The system used in this article bears the name of the man who invented it – Doug Hepburn.

But who is Doug Hepburn?

Doug Hepburn was a legendary Canadian strongman who also won a gold medal in the World Olympic Weightlifting Championships in 1953. Hepburn was the first lifter to bench press 500 pounds (227kg) and also squatted 600 pounds (272kg) at the advanced age of 54. One of the most exceptional things about Hepburn’s strength-related antics was his simple approach to programme design.


Hepburn believed that the key to strength and muscular development was multiple workouts using similar exercises but varying training intensities and volumes. He used this approach throughout his career as a strongman, weight lifter and bodybuilder.

What about the workout?

The Hepburn workout is based on the solid scientific principle of progressive overload. Each week you strive to do a little more than before, however the increases from one week to the next are so small that you are very unlikely to overextend your recovery abilities.

Hepburn’s programme involves lifting heavy but not hard. By lifting heavy but not hard, you can be assured that you will make progress week-on-week for long periods of time, never  push yourself so hard that injuries become likely and minimise your risk of suffering burnout.

hepburn workout This type of training takes patience and self-control

If you are used to chasing a pump or doing tough all-out sets it may be especially tough. But here’s the thing – if you stay with this type of programme for 12 months or so, by  the end of the year you may have increased your strength by such a large margin that you’ll wish you had trained this way from the very beginning!

Modern training programmes are usually all about creating lots of fatigue and muscle trauma

Old school lifters like Hepburn tried to avoid fatigue like the plague as it meant they would have to wait longer between workouts due to the longer recovery needed.

Most lifters in the golden era of weight lifting and bodybuilding had full time jobs and had to fit their training around making a living. They couldn’t afford to train too intensely as that might have meant they couldn’t function effectively outside of the gymnasium.

Doug Hepburn’s approach to training may seem too easy and too simple to  work but that’s where you need to have a little faith. Hepburn set dozens of records using this very basic form of training and many old school lifters used similar approaches to great success. By keeping a few ‘reps in the bag’ and not training to failure, your body is better able to recover from your workouts and subsequently, gets stronger, quicker.

The Hepburn Workout

This is my interpretation of one of Hepburn’s famous workouts:

Firstly, you need to know your 1RM (one repetition maximum) for the four key lifts. You can do this by performing a true 1RM test, or using one of the many online calculators or performing the following estimated 1RM test detailed below:

Perform 5 easy repetitions of the exercise you want to test. Rest three to five minute, add some weight and then perform another slightly more challenging five reps. Continue this process until you are unable to complete five reps. As the weight gets heavier, start using longer recoveries to ensure you can  give your all to each set. When you can no longer perform five reps, make a note of the weight and perform the following calculation.

Weight x reps x 0.0333 + weight = estimated 1RM

So, if you managed four reps of 50kg, your estimated 1RM would be 56.6kg (50kg x 4 x 0.0333 = 6.66 + 50 = 56.6kg). Do this for each of the following lifts:

– Squat

-Bench press


-Standing overhead barbell press

Needless to say, any maximal testing requires a good spotter as you’ll be working at your limits. Warm up appropriately and remember that heavy strength training is not without risks. Always use caution and your best judgement to minimise your risk of injury. I suggest testing one exercise per day during the week before you intend to start the programme. Then workout 80% and 60% of each of your 1RMs. Write them into the chart below:

Strength training table_1


This is the key to success using the Hepburn method. In week one, you perform 6 sets of 2 @ 80% of your 1RM and 3 sets of 6 @ 60% of your 1RM. In week two, you add one rep per exercise so instead of performing 2/2/2/2/2/2 reps of the squat, you would perform 3/2/2/2/2/2/ and 7/6/6 on the deadlift.

Apply the same rationale to other key exercises. Week three then becomes 3/3/2/2/2/2 and 7/7/6 respectively.

Continue adding reps in this way until you are performing 6 sets of 3 reps and 3 sets of 8 reps. At this point (after 7 weeks) increase your weights by 5kg and start the whole process again using 6 sets of 2 and 3 sets of 6.

How does it work?

The Hepburn workout is no flash in the pan workout with promises of doubling your strength in a month. Rather, it is a logical and progressive programme designed to increase your strength slowly over an extended period of time while limiting your risk of injury and avoiding fatigue.

This makes it an ideal workout for older lifters and those who need some energy left over for out-of-gym activities like sports. Doug Hepburn seldom strayed from this method of training and if a lifter of his pedigree benefitted from such a simple approach to developing strength, you can be sure that you will too!

Round your weights up or down to the nearest 2kg or whatever the lowest weight is in your gym.

Squat 6 sets of 2 reps @ 80% 1RM
Deadlift 3 sets of 6 reps @ 60% 1RM
1-2 core exercises of your choice

Bench press reps 6 sets of 2 reps @ 80% 1RM
Dumbbell rows 5 sets of 6-10 reps
Overhead press 3 sets of 6 reps @ 60% 1RM
Face pulls 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Deadlift 6 sets of 2 reps @ 80% 1RM
Squats 3 sets of 6 reps @ 60% 1RM
1-2 core exercises of your choice

Overhead press 6 sets of 2 reps @ 80% 1RM
Pull ups 5 sets of 5-8 reps
Bench press 3 sets of 6 reps @ 60%
Face pulls 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps

Rest 2 minutes between 80% sets and 90 seconds between 60% sets and 60 seconds between all other exercises. On the upper body days, feel free to superset push and pull exercises to save time (i.e alternate the exercises, using the performance of each exercise as recovery for the other).

Note – where no 1RM% is given, just use a moderate weight so that the last rep is hard but not all out. Aim to increase either the weight lifted or the reps performed week by week.

Strength training_training diary


If you think the Hepburn workout is for you, give it a go with the exercises in Part 2 and you may find yourself both surprised and impressed by the results.


Read more from Expert Patrick Dale.


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