Ivan Nikolov – “The Bulgarian Legend”



Interview #1: Tom Venuto Interviews Natural Bodybuilding Champion, Ivan Nikolov, “The Bulgarian Legend”

Tom Venuto: Ivan, based on what I’ve learned in the very brief time I’ve known about you, I have to predict that you’re going to become a very well known name in natural bodybuilding, but for our readers who don’t know you yet, would tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, where you’re from, how long you’ve been training and what made you decide to become a bodybuilder?


Ivan Nikolov: Thanks, Tom. For those who don’t know me I am originally from Bulgaria, and have been training for about 16 years. I started lifting weights when I was 15 and actually soon after I started, I noticed my body was developing very symmetrically and with good proportions. Right then I knew I must travel on that journey called bodybuilding to see how far I could get as a natural athlete – not just in developing my physique, but also my mind and spirit. I also knew I wanted to show people the stages of progress as I go and please them with a pleasant body development. I have already gone a long way since then but I realize how much I still have to go. I now know I will never reach a level of satisfaction and will always strive to improve physically, mentally and spiritually…

Tom Venuto: Could you fill us in on your competition history and what your future contest plans are for this year as well as your long term bodybuilding goals?

Ivan Nikolov: Before I came to the United States, I competed in several competitions on the old continent. I was quite successful there, although I was a natural athlete competing with non-tested competitors. Anyway, since the sport of bodybuilding isn’t very popular in my country and the sport of natural bodybuilding even less than that, I am not going to get into details about the names of the competitions, locations and my placings there. I will mention my achievements here in the U.S. and I will be short in that, too.

I’ve competed in 5 Musclemania World events in 2003 and 2004:
Musclemania-Superbody’03 – 4th in the welterweight class
Musclemania World-03 – 3rd in the welterweight class
Musclemania-Superbody’04 – 3rd in the welterweight class
Musclemania World-04 – 5th in the lightweight class

I also won the overall title at the NPC show Tampa Bay Classic’04 – a competition for non-tested athletes from Central Florida. I consider this to be a big success as I was a natural guy, competed in the lightweight class and won to a lot heavier and many of them non-natural competitors.

I’m now preparing for the Muslclemania-Superbody’06 in Miami where I will be attempting to grab the title in the welterweight class, presenting a bit heavier and improved physique.

As for my long term goals, I have dedicated my efforts to helping people change their lives and I will be doing that full time long before my career as a competitive natural bodybuilder is over. But one thing is for sure: My next goal is to win my weight class in a world championship for Musclemania. I am not sure what the rules are this year, but a year ago, those who won their weight class at a world event were granted a pro card. I want to be the first Bulgarian Natural bodybuilder to be awarded with a pro card.

Tom Venuto: Congratulations on the wins and great placings. Top 5 in a show as competitive as Musclemania is an achievement in itself. It’s also impressive that you won an open, non-drug tested NPC event. I did the same thing myself last year. I competed in the NPC South Jersey and the NPC Gold’s Classic and took 2nd place in my division both times. I don’t think natural bodybuilders should be afraid of hitting open contests to display what they’ve got. It really makes a statement about what you can achieve naturally when you can hang… or even win in the open shows. Of course, in the open divisions of the national qualifiers and at the national level in the NPC it goes without saying that probably only the absolute genetically elite natural bodybuilder will be able to compete, but at that point we have the natural organizations and even the natural pros now. There’s a lot of options for the competitive natural bodybuilder these days and it’s inspiring to see the caliber of physiques that the top naturals have these days. I was curious, who are some of your role models in competitive bodybuilding?

Ivan Nikolov: I will never forget the personal example and the physique of Lee Labrada. He was my true inspiration and still is. He has the kind of an aesthetic physique, the attitude, discipline and mindset I admire. I don’t want to forget to mention also the way he presents his physique on stage. That’s where I looked to learn how to pose.

Tom Venuto: Yeah, Lee Labrada is one of my favorites too. Physical perfection. If you ask me, I think Lee should have been Mr. Olympia many times over. If IFBB pro bodybuilding had awarded the symmetrical look of Labrada, Benfatto and Zane rather than the freaky mass look that’s now in vogue, I think Bodybuilding would be much more widely accepted and taken more seriously by the mainstream today, possibly even making it to the Olympics. It’s too bad the drug bloated look is what the ticket holding fans are demanding and paying for because I doubt the IFBB will go backwards in terms of its judging criteria at this point. I’m just glad there are drug tested natural organizations today like those that we compete in so there’s a competitive venue for everyone. Ok, next question: What people, books or other sources do you go to for training and nutrition advice?


Ivan Nikolov: Over the years I’ve learned so much so that now I can seek information almost anywhere – books, other people, Internet – and be able to separate the rubbish from the valuable things. So, I look for sources of information anywhere it might come from. I’m always open for picking up on new knowledge.

Tom Venuto: I agree totally. You can learn something from everyone. What have you learned about nutrition that you could share with us? I know that on your website you outlined a short list of very important bullet points about bodybuilding nutrition. Would you go through some of your top bodybuilding nutrition tips for our readers?

Ivan Nikolov: Right away, here’s what I consider to be of greatest importance in the bodybuilding nutrition, especially for natural athletes:

  • A 20 – 30g whey protein shake should be the first thing to be ingested in the morning. Due to the fasting throughout the night while slipping, your body is in a catabolic state. With other words your own muscles use amino acids for energy, pulled from the very same muscles. Whey protein shake is the fastest way to get your body out of catabolic state and preserve your muscles.
  • Your breakfast should include sufficient amount of carbohydrates. About 30% of these carbohydrates should come from simple sources as well as complex sources with high Glycemic Index (GI). The rest of the carbohydrates in this meal and in the following meals should come mainly from low Glycemic index sources. Exception of that rule is the post-workout period of about 2-3 hours when you must ingest some good amount of simple carbs (in a couple of meals) along with good protein.
  • Stay away from high carb – high fat combinations. These promote fat deposition.
  • You should eat carbohydrates mainly in the first part of the day and not so much during the rest of it.
  • You should eat protein throughout the day. Along with the solid sources of protein, you should intake enough whey protein during the day to provide sufficient amounts of all the necessary amino acids your body needs.
  • Don’t get too crazy about the amount of protein you eat a day. 1 gram per pound is good enough. More of that is just going to make your system more acidic – not a good thing.
  • Cycle the amount of calories you ingest throughout the week. That will keep your metabolism faster thus keeping you from getting fat if in a positive calorie balance or it will keep your metabolism from slowing down if in a negative calorie balance.
  • You should take also Multivitamin and Mineral formula, extra Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Calcium, Fish Oil, and B-complex.
  • You should eat enough fats, most of them to come from monounsaturated fat as well as omega-3 and –6 fat sources.
  • You should keep your body hydrated at all times. Drink more than 8 glasses of water a day. This is the absolute minimum. By the time you feel thirsty you are already dehydrated.
  • And there is one more important thing that I learned about not to long ago: You should take vegetable based digestive enzymes to help digestion especially when you eat cooked foods as their own enzymes have been destroyed during cooking.

Tom Venuto: Thanks, great advice, and that’s interesting about the enzymes, I don’t hear many bodybuilders talk about the importance of enzymes and digestion. It’s definitely true that you aren’t just what you eat, you are what you digest and assimilate. Still on the subject of your diet, I understand that you cycle your carbs, like a lot of natural bodybuilders do, but I found your carb cycle very interesting the way you spread it across 7 days and combine it with cycling your protein as well. Would you explain your personal carb cycle, how you developed it and why you do it that way?


Ivan Nikolov: The reason why I cycle the protein is because it helps stimulate greater protein retention and muscle growth after lower-protein days. By cycling the body utilizes better carbohydrates and proteins as well. And finally it helps a lot in the whole calorie cycling process, which like you said is a must for natural bodybuilders.

The ascending/descending diet routine wasn’t actually created by me. A friend of mine, the natural bodybuilder and personal trainer Ian Mathews came up with it. The interesting thing is that he based it on patterns of a Bulgarian sports diet routine. I have to admit, though, that applying this diet involves a lot of math.. This diet can be further simplified and still be as effective.

Tom Venuto: I’ve heard that before as well. I’m not sure what the scientific literature says about protein cycling or if there is even any good research on it, but I know, at least from anecdotal evidence from other bodybuilders that loading up on protein after a period of lower protein can result in some increased gains. What about carbs? What specific advice would you give to other bodybuilders regarding carb intake and low carb diets for cutting and how that compares to off season nutrition?

Ivan Nikolov: Regardless of whether an athlete is in an off-season or in a cutting phase he/she should stick to carbohydrate sources with lower glycemic index, the ideal to be not more than 60. That will help keep the insulin levels from rising to the point where fat deposition is promoted. An exception will be only the ‘metabolic window’ after a workout.

I am not a big fan of diets with a constant low level of carbohydrates. Over the time I’ve even learned that it’s the total amount of calories and not the presence of carbs that will prevent you from loosing body fat. Actually carbohydrates are very important in low-calorie diets, as the body needs them to recover after an intense workout. Carbs should be definitely cycled though. My personal philosophy is that the body should be kept guessing all the time without giving it a chance to get used to any patterns. That includes not only carbs cycling but also the other macronutrients cycling as well. Also training routines cycling and more specifically exercise sequence and variety as well as number of reps and high intensity methods selection.

Tom Venuto: What supplements do you take and how important do you think they are to your progress?

Ivan Nikolov: What I can’t go without is my multivitamins and minerals, vit C, vit E, vit B complex, fish oil, calcium, extra antioxidant formula, potent probiotics and vegetable based digestive enzyme formula. I can’t miss to mention the low-temperature processed whey protein formula. These are the supplements I can’t go without.
I know that people wait for the answer to this type of question with great anticipation hoping that they will read about a secret formula that distinguishes the competitive athletes from the average enthusiasts. Let me tell you something. There is no such thing. Or at least I haven’t heard of anything like that. All it takes is a proper mindset, huge amount of discipline and a sincere desire for hard work. And all this, after you’ve provided your body with the basic and essential stuff it needs in order for muscle growth to occur.

Tom Venuto: What advice would you give to competitive bodybuilders for the final week before the show?

Ivan Nikolov: Everyone is different but I can share what works well for me in the last week before a competition. Seven days before the show, I decrease the carbs to absolute minimum and replace them with fats so that I keep the number of calories the same. I increase the high intensity cadio a bit as well and also do circuit workouts for the whole body. Four days before the show I dramatically increase the carbohydrates and decrease the fats and stop the cardio completely. I stop the workouts as well. From this moment on till the day before the competition I proceed with practicing my posing routine and mandatory poses. I also slightly and gradually decrease the amount of carbs till the day of the show.

Tom Venuto: It definitely worked for you. I saw your posing routine for the tampa NPC show on the prime cuts DVD and you were ripped, razor sharp and peaked to perfection dude! Let’s talk about your training. You have a really well balanced and symmetrical physique, but I have to say your arms are especially impressive. How did you get such great bicep and tricep development?

Ivan Nikolov: Thanks for the compliment, Tom. I will be honest by saying that I haven’t applied any special training techniques. It must be genetics I guess.

Tom Venuto: You suck. Just kidding. Ok, would you tell us about your favorite split routine and which body parts you train each day and how you fit that into the week?

Ivan Nikolov: Over the years I’ve found one particular split to work the greatest for me. It looks like this:

1. back, delts
2. chest, quads, hamstrings
3. biceps, triceps, calves

Sometimes this will be a 3 on 1 off split and some times a 2 on 1 off, 1 on 1 off

This is the split I’ve used over time with some variations depending on my short-term goals at that specific time. Some times, just like you, I will try a different system for a short period of time just so that I keep my body away from starting to feel comfortably with my routine.

Tom Venuto: That’s very interesting. I think I might have just found your arm secret! Genetics aside, I’m sure having a day for just arms and calves might have something to do with those guns! I may have to give that a go myself on my next arm specialization cycle. I read that you experimented with Brian Haycocks Hypertrophy-specific training (HST) protocol which if I’m not mistaken is not a split routine at all, it’s a full body workout, which – even though this particular full body routine is called “hypertrophy-specific” – is unusual for competitive bodybuilders to use. I usually train on a 4 day split routine most of the year, but I also do some full body training on rare occasion once in a while just to mix things up and I found it’s good for a little while just to throw something new at my body and mix things up. What was your experience like with HST training?

Ivan Nikolov: Pretty much the same as yours. I found it very beneficial for 6 weeks, which is one cycle. The second cycle didn’t feel that great. HST is definitely good for shorter periods of time. That’s for sure. One thing, though, this system involves a lot of math in it and that’s what might make it unattractive to some people. I will definitely go back to it every once in a while.

Tom Venuto: Do you normally use any periodization techniques? How do your workouts change from one session, one week and one month to the next?


Ivan Nikolov: I cycle things up all the time. There aren’t any two workouts that are exactly the same. I mainly go with what feeling I want to get from a workout. I change exercises very often during the workout simply because I’m not getting the feeling I am seeking. There are certainly things that I’d like to try out, like the Alwyn Cosgrove’s periodization workout for example. If it weren’t for my competition I’d try it out but right now is not the right time for experimenting. I prefer to stick to what has proven to work for me, as I don’t have any time to make mistakes before my show in June.

Tom Venuto: I know some of the left brained scientific types might scoff at the “going for the feeling” as a way to guide your training – call it “the instinctive training principle” if you want – but whatever you call it, I agree with you on that and I don’t think there’s a single successful body builder who can’t relate to what you’re talking about there. How long does a typical workout last for you and how many exercises, sets and reps do you did during that time period?

Ivan Nikolov: I try to do everything possible to finish my workouts in not more than 45 – 50 min. As to the exercises, for big muscle groups I do 11 – 13 sets total and for small 8 – 9. I usually do around 20 sets total for the duration of the workout. My rep range varies between 5 – 50. Yes, I know 50 sounds like a little bit too much bit if the feeling I seek is what 50 reps can provide me with, I go for the 50. One thing is for sure: the pumps are huge at this rep range.

Tom Venuto:Believe it or not, I occasionally do 50 rep sets as well, but mostly on leg day. Nothing like high rep legs every once in a while for a major growth response… if you can stomach it! You have a great new website at www.IvanNikolov.com and fans of bodybuilding will really appreciate it because you have some awesome photo galleries. I also noticed that you have done shoots with some top physique photographers. Would you tell us a little bit about your site?

Ivan Nikolov: Yes, Pat Lee of Axius photography, who is a web designer as well as one of the big physique photographers, created this web site. He also happens to be a friend of mine. Soon after he created it I took over and ever since then I am the web master. By the way, I just added some more interesting options on my web site among which are my new free biweekly newsletter which includes a special bonus upon subscribing. But there is a lot more interesting stuff to be included on my web site really soon. Actually my web site is changing almost every day. New info is added almost daily and that’s why it’s worth bookmarking. As to the photos on my web site, you are right. I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the greatest men’s physique photographers in the country. I am very thankful to have had that opportunity to be photographed by them.

Tom Venuto: Are you available for personal training online or in person?

Ivan Nikolov: I currently train clients in person. I don’t do training online at this moment but this is still one of the future options.

Tom Venuto: I assume that not all of your personal training clients are bodybuilders. Do you train non-bodybuilders the same as you train bodybuilders? If not, what’s difference?

Ivan Nikolov: Actually I don’t train any competitors at this moment. All of my clients are just people who want to change their attitude towards life and change their physiques as a result. I prefer to train non-bodybuilders because as I stated earlier, I’d committed efforts in helping others change and these are the people, who need help to change the most. A competitor has already made the change if he/she is a competitor or is planning on becoming one.

Tom Venuto: That’s an awesome approach – change your attitude towards life and change your physique as a result. It’s interesting you say that too, because I’ve always believed that change takes place on the inside in your thoughts and attitudes before it takes place on the outside in the form of a better body. After you see the changes on the outside, your attitude improves even more, so it turns into a positive self reinforcing cycle. Do you have any other exciting projects or products in the works that you’d like to share with our readers?

Ivan Nikolov: I have tons of projects and I’d rather keep them in secret till the time I’m ready to bring something out. I’ll share a little bit about an upcoming project, though: I plan on shooting a DVD. It won’t be like anything you’ve seen before. It won’t be a hardcore bodybuilding training video; it won’t be biographical or anything like this. I’ll give you a hint: It will feature the man’s physique from an artistic and aesthetic point of view. That’s all I’m going to say at that point. Simply check my web site for news on a regular basis or even better – sign up for my free newsletter and you won’t miss anything of what’s going on with my projects.

Tom Venuto: That sounds great, definitely keep me posted on when your DVD is available, I’ll spread the word to the bodybuilding fans on this site. Ivan, you’re originally from Bulgaria and I know that Americans are fascinated with Bulgarian training because there’s a certain “mystique” around it, so before we wrap up this interview, you have to give us at least one good Bulgarian training secret…. I know you must have some secret training method… so come on, don’t hold out on us… give us the low down… let’s hear it…

Ivan Nikolov: I know, I’ve heard that so many times before. Honestly, Tom, I haven’t been introduced to any secrets back in my country. I guess if there were any, and I knew them, I’d already have my pro card. One thing is true, though. Bulgarians are naturally very strong people and are also very focused and dedicated. I guess I carry a little but of that.

Tom Venuto: Well, I was hoping to get the goods on some super secret Bulgarian training method, but since you gave us that “Bulgarian sports diet” secret earlier, I guess I’ll let you off the hook this time. I have no doubt you’ll get that pro card soon – for a guy like you it’s not a matter of if, but simply when. Thank you Ivan and good luck with your upcoming competitions. We’ll have to check in with you again later this year to see how it’s going.

Ivan Nikolov: Thank you for the great conversation, Tom, and for the opportunity to introduce myself to your fans. Good luck to you as well!

Be sure to visit Ivan’s Website at: www.IvanNikolov.com and keep your eyes on this up and coming natural champion!


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Comments on Ivan Nikolov – “The Bulgarian Legend” Leave a Comment

March 7, 2006

John Bartlett @ 10:49 am #

Great interview. You asked all the questions that most of us want to know the answers to. I can’t wait for the next one in the series.
John Bartlett

JT @ 2:02 pm #

Great interview. I don’t want to give too much away for Ivan but I actually saw a preview of him in an upcoming DVD special. The video looks really good.

Jessica Britt @ 4:07 pm #

Awesome interview! A natural bodybuilder interview series is a great idea. I’m always excited to log on to your website and you’ve just made it even better. I’m going to check it out Ivan’s website. Thanks for introducing more natural bodybuilders to us.

james @ 10:44 pm #

Thanks Tom . Good info no b.s.

March 10, 2006

Dawn @ 11:22 am #

Just loved the interview, keep them coming

March 15, 2006

sheraan @ 3:37 am #

Tom, your website and content continues to stand out to me; honest advice and information like in this interview are great; thanks.

May 1, 2006

Alfian @ 8:01 pm #

For a natural, you sure do look “un-natural.”
But I honestly mean this as a complement to Ivan
Becuause his body is so nice – big AND ripped, it just takes your breath away to know that its all drug-free 🙂

February 20, 2009

Ben @ 10:10 pm #

Ivan Nikolov has it all! He has a model’s looks, and happens to be an incredible model. He has a stunning body, with perfect proportions and big, hard, well-developed muscles. And now we know he is intelligent, thoughtful, and wise.

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