Doug Hepburn: The Strongman, with a fragile psyche

Douglas Ivan Hepburn (1926 – November 22, 2000) was a Canadian strongman and weightlifter. During the 1950s he was publicly known as the “world’s strongest man”. Doug was also a singer, a dog-raiser, a gym owner, a bouncer, a philosopher. He usually wore a moustache, which with his thick dark hair gave him the look of an old-time strongman. Doug was a genial, easy-going fellow, full of fun, always laughing, always giving a word of encouragement, until he started a training session, gone then is the funny man, the joker, and in his place a man full of determination with time for nothing but absolute concentration.

Hepburn was the first man to officially bench 400 and 450lb. The 500lbs benchpress happened May 28, 1953, before ten witness. Ultimately, he would pause 525, 550, and 560 lbs during the early to mid 1950’s. This would be topped off by a touch and go with 580 using a collar to collar grip and a near miss with 600 lbs. He was also a great squatter: it was his 630 lb world record squat that Paul Anderson exceeded in late 1952. Doug would later improve to 760 lbs.

Doug’s measurements
Height 5’8″/172cm
Arm at 20inch/50cm 
Wrist 8inch/20cm
Chest 53inch/127cm

Doug Hepburn’s unbelievable Records
No one believed him what he claimed to lift these big weights. Thus Doug Hepburn had written a letter to Weider Barbell Co., in which he listed his feats and complained that no one believed him. Joe Weider gave Charlie Smith, an employee, the responsibility of checking this out. Doug was invited to New York and he travelled over 3000 miles from Vancouver to back up the performances he claimed. He was met at Grand Central Station in New York; the Chicago train was late and Charlie had plenty of time to do some pro and con thinking while waiting. Charlie Smith’s impression of Doug Hepburn when he saw him for the first time, among the last of the passengers coming through the gate was as follows:

“So broad was he, so massive, so striking in appearance, that everyone around stopped, stood, and stared. His very carriage, his step, deliberate, yet light and springy, spelled POWER.”

Doug Hepburn’s Life
He was born in tragedy and the tragedy still stalked him. The only child of a broken family, a devoted mother forced to work to maintain a home, he lived in solitude, often ridiculed by schoolmates. According to Doug his father said the following sentence as he saw his newborn son in the delivery room: “Doctor can’t you put him out of his misery now, who would want to go through life with a head like that?”.

Doug was born cross-eyed and with a leg deformity. The leg was partly corrected to the extent of medical and surgical knowledge of the 1920’s, in a Winnipeg hospital; the eyes were corrected when he was 15 years old. He was also the victim of broken home.

Even with his handicap he realized that he was stronger than the other kids. One day at elementary school he wrestled one of the bullies and pinned him to the ground.

As he grew older he was interested in eastern way of thought and its philosophy and the introduction into the world of strength building. One day he saw a young man wearing a t-shirt boarding a bus. The man’s arms were huge and muscular. He was awe struck. In that instant he knew that his goal was to have arms like that man at all cost! Thus he started lifting weights. At the age of 18 he could squat 340 pounds, bench press 260 pounds and curl 140 pounds. Many power historians claim that Hepburn was the strongest man in the world at the time of his peak performances. 

When his mother remarried her new husband resented the lad who had quit school midway through grade 11, and trained with weights in the basement, and ate too much. Doug did not want to work; lay around the house and spent most of his time at the beach and gym. After a family conference it was agreed he should leave home and get out on his own in the hope that he would make something of himself.

Several years passed and during this time his strength was constantly growing. He found a cheap room in a basement and got a job as a bouncer. In the summer he worked as a lifeguard. On the beach he spent much time walking on his hands to increase his shoulder strength and development, in addition to his dedication to weight lifting.

Records and Competitions

Above you can see a picture of Hepburn smashing a fifty year old record by pressing a pair of 157 pound (each) dumbells. John Davis is in the picture, right close to the lifter, acting as catcher if necessary. At the same event Doug performed a right arm military press with 172 pounds. His performance of a deep knee bend with 665 pounds was reported that. He had sunk into a deep squat position, stayed there for a two second count, then recovered. This was in 1953.

In 1952 Doug entered the heavyweight class of the American Junior Nationals which he won with the following lifts: 360 (W.R.)-290-360=1,100. Later that years, he lifted in the American Senior Nationals and took second place to the then world champion John Davis who went on to win the Olympic title that year in Helsinki.

In April 1953, both Davis and Hepburn lifted at Yarick’s Big Oakland Show. Davis performed that Olympic lifts whilst Hepburn did a 660lb squat and a 450lb bench press(see above).

In later in 1953, Hepburn flew to Stockholm to compete in the World Weight-lifting Championships where he annexed the heavyweight title by beating the long reigning champion John Davis. Picture an the right side: Doug Hepburn looks on as John Davis, second place, heavyweights, congratulates Salvetti, 3rd place. Doug made highest total ever recorded in a world’s championship, at this time. Doug’s winning total was press 381 (world record)- 297 – 369= 1047. 

Doug’s last contest as an amateur was in the 1954 British Empire Games which were held in his home town. He again won the heavyweight title by beating his closest rival and fellow Canadian Dave Bailie with the following lifts – 370-300-370=1,400.

Doug’s Feat of Strength

During his prime Doug weighed 280 and was reportedly capable of the following lifts:
Press off the rack: 440 lbs
Press Behind The Neck: 350 lbs

Two Hand Barbell Curl: 260 lbs
Wide Grip Bench Press: 580 lbs
Squat: 760 lbs
Deadlift without straps: 705 lbs

Deadlift with straps: 740 lbs


One of Doug Hepburn’s most fabulous feats if presented here with 45lb olympic plate. From start to finish, the entire load is held by just the little finger of one hand.

Doug Hepburn’s gym 

Later that same year Doug entered the rank of professional wrestling, but more recently he opened his own Gym in East Hastings Street in Burnaby. That very briefly covers the highlight of Doug’s career. He also sold gym equipment. Above you can see the pictures. These images were featured on his website.

Gym stories remembered by Jack Striefel

Jake Striefel trained with and around Doug at his Gym on Hastings St. in Burnaby, B.C. A lot of guys look at some of the routines he published and/or gave out to fellow lifters, and can’t wrap their head around how to handle that much work. According to Jake Striefel, since Doug was running the gym and had all day to train, time wasn’t an issue. He’d do a few quick and light warmup sets in the low rep range, then start in with a first heavy set, maybe a single or a 3-5. Then there would be a half hour or so of chatting, checking on newbies’ form, maybe a quart of milk. Another set, then another long break, so his workouts would last three to five hours.

Doug loved music and loved to sing, no matter where. In a restaurant while dining, on the street, or on the gym floor. Pretty loud, bordering on operatic. He’d get a slightly twisted kick out of belting one out right while another guy was going for a heavy, big movement lift, using the reasoning that the guy should be able to concentrate and not even hear it. And the walking around reciting his poetry! Jake Striefel figured Doug just liked to be a bit of a prankster with all that. A lot of jokes and wordplay things were part of his life and therefore, the life of anyone who trained at that gym. 

Doug Hepburn would always drive a big Lincoln Continental car. Furthermore the gym would open late sometimes when Doug went to take his mom somewhere in that Lincoln, and he ‘religiously’ picked her up every Sunday for her church service.

Doug was, as you’d expect, a seeker and prone to some pretty strange experiments in life. For a time, according to Jake, Doug figured coffee was the contents of the Fountain of Youth, and went all in with it, forgoing a lot of his other nutrients and working up to around two gallons of strong brew a day (and I’m guessing a large part of the night as well!). It all went fine at first, but of course the lack of sleep wound up making him loopy. According to Doug Hepburn there is no better thing than to have a chocolate cake before a workout. It adds sugar explosion fuel!

Some of the things Doug and other lifters around that time did were so impressive. Doug, when working with a collar-to-collar bench press grip, would routinely go to 600 pounds in training. The man must have had tendons of steel to use that wide a grip with such a weight. But for the most part, he stuck with a 32 inch or closer grip on his flat benches.

Doug’s thought on gaining weight

Here is Doug’s quote on very important subject of gaining weight:
“I have always maintained that the basic weightgaining exercises are performed with a barbell and that dumb-bells should be utilized primarily for specialization. I believe that the foregoing movements are all that are necessary for gaining the maximum in strength and muscular bulk, first and foremost is of course the Squat. This exercise should be performed at the BEGINNING of a work-out period on other minor exercises such as the Two Hands Curls, etc., at the commencement of a work-out as the returns in increased body-weight are negligible due to the fact that the biceps and other assisting muscles form a very small portion of the trainee’s muscular bulk. On the other hand the Squat influences the large muscles of the hip and thigh region, which incidentally forms over half of the trainee’s muscular bulk. The other primary weight-gaining movements are, Two Hands Dead Lift, Two Hand Press, Bench Press and rowing motion with a barbell. These aforementioned exercises cover every major muscle group in the body and if performed conscientiously will see the trainee well on his way to his goal, which is in this case, maximum muscular bulk.”

Doug Hepburn’s worst enemy

After ten years winning the world’s championship at Copenhagen, in 1966 aged 39 years, he weighed only 189 pounds. Doug was digging himself headfirst into a dark tunnel of regretful and near bitter thought. He had very high expectations and wanted to make it big.

After winning the world weightlifting championships (1953) Doug was invited by a swiss millionaire into his swiss chalet and made him a big offer that Doug denied.
He could not promote himself very well. Arnold Schwarzenegger knew it better. He knew that only lifting weights is the lazy way. You have go further, open your mind and accept every offer. 

Doug was his worst enemy. He had an above average IQ but underachieved in school. He tried to make up for his real and perceived deficiencies by trying to succeed at sports. Typical for broken home, low self esteem kids. This situation almost surely sent him in the direction of our sport to seek redemption.
Much of his future problems probably stemmed from this situation where a young man had unrealistic expectations of what his chosen redemption could deliver. Reality usually disappoints. When his sport failed him bitterness, paranoia and depression were sure to follow. After his brief wrestling career ended the illusion was finally over. It was time to pay the piper. His descent into alcoholism is not surprising with hindsight.

“I’ll go my way and reap whatever destiny has in store”- Doug Hepburn
After 10 years, winning the world championship, he lost everything. He rented an old cabin in the country with his dog “Buck”. He spoke of the many struggles of heavy drinking, sometimes a week at a time. The depressions increased in intensity.

Doug Hepburn was a hopeless alcoholic, as was his father before him. Doug actually went to a clinic to try to get cured with LSD doses. His admitted usage of LSD, even as an alcoholism treatment does little to dispel this. But in general the sport community is beginning to take a second look at his contributions. Most agree that he did not get the recognition he deserved, that he took too much ridicule for no reason. During his era sport in Canada meant hockey, football and little else. Anything else could be ridiculed as freakish. He was accused of being a muscular anachronism in a modern, push button world. He moved again, found a small dingy basement room in the rough part of town. He layed there on a bed for months in a deep depression. He saw a doctor who said: “If you withdraw into that room in your state you will destroy your mind”. He never felt hunger, eating only enough to live, with all his will and stubbornness struggling with the depression. Endless days and night passed. He remembers the elderly man who looked at him intently and asked: “Do you have a strong heart? You are going to need it. I think you will make it”.

The months passed. He weighed 180 lbs, face thinner and haggard. He remembers working part time in a nearby hotel bar as care taker. He refused to drink. One evening he was kneeling on the floor cleaning the latrine. A group of well-dressed men passed. One of the men recognized him and pointed saying to his friends: “Do you know who that is, that is Doug Hepburn”.
That very night, just before dawn, it happened. He was lying on the bed fully dressed. He said to himself: “I can’t take much more. I am fighting shadows. God, I wish I had two crippled legs and my arm cut off. At least I could fight. Then I would know what I would have to do to win. Whatever this thing is in my mind, it is my equal.”

He remembers the words of a rough and ready acquaintance: “ In your state your head is full of fly shit. You‘ve got to solve it from the outside in.”
In that instant he remembered the old unused Olympic bar stored in the back of his room- weak and sick he rolled out of the bed and muttered: “ This is either going to cure me or kill me”. He rolled out the seven-foot bar and loaded it to 240 lbs. Positioning himself, he bent down, grasped the bar and pulled it to his shoulders. He held it for a moment, and then replaced the bar on the floor. He staggered from the all out effort and dizziness then stood still to collect his senses. The depression was gone! What a redemption and he reveled in it. “I’ve got you beat, you bastard”. Now he had found a way to fight. Fight he did, the depression returned 20 minutes later, forcing him to repeat the process. Each time he did the loss of depression increased in duration. He continued the process and witin one week his reoccurring despondence was eliminated for two and three day periods eventually ceasing altogether. He was at last in full control and free from his torment. No further fear now, as he knew he had the ability to surmount his debilitation. He was now the master of his ship. Nothing on earth would deter him now.

Doug was a typical lifter, somewhat the loner but also very much the self-sufficient type. This is good when a lot of solitary training is required. But such personalities are prone to cynicism and to brooding depression. Doug did not escape these pitfalls. They dogged him all his life. He was forever bitter about his lack of recognition. 

Hepburn died of a perforated ulcer at age 74, November 22, 2000.

“I know I’m not wrong and the struggle is clean
I’ll keep pushing on and I’ll never turn mean.

There aren’t very many who can see how I’ve tried
There’s a lot that think they know but not deep down inside

You’re certain to win if you push right on through
And if you never give in your dream will come true.”

A poem by Doug Hepburn (Circa 1953)


Regpark Journal (Magazine)

1 thought on “Doug Hepburn: The Strongman, with a fragile psyche”

  1. It may seem trivial to some folks, but many years ago, in 1957 I was just a kid growing up in Kamloops B.C. At this time I was a Boy Scout and our leader was a fellow named Jake Kroshnisky or Kroshinsky (cant recall).Anyway we were bored with just the scout thing, so Jake suggested we try some gymnastics or whatever. Now as all kids have a hero ,mine was a simple weight lifter. The reason I chose a single person is that the one person would compete against another .No team. So when a person won a competition ,it was on his or her own It was a simple choice as Doug was Canadian. Living in B.C., and the fact that Jakes brother had some thing to do with Doug Hepburn, and Golds Gym So Jake asked his brother for some old weights and mats. A short time later everything arrived, including the bent bar which Doug lifted 650 lbs. Just a small piece of my life


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