Doug Hepburn: Canadian Strongman

hepDoug Hepburn is undoubtedly one of the great Canadian athletic legends.

At the peak of his career he was considered the strongest man alive.

Doug is now acknowledged by many – along with Paul Anderson – as the grandfather of modern powerlifting.  

Like Louis Cyr, nearly a century before, Hepburn put Canada firmly on the map in the strength world.

Doug was a truly multi-talented individual, whose skills and interests took him beyond the realms of sport to make him an inventor, storyteller, philosopher, and singer. 

Most importantly Doug Hepburn should be seen as a true strength innovator.

 

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Early Life

It is fair to say that Doug Hepburn was not born with the gifts that would be desirable by any natural athlete.

More specifically, he was born with a club foot and was cross eyed. He underwent numerous surgeries in childhood to correct these problems.

While his eye condition was nominally improved, surgery on his leg could only be described as a failure. Surgery left him with an atrophied and distorted calf muscle on his right leg.

To add to this, Hepburn’s alcoholic father left early on in Doug’s life and his mother was left to provide for them both. This meant an nomadic childhood constantly on the brink of poverty.

To the average child’s psyche this would have been a severe blow that could have had a negative impact moving into adulthood. But Doug Hepburn was not an average person.   

Like all kids, Doug enjoyed sports but because of his constant moving around as a child and poverty he gradually been moved his focus towards individual athletic endeavour.

In his teens, Hepburn embarked on a weightlifting program at his local YMCA and the iron bug hooked him fast. His training moved to the cellar in his house.

This was a Spartan affair just a weighted barbell in a dank room with a dirt floor. But it was here that he formulated a low rep, high set scheme that produced his prodigious strength.

By the age of 18, he could squat 340lb, bench 260lb and strict curl 140lb.

He took up work as a lifeguard and bouncer but always the iron took precedence.

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Professional Career

By now Doug was fully immersed in the sport of weightlifting. Unfortunately, the Canadian weightlifting authority weren’t that interested in him. He was winning competitions and he was breaking records in the clean and press.

  • In 1948, Doug got his first recognition in public when he clean and pressed 300lb and thus creating an unofficial Canadian record.
  • In 1950 he clean and pressed 339.5lb for an unofficial world record
  • In 1951 he set an official world record at 330lb at the U.S. Nationals and at the U.S. Senior Nationals set it again at 345.5lb

Yet somehow, the Canadian Amateur Athletics Union rejected these results and Doug wasn’t considered for the Canadian Olympic weightlifting team in 1952 for the Oslo Olympics.

 The gold medal in that Olympics was won by American weightlifting legend John Davis, who had been previously defeated by Doug.

This didn’t discourage Hepburn as he self funded his entry in to Stockholm world championships of 1953.

Despite a badly sprained ankle, no coach and very little money lifted his way into legend by winning the heavyweight title. Lifting a total of 1033lb he easily beat the second placed John Davis by 26lb and set a world record press of 371.5lb.

 After his return from the championship he was received with some fanfare in his hometown of Vancouver. He was awarded Lou Marsh Award in 1953, which gave him national recognition. It was in 1954 when Hepburn professional career reached its peak as he won gold medal in British Empire Games. After this he was named Man of British Columbia in 1954.

Although, Doug performed so well in international championships, he wasn’t able to raise money for defending his world title in the next championship in Europe. This made him retire from competitive weightlifting.

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Hepburn the Strongman 

Both during his weightlifting career and after, Doug Hepburn achieved many strength feats. Here are some of his more notable efforts:

  • Two hand press off rack: 440lb
  • Squat: 760lb
  • Two-Hand strict curl: 260lb
  • Jerk press: 500lb
  • Wide-Grip Bench Press: 580lb
  • Crucifix: 200lb (100lb dumbbell on each side)
  • Right-hand military press: 175lb
  • One-Arm Military Press: 200lb
  • Strict Press off the Rack: 450lb
  • Push Press off the Rack: 500lb
  • Two-Hand Barbell Curl: 260lb
  • Squat: 800lb
  • Deadlift: 800lb
  • One-Arm Side Hold-Out: 120lb
  • One-Arm Side Press: 250lb

 

Professional Wrestling

In the absence of his weightlifting career, Hepburn signed a five year professional wrestling contract. But Doug didn’t warm to this profession.

Although he was physically capable as a wrestler, psychologically he found it draining. In his biography “Strongman”, Hepburn explains that the injury toll wasn’t conducive to his lifting ambitions and he really didn’t like hurting people.

He quit this career way before his contract expired 

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Personal Life after Weightlifting

Doug like his father battled with alcoholism and depression. He continued to practice lifting but the bottle took its toll. Eventually he signed himself into a clinic in the early 1960’s and cured himself of his addiction problems.

He financed himself with many small business ventures all of which never really took off. He wrote many strength and bodybuilding courses that kept a small income coming in.

He was also a budding singer/songwriter and was reasonably good at it. His Christmas tune, which is popularly known as the “Hepburn Carol” was written and sung by him. Many radio stations still play this tune during Christmas time.

He had also written several essays and poems. 

Doug’s Crusade Against Anabolic Steroids

Hepburn was a drug free lifter and was a strong opponent against their use in the strength sports.

Many of his courses and articles rallied against drug use in sport, citing not only the unfair advantage that they brought to the iron game, but also the cost on athletes health.

He stuck with this position to the end

 

The life of Doug Hepburn is inspirational. He always fought through various physical deficiencies handed to him by life and bias from people who had no faith in his ability or character. 

He remained a devoted lifter until the end

Doug Hepburn died in November, 2000 at the age of 74.

Doug Hepburn Clean and Press 380lb

One of my all time favorite strength biographies is Strongman by Tom Thurston. Initially intended as a ghost written autobiography after extensive interviews it is written in the "voice" of Doug Hepburn. I thoroughly recommend this as a good read

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