Bulgarian Leg Training Secrets
Professor Angel Spassov and Terry Todd, Ph.D.
Almost a decade ago,
a retired Soviet hammer thrower came to the conclusion that traditional forms
of squatting were not the best way to strengthen the muscles of the thighs and
hips. Many in the Soviet Union considered this heresy, as the squat was the king
of leg training in that country just as it was, and is still, in the United States.
years ago, the full squat was the foundation of exercise programs for almost all
elite athletes in the Soviet Bloc nations, whether they were weightlifters or
not. Soviet athletes - be they wrestlers, runners, fencers, soccer player or swimmers
- all squatted. But because the retired hammer thrower had won the gold medal
in the 1976 Olympic Games and because he was a respected graduate of the Central
Institute for Physical Education and Sport in Moscow, his opinions were taken
seriously. His name: Anatoly Bondarchuk. His studies led him to conclude that
a particular form of what we'll call the high step-up had two significant advantages
over the standard back squat. Bondarchuk concluded that high step-ups, firstly,
produce greater gains in thigh and hip power and secondly, cause fewer injuries.
does his research and coaching in Kiev. His fellow Soviet coaches and sports scientists
were skeptical about his conclusions. However, as time passed and he was able
to convince a few athletes and coaches, in a variety of sports, to drop squats
from their routines and adopt the high step-up, it became clear that be had made
a significant breakthrough. Many of the athletes using his "new" exercise
began to make gains in power that were far beyond what they had made using only
We qualify the word "new" because, in one form
or another, the step-up has a fairly long history. A review of dozens of pre-1900
books in the Physical Culture Library at the University of Texas revealed that
the step-up was commonly practiced before the turn of the century. In fact, Dr.
Dudley Allen Sargent, who was for years the director of physical training at Harvard
University, used a form of the step-ups as he was devising one of the first known
methods of cardiorespiratory testing. Sargent's method, first used over 80 years
ago, is called the Harvard Step-Up Test. It involves stepping up, at a timed pace,
onto a bench or chair approximately 20 inches high for a set period of time and
checking the pulse rate at predetermined intervals.
But the step-up
was also used to strengthen and develop the hips and thighs. As weight training
grew in popularity in the 1920s and '30s, the step-up with extra weight began
to appear in books and magazines of that era. However, the squat with added weight
was also given an enormous boost in America during this same era thanks to several
crucial factors: Firstly, the wonderful lifting of the young German immigrant
"Milo" Steinborn, who could do a full squat with more than 500 pounds,
secondly, the publicity given to Milo's world-record-breaking abilities in weightlifting,
and finally, the career of Joseph Curtis Hise, who not only gained a great deal
of strength and muscle size with high-rep squats but also had the ability to fill
other bodybuilders with enthusiasm for this arduous but effective form of training.
knows whether the step-up with weights would have become more popular had Steinborn
and Hise not appeared on the scene and raised the reputation of the deep knee
bend, putting it at the top of any serious trainer's list of "must"
exercises? In any event, the squat became the dominant hip and thigh exercise
in America in the 1920s and has remained so ever since.
When the Eastern
European nations, led by the Soviet Union, began to assert themselves athletically
after World War II, one cornerstone of their success was the squat. For a time,
they turned to the West, particularly the United States, for training theory;
but as the years passed and they developed their own coaches and sports scientists,
they began to rely more and more on their own research. It was this tradition
of self-reliant research that led Anatoly Bondarchuk to challenge the supremacy
of the squat.
One thing Bondarchuk concluded was that the heavy back
squat was potentially dangerous to the structure of the lower back. In fact, according
to his studies, it can be demonstrated that the back squat places a load on the
structure of the lower back that, in the bottom position, is at least twice as
heavy as the load on the bar. In other words, if you are lifting 300 pounds in
the full squat, your lower back is stressed to an amount equaling at least 600
pounds, usually more. The actual amount depends on the speed of descent and ascent.
The faster you descend and the faster you reverse direction and begin to arise
from the bottom, the greater the load on the lower back and, according to Bondarchuk,
the greater the chance of injury.
Bondarchuk also noticed that athletes
who were pushing for those extra few reps on a set of squats almost always sank
an extra inch or so at the bottom in order to get a bit of "bounce"
to push them through the sticking point of the exercise. For this reason, and
because he observed that in no sport did the athlete ever find himself in the
normal full-squat position, Bondarchuk concluded that it would be safer to use
a form of weighted step-up.
When he began his research, he was unsure
of several things. He wasn't sure how high the bench or chair, onto which the
athlete would step, should be. As he began to experiment with different heights,
he soon realized that he could achieve complete development of the thighs and
hips by using varying bench heights, depending on the needs of the individual
athlete. Being well-schooled in anatomy and physiology, he understood that the
higher the bench, the more stress would be placed on the hamstring muscles on
the rear of the thigh. Conversely, he understood that a lower bench would result
in more work being required of the quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh.
he concluded that the ideal position generally occurred when the athlete was standing
on the toes of one foot with the other foot flat on the bench and the top of the
raised thigh parallel to the floor. If, however, the athlete was weak in the hamstring
area, he should use a slightly higher bench. According to research done by Osse
Aura, a professor of biomechanics at the Finnish Institute of Physical Education,
the hamstring muscles should be approximately 75% as strong as the quadriceps
muscles. If that ratio is not maintained, the chance of injury increases, while
the chance of maximum performance decreases. Bondarchuk agrees with Aura's figures
and uses a form of the leg curl and leg extension to determine the relative strength
of these two muscle groups. If he finds the quadriceps of a certain athlete to
be too strong, he will instruct that athlete to use a higher than normal box height
and thus place more stress on the hamstrings. If, on the other hand, an athlete's
hamstrings are too strong, the box height will be lowered so that the quadriceps
may be stressed more completely.
Obviously, since an athlete cannot
do a high step-up with even 50% of the weight he or she can use in the full squat,
the problem of the "double loading" stress on the lower back is greatly
reduced. The lower back experiences far less stress when an athletes does a high
step-up with 100 pounds than when he does a squat with 300 pounds, assuming that
both of these lifts are maximum efforts. Also, since it would be impossible for
an athlete to "bounce" out of the bottom position in the high step-up,
this exercise completely eliminates the problem of the bounce. This is an important
consideration since the complete full squat, especially when done with a "bounce,"
is potentially harmful to the structure of the knee.
The high step-up starts out similar to the regular squat.
The weight is placed on a standard bar and the bar is placed on a squat rack as
would be the case with a squat. But then things are different. Before squatting,
normally you step backward, but with the high step-up you move forward, toward
the platform onto which you will step. But if your gym isn't set up to allow you
to step forward, don't be concerned. Simply be careful as you position yourself
for the step-up. You may need to construct a box if you can't find a bench or
sturdy chair of the proper height. And if you have a box or chair that's a bit
too tall, don't forget that you can use a 100-pound or 45-pound plate under your
bottom foot. Or, for that matter, you can use pieces of plywood to achieve the
exact position you need. You should also be careful to keep your shoulders more
or less over your hips as you step up onto the box or bench; don't bend forward
at the waist in order to do the step-up. Also, slightly bend the knee of the leg
onto which you lower yourself. It takes some of the shock out of the descent and
is a bit safer.
Several years ago the Bulgarian weight lifting team
began to drop all back squatting in favor of high step-up. By that time, many
Soviet lifters had abandoned squats and made their higher lifts in the snatch
and clean and jerk than ever before. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this
involves the career of Leonid Taranenko, the current holder of the world record
in the clean and jerk in the superheavyweight class. Taranenko has done the clean
and jerk with the amazing weight of 586 pounds. Think of it! Almost 600 pounds
lifted from the floor to full arms' length overhead. But to many longtime lifters
in this country, it is perhaps even more amazing than it has been at least four
years since Taranenko has done a back squat of any kind. Besides his practice
on the snatch and clean and jerk, the only form of heavy leg training that Taranenko
does is the high step-up with weights…Heavy weights. His best in this exercise
is three reps with each leg with 396 pounds. Taranenko's coach, Ivan Loginovich,
one of the foremost trainers in the Soviet Union, was one of the coaches who worked
with Bondarchuk to perfect the high step-up and use it as a replacement for the
back squat; and one of the proofs found in this particular pudding is Taranenko's
many world records.
One thing coaches in the Soviet Union and Bulgaria
noticed was that those athletes, both lifters and those in other sports, who dropped
the squat and used the high step-up developed more complete muscularity than those
who simply squatted. Many of the coaches say that the legs of those who work hard
on the high step-up look more like those of someone who did sprinting and jumping
as well as squatting. Apparently, the balance required in the high step-up calls
more muscles into play, producing fuller, shapelier development.
As far as how to work the exercise into your training routine,
one way would be simply to eliminate squats and replace them with the high step-up,
using the same sets and reps and handling as much weight as you could in the step-up.
way, if you have a desire to push your strength levels up several notches, would
be to do the high step-ups as the Bulgarian National Lifting Team does them, which
is as follows (assuming that the athlete can do a maximum of two reps in the high
step-up with 170 pounds):
1. Begin with one set of 8-10 reps with
no weight, and
2. Proceed to 45 pounds for six reps (45x6), 110x3. I32x3,
150x3, l60x3 for three sets, 135 x6 for three sets and sets of 115x3 to failure.
Bulgarian team uses the pulse rate as a gauge to let them know how far to take
the sets. They believe that each of the moderate to heavy sets should produce
a pulse rate of 162-180 beats per minute. The lifter doesn't begin his next set
until his pulse has dropped to between 102 and 108. The Bulgarian team does virtually
this same workout five or six days a week, along with quite a lot of other leg
work that goes with the snatch and the clean and jerk. Unless you are young (21
or below) and in unusually good condition, we don't recommend that you do such
a demanding workout without at least one day of rest between sessions.
these low repetitions don't appeal to you and you'd like to stick with more traditional
approach for step-ups, you might simply do several sets of progressively heavier
warm-ups, go to three heavy sets of six reps, and finish off with three lighter
sets to failure, aiming for 15-20 reps per set. And if that doesn't give you a
super pump, you need to have your oil checked.
If you do adopt either
of these routines, we suggest you drop all other heavy lower body exercises such
as leg presses, front squats and hack squats. You could continue with leg extensions
and leg curls and, of course, with calf work, but you should be careful not to
overtrain. The trick in all exercise programs is to do enough to stress the muscles
so that they become larger and stronger, but not so much that they can't recover
in time for the next heavy session.
Give this result-producing exercise
a try. It has literally worked wonders with the strength and power athletes in
Eastern Europe, and with their bodybuilders as well, most of whom swear by the
high step-up. Make no mistake, squats are a wonderful, effective exercise: but
perhaps the high step-up can allow you to make even more gains than you could
with squats alone. It's worked out that way in the iron game behind the Iron Curtain.