Long before anabolic steroids became a common shortcut in the Iron Game, there were several amazing athletes who achieved Herculean levels of maximal strength. Their formula for success contained the optimal mix of principle-based training, sound nutrition, adequate recovery and a drive to improve. One such athlete was Doug Ivan Hepburn.
Hepburn was born in Vancouver, Canada, on September 16, 1926. He was born with a clubfoot and cross-eyes, and when he and his mother moved to Seattle when he was young, all these factors added up to a rough childhood, as he explained in Tom Thurston’s book about Hepburn’s life, Strongman (Ronsdale Press).
“Being a Canadian among Americans immediately made me distrusted by other students and my cross-eyes and club foot made me the brunt of everyone’s jokes. I was christened ‘Gimp,’ ‘Hopalong,’ ‘Cross-eyes’ and ‘Wall-eyes.’ Four-letter expletives were also common, forcing me to spend my time friendless and alone.” Eventually Hepburn underwent a successful operation to correct his vision, but you have to consider that perhaps some of these obstacles when he was younger instilled in him a desire to become one of the strongest men of his era.
Hepburn took up weight training when he was 15 and quickly became incredibly strong – by age 18 he could squat 340 pounds, bench press 260 and curl 140. Many strength historians argue that at his peak Hepburn was the strongest man in the world. Here’s why.
Hepburn broke eight world records in weightlifting and won the gold medal at the 1953 World Weightlifting Championships as a superheavyweight. This performance garnered international attention because Hepburn defeated US phenom John Davis, who had won the gold medal the previous year in Helsinki. A split-style lifter to compensate for his clubfoot, Hepburn’s best performances in weightlifting included a press of 381 pounds, a snatch of 300, and a clean and jerk of 383. But Hepburn had many other impressive lifts. For example, he was the first man to bench press 500 pounds, and his record-breaking success in such basic strength exercises helped earn him the title “Grandfather of Modern Powerlifting.” At his peak form Hepburn weighed 300 pounds at a height of only 5'8-1/2" and claimed the following best lifts in his biography:
Press off the Rack: 450 pounds
Push Press off the Rack: 500 pounds
One-Arm Military Press: 200, and 37 reps with 120 pounds
Two-Hand Barbell Curl: 260 pounds
Bench Press: 580 pounds
Squat (deep): 800 pounds
Deadlift: 800 pounds
Crucifix: 110-pound dumbbells in each hand
One-Arm Side Hold-Out: 120 pounds
One-Arm Side Press: 250 pounds
He could also hang 90 pounds from his little finger, extend it to arm’s length and maintain that position for 10 seconds. And please consider that these lifts were performed a half century ago and without the aid of steroids – in fact, Hepburn was an outspoken critic of both drug use and supportive equipment.
As I also am a native Canadian, Hepburn has been one of my heroes. If it were not for the strength phenom Paul Anderson, who appeared on the lifting scene a few years after Hepburn retired, Hepburn’s accomplishments would have become even more legendary in the strength community.
I studied Hepburn’s training methods and use much of his advice in practice to this day. Here are five lessons he taught me that I’ve found especially valuable.
1. Concentrate on two lifts per day
This is the same type of philosophy as the “put the big rocks first in the jar” analogy that Steven Covey uses in his book First Things First. If you get strong on two basic lifts per workout, plenty of strength gains will transfer over to smaller muscles from what is known as the irradiation effect. For this reason, as often as permissible I set up antagonistic pairs together, such as pull-ups and overhead presses.
2. Perform lots of sets for maximal strength
If you ever have a chance to look into the details of Doug Hepburn’s methodology to increase maximal strength, you’ll see it centers on doing lots of basic work. One of the main reasons I have stayed ahead of the game is this: doing lots of sets. Do only a few things, but do them extremely well. Ask any REAL expert on strength training and they will tell you that this is a very basic success principle.
Several years ago I gave a seminar called Sport Specific Strength Training at Level 5 PICP coach Roberto Sabatini’s gym in St. Bruno, Quebec. It was there I asked Pierre Roy, a man I consider to be the best lifting coach in North America, to give a guest lecture. Dr. Espen Arntzen, soon to be the first European coach to achieve Level 5 PICP, asked Pierre what he thought were the three most important keys to success in strength training. Pierre’s answer: “One: hard work. Two: hard work. Three: hard work.” And it’s true: The strongest athletes always have the biggest work capacity.
3. Excite the nervous system first, and then do functional hypertrophy
Many of my successful colleagues use a variation of this approach. Whether they are from Hungary or Romania, the principle they use is the same: Excite high-threshold motor units first, and then do functional hypertrophy work.
A sample torso workout could look like this:
A-1: Narrow Pull-Ups (4-inch/10-cm grip), 8 x 1, 50X0, rest 100 seconds
A-2: Seated 80-Degree BB Military Presses (4-inch grip), 8 x 1, 50X0, rest 100 seconds
Functional Hypertrophy Work
B-1: Narrow Pull-Ups (6-inch grip), 4 x 5, 40X0, rest 90 seconds. The grip is changed for varied stimulus – trust me, it will increase results.
B-2: Seated 70-Degree BB Military Presses (4-inch grip), 4 x 5, 40X0, rest 90 seconds. Again, the change of angle will provide even better results, as you will tap into a slightly different motor-unit pool.
A sample lower body workout could look like this:
Relative Strength Work
Power Cleans from the Block
3,2,1,3,2,1,3,2,1 @ X0X0, rest 180 seconds
Functional Hypertrophy work
Mid-Grip Pulls on Podium, 4 x 6, 20X0, rest 180 seconds. Grip is between a snatch grip and a clean grip.
4. Use split routines
I’ve always found that total-body workouts are just too draining to allow quick recovery. I only started to make progress myself once I split up my training following Doug Hepburn’s (and Anthony Dittilo’s) methodology. What I added to the fundamentals of the Hepburn system were 1) standardized rest intervals, and 2) tempo, hence, making it even better.
By using two key lifts per day and multiple training sessions per week, I was able to train a host of Olympic medalists. Whether they were summer Olympians such as Adam Nelson or winter Olympians such as Pierre Lueders, they all used split routines.
There is a trend among many strength journalists to push for total-body workouts, but I’ll just point out that few Internet writers have physiques with strength to match. My colleague Christian Thibaudeau – whose strength does match his physique – is a split-routine user. Success leaves clues.
5. Take your time
Doug Hepburn preached taking your time to adjust the load upwards, an approach I also strongly endorse. Pierre Roy taught me the same thing. For example, want to increase your squat? Select a weight where your spleen will come out of your left eye socket to complete 8 sets of 2. Then, in every workout try to add to the total number of reps by adding only one rep per set. Once you can complete 8 x 3, only then is it time to increase the weight.
You can’t get a more solid formula for strength training than Doug Hepburn’s. These steps are still used by the best of the best. Hepburn died in 2000, but his legacy is proving that the human body has not dramatically evolved in the last 50 years and that basic hard work still prevails. There are no shortcuts – that’s the Doug Hepburn way.