments, there was less risk of them fatiguing themselves with other pastimes or distractions!
Application of the Bulgarian System
Over the last 20 years, as more information about the Bulgarian System was made available, coaches have begun to adapt the basic template for ‘amateur’ lifters of different abilities and stages of development. When adapting the program, one must be aware that Bulgarian lifters were professional athletes who ate, slept and trained at their National Sports Centre. They had massage before and after training and employed daily water therapy sessions (e.g. sauna and whirlpools) and other restorative methods. In a recent seminar Abadjiev made no secret of the fact that his lifters (like all elite athletes of the time) also took advantage of banned anabolics.
The following is a summary of the ‘Americanised Bulgarian‘ system, which top US coach Steve Gough devised for drug free (mostly part time) Western athletes:
The corner stones of the program are the three maximum sessions performed on alternate days, e.g. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Time permitting, and with increased work capacity, lifters can then add lighter sessions (up to ~85%) on the ‘off days’ which function as active recovery from the preceding heavy workout. The last stage is to perform similar ‘tuning’ sessions on the morning of a heavy workout. There is substantial practical evidence that suggests a moderate session in the morning can actually improve the quality of a workout later in the Tom Gough evening
To ward against overtraining, as discussed previously, a lighter week can be taken as required. (For examples of how to structure the actual workouts please see the Appendix)
If the lifter embarks on this program cautiously then it is the author’s firm belief that tolerance to three maximal sessions per week should be achievable for all, providing a lifter has an efficient technique and is injury free. I would suggest initially setting targets 5% less than (recent) maximum and limiting attempts at maximum to 2 or 3. Over time the athlete and coach will gain an intuitive understanding of when to push, when to back off, and how slight changes in training load will impact on future sessions.
When a lifter first begins to employ maximum lifts in training, the workout may require several days to recover. However, over time, tolerance to the heavier loading develops and the athlete can progress to maximal loads without significant preparatory arousal. Subsequently CNS fatigue is reduced and training consistency will improve.
To make the most of this approach, the lifter must research and employ any legal methods of improving recovery. Methods that have supporting scientific evidence include creatine, contrast showers, protein/carbohydrate recovery drinks and massage. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss these in any more depth.
When an American lifter asked Abadjiev what he looked for in an athlete, he replied simply, “will power”. Else where, the Bulgarian System has been described not as a program but as a “state of mind” or “way of life”. There is no doubt that lifters who choose to employ this method must be highly motivated and robust. They must be extremely disciplined both in and out of the gym (to ensure optimal nutrition and sleep etc). Finally, they must be fearless in their pursuit of new maximums and must avoid cultivating a negative attitude toward failures. One of the most striking aspects of the Ironmind DVD, “Unbelievable Bulgarians” is actually the number of missed attempts.
Greatness will never be acquired by staying in one’s comfort zone!
A. Example Loading Progressions
- 50 (3), 70 (2), 90 (2), 100 (2), 110, 120, 120, 120
3 singles at maximum
- 50 (3), 70 (2), 90 (2), 100, 105, 110, 115, 120, 120
2 singles at maximum with smaller increments to target
- 50 (3), 70 (2), 90 (2), 100 (2), 110, 120, 102, 112, 122
1 single at maximum; drop down and work back up
- 50 (3), 70 (2), 90 (2), 100 (2), 110, 120, 120, 105, 105, 105
2 singles at maximum and 3 ‘flushing’ sets
B. Example Exercise Sequences
1. Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Front Squat
2. Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Front Squat, Snatch
3. Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Front Squat, Clean and Jerk
4. Front Squat, Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Front Squat
C. Example Training Week
Monday, Wednesday and Friday:
9.00 – 9.30 Front Squat
10.00 – 10.30 Break
10.30 – 11.00 Snatch
11.30 – 12.00 Break
12.00 – 12.30 Clean and Jerk
12.45 – 1.00 Front Squat
4.30 – 5.00 Snatch
5.00 – 5.30 Break
5.30 – 6.00 Clean and Jerk
6.15 – 6.30 Front Squat
Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday:
9.00 – 9.30 Squat
10.00 – 10.30 Break
10.30 – 11.00 Power Snatch
11.30 – 12.00 Break
12.00 – 12.30 Power Clean and Jerk
12.45 – 1.00 Front Squat
2. Zlatan Vanev’s training day on 4 November 1998. His pbs at the time at 77kg body weight were 165 & 205 (take from the Ironmind ‘Unbelieveable Bulgarians’ DVD)
Power Snatch 50/2, 70/2, 90/2, 110/2, 130, 130
P. Clean and Jerk 50, 110, 140, 160
Front Squat ???
Snatch 60/2, 80/2, 100/2, 120, 120, 130, 130, 140, 150, 155, 130, 145, 155, 160, 162F, 162F, 155
Clean and Jerk 70/2, 110/2, 140, 160, 180, 200, 210FJ, 210FJ, 210FJ, 210FJ, 210F
Front Squat 120, 200, 235, 245
This illustrates how frequent, short and intense squatting ‘workouts’, that can total only 5 or 6 repetitions, can be effective in maximising leg strength whilst minimising fatigue.