Can the Bulgarian system be used for powerlifting?
Of course. The fundamental laws of biology and physics don’t change because you have decided to do other lifts.
A brief explanation
The Bulgarian system was developed by Ivan Abadjiev and was the reason for Bulgarias great success in weightlifting in the late 1900’s. It’s a greatly misunderstood system, often explained by people who haven’t lived it, nor learned it from someone who lived it. The focus is on highly specific exercises (primarily the competition lifts and squats) with a high frequency of near-maximal and maximal weights.
What one needs to understand is that the Bulgarian system isn’t synonymous with training in Bulgaria. The system found its way to many other countries and is still used today. Conversely, not all head coaches in Bulgaria have used the system of Ivan Abadjiev, even if they likely have been inspired by it by growing up in it.
Whenever the question about using the Bulgarian system for powerlifting is brought up all kinds of negative responses come out of people who have no history of the system. Let’s address some of them.
You can’t train the powerlifts as often and as heavy because they have an eccentric phase while the Olympic lifts do not
A common response you hear is that there’s no eccentric portion in the Olympic lifts but there are in the powerlifts. I don’t know what that has to do with anything because there isn’t one in the deadlift either which is the lift I imagine most people would be most worried about attempting maximal or near maximal attempts at such a frequent basis. Also there’s the fact that squats are trained the same way as the other lifts in the Bulgarian system and it does include an eccentric phase. And for the people claiming that weightlifters ”drop down in the squat” and powerlifters don’t, well, some may do and some may not. Not once have I been instructed to do so or heard anyone of the athletes in Bulgaria been instructed to do so. If you do, fine. If you don’t, fine. It doesn’t change the training.
The powerlifting squat can’t be trained the same way as the Olympic squat
Another argument I hear is that the powerlifting squat isn’t suited for high frequency. I must have missed the memo saying that all powerlifters squat the same way. Some squat with a wide stance, some with a close stance, some with the hands wide, some with the hands closer, some with the bar low, some with the bar high. If you squat in a way that you feel might lead to injury I suggest you consider changing your squat style.
Speaking of the squat, for some reason a lot of people seem to assume that squatting is so taxing it can’t be done daily like in Bulgaria. I remember being told that the squat with the bar on the back is what we do when we are tired. Anecdotally I see clean & jerk taking a lot more out of people than the squat does. Bulgarian lifters squat multiple times per day, surely you can do it once per day.
What about the bench press?
As for pressing, it can most certainly be done the Bulgarian way and it was in fact when the clean & press was part of the Olympics. I know this from personal conversations with people who were on the Bulgarian national team at the time. Keep in mind that the Olympic press was in many ways harder on the body than the bench press, which is why many were happy to see it go.
Few people actually comment on the bench press for the Bulgarian system. I have used it myself and I know quite a few who have done the ”max everyday” (which isn’t really the truth about the system but that’s for another time) in the bench press and made great gains without any for of injuries whatsoever.
Deadlifting a lot will kill you
The deadlift is what one would need to put more thought into. Will the body adapt to deadlifting that frequent and that heavy? Possibly, I haven’t tried it with anyone. We do maximum weights in snatch- and clean pulls at the Vanev Academy twice per week but I will admit that a heavy grinding deadlift is a different animal so you might have to tweak the approach a bit. In my powerlifters I see a tendency of sumo deadlifters having an easier time recovering than conventional deadlifters but your milage may vary.
Doing the same thing over and over will lead to accomodation and stop adaptation
This is most certainly true, which is why this has never been the approach in the Bulgarian system. The focus is on doing more, not doing the same. Intensity is actually varied across the week. So is the volume. The idea that the system promotes doing the same thing over and over is a misunderstanding of what’s actually going on.
Beginners shouldn’t lift so heavy every day
This is absolutely in agreement with the Bulgarian system. What I see many people claim is the Bulgarian system is at best a theoretical training day, not even a program and certainly not a system. The Bulgarian system as it was implemented in Bulgaria was not, as it’s often described on the interwebz, ”daily max AND BY THE GODS NOT A TRUE MAX BECAUSE THEN YOU DIE and a total of six singles” for beginners. The system starts with young athletes practicing the lifts for reps. As their skill improves more and more maximal attempts will be made (yes, even so called ”true maxes” – whatever that means) without any steadfast rules on an exact number of lifts every day. So no, what some people believe to be the Bulgarian system is not suited for beginners, the real Bulgarian system however is and certainly takes into account the age and level of the lifters. I’m strictly speaking about how the system was implemented in Bulgaria, how it looked in other countries utilizing the same principles I do not know.
Special considerations for using a Bulgarian approach to powerlifting
As has been suggested by John Broz in the past, one should include upper back and/or rear delt work. I also find some variation in the exercise to be beneficial, such as squats without a belt or supportive knee sleeves and/or front squats, as well as close grip bench press but you might find otherwise.
I have experimented with this type of training and saw very good progress. I had one of my athletes do ”Bulgarianized” training for about a year because we wanted her to stay in a weight class that was a bit too low for her. I say ”Bulgarianized” because she only trained six times per week. Each Saturday she did a so called control training (a staple in the Bulgarian system) where she maxed out in all the lifts. She took silver at the Nationals with a significant gap to the bronze and placing second after a lady who is one of the top in the world.
If I could find powerlifters that are motivated enough I would have no issues putting them through the system, especially if they’re young. I do however see potential problems for people who’ve been in the game a long time, and have built up a significant amount of strength by only squatting and benching once or twice per week for for that time. For them I think it would be difficult to adapt to the training and the risk of injury would be significantly higher. And that’s another point when people critizice others asking this very question. What’s the training background of the person answering the question? Someone who has been doing for example a Gallagher/Coan/Karwoski system for 10+ years probably can’t imagine it because it’s such a different animal.
The facts remain, the weightlifters doing the Bulgarian system squat enormous weights. During the era of the press they pressed enormous weights. There’s simply no reason why someone focusing on squat, bench press and deadlifts wouldn’t be able to reach enormous weights if they were brought up with the same system. That is to say that they’re prepared properly in accordance with the system. The fundamental problem I see is one of knowledge – the lack of understanding the system but that’s not really a problem with the system itself… And it’s a topic for another day.