Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Congruent Exercise: An Interview with Bill DeSimone

A couple of times on this blog I have featured Bill DeSimone and his Moment Arm Exercise approach to training. Over the last few days I’ve been reading the book and it is fascinating – the product of incisive research and analysis from someone who thinks deeply about exercise, movement, anatomy and mechanics. This is not a review but I would seriously recommend the book to you if you are a bit of an exercise geek. It is not the easiest read – and Bill admits this – but it will repay some serious study and I understand that Bill is drafting a new more accessible text.

If you are new to the ideas I would recommend that you first of all watch the video I posted here.

There are already a couple of good interviews with Bill on the internet – from Doug and Anthony – but as I was reading the manual I kept on coming up with other questions and Bill has agreed to answer them… here we go:

[UPDATE-check out the video of Bill here and his DVD available here]

Posture and deep muscles

The book looks at ideal (congruent) exercises for the superficial muscles. Indeed, you make the point that you should avoid loading the "deep" muscles in your exercises - once that happens you are no longer focussing on the target muscles.

What I wrote exactly was “Resistance that is challenging for the superficial muscles with their greater muscle torque is probably excessive for the deep muscles to try to move”.

Key word being “move”. You are loading the deep muscles [simply] by holding them steady while the superficial muscles move the load

An example of the point I was trying to make is, if you are doing a squat, hold your spine steady while the glutes and quads lift, compared to flexing and extending the spine under a squat weight. The primary concern is not straining the deep muscles,
secondary is to keep the superficial muscles loaded.

Do you think there is any need for exercise for the deep muscles, e.g. the postural muscles? I’d be thinking of something like the plank for example?

Interesting that you should pick up on that. I let that thread dangle, and you’re the first person in the five years to ask.

As I get older, and experience a much smaller margin of error when it comes to overuse injury, I’m tempted to unequivocally say “Yes”. But other guys my age seem to be able to continue to handle heavy weights in big movements at high intensities, so it may be an individual thing.

What about “posture”? Could we analyse healthy posture in terms of maintaining appropriate levers. I was thinking about someone who is hunched over – the spine is concave and there will be a whole series of additional axes through the vertebrae that could not be there with a more upright posture. Does that make sense?

Sure, but bad posture becomes problematic with the maintaining activities of daily living, much less weight training and sports.

Body By Science

I may be being unfair, but there seems to be an axiom in what you are proposing that we are focussing on muscles rather than movements? For example Doug McGuff’s "Big 5" seems to focus on moves – horizontal pull, horizontal push, vertical pull, vertical push and leg push. Your routines go through exercises for chest, shoulders, triceps, lats, traps, biceps, quads, hamstrings etc. individual muscles....Why the difference? Are all those moves necessary or could we consolidate?

John Little and Dr. McGuff have been extraordinarily gracious in allowing discussion of the Moment Arm Exercise material on their Body By Science board. Dr. McGuff was an early supporter of the manual back in 2004, and his referral gave me instant credibility with HIT guys at the time. John Little and I spent an hour on the phone this summer, and for someone with as many accomplishments in print as him, he also was very receptive and constructive.

Again, you have an interesting take here. Compared to the “functional” school of thought, neither Dr. McGuff’s nor my exercises would be characterized as movements.My take on a consolidated routine (e.g. leg press, chest press, pull down, press, row) is that if the trainee is satisfied with what they get from it, fine. If most non-trainees stayed with leg press-chest press-pulldown, they would probably get most of what they will [ever] get from weight training.

But my read of the biomechanics suggests that if you are trying to develop a particular muscle, you have to do at least one exercise for which that muscle is the prime mover. The body will select the largest muscle in a chain to bear the brunt of the work as an energy saving tactic; so if you are only doing chest presses and would like to try to develop more triceps, you have to do an elbow extension.

“Necessary” for what purpose is the key.

Relating to HIT

One of the moves that you recommend is the wall sit - a static squat. This got me thinking. That move is basically an isometric contraction of the thighs - in the position of maximum resistance movement arm and maximum muscle torque – but it is an isometric contraction. Could that principle be extended? How about a routine consisting of isomeric contractions – incidentally with no momentum - but ensuring that in each one the muscle is placed in the most appropriate position – i.e. maximum moment arm and maximum muscle torque?

A related idea - one thing that isn’t that clear from your book is the idea of the appropriate range of motion. Does it matter? Would it be appropriate to exercise with a very limited ROM as long as the move is around the point of maximum torque and maximum moment arm? Not isometrics....but very small movements around the ideal point? your videos seem to show quite a big range of motion.

Very perceptive questions. Theoretically, isometric or very limited range motions around the joint angle for peak muscle torque should be the most efficient way to load a muscle.

Practically, I do think there is a value to some range of motion, although not “full”.

Weight training, at its best, is hard on the joints. Due to the lever system, the internal forces are always dramatically higher than the weight in the hand, as I explain in the manual. My speculation is that by using as much range as is effective (i.e. no zero moment arm, not loading the joint at full stretch), you disperse that internal force over more of the joint articulation rather than at the same point all the time.

What is your view of negatives? As long as the move is a congruent exercise is negative accented or negative only exercise appropriate? For example if someone is not strong enough to do a chin up in the style that you recommend could they do it as a negative only move?

That would be an appropriate use of them. I’d be more inclined to do pulldowns or weight assisted chins, just to avoid undue soreness.

There is no magic to negatives; it [just] takes less energy to release cross-bridges than to create them, so your reps can last longer and you’ll have more by-products of fatigue to process. But you’ll always be “stronger” negatively than positively, whether you specifically do negatives or not.

What is your view as regards the appropriate cadence for exercises? Judging by your videos you move slowly – to eliminate momentum - but not “Superslowly”. TM?

Correct; the speed that minimizes momentum is the right speed. Specifying a specific number of seconds to perform the positive or negative is an interesting tool, but not definitive.

Would a long range movement like a squat be done for the same time as a short range one like a shrug?

Regardless of timing, it’s clear in biomechanics texts that slower speeds allow for greater force generation; if you’re using conventional weights, of course, the load has to be there.

The concept of failure for you seems a little different from that normally proposed by the HIT school. Could you explain more how you understand failure?

Failure apparently is more complex than we assumed, judging from the different interpretations by different HITters.

To one, the slightest form discrepancy terminates the set.

To the other, form discrepancy is something you work through to get to failure.

Where you fit in that continuum really depends on your motivation and preference.

Wherever you are in that, the trick is to balance effort with fatigue. Stopping the set because your muscles burn too much is not the same as a one-rep max; ideally your set is somewhere in between, maybe slightly more towards effort.

Personally, I prefer to start sets in strict form, and allow some extra effort towards the end of the set, depending on the motivation for that day, without letting it deteriorate into something dangerous. I don’t want to interfere too much with the trainee’s enthusiasm.

Moment Arm Exercise and the real world

Thinking about your principles – of trying to adopt movements which go through the most biomechanically correct joint motions – how do these ideas apply to everyday movements?

Do you see any daily movements – squats, bending, twisting etc as inherently risky due to their biomechanics?

One motion that interests me with respect to sports is “twisting”: rotation around the hips. It comes up in martial arts – punching – but also in things like the tennis serve, the golf swing etc. If I am to strengthen the muscles that are responsible for this motion, what do I do? Nautilus and others have rotational torso machines. What would you recommend as a congruent exercise?

I suppose the questions could be extended to sports – are some sports especially dangerous because of the biomechanics that they require?

Physical workers have two clichés: “Lift with your legs, not your back”, and “Turn, don’t twist”, both grounded in solid biomechanics. Sports coaches say “Get your hips into it”.

All three encourage keeping the hips and back in the same plane, and using the glutes and quads for power. The biomechanics are clear: the spine allows bending and twisting, for mobility, but flexing/extending/twisting the spine against load are steps in a risky direction.

A more congruent exercise than "twisting" would be a turn against resistance: standing, knees bent, pelvis and lower back kept in the same plane. Resistance (cable, tubing, medicine ball) held by the upper body, then pivot on your feet, maintaining the same pelvis/back position.

Quality sports technique actually utilizes proper biomechanics. Aside from the collision/contact/submission sports, the issue is that, with fatigue and competitive urges, technique gets sloppy and you end up using poor biomechanics.

Do you think you could have avoided your injuries if you had been aware of these principles earlier?

Absolutely yes, although it would have had to be 25 years earlier.

I’m absolutely convinced that if I had only done congruent exercises from the start I would have saved myself much time, effort, and later aches and pains. Rather than using every exercise and technique in the books and magazines, only to have to cut them back over time, I would have been better off doing what I do now all along.

What about the general population? Yours is quite a "geeky" text with some quite deep ideas.

Guilty about the geeky text! I’m not a writer, so this wasn’t an assignment. This was me, figuring out how to work around my injuries, writing for myself. Others like me picked up on it. The videos are an attempt at making the material more accessible, and hopefully that process will lead to a more mainstream presentation.

For the average Joe who is not interested in exercise but would benefit from doing something, what does your approach have to offer? How would you apply your stuff to the 99% who don’t train?

I apply it by separating the manual from the approach.

With clients, friends, relatives, my wife, my son, I simply instruct the exercises without explaining what they don’t need to know to do them. Take away the explanation of the science, and you have a sustainable routine that is perceived by the client as meaningful without being exhausting.

A related question – could a hypothetical guy (me for example!) – get a decent, effective workout at home with just a set of dumbbells?

An unintended benefit of the approach is that since your muscles and joints go with you, you can pretty much apply the principles to any equipment you have access to, including dumbbells.

Using the ranges shown in the manual, your routine would be:
  • chest press,
  • one arm row,
  • side raise,
  • split squat,
  • heel raise,
  • curl,
  • triceps,
  • deadlift,
  • hammer curl;
  • plus whatever posture/stabilization work you may need.

Bill, thanks so much for answering those questions.

There are other interviews with Bill here and here and if you are interested in his book you can order from his ebay store.

Here are two new videos he has just posted on applying his principles to Chest Training:


Al said...


Great Interview. You asked some excellent and not commonly addressed questions.



Anonymous said...

Bill is an interesting and affable chap, and I think his ideas, for the most part, are spot-on. As with all methods and theories, though, I don't think it's a ultimately a question of which method/theory is superior to the other, but rather, what is the proper mix vis-a-vis the trainee's goal.

Thanks for putting this information out there, Chris. Fantastic work as always.

Chris said...

Thanks Keith - Bill is a really nice guy. Very open and helpful


SportsGuy said...

Like the last question says, I'm a regular guy just looking for "a decent, effective workout at home with just a set of dumbbells?"

And I'm working on putting together a BBS workout for my wife, who didn't like the db deadlift I had her do - said it hurt the knees too much.

Does Bill suggest working those exercises in that particular order?

I got the MAE manual last night, and boy its not an easy read.

Bill DeSimone said...

Hello Sports Guy,
Chris directed me to your comment.
Sorry about the "not an easy read".
Comments like that are absolutely correct, so I will be doing another aimed at that regular guy. I think, in hindsight, that MAeX is a technical manual, not the "user guide".
In the meantime, let me try to help out here.
If you're going to do whole body in one workout, the order listed in the interview is deliberate. Not locked in stone, but the push/pull, upper/lower rhythm keeps recovering from one exercise from interfering with the next.
I train my wife also, and if she doesn't like an exercise, fine. She'll benefit far more from doing the exercises she will do, intensely, than from quitting.
Re the manual: people who found it too technical did benefit from the exercise illustrations, so if you study the differences between the "good" examples and the "bad"
the why is a lot less important.
And I'll get to work on the regular-guy-manual.

SportsGuy said...

Thanks much Bill!

I've been visiting the BBS site and doing BBS since April and became acquainted with MAE there.

I tried corralling her into a BBS workout this summer. She gave it 3 or 4 tries before simply finding ways to avoid it. The knee pain on the deadlift was her biggest issue, and your emphasis on reduced ROM was the impetus to get MAE - it arrived last night.

I mean "not an easy read" in several different senses. The foremost of which is not really your fault. Its that of basic physics. I've always had a problem with the specific words used to describe basic concepts. Like "moment arm". Looks nothing like any arm I know.

It all brings back the frustration I felt taking physics in high school, despite being very mathematically inclined.

Its just amazing to find the wall sit in your book. Funny story: I was introduced to this in 6th grade. It was the first year for our teacher after returning from 'Nam and getting his edu degree, and he had some different ideas about how to run a classroom. Wall sitting was one of the punishments for wayward male behavior. We loved it!

And just a couple of weeks ago I decided my 7-year old son was progressing with his situps so well that I introduced wall sitting for household infractions. The threat of a wall sit brings him into line pronto! He got a kick out of hearing last night that Mom will be trying it - on purpose.

SportsGuy said...

Bill, may I ask where you would fit the wall sit in your list above? I'm guessing you'd recommend putting it in after the row and before the side raise.

Oh, and that "moment arm" comment of mine - the chest video where you cover it(1 of 2 I think) explains it very clearly. The book confuses me.

Had my son look at the wall sit pics in the book last night. Huge help, and if he takes to it worth the price of the book by itself.

Which then led to a nice moment. After he giggled his way thru a hash of a sit his old man - his nickname for me is "Old 45" - displayed solid form and made it look easy.

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Bill DeSimone said...

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Ben said...

Is the book for the layperson out yet?

Bill DeSimone said...

Hello Ben. Print and kindle is available at this link:

Also, a blog page with links to videos, interviews, new material here:

Thanks for your interest.

Bill DeSimone said...

Ben, Congruent Exercise is available on print and Kindle at

A blog with links to video, interviews, new material at

Thanks for your interest.