“If in doubt, max out”

Uncle Ivan

If you’ve been weightlifting for more than a few months, you’ve probably heard of the ‘Bulgarian method’, or the ‘Bulgarian system.’

In it’s purest form, it involves taking the snatch, clean and jerk and front squat to maximum multiple times per day, every day. It’s specificity plus overload on repeat, as this classic IronMind Clip demonstrates…

History of the Bulgarian System

The Bulgarian System, as it were, is actually a bit of a misnomer, as it wasn’t exactly a commonplace training style across the country. Instead, it was the fever dream experiment of one man, Ivan Abadzhiev.

‘Uncle’ Ivan, as he came to be known, was head coach of the Bulgarian Weightlifting Federation from 1968 to 1989 and then once again from 1997 to 2000. During this time he produced…

  • 12 Olympic champions
  • 57 world champions
  • 64 European champions

In many ways, the frequent maxing out was deliberately a polar opposite to Russia’s system of high volume, lower-intensity training. Although theoretically on good terms with the USSR during this time, Bulgaria had lost almost all of its independence both politically and economically. Abadzhiev’s new style of training was his way of saying we can do things better on our own, we have power, we have strength.

His system worked so well that the soviet union actually asked him to stop winning. Max Aita, weightlifting coach for juggernaut training systems, who lived with Abadzhiev for a period of time, even recalled that Ivan would always sleep in the closet and never in his bed, for fear that the KGB (the Russian secret service) would take him away during the night.

Why Did the Bulgarian Training System Work So Well?

1) Brute force. Training to maximum 2-3 times per day, every day is an insane amount of overload. It’s also incredibly specific to the demands of the sport of weightlifting.

2) Environment. The men that trained under Abadzhiev were not like you and I. They didn’t have luxuries, computers and freedom of opportunity. They were poor. Very poor. Competing and winning for the Bulgarian team meant money for them and their families. This was a HUGE motivator. Place 10 super competitive guys in 1 small room and tell them that only 5 of them are going to make it, and you’ve got a super-charged training atmosphere where failure simply wasn’t an option.

In an Interview with Weightlifting House, Bulgarian weightlifter Alexander Varbanov recalled…

The competition among us was tremendous and we all were pushing ourselves to the limits to get a spot on the world team. Training in such an intense environment where every kilogram counts is stressful, but very motivating. Some were able to adapt and survive; some others gave up a few months after they got on the team.”

3) Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Abadzhiev has since been very vocal and very honest about drug use within the team. Lifters would take high-strength oral steroids basically every day. It wasn’t optional, they took them or they were off the team. Remember, this was a win at all costs mentality.

There are actually rumours that when Abadzhiev was hired as head coach for US team Cal Strength (a very short-lived arrangement) he famously asked Dave Spitz “where do you keep the drugs?” And legitimately didn’t understand when Dave tried to explain that they didn’t use them.

Bulgarian Weightlifting Program

Bulgarian weightlifting programme

Wanting to train like a Bulgarian without grinding your body into dust?

I’ve written this 6-week Bulgarian weightlifting programme just for you.

It’s a peaking style programme designed for you to hit some insane PR’s and then return back to regular training.

It also uses lighter days, some exercise variation and a sensible volume and intensity management to allow you to properly recover and not just completely mangle yourself.

Drawbacks and Downsides of the Bulgarian Weightlifting System

1) Non-existent Fatigue Management

The entire bulgarian training model is based on an ‘adapt or die’ training philosophy. There are no programmed light days, no programmed deloads and no programmed off-seasons whatsoever. This means the likelihood of injury and burnout is huge, even for genetically gifted, advanced lifters.

2) No Variation

There comes a point at which adaptive resistance is a real problem. If you’re already training to maximum 3 times per day every day then what on earth do you do when your numbers stop improving? (Other than taking even more drugs?) There’s a strong argument to be made that small amounts of strategic training variation – such as different exercises or rep schemes – would go a long way to preventing this issue.

3) Likely to degrade technique in all but the best lifters.

For most people, weightlifting technique suffers at weights above 90 and 95%. Chances are you’re not thinking of complex technical cues when trying to make a max clean. So if you’re constantly lifting to maximum then a significant amount of your repetitions are going to be performed with sub-optimal technique.

People tend to overlook the fact the the majority of Abadzhiev’s best lifters transferred to him after spending years training in a more typical soviet style. Their techniques were all highly developed and solidified before they started training with daily maxes.

Would the Bulgarian System Work For You (Or Any Regular Lifter?)

The short answer here is No, it wouldn’t.

  • You don’t have the time to train 2-3 times per day every day
  • You don’t have an atmosphere like that to train in
  • You don’t have anything like the motivation or drive to train required
  • You (probably) aren’t taking copious amounts of drugs

What it would most likely do is increase your risk of injury, degrade your technique and plateau your lifting progress after about 4 months.

The Bulgarian Method For Powerlifting?

Whilst applying the Bulgarian method in its truest form to powerlifting would basically be suicide, there are people who have taken Bulgarian principles and applied them successfully to their training. In fact, a few quick searches over on Reddit will show you various people who have used a ‘top set plus back off sets’ high-frequency approach with good results over reasonably long periods of time.

The Bulgarian Method and Bodybuilding?

I’ve seen a few misguided popular fitness magazines try to promote this. Honestly, it’s so dumb it’s hard to put into words. Maximal heavy single reps are terrible at building muscle, plus they cause so much systemic fatigue the trade-off is appalling. The Bulgarian method is a maximal strength programme, plain and simple.

Bulgarian Method Diet

Since I’ve been messaged a few times already about this, I thought it made sense to answer here. As far as I’m aware there were no special dietary requirements for Bulgarian weightlifters (at least there’s very little information publicly available) Historically, we know that Uncle Ivan was, to put in mildly, a bit of a control freak, wanting athletes under his watchful eye throughout as much of the day as possible, so it’s fairly safe to assume that he encouraged athletes to eat decently.

With that said, Bulgaria as a nation was fairly economically poor during his coaching years, so the foods eaten wouldn’t have been anything fancy. Lots of stews, grilled meats where possible, a reasonable amount of dairy from milk, yoghurts etc, pretty classic, staple Bulgarian food sources.

The Legacy of the Bulgarian Weightlifting System

Whilst ‘bulgarian training’ in it’s purest form isn’t really used all that much around the world any more, certain elements and principles have had a HUGE impact on coaching and training styles.

In Russia, most programmes now include much more high-intensity work than they did 30 or 40 years ago.

In China, high-intensity lifts are reportedly used once every 2-3 weeks, although they employ a wider variety of exercises for their max efforts, including hangs and pulls.

And in the USA, gyms like Cal Strength popularised ‘Max Out Friday’ based on the idea of regular heavy lifting.

The Bulgarian system also showed people that they can train harder and more often than they ever thought possible.

Realistically it’s hard to look anywhere in the world and not see the impact of the Bulgarian training system. It was certainly a product of its time; a brute-force, win-at-all-costs, screw-you-to-the-rest-of-the-world kind of system. But it changed the face of the weightlifting world forever.


Hope you enjoyed the article.

And for well-designed, scientifically sound weightlifting programming for us mere (non-Bulgarian) mortals, you might want to check out my programme design options.

‘Til next time