As the programming series heads towards its finale, it is time to take a look at the Bulgarian Method for Powerlifting. To construct this review, I have consulted multiple works, but my primary influences were John Broz, Matthew Perryman, and Damien Pezzutti. In fact, much of the science behind recovery, overtraining, and its relation to the Bulgarian Method comes directly from Matthew Perryman’s Book: Squat Every Day.
I have to say, without a doubt, this is the single best resource that I have ever encountered for information on overtraining, recovery, and the neuroscience behind lifting weights. If you have a scientific mind, and you aren’t bothered by the fact that the books contains no real “program” to follow, I highly, highly recommend picking up a copy of Squat Every Day. This was one of the single most enlightening books I’ve ever had the chance to go through. I’d go as far as to say that Perryman successfully changed and influenced several long-held beliefs that I personally had regarding anxiety, arousal, and training stress. Again, I highly recommend the book.
Now, it must be said, right here, up front, at the beginning, that there isn’t a single powerlifter out there who truly uses the Bulgarian Method. If my reviews of Smolov and Sheiko are any indication, a lot of you are going to be upset by what I have to say about the Bulgarian Method. You must keep context in mind. Many of the criticisms I am going to levy here are not applicable to Ivan Abadjiev’s original system for weightlifters. Let me repeat that for emphasis: many of the criticisms I am going to levy here are not applicable to Abadjiev’s original system for weightlifters.
Our focus here is going to be upon the popular adaptations of the system created by powerlifters. In particular, we’re going to take a deeper look at what Matthew Perryman has to say about this system because, well, he is the only one who went to the trouble of writing a 200 page book on the subject.
Without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into the Bulgarian Method.
If you’d rather watch than read:
The Bulgarian Method: History, Background and Context
For those who don’t know, the Bulgarian Method rose to fame thanks to the success of Ivan Abadjiev’s Bulgarian weightlifting team. Despite a poor economic situation and a population not much larger than the state of New York, Adadjiev’s team produced multiple medal winners at the games.
Now, Abadjiev’s system gained notoriety because of the way he treated his weightlifters; he treated them like professional athletes. In other words, these guys trained, quite literally, eight hours a day almost every single day of the week. They’d perform an exercise, take a 30 minute break to smoke, eat or nap, and then they’d move on to the next exercise.
Who knows if the rumor is true, but according to Jim Moser, American weightlifter and weightlifting coach, Abadjiev got his idea for training all day, every day by watching the Harlem Globetrotters. He was amazed that they could run up and down the court all day long performing their various feats, wake up the next morning, and do it all over again despite constant travel. He figured if basketball players could do it, why couldn’t his weightlifters? Again, who knows if it is true, but it is a fun story nonetheless.
Again, and I really want to reiterate this point, there isn’t a single powerlifter out there, that I know of, who has the resources to be training like a professional athlete. There aren’t powerlifters out there training eight hours a day. So, really, no powerlifter is doing the true Bulgarian method.
Additionally, unlike American powerlifting which is often haphazard and recruits talent from a wide variety of pools well after the youth stages, Bulgarian athletes were much more like Sheiko’s athletes. A lot of people don’t understand that, in these Eastern bloc countries, children are put through harsh general physical preparation (GPP) in their PE programs for years. They begin specializing in certain sports before they’re done in grade school. By the time a Russian Sheiko lifter is competing in the IPF as a Junior, he has likely been training with Sheiko for 5-10 years.
With the Bulgarian weightlifting team, far more economic funding was put behind the program than is accessible to a guy like Sheiko. This is because there are gold medals available in weightlifting. Winning gold medals brings honor and prestige to a country.
So, just imagine an entire “feeder” system, not all that different to what Americans have for baseball or football, and what Europeans have for soccer, and you’ll have an accurate representation of the athletes who were coming into the Bulgarian team to do the Bulgarian method. These athletes went through a highly selective process and they had already been building their work capacity, volume tolerance, and GPP for more than a decade.
How many of you can say you come from a similar background? That’s what I thought.
The bottom line, in my opinion, is that most people who consider “sexy” foreign methods like Sheiko, Smolov, or the Bulgarian Method purposefully forget that the athletes who use these programs come from an entirely different physical background than they do. It isn’t to say these programs won’t work for anyone else, but it is to say that you probably aren’t a part of the intended demographic.
Explaining The Bulgarian Method for Powerlifting
As I said before, we can’t review the actual Bulgarian Method because there probably isn’t a powerlifter alive who is actually doing the real Bulgarian Method. If someone knows of a powerlifter who trains eight hours a day, please let me know. In all seriousness, I’d love to see what their training looks like.
That said, what we can take a look at is the basic gist of what guys like Matthew Perryman have to say about how to apply the Bulgarian “principles” to powerlifting.
For those who are completely unfamiliar with the method, the contents will probably shock you. The original Bulgarian Method calls for maxing out every single training session with a few caveats.
You are to employ a “daily max” that involves no assistive gear, no loud music, no stimulants and no psyching-up. This “daily max” is a weight that you can hit that day with zero grinding. The lifts, if not fast, must be smooth. Using Tuchscherer’s RPE scale, you shouldn’t be surpassing RPE 9.5 (maybe one rep left in the tank). The point here is to minimize the psychological and neurological stress of each workout as much as possible. In Squat Every Day, Perryman makes a compelling argument that, in many cases, the psychological stress of a workout contributes as much, if not more, to recovery debt than the actual workload of the physical activity itself.
After the daily max is set, the lifter takes off 15-30kg (~10%) and knocks out “two to three” doubles or triples – this advice is echoed from John Broz. However, you can employ autoregulation for these back-offs. Perryman suggests a 15-20 minute time limit a la Tuchscherer’s RTS. You do as many back-offs as you can, in that 15-20 minutes, without grinding any reps or making yourself nervous about whether or not you can do the next set. In other words, you stop at RPE 9. This is basic autoregulation.
It is important to note that Perryman includes other options in his book. This is just the primary back-off method discussed.
The main template Perryman offers is quite simple. You have two options:
3) Upperbody Pull
1) Lowerbody Pull
3) Upperbody Pull
Back squats are the mainstay, but front squats are also encouraged for “lighter days”. Perryman also suggests that you may incorporate box squats, SSB squats, or other variations from time to time if they keep you happy and productive. Keep in mind that that original Bulgarian Method used only a handful exercises: back squat, front squat, clean&jerk, snatch, heavy Olympic pulls, and power variants of the Olympic lifts. It isn’t quite with the spirit of the original program to make heavy use of variations.
For presses, Perryman suggests benching, overhead pressing, incline and push press.
For pulling, you might deadlift, do power cleans/snatches, or other variations such as deficits or block pulls. For upperbody pulls, you’re looking at things such as chin-ups and DB Rows. The upperbody pull is not meant to be taken to a max in the same manner as the other two movements. The upperbody pull is more there for shoulder health, balance, structural integrity, and all that jazz.
Perryman suggests pulling heavy once or twice a week. Echoing John Broz again, the advice is given to treat most of these pulling sessions as “speed” sessions where you do 6-10 singles or doubles with 70-80% of your contest max (not daily max). The goal, like all other workouts on the Bulgarian Method, is to have the reps be stress free, fast, and smooth.
Additionally, Perryman himself often would dedicate one workout to a heavy deadlift triple. On these days, you work up to a smooth triple and just call it a day. The theory here is that deadlifts are simply harder to recover from than squats and other pressing variants.
The “Dark Times”
It is critical to mention that, should you begin this program, you’re going to feel like complete and utter shit. This is especially true if you jump straight into a 5-7 times per week regime. You must keep showing up and lifting anyways. John Broz calls these the “dark times”.
Theoretically, and anecdotally according to lifters who have used this method, you must first go through a period of adaptation. You’ll never feel “100% recovered” as you had in the past, but you will learn to differentiate between feeling tired or beat-up and legitimate overtraining. The name of the game with the Bulgarian Method is: Squat Every Day – no matter how you feel!
Now, Abadjiev had his lifters working into these frequencies over time and Perryman tends to recommend something similar. He offers an introductory template where you begin this type of training on a thrice weekly schedule. When lifters would stall, Abadjiev would add another training day to their schedule in the form of a light day / speed work session. This isn’t Westside speed work but rather easy doubles in the 70-80% range. Over time, as lifters would plateau, these speed sessions would graduate to normal daily max sessions. Through time, lifters were built-up to the point where they were basically training all day, every day.
This said, both Perryman and Abadjiev used “unloading” weeks. This is not your traditional deload where you show up and basically do nothing. You’re limiting the weights you handle to about 80% of your best and the total volume gets cut in half. Maintain your frequent squatting habits. Abadjiev had his lifters “unload” every fourth week or so. As a newer Bulgarian user, Perryman suggests you might want to increase that number to every two or three weeks.
An Example Bulgarian Style Program for Powerlifting
As you can see, the Bulgarian Method “for powerlifting” is less of a specific method than it is a collection of principles that you need to apply for yourself. Here is an oversimplified, over-summarized version of those principles:
1) Work up to a daily max on the back squat and bench press
2) Do a couple of back-off sets using doubles or triples
3) Do not grind reps or use “psyche-up” techniques
4) Try to deadlift once or twice a week – primarily focusing on speed work
5) Show up and squat even when you feel like shit
6) Take light weeks every 2-4 weeks – cut volume in half, don’t lift above 80%
As you can see, in our hypothetical Bulgarian template, you’re squatting five times a week, pressing of some sort six times a week, and deadlifting twice. One of the deadlift sessions is a speed session and the heavier session is on Saturday right before your day off. Every three weeks, an unloading week is performed. I’ve included a minimum of variations, but they are present. You’ll notice two front squat days, two close-grip bench press days, and a push press day. The upperback work is also rotated.
Planning: Peaking on the Bulgarian Method
The Bulgarian Method is not a powerlifting program. In fact, the version we’ve presented here is not really a program at all. It is a collection of principles that you need to synthesize into a program yourself. That said, I was able to find a recommended peaking plan from John Broz himself:
As you can see, you perform your last daily max five days out from the competition. You’ll perform no back-off work this day. The next two days, you’ll warm-up to 60-70% and that’s it. Two days out, you’ll hit your openers. And, finally, one day out you will warm-up to 60-70% again.
Unlike a traditional powerlifting peak, you can see that this peaking plan maintains the high frequency of the original Bulgarian Method. You just unload for about a week and get right to work. This does make a great deal of sense because, at this point, the athlete will be adapted to higher frequencies and their recovery abilities are going to be far beyond the normal lifter. They simply won’t need as much time to recover for the meet. Giving them more time might even lead to detraining. They’re simply not used to time off anymore.
Periodization on the Bulgarian Method
In some ways, this basic Bulgarian Method of working up to only singles doesn’t include periodization in the sense that we have specific times where we focus on different muscular qualities. I cannot say whether Abadjiev occasionally had his lifters use more hypertrophy-oriented rep ranges during parts of the off-season. It appears they mostly focused on their singles throughout the year.
As we’ve learned, generally speaking, advanced athletes can either deal with the problem of needing greater and greater volumes to drive progress in various physical qualities in one of two ways: they can periodize or they can improve their recovery. The Bulgarian Method is unique in that it conditions athletes to handle absolutely INSANE volumes over time.
In fact, this is why more advanced periodization isn’t discussed or necessarily needed. One of the primary points of the program is to increase work capacity over time. The true Bulgarian Method involves lifting weights as your job, as your profession, and as your way of life. Most athletes simply don’t have the time in the day to truly do the Bulgarian Method as it was originally intended.
It is also worth noting that the Bulgarian team failed several drug-tests.
Bulgarian Method Programming
Different proponents of the Bulgarian Method seem to approach programming differently. On the one hand, many Olympic coaches seem to favor literal random protocol selections while doing the Bulgarian Method. Feel like doing back-off singles today? Fine by me. Want to do back-off triples instead? That’s okay, too. Everything is determined by feel. In a way, this isn’t really programming.
Of course, you don’t HAVE to do it this way. You can add some structure to the plan if you desire. That said, many lifters seem to prefer the absence of structure. That is one of the things they enjoy about the method. I think there needs to be a balance between structure and autoregulation. You cannot determine everything by feel and still maintain a scientific rigor with your programming decisions.
Nonetheless, both Perryman and Abadjiev suggest unloading weeks every once in a while. This is going to provide substantial workload variation when those unloading weeks come around. That said, most of the programmatic variation on the Bulgarian Method is dictated by your fatigue levels. On days when you’re doing well, you’ll do more and the exact opposite is true on days when you’re not doing well. There will be significant variations in volume trends over time on the Bulgarian Method if for no other reason than the fact that volume is dictated by how fatigued you are when every session is autoregulated.
Because the volume of this program is varied both from session to session and week to week, through autoregulation, you’re looking at a program that is appropriate for intermediate athletes. Because of the emphasis on increasing work capacity through insane workloads, the program is also useable by advanced athletes if intelligent unloading protocols are utilized.
In fact, with a coach, even a novice could potentially use this type of programming assuming they started out with a lower frequency template. In general, I wouldn’t suggest a non-coached novice to try to incorporate autoregulation. They simply don’t have the experience to accurately rate RPEs, control their level of anxiety and arousal, or remain disciplined with attempt selection. It is just an inappropriate match in programming style for the novice.
The Bulgarian Method is one of the few methods out there that I will actually criticize for being too specific. Now you might be confused at the idea that a methodology could be too specific. Let me explain the concept of diminishing marginal returns.
The law of accommodation states that the more often you are exposed to a given stimulus, the more the adaptive response to that stimulus is blunted. This applies heavily to movement selection and, to a lesser extent, training intensity.
On the Bulgarian Method, the original version anyways, you’re never doing more than a handful of exercises and you’re almost always performing them for singles. Let’s make up some numbers to illustrate diminishing marginal returns.
Let’s say the first back squat workout you do in a week will produce 100% returns on your training investment. The second back squat workout, due to accommodation, might only give you 80% return. The third might give 60%, the fourth might give 40%, and so on and so forth. Now, a squatting variation, such as paused squats, might only give 75% return on training investment because it isn’t as specific as doing an actual back squat. However, if you’ve already performed three back squat workouts that week, and the returns have diminished marginally, you might actually benefit more from doing a variation even though that variation is less specific. 75% is greater than 60%. In this manner, you can easily be too specific with your movement selection in terms of overall training economy.
From a more philosophical perspective, the other big complaint about the Bulgarian Method for powerlifting is that you are treading untraveled waters for the most part. The Bulgarian Method was tested and developed for Olympic weightlifting. The sports have very different demands, ideal athlete phenotypes, and support networks. If you decide to do this method for powerlifting, you have very, very few resources to draw upon. You’ll have to figure out most of it for yourself.
That’s not necessarily a drawback, but it is a major consideration. Using the Bulgarian Method for powerlifting is still in its infancy and can undoubtedly be greatly improved. Other methods for powerlifting are far more developed and offer less chance of error and stagnation.
The Bulgarian Method relies on progressive overload to make progress. Over time, the daily max that you hit should trend upwards. The use of heavier weights more frequently drives your progress.
Additionally, because you’re lifting so frequently, and your volumes are autoregulated, your volume is going to trend upwards over time as well. This additional volume will spur further progress overtime as your body is forced to adapt to workloads it has never handled before.
My single biggest criticism of the Bulgarian Method lays in fatigue management.
Look, it isn’t that no one “needs” this kind of volume or that no one can “recover” from the workloads, it is that athletes who are simply not ready to run this type of program are the ones most likely to pursue its use. As far back as there has been the internet, American lifters have tried to get an edge from exotic foreign programs. Smolov and Sheiko are only the most recent iterations. The Bulgarian Method is no different.
Remember, Bulgarian athletes had YEARS of GPP and training under their belts before they were accepted onto the weightlifting team. Even then, Abadjiev slowly built up his lifters to their insane workloads over time. The problem for most people out there is that they want to skip the “building up” part. They want to jump straight to the six days per week, maxing every day program without putting in the years of GPP, without having to spend time working out three days a week first, and without having to just work really hard for ten years.
Now don’t misunderstand me, you CAN jump straight into it. However, I do believe that it will short-circuit your long term gains. Why? There are primarily two reasons: 1) you have nowhere to turn to after this program for more work and 2) there is an optimal dose-response relationship between volume and adaptive response.
Let’s address the first issue. If you start training six days a week, what happens when you adapt to the volume and hit a plateau? Well, we know what the Bulgarians did. They started training twice a day. When that stopped working? They started training all day. Do you have eight hours a day to train? No? So what are you going to do when your body gets used to the initial levels of volume? Are you really going to want to do 3-4 hour workouts six times a week? Can you afford to do that? If not, you need to come up with a better long-term development plan than simply jumping to the highest volume, highest frequency program in existence.
Let’s also address why I think this will short-circuit your long term gains. Every workout that you perform represents a stress-recovery-adaptation cycle. Each one of these cycles contributes to your ultimate performance. Now, here’s the interesting part. The volume you perform, in a given session, determines the magnitude of the adaptation response. Consider the following chart:
As you can see, the more volume you do in a session, the bigger the response is going to be. Likewise, the less the volume you do in a session, the less the response will be. So, why would you ever do “low volume” workouts? Well, they also allow for quicker recovery so you can do more of them compared to high volume workouts. Unlike Sheiko or Smolov which employ monstrous volumes per session, the Bulgarian Method actually employs low volume per session. However, the total volume is quite high because of the number of sessions performed.
Both methods still produce adaptations; both methods still work. That said, our goal, as lifters, is to get our volume as far below the adaptation curve as possible. In other words, we want the most distance between the volume curve and the adaptation curve that we can manage. Why? Well, this is the level volume that gives us the most return on our investment.
If you go with higher volume per session, you get less return per unit of volume that you invest. Because your body has an ultimate limit to the volume it can handle, and you have limited time to train in the day, by the time we reach those limits, the person who has gotten the greatest return on his investment per session will have the higher overall performance. Now, the person who does super high volume will get to their limits faster, but their performance will also be lower. They simply won’t have received as much benefit per stress-recovery-adaptation cycle as the guy who optimized volume.
What a lot of people don’t consider is that this same effect can happen with a low volume per session. Yes, you’ll get more overall sessions and thus more overall recovery-adaptation-stress cycles, but by the time you work up to the same volumes as the optimal volume guy, your performance will still be lower. Even though you’ve gone through more stress-recovery-adaptation cycles than the guy who has utilized a volume level in the middle, you’ve also gotten less return per unit of volume invested – there wasn’t as much distance between the volume curve and the adaptation curve as a result of your workouts.
Now, this isn’t a criticism of the Bulgarian Method in general even though it is tempting to read it that way. This is a criticism of force-fitting yourself into a frequency template that contains inappropriate volumes for where you are at. For example, to add some made-up numbers, if optimal volume per session for you is 1,000lbs, and the total weekly volume you can currently recover from is 3,000lbs, what should your frequency be? Well, it should be three times per week (3000lbs/1000lbs=3).
However, you could easily do all that volume in a single session. You could also do all that volume in six 500lbs sessions. The problem is that both of these approaches result in less overall adaptation for the exact same amount of volume performed because they stray too far from the optimal dose of training stress!
So, the Bulgarian Method isn’t universally inappropriate. In fact, you could argue that at some point, high frequency training is a NECESSITY for the advanced athlete. After all, let’s consider another set of numbers. Our hypothetical advanced athlete can recover from 14,000lbs of volume per week. His optimal volume per session is 2,000lbs. How many sessions per week should he train? The obvious answer is seven (14000lbs/2000lbs=7).
In the real world, the calculations are never this neat and pretty, of course. In the real world, practical considerations dictate when frequency is added. How do you know more frequency is needed? Unfortunately, that is a complex question that lays outside of the scope of our Bulgarian Method review.
What is my point in all of this? There is a time and a place for everything. For the advanced athlete, who simply cannot get enough volume any other way, training five, six, seven times per week will eventually become necessary. They’ll have no other choice. For the beginner, this approach may work, but it will be sub-optimal. They’ll be forced to lower their volume per session below optimal thresholds in order to recover from the total weekly workload. Unless you have a high work capacity, and you need high levels of volume to progress, super high frequencies simply aren’t necessary.
Don’t get caught up in the temptation of doing exotic foreign programs as a short cut to faster gains! There are no shortcuts. There are no secrets. Hard work is the way forward.
Unlike so many other programs we’ve looked at, the Bulgarian Method is fully autoregulated. The concept of the daily max means that the weight on the bar is determined by your readiness on that day.
Additionally, if you follow Perryman’s suggestions, and employ a time limit, as well as a no-grinding-reps rule, your volume will be autoregulated as well. You’ll simply stop doing back-off sets when you run out of time or when you think the next set would result in a grindy rep.
You can easily incorporate RPE into this type of schematic. Simply don’t allow yourself to go over RPE 9.
As far as individual differences and frequency, this isn’t an error of the method; it is an error of the user. A competent coach will select the correct level of frequency based on the athlete’s training advancement. Lifters who lack the skills to do this themselves are common, but their errors do not reflect on the method itself. Abadjiev slowly advanced his lifters to higher frequencies as was necessary. If you choose to do this method, I strongly encourage you to be patient, work hard for years, and follow the same road Abadjiev’s trainees traveled. And that means increasing frequency slowly over time.
Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the research that went into this review. I cannot recommend Matthew Perryman’s book more highly. Squat Every Day is the single best book I’ve ever read on overtraining, recovery, and lifting-related neuroscience. It is a bit sparse on the Bulgarian Method itself ironically, but nonetheless this is one of the few books that I will unreservedly recommend to anyone who considers themselves a student of the iron game.
I personally believe that something akin to the Bulgarian Method is the final destination for all lifters who continue to train long enough and want to set PRs for a life time. Eventually, you’ll have no choice but to lift five or six times a week if you want to get in the necessary volume to make progress.
However, the issue is that too many novices and intermediates see the amazing results these guys produced without considering the context. They only see what they were doing at their peak and not what they had to go through to get there. You cannot start at the end. If you try, the results will be predictable.
In short, the Bulgarian Method is a fantastic, highly intelligent way to train – assuming you’re qualified to be training that way. Most of you just aren’t. Most people who look at methods like this are seeking the holy grail program; most people who look at methods like this, though they’ll never admit it, are looking for quick, easy, fast progress in exchange for brutalizing themselves in the short term. Avoid these narrow-sighted views. Train for the long term. Embrace the grind. Embrace the journey. Accept that mastery is going to take you a decade.
Or don’t. The choice is yours. I firmly believe you will never achieve your potential if you try to short-circuit the process.