If you like what’s in this article, you might want to check out my book, Squat Every Day, which covers this topic in much more detail.
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There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in frequent ‘daily’ training and the Bulgarian weightlifting system, and yet very little written about how to adapt this system from weightlifting to more traditional gym-lifting or powerlifting programs. I want to use this article to sketch out some ideas on how to organize such a system.
Those of you familiar with Boris Sheiko’s powerlifting workouts will find a lot of similarities. Sheiko is far more “Russian” than the system I’m going to outline, with a much more structured approach to daily and weekly volume. As different as these systems appear, superficially, they have the same goal — to manipulate intensity and volume between harder and lighter workouts, and across heavier and lighter weeks.
The “Russian-ness” of the Sheiko system means a rigid structure. Percentages are planned in advance, as are exercises and working sets for the following month. While this strategy unquestionably works, I prefer a more flexible approach. While the end-goal is the same, the Bulgarian system manipulates intensity and volume using a fluid, self-adjusted system that doesn’t require a previous max or confine you to pre-planned numbers.
The wisdom behind this method startles most old dogs (or those that like to think of themselves as old dogs): you train with max lifts on a (near-)daily basis, and then plan the rest of your workout from that performance.
This goes against nearly everything taught by the mainstream strength & conditioning field. And yet, it works. You get your Hardgainers and other recovery minimalists convinced that Doing Less is the only way to succeed, but I’m not going to let theoretical arguments argue with my own results. Make no mistake, I was skeptical as anyone — until I tried it. A few months later, after setting consistent PRs on my Friday test night — with four days of max squatting behind me — I became a believer.
Regardless of the science behind it, regardless of what you may think about doping claims or your fears of overtraining, the system works. All other considerations are secondary to effectiveness.
You are not a fragile ornament ready to collapse into an exhausted mass of goo simply because you squatted more than once in a 7-day week.
I don’t expect to make believers. If you’re interested in the system I’ve found to be effective, then read on. If you think I’m wrong because you read about overtraining on the internet, there’s a Hardgainer forum somewhere that’s glad to have you.
I adapted this system from a variety of sources. John Broz, Glenn Pendlay, Michael Hartman, Jamie Lewis, and Anthony Ditillo would be the largest inspiration. Although this is a “Bulgarian-inspired” system of training, the target is strength in the pool of core barbell lifts. Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about how you can only train the quick lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) frequently because they don’t have an eccentric phase and all of that. Let me address that with two observations.
- Squatting and pressing movements can be trained in the same way as the quick lifts. It is possible to treat even maximal (above 90%) loads as explosive lifts. They will never be fast, but they can be smooth. I’m going to suggest that paying attention to your RPE, how the lift feels on a continuum from smooth to grinding, is critical for making this system work. Your nervous system is remarkably adept at matching your perception of difficulty with its actual difficulty, and we’re going to make use of that.
- See the above point about your body being more robust than you think. You have an incredible safety margin built into your movement (see Tim Noakes’s central governor), and if you’re smart about organizing your training according to autoregulatory feedback, you can thrive on a truly spectacular amount of work — even working up to heavy lifts on a daily basis. The urban legend about squats being harder to recover from because they have an eccentric element is just that — a legend. It’s workload and psychological stress that matters, not the exercise.
The template is organized around two possible structures. You’ll do a press at every workout, along with 1. a squat and a pull or 2. two pulls.
The squat is self-explanatory. The mainstay is the back squat, but you can sub in front squats or box squats as you see fit. Pressing can be the bench press, or military press, or push press, or inclines. Pulling means either deadlifts or Olympic pulls (whether full lifts, power versions, or just high pulls) for the lower body, or rowing and chinning movements for the upper.
On squat days, I lean towards doing the pull for the upper body. On days with two pulls, you can do one upper and one lower (i.e., deads and chins), or two lower (i.e., snatch pull and power clean). I’ll cover more on exercise substitutions further down.
I’ve found that two big lifts for the day is about right. You’d want to focus most of your effort on the squat (or pull) and press movements, while leaving the third exercise as an easier accessory movement. If you’re squatting and pressing hard, leave the pull for an easier upper-back exercise like chinups or high-rep (Kroc) rows.
You could throw real effort into all three, if you think that will be valuable. I can only tell you what I’ve found to be useful for myself. Adding more exercises is certainly possible if you’ve got the time and energy, but beware. This quickly turns into adding things for the sake of adding things, and you do not want that with this style of training.
Keep the exercises to the minimum set of most-effective lifts.
The Daily Maximum and Training Weights
For this system to work it is absolutely critical that you understand what ‘daily maximum’ means. In most programs you see, the 1RM is based on a contest max — the best you can do up on the platform. A contest max means meet-nerves, adrenaline, and the whole psych-up of lifing in front of a crowd. A gym-lift can’t approach that kind of mental intensity.
The Russians found that the psychological arousal of a competition max can add as much as 10% to a lifter’s best in the gym. All you guys that need to tank up on caffeine and ephedrine and geranamine, pay attention here: when you rely on stimulants and loud music and yelling to get through your session, you’re emulating that contest max, including all the staleness and CNS burn-out that comes with it. If you do this on the Bulgarian system, you will die. Muscles recover much faster than the system-wide disruption you cause when you get riled up to blast yourself with maximum sets. Respect that and you can lift as often as you want.
Bulgarian training demands a daily training max, the best you can lift right now without getting worked up. No stimulants, no psych-up, no nerves. Just go lift it.
You’ll know when this happens. When lifts slow down, getting out of the ‘springy’ zone and starting to grind, you’re there. Some of you may prefer the RPE score. Using Mike Tuscherer’s scale, you’d stop when you hit a hard 8 or easy 9. You want the daily max to be challenging, to the point that you wouldn’t be able to get a second rep with your heaviest weight, but still confident you didn’t leave it all in the gym.
After hitting your best for the day, you have the option of adding back-off sets. Drop down by 10% and do singles or doubles with that weight. I like to throw in a time limit here. When you first add back-offs, set a reasonable time limit. Ten minutes is about right. As you get more adapted, you can gradually expand that to 15 or 20 minutes. The time limit is to keep you moving; if you have to rest longer than around two minutes on a back-off set, that’s your signal to wrap it up. You’re done.
The back-off sets are always optional. If you’re having a bad day and feel wiped, they can be left out. Remember, always err on the side of doing too little. When you do this right, you’ll leave the gym feeling like you didn’t do enough. This is what you want.
The Introductory Template
You’ll start this template on a non-consecutive three-day schedule, either Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Squat and Press all three days, and one day have a deadlift workout with a lighter squat day.
As per above, the back-offs are optional. You might find that you can jump right in (be sure to remember the time limit if you do). Some of you might find that the back-offs are too much while you’re adapting. On the three-day schedule, you’ll probably be fine.
Lighter squat means that you only work up to 80-85% of your normal max weights and skip back-offs. You could do front squats on this day, since they’re lighter by definition.
The other option for the brave among you is to dive right in and try this 5-6 days a week. Choosing this option requires a different mental strategy, because your day to day performances will start to mess with your head. I had many weeks where I’d have unbelievably bad workouts on Tuesday and Wednesday, only to come in Friday and break a PR. It’s like the system was taunting me, then rewarding me for sticking with it.
If you do this and aren’t sure of your recovery ability, you might want to program in a lighter rest week every third week. A lighter week means only 2-3 sessions, weights no heavier than 60-70%, and absolutely no back-off sets. If you’re a 300+ squatter and 400+ puller, this means 225 squats and 315 pulls. Light means light. This is tonic work to keep your body moving and keep the groove of the movements. Just as the heavy weeks teach you to train heavy, the light weeks teach you to hold back.
If you went with the three-day template, you’ll have the option to start adding workouts as you adapt. These will be light ‘speed’ sessions at first, limiting weights to around 70-80% of your most recent daily max. If you worked up to a 200kg squat on Monday, then you might do a light session the next day with doubles at 140-160kg.
Once you’re lifting nearly every day, Abadjiev suggests adding in morning sessions to work as a primer for the heavier afternoon training, echoing Pavel’s ‘grease the groove’ concept. Jason Keene’s now vanished Boiler Room Gym site had an article on Bulgarian training which echoed that suggestion. The archived version of the article can be found here, and is worth reading. If you don’t have the time or inclination to lift twice a day, I understand — I never found any reason to do so. The option is there, in any case.
When I trained this way, I took the dive-right-in approach. I started going to the gym five days a week and didn’t worry about the weights I could use. I wanted to build conditioning for the frequency first, then let weights increase after I adjusted. This ‘manual labor’ approach is like getting a job on a construction site. You might hate life the first two weeks. After that, you get used to it.
I don’t know which way is superior. If I were planning to use this system year-round, I would go for Abadjiev’s approach, adding workouts slowly as you adapt to each stage. For brief spells, up to 5-6 months I’d just jump right into it and let the magic happen.
I’m of two minds on exercise substitution. I think that variety has its place if you aren’t training for a specific competition (i.e., powerlifting). Variety can be psychologically motivating.
You might find that rotating through different kinds of squats (back, front, box) or using different bars (regular, cambered, SSB) is productive. You might likewise use boards or floor presses, or different kinds of overhead work. Pulling can rotate through deadlifts (from the floor, from a deficit, or off blocks at different heights), cleans and snatches, high pulls with clean and snatch grip, or even good mornings.
There are no hard rules here. If you want to stick to a pool of just 3-4 movements, that’s fine. If you want to rotate, that seems like it would work fine too. What I’m getting at is, do what you like and what you find to be most productive.
Unloading Weeks and Recovery Blocks
I’ll warn you up front that you will most likely need a few weeks to adjust, and while that’s happening you may feel pretty bad. Symptoms will vary, but at the minimum you might expect persistent low-grade soreness, lethargy and loss of motivation, irritability, and ‘the mystery pain’. Once your tissues adapt to regular training, cytokines stop signaling the brain to feel bad, and you’ll tend to feel better (at least in my personal experience).
I’m coming to the conclusion that this first round of feeling bad, what Broz calls the ‘dark times’, is not actually overtraining or it’s friend staleness. You’re adjusting, the same way you’d adjust to a new job as a laborer. When you first started lifting weights, you probably felt pretty awful for a few days after your workout. Did that mean you shouldn’t lift again because you felt bad? Of course not. CNS fatigue is the nervous system’s version of DOMS.
Overtraining and staleness are very real and something we should look out for, but we can’t rely on feeling bad to tell us when this is happening. Under Abadjiev, the Bulgarians unloaded one week out of every four, and, for part of the year, they’d use unloading cycles with one hard week and three easy weeks. I
The other school of thought says to autoregulate your rest days, only taking days off when you really need them, and letting the training guide you. John Broz advocates this approach, as did Anthony Ditillo, and Jamie Lewis of Chaos & Pain fame suggests the same. I’ve found this to be effective in the short-term, though you’ll probably want to take 1-2 weeks of lighter training after a few months of this. You can train your recovery ability to an exceptional degree, but exceptional is still a far cry from infinite. We’ve shifted the need for rest away from workout-to-workout thinking, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for recovery.
My advice is a compromise. I don’t have a coach to guide me, so I’m reliant on my own feedback to guide my lifting. I don’t completely trust my personal feedback due to the head games of lifting, and you’re not any different. In the absence of a coach to guide the program, this means we need more structured off-days and down weeks.
A good rule of thumb: for every two to three hard weeks, take an easy week. Poster Duane Hansen on the Power & Bulk boards suggested a very practical approach:
I have found it useful in the long run to plan your heavy and light weeks of lifting. The plan that seems to work best is two heavy weeks (where you work as hard and heavy as you can manage) followed by an easy (or deload) week where you cut the total volume in half and rarely (if ever) lift a weight more than 80% of your best. The actual days during the heavy weeks have a bit of wiggle room. Some days you are on top of the world and can do anything. Other days will be not so good. The thing is to work hard enough each day during the heavy weeks (depending on how things are going that particular day) and force yourself to take it easy during the deload weeks.
My second point is that lifters need to learn how to really back off after pushing themselves. After a week or two of busting ass, spend a week lifting ridiculously easy weights. The body responds to contrasts in stress, i.e., overtraining followed by undertraining. Most people will train at about the same level of intensity and volume for their entire career and the best they will ever accomplish is to get to the baseline level of performance that they were capable of on the first day that they walked into the gym. Some people will be able to push their body and their performance very, very hard, but they will never learn how to take a break and allow their body to recover from this stress. The lifters who make long-term progress learn how to push their training to the edge of their tolerance and then back off enough to let their body adapt to the stress. The body needs to have periods of stress and recovery to force it to adapt. The mind of the athlete needs to allow these periods of stress and recovery to happen. Often it is harder to spend a week doing less work with small weights than it is to push your body balls to the walls, but the recovery piece is arguably more important than the stress piece, at least in the long-term.
I would take this advice to heart. The point of the unloading week is to create contrast. The hard weeks train you to push hard, physically and mentally. The easy weeks should teach you to relax. Relax with the weights, and relax your mind when approaching the weights.
If you’re only spending part of the year, up 4-6 months, on this plan, I think you’d have more leeway with the self-regulated rest days. By the time accumulated fatigue catches up to you, you’ll be ready for some downtime and a fresh program anyway. Using this system year-round, I would put more thought into structured rest.
You might be one of those with really poor recovery, or Real Life factors that limit recovery. If that’s you, I’d suggest sticking to the two weeks hard, one week easy system. Or just train this way 3-4 days a week.
Gaining Muscle Mass
The objection I hear most often is that high-frequency and gaining muscle are mutually exclusive. I’m not sure I buy that. Muscle mass follows the same stress-relax-recover adaptation curve as any other quality: repeated workouts add up their effects over time, with both gains and fatigue building up. Even if you aren’t allowing full recovery between workouts, you’re still ramping up all the fitness-boosting stuff in the muscle cells. Performance (growth, in this case) is masked by the accumulation of fatigue.
When you do finally scale back the workloads, the fatigue dissipates and the new adaptation fully realizes itself. It’s like stretching a rubber band and letting it pop; the harder you pull, the harder it snaps back. I believe this applies to muscle mass just as much as strength or power. Muscle doesn’t recover on a workout-to-workout basis.
Leo Costa’s Serious Growth manuals adapted the Bulgarian system to bodybuilding programs. While I like the look of these programs, I can’t personally comment on their effectiveness. Everyone I know who has tried them has spoken highly of them, and always with the qualifier ‘yeah I did great on that program, until I found out it was overtraining’. Go figure.
My personal view is that, when used for brief phases of hard training and followed by a phase of light training, you could make this work for bulk-building. Costa’s programs do exactly that, involving a hard ramp-up phase followed by an easier recovery phase. Programs for muscle-group specialization would be another option.
If you limit a session to only 1-2 top sets, you can get away with sets of 5-6 on a big lift and sets of 8-12 on an isolation move, which would probably be better for growth. If you’re strapped for time, definitely think about rotating through specialization phases, where you train an upper body group and a lower body group, switching the targeted muscles every 3-4 weeks.
No Musts or Oughts
Everything I’ve written in this article should be taken with a grain of salt and always subject to your own findings. I’ve tried to qualify everything as opinion, either mine or someone I feel is worth listening to, which means that there are no rules.
Training this way is very subjective. I can’t give you a fixed list of things you should do, or must do, or ought to do. If you disagree with any point I made and find you do better by ignoring my guidelines, I encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing. Nothing here is beyond challenge, and I find that the lack of Must Do rules is a strength of this method. There are only good ideas worth trying for yourself.
Your success or failure on this system depends entirely on your frame of mind. Walking into this kind of training with a defeatist attitude, convinced that it won’t work, that you’ll overtrain, that you’ll get hurt, all but guarantees that these things will happen.
The first step to success in this program (or any program) is to trust what you’re doing. Believing in the program and enjoying what you’re doing creates a placebo effect. Your frame of mind can generate stress or it can encourage recovery.
Won’t I fatigue my CNS?
Short answer, no. CNS fatigue is a product of psychological and emotional stress, rather than the weight you lift. If you follow the advice in this article, staying away from weights that make you nervous and not loading up on pre-workout stimulants, you’ll be fine.
The assumption that CNS-intensive training requires 48 hours of rest is not faulty, but it does require that you’re actually exhausting the CNS. Current neurological research doesn’t support the idea that central drive, the ‘oomph’ of the CNS, diminishes with training unless you make attempts at very high exertion. If you aren’t getting nervous to lift a weight, and if you take care not to miss lifts in training, then you won’t be exhausting the CNS.
This system is designed to minimize those exhausting, high-exertion attempts. Meanwhile, your nervous system gradually adapts to the stress of lifting heavy weights. Remember, you always want to leave feeling like you could do more. This feeling of energy and motivation results from the positive, stimulating effects on the CNS, not exhaustion.
Follow the guidelines and you’ll be fine.
Other posts by me:
- Inflammation and Daily Training
- Observations on Bulgarian Strength Training
- How much can the CNS handle?
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