The Hepburn Routine
Bill StarrA 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.