A heavy squat workout can leave you sore for days in the hamstrings, quads, lower back, and glutes, along with a few other muscles you never even knew you had.
It's so rough that the very thought of squatting twice per week makes your stomach turn, and squatting three times a week or more? That's just insanity.
I guess someone forgot to tell that to the Bulgarians.
The Bulgarian method is a high intensity, high frequency system that was used by the dominant Bulgarian weightlifting team under Coach Ivan Abadjiev, and has since been popularized on our soil by strength coach John Broz.
Bret Contreras wrote about the Bulgarian method and Broz here, so check that article out first, if you haven't done so already.
Now let's narrow in on exactly how to use this system for powerlifting while addressing some misinformation along the way.
First some context. I'm an avid lifter whose had my fair share of injuries in a relatively short time as a powerlifter (my first competition was about 6 years ago).
My training was hindered by knee problems from my first days in the gym. It took less than 18 months to tear my quadratus lumborum. From that point forward, my training probably included as many injuries as PRs: re-tearing my QL, severe shoulder impingement, worsening tendonitis in my knees, nerve problems with my elbow – all before I was 18!
My best total was 1438 at 220 pounds, and I couldn't see it improving much from there. I certainly didn't sound like the ideal candidate for a system that supposedly puts a lifter at an insane risk of injury; a program that's impossible for a drug-free lifter.
My training partners thought I was crazy when I started. Maxing on squats and bench every day? The rosiest prediction I got was mere atrophy and strength loss, while injury was the more common forecast.
And the result? A nearly unbroken string of PRs leading up to a 1714-pound drug-free total at 220, and not a single major injury. Tightness and occasional aches, sure, but my knee pain cleared up, my shoulder pain dissipated, and my back held up fantastically.
None of this is meant to toot my own horn, but to show you that if this system works for me, it can probably work for you, too.
I'm not the type to sugarcoat things. This form of training is very difficult, both mentally and physically. However, people should not equate difficult with impossible.
Yes, there are some significant risks inherent to the Bulgarian method that don't apply to other programs to the same degree. There are also some prerequisites you must meet before the risk to reward ratio tips in your favor.
However, dismissing the entire system as impossible simply because it's demanding is unwise and, in my opinion, shows a great lack of faith in the abilities of motivated people.
Let's look at some things that people say about the Bulgarian method, and separate the truth from the myths.
Many fear that you'll destroy your tendons by squatting or benching heavy on a daily basis. This couldn't be further from the truth. Research shows that tendon size and strength increases with chronic, repeated loading.
As long as your mechanics are such that you're not damaging your tendons each session, they'll strengthen and thicken just like your muscles.
Granted, the risk of injury would be significantly higher were you performing true maxes that would make Louie Simmons proud, but "maxes" in the Bulgarian method are quite different.
Here, the daily max is a weight that you can move without mental arousal (no death metal and ammonia) and without any aberration from perfect form.
Perfect form is imperative, though. If your squat or bench technique puts undue stress on any of your soft tissues, you'll progressively increase the damage you're inflicting rather than the benefits you're reaping.
For someone with good form, however, the risk of injury is probably lower than it would be on other programs because you never give an all-out effort.
In my case, daily squatting fixed the knee pain that I had dealt with for almost 10 years, and I sustained no injuries while doing daily maxes, and even reversed some nagging tendon issues.
This is a common objection to the Bulgarian method that fails to take into account how the body responds to chronic stressors.
Due to habituation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal response to stress, the body releases fewer stress hormones in response to stressors that it's experienced regularly before.
This has been documented in activities far more stressful than powerlifting, such as parachuting.
If you psych yourself up for your maxes every day, you'll have a greater risk of burnout, but if you approach each lift calmly (as you should), your hormonal response will probably adapt to the frequent squatting.
The Bulgarian method runs counter to most commonly accepted bodybuilding wisdom, so I can understand the skepticism. Squatting and benching heavy every day is drastically different from working a muscle group once or twice a week, which ensures at least 72 hours for recovery.
However, higher frequency hypertrophy training has grown in popularity as of late, thanks in part to Chad Waterbury's and Christian Thibaudeau's programs here on T Nation.
The reason that the Bulgarian method works for size as well as strength is based on the same principle: since you don't push as close to exhaustion, you can recover quicker and stress your muscle more frequently, eliciting more growth cycles.
You usually end a workout by doing a single with a weight you could likely grind out for a triple, so you're never pushing your muscles beyond what they can recover from in 24 hours. More growth cycles = more mass.
I saved the most controversial for last. Sure, some lifters that have used the Bulgarian system likely were on steroids, but that doesn't mean you have to be.
In my experience, a drug-free lifter can handle it just fine, provided they choose their loads correctly.
Let's looks at some research that may explain how a natural lifter can thrive on such a system.
In short, training frequently helps to optimize your natural hormone production, allowing you to gain strength faster and recover from greater loads.
We know that intense exercise increases Testosterone levels, but this increase is often written off because the effect is transient, and hormone levels return to baseline in a matter of hours.
However, this transient increase begins to seem a lot more significant when we look at the broader picture. Training not only increases serum Testosterone levels, but also the number of androgen receptors in the muscles. This means that your body can make better use of the Testosterone that it's producing.
The effects of transient increases in Testosterone may be more important than we'd previously thought, even when resting hormonal levels remain the same.
A study found that a greater hormonal response to training elicited a greater increase in strength, even with resting Testosterone levels remaining unchanged. On top of that, hard lifting over time can actually increase your serum Testosterone levels. A two year study on weightlifters demonstrated a nearly 27% increase!
The more often you train, the more often you see the beneficial spike in Testosterone levels and increase in production of androgen receptors.
Frequent heavy training may not level the playing field between enhanced and natural lifters, but it does optimize your endogenous hormone production for gaining size and strength.
- Squat and bench to a heavy single a minimum of four days per week.
- Deadlift 70-75% of your max for 3-10 singles once or twice per week.
- Do some targeted external rotation work if you have shoulder problems.
That's all it is. However, here are some tips to optimize things:
- Training maxes are not true maxes. They tend to be ≈90-95% of your true 1RM. If you get psyched up for a set, you're doing it wrong.
- Sleep 8 hours per night at a minimum. If you don't sleep, you won't recover.
- It's all right or even advisable to rotate between squat variations, but keep things pretty vanilla. Stick with the high bar squat, low bar squat, or front squat for 95% of your training.
- Set a daily minimum for each lift: the minimum weight you must lift each time you enter the gym. 85% of your max is a good starting point. Some days you won't feel good when you hit the gym, but you'll feel better the next day for having worked up to a moderately heavy weight.
- You'll get to a point that you don't get sore anymore. That's perfectly fine, so don't be alarmed if it happens.
- Take PRs when they come, but don't push for them too hard. You'll eventually be hitting your current 1RM for non-psyched training maxes, which is pretty cool. Just don't lose your cool and start pushing to the point that a PR attempt today will impact your training tomorrow.
- Eat. This one should be obvious, but if you're new to the Bulgarian method, don't use it while eating to lose fat.
- Don't deadlift enough to impact recovery. Training your squat with such a high frequency will improve your deadlift. Pulling once or twice per week is plenty, and never pull enough weight or volume that slows bar speed.
- Don't even think about trying this program unless you've been training at least 3 years and have near perfect form.
- 4 days per week is a minimum. Seven is preferable. I usually trained at least 6 days per week. If you can't make it to the gym at least 4 days per week, your training frequency can't be high enough to resemble the Bulgarian system.
- Work fast, but not so fast that it impacts strength. If you find yourself needing to rest more than a couple of minutes between sets, you're probably about to lift a weight that's too heavy.
- Myofascial release before training, especially if you have a desk job or the mobility of a picnic table.
The answer to this question is both physiological and psychological.
More training sessions means more growth cycles and more transient spikes in Testosterone production, but it runs deeper than that.
The most important aspect of the Bulgarian method is practice. It treats lifting as a skill, just like any other sports skill. If you want to get better at anything, you practice it more often, whether it's shooting a basketball or hitting a baseball or throwing darts.
The more you practice a skill, the more efficient the motor pattern associated with that skill becomes.
Powerlifting is no different, except that a loaded barbell is heavier than other sporting implements. Who wants to make 90% of their free throws, or practices by shooting basketballs once per week until they're unable to lift their arms? Yet that's exactly what people do when they want to improve their squat.
The more you practice, the more you improve muscle recruitment, firing rate, and inter and intra-muscular coordination. It makes you approach powerlifting as a mechanic trying to fine-tune an engine, trying to get every last bit of horsepower out of the machine he's working with.
That's the real beauty and elegance of the Bulgarian method. It allows you to get every last bit of strength out of your current musculature while providing a fantastic system for hypertrophy specific to the needs of powerlifting.
The other advantage of the Bulgarian method is mental. The most important skill you gain from daily maxes is the ability to define your own limits. There will be days, especially early on, that you feel terrible.
You'll be sore, your warm-ups will feel slow, and you'll find a creak in your knee that was never there before – and before you know it, you've flown past your daily minimum and you're thinking about adding 5 or 10 pounds to yesterday's top weight.
Another benefit is confidence under heavy weight. You'll get to a point that weights don't feel heavy on your shoulders or in your hands anymore. There's no more nervousness, no more second-guessing yourself – there's only you, a loaded barbell, and a task for which you already know the outcome.
Finally, there's a certain calmness and humility that only comes with having an acute knowledge of your own capacities. When you handle heavy weights all the time, you know precisely how strong you are, you know when to check your ego, and you know better than most your own ability to persevere.
The Bulgarian method is a system that lifters with awesome form and at least 3 years of experience should consider.
It's not the be-all-end-all of training routines, but it has unique benefits and the potential to deliver fantastic strength gains.
The Bulgarian method worked well for me, so I can testify that you don't need to be on steroids to thrive on it, and that it's not an instant recipe for injuries.
But above all, I want you to reconsider your ideas about human capabilities, both in terms of outcomes and the ability to overcome significant training stress.
If a tiny nation with a smaller population than New York City can win Olympic Gold in weightlifting while American men haven't taken home a single medal since 1984, maybe we should realize that they know a thing or two about getting strong.
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