In 1969, Wes Woo, the coach of the Canadian team that competed in the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City, invited Bob Bednarski and me to lift in a meet in Vancouver, his hometown. Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful cities in North America and to lift with Aldo Roy and Paul Bjarnason, who competed at the Games. Barski and I also hoped that we’d get to meet Doug Hepburn, one of the legends in our sport, who also lived there.
Born with a club foot and a withered right leg, Doug was faced with many more obstacles than the average teenager when he began lifting weights at 15. All he had to work with was some crude equipment in his basement, but he was determined to turn his weak body into a much stronger one. With no one to guide him on his quest, he began formulating his own routines, and through trial and error he did indeed begin to get stronger. When a routine failed to help him improve, he sat down and devised another one—and another—until he was moving up the strength ladder again.
He got some well-deserved recognition in the strength community when he squatted 500 reps, push-pressed 400 and benched 450 in a single workout at the New York City Gym in 1951—unheard of numbers in those days. Then he set a world record in the press with 345 1/2 and shocked the weightlifting world when he defeated the great John Davis to become the heavyweight champion of the world in 1953 in Stockholm. In just 10 years he had gone from being a puny teenager to the strongest man on the globe.
Barski and I were nicely surprised when Doug contacted us and came over to our hotel. We spent the afternoon talking with him. He showed us the incredible portable isometric machine that he’d invented, told stories, asked us about his friends at York Barbell and answered our many questions. I was most interested in the routines he devised because I knew he possessed one of the most creative minds in all of physical culture.
That’s how I learned about the following routine, which I call simply Hepburns. I’ve used it myself through the years and have taught countless athletes in a wide range of sports how to do it. The very first thing to understand about this program is that it only helps those who have established a rock-solid foundation. Beginners and intermediates are better off doing a less demanding routine. Second, it works best on the static movements—squat, deadlift, flat-bench press and incline—much more than on dynamic exercises. Finally, in order to do the routine correctly, you must budget at least an hour in your workouts for just one exercise.
Here’s the routine: You do several warmup sets, followed by five singles, followed by five sets of five. There’s no way to hurry through it because it’s those final few sets on the singles and fives that enable you to get the results you’re after.
Since just about every strength program includes the bench press, I will use that for my example. Let’s say that you are currently benching 335. At your initial workout you will be using 325 for your work sets with singles. Some choose to start with less than 10 pounds under their best effort, and that’s all right. It’s smarter to start conservatively, since, as everyone quickly discovers, Hepburns are a test of endurance as much as pure strength.
Begin with two warmup sets of five, then two more done for triples and doubles, and you will be ready for the singles. You don’t want to do too many warmup sets because that will tap into your reserve. Do five sets of singles with 325, then lower the weight to 50 pounds less, 275, and do five sets of five.
Here’s a numerical picture of what I just outlined. Warmup sets of 135x5, 225x5, 275x3, 295x2; five singles with 325 followed by five sets of five with 275. That is very doable for any athlete with a solid background in heavy lifting, but, if it proves to be too much right away, use a modified version of three singles and three sets of fives. That will help you get the feel of the program, and once you can do those sets without difficulty, move to four and five sets on the singles and back-off work sets.
The key to getting stronger on this routine is making every set of singles and fives. If you miss even one of the required reps, you must stay with the same numbers the next time you do the routine. Should you attempt to jump ahead when you failed to make all the planned lifts the time before, you will hit a sticking point or become overtrained. When you are successful with all the sets, move only your singles and fives up by five pounds for the next session. While it may not seem like much of an increase, it is because you’re pushing up the intensity and stamina factors considerably. Plus, your nervous system is being put under a new form of stress and will need time to adapt to the additional load. Keep in mind that your nervous system takes a lot longer to recover than your muscular and skeletal systems. So take baby steps, and you’ll end up being ahead in the long run.
Let’s say you were able to make every rep at your inaugural workout, so the next time you do Hepburns, your routine will look like this: warmups at 135x5, 225x5, 275x3 and 300x2; five singles with 330 and five sets of five with 280. Again, very doable. Pace is important. Move through the warmups and knock out the first couple of singles rather quickly. Then slow down so you can concentrate fully on the final sets of singles. Follow that same procedure with the fives. If you find that you’re running out of gas on the final sets of singles or fives, switch to the modified version for a while.
You need to set aside an hour for the modified Hepburns and an hour and a half for the full program. There’s no way to hurry through this routine. You must have energy left for those last money sets, and you must be rested and ready when you come to the gym. If you’re not, forget it—you’re going to fail. This routine also teaches you how to focus 100 percent on every rep of every set, which is a valuable lesson because it carries over to other exercises and sports.
There are very few programs where you have to maintain your concentration for 10 sets in a row, but once you hone the skill of being able to lock into using perfect technique on every set, you’ve taken a giant step toward becoming stronger.
Mondays are the best day to do Hepburns, when you have the most energy. Only do them once a week for a specific bodypart. The most devout fan of Hepburn’s was George Hechter, who started training with me when he was still in high school. He did Hepburns three times a week—benches on Monday, squats on Wednesday and deadlifts on Friday. They made up his entire week’s workouts. George was a heavyweight who used very heavy weights on all three competitive lifts, so he moved at a slow pace, often taking 2 1/2 hours to complete a session. The Hepburns helped lay the foundation for him to win a world title in powerlifting and to take part in the World’s Strongest Man contests.
As Hepburns are so demanding, I recommend doing them for only six weeks and then taking a few months off before doing them again. The strength you’ve gained will carry over immediately to all the other exercises in your program. This routine works so well because it attacks the tendons and ligaments with the singles and also expands the volume of your workload with the fives. It’s a perfect combination that was formulated by one of the greatest strongmen in the history of weightlifting and certainly one of the most creative minds in all of strength training.
If you’re looking for a new way to increase your overall strength, give Hepburns a try. You’ll enjoy the results.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www