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How to Develop Beastly Curling Strength on the Barbell Curl

Strength Oldschool

By Doug Hepburn

The Two Hand Slow Curl by Doug Hepburn


Among the half-dozen of so exercises in which I have always been particularly interested, is the two hands curl. I have always maintained that there is a basic movement which can determine the strength of any given section of the physique. For instance, the deep knee bend or squat is a pretty accurate means of measuring the strength of the hips and thighs.

The dead lift with one or two hands determines the back strength; while the two hands slow curl gives you a good idea of the power of the arms in one of the two basic movements governed by them.

It is true that I have used a wide variety of exercises in my various curling routines during the past few years, but these were merely for the purpose of change, to provide the necessary stimulation and keep my workouts from becoming monotonous, thereby halting progress. Personal experience has convinced me that to attain maximum power in the biceps of the arms, the two hands slow curl with barbell is the most effective and efficient exercise, not only from the amount of energy expended, but from the standpoint of time in which the maximum results can be obtained. All exercises apart from the actual lift are, as some people call them, “assistance movements,” and only the practice of the curl is important if you are going to break your records in it. If you want to improve the press, you press . . . the dead lift, then dead lift and the curl, then simply work hard, faithfully and with determination, using the two hands slow curl exclusively.

Outstanding ability and power in curling dumbbells, barbells and all kinds of awkward block weights has been the trademark of all the strong men of the past and present eras.

Big Doug Hepburn Arm Size

I am of course referring to those possessed not merely of “specialized” strength by virtue of certain favorable leverage of skeletal factors, but of an “all round basic Power.” The men who come most readily into my mind are these . . . John Davis . . . Arthur Saxon . . . Maurice Jones . . . Louis Cyr . . . Louis “Apollon” Uni . . Al Berger . . . You will notice, that it is if are fully acquainted with the power of these men, that not only did they possess extremely powerful arms, but they also had immensely strong backs and thighs, thus proving that the true foundations of strength lies in those regions.

Of them all, perhaps four stand out as the most powerful in the curl, in my opinion that is. I exclude Louis Cyr because I fell that romance has played a large part in certain of his feats and there is, so far as I can ascertain, no existing proof that some of his lifts were actually performed. John Davis, Al Berger, Maurice Jones and Herman Goerner are to me the greatest curlers we have seen. All these men have curled 200 pounds or over with Herman Goerner heading the list with a two hands slow curl of 222 pounds. It is this record which I have personally worked to equal and then substantially surpass. I came close to doing so at the recent Mr. Eastern America show held by Joe Weider. I feel now that that if I had curled first, instead of having broken records in the deep knee bend, I would have made a 230 curl with little or no trouble. You see, I firmly believe that leg and back strength play just as important a part in the two hands slow curl, as power in the biceps. But I feel confident that if I continue to train along my present lines, utilizing the methods and theories I am submitting to you, I will be more than capable of exceeding Herman Goerner’s great record in the very near future.

At the very beginning of my weight training career, I had absolutely no idea that I was in possession of great power potentials, and I have often wondered how many men there might be, going around with greater potentials for strength than I have recently displayed. I used the regular bodybuilding movements in my training routines, the two hands curl included among them, and I had no thought of training for power, for maximum poundages or record breaking. I just wanted to build myself up, getting what strength I could from these regular movements. But suddenly I realized that I would never be noted for a beauty of physical development. I knew that I would be unable to obtain a proportionate physique such as physical excellence contestants possess, and I then determined that I would go all out for strength. It was at that moment that I formed my personal philosophy of exercise and power and I have kept to it since!

Just as with Goerner the Great, the curl has always been one of my favorite exercises, and as I found the realization growing stronger that I could never own a Mr. America physique, so I found too that I took more readily to a combination of sets, repetitions and poundages that produced strength rather than size, shape, definition and endurance. I was fully aware even then that strenuous efforts in concentrating on the development of maximum power would give me the most gratifying results and this, as I have since found, has proved to be true.

So I changed completely my former methods in which I was concerned only with bodybuilding qualities, to those that would give me the greatest strength in the minimum of time, while wasting as little energy in so doing. I adopted a high-weight low-repetition principle as contrasted to a medium-poundage high-repetition combination. This is, I feel, the first important rule in training for greater strength.

What I call the “Power Principle” is most effective in eliminating a buildup of fatigue products in the blood stream, through eliminating the factor of endurance movements that are part of most bodybuilding programs. Thus the would-be record holder, though he sacrifices some endurance, gains greater returns in strength. This principle, isolating the desired result – in this instance POWER – can be applied effectively to any other form of weight training activity. It is, in fact, used by the world’s champion John Davis. John uses a combination of heavy poundages with few repetitions, repeated for six to eight sets.

Most bodybuilders and weight trainers do not fully appreciate the fact that endurance and strength are two separate qualities, which simply cannot be FULLY obtained by using any one exercise in with one single system of sets and repetitions. It has been my personal experience in barbell training that an exercise, and sets and repetitions combination that effectively produces, say, endurance, does so only by sacrificing power. And the reverse is also true. If you train for power and desire to reap the greatest results, you can only do so by neglecting endurance.

In order to make this opinion a little clearer, I can do so by pointing out it is a popular misconception that to build great size is also to build great power. Most bodybuilding courses are laid out along these lines. They may give you a lot of size in a comparatively short period of time, but they fail to give you a corresponding degree of strength. Most bodybuilding authorities now recognize that great muscle size can be obtained by using high repetitions and sets in combination with a moderate poundage.

One gains both size and a certain amount of endurance but no appreciable degree of power, because the high-rep, moderate poundage principle simply cannot be applied to building power qualities. To gain great power one must constantly handle heavy poundage . . . poundages that are close to the limit of individual strength, repeated constantly with adequate rest periods in between. The normal bodybuilding program concentrates on saturating the muscle fibers with blood, thus maintaining a constant demand for greater size of volume in the individual muscle fibers in order to accommodate this repeated “pumping” up of the muscles.

Doug Hepburn Barbell Curl Strength

Now, I have no quarrel with this training method. Nor do I seek to turn weight trainers away from it. If mere size is what you want, then the high repetitions and sets combined with a moderate poundage will give you size. On the other hand, Strength is obtained most effectively not through a bloating of the muscle tissue with seven, eight or nine sets of fifteen reps, but mainly through a strengthening of the ligaments and tendons as well as the fivers of the muscle, and this can be gained only with the use of a very heavy weight, LOW reps and the strictest style possible

Why the strictest style? Because there are rules to keep when you wish to break, and it is best that you get used to competition methods in your training. Then, when you are actually lifting to break a record, you lift tranquilly and at complete ease, knowing that it will be only be a poundage well above your limit that will gain you disqualification. With this strict style factor, I will deal more fully in the next chapter of this article.

So you see there are very definite reasons why the questions of repetitions, poundages and sets are so important to the man who is seeking power, or endurance or size. Summing up all the foregoing mass of words – one can say that to gain size, one should use high reps and moderate weight, while those who wish to build up strength, whether in the curl or any other movement, must keep strictly to a heavy poundage combined with low reps. Perhaps the greatest and most pleasing combination of both characteristics could be achieved by alternating these tow principles in one’s routine periodically, thus putting each one into effect for not less than the period of one month and not more than three months at the longest. This plan would have the profound effect of supplying the very necessary rest or change of routine, which is, in itself, essential to continued progress in both directions.

Now that I have explained my reasons for the use of the Power Principle in my training, I suggest you give it a try in your workout programme. It will not make any great alteration in your type of development or appearance. If you are inclined to muscular definement, it might possibly give you a little more muscularity, but nothing too noticeable. If you are, as I am, inclined to a smooth, fleshy type of musculature, you will remain the same outwardly, but the muscles will harden a great deal. In my next article, I’ll give you some training schedules together with some important tips that will help you bring your curl poundage up and aid you in maintaining correct posture, thus gaining greater success during actual curling attempts.



“If you have thoroughly grasped the principles back of my power workouts for the curl,” went on Doug in his very lengthy letter, “you will see that for maximum performance there are certain factors to be taken into consideration. First, the type of curling and second, the type of schedule you will use. Style entails not only strict adherence to the rules for the lift, but also posture, contraction of muscle groups other than the biceps during the actual curl, breathing, and leverage on the wrists and hands. In the choice of schedule, your physical type also has to be considered, plus a good choice of training poundage.

Perhaps the average weight trainer might think that too much attention is being paid to what appear to be unimportant details, but to reach the top in any sport or endeavor each and every item that makes for maximum performance must not be overlooked. It is utterly useless to undertake specialized training and engage only in exercises. In other words, if you are trying to improve your ability in say, swimming a certain distance, you should realize that the mere act of swimming isn’t sufficient to bring your performance up to a peak. You must also consider faults in style, and work for absolute style perfection and efficiency. You must think of diet, rest, relaxation and correct mental attitude. You must think of any other activity that will improve your stamina and swimming strength and engage in it. In short, to reach the top in any field you have to be a PERFECTIONIST, and DETERMINED.

First, let us talk about what I have always maintained is the most important factor in building power in your curls – FORM and STYLE. Now, in recent years there has been a trend, worldwide in its nature, to abandoning the traditional importance of strictness in style or form. Before I go any further, don’t get me wrong! This is NOT a condemnation of cheating methods of exercising, for those occupy an important place in weight training. I have personally discovered that there is positively no other method – as far as I am concerned – of building the type of curl power essential for the raising of great poundages, like the maintenance of strictest possible style. The use of cheating curls builds size and gets the lifter accustomed to handling heavy poundages. But in competition curling, you are bound by a set of rules, and I see no reason why you should depart from those rules when you are training. Get used to the strict style when you are practicing and it becomes second nature for you to KEEP TO A STRICT STYLE when you are trying to break your records . . . That’s logical!

Muscle Beach - Doug Hepburn Curling

Getting back to the cheating curl once more. This has proven itself to be invaluable, as I have mentioned before, in molding bulk and building the ability to handle greater poundages, BUT it is interesting it is both interesting as well as significant, when one can observe for himself that sheer curling power was displayed to a greater degree, per size of individual, in the smaller-ratioed arms of strong men of past eras. Now this is an extremely important observation for it tends to show, among other things, that greater power in the curl was developed by men who throughout their curl training maintained more correctness of form.

Now I’m not saying that a loose form does not produce strong muscle, for anyone with the slightest knowledge of kinesiology knows that either a muscle works or it doesn’t. What I am getting at is this – that strict adherence to both strict and cheating training methods would produce higher poundages. Cheating methods are deviations from competition form and bad habits most often get worse instead of better. Therefore, a combination of loose and orthodox methods is better from the standpoint of all-around efficiency. The difference in power between the old-time strong men and the present-day larger armed bodybuilders is thus seen to be no mere coincidence. I would like to elaborate on this a little. The most difficult part of the curl is the start – getting it away from the thighs to where the forearms are level with the ground. During this part of the curl, and before the main muscle group is brought into play, the main effort is brought to bear on the tendons and ligaments in the elbow joint . . . please remember that I am speaking from my own personal experiences. In the cheating curl it is the starting point that is essentially eliminated. Hence no great demand is made on an initial powerful contraction of the muscle and no demand is made on those heavy cords attached to the elbow joint. Thus the old-timer was able to produce a powerful start to his curl and finish the lift, even though sometimes great with difficulty when he was at his limit. The modern bodybuilder hasn’t the power in that initial movement although his biceps are able to handle enormous weights, from where the forearm is just above level to the floor, to the shoulder.

In performing power curls I proceed as follows. When I step up to the bar, I first make sure that all the plates are flush against each other. The slightest “off balance” and one arm lags behind the other, and that’s cause for disqualification. Then I take up my stand before the bar, shifting my heels and toes until I feel absolutely comfortable. Next I take my grip – again paying attention to the correctness of hand spacing, making sure the hands are absolutely equidistant. Again the choice of hand spacing can mean failure or success in a lift.

When I lift the bar, I stand perfectly erect and try to allow as little tension in the elbow joint as possible. I stand perfectly relaxed. I do not believe in psyching myself up to what is termed a “pitch” because I am of the opinion that this is a drain on nervous energy and detrimental to curling success. Thus I am assured of perfect conditions for curling, in an initial contraction. Please, note that the arms should not be bent in the least prior to the commencement of the lift.

As I start to curl, I bend my hands at the wrists, turning them up on the joint and again assuring a “break” in adverse leverage at the start of the curl. Immediately the bar starts away from the thighs, I firmly contract the buttocks, the thighs, the back and the latissimus dorsi muscles. I keep this rigid posture throughout the entire lift (under official conditions, the slightest back bend is cause for disqualification). Again, as the bar leaves the thighs I take a deep breath. I have found that to take a deep breath before the lift is commenced prevents a smooth curling motion. In other words, the action of deep breathing spontaneously with the action of curling helps to “lift” the weight up more smoothly.

Throughout the lift I look straight to the front and as the barbell arrives in at the finish position I breathe out and straighten out the wrists. If you keep the wrists bent you will find when handling heavy poundages that the bar pulls o the thumbs, and may even fall out of your grip. So straighten out the wrists from their flexed position at the start of the curl. Remember that bending the wrists, turning the palm of the hand onto the lower forearm, is done only to break the adverse leverage at the commencement of the curl. Thus the bar comes in comfortably to the shoulders until the referee has signaled you to lower it. One more point, and an important one, is to insure firmness of grip BEFORE you curl. So as well as seeing the plates are flush and the width of hand spacing equal, it is also wise to thoroughly chalk the hands . . . not merely the palms, but also IN BETWEEN THE FINGERS.

The routine I have followed in training for my recent curl of 220 pounds at the Mr. Eastern America show is one I have found to be best for maintaining a constant limit poundage and helping to increase it further. I first perform warmup curls with a poundage 30 to 40 pounds below my maximum efficient training weight. In this instance, using strict style I take 160 for 5 repetitions. I then jump from this poundage to my maximum training weight after a short rest of five minutes. During my training for the Eastern America show I was using 185 to 190 pounds. But at the end of December, 1951, I had jumped my training weight up to 190 to 200.

With this poundage I perform 5 reps striving to keep the style as strict as possible. I often have a knowledgeable training partner stand by carefully watching to see if I fail to keep correct form as framed by the rules. I perform another 5 reps, again using strict style, but this time for the first 3 reps only, and with a little relaxation the next two reps. I repeat this for about 5 or 6 sets. Sometimes I am forced to drop the strict repetitions down to 2 out of 5 by the time I get to my last set. After a rest of ten minutes I take 160 pounds and conclude the curl workout by performing 10 strict reps. This supplies a change as well as helping me to gain some small level of endurance.

I have never used any of the so-called assistance exercises apart from two departures from the orthodox curl. If I feel in need of a change I use the two hands curl with dumbells, but ALWAYS work for the strictest possible form. Sometimes I load up a heavy barbell to 700 to 750 pounds and using a curling grip, deadlift it and let it hang from my arm’s length as if I was about to curl it. In fact, I go through the motions of trying to curl the bar, but all the while I am holding it I allow the arms to take the strain. These two movements, together with the principles outlined both sections of this two-part article should, I think, yield great results for those who conscientiously apply them. They have certainly produced results for me.

By Doug Hepburn

** Some comments from fellow readers and fans of Doug...

" Doug Hepburn ultimately was credited with a record two hands slow curl of 260lbs.

The question is has anyone done better? Yes, I know some guys have curled more using loose style but Doug’s record was super-strict i.e. started from completely straight arms, curled slowly and body kept completely still with no backbend… try it, it’s very hard to get near to the poundage you can curl in loose style.

I have read about Bill Kazmaier curling 315lb for 15 reps and 440lb for a maximum, but as much as I respect Bill that seems a bit hard to believe. Having said that, I do feel that if anyone could beat Doug’s record then Bill would be at the top of the list, but as far as I know he never performed a curl in public judged by the same rules as Doug." ~ Magnus

 Bill Kazmaier Curling Strength

" Bill Kazmaier curling 315lb for 15 reps – I think Bill himself claimed he had done this, and he definitely said he curled 440lb for a maximum lift. I cannot say if these were strict lifts or not as I never saw Bill train and don’t know anyone personally who witnessed these performances, but as great as Bill was it just seems too impossible to think that these could have been anywhere near as strict as Doug Hepburn’s record curl. That’s no disrespect to Bill because if he really did curl these weights then they were incredible performances NO MATTER WHAT STYLE HE USED.

I have seen some videos of Bill training shoulders with dumbbells and his style was loose but not extreme cheating, but he did use a lot of weight – 100lb dumbbell front raises, 90lb lateral raises and standing dumbbell overhead presses with a pair of 135lbers. It’s also a witnessed fact that Bill performed a world record dumbbell press for 6 reps with a pair of 165lbers and a seated overhead barbell press of 450lb for 3 reps. These records prove how fantastic Bill was but even so a 200kg (440lb) barbell curl even with a lot of swing is even more mind-boggling! Did he do it? I don’t know but I am not going to argue with Bill! And all I have seen or read about Bill seems to suggest that he was always honest about his lifts so maybe he did it – just imagine how many points that would have rated on David Willoughby’s system if Dave had still been here to witness it! " ~ Magnus


* Got a comment to make on the article above, add your comments below. Got any stories to share on Big Doug Hepburn or Kazmaier curling 200kg! Add your comments below.

Keep training hard,

Strength Oldschool


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