If you have been reading at this corner of the internet for the past couple of days, then you learned all about the methodology employed by both the Bulgarian Olympic lifters during the decade of decadence known as the 80’s, as well as the bordering on ridiculously dominant for the past 30 years, Kenyan long distance runners. Both of these countries are from very different physical environments, cultures, and are basically the polar opposite when it comes to their chosen discipline. Having said that, there are still so many similarities between their respective systems that must be considered evidence as to the reasons why they have been so successful. It’s those similarities that I’d like to look into further, and see how we as trainers and trainees can apply this information to further our own agendas.
One very important similarity between both systems is the degree of specialization. Both the Bulgarians and the Kenyans involve extremely little in the way of ancillary training. The Bulgarians focused their training on the clean and jerk as well as the snatch, because those were the two lifts that they would be doing in competition. The Kenyans focused on running and even their warm ups and recovery were just more running at a different pace. The obvious take away from both of these examples is that if you want to get very good at something, then the best use of your energy is to do that thing you want to get good at, and do it a lot.
This can be applied to our training philosophy as well. Depending on what you do, and how seriously you take what it is that you do, eliminating what is not necessary may be a good idea. That’s not to say that variety and change don’t have their place within our training, especially if muscle growth and fat loss are the main goals. I’m a believer that when you only have a certain amount of energy to train and a limited amount of recovery ability with which to repair and grow, that it is best to make the most of both. Eliminate exercises that are of little value and focus on the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.
That might be choosing to focus on squats over leg extensions for example. It may mean also that if you’re focused on bodybuilding, then perhaps eliminating movements such as the Olympic lifts may be in your best interest to focus on hypertrophy over explosiveness. If you’re a crossfitter, then eliminating any extra work that is not specific to your WOD’s may also be necessary in order to improve. As we learned from both systems, in order to be a master of anything, you must narrow your focus to specifically what it is that you want to master.
Another commonality between the two was the use of multiple daily training sessions with rest periods in between. This worked well to both focus each training session and keep the volume of activity relatively high. In the case of the Bulgarians it was also used to keep testosterone levels elevated throughout the day in order to enhance recovery. This is a great way to train if you can devote your entire life to training.
Most of us probably would be thrilled to do so, but the reality is that we all have lives to live aside from our training. As seriously as some of us take our regimes, the facts are that we are recreational athletes doing it strictly for the love of it. This will likely limit most of us to a single session daily of training. We can however, try to keep it as intense as possible and under and hour in order to heighten our own levels of testosterone. If we want to add more activity, then perhaps a second daily session involving a different activity such as running could be included as well. Doing so takes away from the component of specialization to some degree, but we are doing our best to adapt a very rigid formula to our own somewhat rigid lives and schedules.
Another similarity between the Bulgarians and the Kenyans is that both of their systems are best described as grinder systems. They pushed their athletes very hard and occasionally that resulted in career ending injuries, but more often than not it produced an elite athlete accustomed to the heavy workload that is necessary to produce a champion. I’m not going to suggest that you push yourself to the breaking point on a regular basis, but the reality is that most of us could probably train harder and at a quicker tempo with a lot fewer breaks in between exercises.
I personally try my best to stay at a threshold that is just below what I would consider my breaking point. I don’t necessarily mean that every time I lift I go to my maximum on everything, because that’s not the case. It’s more of a cumulative result. When I’m finished training on any particular day I’m pretty much spent. I accomplish this with a lot of circuits and sprints that I give my 100 percent to. When it’s over I crawl home. I encourage you that want to take yourselves to the highest level that you’re capable of reaching to do your best to constantly push for more. Chances are you’ll surprise yourself at your own capabilities.
The last area that I want to look at is the degree of attention given to recuperation. Both of these countries trained their athletes hard and rested them hard. It is equally important that we take our own recuperation as seriously as we take our training. In the case of us as recreational athletes without a team of specialists surrounding us and dictating what it is we need to do, it’s on us to take care of ourselves. This means getting adequate nutrition to optimize our recovery, getting enough sleep to maximize our recuperation, and engaging in our own recovery training. Be that light squats after heavy leg training, foam rolling, proper stretching, both dynamic and static, and making sure we warm up properly in order to get the most from our training sessions. As great as it would be to have coaches around to do all of our thinking, the reality is that we have to take on those jobs as well.
When it comes to both systems used in order to create champion athletes, there is little need to look further than the example provided by the Bulgarians and the Kenyans. Of course we won’t be able to devote the time and energy to our training like those that train for competitions at a high level, but we can adapt some of the principles in order to take our own training to a higher level. Don’t forget that the majority of athletes, even within these systems, do not become champions. The few that make it to the very top of their class are made of something different than you or I, and that can somewhat be attributed to random chance. Many a great athlete that were never given the chance to flourish due to circumstance have never been given the opportunity or support to succeed. Life can be a harsh reality for some, unfortunately. Let that not be discouraging however, as there is just as much to be learned and lived through our own daily regimen as athletes doing what we do for possibly the greatest reason of all, for the love of it. Until next time,