The general adaptation theory states that when an organism is placed under a certain stimulus, that organism will become adapted to that stimulus.

Let's talk about the adaptive theory from a weightlifting perspective.

In the 70s and 80s, the Bulgarian national team was one of the most dominant weightlifting teams in the world. No other team produced medals and champions on an international basis as consistently and as frequently as the Bulgarians.

The significance of this is that the population of Bulgaria is some 8 million; in comparison to the US, the Soviet Union, China, etc., Bulgaria had a much smaller talent pool to train from, and yet it was the Bulgarians who dominated the medal stands, and it was the Bulgarians who ranked at the top of the end-of-year list every year.

During the years of Bulgaria's strong weightlifting presence, Ivan Abadjiev presided as head coach of its national team.

Abadjiev's training methods at the time were unheard of. His athletes trained twice a day, six days a week. There were no assigned "light" days, a very high percentage of the training sessions called for a certain high "limit" percentage of the athlete's maximum ability, i.e. 95% of his best snatch, 97% of his best clean-and-jerk, 97% of his best front squat, etc., and the numbers were generally assigned by a coach or trainer. Also, the athletes competed much more frequently, and competitions were incorporated as an integral part of the training cycle, meaning there was essentially no defined endpoint to training - there was no "off-season," which is often viewed as a requirement in all athletics. It is commonly accepted that there must be an extended period of time in which the athlete is not training and competing for sport in order to recover physically and psychologically. The methodology under which the Bulgarian national team trained was so radical and so distinct, that it became known as "the Bulgarian method." It is important to note that the so-called Bulgarian method was not a static set of rules and numbers. Abadjiev was constantly adjusting the application of training in order to improve performance; most notably he would later emphasize specificity, meaning that the training of the national team revolved around an increasingly small amount of movements. Only movements with high correlation and carry-over to the competition movements, such as the front squat, overhead squat, and snatch/clean high pulls were implemented in training.

Traditional understanding of muscle development calls for 48-72 hours of rest between training muscle groups. The theory behind this is that the muscle fibers that are damaged in training take time to repair and grow back stronger than before. Another important aspect of commonly-accepted methods of strength training at the time was that when the neuromuscular system became over-taxed through constant, heavy training, i.e. lifting maximal weights on a day-to-day basis, the central nervous system would inhibit the function of motor units in order to protect the body from injury due to over-straining.

Neuromuscular inhibition had already been established in adaptive theory. It is a protective mechanism employed by the body to avoid injury from frequently producing muscle tension that may potentially cause damage to connective tissue, joints, etc. This and other related signs of physiological and psychological distress and decreased performance are often collectively called over-training syndrome by those who believe such a condition exists.

The accepted training model at the time was based on the idea of periodization. Sports periodization is based on the concept that the body can be over-stressed by stimuli (training), and so progressive periods of variation are required over a training cycle in which variables in training (in weightlifting, "volume," amount of repetitions, and "intensity," effort required to move weight, which is quantified by measurements of heart-rate, pulse-rate, blood pressure, etc.) must be adjusted to develop specific aspects of muscle fitness. The general model used is to begin with a high-volume, low-intensity phase, then progressively decrease volume and increase intensity. The progressive training loads are divided into distinct phases that focus on a particular aspect of muscle fitness; muscle endurance, speed-strength, strength, etc., and following competition there is usually some period of rest or sport-inactivity in order to allow the athlete to recover from the stressor.

Periodized training does produce improvements in performance, and is still a common and arguably effective training method.

And yet Abadjiev's system contradicted the accepted principles of periodization in almost every way.

What made it successful was a different interpretation of the idea of adaptation, the recognition of the human body's ability to adapt to a stressor, or to adjust into an adapted state.

There was a study in the 1960s in which a certain group of proteins was observed in animals recovering from starvation; these stress-response proteins were demonstrated to play a crucial role in muscle gene expression. These same proteins were also observed in animals in an exhausted or injured state.

This was the principle behind Abadjiev's method; constantly stress the body and mind to a certain extent to which they can adapt. This meant frequently lifting a certain limit percentage of the athlete's maximum ability and forcing the athlete's body to adapt to the training, not to train the body to simply respond to stimuli, but to force the body into a stress-response state, an adapted state. This was achieved through intense and frequent training (high-intensity and high-volume as opposed to periodization's method of adjusting one inversely with the other), as well as the integration of competitions into the training cycle, in order to induce a psychological as well as a physical stressor upon the athlete. Abadjiev believed that the stress-response proteins found in the starvation-recovery and exhausted animals indicated that the bodies of those animals were function at an "accelerated" state that promoted muscle function, i.e. a state that would allow them to escape predators and survive more efficiently, which would explain their role in muscle gene expression and possibly increasing the potential for muscle and neuromuscular recovery. He believed that a similar state could be induced in the human body to facilitate an increased and more intense training load than could normally be adapted to.

In a more recent study conducted at Midwestern State University, several experienced weightlifters were trained on a twice-a-day schedule, six days a week, in which they lifted high percentages of their maximum abilities, very similar to Abadjiev's system. For the first week, the weightlifters experienced the predicted effects of this type of training; muscle soreness, an initial decline in performance, a general sense of fatigue. However, after the initial week, the weightlifters no longer experienced the pronounced muscle soreness or the feeling of being physically drained; also notable were improvements in performance, i.e. lifting higher maximum weights on prescribed days, and a psychological sense of some weights "feeling easier."

After a period of six weeks, the weightlifters were taken off the high-intensity training. They either trained at very light percentages of their abilities or did not train at all. A week after this, upon returning to training they experienced fatigue, a decline in performance, etc.

There were two important observations from this experiment: the weightlifters at first were unable to perform well under the given conditions (the stimuli of frequent and heavy training) until there was some tangible change in their body. Second, their bodies remained in this state until the stimulus had been removed. These observations indicated that the weightlifters had become adapted to the level of training, but remained adapted only so long as they continued to maintain or increase the difficulty in training (increasing volume or weight).

Abadjiev's application of the adaptation theory called for the human body to be placed under an environment of near-constant stress, both physically and psychologically. His training system was, in his words:

"(Not) like any other system in the world. It contradicted every basic principles. In Bulgaria, many other sports disciplines are build on the methods developed by the Soviet experts. The main concept is distinct periodization, preparation stage, interim stage, competition stage. I threw it away at once. When a rabbit is being chased by the wolf, does he have an interim stage for running? Yes, he can hide in the bushes but he is ready to start running 100 percent at any time. Is it logical to achieve outstanding results by hard work and then to stop and to go back to a lower level?"

To allow the body to rest and "recover," to Abadjiev, meant to return the body into the "recovered" state - that is, the state in which all physiological functions were normal, the state in which muscle development and neuromuscular function were not in a stress-response state. To remove the stimulus of intense training was to return the athlete to a lower level of performance.

The training system associated with Abadjiev's success as the head coach of the Bulgarian national team has influenced the methodology of weightlifting training everywhere. The resident athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs are often said to train on a "modified" Bulgarian system. The Turkish national weightlifting team, one of the more recent successes in weightlifting, is known to train very similarly to Abadjiev's system with special emphasis on specificity; mature weightlifters have completely phased back squats out of their training in favor of the front squat due to its higher correlation with the clean-and-jerk. It is worth noting that several key athletes of the Turkish team, among them Halil Mutlu and now-retired Naim Suleymanoglu, were once Bulgarian citizens and competed as Bulgarians until they defected to their country of ethnic origin.

There are, of course, criticisms of Abadjiev's methodology. It is not without reason that he was known as "the butcher." The high-volume, high-intensity training was meant only for "mature" athletes, those weightlifters who had adequate exposure to the sport (began training in late childhood) and had developed the necessary basic strength and resilience of structure, tissue, psychology, etc. to train under the required circumstances. Even so, the injury rate within the Bulgarian national team was known to be excessively high in comparison to other teams, and while it consistently produced top-level competitors and champions, its athletes also had the shortest competition lifespans. Many were eventually overcome by injury or an accumulation of injuries and unable to continue training at the level of intensity and frequency necessary, at which point they were dismissed from their positions on the national team.

It is true that the human body can adapt to an environment or stimuli, but it is true only to a certain extent. Also, in a world in which medical science and technology and luxury allows maladaptations to go unnoticed, we often forget that when placed in a "toughest will survive" environment, not all subjected individuals are capable of producing the performance required of a national or world champion.

Many critics also feel that it is physiologically impossible to survive under the stress of Abadjiev's system without the use of anabolics or other substances banned in the athletic world. It is well-known that top-level weightlifters are well "supplemented" with "adaptogens" and "restoratives" by their coaches, nutritionists, and pharmacologists; athletes on national teams also have access to various resources such as massage, contrast baths, acupuncture, etc. that aid in the recovery process. Also, the talent pool in the countries where training similar to Abadjiev's is successful is much, much larger than in countries where the system is criticized for its irrationality, ineffectiveness, etc., meaning that many of the athletes with the potential to improve under the Bulgarian method are unavailable due to their involvement in other, more mainstream sports.

Despite the criticisms against it, the principles of Abadjiev's method are undeniably an important training resource. It is perhaps best perceived not as the most effective training method, but as one effective training method. However, the importance in the Bulgarian method today is not the actual system, but its implications. When the Bulgarian method was first scrutinized by outside observers, it was radical and blasphemous, and yet it was accurately based on the understanding of the human body at the time. There will never be a truly perfect training method, as the functioning of the human body will never be completely and perfectly understood. Rather than follow Abadjiev's principles, it is more important to continue to search for training methodologies that reflect our understanding of human physiology.

Sources cited:

"The muscle ankyrin repeat proteins: CARP, ankrd2/Arpp and DARP as a family of titin filament-based stress response molecules." J Mol Biol. 2003 Nov 7;333(5):951-64.

Fleck, S. J. (1999). Periodized strength training: A critical review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 13, 82-89.

"Ivan Abadzhiev: Very Heavy Weightlifting."

Kilgore, J.L., G.P. Pendlay, J.S. Reeves, and T.G. Kilgore. "Serum chemistry and hematological adaptations to 6 weeks of moderate to intense resistance training." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(4):509-15. 2002.

Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., Schilling, B. K., Johnson, R. L., Pierce, K.C., Haff, G. G., and Stone, M. (1999). Periodization: Effects of manipulating volume and intensity. Part 2. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 21(3), 54-60.

Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., Schilling, B. K., Johnson, R. L., Pierce, K.C., Haff, G. G., and Stone, M. (1999). Periodization: Effects of manipulating volume and intensity. Part 1. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 21(3), 54-60.

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