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Only the Strong Shall Survive: The Hepburn Routine

A Program for Legendary Strength and Power

Last month I presented a workout aimed primarily at beginners and those who want to include some quick lifts in their routines, a program I learned from Sid Henry of Dallas. This month’s routine is of an entirely different nature and is meant for advanced strength athletes. Don’t even consider trying it unless you’ve spent several years in serious strength training. You must establish a solid base before this routine will bear fruit.

This program came from one of the greatest lifters in the history of the iron game, Doug Hepburn of Vancouver, British Columbia. His story is an inspiration to anyone who thinks he or she has had to overcome some physical problem. Born with a club foot and withered right leg, he certainly wasn’t a likely prospect for becoming a weightlifting legend. At 15 he began lifting to build up his not-so-impressive body. At first he lifted on crude equipment in his basement. Then later he moved to an old store that had more space, where he slept on sacks and ate the cheapest food available. Cheap food is also often also nutritious, though, and Hepburn thrived, building himself into a world-class weightlifter. He came up with his own training methods, as many in that era did, and made improvements without the benefit of any coach.

Charles Smith, a highly regarded fitness writer, found out about him, brought him to New York and taught him how to do the three Olympic lifts that were contested at the time: the press, snatch and clean and jerk. Up to that point Doug had been doing what we would now call a powerlifting routine. In a single workout at New York City gym in 1951 he squatted with 500 for reps, push-pressed 400 and bench-pressed 450’unheard-of numbers in those days. In official competition at an Olympic contest he set a world record in the press with 345 1/2. Then in 1953, in Stockholm, he defeated the great John Davis and became the Heavyweight champion of the world at age 26. He’d gone from what most people would consider being handicapped to the pinnacle of strength in less than 10 years. He was the strongest man in the world. He did it with lots of determination and hard work, but he had an advantage over many of his opponents’he was quite intelligent. It allowed him to understand his body better than most and also enabled him to create some unique training methods. In 1969 Bob Bednarski and I were invited to lift in a contest in Vancouver. Naturally, we jumped at the chance, since it was a great opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world, party with the Canadian lifters, particularly Aldo Roy, and also to meet Doug Hepburn. He’d been one of my weightlifting heroes ever since I read about his amazing feats of strength. I admired the way he overcame major obstacles to become what David Webster called the ‘King of Strength.’ And he did it his way.

Before I left York, Pennsylvania, where I was living, I contacted Hepburn by mail, got his phone number and called him when we arrived in Vancouver. Barski was as excited as I was about meeting the living legend. He came over to our hotel, and we had an enjoyable visit. At 42 he was in marvelous shape and told us he kept busy writing poetry, singing in clubs and inventing. He brought with him the most incredible isometric machine I’ve ever seen’to this day. It was portable, could be set up in 15 minutes, worked on friction and was most functional. Too bad he was far ahead of his time. If that machine were marketed on television now, it would sell like hotcakes.

We talked about mutual acquaintances’Norb Shemansky, Tommy Kono and Dave Sheppard’and discussed training ideas. He was curious about how the York lifters were training, and Barski and I wanted to know how he gained such phenomenal strength with simple equipment, no coaching and no pharmaceutical help.

That’s how I came to know about this program, which I call the Hepburn program for obvious reasons. It’s simple, but it does take a great deal of time to complete and is extremely taxing on both the muscular and nervous systems. Few trainees are able to use it successfully because it’s so demanding. Those who can use it and recover, however, make marvelous progress. In some cases athletes will choose to use the Hepburn routine on only one lift, and that usually works out nicely. It’s an excellent way to pull up a lagging lift, and recovery is less of a problem when only one exercise is involved.

This program doesn’t apply to the quick lifts, such as cleans, snatches or jerks. Sid Henry’s routine, which I presented last month, is much better for those exercises. The reasoning is simple: If you do a series of heavy singles, you’re not going to have much zip in the dynamic exercises after that; however, you can do the powerlifts that way. For the sake of simplicity, I will only go over the procedure for the bench press, but the idea applies to deadlifts and squats as well.

Start by doing a series of warmup sets. You don’t want to do too many because they’ll tap into your reserves, and you’re going to need all your reserve strength to complete this workout. Three or four sets are usually enough. Once you’re warmed up, select a work weight that’s a bit lower than your best single and proceed to do five singles with it. After you finish that, drop back 50 pounds and do five sets of five. You may think that’s a lot of sets and reps, and you’re right. That’s why this program only works for advanced lifters. The routine for one exercise will take about an hour and 15 minutes to complete. You can do your warmup sets and the first couple of singles quickly, but then you have to slow your pace for the final singles and the sets of five. You’ll discover that the fives are more demanding than the singles, but they’re really the meat of the routine. They help expand your base and push the singles higher. On the squat and deadlift the difference between the singles and the fives should be more than 50 pounds’75 or 100 might be more appropriate. You can determine that by trial and error.

Here’s how the Hepburn routine would play out for someone who’s benching 335: warmup sets of 135×5, 225×5, 275×3, 295×2, then five singles with 325, followed by five sets of five with 275. It’s a very doable program for someone with that level of strength. Why not just go ahead and use 335 for the singles? Because it’s too much to expect people to hit their best for five sets and then do five more sets with 50 pounds less.

That’s merely a guideline. If you try this for the first time and fail on any of your singles or any of your fives, you need to pull back. The key to making this routine work is to always make all of your reps, and I mean every one of them. Should you fail on any of your sets, you must stay with those same numbers the next time you do the routine. Any hedging, and you won’t make the same progress you would if you stuck with the regimen religiously.

Assuming you were successful in using the above numbers, the next time you do Hepburn’s routine, your lifts will look like this: warmups of 135×5, 225×5, 275×3, 300×2; five singles with 330; five sets of five with 280. Notice that the numbers on both the singles and fives move up only five pounds. Even if you breezed through that initial workout and are confident that you can handle more weight on the singles and fives, don’t get greedy too soon. If you push your numbers up too fast, you’ll hit an early sticking point, and all progress will come to a halt. Even worse, you may start to regress.

Obviously, recovery is fundamental to making this work. There’s no possible way for you to go through this workout if you’re droopy. That means you have to plan ahead. Get some extra rest the night before and stoke the furnace with lots of nutritious foods and supplements. You also want to position the Hepburn at the most opportune time in your weekly program, such as on Monday, when you’re the most rested. What if you want to use the program on all three powerlifts? It’s possible’if you pay close attention to your nutrition and get plenty of rest. I know that’s true, since I’ve seen lifters do it with great success.

The most notable was George Hechter, who trained with me when he was still in high school and lifted weights to improve his wrestling prowess. Due to his tremendous work ethic, George went on to win the world championship in the sport of powerlifting and can still be seen on reruns of the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ on TV. For a period all he did in his weekly program was Hepburns. He’d bench on Monday, squat on Wednesday and deadlift on Friday. Since he was handling ponderous poundages, all the other trainees at the gym tried their best to work out at a different time because he used up all the big weights. He maintained a slow pace and often took more than two hours to complete all his sets. I can even recall watching him eat his lunch during breaks in his training.

George was a rare individual, and I doubt if there are more than a dozen or so men in the country who could handle such a weekly workload or have the time to train as he did. Most are content to do Hepburns for just one lift for a month, then switch to another lift. More is not always better when it comes to these, and you can’t do them for an extended period of time. Five or six weeks is plenty, and in many cases it’s too long.

My imaginary lifter from the earlier example was able to stay with the routine, using Hepburns on the bench press once a week for six weeks. By then he had progressed to using 350 for his singles and 300 for his fives. With adequate rest he should be able to translate his new strength to a 365 or more bench.

How long is long enough to stay on the routine? As long as your numbers keep climbing, you can stay with the Hepburns, but if you start feeling flat and stale, pull back and switch to another, less strenuous routine. I’ve had some athletes who could carry the routine for two straight months, while others faltered after three weeks.

Unless athletes are advanced, I usually start them out with a modified version of the routine. That works well for the intermediate range and isn’t nearly as demanding. You use the same format, but instead of five singles and five sets of five, you do three singles and three sets of five. That’s well within the capabilities of anyone who’s been training seriously for any length of time, and it’s a nice change from a basic routine.

The modified Hepburn is useful for anyone who doesn’t want to spend more than an hour on one lift or who’s short of training time. It also fits well for those who cannot get warmed up properly with just four sets. Some find that they progress better when they do Hepburns only every other week, and others like to do them as a novelty once a month. Whatever works for you.

Never do Hepburns more than once a week for any bodypart. If you do them for your bench on Monday and want to bench again during that week, keep your reps relatively high at the second session; for example, five sets of eight.

The Hepburn routine works because it attacks the tendons and ligaments with the singles, then provides lots of base work for the muscles. The singles make you focus more intently on small form points, and on the final sets of five you learn how to gear up and reach down deep into your reserve strength’all things that make for a stronger athlete.

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 and Defying Gravity. IM

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