Hepburn, Super Power, and the One Arm Press

By Robert Drucker

Some years ago, a virtually unknown Doug Hepburn sent a letter to Joe Weider with hopes of receiving recognition for his lifting ability. His claims of strength were so extraordinary that the folks at the Weider camp could only shake their head with disbelief. Upon reading Hepburn's claims, Charles A. Smith, a member of the Weider staff, could only say in bewilderment, "No man is that powerful!" Everyone around Smith nodded in agreement.

Smith would later meet Hepburn in person, and the writer for Joe Weider was astounded by Doug's enormous breadth, his incredible muscular size, his shapely build, and his unparalleled strength. Hepburn, indeed, proved to Smith and numerous other strength authorities that his lifting ability was every bit as great as he claimed. Never again would the big man from Vancouver be doubted.

Jason Quellhorst shows how to clean a dumbbell for the one arm military press. The bell is gripped with both hands and then cleaned to the pressing shoulder.

Jason Quellhorst shows how to clean a dumbbell for the one arm military press. The bell is gripped with both hands and then cleaned to the pressing shoulder. Photograph by Robert Drucker.

As Hepburn continued to push heavy iron, the muscle magazines could barely keep up with all the lift records he was setting. Charles Smith wrote in the November, 1953 issue of Muscle Power:

"In every contest he enters, Doug Hepburn smashes record after record. In small meets and large, World marks fall like wheat before the scythe, as this giant of strength indulges in an orgy of power."

Hepburn's accomplishments as a strongman were nothing short of astounding. Here is a small sampling of strength feats that he made during his lifting career:

Looking at his strength resume, it is easy to see why many strength authorities consider Doug Hepburn to be one of strongest men of all time. Even by today's standards, his accomplishments stand out as extraordinary. With the possible exception of Paul Anderson, no other natural athlete in history has demonstrated such broadness of strength and power.

Although Hepburn demonstrated stupendous strength in a great variety of lifts, he was especially strong at pressing. Imagine the raw power required to press 440 pounds of pure steel from a rack, drug free, in near-perfect style, and without support gear of any kind. This is exactly what the colossus from Vancouver did! What amazing pressing strength he possessed.

Jason Quellhorst shown getting ready to push the dumbbell overhead.

Jason Quellhorst shown getting ready to push the dumbbell overhead. Note how he extends his non lifting arm outward to aid his balance. Photograph by Robert Drucker.

One of Doug's secret weapons for building his mighty pressing strength was the practice of the One Arm Military Press, an enormously powerful, but little known exercise. Doug considered this movement to have no equal for building overall upper body strength. And, along with the bench press, Hepburn gave the One Arm Press credit for substantially increasing his pressing ability. In the May, 1952 issue of Muscle Power, Hepburn related, "Of one thing that may be certain. Use of the One Arm Military Press will substantially increase your regular two arm pressing."

Hepburn was inspired to implement the One Arm Press into his training program after reading an article in a strength magazine about how Bert Assirati, the British strongman and wrestler, used this exercise to build his extraordinary upper body strength. Hepburn was also influenced by John Davis and by Marvin Wells. Both of these strongmen were advocates of the One Arm Military Press, and both were among the strongest barbell pressers in the world. Davis could press 150 pounds with his right hand, and he could do reps with 135 pounds. Wells was known to "seesaw" two 120-pound dumbbells for four or five sets of nine reps. To put these accomplishments into perspective, Hepburn noted in 1952, "There are hardly more than eight or nine men on the whole American continent who can perform a correct One Arm Military Press, with either hand, of 130 pounds."

Jason Quellhorst pushes up the heavy dumbbell.  He maintains a rigid posture by keeping his legs and buttocks well tensed during the press.

Jason Quellhorst pushes up the heavy dumbbell. He maintains a rigid posture by keeping his legs and buttocks well tensed during the press. Photograph by Robert Drucker.

The One Arm Press, according to Hepburn, builds overall body strength and power like no other exercise can because "it demands that there be no weak link in the physical chain." This exercise not only greatly stimulates the deltoids and triceps, it superbly strengthens the entire torso and back. Hepburn also observed that the One Arm Military Press "can develop strength of the trunk that can hardly be attained by any other means." This is because this lift requires a tremendous effort to maintain an upright stance during its execution.

Before we look at how Hepburn trained with the One Arm Press (technically called the Left and Right Hand Military Press) for building sensational body power, let's first take a look at how this movement is correctly performed. The following "official" definition is taken from the 1960 edition of Bob Hoffman's book, Weightlifting:

Left (Right) Hand Military Press

"The dumbell shall be taken to the shoulder and, after a pause of two seconds, pressed to arm's length overhead. At the commencement of the press the bar shall not be held higher than the top of the sternum where the collar bones meet. During the press from the shoulder the trunk must not be inclined backwards, forwards, or sideways: the shoulders must be kept quite level, the legs straight, the heels together, the head held erect with the eyes looking directly to the front, the slightest deviation from the erect position being counted cause for disqualification. In taking the bell to the shoulder either one or two hands may be used. In the performance of this lift the use of a bar bell or ring weight is not permitted."

The definition given above for the One Arm Military Press was written as a set of rules for sanctioned competition. However, during his training sessions Hepburn sometimes used a "feet apart" style in order to increase body stability. Nonetheless, Hepburn advised that for power building the feet should be moved gradually together. Working the One Arm Press with the feet held together, the Canadian powerhouse observed, results in greater torso involvement and enhanced power development.

Prior to beginning the One Arm Press, Hepburn rubbed both hands with chalk, and he rubbed chalk between his fingers. The use of chalk helps to ensure that the dumbbell does not slip in the lifting hand. A slight slip, Hepburn warned, can throw the dumbbell out of balance and make the lift awkward and more difficult.

Hepburn also preferred to clean the dumbbell with both of his hands to conserve lifting energy. Just prior to the clean, the strongman would wrap his lifting hand around the bell shaft, and then he would wrap his other hand around his lifting hand. The muscular giant would then swing the dumbbell up high and into the lifting position. Once in the lifting position, Hepburn would keep his shoulders and torso muscles well tensed to maintain a proper stance and to prepare his body for a sudden thrust of power.

To aid his balance, Hepburn would press the dumbbell while keeping his free hand held to his side. As he pressed the dumbbell, he would also keep his muscles tense, especially contracting the muscles of the buttocks and thighs with great force. Doing so helped the mighty presser to maintain a firm position and to generate the explosive power he required to complete the lift.

Hepburn preferred to train the One Arm Press only once or twice a week whenever he incorporated this exercise into his training program. After much experimentation, he found that this training frequency provided him with optimum results. For each workout, the big man would begin the One Arm Press by warming up thoroughly with a relatively light poundage. He would then use a weight about 30 pounds below his best lift and perform six to eight sets, each consisting of three repetitions. John Davis, incidentally, practiced a similar routine: he would perform six to eight sets of the One Arm Press, two repetitions each set.

Doug understood that to continually stimulate an increase in strength and power, the lifter must continually strive to increase his training poundages. As such, Hepburn strove to increase his training weight whenever possible. Using this method, the Canadian strongman was eventually able to One Arm Press a 195 pound dumbbell, one of the greatest feats of strength on record.

During ordinary training with the One Arm Press, Hepburn would breathe normally, without conscious effort or special technique. However, whenever he attempted a record lift, either in the gym or during a competition, the big boy from Vancouver would utilize a special style of breathing to ensure that he didn't become lightheaded due to lack of oxygen, a potentially dangerous condition that even experienced weightlifters sometimes face during an "all-out" attempt. Hepburn's breathing technique involved six steps: (1) take a slight breath during the clean portion of the lift; (2) breathe out at the completion of the clean, and then quickly begin breathing in; (3) continue to breathe in as the dumbbell is lifted; (4) breathe out as the dumbbell reaches ear level; and (5) breathe in as the dumbbell reaches arms-length, and continue to do so until the referee gives the signal to lower the weight.

Brooks Kubik's course about Doug Hepburn and how he trained is highly recommended.  This photo shows the cover page of his course.

This course is highly recommended if you want to know how Doug Hepburn trained to break world records. Photograph courtesy of Brooks Kubik.

Hepburn advised that trainees not make attempts at limit poundages more than once every three or four weeks. Doing so more often, he warned, could cause some lifters to go stale. He also advised that as a training exercise it is not necessary to perform the One Arm Press according to the strict definition given above. Some individuals may gain fastest with a somewhat looser style, he indicated. In fact, the former world champion recommended that "a man should work for power first, and then for style and technique perfection." Following such a formula, Hepburn advocated, leads to faster gains in muscular size, strength, and power.

To add variety and to prevent staleness, Hepburn recommended occasionally practicing the One Arm Press while seated on a bench, or with your back held against a wall or pillar. He also suggested that the lift could be practiced while resting the non-lifting side of the body against a wall, with the non-lifting arm held straight down. Hepburn also occasionally practiced the One Arm Press with his non-lifting hand pressed firmly against his body to aid his balance, rather than held straight out.

Although at various times Hepburn held world records in the two hands press, the squat, and the bench press, the One Arm Press was his favorite lift. No other lift, Hepburn advised, builds greater pressing power. And, as the former record holder often pointed out, the ability to press a heavy weight overhead is the mark of a true strongman. Think about men like Arthur Saxon, Karl Swoboda, John Davis, Steve Stanko, and Grigory Novak; they were all among the world's strongest men, and they were all pressing sensations.

Afterward

Doug Hepburn typically trained three or four days per week, and he generally restricted his lifts to two or three per workout. The first lift of his workout was usually one he was striving to improve, and the second was a basic power movement, either the squat or the deadlift. On occasional workout days, when he was feeling particularly energetic, he would also practice a third movement, typically either the bench press or the curl. Throughout his lifting career, Doug would specialize on only one or two movements at a time, and he would change his training program whenever his progress slowed down, or whenever he felt that he obtained all he could from specialization of a particular lift.

Hepburn most often trained with low repetitions and used poundages around 85% to 90% of his limit lift. Doing eight sets per exercise for two or three reps was common for Doug. However, sometimes he trained with reduced poundages, and he performed a higher number of reps and a lower number of sets.

For more information about how Doug Hepburn trained to build mass and power, I highly recommend reading History's Strongest Men and How They Trained, No. 1 Doug Hepburn, by Brooks Kubik. This is a well written and informative course, and it not only covers Hepburn's training methods in great depth, it also explains how he ate and prepared himself mentally to break world record poundages. Here is the link to learn more about this terrific course:

Doug Hepburn Course

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