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The Training and Life of Strength Legend Doug Hepburn

Strength Oldschool

By Osmo Kiiha

Doug Hepburn Shoulder Press

This outstanding example of rugged physical power was the greatest heavyweight strong man to appear in Canada since the days of Louis Cyr and Horace Barre. Doug Hepburn was born in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, on September 16, 1926. At birth he had two handicaps: a mild clubfoot condition in his right leg and an eye ailment known as “cross-eyed.”

As long as he can remember, Doug has always had a very intense desire to be strong. While in school, he participated in softball, hardball, swimming, soccer, bike-riding, high bar, hand balancing, springboard, and various forms of gymnastics.

At the age of sixteen, Doug met Mike Poppell, a bodybuilder whom he had come to admire. Mike helped get Doug started on the road to weight training. Doug spent countless hours on end doing repetition chin-ups, handstand presses, and dips between parallel bars. These undoubtedly had a great deal to do with developing his tremendous pressing power.

At the age of seventeen, Doug underwent an operation that corrected his eye condition. By the end of 1948, he weighed 208 pounds and could do twelve reps in the handstand press and five reps in the tiger-bend. His weight-trained muscles were capable of military presses in excess of 200 pounds.

On Saturday, September 30, 1950, lifting under official conditions, Doug pressed 330, snatched 255, and clean and jerked 317-1/2. He attempted but failed twice to clean 340. The 330-pound press was weighed out to 327-1/2 pounds, which was a new Canadian and British Empire record.

Doug has always been comparatively weak on the clean, mainly due to his club foot condition. Many operations were made to correct the condition. In the last of three operations, several bones in his right ankle were fused together. Thus, cleans and other fats that required a forward lean of the body or an exceptional amount of support from the tibia are rather restricted due to a lack of flexibility in this area. Surprisingly, his squats were not affected by this condition.

During a public exhibition in Vancouver on November 19, 1950, Doug cleaned and pressed 341 pounds (which was weighed out on scales). He also bench pressed 400 pounds and did a full squat with 550 pounds. Previous to this exhibition, Doug had written a letter to the Weider Barbell Company. It was received around the latter part of October 1950, in which he listed his strength feats and complained that no one believed him. Joe Weider gave Charlie Smith, an employee, the responsibility of checking this out. Shortly thereafter an invitation was extended to Doug by Joe Weider to come to New York for a visit.

It has also been one of Doug’s dreams to visit York, Pennsylvania, “famous strength and health center of the world.” Thanks to his uncle, George Town, who generously financed him, Doug’s dream came true. Doug left by rail for New York on December 16, 1950, on the “Pacemaker,” famous cross-country train, and arrived at Grand Central Station on December 19. Joe Weider had given the job of picking Doug up at the station to Charlie Smith. Charlie recalls his impression of Doug Hepburn when he saw him for the first time, among the last of the passengers coming through the gate: “So broad was he, so massive, so striking in appearance, that everyone around stopped, stood, and stared. His very carriage spelled POWER.”

That same night at Val Pasqua’s gym, before Val, Charlie Smith, and about 30 other witnesses, Doug performed the following: curl, 200; side press, 200; pressed from rack, 365; push press, 385. Doug Hepburn was for real. Less than a week later at Abe Goldberg’s gym, for the benefit of Abe, Smith, Marvin Eder, Joe Weider, famous golfer Frank Stranahan, and a few others, Doug succeeded in doing a push press with 405, bench press with 410, and full squat with 550 pounds. Doug spent the holidays in New York City, making new, lifelong friends.

Doug Hepburn Squat

Hepburn’s next stop was York, Pennsylvania. He arrived there on Saturday, January 6, 1951. During his stay in York, Doug performed many feats of strength (most of which were witnessed by Bob Hoffman, Ray Van Cleef, John Grimek, Steve Stanko, Jules Bacon, and others), such as a press of 345, a push press with 400, and a right-hand military press with 155. Doug also succeeded in lifting the famous 235-pound thick-handled Cyr dumbbell off the ground with his right hand.

Doug left the York gang on January 14, 1951, for his long journey back home.

Doug Hepburn had built himself to world championship standards but remained largely unknown until Charles A. Smith, the prolific weight lifting writer for Weider mags, took a hand in the proceedings. Doug recognized Charlie as his coach in the years prior to winning the World Championships and acknowledged the part Smith had played in assisting him.

During the months of March and April 1951, Doug performed some superhuman feats while training: a push press with 410, six reps in the bench press with 380, a limit bench press of 430 (touch and go), and a 410 bench with a three-second pause. Doug also accomplished a press behind neck with 305, a right-hand military press of 165, and a one-hand snatch with 180. He crucifixed a pair of 85-pound dumbbells for three seconds. In addition, Doug also performed 16 full squats with 460, eight full squats with 500, and one full squat with 560 pounds. On April 6, 1951, Doug performed a tremendous press (taken off the squat rack) with 370 pounds. This was witnessed by the famous Clarence Ross, 1945 Mr. America.

Early Training Programs

In his early career, Doug devoted himself exclusively to bodybuilding, even entering a physique contest. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1949 that he began to incorporate heavy squatting into his program. A year later, he realized that he was better suited to weightlifting than to bodybuilding. He began to specialize in the three Olympic lifts, although most of is efforts were steered toward the Olympic press.

Doug Hepburn

The emphasis of most of his training during the early 1950s was on the powerlifts such as curls, presses, squats, and deadlifts. Doug favored reps in the 3 to 6 range. He trained four to five times a week, spending 40 minutes or so with each workout. If he trained only three times a week, he worked out from 1-1/2 to 2 hours, with very little resting between exercises. Sometimes on occasion he devoted entire workouts to one or two exercises such as curls and presses, or bench presses and squats, or other combinations.

Doug made a very interesting statement that summed up his way of training: “If a man’s temperament is suited to it, I believe he will make better progress in weightlifting by training for strength primarily and style secondary than if he puts great emphasis on learning form.”

Training for the 1953 World Championships

Let’s follow how Doug trained for the 1953 World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden: He worked out three times a week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Monday

  • Cleans
  • 280 – 2 reps
  • 300 – 2 reps
  • 320 – 8×2 reps

The first clean was made from the floor and second from the hang.

Bench press – regular grip

  • 350 – 5 reps
  • 400 – 2 reps
  • 450 – 5×2 reps

Full squat

  • 475 – 5 reps
  • 520 – 3 reps
  • 550 – 5×3 reps

Wednesday

Snatch

  • 200 – for several reps
  • 240- 2 reps
  • 260 – 8×2 reps

First from floor, second from hang.

Bench press – same as Monday

Squat – same as Monday.

Friday: Entire workout same as Monday.

It was interesting to note that he relied on bench pressing to keep up his pressing power for the Olympic press. His official lifts at the World Championships, which he won, were 371-1/4 press, 297-1/2 snatch, and 363-3/4 clean and jerk.

Training for the British Empire Games – Vancouver, B.C., 1954

Prior to the British Empire Games that he won in 1954 (with 370 – 300 – 370 for a total of 1040), Doug placed great emphasis on heavy pulls to waist height. In the pulls, he strapped his hands to the bar and worked up to the point of pulling 520 pounds waist high for a single effort. During one of these training sessions Doug also worked up to a 320-pound squat snatch.

His squat style was very erratic. During one training session Doug pulled 405 pounds in the clean so high that it came down with such force, it knocked him on his back. At the time, he weighed 285 pounds. It would have made a nice clean and press had he held it.

He changed his style of lifting from the squat to the split style for the British Empire Games. His performance was very smooth and polished, completing all nine attempts.

Routine for the Games

First Week:

  • Monday – standing press & snatch
  • Wednesday – bench press & squat
  • Friday – standing press & snatch

Second Week:

  • Monday – standing press & high pulls
  • Wednesday – bench press & squat
  • Friday – standing press & high pulls.

Third Week:

Routine one again.

Fourth Week:

Routine two, but he substituted the clean & jerk for high pulls on Fridays.

This routine was rotated around for three months. He performed 8 sets of 3 reps in all the exercises except the squat. In the squat, he would do 8 sets of 3 to 6 reps.

The third month he would lower the reps to eight sets of two reps for the above exercises. The lat two weeks prior to the contest, Doug devoted all his time to the three Olympic lifts, dropping all other exercises.

Diet and Sleep

At first glance, one would think Doug was fat. This appearance was deceiving, however, because on closer examination the only place Doug could be called fat was around the waist. His chest, arms, legs, and back were solid muscle. I personally think his 300 pounds were well distributed and that he was more symmetrical than most men. And he was surprisingly fast for a big man.

Doug drank milk during his workouts, with no apparent ill effects. He consumed as much as three imperial quarts during a two-hour workout. Doug ate four or five “average size” meals daily and drank lots of liquids, which included tomato and other vegetable juices and lots of milk.

Doug feels sometimes that he had to force-feed himself in order to maintain the needed bodyweight. He went on to say that he eats large quantities of protein supplement because it is easier to assimilate than other foods. Before the British Empire Games he took large doses of vitamin and mineral pills.

He was never a big meat eater and consumed only normal portions of meat at his meals. However, as mentioned previously, he did drink large quantities of milk and thought nothing of having six or eight eggs at a meal. Doug ate almost anything if it was good for him. He rarely, if ever, partook of candy, soft drinks, or white flour products.

During his competitive days, Doug attempted to get a minimum of 9 hours of sleep each night. However, he declared, “I would rather sacrifice sleep than food, for as long as I can eat, I can get stronger.” Doug’s regular sleeping hours were from 2 AM to 1 PM; he kept late hours.

Social Life

Doug enjoys listening to semi-classical music, displays a surprising memory for tunes and words, has a true relative pitch, loves to sing, and shows genuine creative ability in thinking up original melodies. His inexhaustible memory for jokes, humorous poetry and limericks has made him literally the “life of the party” on many occasions. He is a fine example of a “sound mind in a sound body.” A gullible person once asked Doug, “What’s it like to be all brawn and no brains?” Doug replied, “I don’t know; what’s it like to be neither?”

Bench Press

 

When Doug bench pressed 560 pounds, he used an extremely wide grip, but he didn’t arch is back or bounce the bar off his chest. He also bench pressed 525 pounds with a regular Olympic press grip with a three-second pause. He worked his bench press every fourth day. On Monday, he would bench press; Tuesday and Wednesday, rest; Thursday, squat and deadlift; Friday, rest; Saturday, bench press.

Doug Hepburn Bench Press

His combination of sets and reps was quite simple. He did single reps with each of the following poundages: 360, 400, 430, 460, 490, 510, 510, 510, 510, 510, 510. When he was capable of performing six singles with a maximum poundage, he would add ten pounds and work to get six singles with the next max.

Looking Back

Pound for Pound, Doug felt that Tommy Kono as the best lifter in the world, and the most efficient was Norbert Schemansky. He also felt Marvin Eder was one of the strongest men in the world, especially since he never weighed much ofer 200 pounds.

It was a well established fact that, even though Doug won the World Olympic Weightlifting title, his efforts in the strength/power lifts were superior standards of performance.

Doug felt the fundamental reason his records in the Olympic lifts were inferior to his power lifts was because of insufficient emphasis on the technique involved in cleaning and snatching, lack of condition due to the latter, overabundance of nonessential bodyweight, and a related lack of flexibility/speed of reflex and coordination.

Doug was a weightlifter by public pressure, not by personal choice. He never enjoyed doing the three Olympic lifts. He is and will be by his own choice a strong man in the true sense of the word. He enjoys doing feats that require a minimum of skill and maximum of strength.

Doug never pushed himself in training, nor did he specialize in any one lift for any length of time. He never reached his ultimate strength. One wonders what he could have achieved had he built his bodyweight to 340 pounds or more. Certainly it would have boggled the mind!


* Doug Hepburn has a book out called 'Strongman: The Doug Hepburn Story' by Tom Thurston. It's a fantastic read and highly recommended. To check it out click here.

* Also check out this great video below on the great Doug Hepburn:

 

 
Keep training hard,


Strength Oldschool



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