We have recently had the opportunity to work with personal trainer, author and speaker (NSCA, Club Industry, REC) Bill DeSimone to create a new course titled Functional Training: A Biomechanics Approach to Integrating FT with HIT. Controversial? Some seem to think so. And I get that reaction, if you had told me I would be involved in presenting a course that includes FT ten years ago I would have likely scoffed too, I was younger then and thought I knew damn near all there was to know about exercise.
I started my career in personal training in 2000 and thankfully discovered Bill’s work back in 2003 or 2004 through his book Moment Arm Exercise. This was the first book that I am aware of that fully applied biomechanics to machine and free weight exercises and made exercise performance safer, reading it had a mental clarity effect similar to turning a light bulb from dim up to bright. Bill tells me that I was the first person to leave a positive review of his book on Fred Hahn’s old strength training forum… I was excited to help spread the message, as I am today.
I get that the term “functional” can be controversial particularly with a HIT audience. In the wider exercise field, there is much that may fall under the FT umbrella that for sure is unnecessary, even dangerous at worst. This new course by Bill however, is about sorting the wheat from the chaff, the diamonds from the rocks, and the worthwhile from the crap.
Let’s get to know Bill a little better and how he ended up writing a course on Functional Training and for that matter why HITuni is presenting it.
Bill DeSimone is renowned for his joint-friendly approach to weight training that focuses on leveraging correct biomechanics to help protect connective tissue and joints: making exercise safer. You may well already know him from his books Moment Arm Exercise and Congruent Exercise: How to Make Weight Training Easier on Your Joints. He has been a personal trainer since 1983, and currently works out of his studio, Optimal Exercise in central New Jersey, and he is ACE-certified as a Health Coach and Orthopaedic Exercise Specialist. Bill is also a blue belt in that most effective of ground-based martial arts Gracie Combatives Jiu-Jitsu.
From Wall Street to High Intensity Training
Bill got into exercise by way of prepping for high school sports during the mid 1970’s through a combination of calisthenics and the era’s great standard the Universal Gym (my own school still had one in the 1990’s!). His strength training at that time was pretty much self-directed with a little extra input from his coaches. It was the classic 3 sets of 10 reps, beyond that there were scant little resources to go to for training advice, other than the handful of muscle rags stashed away next to the adult magazines in the news stand.
Nevertheless, Bill had by his own admission started high school out of shape and it was a combination of wrestling and strength training that got him in shape. He points out that if you do something even remotely productive as a teenager it is going to work. Exercise, practice and having to be conscious of diet to make weight for wrestling competitions instilled an appreciation in Bill of the value of discipline.
When Bill started college in the mid-1970’s exercise science courses were few and far between, his interest in fitness had to remain a personal passion for a while longer. He notes there was no well-forged career path in fitness at the time, this being before the fitness boom of the 1980’s, before the plethora of TV fitness stars and long before social media influencers.
As a graduate in the early 80’s, Bill started his career working on Wall Street. It was during this time that he discovered a facility in Manhattan called the Sports Training Institute- an ex-Nautilus exercise machine showroom that had developed into a Nautilus influenced training studio. At the time it was the only location offering personal training commercially anywhere he knew of.
The Sports Training Institute presented fertile ground for Bill whose interest in the world of big business was waning. Soon he was working as a personal trainer at that facility, ultimately leveraging the skills he had picked up from his college days and Wall Street to become involved in the business side of the facility. Bill quips that he learned more from the first 4 years he worked there than he did through four years of college and almost as much as from the first four years of raising a child. He developed his understanding of HIT and exercise as a personal trainer, he learned more about the practicalities of running a fitness business and gained valuable insights into working with a wide variety of people.
Bill then took a sabbatical from the fitness industry, the next ten years saw him involved in the management of a law firm and several medical practices. Reflecting on the times that he has worked in businesses outside of fitness he realizes he was just punching a clock, he certainly didn’t spend his free time reading the business press and catching up on the latest developments in global business. On the flipside as a personal trainer, despite the danger of cutting off all other interests, with time almost exclusively spent on exercise; between training clients, yourself and family members, at least you know you are into it, that it is a passion.
In 1996, Bill returned to work at the Sports Training Institute to find a very different fitness industry from the one he had left years earlier. In 1983 you could count the number of gyms in Manhattan on a hand or two and Nautilus ruled the roost. By 1996, there were franchised gyms on every corner, little neighbourhood gyms were scattered about liberally, and apartment buildings had their own basement gyms, at the same time Nautilus-influenced trainers had all but disappeared.
By 2001, Bill had moved on from the facility in Manhattan and was working as a personal trainer out of a physical therapy clinic in Princeton, NJ. Here he had the realization that most of his clients were commuting to him, from the Cranbury area.
When it came time to move on in 2006, Bill knew he didn’t want to return to a commercial facility full of distractions and the conflicting perspectives of newly indoctrinated trainers and wannabes. Wise to the wisdom of “location, location, location” he was ready to open his own facility and chose to set up shop in Cranbury. It was more than twenty years since he started as a personal trainer that he felt ready and prepared to open his own facility- he had previously witnessed too many of his New York colleagues crash and burn, in the midst of a booming fitness industry.
The Nautilus heyday
When Bill had started working at the Sports Training Institute first time around in 1983, everyone was familiar with the Nautilus training style, even if not exclusively training that way. In Bill’s experience, the personal trainers he crossed paths with back then were better fitness professionals than most of the trainers he meets today in 2018. In the 80’s, he explains the trainers had pretty much all come through Nautilus fitness centers, they had a good appreciation of the fundamentals of the HIT approach and even if they weren’t using the principles there was a common vocabulary. Twenty years later that common language has been mostly lost, the Nautilus principles less prevalent replaced with an anything and everything goes philosophy.
When I asked why Bill believes this happened he suggests that “ultimately people did not want to have to work that hard.” Despite many clients giving lip service to appreciating the importance of working hard at the end of a set, when trainers pushed them most pulled back. Bill thinks that a good trainer will be able to compromise on effort just a little whilst not getting too far away from the basic principles, keeping clients engaged in the process and their training. Unfortunately, he notes, what has happened on the wider scale is a dilution of sound exercise principles to whatever is fashionable or grabs people’s attention. The Nautilus heyday was a phenomenon of the moment, of the Pumping Iron era, one which presented a palatable option for the public who saw the value in strength training but didn’t aspire to be the next Arnold.
Making Functional Training safe and less controversial for the HIT crowd
Soon after opening his facility, Bill notes that people would walk in off the street and say, “Do you do functional training here?” He would respond no and prepare to launch into a lecture as to why not. It didn’t take him long to pick up on the fact that lecturing people in response to an innocent inquiry was not working.
The way the fitness media works happens to mean that Functional Training is synonymous with exercise and fitness today. Often the individual asking about functional fitness doesn’t even know what they are asking about, it is more a buzz word something they assume is an important part of what fitness and being fit is.
Bill decided to keep an inflatable ball, a Bosu and a few other pieces of “functional kit” in the gym and reply “Yes I do” to the FT question. This quickly proved to be a much more successful approach: a deal maker rather than a deal breaker at client intake interviews. Bill was never going to let the client dictate the content of the workout anyway. He says, “If a client insists on a desire to throw a medicine ball or slam a weight, I clear the fact that that ain’t going to happen, right away.”
Despite today’s popular perception of “Functional Training” as swinging hammers whilst stood on unstable surfaces, deep-jumps off tall boxes and flipping tires, the origin of the term, and where Bill first became aware of it in the 1980’s, derives from physical therapy and some of the core of functional training has great value. Bill started to actively look for this value, seeking and extracting the elements that are unique, safe and constructive.
Just because you see some people doing something crazy with a tool does not invalidate the tool. Like Bill has, I too have seen plenty of people train on Nautilus machines in a way I consider unsound. The machine however was acted on by the trainee, it is after all a dumb piece of metal and is in no way responsible for how it was used. At Optimal Exercise, alongside his Nautilus machines Bill has come to include Body Blades, heavy ropes, swiss balls, and a bosu with his clients when appropriate- he is “not saying do all the stuff you see people doing with these tools, but that there may be one thing of value to do with a tool that makes its inclusion worthwhile.”
The underpinning of sound functional training: biomechanics, anatomy, prime movers versus muscles that stabilize joints and how to address each is valid. Bill sees that the common issue today is that despite this solid foundation much in popular functional training then makes a major leap in logic resulting in “exercises that put you in vulnerable positions you are looking to avoid such as loading the spine in flexion, twisting the spine, performing HIIT even though the form is terrible, wearing out the spinal erectors… just administering a beating in the name of functional training.”
In his course, Bill however has taken great care to present the information on how to do functional training right, showing the parts of FT that match well with safe joint function and muscle action, and how to incorporate that into the standard HIT protocol. He presents the information in proper context, so that you as the trainer or the trainee can evaluate whether, what, and how to insert the valuable parts of FT into a brief, efficient, and safe workout.
When is it appropriate to use Functional Training techniques, alongside your regular HIT workouts?
Bill recommends including the functional training methods he presents in the course when you notice that you or a client, who has been doing the standard HIT protocol; working up in weight and effort, is unable to appropriately control posture under load- such as a hunching forward at the end-range of a chest press or an inability to stabilize the shoulders through the eccentric.
At this point, he states, it is time to reduce the load a little and use the posture and stabilization techniques shown in the course. If an individual still exhibits an inability to appropriately stabilize the joints and maintain posture then it may be necessary to add in some of the corrective exercises too, enabling the individual to develop muscular control. Skipping these details and techniques and just hammering away with the intensity will lead to short or long-term issues, bad for client, bad for trainer. It is the same for those who may experience a general achy feeling in their joints- it is time to work on joint stabilization.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are clients who through your assistance have become strong, capable and able to perform all the standard HIT exercises with great posture, stability and effort. After a while these clients may crave new physical challenges, partly because they are now “functionally fit”. Bill paraphrases the perspective of another HIT authority figure: “We make the workout efficient, we free up people’s time, we give them a capable body…and then we think they’re going to sit on a couch, and not use the time and body?!” And adds: “So, we can either watch as the client leaves and trashes themselves elsewhere, or we can rail about how stupid the industry is, or we can be proactive.” The Integrated Movements and appropriate power/plyometrics presented in the course facilitate a trainer ready to take a proactive approach.
How an injury led to Bill developing his expertise in biomechanics
I wanted to know what drives Bill in his focus on making exercise safer for his clients and those receptive to his work, he explains that it all originated with an injury: a ruptured biceps.
I wince as Bill details how during the performance of a slow curl his biceps “popped off the scapula- it didn’t hurt” he reassures me, perhaps perceiving my wince. He goes on to explain how he didn’t have surgery as the part that snaps off the scapula contracts toward the intact portion and then randomly reattaches itself, I’m pretty sure I still had a concerned expression during that description too! He goes on to explain that “the biceps functionally isn’t that important because other things bend the elbow and other things help raise the arm”. He only finds a screwdriver supination type movement somewhat challenging to do to this day, as that does require a fully intact biceps muscle.
A biceps rupture is fairly common in 50 to 60 year-old men but alarm bells rang for Bill as he was only 40 at the time of the injury. What had he done to wear out his shoulder prematurely? He surmises it was the enthusiastic stuff done in the weight room, full-range of motion exercises commonly espoused at the time: full-range pullovers, full-range flyes, dips and chins as deep as possible and biomechanically inappropriate exercises: presses behind the neck and upright rows that had year after year subjected his shoulder joint to excessive wear and tear. Ironically weight training had caused the dysfunction.
After the injury Bill found there were some exercises he couldn’t even get into position for, let alone lift any significant weight. He was inspired to delve into his physical therapist friends’ bookshelves and grabbed hold of their anatomy and biomechanics textbooks re-educating himself and his approach to applying exercise right from the ground on up. His research led to the writing of his first book, the one that had made such an impression on this young personal trainer, Moment Arm Exercise. Bill’s work since then has developed and grown and he continues to educate and inspire me to this very day and he will you too in his online course Functional Training: A Biomechanics Approach to Integrating FT with HIT.