The Bulgarian Weightlifting team’s success began with the hiring of Ivan Abadjiev as head coach of the National team. Abadjiev had been an assistant coach for many years but, in 1959, he got into trouble with government authorities by organizing a National Teenage Weightlifting Championship. The thinking at that time was that those under the age of 17 were too young to withstand heavy weightlifting rigors.
Back then, all the Soviet bloc countries were using the same training system–training three or four times a week and not pushing for 100% maximums except when a competition drew near. Abadjiev disagreed with that approach. He challenged authorities by claiming that he had a system that would enable Bulgaria to overtake the USSR and become the world’s new weightlifting powerhouse. It was an audacious goal because the USSR had dominated weightlifting through the 1960s.
The Bulgarians finally relented, naming Abadjiev head coach. The year was 1969.
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He immediately began making radical changes. Bulgaria’s top lifters started lifting three or four times a day–not three or four times a week. That approach ran against convention.
For years the thinking was that a weightlifter needed 48 hours to recover from heavy training. Few people believed that an athlete could fully recover from the training frequency that Abadjiev demanded.
Abadjiev saw things differently. He believed that the human body was capable of much more intensity than had been thought previously. Water therapy, whirlpools, massage, proper diet, and adequate sleep were just some of the tools used to aid in recovery.
And the intensity he required did nothing but increase. By 1984, Bulgarians were training as frequently as seven sessions a day. Here’s an example of what the regimen involved–Monday through Friday. ( Saturdays were half days. Sundays were off days.)
Session 1: Snatch, working up to 90% of maximum.
Session 2: Clean & Jerk, working up to 90%
Session 3: Front Squat, working up to 90%
Session 4: Clean & Jerk, working up to 95%
Session 5: Snatch, working up to 100%
Session 6: Clean & Jerk, working up to 100%
Session 7: Back Squats, working up to 95%
The repetitions were usually one, never more than two, even on warm-ups. Workouts typically consisted of the snatch, clean & jerk, and squat. Any other exercise was considered a waste of energy.
It is critical to keep in mind that the workouts listed above were for the elite lifters only and not for anyone less than the elite.
Naturally, there were accusations of steroid usage. The team physician admitted to prescribing anabolic steroids to the lifters twice a year to help speed recovery. Over the years, some of the Bulgarian lifters tested positive. But Bulgaria wasn’t the only country to test positive, and weightlifters aren’t the only athletes guilty of steroid usage.
Thankfully testing has become more sophisticated in recent years–meaning that it has become more difficult for athletes to beat the tests. (The author does not condone nor advise steroid usage.)
At age twelve, all promising young Bulgarian weightlifters attended sports schools. Coaches tested them in the 60-meter sprint, long jump, flexibility, 800-meter run, chin-ups (to failure), sit-ups (to failure), and push-ups (to failure). In their first year, they also practiced other sports, lifting weights three or four times a week in addition to doing their academic work. They’d visit with family members on weekends.
Students were taught proper techniques with light weights for the first year. Food, warm-up suits, lifting belts, lifting singlets, and lifting shoes were all provided.
Success!!! - Beating Goliath
Abadjiev’s approach paid dividends. Bulgaria won three Gold medals and three Silver medals at the 1972 Olympics. How good was that? No Bulgarian athlete had placed in the top three, four years earlier. By 1974, Bulgaria began dominating the teenage divisions and, at the 1976 Olympics, Bulgaria won two Gold medals, three Silver medals, and one Bronze medal. Little by little, Bulgaria was gaining ground on the mighty Soviets.
At the 1981 and 1983 World Championships, Bulgaria won nine medals compared to the Soviets’ ten. By 1984, Bulgarian lifters held twelve of 30 world records.
At the 1985 World Championships–16 years after he had taken over as head coach of the National team–Ivan Abadjiev made good on his promise. The Bulgarian team defeated the USSR.
They beat them again at the 1986 World’s and continued to dominate until the early 1990s when many Bulgarian lifters began migrating to other countries. By then, Bulgaria was no longer under Communist oppression.
To understand just how amazing it was for Bulgaria to best the Soviets, consider this fact. In 1984, the USSR had 340,000 registered weightlifters. Bulgaria had only 5,000.
David had defeated Goliath.
Without question, Naim Suleymanoglu was the most famous weightlifter to have trained under the Bulgarian system. Nicknamed “The Pocket Hercules” because of his small size (he stood 4’11”), Naim took 2nd place at the World Championships in 1983. He was only 16 years old.
He won the Gold medal in 1985 and 1986 before defecting to Turkey. There he won three Olympic Gold medals and set numerous world records.
The other world record-holders coached by Abadjiev include Ivan Ivanov, 52-kilo class; Neno Terziyski, 56 kg; Mikhail Petrov, 67.5 kg; Angel Genchev, 75 kilograms; Aleksander Varbanov, 75 kilograms; Asen Zlatev, 82.5 kg; Blagoy Blagoev, 90 kg; and Antonio Krastev, superheavyweight.
In 2017, Ivan Abadjiev passed away at the age of 85 years. During his career, he coached 12 Olympic champions and 57 world champions. His methods, known as “The Bulgarian Training System,” were controversial–seen as harsh, perhaps even cruel. But no one can argue with the results.
In weightlifting circles, the name Ivan Abadjiev will live forever.
Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training and Running Wild (Growing Up In The 1970s).
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