The Bulgarian Squat Routine and Overtraining

Overtraining - featuring The Bulgarian Squat Routine

Overtraining is a common phrase we all hear, but not many understand. Imagine feeling sluggish for weeks straight, having a cold, lean body mass being stripped from you, feeling depressed, reduced appetite, running a temperature, unmotivated, nervous, headaches, elevated blood pressure, and slow reaction time. I don’t know about you, but this sounds a little like death to me.


As strength and conditioning professionals, it is our job to make sure the athletes we work with avoid overtraining. We accomplish this by properly structuring exercise programs in a periodized model, varying intensities and volume so overload is maintained, and allowing athletes to adapt. The National Strength and Conditioning Association present an overtraining continuum which explains how you can get to a state of over training. The Overload stimulus leads to acute fatigue, which eventually leads to overreaching. When an athlete overreaches for too long, overtraining can occur. Exercise programming is harder than it seems which is why companies like 1RM Performance exist.

One program that continues to linger in the strength and conditioning world and is an example of definite over training is the Bulgarian squat routine. I first heard about the Bulgarian squat routine last year from a friend who competes in Strongman competitions. From implementing the routine into his training, he said he had hit all time personal records in the squat, had an extra bounce in his step, and felt stronger than ever. However, three weeks out from his competition, things began to change. He was no longer hitting the same marks, began sleeping for 12 hours a day, feeling sluggish, had a cold, and had to force himself to eat; all the signs and symptoms of the dreaded overtraining. Now, although this friend went on to win the national championship in his weight class, I'm sure there would have been a smarter way for him to train. 

Here’s a little background for you. The Bulgarian squat routine became popular when the Bulgarians were dominating Olympic lifts at both the world and Olympic Games. Their coaches claimed their domination was due to their exercise programming. X- Rays taken of the lifters showed enlarged adrenal glands, which were said to be an adaptation due to the high intensities and the increase in anabolic hormone levels. This routine called for 10 sets of several different exercises, with only 1 rep in each set at an extremely high intensity. If you want to check out a sample workout, follow the link below.

Now, I have to admit that I was intrigued by everything I was hearing and reading on the web and in books about the success of this squat routine. I began to think that maybe our bodies will eventually adapt and overcome the negative effects of overtraining. I even read a blog post by a doctor explaining how our bodies overcome overtraining through different neural and endocrine adaptations. This would be a quite the change in everything I’ve ever learned when it comes to exercise programming, considering coaches have been using periodized programs since the 60’s when Russian physiologist, Leo Matveyev, showed that changing the reps and loads is most beneficial for athletes.

Any doubt towards the benefits of periodization came to a very abrupt end at this year’s NSCA conference. I listened to two presenters explain the benefits of training to failure, meaning performing a set until you can no longer lift the weight again. The two presenters made claims that Micheal Stone, the father of multiple sets not to failure, may have actually meant that athletes should train to failure. What I read and couldn’t believe was now being supported by two distinguished presenters at the National NSCA conference! But then came time for the questioning.

Dr. Greg Haff, one of the brightest minds in the Strength and Conditioning world, stepped up to the microphone and began questioning the presenters. He began to raise doubt on everything they presented on, citing the results of studies they cited during their presentation. Dr. Haff explained how Micheal Stone would “blow a gasket if he was here”. After hearing the bombardment of questions without any sort of logical response from the presenters, I no longer thought of the Bulgarian squat routine as a viable training program.

After following Dr. Haff outside, I started to ask him more about training to failure, asking his opinion on certain things. He informed me that the only reason the Bulgarian squat routine worked, and why the Bulgarians dominated the Olympic lifting scene for years, was due to performance enhancing drugs. Their adrenal glands were enlarged due to the amount of hormones they were taking! I began thinking to myself; this is what I needed to hear. He began to take the conversation further and starting lecturing me about overtraining. He began to reiterate the periodized model, varying intensity and volume, as volume increase intensity decreases and vice versa. This is periodization 101! He continued saying how the presenters misrepresented the studies, and were way off base. An hour later after hearing about his wife, job, career and everything else under the sun I once again felt confident in what I know, and what have taught my students over the past two years.