There is something romantic about lifting heavy weights. Dirty underground weight rooms with chalk-dusted floors and Olympic plates stacked in the corner...a light flickering on the ceiling, highlighting the shadows as heavy weights smash into the ground...The fact that the sport was developed in a dark corner of the world’s history fuses something mysterious and intriguing into its very DNA. There is an especially black and fantastic part of weightlifting that, to this day, remains somewhat of a mystery. In Bulgaria during the 1980s, Ivan Abadjiev and his companions were the coaches of Bulgaria’s Olympic weightlifting team. At this time, the nation was looked to as a “little brother” to Russia, not only in politics and industry but in regards to sport as well. Russian athletes dominated the weight lifting scene in both national and international competitions. And due to their incredible success, Russia’s methods were seen as the universal solution for developing championship athletes. These years of domination thus pushed Bulgaria into athletic obscurity. However, in a last ditch effort to vault the nation back onto the podium, Coach Abadjiev and his staff were selected to conduct a controversial study of a new, dynamic athletic development model in Bulgaria.

The new method was wildly successful and brought multiple gold medals home to the nation of Bulgaria. Its success had other side effects, however. The study turned Ivan Abadjiev into the Victor Frankenstein of weightlifting, having created a monster that became the stuff of legend. In truth, when this training system was first introduced, it was regarded by the weightlifting community as a grotesque beast that was simply stitched and bolted together. The world didn’t know if they should be excited about this new discovery or if they should burn it at the stake and spit on the ashes.

Simple and Dangerous

The reason for all the hype centered on the nuts and bolts of the training itself because Abadjiev’s method was different from the accepted Russian model in a several ways. In most nations there was an established and documented athlete recruiting program. Depending on the country, there was a minimum age requirement before youth could be recruited for training. In Russia, for instance, a youth could not be recruited until he was 14 to 15 years old. In Germany, youths had to be 15 to 16 years of age. Yet, in Bulgaria, the minimum age was only 13. Abadjiev’s first athlete, however, began training at age 10, and this caused an outrage both in Bulgaria and abroad. His athletes were breaking world records by age 17—records that had been set by grown men.

Another bolt in the neck of Abadjiev’s program was its lack of variety. In the end, there were only four exercises in the entire program. During specific preparation, the athletes would do as few as three exercises in a week of training. Injured athletes would trade snatches for back squats, but that’s really as exotic as it got. The organization of the daily training routine is well documented. If you Google Ivan Abadjiev, you can find all kinds of charts on how the training cycles were organized. The Bulgarian athletes went heavy and often—they were doing crushing amounts of weight multiple times a day. The reason this was such a shock to the world was the fact that the athletes did it year round. There was no preparation phase..all they did was hit it heavy. When I started reading about this guy, I wanted to know why he did what he did. What was he thinking?


In a presentation on his methods to a group of weightlifting federation coaches in the 1990s, and again last year in Rhode Island, Abadjiev talked about the philosophy behind his madness. After studying the presentations, the thing that struck me most was his reference to research on a subject called Protein Memory, a concept pioneered by a physiologist named Holger Hyden. To better understand the research, a little background is needed.

There are two parts to the science:

1. The Brain:

When any movement is performed over and over, say moving your finger, neurological pathways are strengthened and the movement becomes more efficient. It makes sense that when you think to move your fingers, they move—not your toes or your ear or some other body part. The same goes for lifting a loaded bar. However, Abadjiev says that the muscles targeted by the brain at 90% of a lifter's 1RM and below are not the same ones targeted at higher percentages. So, his lifters would work out at 97% of their 1RM in order to strengthen those neuro-pathways that target the strongest muscle fibers.

2. The Muscle:

When the body is placed under load, as in squatting with a bar, the musculature breaks down under the weight and needs to be repaired. DNA is translated and mRNA strands synthesize new proteins to repair the muscles. According to Abadjiev and the Protein Memory Hypothesis, mRNA produced from below 90% of 1RM lifts is not the same as mRNA produced from lifts executed over 90% of a lifter's 1RM. Lifting weight over 90% will cause the strongest possible muscle to be created when the body is broken down (or that’s the idea). Because of this, Abadjiev states that his athletes performed lifts at or above 95% of their 1RM and, in most cases, they did this four times a day.

So, Abadjiev proposes that lifting maximum weight causes the blueprint for the strongest possible muscle to be synthesized by the body, producing the strongest possible adaptation from training.

This is the science he uses to back up his methods. I have searched many databases and libraries, but I have yet to find the research he cites. However, the sketchy science isn’t the only thing that is working against Abadjiev. Perhaps the biggest argument against his methods is the effect of maximal-effort work on the central nervous system since athletes training at max intensity for weeks on end are at greater risk for overtraining syndrome. Yet, Abadjiev addressed this and explained that using proper recovery aids, proper time management, and proper recovery exercises can prevent overtraining.

His model of training flies in the face of the accepted method of preparation, which is to periodize training to include a deloading and a preparatory phase. These tactics were mastered and used with great success by the Russians. Abadjiev, however, claims that the Russian model of training is redundant. By targeting the body's systems separately, precious time needed for developing strength is wasted.

He claims that his method develops all of the body's systems at once. By manipulating the training environment, training intensity, and recovery protocols, Abadjiev claims to have perfected how to bring the whole organism in sync and, by doing so, target the Strength-Gene.

Over the last decade, information about Abadjiev’s methods has been looked at with skepticism. Fringe science obviously contributes a large part to this. Also, Bulgaria is notorious for giving out false information. In the book, Pocket Hercules, the Bulgarian’s efforts to mislead the competition is well documented.

In reading about this notorious coach and his incredible success, I got more and more curious, and in the end, I decided to try out his methods on myself.

To be continued...