I’ve got a question for you.
Without giving it too much thought, what do you think is the most popular exercise in gyms around the world today?
The one exercise that EVERY guy has likely heard of and knows how to perform, regardless if he is a gym rat or a weekend warrior?
Did you think of the bench press?
I believe the bench press has got to be one of the most popular exercises in gyms around the world today. I mean, how often have you been asked, “Hey man, so watcha ya bench?”
I hear it all the time.
In fact, it’s no secret that Monday has been coined as “National Chest Training Day”. Everyone and their grandma is in the gym on a Monday training chest, and they are likely doing some bench pressing!
All kidding aside, in this article I want to focus on the bench press, specifically an old school routine that can help some of you advance lifters blast through a plateau. It’s an old school routine because it was developed by the late and great Doug Hepburn (no relation to Katherine Hepburn) back in the 1950’s.
For those of you who don’t know, Doug Hepburn was a famous Canadian strongman and weightlifter who won weightlifting gold medals at the 1953 World Weightlifting Championships and the 1954 British Empire Games. He is also credited as the first person to bench press 400lbs raw. In other words, he knew a thing or two about strength training and how to develop a big bench press.
The following bench press routine has been credited as belonging to Hepburn. Apparently he was known to experiment with a lot of different methods and routines in order to find out what worked the best for him. He then passed a lot of this great information along to other strength athletes around the world. I first came across his routine while reading The Strongest Shall Survive by Bill Starr. For those of you who love Mark Rippetoe, 5×5, and Starting Strength, Bill Starr was one of the originators of the 5×5 method and he wrote about it extensively in his book. It’s definitely a classic and worth a read.
Anyways, here is what the routine calls for:
- Begin with 3-5 warm up sets
- Select a poundage you can comfortably do 5 singles with (roughly 90% of your 1RM)
- Drop back down to a weight where you can perform 5 sets of 5 repetitions comfortably (usually this will be roughly 50lbs off your top single that you worked across).
- When you can handle the 5 singles and 5 sets of 5 comfortably, add 5lbs to both
The routine seems quite basic and easy on paper, but much like the Russian Squat Assault program, its ease is just an illusion. The tonnage for this program can add up really quickly, especially when you factor in the warm up sets. Furthermore, with adequate rest periods between sets you’ll find yourself working on the bench press for upwards of 40 minutes or more. You’re definitely going to have to be motivated and ready to work hard in order to benefit from this routine. There is no set guideline for how long you are supposed to run this program, but if you start light enough I can see someone cycling it for as many as 6 weeks or more. Of course, this will depend largely on individual factors (i.e. diet, sleep, rest etc.).
Now that I have laid out the routine, I want to discuss a few caveats before you dive into this program:
- I would most likely try for 2.5lbs jumps instead of 5lbs. Smaller jumps mean you can “milk” more progress from the program and you are less likely to hit a wall or plateau too soon
- Limit the amount of additional pressing you do during the week. You might be able to get away with some light overhead work, but I would advise against doing heavy dumbbell presses or dips. Your shoulder girdle will be getting hit plenty hard on this program.
- Start the program off LIGHT. Give yourself a chance to build up a decent run up before you start smashing PRs. Even starting with 80%-85% of your 1RM is totally fine.
What makes this routine so effective is that it combines heavy “power” work (in the form of singles) with added volume training or “back off” sets (5×5) all in one shot. It’s common to hear people talk today about hybrid style “powerbuilding” like it’s the latest and greatest concept. Too bad they are over 50 years behind! Hepburn was definitely a pioneer.
So for those of you who are looking to increase your bench press and are willing to bust your ass and spend some extra time in the gym, I highly recommend you give this program a shot. You can’t go wrong taking advice from one of the greatest strongmen of all time.