One Man And A Weightlifting Revolution

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How does a nation emerge from Olympic obscurity in a particular sport to become a gold medal winner several times over? In the case of Bulgaria, it was a training revolution that launched the East European country to weightlifting supremacy. Simple but groundbreaking at the time, the ‘Bulgarian Method’ ditched the old Soviet system of heavy lifting to embrace a new training philosophy that was so successful, it was later adopted by the rest of the world.

Ranked 4th on the Olympic weightlifting table behind the USSR, China and the U.S., Bulgaria today boasts 37 medals in that category, including 12 gold, 17 silver, and 8 bronze. But prior to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the country never reached the three-tiered podium in heavy lifting. At the end of those games though, Bulgarian athletes walked away with 3 gold and 3 silver accolades in the barbell discipline. In years to come, they would ‘earn their weight’ in gold at every one of the quadrennial tournaments through 2004 (except 1984) and it was all due to a single, hard-driving maverick coach.

The Slavic country that declared independence from its Ottoman overlords in 1908 was no stranger to moments of Olympic glory. In the decades before Munich, Bulgaria had accumulated a total of 32 medals, but 24 were in wrestling alone and none of the other honors were in weightlifting. It was Coach Ivan Abadjiev who changed the course of the country’s weightlifting stature, and the sport itself. A former competitor, Abadjiev became his country’s first weightlifting medalist when he took silver at the 1957 World Championships in the lightweight class. Later on, as national coach in the late 1960s through the 1980s and in the latter part of the 1990s, Abadjiev produced 12 Olympic champions, 57 world champions, and 64 European champions.

The USSR dominated weightlifting in the 1960s. Their methodology was basic, structured, and universally followed by the rest of the Soviet bloc countries. Lifters worked out 3-4 times a week and rarely hoisted over 90% of capacity before the day of competition. The conventional thinking was that athletes needed 48 hours to rest from heavy training and more intensive workouts also led to greater chances of injury. Abadjiev challenged the existing regimen and argued that a different approach would beat their Soviet comrades.

By the late 1960s, Bulgaria’s national team was lifting 3-4 times a day, instead of 3-4 times a week. They were also pushing for 100%+ lifts during training, instead of saving the marginal weight for tournament days. Repetitions, previously a standard practice, were also abandoned in favor of brute, single volume, maximum force. Every training session also mimicked an official competition, so by the time weightlifters stepped in front of a panel of judges, they benefitted from a psychological as well as a physical advantage.

Abadjiev believed, and later proved, that a weightlifting body was capable of driving harder than previously thought. The workouts were simple: snatch, clean & jerk, and squat. Water therapy, whirlpools, massages, proper diet, and adequate sleep were the principal remedies in the recovery period. But the barbell coaching hero wasn’t without his detractors. As early as 1959, Abadjiev was criticized for organizing a National Teenage Weightlifting Championship when the general policy restricted the under-17 from engaging in heavy lifting. By 1984, the national team was training as much as 7 sessions a day and when Abadjiev tried to increase it further, even his elite weight warriors rebelled.

But nobody could argue with the medals that were piling up. Munich was the first successful international testing ground and Bulgaria began conquering the World Championships too. In the early 1980’s, they claimed 9 medals at the Worlds and by 1985, sixteen years after assuming the helm of the national weightlifting team, Abadjiev made good on his promise to defeat the mighty Russians. That year at the Worlds, which were held in Södertälje, Sweden, Bulgaria topped the charts with 26 medals (16 gold) versus Russia’s 25 (12 gold). The feat was a remarkable David and Goliath outcome considering the USSR’s lifting machine had 340,000 registered weightlifters compared to Bulgaria’s 5,000.

One of the victorious hoisters in Sweden was 4 foot,10 inch Naim Suleymanoglu, an ethnic Turk born in Bulgaria. Weighing only 62 kg (137 lbs), he won gold by lifting 142.5 kg in the snatch and raising 180 kg in the clean & jerk. A year later, Suleymanoglu defected to Turkey while competing in Melbourne, Australia and began representing his newly-adopted country in weightlifting. With a three-year Olympic moratorium rule forbidding athletes from jumping countries, Turkey paid Bulgaria $1 million to waive the precondition.

As Abadjiev’s most successful protégé, Suleymanoglu set numerous world records and claimed first place at three different Olympiads and five World Championships. He is still the only weightlifter to have snatched 2.5 times his bodyweight and the only athlete to clean & jerk 10 kilos more than triple his body weight. A near-deity in his Turkish homeland, Suleymanoglu was nicknamed the “Pocket Hercules” for his small stature and was showered with all the gifts and adulations of a national hero.

Ivan Abadjiev died in 2017, but not before convincing the world of his weightlifting methods, which became known as “The Bulgarian Training System”. Some continue to maintain that his approach was too harsh, perhaps even cruel, but no one can argue with the final results.

Mark Morthier is the author of ‘No Nonesense, Old School Weight Training: (a guide for people with limited time’. The book has been well received by professionals in the field and is available for sale on Amazon (click). 

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