If you’ve spent any time around competitive weightlifting, it’s likely that you’re familiar with the so-called “Bulgarian System” and the gyms that utilize it.
Though the application varies from coach to coach, the idea of a Bulgarian program is simple: focus all the damn time on hitting maxes in the snatch, clean & jerk, and front squat. Some variations use the back squat as well. Some use the power snatch and power clean. Some do doubles for back-off sets while others don’t bother with anything but singles as close to maximum as possible, but the concept remains essentially the same.
There is a lot of misuse and abuse of this type of training. Lifters who have little to no GPP background or strength base should probably not be spending the majority of their time doing heavy singles, nor should lifters whose mechanics aren’t already sound. However, utilized correctly -and in the right circumstances- I believe this approach can be effective. My goal is to provide some guidelines for the “Bulgarian” approach for the lifter training on his/her own.
Please note the use of quotation marks around “Bulgarian.” In my opinion, the true Bulgarian system requires living in Bulgaria. Just as it is here, I suspect that there is no perfectly universal Bulgarian system, but rather there exist variations from coach to coach and gym to gym. Also, it’s not likely that you’ll be training 12 hours each day. So with that in mind, this is do-it-yourself “Bulgarian.”
The conventional wisdom seems to be that a system based primarily around maximal or near-maximal (meaning >90%) lifts is best reserved for high-level lifters training with a coach. However, I think that when done right, this can be a very effective way for an intermediate lifter to train alone.
I first started training this way because the only coach I had was myself and I found that I was unable to do for myself what I could do for my athletes. I could tell my athletes to “think less and stick to the program,” but it didn’t work that way for me. I couldn’t stop tinkering, overthinking, and doubting my own programming. As an athlete, it is absolutely imperative to believe in your program and your coach. As a coach, it is natural to constantly think about ways to make things better. Unfortunately, the two were not meshing for me and I constantly found myself tweaking and changing things because I was convinced I needed something else. Call it “training ADD” or whatever, but the fact of the matter was that I thought too much and lifted too little.
So one day I just stopped. I stopped worrying about variations, percentages, or sets and reps. I snatched, clean & jerked, and front squatted. That was it. After a while, I started working some power variations and back squats in, and then some work off the blocks. I had a few basic principles for varying the lifts, a similar set of principles for training the squat, and that was that. I just went in and trained.
And it worked. For the first time in over a year, I was making progress. I was hitting 90%+ lifts consistently, when I’d only hit 90% once or twice in the preceding six months.
What I am presenting below is not a program. It is the set of principles that I used to guide my DIY “Bulgarian” program. Yours may be slightly different, but I believe the general concept will hold true.
Before going any further, it is important to realize that the method I am suggesting here is geared towards a fairly specific population. A lifter attempting this approach should have the following attributes:
1) Their technique should be mostly correct and very consistent.
2) They should have spent enough time with the lifts to have an understanding of their own abilities and a realistic idea of when they have more in the tank and when they’re done for the day.
3) They should know what variations serve them best. Do doubles carry over to their top single? Paused reps? Deficit?
Along with the requisite level of experience with the lifts, an athlete attempting this type of training must cultivate a process-oriented, rather than goal-oriented, mindset. You must treat training in a day-to-day fashion. You cannot get upset when you have a crappy day. You also cannot get too excited when you have a good day, because the next day isn’t guaranteed. I found that I would typically have a very good day or a run of very good days, and these would be followed by a run of very mediocre or poor days. Sometimes if I snatched very well, I’d clean & jerk like crap. Or maybe the Olympic lifts would feel like shit and I would have a great day of squatting. That’s the nature of this method and accepting that is absolutely crucial to success.
So relax, enjoy the process itself, and hold on. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Though I will present a brief practicum at the end of this piece, this is really the most important part of this article. The principles that guide your day-to-day approach and the discipline with which you adhere to them will determine your success.
The development of these principles is -and should be- largely individual. You should also expect it to take time to find a set of rules that work for you, and that some of those rules will change bit by bit. What I am providing below are the principles that I used and that I think are likely to apply to most lifters. Do not view them as dogma. Let them guide you and change them as you find what works best for you.
1) Keep it simple. Have only a few variations that you use for an extended period of time. For me, it was the lifts from the floor or blocks, including power variations, and roughly once a week I would add either a pull before the lift, an additional overhead or front squat, or an additional jerk. Other great options are paused reps, deficit work, lifts from the hang, etc. The important part here is not which variations you use, but that they are relatively few and that you stick with them. Which brings us to our next principle:
2) Be conservative with change. It is unreasonable to expect that you will find a comfortable and effective template and to expect that template to last for the rest of your life. It is inevitable that it will -and should- change. However, changes in the schedule should be gradual, not sudden. Change one thing at a time. Feeling weak overhead? Add push presses and stick with them for a solid 8 weeks before you decide if they’re working or not. Over-pulling? Stop doing powers for a while and replace them with a variation that emphasizes moving quickly under the bar. Be patient and attentive to details and you will find yourself consistently improving both mechanics and strength.
3) Keep rests between sets short and take a break between exercises. This is one of the best things I did for my lifters and myself. On the snatch, you shouldn’t need more than two minutes between sets, if that. Three minutes tops for the clean & jerk. And if your squatting consists primarily of daily singles and back-off sets, you don’t need to sit down for ten minutes between efforts. Keep moving at a good clip and you’ll likely find that you take your head out of the game and just lift. However, between exercises take anywhere from 10-30 minutes. Relax, rehydrate, and eat something. You should feel like you’re starting a new workout when you move on to the next lift.
4) Unless it’s an injury, how you feel is a lie. John Broz really has got it right. Once you get into a groove, you’ll find there are days when you feel like absolute shit, but if you just show up and train, you may have a great session. So as a rule, unless there is an acute issue causing injury-like pain (an athlete on this program should be experienced enough to know the difference between training pain and injury pain), don’t call it a day until you’ve at least hit 80% for a couple of singles. You never know how you’ll feel once you get to weights that actually matter, so get there before you make any decisions.
5) If you have to get fired up for an attempt, you’re done with that lift. If you need to get your adrenaline up and stomp and yell, then you’re done with whatever you’re doing. Maybe even done for the day. Make or miss, if you have to get a fire going, just call it. Seriously. The positive physical and mental effects of mitigating adrenaline in your training will blow your mind. Stay calm almost all the time, and if you have to get jacked up, call it after that. You’ll find yourself recovering better day-to-day and staying fresh throughout tough sessions.
6) Focus more on the daily minimum than the daily maximum. How much can you snatch, clean & jerk, front squat when you’re stiff, sleepy, and unmotivated? Raise that number. Improve consistency first, and the rest will follow. If you find yourself at a point where you’re hitting 95%+ regardless of circumstances or conditions, I promise you that new PRs are coming. While the lifts themselves may be seen as a sprint, the sport of weightlifting is more akin to a marathon: your top speed doesn’t matter if your pacing sucks.
As noted above, the rules that guide you are far more important than the program you follow. However, below I have provided three simple templates that may help you get started. These are absolutely not the only way to train in this manner, but they’re a jumping-off point for a lifter who wants to give DIY “Bulgarian” a try. They are presented in the six-days-per-week format that I would employ for a full-time lifter’s training, but if you’re not used to training that often, you can adapt the schedule to your needs and abilities.
1 lift, 1 squat: This is how I’d recommend most people start. Pair the snatch with back squats, and the clean & jerk with front squats.
Monday/Wednesday/Friday: Snatch + snatch variation, back squat heavy single or double + back-off sets.
Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday: Clean & jerk + C&J variation, front squat heavy single or double + back-off sets.
If you prefer a four-day-per-week training schedule, do two days of each. You could also do one variation of the lift with its own back-off sets each day, rather than the full lift and then a variation.
This schedule is good because it allows you to keep your sessions short and focused so that you don’t feel burnt out by the end. It also leaves room for extra stuff (catching a pump, ab work, etc.) that a fuller schedule may not allow.
Hit maxes and down sets all the time. The end.
Monday/Wednesday/Friday: Snatch heavy single + back-off singles or doubles, clean & jerk heavy single + back-off 2+1 or 1+2, back squat heavy single + back-off singles or doubles.
Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday: Power snatch heavy single + back-off singles or doubles, power clean & jerk heavy single + back-off 2+1 or 1+2, front squat heavy single + back-off singles or doubles.
For some variation, do wave loading (work up to a few heavy singles, then back down and back up) in place of doing a single + back-off sets.
The appeal and advantage of this schedule is its simplicity. It was probably the most beneficial for me with regard to getting rid of my tinkering tendencies. Hit the lifts, squat, and go home.
However, it is more crucial than ever to manage your expectations if you choose to train in this fashion. You are likely to have a day or three or five of very good training, and a day or three or five of very poor training. Successes and failures will come in waves, and you must learn to ride them. Be process-oriented and focus heavily on the daily minimums, and your absolute maximums will slowly but surely climb.
The biggest downside of this schedule is that it leaves little room for anything else. Training in this way is extremely demanding. This means you are going to really need to pay attention to your warm-ups and cool-downs. Take care of your body, eat right, sleep enough, do your mobility work, and if possible, do prehab work for your shoulders and hips.
I would strongly recommend that if you want to follow this schedule or a similar one, you do the first 4-6 weeks with no back-off sets and allow yourself no more than three misses per workout in the snatch, two in the clean & jerk, and none in the squat. In this initial period, focus on making your squats fast and crisp and your workouts as miss-free as possible. This is a good policy for most of your workouts even once you are adapted to the workload.
If your weakness is your weakness, this schedule may be beneficial for you. It focuses a little bit more on volume and has a larger variety of exercises to help better develop general strength. What it gains in variety and volume it sacrifices in frequency and simplicity.
Monday/Wednesday/Friday: Snatch single + snatch complexes, squat.
Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday: Clean & jerk single + C&J complexes, pressing strength, pulling strength.
The complexes provide additional time under tension with the Olympic lifts, something that is hard to accomplish with other methods, though I’m not opposed to the occasional set of five snatches or cleans. Since you’re squatting three days per week instead of six, utilize a three-day-per-week squat program of your choosing. The one used by my lifters is presented in my article “Squat Development For Weightlifting.”
Pulling exercises should include both lower body movements (stiff-legged deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, etc.) and upper body movements (Pendlay rows, pull-ups, etc.) My favorite pressing exercise is the push press. You can do these from front or back, but if you tend to press out your jerks, I would do it from behind the neck. Pressing, close-grip bench press, snatch-grip push press, etc., can all be helpful. As with the squats, focus your pressing and pulling not only on heavy singles and back-off sets, but heavy sets of five and volume.
A final note
As you embark on your DIY “Bulgarian” journey, keep in mind that the principles are what really matter. Above all else, manage your expectations, be patient and attentive to details, and enjoy the process itself. Persevere through the tough times and progress will come, so long as you’re willing to do the required working and waiting.
For further and more in-depth reading on the advantages and methods behind a “Bulgarian” training approach, read the kindle e-Book “Squat Every Day” by Matt Perryman.