The Doug Hepburn Method For Strength And Size!


doug hepburn method

There are many great ways to train for strength. The classic 5 x 5 routine, wave loading and cluster sets all come to mind. However, one of the best programs for building raw strength size gains is the Doug Hepburn Method.

If you have never tried this training program then you are doing yourself a great disservice! 

Introduction

  • Part 1: Who Was Doug Hepburn?
  • Part 2: Doug Hepburn’s Training Principles
  • Part 3: The Doug Hepburn Training Program
  • Part 4: Sample Training Programs
  • Part 5: Training periodization

The Doug Hepburn Method is an old-school strength training program that will give you some of the fastest strength gains of your entire life. You are going to perform 8 sets of 1-2 reps followed by 5 sets of 5 reps.

The singles and doubles jack up your strength levels by training your nervous system to recruit more motor units and fire more efficiently. On the other hand the 5 sets of 5 reps will fatigue your fast-twitch muscle fibers and build slabs of functional muscle mass.

For example here is what a Hepburn-style upper body workout might look like:

  • A1: Bench Press (shoulder-width grip), 8 x 1, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Narrow supinated grip chin ups, 8 x 1, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Bench press (medium grip), 5 x 5, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Shoulder-width supinated grip chin ups, 5 x 5, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest

The Doug Hepburn Method is a powerful one-two punch for strength and size gains!

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to build muscle mass and strength like our hero Doug Hepburn.

You will learn who Doug Hepburn was, his core training philosophies, and the ins-and-outs of the Doug Hepburn Method. I will also give you plenty of sample training programs and teach you how to periodize your Hepburn-style workouts for optimal long-term training progress.

Note: if you have any trouble reading the sample training routines in this guide then you may want to check out this article.

Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Who Was Doug Hepburn?

Doug Hepburn is widely considered one of the strongest human beings who ever lived. He was an international weightlifting champion in the 1950s and was the first man to officially bench press 400, 450 and 500 pounds.

Some of Doug Hepburn’s best lifts include the following:

  • Strict overhead press of 371.25 pounds
  • Push Press 500 pounds
  • Squat 800 pounds
  • Deadlift 800 pounds
  • Bench Press 580 pounds

Doug wasn’t just the strongest man alive in the 1950s – he was a human forklift!

Doug had to overcome many obstacles on his quest to become one of the strongest men in the world. Doug was born with a right club foot that made walking nearly impossible. He was also born with a terrible vision problem called esotropia that nearly left him blind.

Doug had to go through numerous surgeries as a child to fix these conditions.

Very few people thought Doug Hepburn would amount to anything significant in life. Everyone counted Doug out as a loser who had practically zero potential to live a successful life.

Fortunately for us Doug did not listen to the naysayers. Doug knew in his heart from a very young age that he was destined for greatness.

He began lifting weights and eventually started to compete in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. He knew deep down that he could be a world champion. But even Doug had no idea just how far he would go…

Part 2: Doug Hepburn’s Training Principles

Doug didn’t exactly have access to the internet back in the early to mid 1900s! He didn’t have access to the ocean of information that we have today on how to build muscle mass and strength. He had to figure out for himself what actually produces results in the gym and what was a waste of time.

Through trial and error Doug Hepburn came up with his own unique training style. It was radically different from anything that anyone else had come up with at the time.

Doug’s training program is based on a few key principles. Here they are in no particular order:

  • Focus on only two exercises per workout
  • Train for relative strength, then functional hypertrophy
  • You must coax the body into strength gains

Let’s take a closer look at each of these points:

Principle #1: Focus On Only Two Exercises Per Workout

Doug Hepburn believed that you should focus on only 1-2 exercises per workout. I mean it – only 1-2 exercises! In fact Doug Hepburn performed very little accessory work. He regularly performed 10-15 sets on 1-2 main compound exercises and then went home.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that accessory work is worthless. However most trainees spend way to much worrying about the little things (accessory work) and not nearly enough time training the big compound exercises. 

Principle #2: Train For Relative Strength, Then Functional Hypertrophy

Doug Hepburn had a special way he organized his workouts. He performed relative strength work first and then finished his workout with functional hypertrophy work. This is very good advice.

As a general rule of thumb you should always perform your lower-rep work at the start of your workouts and your higher-rep work at the end of your workouts. This follows the principle of motor unit recruitment.

It is very difficult to recruit the fast-twitch or high-threshold muscle fibers. These are the muscle fibers that have the greatest potential for strength and size gains. If you want to activate these muscle fibers then you have to train them at the start of your workout with heavy weights. 

Principle #3: You Must Coax The Body Into Strength Gains

Doug Hepburn believed in slowly but consistently building strength over long periods of time. He understood that the human body could only build strength so quickly. It is better to slowly coax the body into strength gains than to force it by constantly throwing extra weight on the bar.

One of Doug’s favourite “slow and steady” strategies was to take a weight he could perform for 8 sets of 2 reps and build up to performing it for 8 sets of 3 reps.

There are many ways to build strength. Whichever method you use it is important to slowly but progressively add weight to the bar rather than throwing extra weight on the bar just because you feel like it!

Part 3: The Doug Hepburn Training Program

The Doug Hepburn training program is divided into two parts:

  • Part 1: relative strength = 8 sets of 1-2 reps
  • Part 2: functional hypertrophy = 5 sets of 3-5 reps

Let’s take a closer look at each part of the program.

Part 1: Relative Strength = 8 Sets Of 1-2 Reps

The relative strength portion of the workout consists of 8 sets of 1-2 reps. It does not matter too much whether you perform singles or doubles for this portion of the workout.

Doug Hepburn used either singles or doubles at different times in his training career. The singles are superior for building maximal strength. However, they are also more demanding on your central nervous system. 

If you are going to focus on singles then they should be performed at 90-95% of your 1-rep max. I recommend you perform your first single at about 90% of your 1-rep max (or with a weight you can do 3 times) and slowly work up from there. By your 8th set you should be at around 95%.

For example:

  • Set #1: 90% x 1
  • Set #2: 90% x 1
  • Set #3: 91% x 1
  • Set #4: 92% x 1
  • Set #5: 93% x 1
  • Set #6: 93% x 1
  • Set #7: 94% x 1
  • Set #8: 95% x 1

Remember, the Hepburn method is all about getting in a large number of high-quality sets. The strength training stimulus comes from the high volume of work, not your performance on any one particular set.

If you are performing doubles rather than singles then I recommend you perform your 1st set around 85% of your 1-rep max and slowly ramp up to 90% on your last set. For example:

  • Set #1: 85% x 2
  • Set #2: 87% x 2
  • Set #3: 87% x 2
  • Set #4: 88% x 2
  • Set #5: 88% x 2
  • Set #6: 89% x 2
  • Set #7: 90% x 2
  • Set #8: 90% x 2

If your last single or double is still relatively easy then you would use slightly heavier weights the next time you repeat your workout. 

Part 2: Functional Hypertrophy = 5 Sets Of 3-5 Reps

The second half of the workout focuses on building functional hypertrophy. This is just a fancy way of saying hypertrophy specific to the fast-twitch muscle fibers. This is the kind of muscle hypertrophy that not only looks good, but helps you throw around huge weights in the gym.

You are going to use a slight variation of the exercise performed in the first part of the workout. For example here are some suggestions:

Squats

  • Part 1: back squat (heels flat)
  • Part 2: back squat (heels slightly elevated)

Chin ups

  • Part 1: chin ups (shoulder-width grip)
  • Part 2: chin ups (narrow grip)

Incline bench presses

  • Part 1: 30 degree incline bench press
  • Part 2: 45 degree incline bench press

It is extremely important that you use a slight variation of the same exercise for the second half of the workout. This allows you to tap into a similar but slightly different motor unit pool.

In layman’s terms the second half of the workout will build on the first half but without burning out your central nervous system.

I recommend you pick a weight that is about 75% of your 1-rep max and try to perform 5 sets of 5 reps with it. You may not get 5 reps on all 5 sets – that is perfectly OK. Just do your best and make sure that you do NOT go to failure on any of your working sets.

For example:

  • Set #1: 75% x 5 reps
  • Set #2: 75% x 5 reps
  • Set #3: 75% x 4 reps
  • Set #4: 75% x 4 reps
  • Set #5: 75% x 3 reps

You tried to get 5 reps on all 5 sets but you were unsuccessful. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the plan. The next time you perform this workout you will use the same weight for your 5 sets of 3-5 reps. You are only allowed to increase the weight when you actually perform 5 reps on all 5 of your sets. 

Part 4: Sample Training Programs

Now that you understand the basics let’s go over some sample training routines. The Doug Hepburn Method tends to work best when you can superset antagonistic body parts together. This is just a fancy of way of saying that you want to alternate back and forth between exercises for opposing muscle groups.

For a chest and back workout you might perform a set of bench presses, rest 2 minutes, perform a set of chin ups, rest 2 minutes and then perform another set of bench presses.

Performing your sets in this manner has many advantages:

  • You recruit more motor units in the primary muscle groups
  • You have better muscular endurance throughout the workout
  • You double the number of sets that you can perform in a given period of time

In other words antagonistic supersets let you perform more high quality work in less time. It would be silly not to use them in your workouts!

Let’s take a look at a sample chest and back workout. This workout uses the 8 x 1, 5 x 5 set and rep scheme. Check it out:

Modified Hepburn Chest And Back Routine

  • A1: 30 degree incline bench press, 8 x 1, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Narrow supinated grip chin ups, 8 x 1, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree incline bench press, 5 x 3-5, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Shoulder-width supinated grip chin ups, 5 x 3-5, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

As you can see the exercises are varied slightly from the first half of the workout to the second half. This is absolutely essential for getting the most out of the Hepburn method.

This version of the Hepburn method works great if you respond well to single repetitions. The near-maximal weights produce a powerful training stimulus within your central nervous system.

I have coached many trainees who have increased their bench press or incline bench press by 20-40 pounds in a single month using this set and rep scheme!

Of course not everyone can handle 8 singles in a workout. If you are someone who burns out on lots of singles then you may want to try the routine format where you perform 8 sets of 2 reps. For example here is an 8 x 2, 5 x 5 leg workout that you may want to try.  Check it out:

Modified Hepburn Leg Routine

  • A1: Front squat (medium stance / heels flat), 8 x 2, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral lying leg curl (Poliquin method / feet pointed in), 8 x 2, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Front squat (medium stance / heels slightly elevated), 5 x 3-5, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Bilateral lying leg curl (Poliquin method / feet pointed straight), 5 x 3-5, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest

**Dorsiflex your ankles (point your toes towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantarflex your ankles (point your toes away from your shins) on the eccentric range. See the video below for more details.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

Don’t get me wrong, performing 8 sets of 2 reps is still a grueling amount of work. This routine is no walk in the park! Still, many of you will find that you get better progress performing doubles as opposed to singles.

Single repetitions are very effective for boosting strength gains but they are also very demanding on the central nervous system. Doug Hepburn often trained with doubles rather than singles to give his body a break.

There is one final version of the Modified Hepburn Method that I want to teach you. This version involves performing 10 sets of singles followed by 3 sets of 3-5 reps. This version works very, very well for rapid strength gains. However, you have to be someone who thrives on low reps.

If you have a dopamine-dominant neurotransmitter profile then you will make some of the best gains of your life on this type of routine. On the other hand if you have a more balanced neurotransmitter profile then you will get better results doing some other type of routine. Check it out:

Modified Hepburn Arm Routine

  • A1: Decline bench press (shoulder-width grip), 10 x 1, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 10 x 1, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Decline bench press (medium grip), 3 x 3-5, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / supinated grip), 3 x 3-5, 3/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

As a general rule of thumb I recommend you stick with one of the first 2 versions of the Hepburn method before you attempt this one with 10 singles. You really have to know what you are doing to make this type of routine format work.

Part 5: Training periodization

The best training program in the world is useless unless you know how to periodize your workouts. Periodization simply refers to how you progress over time in your training.

The Doug Hepburn method is all about slow but consistent strength gains. It only makes sense to cover how you might plan your progress over time.

As a general rule of thumb I recommend you perform any of the Hepburn-style routines for 3-6 workouts in a row. After your 3rd-6th workout you should move onto some other type of routine. For example:

  • Workout #1: Hepburn method
  • Workout #2: Hepburn method
  • Workout #3: Hepburn method
  • Workout #4: Hepburn method
  • Workout #5: Hepburn method
  • Workout #6: Hepburn method
  • Workout #7: Move on to another routine, ideally one with higher reps

Let’s take a look at how “Joe Average” might progress from his 1st to 5th workout on the incline bench press:

Workout 1

Stage 1: Relative strength

  • Set 1: 165 x 1 – easy
  • Set 2: 165 x 1 – easy
  • Set 3: 170 x 1 – a little harder
  • Set 4: 170 x 1 – not too bad
  • Set 5: 170 x 1 – easier than set 4
  • Set 6: 172 x 1 – pretty hard
  • Set 7: 172 x 1 – hard
  • Set 8: 173 x 1 – very hard

Recap: Joe Average picks his starting weight (165 pounds) based on 87.5% of his 1-rep max on this lift (200 lbs). Joe is not used to the high volume of singles, and therefore doesn’t push the envelope too much.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

  • Set 9: 138 x 5 – tough
  • Set 10: 138 x 5 – 5th rep was a grinder
  • Set 11: 138 x 4 – brutal!
  • Set 12: 138 x 3 – beyond brutal!
  • Set 13: 138 x 3 – almost impossible!

Recap: Joe uses 80% of his top single (173 lbs) to calculate the weight for his five sets of five (138 lbs). Joe is fried from the eight singles, and only gets five reps on his first two sets.

This is fine, Joe just can’t increase the weight until he gets all five sets of five with the same weight.

Workout 2

Stage 1: Relative Strength

  • Set 1: 170 x 1 – fast
  • Set 2: 173 x 1 – very smooth
  • Set 3: 175 x 1 – fairly easy
  • Set 4: 175 x 1 – fairly easy
  • Set 5: 175 x 1 – still feeling fast
  • Set 6: 176 x 1 – harder
  • Set 7: 177 x 1 – moves faster than set 6
  • Set 8: 178 x 1 – moves faster than set 7

Recap: Joe is adapting to the increased workload. His last two sets move faster than set 6, despite the increased load. This is due to the principle of post-tetanic facilitation and is quite common on this routine.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

  • Set 9: 138 x 5 – difficult
  • Set 10: 138 x 5 – very difficult
  • Set 11: 138 x 4 – brutal
  • Set 12: 138 x 4 – not too bad
  • Set 13: 138 x 4 – brutal again

Recap: Joe is once again fried from the singles. However, his performance on the functional hypertrophy work is improving.

Workout 3

Stage 1: Relative strength

  • Set 1: 172.5 x 1 – feels heavier than normal
  • Set 2: 175 x 1 – not very fast
  • Set 3: 175 x 1 – better
  • Set 4: 177 x 1 – slow
  • Set 5: 179 x 1 – absolute grinder
  • Set 6: 179 x 1 – another grinder
  • Set 7: 177 x 1 – tough
  • Set 8: 175 x 1 – fairly easy

Recap: Not the best performance. Joe had a very poor night of sleep and just wasn’t in the mood to train today. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a terrible performance.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

  • Set 9: 138 x 5 – piece of cake
  • Set 10: 138 x 5 – easy
  • Set 11: 138 x 5 – hard
  • Set 12: 138 x 4 – difficult
  • Set 13: 138 x 4 – 4th rep was a grinder

Recap: Joe makes a small improvement here, but we are looking for faster progress ideally.

Workout 4

Stage 1: Relative Strength

  • Set 1: 175 x 1 – piece of cake!
  • Set 2: 180 x 1 – very light
  • Set 3: 180 x 1 – still very light
  • Set 4: 185 x 1 – moves fast
  • Set 5: 185 x 1 – very smooth rep
  • Set 6: 190 x 1 – hard but doable
  • Set 7: 191 x 1 – a grinder
  • Set 8: 192 x 1 – very slow but smooth

Recap: Now this is what we’re talking about! Joe has already blasted past his previous best on this exercise (188 lbs) and still has a couple workouts left to go.

How high can Joe push his behind the neck press on this routine? Only one way to find out!

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

  • Set 9: 138 x 5 – easy
  • Set 10: 138 x 5 – easy
  • Set 11: 138 x 5 – easy
  • Set 12: 138 x 5 – medium hard
  • Set 13: 185 x 5 – very difficult

Recap: Awesome! Joe Average pulls off all five sets of five reps. He will make a moderate weight jump up to 145 lbs next workout for his functional hypertrophy work.

Workout 5

Stage 1: Relative Strength

  • Set 1: 185 x 1 – misgrooved the rep, hard
  • Set 2: 185 x 1 – easy
  • Set 3: 190 x 1 – easy
  • Set 4: 192 x 1 – smooth but slow
  • Set 5: 194 x 1 – better than set 4
  • Set 6: 194 x 1 – challenging
  • Set 7: 195 x 1 – challenging
  • Set 8: 195 x 1 – better than set 7

Recap: Another solid workout in the books.

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

  • Set 9: 145 x 5 – difficult
  • Set 10: 145 x 5 – a real ball-buster
  • Set 11: 145 x 5 – nearly impossible
  • Set 12: 145 x 4 – very hard
  • Set 13: 145 x 3 – very very hard

Recap: Joe decides to bump up the weight on his functional hypertrophy sets this workout, as discussed earlier. Joe performs well considering the weight jump.

Workout 6

Stage 1: Relative Strength

  • Set 1: 195 x 1 – fast
  • Set 2: 195 x 1 – very fast
  • Set 3: 200 x 1 – fast
  • Set 4: 200 x 1 – still fast
  • Set 5: 202 x 1 – a little more difficult
  • Set 6: 204 x 1 – moderately difficult
  • Set 7: 204 x 1 – moderately difficult
  • Set 8: 204 x 1 – extremely difficult

Recap: Another awesome performance by Joe Average! He has completely destroyed his old record of 188 lbs. If Joe were to deload and peak on this lift, he would probably be looking at a performance of at least 210 lbs.

Not bad for an investment of six total workouts!

Stage 2: Functional Hypertrophy

  • Set 9: 145 x 5 – easy
  • Set 10: 145 x 5 – easy
  • Set 11: 145 x 5 – harder
  • Set 12: 145 x 5 – very hard
  • Set 13: 145 x 4 – 4th rep was an absolute grinder

Joe Average is clearly more gifted for low reps than sets of five. However, he does an excellent job of grinding out more reps on his functional hypertrophy work.

Joe Average has now completed six workouts on Doug Hepburn’s training program. He wisely chooses to follow this up with an accumulation-style workout that won’t be as taxing on his central nervous system.

Conclusion

doug hepburn method

The Doug Hepburn method is one of the very best ways to train for strength and size gains. There is a reason Doug Hepburn became one of the strongest men on the planet training this way: it works!

I highly recommend this training program to anyone who loves performing low reps and who is ready to put in some serious work in the gym.

If you want help with using the Doug Hepburn method then consider joining my online coaching program. I regularly have trainees add 20-40 pounds to their big barbell exercises in just a month training this way.

“There’s more to life than training, but training is what puts more in your life.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen

I am the creator and owner of Revolutionary Program Design. I help advanced athletes take their training to the next level and achieve results they never imagined possible.

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