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Hepburn Layering for Strength and Size

I have two passions (apart from my wife and dogs of course), training and history. And ever since I started lifting weights I was interested in learning how the truly big and strong people before me trained. For example, at the age of 13 I read Bill Pearl’s Keys to the Inner Universe. At the time, my English was limited and we’re talking about a 600-page book! But I devoured it. For some reason, I always believed (and still do) that despite much less scientific knowledge, old-school lifters knew a lot more than we do about building strength and gaining muscle. Back then (40s and 50s) there were no steroids, or at least their use for performance enhancement was extremely rare. I’m not a steroids hater, but it is a fact that when you use them (especially from a young age), it is difficult to learn what really works because they will give you rapid gains even if your training is not optimal.

I also think that the internet and social media has made things worse. Nowadays, people are more interested in what looks good, cool and falsely innovative (to get more followers) than what actually works.

One my biggest influences is an old-school strength athlete named Doug Hepburn. He’s a Canadian lifter from the 1950s (go Canada) who won a gold medal in Olympic lifting and was lifting big weights on the powerlifts (powerlifting competitions didn’t exist yet). He was the first man to bench press 500lbs and was also squatting and deadlifting 800lbs.

He had a very simple and methodic system revolving around doing only the big basic lifts using the most conservative form or double progression. Basically, Hepburn believed in progressive overload, so he wanted to have some progression at every session but also wanted to avoid burning out which would kill his gains. So, he resorted to the smallest possible measurable progression from session to session. This allowed him to progress continuously for much longer than everybody else.

In that regard, he is similar to Jim Wendler who believes in slow, gradual but constant progression while avoiding digging yourself into a hole.

ADD ONE REP: THE HEPBURN MODEL

Hepburn’s system was simple: at every session you do one more total rep on each exercise. Not one rep per set, one rep total. Once you reach a certain total number of reps, you increase the weight.

Let me illustrate this using his favorite scheme, the 8 x 3.

He would start with a weight that was challenging, but not an all-out effort for 3 reps. Let’s say 87.5% for illustration purposes. His first workout would be 2 x 3 and 6 x 2 with the selected weight, for a total of 8 sets.

The next time he would hit the same lift (normally each lift was trained twice a week), he would keep the same weight and add one total rep; so he would now do 3 x 3 and 5 x 2 with 87.5%.

The following workout he would add another rep using the same weight, now going up to 4 x 3 and 4 x 2 with 87.5%.

He continued this way until all 8 sets were done for 3 reps. Once that was achieved, he would go increase the weight for the next session (by 10-20lbs depending on the lift) starting back at 2 x 3 and 6 x 2, and building the reps back up the same way.

The same can be done with other rep numbers, but Hepburn was a low rep man (so am I). The highest he would go in reps per set was 5. Since he liked to add weight every 4 weeks or so, if he did sets of 5 he would do less total sets (5 instead of 8) and the progression would look like this:

Session 1

1 x 5

2 x 4

2 x 3

Session 2

1 x 5

3 x 4

1 x 3

Session 3

1 x 5

4 x 4

Session 4

2 x 5

3 x 4

Session 5

3 x 5

2 x 4

Session 6

4 x 5

1 x 4

Session 7

5 x 5

Session 8

Add weight and go back to 1 x 5, 2 x 4, 2 x 3

Yes, progression might seem slow compared to some methods which promise to add 50 lbs to your bench in one month. But this type of progression can be sustained for a very long time because it allows all the tissues (muscle, tendons, nervous system, etc.) to fully adapt before increasing the load. Whereas if you add weight sooner you might be lagging in one (tendons most of the time) and they will never be able to catch up, leading to stagnation and even injuries.

But even if progress seems slow and the training repetitive it should allow you to add 60-120lbs to your lifts in a year (of course, advanced lifters will not be able to sustain that progression, I will explain how to adapt the system for them in a later part of the article).

It will work every time. The only drawback is that it doesn’t fit all the neurological profiles. Someone who loves variety and needs to change things around to stay motivated will not do well on this program. Someone who loves to feel a pump will not get what they are looking for either.

LAYERS

Those who have been following my work for some time are aware of my layer approach (also see: https://thibarmy.com/boost-lift-fast-strength-layers/).

The basic layer concept is simple: you only do one main lift per workout and use 3-4 different training methods with that lift. You do all the sets for one method, then move on to the next. You start with the heaviest layer to activate the nervous system and work your way down.

For example:

Layer 1: Ramp up to you 2RM

Layer 2: Using 90% of your 2RM, do 3 sets of clusters for 5-6 reps

Layer 3: Using 75% of your 2RM do 3 sets of 5 with a 5 seconds eccentric

Layer 4: Using 65% of your 2RM do 2 sets of max reps

Myself and the people who tried it reported amazingly fast gains in strength with layers.

The problem is that it cannot be sustained for long because it is so demanding on the nervous system. Most people could do it for 3-4 weeks before hitting a wall.

We can address this by using a “Hepburn” approach to layers.

HEPBURN LAYERS

We will use four different intensity zones. 87.5%, 77.5%, 72.5% and 62.5%. Note that those percentages are just recommendations for good starting points for all the zones. Some might be able to use a bit more while others will need a bit less, but it’s better the start conservative. The Hepburn system (like 531) was designed to allow someone to progress for as long as possible.

First layer

The first layer uses around 87.5% of your maximum for sets of 2-3 reps. Just like we saw earlier, the goal will be to build up the reps so that all the sets are done with 3 reps. Do that by only adding one rep per workout even if you feel like you could do all sets of 3 right off the bat. This is very important.

We will do 5 sets.

Week 1

2 x 3

3 x 2

Week 2

3 x 3

2 x 2

Week 3

4 x 3

1 x 2

Week 4

5 x 3

Week 5

Add weight and go back to 2 x 3, 3 x 2

Second layer

Here the starting weight is around 77.5% and we will do sets of 4-5 reps. Again, adding one total rep per workout until all sets are done for 5 reps. 4 sets are done.

Week 1

1 x 5

3 x 4

Week 2

2 x 5

2 x 4

Week 3

3 x 5

1 x 4

Week 4

4 x 5

Week 5

Add weight and go back to 1 x 5, 3 x 4

Third layer

In this third layer the starting weight is around 72.5% and sets of 6-8 reps are done. You perform 3 sets.

Week 1

1 x 8

1 x 7

1 x 6

Week 2

1 x 8

2 x 7

Week 3

2 x 8

1 x 7

Week 4

3 x 8

Week 5

Add weight and go back to 1 x 8, 1 x 7, 1 x 6

Fourth layer

Here we use 62.5% and we will do reps differently: you will start by holding the mid-range position on your lift (90 degrees on squats, just below knees on deadlift, eyes level on overhead press, 90 degrees elbows in the bench) for 15 seconds then you do as many good reps as you can (stop before technique breaks down). You only perform one set and try to get one more rep than the week prior, but if you can’t, it’s not a big deal.

OVERVIEW OF THE WORKOUT

You have four main sessions per week:

Day 1 – Squat

Squat using the Hepburn layers

Barbell curl 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps

Day 2 – Overhead press

Overhead press using the Hepburn layers

Chest-supported T-bar row 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps

Day 3 – Deadlift

Deadlift using the Hepburn layers

Seated row 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps

Day 4 – Bench press

Bench press using the Hepburn layers

Seal row 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps

Note that you can replace the secondary exercises by loaded carries for 3-4 sets of 40-50m.

Very little assistance work is done because those four big lifts cover pretty much the whole body. Biceps will not get as much stimulation so I added curls and you need a strong back to be strong on those big four so it is emphasized. Note that I recommend some back exercises, but you can use any back exercise that you like. I don’t like to use the bent over row since the lower back is already taxed a lot with this program.

HOW MUCH WEIGHT TO ADD?

After 4 weeks, you will increase the weight used for the big lifts. The question I always get is “by how much?”.

The answer is: “it depends”.

You can add more weight on the bigger lifts. For example, you can more easily add weight to the deadlift and squat. It’s a bit harder on the bench and a lot harder on the overhead press.

Second, you have to factor in how close you are to your limit. While you can’t really know what your limits are; if you are squatting 700lbs you likely have a lot less room for improvement than if you can squat 400lbs.

Since strength levels also come into play (20lbs on a 200lbs squat is 10%, 20lbs on a 400lbs squat is 5%. 5% is an easier step than 10%) you must factor in both.

It looks like a bell curve. If your strength is low you cannot add a ton of weight because it represents a high percentage of your max. But if you are very strong adding 20lbs per 4 weeks is likely not going to be possible. The “sweet zone” would be when you are decently strong but not what would be considered “limit”. For example, overhead pressing 0.75x bodyweight, bench pressing 1.25x bodyweight, squatting 2x body weight and deadlifting 2.25x body weight.

In that zone you can likely add (every 4 weeks):

– 20lbs to the squat and deadlift

– 15lbs to the bench

– 10lbs to the overhead press

Out of that zone you might be more in the following progression:

– 15lbs to the squat and deadlift

– 10lbs to the bench

– 5lbs to the overhead press

So, you can use these as a starting point. I know if doesn’t seem like a lot, but this is a long-term program and its core principle is slow, gradual progress for many months. Heck, even adding 10lbs to your deadlift every 4-5 weeks would give you 100lbs on that lift in a year! Honestly, even though the program is great, at one point you cannot continue this linear progression; otherwise we could all squat 700-900lbs in 5 years! Most can progress for 5-6 months after which they should change their training or the focus exercises.

But really, you have to be smart about how much weight you add. If your sets were really hard on week 4, don’t add 20lbs the next week, your body won’t be able to keep up. Remember, the weight should feel challenging, but no set should be an all-out effort.

CONCLUSION

This program is not for everybody. It requires someone who has the discipline to stick to the plan for some time without losing motivation. But it works and it works well.

-CT

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…