Max Aita Explains Abadjiev’s Bulgarian System. But Is It Sustainable?

For as much that’s been discussed about the Bulgarian weightlifting system, there are hundreds of young impressionable lifters who have tried tackling it head on by maxing out their lifts daily and punching holes through drywall (probably). But for those who have actually trained under the system developed by coach Ivan Abadjiev in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, there’s a very different reality: The system only existed in a universe where weightlifting as sport and profession were inextricably linked.

At least, that’s what Max Aita — one of the relatively few Americans to train under Abadjiev — points out in the below video from Juggernaut Training Systems.

In the candid 15 minute sit down, Aita describes Abadjiev’s rise to Head Coach of the Bulgarian National Team — “He was challenged by other coaches in the country” and wanted to prove he could do better — along with the daily grind Bulgarian lifters faced under the intense system.

And while Aita discusses some of the less-than-romantic realities of the system — including an increased risk of injury and mental fatigue — there’s an important point missing from the video: The Bulgarian team’s history of dopping violations, and whether the system is even sustainable without the use of performance enhancers.

Some important takeaways from Aita’s video:

  • Abadjiev performaed gradual whittling of the Soviet system throughout the 80s and 90s into the well-known, simple components we now identify with the Bulgarian system: Emphasis on competition conditions, with the snatch, clean & jerk, and front squat as the basis for training every day.
  • Abadjiev’s system was partially self tested. When he was young, people trained just once or twice per week. While trianing two (or more) times/day seems like nothing new in today’s lifting climate, it was pretty revolutionary for his time.
  • The Bulgarians placed a heavy emphasis on competing, simulating training conditions at least once per week and competing around once per month throughout the year. 
  • At a certain point, Abadjiev may vary intensity of sessions, but deloads were done away with entirely.
  • The Bulgarian coach sought to create physical and mental surplus in his athletes so that the weights they lifted in competition were actually below their training maxes.
  • Technique was not emphasized to a high degree, and whatever technique lifters entered the system with – remember, these were top lifting prospects, not entirely green athletes — was pretty much what they would stick with.

Aita’s insights and experience are fascinating, to be sure, but there’s still plenty of controversy surrounding whether the Bulgarian system is sustainable for normal athletes — or for anyone not on a regime of anabolics and other performance enhancers. 

In Reddit timeline from user erpel_, the country’s history of doping violations is laid out from the 1980s-on. Most recently, the entire Bulgarian national team was banned from the 2016 Rio Olympics after 11 lifters tested positive for anabolic steroid stanozolol at a March 2015 training camp in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Bulgarian lifters have also left to lift for other countries in significant numbers — including current 58 kg World Record holder Boyanka Kostova, who now lifts for Azerbaijan — in some cases being paid handsomely to naturalize elsewhere. So it may be awhile before we see their nation’s team compete as a unit on the international stage, the presence of Bulgarian lifters is still felt at the biggest lifting competitions — though under other flags.