Please, if you haven't attempted this kind of training before - or you haven't performed it long enough to give it a "proper test drive" - then don't dismiss it. You will be pleasantly surprised with the results.
The Bulgarian Method for Massive Muscles
In previous articles for PM, I have discussed the efficacy of high-frequency training. High frequency training is effective because the more frequently you can train a muscle group, the faster you will grow muscle and build strength. Notice that I didn’t say that the more frequently you train a muscle group, the faster will your results be. For instance, there’s no way that you can do a typical bodybuilding workout (lots of sets, lots of reps, sets to failure, etc.) for each muscle group multiple times per week. However, there are other forms of training high frequency training that you can do (and should do, at least periodically).
This article is about one such method. But before we get to the details, a little backtracking is in order.
Frequency, Intensity, and Volume
Any well-designed program must take into account three important variables: frequency, intensity, and volume. Programs that fail are ones that don’t properly manipulate and control these variables. For instance, if you were to perform a program for lots of sets, lots of reps, and lots of intensity multiple times per week, you would be setting yourself up to fail – and would surely do so. If any two of the variables are high, then the other variable must be low. (But I’m getting ahead of myself; we’ll get around to that shortly.) First, a brief discussion of each variable.
Frequency is the number of times that you train a muscle. A lot of programs will take into account how often you train each muscle on a monthly (or even yearly) basis. But I don’t think all of that’s necessary. What is necessary is that you monitor what you are doing on a weekly basis. (Obviously, the more frequently that you train a muscle group each week, less volume and intensity should be used.)
Intensity is a bit more confusing for a lot of readers. In bodybuilding circles, intensity tends to refer to how hard you train each muscle group. Such is the case with Mike Mentzer’s “heavy duty” training or Eric Broser’s articles for Planet Muscle. However, in this article, I’m going to be using intensity as its referred to by most powerlifters and Olympic lifters. In this case, intensity refers to % of your one-rep maximum—basically, the heavier that you train, the higher your intensity.
Volume refers to the amount of total work you do in each workout session, and then in the course of a week of training. Volume is the one variable that a lot of bodybuilders have the hardest time controlling. It’s easy to add sets and reps during a workout, and let your total volume exceed what your body is capable of recovering from.
As I was saying earlier, two of your variables can (and should) be fairly high, which means that the other variable must be relatively low. Take the traditional bodybuilding program (the kind that you typically see in the pages of PM). It is relatively high in volume and intensity, and low in frequency. I think this kind of program is most common because it’s easy to design, control, and understand – it doesn’t take a lot of thought, and (of course) it’s effective for a lot of lifters. Basically, you just “bomb and blitz” a muscle with a lot of sets, reps, and plenty of heavy weight, then you give it a week to recover. But it doesn’t mean that this is the only way you can train. (And it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s even the best way to train—although this kind of training should be used at times during a training year.)
In Europe and in countries from the former Soviet empire, powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and (yes) even bodybuilders take a different approach. Russian lifters (and those lifters inspired by Russian-style training), for example, tend to keep volume and frequency high, while intensity is low. Whereas lifters who use the Bulgarian approach tend to favor high intensity and frequency, with fairly low volume. Of the two, the Bulgarian method is the easiest to control – and thus it’s more ideal for the average lifter. Which brings us around to the training program in this article.
The Bulgarian Method
“If your family was captured, and you were told you needed to put 100 pounds on your max squat in two months or your family would be executed, would you squat once per week? Something tells me that you’d start squatting every day. Other countries have this mindset. America does not.”
—Olympic lifting coach John Broz
The Bulgarian “method” really isn’t a method at all; it’s more of an approach to training. It basically involves working up to a max single on a select few exercises, and doing this multiple times throughout the week. For instance, a lifter may work up to a max squat and a max clean on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and may work up to a max front squat and a max snatch on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
When lifters in the West see this kind of training, they usually dismiss it outright. Unaccustomed to seeing such frequent intensity, they believe this kind of training can only be done by the genetically gifted and/or the chemically enhanced. But this isn’t necessarily the case. There are instances of lifters who are not genetically gifted, nor are they on any kind of performance enhancement drugs, who have achieved great results on this kind of program. Olympic lifting coaches such as the aforementioned John Broz have lifters who thrive on this kind of training, even though their lifters often have families and full-time jobs.
The Bulgarian method works for a couple of reasons. First, the volume is relatively low. You will not be performing a lot of hard sets for multiple reps. This allows your body to recover in a relatively short amount of time.
Second, your body becomes its function. You will never be fully recovered between each session. But that’s okay. You will eventually adapt. Let’s say you have a job hauling hay. All day long, you’re picking up heavy hay bails, tossing them around, and by the end of the day you’re sore and tired as hell. The next day you get up to do it again, and it’s even worse. You have a hard time even making it through an entire day’s work. But do you quit? No, you need your job. And, eventually, within a few weeks you’re tossing hay bails as if there’s nothing to it. Your body will adapt!
The following program is performed 5 days per week. It’s very basic, but this doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Let’s take a look at the program first, then I’ll give you some pointers for getting the most out of it.
- Squats: Work up to a maximum single. Take your time, making sure you do enough “ramp up” sets. The heavier your max, the more sets will be needed. Let’s assume you have a max squat of somewhere around 315 pounds. Your sets may look something like this: empty bar x 5 reps, 135 x 5 reps, 185 x 5 reps, 225 x 3 reps, 275 x 1 rep, 305 x 1 rep, 315 x 1 rep.
- Squats: 3 sets of 3 reps. After you work up to your maximum single for the day, take off some weight and perform 3 sets of 3 reps. These should be tough, but not all-out. Our 315 max squatter, for instance, should go down to around 225 pounds for all 3 sets of 3 reps.
- Power Cleans: Work up to a maximum single. Use the same method of “ramping up” as the squats. The difference here is that you will not do any down sets of 3 reps.
- Standing Overhead Presses: Work up to a maximum single.
- Standing Overhead Presses: After you work up to your maximum single for the day, strip off some weight and perform 3 sets of 3 reps.
- Snatches or Power Snatches: Work up to a maximum single. As with the exercises from day one, take your time, making sure that you perform enough “ramp up” sets.
- Bench Presses or Dumbbell Bench Presses: Work up to a maximum single.
Day Three: Repeat Day One
Day Four: Off
Day Five: Repeat Day Two
Day Six: Repeat Day One
Day Seven: Off
Here are some tips for getting the most out of this program:
- On the second week of training, once again you want to start with the “Day One” workout. This means that every week you will be squatting, cleaning, and overhead pressing three times per week. These exercises are easier to recover from, and should be performed more frequently.
- Do not add exercises or sets. You reach a point of diminishing returns with this kind of program, where extra sets and reps lessens your results.
- After a few weeks of training, it’s okay to change to some new exercises. Front squats, dumbbell overhead presses, overhead squats, and clean and jerks are some exercises that lend themselves well to frequent training.
- Do not deadlift frequently. It’s hard to recover from a deadlift, due to the direct stress it places on your lower back. If you want to incorporate deadlifts into your program, do them about once every 10 days, in place of squats or power cleans.
- Do not get “psyched up” for any of your maximum singles. Doing so makes it harder to recover from your workouts due to the stress it places on your nervous system.
- Do not perform barbell bench press more than twice per week for an extended period of time. Overhead presses are good for your rotator cuffs; bench presses are not.
- Do eat a lot of food while performing this program. You need the calories to grow big and strong, and to promote as much recovery as possible. Eat at least 12 to 15 times your bodyweight in calories on a daily basis, and consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight daily.
After a few months using this method, you will probably want to switch over to a more conventional program. But if you’ve never tried this kind of program before, don’t be afraid to give it a shot. You may just be amazed by the results. In fact, you may decide it’s the best kind of training imaginable.