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Course Recap: Rethinking the Big Patterns Seminar with Dr. Pat Davidson

We had a grand ol’ time this past weekend here in San Francisco.

One of the top two meatiest PhDs I know came by to tell us how to create pro-exercise habit loops and build sensorimotor competency in high stress humans.

The other meatiest PhD I know was one of my old professors: Dr. Zach Riley.

Pat Davidson deadlifting a trap bar

Pat Davidson, PhD

Zach Riley throws the stone June 18 in the Gaylord (Michigan) Highland Games and Air Show. Submitted

Zach Riley, PhD

Pat Davidson is a riot. He’s a high energy, hilarious lecturer.

The Backstory

Rethinking the Big Patterns came to life after hearing a lecture from my old boss, mentor, and great friend, Bill Hartman. Bill quoted the statistician George Box

All models are wrong; some models are useful.
George Box

This has become a guiding light in the tiny sub-space of fitness I reside. An antidote to the Imposter Syndrome afflicting many coaches who’ve made it past the 5 year mark. We might find ourselves saying…

How does that joke of a coach get his clients results?

Why can’t I get my clients to workout without me?

I feel like none of my clients are losing weight.

I can get everyone hip mobility except this one. Why won’t this work?

I’m just not sure that what we do matters all that much.

Inspired by Bill, Pat decided to write out his own model.

Lesson #1: Do the work. Nobody else is.

Pat could have just said, “Wow, that Bill Hartman is a smart guy. What a great lecture. I hope to be like him someday.” But he didn’t stop there. He also said, “I will take his advice.”


So he started writing out what he was doing. For the details of the model, you’re going to have to buy the seminar. I’m not going to give that away, but he basically already did in an article he wrote: “An Objective Biomechanics Model for Better Program Design”.

His “exercise plinko” as he calls it is a nice way to classify basically any movement you could want to use with your clients. It gives insight into physiological adaptations as well as mechanics. It considers kinematics and kinetics.

The best part, though, is that it doesn’t throw away anything you’re already doing that is working. It’s not a system that says, “Our stuff is the best and you need to implement this.” Instead, it says, “You’re already doing this, but this is how I look at training. Does that help?”

Lesson #2: Don’t reinvent the wheel.

One of the most powerful forces we know of in biology is evolution by natural selection. It works so well because each change gets vetted (natural selection) and occurs slowly (genetic polymorphism). It’s the experimental method for genes.

You can, and should, change something sometimes. But you usually shouldn’t change everything.

Asymmetry in the Body

A few people are on the cutting edge of asymmetry in the human body, looking for a more mechanical explanation for why we see such predictable asymmetries.

The most well-known group is the Postural Restoration Institute. They emphasize the neurology of these patterns. In my experience working with it and taking over a dozen of their courses, this is a great way to look at things, but it’s not always the most HELPFUL way to look at things. This comes from my perspective and abilities as a strength coach and personal trainer. The quickest and safest way I can alter your system is through exercise.

The two I’ve talked to the most on the subject are Bill Hartman, PT and Joe Cicinelli, DPT. They’re finding that there are good mechanical explanations for these asymmetries. If you want to dive into that hole, apply to one of Bill’s Intensive weekends or get him to mentor you. He’s shaped me more than any single person in this world.

One of the ways that I use these mechanics these days by examining the pressures in the body. The body is mostly fluid. The thorax is mostly air; the abdomen is mostly liquid. Pressured air can lift a car. If you don’t consider it, you’re not going to get the changes you want.

So I ask myself:

  1. Where is the pressure high?
  2. Where do I want the pressure to build?

If someone has a tight back, they have high pressure in the posterior half of their trunk. I want to increase pressure in the front of the trunk so the pressure in the back can diminish. This is a simple example to get you going, but start looking for it and you’ll see more of the asymmetries.

Lesson #3: Move body pressures to change axial skeleton position.

Gyroscopic motion can even help you understand the angular momentum created by the guts due to gravity. They are fixed to the posterior abdominal wall. Gravity pulls down. The guts anteriorly rotate. What is the direction of the subsequent force in the frontal plane?

Angular momentum force vectors and a right hand rule of mechanics

This was the best image I could find to explain this right hand rule of physics. The anterior rotation of the guts the four fingers. The direction of the force is the thumb. I’m probably explaining this incorrectly, but I at least tricked myself into thinking I understood it. It’s a pretty cool idea.

Filling Holes

Give your clients what they don’t have. If you don’t like doing it, you probably need to do it.

Too many people try to fill the top of the performance pyramid, spin their wheels, and don’t build up. I’ve always found the pyramid example to be helpful, but Pat had another metaphor: fill the holes.

If you’re leveling out ground for a construction project, you don’t put the new dirt where you already have dirt. You put it where you don’t have dirt: in the holes.

Let’s take a powerlifter as an example.

What does a meatball powerlifter have?

  1. Strength
  2. Size
  3. Stability

What does a meatball powerlifter lack?

  1. Flexbility
  2. Endurance
  3. Leanness

You don’t want to steal the things that the meatball is good at. But not having enough of the other stuff can hold you back… at least from feeling better.

Filling the training holes for a meatball powerlifter

“I’m Just Here for the Dopamine”

What are the two fitness qualities that are easiest to change?

Strength and aerobic endurance.

Get your newbies on the strength and aerobic endurance program. Measure what matters because what gets measured gets managed. Show them their progress. Create a habit.

How can you make people crave exercise?

Lesson #4: Dopamine first. Training second.

My new goal is to gamify training. How can I incentivize my clients? Show them their progress!

Progression beats variance any day of the week for a reward system.

Pat Davidson (26 AUG 2018)


It’s already been two days since the course ended and my brain is still buzzing. I haven’t gotten this much out of continuing education in a long time.

I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy it as much as I did, but I sure did enjoy it. Read Pat’s articles, watch the recording of the seminar, and go see him speak if you get a chance.

Now write out your model. I’ve started mine.

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Rationale for reading: Hope to improve my ability to keep clients accountable. Recommendation from Zach Moore.

Book summary: Habits are initiated with a cue and reinforced with a reward. If you understand how habits are made, then you can adjust your behavior. Find the cue and reward for your habit, then change the routine.

Review summary: I initially listened to this book, and it was so good I picked up a hard copy as well. There are a lot of pieces of the book that I left out of this review. There are some great stories, especially the chapter about Target and the chapter about the gambler vs. the widower. Very user-friendly book with a plethora of citations in the back. Highly recommended.

Suggested audience: Anyone who interacts with people, especially if you coach them to change their habits.


Stuck in My Ways

In the past, every time I got hungry while I was at home, I would make some food and go lay down to watch TV while eating. This severely ate up my productivity (pun intended because I like them).

I could be on a mission to get things done. Wake up at 6AM, go downstairs and power through a book for hours. Maybe noon hits: “I need to refuel.”

Go eat: “Man that show is good. I better watch another.” And another. And another…

It’s hard to get out of a habit.

But once I recognized what was putting me into this loop, I was able to change. Now I can eat and go back to working. Charles Duhigg explains the process well in “The Power of Habit“, and I’m going to outline some key points for you.


How Habits Work

The habit loop

I talked about this a little in a post the other day over on the IFAST website, but habits work in a cycle of mostly predictable steps. A cue tells you to do something, then you are rewarded. The more you do this, the more ingrained it becomes.

How does it get stored? Well one of the older parts of our brain, the basal ganglia, takes care of that. Storing habits is easy to take for granted because they become innate – you just do them – but consider what would happen if you had to think every single time you did every single thing.

When you’re first learning to drive, you step in, adjust the seat, adjust the steering column, look to see where the lights are, look to see where the windshield wipers are, remember to press the brake before coming out of park, move your transmission because you accidentally shifted into neutral instead of reverse, completely stop at stop signs to make sure nobody is coming (hopefully you still do that), and stay in the right lane.

Now when you’re driving you jump in, start going as you’re closing the door, “slow down – look – we’re good” when you turn, lean your seat way back, loosen your grip on the steering wheel, listen to music, put on your makeup, eat a sandwich, and yell at the kids… all at the same time.

If every decision and observation we made was conscious, we would be less productive and easily overwhelmed. Our basal ganglia helps with that.

Thanks little guy!

People with a damaged basal ganglia get locked up when they try to do simple tasks like choosing a path for their morning walk or ordering lunch at a restaurant. They can’t read body language because they aren’t quite sure what they should focus on.

A caveat, however, is that the basal ganglia can’t distinguish between helpful and harmful habits. If you repeat it, it shall stick. But if you learn to observe the cues that trigger your behaviors and the rewards you receive – the driving force – you can begin to change habits.

Cue —> Routine —> Reward. Simple enough.

But that’s not the whole story.


How to Create New Habits

A cue and a reward are not enough to make a habit stick. Your brain also needs to crave that reward.

In exercise, the best example are people who start running. Usually they start on a whim because exercise is supposed to be good for you, but they continue because they crave that “runner’s high”. They like the way they feel and the person they become when their body releases endorphins (happy hormones). After a while, they start to anticipate this feeling and their brain gets excited. It gets easier and easier for them to reinforce this habit.

But what happens when they get stuck at work and can’t go for their run? They get irritable. (Though they would get less irritable than someone who’s routine is going for a smoke.)

If you want to create a habit, create a craving.


Why Transformation Occurs

The golden rule of habit change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.

No amount of will can take away that pattern in your brain, but you can build over it. Use the same cue and reward to take advantage of the pattern you’ve built, but change the routine.

Lets set up an example.

  • Cue: Seeing a jelly donut.
  • Routine: Eating a jelly donut.
  • Reward: Sugar high.

Soon enough, seeing a jelly donut creates a craving for a sugar high.

What if when you got a craving for sweets, you first ate an apple? You may still have the sweets after, at least initially, but you’ve begun building a new habit. Physiologically, the sugar in the fruit mitigates your body’s desire for blood glucose – i.e. your blood sugar still elevates, but to a level that is less detrimental to your health and body composition goals. The next step would be to have a handful of veggies when you get a craving for sweets. Then maybe fruit if you need it. You still increase blood sugar and you still feel good after, but you don’t need as much as you did before. You’ve then used a habit to please your pancreas and fight off type II diabetes mellitus.

So replace the routine. Okay. That’s easy.

But that’s not it.

You have to take into consideration why you’re craving your reward in the first place. Consider people who unleash their inner alcoholic when a relative dies. You can replace drinking with a new routine, but when they’re next relative dies, relapse is inevitable. They NEED alcohol to medicate them because otherwise they can’t deal with the stress. Or, more specifically, they FEEL they need to be medicated.

But when an alcoholic goes to Alcoholics Anonymous, they see other people. They hear their stories. They think, “I’m just like this guy… and it worked for him. Maybe it can work for me.”

You need to instill the belief that change is possible. If you’re my client, I’m not going to let you assume you have to stay unhealthy. I’m going to find the bright spots and show you that change is possible.


Actionable Steps

Take out a piece of paper.

Choose a habit you want to change. Why do you want to change it? When does it happen? What is the cue that sparks this behavior? What reward do you crave? Write those down.

Draw out your own habit loop. A cue triggers a habit which leads to a reward which reinforces the loop.

Now what is going to be your replacement habit? Make sure it still gives you the reward you crave.

Draw your new habit loop. Make it bigger than the last one.

Do you believe you can change this habit? Why or why not? If alcoholics and gamblers can change, why can’t you?

What do you do around the time that you succumb to your bad habit? Is it at the end of the day when you’ve used up all of your willpower (see p. 137 in the book or this whole other book)? How can you avoid that moment of weakness?

You’ve got a great place to start from. Go make change.

This book is a staple in anyone’s library. Tell me your plan for habit change in the comments below.

P.S. Who do you know that wants to change a habit? Do me a favor and send this to them.

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