The Bulgarian Connection: Angel Spassov




Part I

by Randall J. Strossen, Ph.D.

When Angel Spassov, a Bulgarian physical education professor specializing in weightlifting, con­ducted seminars throughout the U.S. last summer, he held his audiences spellbound. After all, the tiny nation of Bulgaria had emerged in recent years as something more than just a threat to the superstrong Soviet weightlifting machine: In 1972 the Bulgarians actually beat the Soviets for the team title; by the mid-1980s they were looking like they owned the team title. And here we had the man whom Jim Schmitz aptly de­scribed as "the foremost Bulgarian weightlifting expert who speaks Eng­lish" telling us how they do it over there.

After attending two of Professor Spassov's all-day seminars and talk­ing to him a bit one-on-one, it was tempting to rush his story into print—to be the first to report the latest and greatest training developments so that we could trumpet a title like "Learn Bulgarian Training Secrets!" What we opted for instead was to actually apply some of the key prin­ciples, see how they worked and then give you some insight into both the theory and the practice. Our primary test group for these principles was the Fairfax (California) Weightlifting Club—best known for producing some of the top Junior (teenage) lifters in the U.S. Let's run through some of the major principles outlined by Professor Spassov and then see how they worked when applied to American lifters. We'll conclude by making some summary recommen­dations.

The Basics

If you left Professor Spassov's seminars with but four conclusions, they would probably be: 1) testos­terone level is all-important to the lifter; 2) old age for a weightlifter sets in at about 22; 3) most American lifters don't train nearly hard enough; and 4) most American lifters don't train on the right exercises. Let's briefly explain these points, taking them in related pairs.

Testosterone and Age

Testosterone levels are most im­portant to the lifter, according to Spassov, because they not only deter­mine how intensely you will attack your training, but also because of their influence on your recovery rate. In men, Spassov said, testosterone levels peak at about age 22 and then decline (women, with about one-tenth the testosterone of men, main­tain their maximum levels longer). Beyond age 22, Spassov feels supe 

Weightlifting training theories vary, but the Bulgarians' methods fly in the face of logic. Is their training state-of-the-art?

rior motivation, technique and ex­perience must begin to substitute for declining physical abilities. Since it generally takes from six to eight years to produce a world-class weightlifter, the Bulgarians like to start their weightlifters at about age 11; this gives them enough time to, they hope, develop into world champions and then possibly stay at that level for several years. Also, since testos­terone levels rise after about 20 minutes of training and then start to decline anywhere from 50 minutes to two hours into the training period, the Bulgarians limit most of their train­ing sessions to one hour and never exceed 1 1/2 hours.

Training Intensity and
Choice of Exercises

Intensity is everything in Spas­sov's approach to training, and he put it very simply: "As often as you touch the bar, you will improve." It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, to learn that the Bulgarians train every day, and in accordance with their re 

"The Bulgarians train
every day, and on at
least four of those
days they have five
training periods for a
total of six hours per

search on testosterone levels, they use multiple short-duration training sessions each day. Unlike the days when the Eastern European weight­lifters were big on a wide range of supplementary training, including running, Spassov doesn't believe in doing anything other than lifting. As he said, "A violin player doesn't need to practice the saxophone."

"Aha," you think, "this should be easy." Not quite—after hearing how Angel Spassov's revelations were thought-provoking. The Bulgarians' methods are remarkable, to say the least.

The Bulgarian weightlifters train, you might decide to switch to marathons

or triathalons to reduce the demands of your workout schedule. And don't look for variety in the gym either, as Spassov sees the lifter's entire train­ing regimen revolving around but six exercises, including the snatch and the clean and jerk.

Just how intense is this type of training? According to Spassov, the Bulgarians train every day, and on at least four of those days they have five training periods for a total of six hours per day! And don't think this is some sort of fancy split routine. The same muscles—indeed, the same lifts—are generally done day after day after day. Also discard notions of alternating heavy and light days, as Professor Spassov assured us that in terms of strength development it is a waste of time to train at under 80 percent of maximum and that strength levels declined after 72 hours away from heavy training.

Next month we'll outline some specifics on how the Bulgarians train, according to Spassov, and then run through what happened when a group of American lifters applied these basic principles to their own training.


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