by Charles Poliquin
Ivan Abadjiev placed second in the 1957 World Weightlifting Championships, but few weightlifters or coaches recognize him for being one of the best athletes in the world in his prime. No, Ivan Abadjiev is known as one of the most successful, and unquestionably the most innovative, weightlifting coaches in the history of the sport. Let me tell you more.
The year after experiencing a disappointing performance in the 1968 Olympics, in which Bulgaria did not win a single medal in weightlifting, Abadjiev was appointed as the national coach. Three years later in Munich, Bulgarian weightlifters won three gold and three silver medals. And the success continued, with Abadjiev coaching a total of nine Olympic and 57 world champions in his first two decades as national coach. Such success could not be ignored, and soon countries such as Greece, Turkey and Iran began adopting what came to be known as the Bulgarian system.
Abadjiev’s greatest pupil was Naim Suleymanoglu, who won gold in three Olympics, broke 51 world records and pound-for-pound is still considered the greatest weightlifter of all time. Another of Abadjiev’s most memorable athletes is Antonio Krastev, a super heavyweight lifter who in 1987 snatched 216 kilos (476.2 pounds), a record that has yet to be surpassed. One talented athlete who just may exceed Krastev’s record is Pat Mendes, an American weightlifter sponsored by Poliquin Performance. In training this year at the age of 19, Mendes snatched 200 kilos (440 pounds). I mention this because Mendes is coached by John Broz, who in turn was coached by Antonio Krastev.
Platform victories aside, Abadjiev will be remembered as the coach who created a paradigm shift in the way weightlifters train. He started athletes at a very young age, often before they were teenagers, and trained them harder and with greater frequency than had ever been attempted before. This philosophy is in contrast to those of American medical organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in their current position paper on the subject said, “Preadolescents and adolescents should avoid power lifting, body building, and maximal lifts until they reach physical and skeletal maturity.” Depending upon the individual, “full skeletal maturity” is about age 18 for males and slightly younger for females.
Although Abadjiev’s coaching success is in the sport of weightlifting, many of his ideas are applicable to all aspects of strength and conditioning for athletic performance. Here are five of them.
Lesson #1: The Importance of Early Specialization
When Abadjiev took over as the Bulgarian national coach, weightlifters often did not start heavy lifting until well into their teen years. Abadjiev believed that younger athletes could better handle the much greater levels of volume and intensity required in his training programs, so it was necessary to start specializing in weightlifting at a very young age. As a result Bulgaria began to dominate the Junior World Championships (age 20 and under), and many of his junior lifters could compete with the best senior lifters in the world. In fact, Suleymanoglu broke his first senior world record when he was just 15 years old.
In the United States, most athletes will compete in multiple sports throughout their high school careers, and this provides an enriching experience. But as athletes in sports such as tennis (Maria Sharapova), soccer (Freddy Adu), and basketball (LeBron James) are proving, early specialization may be necessary to achieve the highest levels of athletic performance in nearly every sport.
Lesson #2: High Performance Demands Specificity
Prior to Abadjiev’s leadership, the Bulgarian national team had a base of about 19 exercises, and Abadjiev reduced that to about a half dozen and primarily used low reps with heavy weights.
Part of the rationale for emphasizing specificity in training is that Bulgaria could not provide Abadjiev with resources comparable to those of his competitors. During the ’70s Bulgaria was reported to have approximately 5,000 competitive lifters, whereas Russia was reported to have over 300,000. Without the luxury of having a large talent pool of athletes, Abadjiev had to make certain every rep of every set of every workout was contributing to their highest goals. This meant throwing out the traditional method of designing workouts using carefully planned percentages of lifters’ 1-repetition maxes.
Rather than percentages based on past or predetermined personal bests, Abadjiev’s lifters would go as heavy as possible every workout for numerous sets in a wavelike loading fashion. How heavy? Well, if an athlete could snatch 100 kilos (220 pounds), here is how the work sets (i.e., after warm-up) might progress: 90 kilos x 1 x 3, 95 x 1 x 2, 100 x 1 x 1, 90-92 x 1 x 3, 100-103 x 1 x 1, 90-92 x 1 x 3, 102-105 x 1 x 1, 85-88 x 5 x 3. Whew! And just as Abadjiev did not use percentages as did most coaches from other countries, in my workouts I simply “let the repetitions determine the load” so that the weights used are not too light or too heavy, but just right to achieve the optimal training stimulus.
If you are serious about achieving your goals, you need to focus on doing the things that will best help you achieve those goals. If you currently squat 300 pounds for 1 repetition and want to back squat 500 pounds for 1 repetition, your time would be better spent on doing a lot of heavy back squats rather than nonspecific exercises such as leg extensions and goblet squats, especially for high reps.
Lesson #3: Train Hard, Heavy and Fast
Abadjiev believed that to train at the highest intensities, training sessions must be brief. He believes that in training sessions, testosterone levels peak after about 15 minutes of training and begin to level off after another 30-45 minutes. Thus, to achieve the highest quality of training, his workout sessions lasted about 45 minutes each.
With those shorter workouts, to achieve the volume of training necessary to create continual progress, his athletes had to perform multiple training sessions per week. A typical Bulgarian schedule for a single training day might be designed as follows:
Front Squat, 30 minutes
Snatch, 30 minutes
Clean and Jerk, 30 minutes
Front Squat, 30 minutes
Clean and Jerk, 30 minutes
Snatch, 30 minutes
Front Squat, 30 minutes
Pulls, 30 minutes
Although such a training system is not practical for anyone who has a life, your training results will be much greater by keeping your workouts short and focusing on achieving the highest quality of work.
Lesson #4: Establish a Competitive Training Environment
“Never be satisfied. Never,” are the words Terry Todd said he overhead Abadjiev say to Naim Suleymanoglu (then Suleimanov) after Abadjiev saw him clean and jerk triple bodyweight in a training session 16 years ago. For Abadjiev, it was essential to establish a training environment that was all business and hard work. As such, he had the best athletes in his country lift together in one national training center and demanded discipline – and if someone came along who beat you, you could lose your position on the team, despite your previous successes in competition.
Applying this principle to training, I carefully select the people I train with, as I don’t want someone with a lackadaisical attitude to bring down the intensity of my workouts. I’m in the gym to produce results, not make friends. Likewise, I encourage my trainers to be all business when they work with a client, only discussing matters during the workout that directly relate to the performance of that workout.
Lesson #5: Compete, and Compete Often
Abadjiev believed that to compete well, athletes need to compete often. One example of the importance of frequent competitions was the battle between Russia’s Vasily Alexeev and Belgium’s Serge Reding. Reding was considered to be the stronger of the two super heavyweight lifters, reportedly being able to squat 400 kilos for 5 reps. However, when they competed against each other, Alexeev always prevailed over the mighty Belgium, and one reason is that Alexeev was always competition sharp because he competed frequently. Case in point: In 1974 he broke world records in seven competitions!
As such, when Abadjiev’s lifters were not participating in competitions, Abadjiev would often stage weekly mock competitions to simulate the environment of a competition so that his athletes would not lose their competitive edge. Likewise, even if your goal is something other than Olympic gold, you will find that your motivation to train hard increases if you have some type of competition approaching in which you will be judged and scores will be made public. Further, after the competition often you will find you are motivated to train even harder to do better in the next competition.
Because Ivan Abadjiev has made such an impact in the sport of weightlifting – changing the game, as they say – I’ve made arrangements to have him give a presentation the day after our second annual Eleiko Strength Summit, which will be held on May 20-21 next year at the Poliquin Strength Institute in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.