Experiments With Bulgarian Training

By Aadam | February 12, 2015
Klokov-Deadlift

For the past 30 days, I’ve squatted everyday.

Every. Single. Day.

Now, if this makes you squirm because the thought of even squatting once a week gives you nightmares, don’t worry, because I was also benching every single day, so I guess that brings balance back to the bro-force, nah?

But bro, you’re a physique-focused guy, why do something geared towards strength folk?

It Began With An Idea

The woe of every guy looking to get sexy naked, is the issue of muscle and strength loss during a deficit.

As we currently understand, there’s two ways to preserve muscle and strength in a deficit, you lift with the same intensity (weight lifted) and/or the same amount of volume (sets x reps) as you were during a surplus.

Now the issue is, in a deficit the body has fewer calories coming in, so recovery begins to suck. This is when you’ll hear people complaining of things like strength loss.

I wanted to explore the idea that if — during a deficit — volume was reduced considerably and the focus lay on maintaining intensity on the big lifts, and leaving the volume for the ‘accessory’ work — if this could help offset the issue of strength loss during a cut.

In this article I’ve pretty much summed up everything I did and learnt during the past month of squatting and benching everyday. I’ve also included the exact programme I had been running during the whole month.

A quick aside : I won’t be getting too much into the caloric deficit side of things, just wanted to quickly note that I was at 10–12cals /lb (undulated throughout week) for the most part and there was a period of 4 days where I was consuming 800–1000 cals a day (5–6cals/lb) — one of these days being when I hit an all time bench PR.

Wtf Is Bulgarian Training ?

I’m not going to get into mad detail because it’s outside the scope of this article. I’m going to give cliffs below but if you are interested in learning more check out these two great resources (neither are affiliate links) :

Squat Everyday — Matty Perryman — This was my first intro to this style of training. If you are looking for more of the methodologies and deeper philosophies of Bulgarian training- this is a great read. Matt’s blog MyoSynthesis, also has some awesome reading on it. Just be aware that the book is less a ‘training’ book, and more philosophical in nature.

The Bulgarian Training Manual — If you just want a ‘quick start’ into bulgarian training, this is for you. Greg does a great job taking the complex and simplifying it.

For the sake of not having to retype the definition, I’m simply going to copy and paste from Greg’s book (the Bulgarian Training Manual) :

‘If you’re not familiar with the Bulgarian Method, here it is in a nutshell: Lift heavy (85%+ of your 1-rep max), almost every day of the week, focusing on the lifts you want to excel at. Now, that’s the simplified definition we’ll be working with. However, for the sake of accuracy, be aware that what I’ll be talking about here is NOT the “true” Bulgarian Method. Unless you are literally a professional athlete, with time to train 2–3 times per day, every day, under the watchful eye of an expert coach who is constantly monitoring your readiness, your strengths, your weaknesses, and making constant adjustments to your training within the overall Bulgarian framework, you are not doing the true Bulgarian Method. The purpose of this guide is to take the overarching principles of the Bulgarian Method and teach you how to implement them in your training for maximal effect within the framework of a “normal” life.’

So that’s it, pretty much. As mentioned, I’m not going to go into much detail about the protocol itself, go buy or download the books I mentioned (Greg’s book is free, FYI).

I modified the routine by adding in some more ‘physique’ based work to cater to more physique oriented individuals like myself (I’ve laid out my exact routine in this article).

What I did

Each session consisted of me coming in and working up to my training minimum in both the squat and the bench. The training minimum is the weight I know I can hit any day of the week, regardless of external factors such as lack of sleep, work/school stress etc.

After working up to my training minimum I’d gauge how the set felt.

If I felt good, i’d keep working up until the bar speed slowed, I didn’t want to have any ‘grindy’ sets (although sometimes i’d get overzealous and some did end up as such).

After the squats and bench were done, i’d do the rest of my workout which consisted of the more physique based stuff (bicep curls, for example)

A Quick Note On Deadlifts

I was only deadlifting once a week. The deadlift is a different beast and extremely taxing, more so than the squat or bench, not only on the body but also the CNS. It also stressed my knee quite a bit.

I only deadlifted 3x during the whole month.

Deadlifts were programmed at 75–80% of 1RM, however, on days the bar was moving quick and I was feeling good, I would do my normal 3 sets of 5 reps and then continue on with singles moving up in weight until I hit a new PR or form broke down.

What I Learned

  • Strength, just like fat loss, comes and goes in waves (fig.1). You’ll have some good days, some bad days and some fucking awesome days (the days you PR). But when you’re only benching or squatting once or twice a week it’ easy to think that you’ve lost strength due to the deficit, when in reality it’s just a bad day. Squatting and benching everyday made me realise this.

A graph I plotted of my daily bench lifts. Note the peaks and valleys in strength from day to day. Also, the fact that my PR’s came near the end of the programme.

  • I began the programme during the time I began rehab for my injured knee. In Squat Everyday, Matt Perryman mentioned that lifting everyday helped him recover faster and the little ‘niggles’ and injuries he had healed after doing a bulgarian routine. When I first read the book I totally dismissed this as it went against everything I believed at the time (I read the book over a year and a half ago). But, I can honestly say that it was one of the biggest contributing factors to my knee healing as fast as it did. Aside from a few rehab exercises I did during the first week or two, the rest of my ‘rehab’ focussed on squatting. At the start of the cycle I could barely squat to parallel without feeling some pain. By the end of the cycle I was squatting ATG with no pain at all and even though i’m not back up to the numbers I was hitting before the injury, I’m a lot closer than I had been, and a lot faster than if I hadn’t done the Bulgarian routine.
  • The Body is insanely good at adaptation, you just need to give it a reason.
  • Your mindset and attitude dictate everything. We’ve been told for so long that “you will lose muscle on a cut” / “you will lose strength on a cut” that it’s essentially become a *nocebo*. Any small discrepancy or dip in one workout and it leads to a domino effect that ends up leading to long term performance dips which in turn actually do lead to the physiological loss of muscle and strength (which only fuel these claims further).
  • Eg ~ Deficit > one bad workout > ‘must be the deficit, well it’s all gone to shit now’ > another bad workout > ‘knew it’ > and another bad workout > ‘see?’ >muscle loss and strength loss occurs for real.
  • This is definitely not for beginners. You need to know your body extremely well to be able to ‘autoregulate’ effectively.
  • I loved the ‘psychological relief’. The bad days weren’t so bad anymore — ‘Oh well, one bad day, I always have tomorrow’. Whereas in the past if I had one bad day I would beat myself up about the lift as I knew I would have to wait a whole week before doing the same lift/workout again .
  • Don’t get greedy. As Matt Perryman put it : If you look at a weight, get nervous, and have to ask yourself ‘will I hit this?’ then it is too heavy for you right now.”
  • Your feelings are a lie. I hit my all time PR during a 4 day stint of consuming between 800–1000 calories (don’t ask why — i’ll be covering this in another article) and felt like absolute crap. This is why this isn’t for beginners or even early intermediates, you need to know the difference between you *really* feeling like crap and just *thinking* you feel like crap.
  • The bulgarian routine will increase your mental resilience just as much your lifting numbers.
  • As long as your sleep and day to day stress is managed, and you are fuelling your body properly (good quality foods), I see no reason why you couldn’t use a routine like the Bulgarian in a deficit (controversial, I know)
  • Embrace the suck. Alot of people quit the bulgarian routine (and other endeavours for that matter) before it has a chance to take effect. If you refer back to the graph in figure 1 you’ll remember that the PR’s came near the end of the cycle. I had to go through 2–3 weeks of ‘ok’ days and more ‘bad’ days before I hit those PR’s and ‘saw results’ from the programme. You have to stick to the programme and see out the bad days to reach the good days.
  • Your body doesn’t like change. So it will fight you when you start doing the bulgarian by making you feel like crap so that you stop. You have to ‘suck it up’ and keep pushing. It’s only when you put your body through stress that it can adapt and grow. Just know that this adaptation period will suck (more than Mia Khalifa)
  • I eventually became extremely calm before all my lifts. Especially my squats which I usually would need to get really amped up about. By the end I would just go in, no music, no warm up (apart from the warmup sets) and hit the lifts and felt perfectly fine.
  • Embrace discomfort — it’s a prerequisite for growth
  • Don’t be afraid to expose yourself to new ideas
  • Respect what the literature (studies) says but at the same time don’t be afraid to self-experiment or think outside the box.

The Workout

I was training 7x a week with the squat and bench. Deadlifts were done once a week.

The key was balancing the intensity and volume.

To make this programme effective during a deficit, you need to keep intensity high but volume low on your bulgarian movements.

With your accessories, instead of dropping the volume (like many a gurus will tell you) the key is to reduce volume in a given workout, but keep the volume the same over the week.

This is what my week set up looked like :

A few notes:

  • you’ll notice that the volume was really low on legs, this was mainly because I was recovering from the knee injury and some exercises caused pain (like lunging) which is weird because squats didn’t.
  • Back volume was also pretty low as my back is one of my strongest bodyparts I can get away with doing less work on it. This also meant better recovery as I wasn’t dipping into my ‘recovery pool’.
  • Exercise selection and volume was autoregulated. Days I felt like shit I did a few main movements and called it a day. Other days when i felt good, i did more etc.
  • I alternated the sequencing of incline press and shoulder press during the week.

The Verdict

I really enjoyed using the bulgarian routine. My bench has come up immensely which i’m extremely happy about because it’s always been my worst lift and the fact that my knee is healed now means I can focus on working back up to my previous numbers.

The Result

-I added 10kg to my deadlift (conventional) — This was less to do with the bulgarian and more (I’m going to assume) due to the supercompensation effect. I’d been deadlifting 3x a week on the programme prior to running the bulgarian routine and dropping the volume down as much as I did just gave my body a break to come back stronger.

-I added 5kg to my bench — Being 3kg lighter and in an extreme deficit this just proved that it’s still possible to gain size and strength in a deficit, granted you are intelligent with how you go about your fat loss.

-My injured knee was completely healed by the time i ended the 4 week Bulgarian cycle.

What I would Do Differently

I’m going to be taking a break from bulgarian high frequency training for a few months and go back to more of my traditional physique based, higher volume work.

When I do go back to the second cycle of bulgarian, though I will do things a bit differently :

  1. I’m going to use high bar instead of low bar

Matt Perryman made a point about this, I can’t find the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of low bar allowing you to move more weight so it’s more taxing on the body and CNS. I did begin feeling this near the end of the cycle as I began getting closer to my previous numbers. The everyday squatting takes a massive toll on your lower back with the low bar.

Also, I’ve always found that the stronger my high bar gets the stronger my low bar gets. So it would make sense to train the weaker lift if it can correspond positively to the stronger lift/position (noticed a similair thing with deadlifts — the stronger my conventional gets, the stronger my sumo — my better lift — gets)

Low bar squats also affected my bench. Holding the bar lower on my back fatigued my shoulders going into the bench. I remedied this by benching first, but at times when the gym was busy (Chest Mondays) and I had to squat first, my bench took a hit. High bar squatting would remedy this issue.

2. Closer grip on bench instead of my typical wide grip

This was something I heard from Greg Nuckz. So instead of butchering what he said, i’ll quote :

‘Similarly, for the bench press, the people who had the most success tended to do the bulk of their pressing with a slightly narrower grip than they would use in competition. This is effective for similar reasons. You’re performing essentially the same movement through a longer range of motion, giving you a more robust training effect.’

To me this makes sense and is similar to the idea of training through a harder movement and getting a better transference to your stronger movement as I made mention of above (similar to how the saiyans trained in 3000x(plus) earth’s gravity to become stronger when they fought in normal gravity — sorry, that analogy was too good to not use)

3. Be In A Surplus

Contrary to what everyone told me, I saw amazing results from using the bulgarian routine in an extreme deficit. The next time I run this protocol though, It will definitely be in a surplus and my guess is that the results will be even better.

In Closing

So that’s pretty much it. My whole review of my 4 weeks on the Bulgarian high frequency routine.

If you are looking to try this yourself, i’d highly recommend it. I’ve found this to be brilliant tool during a deficit, even though many people will most likely disagree.

But hey, the results speak for themselves.