The Bulgarianization Experiment

Time for a little experimentation.

Recently a very strong and more importantly very promising and dedicated client of mine was going to take a holiday weekend in Las Vegas. She was not happy to be missing training. Nor was she actually interested in Vegas. She is someone who wants to train as frequently as possible and since I had watched some interviews with John Broz and read a bit on his site, I suggested she pay a visit to his gym.
Little did I know that she would follow through with my suggestion. And little did I know how spending two days with Broz would change her and profoundly influence how I coach my athletes.

From what I garnered from my client (I will call her G.), as soon as she stepped to the platform Broz knew that her challenges were going to be psychological and not physical. He had a heart-to-heart talk with her about her aspirations and insisted that she decide upon lifetime goals as soon as possible. Apparently he demands this of all his athletes and made no exception for someone whom he would only be seeing for a day or two. In the time we had worked together G. had always been very timid when approaching the bar. She possessed little confidence in her abilities to perform the required task. Yet, as the bar got heavier, she without exception pulled performances out of herself that I and bystanders in the gym found no less than ferocious and astonishing. Without digressing too much Broz made an estimation of what she needed within minutes of making her acquaintance and proceeded to provide her with some tools to rectify it. He then took her far out of her comfort zone and got her to pull a deadlift PR of something in the order of twenty pounds. I am sure it wasn't pretty but it served as a kind of limit experience and showed her what she is capable of.

When G. returned and related her experiences I immediately began to compare my own more conservative and protective practices as a coach to what Broz was doing. I grasped how good at psychology Broz was and realized that, though I have very good reasons for being more conservative in my own approach, it was time for me to start pushing out at the edges a little harder and see what would come of it. For me as a coach the Broz experience served as a lesson in how we must pay as much attention to mental development as physical. I feel that though Broz is getting more exposure of late for his approach to programming we must not overlook how his approach and the "Bulgarian" approach more broadly both requires and develops a very courageous attitude towards ones training.

Alongside a shift in attitude, G.'s visit to Average Broz Gym is also having a large impact on how I have been training my athletes. This influence I am calling The Bulgarianization Experiment. I consider it an "experiment" because I am both enthusiastic and skeptical. Skeptical because so many of my influences and mentors advocate heavy training no more than two or three times weekly and because of the claims that daily (or several times daily) squatting and training to a maximum only works with those of a very high genetic suitability and with the use of anabolics and other PEDs. Enthusiastic because Bulgarian-inspired training seems to be working for many of the top weightlifting clubs in the US, and these clubs are subjected to very rigorous drug-testing. This approach to training is refreshing compared to the three-days weekly regimes most popular amongst strength coaches in North America. Bulgarian lifters are exciting to watch and have been inordinately successful on the international stage. I doubt that the drugs they had access to were better than that of their competitors. Finally I have a number of athletes who wish to train near daily. Training in a Bulgarian-influenced style has allowed me to give them serious hard training as often as they are able to come into the gym. I have been able to dispense with upper/lower splits and excessive accessory exercises which I never really felt convinced by in the first place. Indeed it is both possible and useful to squat everyday.
I have been using Bulgarian Training-Lite and Bulgarian influences with three types of athletes.

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For those competing in raw powerlifting I have used a system based on one devised by Broz, though I have alternated volume days and max days in preparing for the first initial competition which deviates a little from his recommendations. I do not have the time with my athletes that Broz has with some of his and so changes have been necessary, Also I have been holding onto a little of my conservatism and also my attachment to somewhat higher training volume.

For weightlifters I have been using daily maxes in snatch, clean (& jerk), power versions of the lifts, back squat, front squat, overhead presses and sometimes higher volume bent-over rows from the floor. I do not have the time to do all the lifts I'd like each time so we work through a rotation which is a work-in-progress.

For athletes from other sports who come to my gym for general strength & conditioning between one and three times weekly I have for the most part stuck with working up to three work sets in the compound lifts as before but now I use much more frequent singles in the big lifts, not daily but at least every couple of weeks. Previously singles had been a rarer practice, at most once monthly.


I have definitely been seeing both immediate and medium-term benefits. The mental strength has gone way up as the athletes gain confidence in fighting with big weights. Performances have gone up very nicely. Even when plateaus are reached the lifters are often routinely handling weights that were personal records a month earlier. G., who began training for her first raw powerlifting meet shortly after her return from Vegas, began to hit 190 pound deep back squats for triples while her PR was not far off at 220. This is for a 39 year-old 114 pound female without a huge amount of training history. The psychological boon from this style of training was so great that she hit a 175 pound front squat on what I believe was her second try at that style of squatting. Despite missing two lifts in her competition she made the qualification total for Classic Nationals (the new raw national meet in Canada under the IPF) alongside her teammate Y. who was lifting in only her second meet.

A warning about this approach to training is in order. The athlete and especially the coach must pay close attention to joint health. The knees, wrists and shoulders undergo a lot of stress with high frequency and high intensity lifting. And for whatever suffering the body goes through, the mental trials can be much harder yet. As a coach it is imperative to pay as much attention to psychological states of the athletes and to learn as much about mental training as possible. I think that if one delves into Broz's writings and interviews and follows other coaches and athletes who have used a similar approach to training they will have a good start. Then much more work will need to be done.

Al Heinemann

Al Heinemann trains clients at Vancouver's Terminal City Training. Keep up with his training approach and ideas on his blog, and catch him on Twitter & Facebook.

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