When I started weightlifting, Bulgarian coach Ivan Abadjiev had just come to the US to coach the team at California Strength. Generally know as the most accomplished weightlifting coach in history, Ivan brought with him a wealth of knowledge and some new systems never seen here in the states. Coach Mike Burgener had also come back from a trip to russia bringing back even more methods. The words “Bulgarian System” were used in every weightlifting gym around the country on a regular basis. I still hear people asking about “The Russian Secret” anyone who has been lifting weights for more than 5 years has put themselves on a “Bulgarian” squat cycle. Or at least what they perceived to be so. Essentially, to dumb it down. This means you squat heavy up to 10 times per week… forever. It was clearly effective for them.
With the squat being a fundamental movement for weightlifting strength, finding a squat cycle is easy. Go online and you can find The Cube Method, Hatch, Smolov, 531, Everett, Cornell, T-Nation, even an old Russian Squat Cycle Generator. I will say it straight out; they all work.
As a weightlifting coach I started to do some research on programming these things effectively. What I found was overwhelming. I decided to use this thing call science. Not proven science, but rather the scientific method. A guess and check if you will. My major in college was psychology which actually means I did a ton of statistics. I learned how to create, develop, and interpret research.
I decided to write for my athletes a 5 week squat cycle. They didn’t know it, but 18 of my athletes were my guinea pigs for my experiment. I chose a 5 week cycle simply because I had not seen one before. I’ve seen 8 week, 12 week, 6 week and even a quick 4 week cycle. The format was simple and basic. Based off of the lifters one rep max, I set a 20% increase at the end of the cycle. 5 Days per week, 3 back squat days 2 front squat days. Essentially each week there was an increase in either reps or weight. The weight one squatted on Monday for 4 would be squatted the next Monday for 5. The week following that the weight would increase by 5-10% for a set of 3.
What I found was interesting. 100%… yes all 18, when the cycle had ended increased either their back squat, front squat or both. 100% also did not complete the cycle exactly as prescribed. Inevitably life happens. People get sick or injured. Athletes have jobs and family. Sometimes 80% feels like 110% and just won’t go up. This sample of 18, though small, consisted of men and women, ages 15 to 50+, brand new lifters to multiple time national competitors.
So what did I learn. It’s simple really. We don’t know anything. 100% success is good. I’m beginning to doubt that the quality of the cycle has much to do with that. As I said before, all of these cycles work and none of them are perfect. I once asked Max Aita how he squats so much weight. Without saying a word, he proceeded to arrange different weights and bars around the gym. He then pointed and said “see this bar, it weighs 15 kilos, this one weighs 20…. use the 20. This green weight is 10, the yellow is 15, blue is 20, and the red is 25… use the red.” every time I was at cal strength I would watch Max come in, put his shoes on, squat a heavy single and leave. Max is now a world record holder.
You see, it’s not about the program, it’s not about the cycle, and this is coming from a programer. If you find a way to be able to effectively squat heavy 10 times per week, guess what, you’re going to get stronger. If you lift more this week than last, guess what, you’re going to get stronger. Quality of programming matters, but it’s more about the athletes willingness to work. Quality programs cannot take into account life getting in the way. There’s nothing secret about what the Russians do. They go to the gym. General programs work, but nothing replaces having a coach to monitor, adapt, change and progress your workouts based off of previous work. Someone to tell you to rest when the program says go, and someone to add weight when the fire is hot. A good coach is not necessarily smarter than the next, but they are more observant and insightful. They great coaches can not only develop a great scientifically based cycle, they can also listen, observe, and communicate with the athlete. Just keep lifting.