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Bulgarian. In weightlifting circles, the very word conjures up images of men in singlets with too much body 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 1970s and ’80s, when Bulgaria’s weightlifting team dominated world competition, its unique training methods sparked a sensation in the weightlifting world: What is the Bulgarian method, and can it be applied to bodybuilding?
Ivan Abadjiev, now 84, won Bulgaria’s first weightlifting medal in 1957 and went on to coach Bulgaria’s weightlifting team from 1968–89, when the poor country of barely 7 million citizens dominated Olympic-style weightlifting. Whereas other programs avoided frequent work with low reps and focused on accessory exercises, Abadjiev believed in the practice-makes-perfect mantra, or the law of specificity.
Olympic weightlifting is judged by how much weight is hoisted 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. Back squats or front squats were added to Abadjiev’s program for the unmatched strength gains they provided, 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 of utter physical and mental exhaustion. Instead, the Bulgarians were thriving and 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. While the continuous repetitive grind of his program screams overtraining, it was avoided because of the extreme level of adaptation. 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.
Members of the Bulgarian weightlifting team had one goal—perform Olympic-style lifts. And while they had the time and resources to work out four times a day, we assume you won’t be going to the gym more than once daily. Furthermore, unless you’re a competitive weightlifter, you’re unconcerned with how much iron you can lift for one rep. In that sense, the chief goal of the Bulgarian method is antithetical to bodybuilding, which is all about stimulating growth in all muscles and not at all about single-rep strength in the snatch and the clean and jerk.
Still, the Bulgarian method has applications for muscle growth. First, it can be adapted to a program more conducive to growth. As in our sample routine, select four to five compound exercises that together hit most body parts. Keep your reps in the eight to 12 range, and push sets to failure. Perform this same routine at least four times per week and continually strive to use more weight or get more reps. Alternate one week of Bulgarian-style training with two weeks of a more traditional bodybuilding routine.
You can also do one exercise throughout a day. No, you won’t need to live in a gym. You can do curls with just a barbell or dumbbell, or you can work triceps with close-grip pushups. Do five sets of the exercise, ideally for eight to 12 reps (though depending on the exercise and your strength, you may need to go higher), and do four or five such workouts in a day. Go through this one-exercise overload day once or twice per week in addition to your regular training, and skip working this targeted body part in your regular workouts.
Whether you’re contemplating doing the same five-exercise workout five times per week or you hit one body part five times in a day, it probably seems crazy. That’s what they said about Abadjiev’s innovation—until the Bulgarians repeatedly brought home the most medals. The method’s “craziness” is the key to its effectiveness because it forces your muscles to adapt to frequent and unexpected stress by growing stronger and bigger.