Systemic Athletic Dominance: What We Can Learn

There are few examples in sports history where a country employing a particular training philosophy has dominated in any one specific event. I’m not referring to Canada being dominant at hockey, or the U.S. dominating overall in many of the track events and in its overall medal haul at the Olympics. Both of those examples have as much to do with sheer numbers as they do with the training doctrine employed. I’m also going to focus on the individual performance events as opposed to the team ones, as I want to look at what we as trainers and trainees can learn from these examples. Furthermore, how we can use some of their methodology to our advantage in our own training.

As I mentioned, the instances in sports history of total athletic dominance in any one discipline are rare. The first that comes to mind is one that recently has seen a revival of sorts, and I speak of course of the Bulgarian Olympic weightlifters of the 80’s. The system used during this period has spawned all sorts of programs and training methods that try to emulate the ideals that were the reasoning behind the program. It’s a really quite a simple system that obviously proved to be very effective. As a matter of fact, it was probably the simplicity that made the Bulgarian approach so successful.

Even though it was simple in its methodology, it was in my opinion a very brilliant program. The Bulgarians put a heavy emphasis on high intensity with their training. In order to keep the intensity to a maximum the sessions were kept very short, usually under an hour. The flip side of this was that there were multiple sessions each day, often three, beginning each morning and the last was completed in the late evening. The training was also done seven days each week, so there was no such thing as an off day. Sunday was often dedicated to just squatting, so if your idea of an easy day is squatting to a heavy maximum single, and then missing on attempts even heavier to constantly keep the training load high, then I guess this is the system for you.

As you can see that while the system was simple, it isn’t the kind of system that is really all that minimal. The sheer weight used in the training, and heavy and consistent loads were stressed year round, is not exactly low in volume in its approach. Where it was minimal was in its variety. The bulk of the training revolved around the two Olympic lifts, the clean and jerk, and the snatch. Add in front squats and that was basically the entire program. There was little in the way of ancillary exercises. The thought behind the lack of variety was to devote all of the training time and recovery to the lifts that were used in competition. The only reason that squats were part of the program was to strengthen the athletes power out of the bottom position in the two lifts, which when dealing with competition lifting means a full squat all the way to the floor. This means that the training was extremely specialized and would make anyone who pared their lifting down this far a master of what they trained.

Where I think the Bulgarians were well ahead of the curve is when it came to using training as well as rest and recovery to elicit a hormonal response. That was the plan behind the idea to train multiple times each day, but for usually less than an hour each session. That, and by keeping the sessions short with rest periods in between, the athletes could perform at a high level each time. Getting back to the hormonal response, the short and intense sessions would raise testosterone levels. Testosterone levels decline after an hour, so by doing several of these sessions a day the thought was that testosterone levels would remain elevated and would help with advancing the recovery process. It seems like that would be an obvious technique to use, but as far as I know the Bulgarian weightlifters were the first to think of it.

Another theory behind the multiple training sessions is also of interest. These sessions would begin at 7 am each morning, and they would not conclude until 10 pm each night. What this meant was that the athletes were accountable to this training schedule basically 24 hours a day. There was no sleeping in if you train early, and because you were in various stages of training or recovery all day until 10 pm, basically there was absolutely no time to get into any kind of negative behavior that would interfere with the training. It was thought that this was used to control the athletes both physically and socially.

What I think is interesting about this last point is the cult like atmosphere this would have created. To be honest, this type of environment is prevalent in any group engaged in any one activity. We often hear of players buying in to the system, and about the tight group within a locker room. It would be hard not to have a certain culture become part of the athletes lifestyle when you’re seeing the same people day in and day out, and engaging in the same activities with a common goal. The Bulgarians seemed to take the idea of controlling their team to a bit of a different level however, than say the more typical approach used by teams such as imposing a curfew.

Another component to this system that hasn’t yet been discussed, was that this type of training for lack of a better word could be termed a grinder type of system. Meaning that basically due to the high intensity and the consistently heavy loads, that either you succeeded or you were injured. That argument also can be made for most high level athletics, as when trying to get the most from any athlete the role of a coach is to determine where the breaking point is and push the athlete up against it as often as is necessary to see improvement. The Bulgarian system seemed somewhat more brutal than most, but I’m willing to concede that over time it has likely been romanticized and probably overblown.

It was without question a very successful system as the Bulgarian weightlifters won most everything there was to win within the parameters of competitive weightlifting for roughly a decade. I don’t know a whole lot about Bulgaria as a country to be honest, but I imagine that these weightlifters were probably idolized to some degree and financially compensated as such. The glory and the money that can be garnered through sport is often enough to convince the athlete to ignore the grueling training, and the tight controls put on their life. Before I discuss what it is that we can use from the Bulgarian method to take our training to the next level, I would like to give you a second example in tomorrow’s installment. Until next time,

Happy Lifting!

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