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In Conversation with Bill DeSimone: Joint-Friendly Fitness

A discussion with Bill De Simone, biomechanics expert, author and instructor of our 'Functional Training and HIT' course, about his latest book, 'the Joint-Friendly Fitness' and his most recent thoughts on exercise.

Fairly recently I Zoomed with long-time friend of HITuni and all-round great guy Bill DeSimone, to discuss his latest book Joint Friendly Fitness and his current thoughts on strength training, HIT and the wider world of exercise. For those not yet familiar with Bill and his work: he has been an avid exerciser for well over 40 years and a personal trainer since 1983. During that time, he has also participated in sports such as bodybuilding, triathlon, inline skating, martial arts, and softball.

As those years passed Bill accumulated some physical damage, chronic shoulder soreness, and a ruptured biceps and a ruptured triceps. These experiences inspired him to take a deep dive into academic texts on biomechanics and anatomy and kinesiology and simple machines. Realizing that no-one had translated these reference works into a truly practical how-to workout manual Bill’s journey as an author began.

Carrying the key influences of the work of HIT heavyweights Mike Mentzer and Ellington Darden from his formative years as a strength training enthusiast, Bill added his interpretation of biomechanics and rehabilitation material to forge his perspective on strength training. His goal: to provide clear and accurate exercise information that can be used in the gym to build strength and muscle while protecting the joints and soft tissues and preventing injury.

I first became aware of Bill’s work sometime back in the early 2000’s when he had just released Moment Arm Exercise. That book, Bill’s first, came out just three or four years after I had started my career as a personal trainer. It was ground-breaking in terms of explaining how to provide safe exercise with any standard exercise tools, such as dumbbells, barbells and commonly found gym machines. There are very few if any in the HIT niche who have not been directly or indirectly influenced by Bill’s work over the years since then, as he has bought a truly innovative and practical perspective to working out with weights.

In Joint Friendly Fitness Bill has written his magnum opus, a true Encyclopaedia of Exercise that pairs perfectly with his HITuni course, Functional Training: A Biomechanics Approach to Integrating FT with HIT.


Joint Friendly Fitness an Encylopedia of Exercise


Can you tell us about Joint Friendly Fitness, who it’s for, and how it fits in with your other books?

I had to do Moment Arm Exercise (Bill’s first book) to get it out of my system first. And then Congruent Exercise (his second) was a little broader, I tried to make that book a little more topical. And this latest one, Joint Friendly Fitness, I tried to make evergreen. In other words, in Congruent Exercise, I opened it with chapters that were specific to what was happening in exercise at the time, not just HIT but exercise in general.

In Joint Friendly Fitness, I wasn’t worried about being topical, in my head I was aiming for the person who joins a health club and never goes because they’re intimidated. That’s why it’s presented the way it is, first there are accurate exercise technique photos, then if you need more information simple bullet points. Then if you need more there is a detailed paragraph, and then if you still need more there is the biomechanics chapter. I’m kind of surprised someone didn’t do this before me, I dreaded going to the bookstore, and running to the exercise section for seven years in case I found somebody with a name, had something like this on the shelves and beat me to it.


Some elements of the recommendations in the book have a very “classic HIT” influence where did that come from?

Credit where it’s due, that’s 100% Ellington Darden’s influence, which is why I acknowledge him in the book. He may have been re-wording Jones’ material early on, in the late 70s, but Ellington’s writing is what I saw, and it was his material that locked in for me. Workout elements such as in and out in a half hour, come directly from Darden. Even the performing 10 reps in a minute that I recommend in Joint Friendly Fitness connect with his work. Darden originally wrote about performing reps at a two seconds up four seconds down tempo, for a total of eight to 12 reps in a set. That averages out at six seconds a rep x 10 reps: essentially the same as my recommendation of 10 reps in a minute. Even the font used, and the layout of the book are heavily influenced by Darden’s stuff. To summarize Joint Friendly Fitness in a sentence though, I like to think of this is this is an adult’s look at strength training, not that of an overgrown 16 year old trying to pump up their arms.


Explaining the star rating system for exercises in Joint Friendly Fitness


In Joint Friendly Fitness you breakdown sixty-nine strength training exercises in great detail and you give each of the exercises a star rating from one to five stars. How many of those exercises that only get one or two stars do you regularly use in your facility?

One or two stars? Virtually none. The idea behind the star rating system is that I am giving the reader credit for making up their own mind about which exercises to do. Yes, one star is a bad idea: you’re probably going to get hurt. For example, I can’t discourage barbell step ups, or heavy bent arm barbell pullovers, or the decline barbell press enough. With a one-star exercise, if it goes wrong, it goes badly wrong. The reason I didn’t just say don’t do it is, if for whatever reason you’re obsessed with doing one of the one star exercises I’m probably not going to be able to stop you. Instead, I’m drawing your attention to the fact that you’ve got to really pay attention and here’s exactly where this exercise can go wrong.

At least people who have read Joint Friendly Fitness can go into it with their eyes open, as opposed to me just saying don’t do it, because then I become the exercise police. However, the things I put one star on, they cause some really crippling injuries, not just a minor elbow injury but serious spine injuries or shoulder separations, or flat-out busted faces. With the two star exercises you’ve still got to pay attention, the injury just isn’t likely to be as severe as a one-star exercise gone wrong, instead you might damage an elbow, or a shoulder and it’ll hurt, but you will live. A two-star rating means you’ve still got to pay close attention, but any damage caused will probably not be as devastating.

With the three star exercises you’re starting to get into reasonable conventional exercises, there might be some risk, but if you pay attention and if you set it up correctly, you could probably do them forever without a problem. Consider though with a three-star exercise I’m only going by how easy it is to do it safely, not by how effective it is in terms of its congruence. For example, the triceps kickback is a mismatch: it’s mechanically hardest where your triceps are weakest. However, if you have some elbow soreness, you can pretty much do the triceps kickback and not aggravate that elbow soreness. A three-star exercise is either easy to manage and not congruent, or it’s close to congruent, but a little harder to manage.

You will also notice in Joint Friendly Fitness that some exercises like the bench press and the barbell squat, are three star/ one star, because if you don’t do them carefully, you’ve got a real problem. Some are five star/ two star like the machine pullover. The freehand squat which gets its own separate entry is a five-star exercise, a much higher rating than the entry for the barbell squat because putting the bar on the spine adds axial compression, extra axial compression to the disks and you’re going to be bending over with it, which adds stabilizing the spine to the mix. You would be better off figuring out ways of making the freehand squat harder over adding the barbell, whether it’s slowing down the reps, doing an additional set, or adding isometric holds.

With the five star exercises you would almost have to try to get hurt, five star means it’s both congruent and easy to manage. In my own training I stick to five- and four-star exercises 90% of the time and based on preference perhaps occasionally select some of the three-star ones. Personally, that’s what I do.

My key perspective is don’t pretend there’s no risk, that’s willful ignorance. Don’t pretend there is no risk when clearly using anatomy, biomechanics and mechanics, you can see where the risks are. I’m saying if you want to do it, do it but just know what you’re doing. As a trainer don’t have someone do an upright row exercise and when their shoulder flares up, say, well, there’s something wrong with your shoulder because I’ve done this exercise for years. There’s something predictably wrong with that exercise.


Keys to strength training: frequency, failure, eccentric overload and advanced techniques


Why do you recommend “advanced” set-finishing techniques in Joint Friendly Fitness, are they useful for everyone?

I recommend them for those so motivated and because some people just want to feel like they worked out harder. Also, if you’re interested in raising the weight, you can end up pushing the set to where your form breaks just for the sake of getting that extra rep. When the form breaks that’s when you strain the joints, or the surrounding muscles. If you’re doing 10 reps in a minute as I suggest in Joint Friendly Fitness, then at the end of the set if you can hold the weight halfway through the range of motion for a further 30 seconds, you can probably increase the weight for that exercise next workout and not blow your form.

Everybody who tried to do the traditional 12 reps and then add 5% (load increase at the next workout), at some point ends up contorting out the 12th repetition, adding the 5% and now, within a rep or two, their form has turned to crap on the higher weight. Or if you’re really aggressive in that progression at some point… the next thing you know you have a whole set of poorly performed reps.


What are your thoughts on deep inroading muscular failure?

If I hold back from vein bulging failure, are the muscles going to disappear? No. In addition to rupturing my own biceps and triceps, and by virtue of training so many people over the years, I realized that perpetual progression doesn’t always happen. Do 12 reps, add 5% load that’s year one stuff. It doesn’t take too long before that additional increment throws the form off, and you’ve got to back up again.

That’s why I went more in this direction, because trying to belabor that year one stuff for 50 years of working out just doesn’t work. When Darden and Jones were writing this stuff in the late 70s, I don’t think they thought the same individuals were still going to be doing it 50 years later.


In your mind what is the value of the eccentric, and what do you think when you see people attempting to overload the eccentric with free weights?

The point of the eccentric is defense, in other words if you can’t hold the joint in place under a load you can still lower it under control, you can still let the muscle out under control. It takes less energy to release a crossbridge than it takes to create one, so you appear stronger. I like what Darden’s doing with playing with the times, doing an extra-long hold. I’ll use a hold technique at the end of a set to make the muscle work yet harder. But to really overpower the muscle with heavy eccentrics, to do chin ups with 100 pounds on your waist and just do the negative you don’t have a lot of margin of error, if you can’t slow it down, you can’t slow it down.


A classic quickfire question: one set versus multiple sets (of the same exercise)?

If you have the right genetics, that one set is going to give you most of what you’re going to get. You can always find out by doing multiple and seeing what happens. And I also understand if people feel they must warm up for that one set, especially if their joints a little iffy.


Can you give us a snapshot on what you consider optimal strength training frequency?

If somebody is physically active elsewhere, once a week of formal weight training is fine. By the same token, so is taking that whole body workout and splitting it up over three workouts a week, if that fits your schedule. If you do four exercises Monday, four on Wednesday, four on Friday, instead of 12 on Monday, I really don’t think it makes that much of a difference, except in an argument. But in practical terms, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference.


Why “muscle isolation” is truly muscle emphasis


Can you give us your perspective on whether it is possible to “isolate” a muscle during strength training exercise?

Emphasis is a better word than isolation: you can position your body so that a certain prime mover will take the brunt of the effort, but smaller, deeper muscles are still in play to stabilize the joint. For instance, the old reasoning for pre-exhaustion that your biceps are going to fail on a pulldown before your lats because they’re the smallest muscle so therefore you have to pre-exhaust (the lats). No, they’re not the smallest muscle, the rear delts are involved, the teres major and minor are involved, muscles in the forearm are involved. There are other elbow flexors smaller than the biceps, so the biceps are not really the smallest muscles involved.

The lumbar extension is not really an isolation exercise either because connecting each vertebra are dozens of muscles. There are layers of muscles moving, affecting the spine, from the multifidus to the rotators, to the erector spinae. And you’re not isolating one vertebra against another, all the vertebrae aren’t staying in place and one vertebra moving, multiple vertebrae have to move, so you’re not even isolating in the spine. Emphasis is more the word. Leg extension you’re not really isolating the quads, depending on your torso (position) rectus femoris is or isn’t involved, but you are emphasizing the quadriceps. “Isolating” is very tough, it’s really emphasis and that might be enough.


Bill’s thoughts on stretching and flexibility in relation to strength training


You dedicate five or so pages in the book to the topic of stretching. Briefly what are your thoughts on stretching and flexibility as it relates to strength training?

The advice I give in the book to ensure that you are stretching properly and safely is, simply to feel it in the belly of the muscle and make sure you don’t feel it in the ends at the joint and around the joint itself. There was an author some years ago who wrote a New York Times bestselling book on yoga, what got all the publicity for the book was all the injuries he catalogued that were coming out of yoga. That wasn’t actually the point of the book, it was the sensationalistic point the press picked up on, it was actually a very pro yoga book. However, in that book, the author points out, for instance, if you’re trying to do a toe touch, and you’re slumping over and really straining, you’re defeating the purpose of the posture and you’re setting yourself up for an injury. Take the cat-cow exercise that is used for spine mobility: in yoga, they tend to emphasize the endpoints, where you’re really hunching over and really arching. Spine health professionals on the other hand emphasize the mid-range of that exercise: avoid the endpoints and move up and down in the mid-range for the purpose of lubricating the disks.

People have already looked at yoga the same way I have looked at strength training. I noticed in my own practice of yoga that I was doing that thing where I was like straining to reach. I noticed on a blog by one of the yoga teachers I like, Rodney Yee, he said he couldn’t do the same poses as he used to as he got older and it made me think: “Dude, the whole reason I’m doing yoga is to be able to move. What do you mean, you can’t do the same poses that you used to?” It slapped me in the face like, “Okay, stop. Stop straining.”

Now when I do yoga, I do it knowing what I know: feel it in the belly of the muscle not the joint. It is important to remember that any practice you have to cut back or eliminate as you get older, there is something not right about it. Extremes of the joint range of motion are where you’re either impinging something or overstretching something, or the other end of the joint shifts to accommodate the overstretch. This applies whether you are doing the stretches illustrated in Joint Friendly Fitness, from another book, or from yoga.

It applies in strength training too, take an exercise like the dumbbell triceps extension. In the elbow extended position the triceps are short at the elbow and stretched at the shoulder, but when you go into the stretched position it is still stretched at the shoulder but now it’s stretched over the elbow as well. When the triceps go taut, if you insist on getting that deep stretch, your shoulder blade tries to move to accommodate the overstretched triceps. And once the shoulder blade moves, then all those muscles connecting your neck and spine to the shoulder blade no longer stabilize as they were and that’s when something can go into spasm. It might not, but if it does there is a clear reason why. If you’re going to do that exercise, don’t load the extreme because the shoulder blade is going to shift which is going to throw off the stabilization. We cover stabilization in the HITuni.com Functional Training course.


The times when brief warm-up and cool-down protocols have a value


What is your reasoning behind including recommendations for “warming up” and “cooling down” in Joint Friendly Fitness?

Many of us start working out in our teenage years, maybe our 20s. Things you got away with in your teens and in your 20s, when you hit your 50s and 60s you no longer get away with because there are age related changes. Take the old-school HIT goal of training so that you end up on the floor in “carpet time” mode as if to prove look how hard I worked out. My interns pointed out to me that every phys. ed. student knows why that happens and how to avoid it. The blood has to shunt from your internal organs to the working muscles, if you don’t warm-up, your body is trying to do the muscular work and shunt the blood (at the same time). So, the first exercise is going to be very hard, you’re going to get anaerobic prematurely. And if you don’t do a cooldown, the blood is going to pool in that muscle: your heart rate is going to raise to try to pull the blood back up. And when it can’t, your body is going to make you go horizontal so the blood can flow. All of which can be avoided if you do a five- or 10-minute low effort cardio warm-up and a similar cooldown.
I only noticed that in my 50s because prior to that I’d start working out right away, one set to failure and just end the workout and leave. And then when I got a little bit older, I realize well I’m feeling a little woozy, geez, that was much harder than I thought it was going to be. The consequences aren’t as obvious to you as a teenager and a 20-year-old compared to later in life.
If you regularly do cardio, a five minute or so warm up and cooldown at maybe half of your working pace is good enough. If you regularly do 70 RPMs on a bike at a certain level, use the same level and half the RPMs, just something to literally warm up. And then you find like the same numbers on the weights you do aren’t as agonizing with the warm up as they were prior.


Interval training versus aerobic base training


While over 90 percent of Joint Friendly Fitness focuses on strength training exercise and application you do dedicate a handful of pages to cardio. Specifically you refer to aerobic base training in the book, what is that?

This is a very conventional approach used by track coaches, Arthur Lydiard being one of them. For most of the year, you work at the lower-mid to lower ends of the heart rate range. You’re not gassed, you’re not burning you’re building an aerobic base, you’re building the foundation, you’re building the capitalization in the muscles, the heart. The thinking behind this is you are going to increase the amount of work your aerobic system can do without generating as much waste product to recover from. Then for short stretches, prior to the competitive season, you add performance intervals. By this point you’ve already gotten so much more work capacity from your aerobic system, now you can train your anaerobic system to ultimately perform better, run faster, swim faster, whatever.

It’s only for commercial purposes that people try to push cardiovascular interval training year-round, and by that I mean high intensity interval training multiple times a week, 12 months a year. You certainly can try to do that, but you don’t have to do that. It is like people who go to boot camps to get in shape, and for about six weeks, they do get in shape. And then everything hurts, and they stop for six weeks or two months. Then they regress because they do nothing, because they’re either hurt or they’re exhausted, they can’t keep up the intensity for prolonged periods. Even cardio ergometers have maybe just one manual program or one Quickstart program, then you have multiple interval programs with no context given for how to use them.


Is there any need in your mind to do any form of high effort interval training from a health perspective?

Is there a need, I don’t think there’s a need, especially if you’re not looking for specific performance enhancement. Maybe you want to do it out of boredom or just to keep things fresh or for novelty, but I don’t think there’s a need. The context of interval training working so well over the short term for performance athletes is having a solid aerobic base in the first place. If you do have an aerobic base and then you do the intervals, they will be productive. If you just try to do it all with intervals it takes a toll, you will run out of gas and motivation. If somebody doesn’t, then more power to them, great, but you don’t have to do it that way.


When a client comes to work out with you at Optimal Exercise do they come in purely for strength training or do you do add a specific cardio component to their workout?

Prior to COVID I would let them come in early or stay late if they wanted to do some extra time on the cardio devices. With COVID now, you come in, you warm up if you haven’t already outside or at home and then strength training, a couple of stretches and then you can cool down for a few minutes, but they can do any additional cardio on their own.


Your top cardio choices in terms of in terms of gym-based equipment in Joint Friendly Fitness, are recumbent bike and walking on the treadmill, why is that?

Those are the things that are easiest to manage. Once you get into, for instance, the conventional bike you’re hunched over which is potentially a problem. Now, it might just be adding to normal wear and tear but that hunched over posture in any other discipline is just bad posture. With the treadmill, once the speed gets to a certain point and you have to run, you start to hear the treadmill pounding. And the whole point of treadmills to avoid impact, but if you’re going to be on a treadmill and pound on it, then it defeats the purpose of the equipment.


Funding Joint Friendly Fitness through Kickstarter


You funded the Joint Friendly Fitness project through Kickstarter, what was that experience like?

Ultimately using Kickstarter to fund the Joint Friendly Fitness project was a good experience. However, the idea of going viral that’s the stuff that gets all the publicity, all the attention, all the podcasts are based on that, but when you pick it apart, if you can pull $10,000 to $20,000 out of a Kickstarter, for a project you really want to do, you’ve done well.

Some people approach Kickstarter as spend a fortune to raise a fortune, and whether the product eventually comes to market or not, doesn’t matter to them. They will hire marketing people to draw eyes to the Kickstarter and hire fulfilment people to mail out the rewards. And if at the end of the day, they raise more money than it cost them to raise it, whether the ultimate project takes fruition or not, doesn’t matter to them. On the other hand, among people who want to raise the money to see if there is a market to put something of value out, it seems to me that raising $10,000 to $20,000 is about what you can expect to do.

What I wanted from Kickstarter was the funds to be able to pay a professional photographer, to pay someone to format the book, and I also wanted to pay for Amazon marketing. All that upfront cost is a little easier to swallow when you have raised funds that you’re going to spend, as opposed to digging into savings, or getting a credit loan.

4 responses on "In Conversation with Bill DeSimone: Joint-Friendly Fitness"

  1. Hi Simon
    With reference to Bills comment about warm ups. I’m interested to know what your current stance is on warm ups when performing a Superslow workout. The warm up traditionally being incorporated within the first 1 or 2 Superslow reps. Therefore no traditional warm up required. Do you still hold with this idea? Putting aside of course if the client presents with an injury, ailment etc that may require a specialised wam up.

    Maybe you have Bills thoughts on this too?

  2. Hello Jon,

    Based on a healthy client with no pre-existing conditions, using a 4/4 tempo or slower and a load which is going to allow for 50 seconds or more continuous time under tension, a separate warm up is usually not required.

    As for Bill’s thoughts, based on conversations with him, I think it is likely that he would recommend a brief warm up in general.

  3. Thanks for the update.

  4. It’s nice to see an interview with a guy that has been around awhile and also addresses the needs of an older person looking to stay in shape (in my case to play other sports). It seems most “workout plans” are geared toward the young and I supppose that makes sense from a marketing approach. I appreciate Bill’s approach, and as for myself, I am using a Nautilus style workout (only using time under tension vrs reps) as a basis for my workout. If some exercise hurts, I look for an alternative. Good one on not keeping up the progression forever. I am going to try adding on an extender to the exercises (rest pause, holds, etc.) on the exercises where I feel I have maxed out on. Thanks again.

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