Doug Hepburn: the ignored strength giant

Never has a man overcome so much to become a world champion. Doug Hepburn is shown coming erect with a shallow 300-pound split-snatch. Hepburn, a Canadian, won the 1953 world weightlifting championship. His best Olympic lift was the overhead barbell press. Doug set a 385-pound world record at the world championships. Despite being handicapped, he demonstrated athletic abilities that to this day are unrivalled by big men – when was the last time you saw a 300-pound man walk on his hands?

Doug Hepburn was born in 1926 cross-eyed and with a clubfoot. He came into the world just in time to experience the worldwide depression. As the old blues song goes, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” As one might expect, Doug had a tough, impoverished childhood. He was unloved at home and taunted and mocked at school. Ostracized because of his handicaps, one can only imagine the psychological trauma and terrible self-image the youngster must have developed because of the continual and unrelenting ridicule, bullying and physical abuse.

Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Charles Atlas (Angelo Siciliano) made himself a millionaire by running a five-panel comic strip in newspapers and magazines. The comic strip depicted a skinny nerd boy getting sand kicked in his face at the beach in front of beautiful girls he wanted to have sex with. The nerd cries and runs away. He sends away for Charles Atlas’ Dynamic Tension bodybuilding course and packs on 50-pounds of pure muscle in two weeks. He goes back and knocks the shit out of everyone in sight. Young Doug wanted some of that action.

Hepburn worked his way through Dynamic Tenison and eventually found the tool of his salvation: the barbell. He discovered that he had a knack for resistance training. The scrawny pathetic victim proceeded to build himself into a 300-pound Punisher. He then set about wreaking havoc on behalf of losers worldwide.

In 2018, a handicapped Brainiac like Hepburn would invent an app in his mother’s basement and become a Silicon Valley billionaire. Back in 1952, no such opportunity existed. Hepburn handled things differently: he became the strongest man in the world.

Hepburn was created in a vacuum. He could be termed a strength savant. He was extremely smart and only knew what he read. He had no mentors or coaching. He emerged, full-blown and raw onto the Canadian national weightlifting scene; overcompensating for a lack of subtle technique with an over-abundance of power, he would overcome by over compensating.

Doug used the power lifts, the squat, bench press, deadlift, row and curl, to increase his Olympic lifts. Despite being a terrible technician in the three Olympic lifts, he won a world championship and set world records. Before Hepburn and Anderson, the accepted practice to become a better Olympic liftee was to become a better technician. The three lifts were practiced continually and exclusively. Doug and Paul went, our techniques suck – so we’ll have to over-power everything – cause we can.

Doug Hepburn also made the mistake to be born in the wrong country at the wrong time. Hepburn was, at one point in time, inarguably, the strongest man in the world. However, he (unfortunately for him) burst into prominence and had a career that ran roughly parallel to that of strength uber-super star Paul Anderson.  Big Paul had charisma cubed and overshadowed everyone. Doug always felt slighted and toiled in obscurity once his Olympic lift glory days were over. He had a difficult life.

Doug Hepburn Barbell Squat Doug Hepburn Barbell Squat

 

Doug at his peak: he squatted 780 using this style. Here he squats 700 for reps; no knee wraps and no weightlifting belt – and no spotters. Doug was a powerful, rough stylist.

Hepburn built abnormal power and strength because his methods were effective and compound by diligent, nay, maniacal application. He worked hard as hell and trained often. He was excellent in a wide variety of lifts. Doug military pressed 385 winning the world championships in 1953, this weighing 280 while standing 5-10. He was one of the first men to smash the 700-pound squat barrier and his 780-pound raw squat was only exceeded by Anderson. How did he train?

He trained a lot like Marvin Eder, Reg Park, Roy Hilligren, Bill Pearl and all the other great strongmen, Olympic lifter, power bodybuilders of the golden pre-steroid era, Hepburn engaged in marathon-length sessions that lasted for hours. He trained nearly every day and was a believer in using multiple top sets to increase strength. Here is one of his many tried-and-proven training strategies…

  • Four single rep sets are done using a 90% of your 1-rep maximum: A man capable of 200-pounds for a single rep in a lift would perform 180 for four singles (after warm-up sets)
  • Add an additional single rep per set in each subsequent workout: the goal is to, over time, work up to 10 single reps with 90% (after appropriate warm-up sets)
  • After hitting 10 singles with 90%, add ten pounds to the power bar and commences the cycle all over again

A man capable of 200 x 1 in a lift “jumps in” at 180 for four single rep sets. If the lift is trained once a week, at the end of six weeks the lifter is now handling 180 for ten single rep sets. He now bumps the bar to 190 and starts over with four singles. At the end of twelve weeks the lifter is now handling 200 for ten single rep sets.

 What happens when the lifter burns out on this routine?  He switches to a second Hepburn-approved routine…

  • Four sets of three reps using 75% of 1-rep max: A man capable of 200 for a single rep in a lift would perform four sets of three reps with 150-pounds (after warm-up sets)
  • Each week add a rep to each set
  • At the end of eight weeks the lifter is performing four sets of 10 reps with 150-pounds
  • Add ten pounds to the bar and start over

Hepburn felt four months, 120 days, 16 weeks, was the longest any routine could run without going stale.

Hepburn whipped his body mercilessly and used high volume, high frequency, limited exercise menu training to turn a self-described “cross-eyed spastic cripple” into a world weightlifting champion. He was an excellent all-around strongman and world level in a dozen lifts. Doug was likely the most athletic heavyweight world weightlifting champion of all time. to wit...

Powerlifter Doug Hepburn Performs a Handstand Powerlifter Doug Hepburn Performs a Handstand

 

Doug Hepburn weighed 300-pounds and could do handstands. He could walk up and down stairs on his hands and was so powerful that while holding a 250-pound barbell overhead he could allow a 150-pound Muscle Beach hand-balancer to monkey climb up Doug’s legs, back and shoulders before hand-balancing atop Hepburn’s locked out barbell.

I once asked Bill Pearl who was the strongest man he ever met. Without any hesitation Pearl said, “Doug Hepburn. I saw him do things I never saw another human do. He could walk up and down a stepladder on his hands. His finger strength was ungodly. He bent an American coin and handed it to me. I was so amazed I asked him to do it again. He did. I did an exhibition with him in Vancouver and we talked at length. He got into a bar fight after our joint exhibitions and grabbed his assailant so hard his fingers ripped through the man’s clothes and into the skin on his back. Doug’s fingers were like eagle talons.”

Doug Hepburn Barbell Bench Press Doug Hepburn Barbell Bench Press

 

Doug Hepburn was also the first man to bench press 550

Here is another Hepburn training split…

Monday and Thursday

  • Squats             8 sets x 2 reps             (2 minutes rest between sets)
  • Bench Press    8 sets x 2 reps             (2 minutes rest between sets)

Now rest five minutes – then…

  • Squats             3 sets x 6 reps             (2 minutes rest between sets)
  • Bench Press    3 sets x 6 reps             (2 minutes rest between sets)

 Tuesday and Friday

  • Deadlift                                               8 sets x 2 reps             (2 minutes rest between sets)
  • Seated Overhead Barbell Press          8 sets x 2 reps             (2 minutes rest between sets)

Now rest five minutes – then…

  • Deadlift                                               3 sets x 6 reps             (2 minutes rest between sets)
  • Seated Overhead Barbell Press          3 sets x 6 reps             (2 minutes rest between sets)

“On the first training day, you will perform 8 sets of 2 reps each, using approximately 80% of your one rep max – or a weight you could knock out 8 reps with before failing.  A man with a 200 for 1 best effort would commence with 8 sets of 2 with 160-pounds. In each subsequent workout add one rep to one set…

160 x 3,2,2,2,2,2,2,2 – next session 160 x 3,3,2,2,2,2,2,2 – next session 160 x 3,3,3,2,2,2,2 – etc.

“Assuming you make every rep increase, at the end of the 8thworkout taken in four weeks you are ready to add 10 pounds to the bar and start all over again. Over time, or on some lifts, it may be difficult to move up by 10-pound increments; move up by 5-pounds. This is a slow, methodical training method.

You are NOT done: now comes the strange, unconventional twist that was uniquely Hepburn…

“Rest for five full minutes and recover as much as possible. Now you will perform the same two exercises AGAIN.  This time for reps using 20% lighter weight. If you performed 8 sets of 2 to 3 reps with say 160-pounds, you now perform 3 sets of 6 reps in the same exercise with 130-pounds.”

“In each subsequent workout, increase one of the three sets by one rep. Continue this pattern of increasing reps until you hit 3 sets of 8 reps. Then increase the weight on the bar by five-ten pounds. This is the rep pattern…

  1. 6/6/6 6/6/7  3. 6/7/7   4. 7/7/7   5. 7/7/8   6. 7/8/8  7. 8/8/8

“It may take several weeks to a month to adapt to this training style. Though the weights are relatively light, you will still feel muscle soreness from the sheer volume of the heavy compound movements you are performing. Resist the urge to add any exercises to this power-building routine! The goal is to get strong on basic lifts. This type of training adds muscle mass. There is no need to hit muscles from 17 different angles. Nor is there a need to add in “beach muscle work,” no need for bicep curls, lateral raises or sit-ups”

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He’s coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat and Ed Coan when he posted his earth shattering 2,464 total. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth” and numerous others.