Long before steroid abuse became common in the weight-training world, legendary strongman Doug Hepburn was proving by example that the right combination of smart training, nutrition, adequate recovery, and determination can dramatically increase your strength, size, and power.
Hepburn was born in 1926 with a clubfoot and a severe alternating squint. He certainly didn’t appear destined to become one of the strongest human beings around. However, he did grow up to be the first man to bench press 500 pounds, drug-free.
His exceptional power wasn’t limited to the bench press, as he set records in the one-arm military press with an astonishing 200 pounds. He also push pressed 500 pounds, military pressed 420 pounds, and performed deadlifts with 800 pounds
Hepburn’s amazing strength wasn’t limited to his younger days, either. At the age of 54, he squatted 600 for eight reps, and one-arm military pressed 170 pounds. So much for the excuse that you can’t be strong and powerful as you get older.
People who want to make excuses will do so no matter how much inspiration is available, but for those of us who do aspire to be better, let’s take a look at Hepburn’s rules for maximum strength and power.
Hepburn’s 10 Rules for Maximum Strength and Power
1 – Training frequency should be a minimum of twice per week, and a maximum of six times per week.
Like most things in life, if you don’t do enough work, you won’t get anything done. However, if you do too much work, you pass the tipping point of effectiveness, and enter counter-productive territory. Hepburn found that two full body workouts per week were the minimum a trainee should execute.
Most people do better training three-to-four days per week. Six days is possible for some trainees, provided a combination of great genetics, top nutrition, and solid recovery programs. But with the stress of day-to-day living, family, and work obligations, few can consistently devote six days to training, and still maximize recovery.
Training frequency will often be dictated by what’s going on in your life. If you’re in a phase where stress is low-to-moderate, your nutrition program is solid, and you’re getting eight or nine hours of sleep each night, then you can go for four to six workouts per week.
Once life becomes more stressful, reduce the frequency to two to three workouts per week. You could also cycle your training frequency – for every three weeks of six workouts per week, do one week of two workouts per week. The possibilities are endless, just be sure to keep a detailed training journal to track how you respond to various frequency protocols.
2 – Never do more than three exercises per workout.
Hepburn was a firm believer in doing a few things extremely well. Once you add too many exercises to your program, you’re all over the place and you wind up doing several things poorly or, at best, merely average.
Many trainees make the mistake of doing several exercises per muscle group, for example, they’ll have a chest day consisting of the bench press, incline press, decline press, dumbbell fly, cable crossover, and pullover. Come on… how many parts does your chest have?
Pick one major compound exercise and forget all the isolation work. For example, hit the incline press, put in 100%, and move on to the next major muscle group. Focus on the majors for massive results in the most efficient manner.
3 – Never work the same muscle group more than three times per week.
Once again, Hepburn believed that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and he found that working the same muscle groups too often was counter-productive. Hepburn understood the importance of rest and recuperation, and wrote that most trainees enter the land of overtraining via too many workouts with any single muscle group.
I agree, for the most part, but I also think that intensity has a lot to do with determining adequate frequency. For rapid strength gains, high frequency training programs are effective, as long as one isn’t training close to failure. Many trainees can hit the same exercise five or six times per week and still experience gains in strength and muscular endurance.
However, the intensity has to be moderate, and the focus has to be on practicing the skill of the exercise, not jacking up the intensity. This requires a lot of discipline, as there will be a natural urge to increase intensity.
Understanding that most trainees are stimulus addicts, and believe more is better, I think Hepburn’s rule of working the same exercise or muscle groups three times per week is the way to go for most trainees.
4 – If training more than three times per week, never include upper body and lower body exercises in the same workout.
Hepburn wrote that three full body workouts were plenty, and when you’re training more often, it’s time to apply split training routines. Again, it goes back to the principle that you can only do so much, so often. If you want to train more than three times per week, half the days will be upper body workouts and the other half do lower body workouts.
Your other option is to train just twice per week, and do some pressing for the upper body, followed by some deadlifts for the back and legs on day one. Then, on day two, do some weighted pull-ups for the lats and squats for the legs. Just remember the principle of doing a few things well, and organize your workouts accordingly.
5 – For a total body workout, two to three times per week, choose three exercises to most effectively work the three largest muscle groups.
Hepburn was a firm believer in focusing on exercises that provide the most bang for the buck. Programs centered on compound exercises are not only more efficient, but more productive.
Not surprisingly, Hepburn believed that the barbell squat was the best exercise for the legs, the deadlift was best for the back and hamstrings, and the bench press was the best exercise for the chest and triceps. If big pectoral development isn’t your thing, replace the bench press with the standing barbell military press. But for legs, you can’t do better than squats and deadlifts.
6 – If you train four to six times a week, choose six exercises to work the entire body.
Rather then doing the same exercises more often, schedule more exercises for balanced development. When training four to six times per week, Hepburn recommended the bench press, squat, deadlift, plus three more exercises to work antagonistic muscles, such as barbell curls, leg curls, and high pulls.
It’s a great start, but I’d change a few things. The bench press is a great exercise for upper body development, but I’d balance it with the standing barbell military press. Work the bench press in one workout, and the military press in another.
I’d keep the squat as a main leg exercise one day, and use the deadlift as the main exercise on another day. For hamstrings, instead of leg curls, choose dumbbell or kettlebell swings, glute-ham raises, Romanian deadlifts, or one-legged deadlifts.
Instead of barbell curls, include weighted pull-ups and bent-over rows, to balance all the pressing work. Finally, the high pull is a great exercise and I don’t see any reason to remove it, but for variety, the trainee can do double kettlebell or dumbbell swings, or heavy one-arm snatches.
7 – Give equal attention to opposing muscle groups to avoid injuries.
Hepburn’s dead-on with this one. Far too many training injuries are due to unbalanced training programs. Trainees have a tendency to prefer pressing to pulling, and that’s sure-fire way to an injury.
We all have our pet lifts, and likewise, there are exercises that we don’t enjoy, no matter how beneficial they are. We need to accept the fact that there are things that need to be done, whether we like it or not. Design training programs which focus on balanced development. Always balance quad work with hamstring work, and pressing work with pulling work.
8 – Never expend your full lifting capacity while working out – slowly but surely is the only way to go.
The goal of a productive workout shouldn’t be to wipe you out or produce excessive soreness, yet these are often the flawed measuring tools used to gauge a workout’s effectiveness.
While I think it’s great to have a solid work ethic, it can also create a focus on what’s unessential. Regardless of your particular goal, a training program should increase your strength, energy, confidence, and well-being.
If your training program leaves you wiped out to the point where it’s reducing enjoyment in other areas of your life, you’re on the wrong program. Effective workouts are like an energy-producing tonic; they clear the cobwebs from your head and leave you energized and confident.
Get over the notion that unless you’re wiped out, you’re not doing anything productive. The focus should be on the results of your workout and enjoying the process, not using fatigue as a measure of success.
9 – You need a mental relaxation program. The main reason lifters fail is overtraining.
Just as a proper training program is needed to get stronger, you need a specific restoration program to recover from your workouts and derive the greatest benefits from training. Your body doesn’t grow and get stronger while you train, these occur after you train. Having a post-workout shake is only the start of the recovery process.
Take a 30-minute nap after each workout, and you’ll be amazed with the results. Make a point of getting eight, deep, hours of sleep each night. Not only will your workouts be better, but you’ll feel better overall.
Get a sports massage every other week to manipulate the scar tissue you’ve built up. Don’t wait until you’re feeling drained and overtrained, get the massages while you still feel great. We often wait for things to break down and become problems before doing anything about them. Instead, for optimal progress, take your restoration program as seriously as your training program.
10 – You must have a proper, balanced, diet that’s rich in vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, and protein.
Like any successful athlete, Hepburn understood and emphasized the importance of a solid nutrition plan, especially for developing massive strength, power, and size.
At nearly 300 pounds, he consumed over 10,000 calories per day, and was a big fan of liquid nutrition to jack up his calories. He made shakes loaded with milk, juice, eggs, protein powder, and honey, and often drank them during his workouts to keep his energy high.
While following a high-calorie diet is a beneficial component of progress, it also has pitfalls. When the goal is rapid gains in size and strength, eating goes from being a pleasurable experience to a 24/7 job, and constant nausea is common.
Finding a happy medium is possible only by gradually increasing calories, rather than doubling your calories overnight. Just as you gradually condition your body for intense training, you must condition your body for increased caloric consumption.
If you’re eating 2,500 calories to maintain your weight, go up to 3,000 calories for a few weeks. Once you get comfortable with that, go up to 3,500 calories. Increasing calories over time will also allow you to determine how the increased consumption is affecting body-fat levels.
While many trainees want to get bigger and stronger, I doubt that too many want to be fatter and stronger. You can avoid the “fat n’ strong” look by increasing calories gradually and keeping the quality of calories high. Don’t have four bowls of ice cream to increase your calories, but focus on consuming more nutritious food all day long.
Those are some tips straight from the mind of one of North America’s legendary strongmen. But exactly how did Doug Hepburn train to get so strong and powerful? Well, you’re going to have to figure that one out on your own. Just apply these 10 rules and let me know how it works out for you… just kidding. My next article will take a look at Hepburn’s favorite training programs and explain how to apply them today.
For more information on Doug Hepburn’s life and training philosophy, check out the exceptional book Strongman: The Doug Hepburn Story by Tom Thurston.