Observations on Bulgarian-inspired strength training

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As I’ve alluded to in the past few posts and many of my Twitter updates, I’ve been experimenting with high-frequency training in a half-hearted manner for the last few months and with more commitment over the last six weeks. I’ve amassed a number of general observations and nuggets of practical wisdom that I want to lay out in no particular order.

  • The individual workouts have to take a back seat to the overall training effect. This means that showing up and doing something is better than taking the day off because you don’t feel like squatting again.
  • You must have some way of grading your effort, whether that is recording RPEs or just knowing when the lift stops being springy and explosive. Grinding or “training on nerve” is a no-no.
  • “Squatting to a max daily” sounds far more sensational than the reality. Non-psyched daily maxes aren’t nearly as strenuous as psyched-up or “intense” contest-type maxes.
  • Pre-workout stimulants and “training on nerve” should be kept to a minimum. I have a coffee before I lift because I train at 7am. Otherwise, keep the workouts as free-range as possible.
  • Same for gear. All my lifts are being done completely raw, which in this case means no belt.
  • The common thread here is to remove things which might artificially increase your ability to handle weight. To train frequently requires scaling back your perceived effort in each session. Training aids may boost your ego but the added stress is not compatible with frequent lifting.
  • Do lots of warmup sets. I consider eight sets to be the minimum as you ramp up to the daily max. Lots of small jumps with brief rest intervals is better than fewer bigger jumps. This will also impact your daily max. This is also good.
  • The absolute weight you lift on a given day really does matter. I began with front squats, which limited the weight I would handle any given workout. I’ve begun to rotate back squats in on alternate days, which substantially increases the absolute weight on my back. The difference is relevant. Plan to have bad workouts when you increase the stress in ways such as this.
  • If you’re just starting this kind of plan, being conservative will pay off dividends. Get used to the frequency first, by training often and working to conservative daily maxes. Once you’ve done this for a month or so, you can start to add in more warmups and add in back-off sets. Do this gradually and do not be afraid to cut the back-offs out if your recovery is substantially affected.
  • How you feel on any given day is deceptive. You will have many days where you come in sore and feeling like crap. You will have good workouts despite this. You will also have bad workouts just as you’d expect. If you keep showing up, you will be pleasantly surprised.
  • The idea behind this system is to adapt to the frequent workloads. The bad workouts and the good workouts are unimportant next to this. You are conditioning your body for a specific adaptation. The payoff will come months down the line, not with instant PRs. Your body will adapt if you are consistent and patient.
  • As you adapt to each new level of stress, the PRs will start to come anyway.
  • While it’s too soon to say for sure, there are some potentially interesting effects on body composition. I’m noticing improved size in the hips, thighs, shoulders, arms, and chest. This could be because I’ve been unable to train these muscle groups in any serious way for the last few years. It could also be from the frequent overload. It could be both. It could be all in my head.
  • You can eat much more food. In fact, you probably should in order to support the training.
  • Something will hurt every day. Ibuprofen and Tiger Balm will be your friends.
  • My chronic injuries, specifically partial tears in my right shoulder and a tear in my right quad, are both complaining about this in subtle ways, but despite that they feel much less fragile than any point I can recall.
  • As I suggested yesterday, controlling inflammation may be critical for this to work, especially at each stage of the process. Training to a daily max 5-6 days a week is not, in itself, that hard if you are in any kind of shape. Doing lots of warmups and several back-offs may change this. Stay on top of recovery methods between workouts. Ice sore muscles. Take ibuprofen. Keep your diet nutrient-rich and preferably calorie-rich.
  • It may be that the biggest benefit of this kind of training is the mental toughness and perspective that comes along with it. The Smolov squat cycle and the Russian squat routine once looked outrageous. Now they don’t seem so bad.
  • You also realize how much you truly are capable of if you just ignore the body’s sickness signals and go lift anyway. The weights still go up. You just feel like crap in the mean time. Even that fades with time.
  • We’ve all taken it for granted that, when we start to feel burnt out, we should rest, and if we don’t, we’ll soon be overtraining. But if our goal is to force an adaptation to a new level of performance, does that follow? In evolutionary terms, there would be little benefit to the need to rest for 48-72 hours between strenuous bouts of exercise. We assign a special argument to resistance training, yet there is only a circumstantial scientific basis for doing so.
  • As I noted yesterday, the brain adapts to exercise-induced stressors. It is conceivable, to the point of likely, that even the CNS and its cascade of “overtraining effects” would adapt to Bulgarian-style lifting if the stimulus to do so is provided.
  • I would also suggest that this adaptive pressure only holds true if you’re training within certain boundaries. Those boundaries are more than we’ve been led to believe, with 100% certainty. However there are still limits. Doing lots of short heavy sets with moderate exertion is different from racking up 50 sets of “bodybuilding style” training to a point of exhaustion.
  • I’m of the belief that the boundary is past the point where physiological signals tell us to stop, but before the point of true exhaustion, where truly insane drug-assisted training programs come into the picture. That grey area is what is worth exploring, and what I’m attempting to explore with this approach.
  • My prediction is that you will require down or unloading weeks from time to time. I also predict that if you are paying attention to the daily max concept, this will happen on its own (i.e., you simply won’t be able to rack up stressful amounts of work without breaking the rule on no grinders).
  • I would also suggest that this kind of training would complement a more intensity-based style of lifting after an interval of 4-8 weeks to milk the adaptations. It would be useful to consider this concentrated loading or accumulation training.

19 thoughts on “Observations on Bulgarian-inspired strength training

  1. So you haven't deloaded purposely at all this entire time? I get that your autoregulatory indicators (RPE, how the weight goes up, etc) will back off volume/intensity slightly. But has that been the extent of it?

    • Ya. There's been no programming at all, towards either peaks or unloading, in that time frame. Only what I can hit on any given day, with back-off sets planned from that daily max.

  2. So are you using an upper/lower type split on alternating days? I was envisioning squatting or lower body 3 times per week, with an upper body 2 times per week?

    • That would certainly work, and may be a better option over the long term or if you find you don't tolerate the daily frequency.

      What I'm doing at the moment is alternating back SQ with front SQ, bench press with push press, each day. I deadlift on Thursdays, instead of whatever squat falls on that day. This is going on Monday through Friday, with weekends off.

  3. Amazing article Matt, I've also followed the discussion at Glenn Pendlay's forum.

    I'm definitively giving this a try, but I was wondering : is it required to do singles like you're doing, or sets of 5's or even higher reps could fit in (assuming the auto-regulatory thing as a staple)?

    • Higher reps could work but you wouldn't be able to do the daily max option IMO. You'd wear yourself out trying to find the weight for the day. What might work well with higher reps (say 5-6s) would be to stick with a single top set each day, and then maybe a back-off or two. As per the article, this weight should be an 8-9 RPE, which means still relatively heavy but not a max. Warm up, hit the weight, knock off 10-20kg and do a couple back off sets.

      You might do well to auto-regulate it like that recent paper I looked at on APRE. If you can hit say 7 or more reps with that sub-max RPE, then increase the weight next time. If you do under five, then drop the weight back. If you consistently hit 5-6, then stick with it.

  4. That's exactly what I'm doing Matt (I must be some sort of training guru).

    Since I'm a little bit obsessive-compulsive about proper form, I just stop ramping up as soon as the execution deteriorate and/or feels grindish. And also, no back-sets at all for now, I want to get into this style of training as gradually as possible, so I'll wait at least 1 month (as you outlined in the article) before adding volume.

    I completed only one week but for now it feels great, both from a physical and a psychological standpoint.

    I've followed basically your "template" changing only the exercises (I've alternated Box Squat/Close Grip Bench Press/Row with Front Squat/Overhead Press/Lat Machine, removing the Squat in favor of a Sumo DL on Wednesday) and of course the reps (sets of 4-6), and throwing in some abs and calves stuff at the end of the workout. Maybe I have to eliminate those ones also, dunno.

    Thanks again.

  5. "My prediction is that you will require down or unloading weeks from time to time."

    Not according to Broz. He says that one will inevitably get injured no matter how you train. These periods should be treated as naturally-occuring unloading times (not for taking off, but for training around the injuries. Otherwise, he says, one schedules in unloading weeks AND gets injured – more excuse for not doing the work.

    Of course he also keeps a careful watch on his lifters – if they're losing their snap he changes or ends the workout irrespective of how the lifter feels.

    • Steve I know what Broz said. The rest weeks are from my own comments and experiences with the system, mainly because I don't tend to have someone standing there guiding my sets. I'd be better to err on the side of conservative and take real easy weeks instead of just letting the program totally autoregulate it. It doesn't have to be an either/or thing.

  6. Matt,

    Broz wrote this about daily maxes:

    1) In the lifts: bar, 50kg for as many as it takes to look good, fast and comfortable, then usually 20kg jumps to about 80% for dubs, then 10kg jump to 90% for singles then 5kg up to max for singles. 6 attempts at max is the usual norm

    What is your experience with this? How would you recommend to do the daily max for people, like you said, that don't have someone there to guide them.

    Thanks,
    Eric

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