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Ivan Abadjiev and Bulgarian Weightlifting

Gold Coast Health, Fitness & Personal Training Post - Monday, June 20, 2011

World Champion Weightlifter, Ivan AdadjievAt the recent Eleiko Strength Summit in Rhode Island, I had the pleasure of listening to the former Bulgarian & Turkish weightlifting coach, Ivan Adadjiev.

Abadjiev is quite famous in weightlifting circles and somewhat revolutionized the sport of weightlifting (and training athletes in general) with a radically different approach to training.  As a lifter himself, he won a silver medal in weightlifting at the 1957 World Championships.  After finishing his athletic career, Abadjiev started training young weightlifters.

At the time, Bulgaria was still basically a satellite country for the Soviet Union and as such followed their training regimes.  To cut a long story short, Abadjiev did not really share the same training philosophy as the Russians who used a wide variety of exercises and spent most of their training time lifting weights at 85% of their maximum.  He decided that his lifters would only focus on the competition lifts (clean & jerk and snatch) along with front squat and back squat.  He also decreed that his lifters should spend most of their time lifting at or above 95% of their maximum.  Not only this but he demanded a much higher workload from his athletes.  For instance in Russian training manuals that were current at the time Abadjiev was coaching, it states that an experienced lifter at a certain weight should not lift over 1000 tonne per calendar year.  At the seminar, he revealed a Bulgarian weightlifter’s training log who was in the same weight class where the weight lifted in that particular day was 66 tonne – meaning the lifter would have lifted over 1000 tonne in 15 training days!

Because of his different and near maximal training methods, he got in a lot of trouble with the Bulgarian sports administrators.  In fact, he openly admits that even with the performances of his youth team, he was lucky not to be kicked out of the sport.  To put this in perspective, his young lifters won some of Bulgaria’s first medals in the Junior World Championships and set multiple world records by massive margins (from memory, as much as 30kg in one division)!  Because of that success, he eventually got the job as the head coach of Bulgaria’s weight lifting team, which had never been a serious challenger in international competitions for a number of years. After he took over the struggling mens’ team, they went on to win multiple world & Olympic medals with a number of world records falling in the process.  From memory, as it stands now, there have only been 6 people to lift 3 times their body weight over their head – all 6 have been Bulgarian and all 6 had been coached by Abadjiev!


Naim Suleymanoglu is one Abadjiev's greatest lifters

This of course demonstrates that what he does works and is quite evidence based.  During his talk, Abadjiev really impressed me as a weightlifting coach who had immense knowledge of physiology, chemistry and the laws of adaptation in the human body.  Here are a few of the gems he revealed in his talk:

The human body is just like another animal – it adapts to the environment it is placed in.  As such with training, you need to sufficiently stress the athlete (or yourself) enough to cause adaptation to occur. 

And just like any other animal, Abadjiev trains his lifters to be able to lift maximal weights with as little as possible warm up.  For instance, an antelope cannot not ask the lion to wait until he has stretched has hammies or take 10 warm up sets before the lion tries to run him down!  The translator of Abadjiev’s talk was also one of his lifters who mentioned that he likes to get to his max with only 3 to 4 warm up lifts.

Abadjiev mentioned adrenaline can replace anabolic steroids as a training aid and that you need a certain amount of adrenaline before the lifter will be able to lift maximal loads.  To show him that there is enough adrenaline in an athlete’s system, Abadjiev requires a heart rate of above 180 bpm after finishing maximal single repetitions.  There is also a much better efficiency of ATP (our cell’s energy source) at these heart rates.  Afterwards the translator (who is a very talented weightlifter) mentioned that he has never been able to get above 180bpm on single reps and Abadjiev will simply tell him he is not trying hard enough!

One theory Abadjiev mentioned was Hyden’s Theory Of Protein Memory.  To keep this shorter than a thesis, proteins are needed for muscle strength and growth.  Proteins also remember at which intensity they were developed e.g. 70%, 80% or 90% or maximal weight.  Because of this, Abadjiev said that there is no use developing protein structures at less than 95% of maximal load because you do not need them for competition.  Weight lifters are only required to lift maximal weights in competition so it is a waste of time developing lower intensity protein structures.

Because at 95% of maximum in all sports coordination starts to falter, Abadjiev does not care too much if lifters do not make or succeed at new maximal weights when they first attempt them.  He mentioned he normally allows 3 “misses” or failed attempts before moving on (although the translator had sometimes had up to 12 misses at a weight before he was allowed to move on!!) Eventually however the stress adaptation to loads of above 95% level leads to production of specific proteins that are needed to be successful at those weights.  I suppose you could use the old motto – “if at first you do not succeed, try, try and try again!”

So we all can understand what the training sessions looked like, this is a rough template of what most of his lifters would complete:

AM Workout: Squat, Snatch, Clean & Jerk, Snatch, Squat

PM Workout: Squat, Clean & Jerk, Snatch, Clean & Jerk, Squat

And in each exercise (even in the exercise where there are two in each session), the lifter would normally work up to his max weight that he could lift for one repetition and then take 10% off the bar and complete 2 sets of 2 reps. Remember that these sessions would normally be completed 6 days a week!

The great coach a.k.a. "The Butcher" and myself at The Eleiko Strength Summit

It is fair to say, Abadjiev's approach is massively different from traditional sport training models.  As always let me know what you think.  Or even if you think you would be up to training like the Bulgarians??!!

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