What system do we use?

Published: 2022-04-12

A common question I get asked is what system we will use if you sign up to train with me. Some people assume the Bulgarian system, some assume something else, and others have no concept of what a system is at all. So let’s answer the question.

Short answer

It depends!

Note: You’ll see I talk about personality a few times in this article. I think identifying a lifters personality is a major part of being a trainer and failing to do so makes you a bad trainer. Not all training methods are equal and some ways are better to train than others. But if you use a system that’s slightly worse than optimal, yet fits your personality it might still be better. The optimal way might cause the lifter to quit entirely due to low motivation - not very optimal in that case since it achieved nothing.

Long answer: powerlifting

For powerlifting I use the Everlifting Modular System, which is sort of a meta-system, or perhaps a meta-model. There’s no standardized program, rather empirically tested training cycles for each individual lift implemented in different ways depending on the person and what they need at a given time.

Anecdotally it seems like my lifters take near-maximal and maximal weights more often than most lifters. The greatest gains in strength come when training at roughly 85-95% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM) so a lot of time is spent working with those weights. There’s a significant focus on skill practice (depending on the cycle) which, like strength, is also best done with heavy weights, even if the methods are different. Despite the heavy weights and a constant strive towards PB’s, the powerlifters I train rarely do a set to complete failure.

Cycles are short (typically 3-4 weeks) and highly goal specific with the idea being ‘do one thing and do it well’. Rep ranges are varied from cycle to cycle. High volume, as in 5x10 or similar, is near non-existant. Frequency and intensity are generally both favored over volume but since the cycles vary so often it’s not a set rule.

Variations are used either to fix technichal-, and mental issues (i.e. boredom, if you’re that kind of person), or an apparent muscular weakness.

Some powerlifters use ATS, a model I first came up with in 2016. Some use it as part of the Everlifting Modular System (that is as the occasional cycle) while others keep repeating it since it’s designed to work that way. Much of the above still applies: >=90% weights are lifted on a weekly basis and a medium high frequency of low to moderate reps are used. It’s more dependent on variations (typically only a third of the lifts are competition lifts) and you should be able to run the program indefinitely, constantly progressing without failure of any reps. It’s well suited for a person who thrives on new challenges and don’t mind doing a lot of sets.

Long answer: Olympic weightlifting

For Olympic weightlifting things are a bit different. I was trained in Bulgaria by Zlatan Vanev, and learned from Ivan Abadjiev and Ivan Lechev as well. I later worked alongside Vanev and whenever possible I use a similar system to the one we use. It’s the Bulgarian system. I say “whenever possible” because things are very different when you don’t study at a sport shool in Bulgaria. Me and Vanev have worked out how to apply the system to countries where people have a job and a family and perhaps only train 4-5 times per week instead of 2-3 times per day but it still requires some serious commitment.

For the people who can and want to train with this system I apply it. Changes are made depending on the person’s life situation because it’s not a fixed program - it’s a model.

With this type of training there are many maximal attempts, heavy weights, high frequency and a focus on the main lifts, squats, and pulls. I find I often need to use more variations than we do in Bulgaria because of the personality of people, but it depends. The core model can be applied with modifications to most but if you’re someone who only want to train 2-3 times per weeks it becomes difficult.

Before you try to lecture me about how Bulgarians only did max weights with snatch, clean & jerk and squats - don’t. I’m very well aware of the Bulgarian system and know several of the former top lifters. Since most of the people who come to me don’t live with the Bulgarian National team and are not at that level, they train according to a different stage of the Bulgarian system. You know that the system has different stages, right? For people at a higher level I generally use less variations and more frequent maximal weights.

For some ATS can be used for Olympic weightlifting too. In fact, it was first created for it, it just turned out to work equally well for powerlifting! It fits a personality who needs more variations and more reps to be stimulated. I will do a full writeup on ATS at some point.

Long answer: others

Others fall into two categories:

  1. Speed and strength for a particular sport.
  2. Want to be strong but no desire to compete.

For those who’re training to do well in a particular sport it all depends on the sport. Do they need to be faster? Stronger? Both? How much fatigue does sport practice cause and how can it be balanced with physical training? It varies too much to go into details.

For anyone who want to be stronger, be more athletic, feel better, recover from injury, and, well anything other than compete really! - I strongly advocate 4Life. It’s a fairly new concept I came up with. 4Life simply implies “being strong for life”, but don’t mistake it for mediocrity! It can be progressed in a way that takes a jellybean to a stage of doing seriously impressive physical feats.

If I was still a personal trainer I would use 4Life for my clients because it’s so adaptable. From helping people who just had back surgery to seriously fit people. 4Life involves a lot more than just lifting weights, like controlling your own body, not being a stiff refrigirator, not being out of breath from walking two flights of stairs, and so on. Once a basic foundation is laid, a person will naturally feel compelled to focus more on one aspect of training (like strength, speed, work capacity and so on) and it’s trivial to nudge the training towards it. 4Life is what I use for my own training these days because I have no desire to compete and want to feel like I’m in shape and strong instead of an old broken lifter. I have an article coming up on 4Life.

But there are many people who have contacted me over the years who basically want to be strong, as in strong in the big basic lifts. No shame in that. In that case I first ask if they have any specific goal (i.e., a particular lift they want to be stronger at) and if they do we’ll build it. I still think they should follow the path of 4Life but if they’re set on only ‘the big four’ or something similar then it’s their choice. Their training will, like powerlifting, be created around the Everlifting Modular System because it works equally well for it. They might take less 1RM’s, instead opt for heavy doubles and triples, and there might be slightly higher reps used more often but the principles are the same because it’s how you build strength.

These people are actually harder to train than highly motivated powerlifters (at least once you have a good understanding of how to take someone past the beginner stage) because they’re often less consistent in their training, eating-, and sleeping habits.

TL;DR

  • Powerlifters train with heavy weights most of the time. Cycles are changed often. There’s a focus on skill practice as well as strenght training. Very high volume programs are not common, medium- to high frequency is. As are PB’s in various forms.
  • Olympic weightlifters use the Bulgarian system modified to their circumstances (life, skill level, and so on) or a slightly less intense ATS with plenty of variations.
  • People training for a particular sport is impossible to explain in a brief article because the sport dictates everything.
  • People who just want to be strong or feel better should have a varied training, including controlling their own body, lifting, learning to move properly, etc. For this I use 4Life.
  • While 4Life is my preference, some want to focus on a few big basics. In that case we use the Everlifting Modular System, similar to powerlifters, but tweaked to their needs and lifts.