Stuff I Learned in 2017

And my top 12 movies of the year.

It’s that time of year again. Many coaches usually use a year-end blog to summarize some of the best work they’ve seen on the internet, or say what they have planned as goals for the coming year.  Each year (starting in 2011), I make it a point to amass some nuggets of wisdom I either learned or reinforced over the course of the year, and compile it all into one article.  But first, let’s take a look at the highlights for the year.

  • I got published for the second time in Personal Training Quarterly – an official journal of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. That’s a big deal for me, as they’re one of the most reputable and credible organizations in the fitness world.
  • I was able to get back on National TV, doing multiple segments with Global, and popping onto CBC also.
  • I gave 3 separate lectures to 3rd and 4th semester college students, studying Fitness and Health Promotion.
  • I was honored to be invited to speak to about 200 fitness professionals and clinical practitioners at the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s regional clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia.
  • I made my first appearance in Women’s Health print magazine, in the July/August issue. The article was called “Never Skip Leg Day”.
  • Among many great podcasts I took part in, I was able to hop on one hosted by Rafal Matuszewski, where I joined forces with my friend Tony Gentilcore to talk training. Our first collaboration finally came 5 years after we met. That deserves a milestone mention!

I’m missing some, but the long and short of it is: It’s been a good year, full of good opportunities. And of course, many of these experiences shaped what I learned in the past 12 months.

Strength Standards are Stupid.

If you’ve been following my work for the last couple of years, you may have noticed that a big theme of what I talk about for the general public has to do with realizing that many factors can frustrate a lifter from reaching a generic strength “standard” (for instance, being able to deadlift 2.5x bodyweight is considered a very “strong” feat, and one many recreational lifters strive for).  The reason I’m so far removed from this idea is due to the fact that many strength standards overlook several variables that will basically make or break the relative ease you’ll have as a lifter going for those numbers.  Your calendar age, stress levels, training age, body weight, height, leverages and anthropometry, injury history and more can all be deciding factors to whether or not such feats are even in the cards for you as a lifter. In 2017, I both wrote and spoke to large audiences to spread the word on this truth.  To illustrate as simply as possible, here’s a fake case study that includes all of the above:

Two lifters who are fresh to the weight training game both want to achieve the coveted double bodyweight full-depth squat.  They’re both in good shape and have the mobility to do it. The first guy is 5’6”, and he’s 150 pounds. He’s also 21 years old, and lives at home while he attends college.  The second lifter is 6’7”, and 300 pounds. He’s 38 years old, and played football as an offensive lineman in a men’s league through university and for a while after. He’s now married with two children, owns a home in the suburbs and works a 60 hour per week white-collar job in the heart of the financial district in the city. When he was 22, he had surgery for a sports hernia and has also suffered from SI Joint problems in the past.

The young guy only has to travel 18” downwards to attain full depth in his squat due to his compact height, and the older guy has to travel 32” downwards to attain the same full depth.  Just to be clear, the young guy’s target load to reach his goal is 300 pounds. The older guy’s is 600 pounds.

Who do you think will reach his goal faster, with all things equal? Who do you think can reach them at all?

If You’re Experienced, Not Following a Program Isn’t the End of the World.

Many people think you’re not worth your salt as a coach or lifter if you don’t follow or prescribe specific programming for yourself or for your clients.  There are a number of reasons why I disagree. First and foremost, in the case of a client who only works out 2 days per week, following them around with a clipboard and recording the weight they can lift is nothing but a confidence booster, since weight training two out of seven days per week won’t really create much of any result – especially not one to program for.  Don’t get me wrong; a person who spent the past 25 years completely sedentary who takes up weight training twice per week will most definitely see change. But they’ll hit maintenance mode mighty quickly after the first few months without employing more changes to their lifestyle to complement things.

Second, plain and simple – there’s nothing wrong with following a program structure, as long as you acknowledge that it’s still someone else’s program structure.  Many experts can create great programs that have undeniable track records of efficacy for numerous clients who use them. That’s why they’re experts. Their experience and trained minds can deliver something quite customized that uses science to deliver solid results.

But that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you.  And that’s the bittersweet beauty of this industry. Your individual goals, needs and contraindications aren’t as black and white as a finite math problem. The hackneyed “it depends” answer completely and wholly applies to programming particulars for a lifter – and it’s up to that lifter and only that lifter to ascertain what works for him.

That can take years.

Hypertrophy training matters Every Bit as Much as Strength Training does. Maybe More.

Strength is the first and foremost goal I create for any beginning client to set the tone for foundation. I believe it should be the same for anyone who enters the gym without a coach.  But we’d all be remiss to overlook the collateral damage that obsessively focusing on increased strength can create – even if we lift with fantastic technique.

This is the existing problem in the strength and conditioning world for the general public; there’s far too much emphasis on constantly getting stronger, and little to no emphasis on getting strong, and simply staying strong once we’ve achieved this.  There’s a big difference between the two, and they can be the deciding factor as to whether you’re going to be training well when you’re 75.

As we age, the body’s testosterone levels diminish. We develop the potential to lose muscle mass and bone density at a much faster rate than when we were young. Pummeling our bodies through 2-4 rep maxes day in and day out isn’t the only way to resist that process, however.  Somewhere, someone sold the idea that lifting very heavy loads and obsessing over maximal strength numbers is the only route to maintaining your functionality and bone density when you’re a senior – as though lifting 25 percent lighter and adding 8 more reps to your sets won’t accomplish anything near the same thing.

To be honest, I believe training in the 8-15 rep range is a key to sustaining athleticism, muscle, and bone density over the long haul, while drastically decreasing the chances of getting injured.

Interlude: The Best Movies of 2017

You guys know it by now: My biggest hobby has got to be checking out movies, and I try to catch as many as I can, and even make brief reviews on them (follow me on twitter). This year, I’ve noticed a continuation of a slightly different trend that I noticed in 2016. Many great movies aren’t just being funneled to “Oscar season” – the final quarter of the year. Several standouts have made their presence known in early months and throughout the summer also, and that’s refreshing to see. With all of this said, 2017 has had some bright moments in film, and arranging a top 12 list was no picnic. It never is.

It’s to be noted that there are 2 movies I won’t be able to see until January due to limited release here in Canada: Phantom Thread and The Post – both heavy hitters for the awards season.

Here’s my top 12, in order.

  1. Wind River – Directed by the writer of Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), from beginning to end of this film, I was riveted. Tense, explosive action scenes, a gripping story based on true events, a fulfilling ending, and career best performances from Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. This movie touched on another crucial societal issue as its side plot, which was very called for and far overdue.
  2. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – Frances McDormand was electric as a grieving mother seeking justice for a brutal crime in her own way. This movie was the definition of an emotional roller coaster, quickly shifting between dark comedy, devastating sadness, and surprising action. This is my choice to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
  3. Blade Runner 2049 – Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins and Ridley Scott teaming up to create a new Blade Runner, bringing Harrison Ford back and adding Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright and Jared Leto? This is one of the best looking movies I’ve possibly ever seen. Every ounce of the budget was used perfectly to create a cinematic immersion into a futuristic world that was just epic.
  4. Detroit – This was a charged, heavy drama –turned – horror film highlighting the true events of 1967 at the Algiers Motel in Detroit amidst its civil rights riots. Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a film. This was one that left me all of impressed, angry, sad, and shocked all at the same time.
  5. The Killing of a Sacred Deer – I wish this film stayed in theatres for longer. Of all the films on this list, this one stayed on my mind the most and longest this year. This redefined horror by way of the cinematic devices used; thanks to the score, acting style, writing and cinematography, the director was able to make the viewer uncomfortable for literally the entire runtime. Barry Keoghan’s performance was also my top male performance for the year.
  6. I, Tonya – This movie was well edited, sharply written, hilarious, and brilliantly acted by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. The story of Tonya Harding wasn’t something I knew deep details on aside from “the incident”, and this film told a very complete story in a very interesting way. If you enjoyed the stylings of 2015’s The Big Short, you’ll enjoy this.
  7. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan created a movie based on one thing: Survival. This minimal dialogue action epic told a story from three different timelines and three different vantage points (air, land and sea), and that was a gutsy directorial move that paid off. Not to mention absolutely incredible shots, especially in the air attack scenes.
  8. Get Out – This satirical, comedic and horrific thriller and strong social commentary packed enough of a punch for me to remember since its release in February. Jordan Peele deserves props for coming up with a witty script and making a very thorough, clever film that also pays homage to many old-school pioneers of the genre.
  9. Brad’s Status – Ben Stiller takes a turn at drama successfully here, in a film that examines social class, economic status and male communication, all disguised as a simple father going through a mid life crisis. It’s a thought provoking smaller movie that flew under the radar for most people.
  10. Baby Driver – I like different, when it’s done right. This is different done right. Combining music into an effortless (seemingly unintentional) “acting choreography” was a stylistic pleasure to take in, coupled with awesome car chase scenes and a high-octane thrill ride. This film is unique.
  11. Logan – One of the best superhero movies I’ve watched in a while, and another feather in the hat for Marvel, not to mention their best production for the year. This was one of the rawest, darkest, grittiest superhero movies I’ve seen, and an epic conclusion to Hugh Jackman’s 17 year run as Wolverine.
  12. Only the Brave – I have a soft spot for this movie, because it coupled an educational component of fighting forest fires with a sobering true story of young firefighters going up against serious forces of nature. Learning many of their back stories made you care for the characters a whole lot, and it’s a film that deserves plenty of respect.

I’m thinking of six honorable mentions – good movies worth the watch but just didn’t have room to make this year’s top 12 cut:

Lady Bird

Logan Lucky


Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Molly’s Game

Darkest Hour


Now, back to the stuff I learned. This was a fitness article, after all..

“Followers” Choose to Follow a Person, and Not a Coach

This can be interpreted in two ways.

First of all, your professionalism as a fitness expert matters. People are always impressed by the way one presents himself, both in person and online. Handling yourself respectably on social media, and being kind to others without passing off unwarranted arrogant judgment or belittlement on comment threads, or making pejorative posts on your blog or social media isn’t necessarily a green light for most people looking for a coach to learn from.  At least, it wouldn’t be for me.  Taking care of the little things if it’s within your power and time to do so – responding to reader mail and comments where possible, always offering quality information, avoiding useless forum wars, and generally being proactive in helping people learn from you, can go a long way in being a respected leader in the fitness industry, which is something my goals include becoming.

Here’s the flipside.

Many people who want to be influential fitness experts, deep down, seem to want to be more.

Lots of life advice, lifestyle advice, and more gets heaved on to social media threads and clutters my news feed. When a known fitness expert goes this route, I could only think it sets a stage of simultaneously distracting many people from the original reason they may have followed them (fitness and nutrition expertise), and creates a reason for people who may disagree with those parts of their personality to stop following them.

I have personal resolve to make being a fitness expert the only manifestation of my name that occurs in people’s minds. I’m not looking for people to follow me as a person who supposedly has life all figured out. If I inspire people’s lives by accident through the work I put out as a fitness professional, then that’s a win-win. But please – don’t follow me for any other reason than the training stuff. I don’t have the answers, and am not here to set culture trends.

Sometimes Wearing Gear becomes Necessary.

This one’s plain and simple. After over a decade of lifting completely raw, 100 percent of the time, I gave way to training with a starter belt – at least for one exercise: The deadlift.

Discogenic lumbar issues, long levers, and a laundry list of hiccups and setbacks even with what appeared to be great form finally made my chiropractor give me an ultimatum. I can start using hacks and modifications to make the lift I’m trying to do deliver its benefits in a safe way, or I can simply scratch the lift altogether and do other stuff.

I’ve written in previous articles about putting an end to irrational fear-mongering that occurs when someone strays from training the big 3 barbell movements.  But I was still willing to give conventional barbell and trap bar deadlifting one more try before parting ways with the movement. I’ve been belting up since the start of the fall, and so far, so good.

The lesson learned is this: If you’ve got a foundation already, sometimes it’s necessary to apply useful modifications for your safety. If that means squatting or deadlifting in a belt or wraps as a weathered trainee with injuries in your past, so be it. With that said, relying on such gear right out of the gates as a green trainee is a ticket to everlasting weakness. In short, do it cause you have to. Not cause you like to.

Neck Training is Important.

When I spoke in Vancouver this year, another speaker’s presentation really stood out to me. Rob Taylor and I eventually became friends over the course of the weekend, and I learned a whole lot about head, neck and upper back training and its importance for both athletes and members of the general population. Rob has been a member of the training staff for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Arizona Diamondbacks, and has championship rings for the year each of those teams won their respective titles. I always thought about training the neck from a posture perspective, and a completion of both the anterior and posterior “chains”.  Out of sheer negligence, I never bothered to acknowledge the connection that neck strengthening exercises have to preventing concussions – especially in the younger age categories.  Beyond this, forward heard posture and weak deep neck flexors can refer themselves to several weak links throughout the body (like the thoracic spine).

During Rob’s lecture, three new bodyweight neck exercises stood out to me, which I plan to incorporate into my clients’ workouts. Look out for videos in the new year.

“Breaking the Rules” can be the Best Thing for Core Training and Strength.

Don’t squat or deadlift in the same workout. Don’t push before you pull. Don’t foam roll before your training session. Don’t static stretch before lifting weights or playing sports. Don’t train abs between sets of big lifts.

All of these are examples of black and white “rules” that have no place in a good lifter or coach’s vernacular. Let’s take a closer look at that last one.  It’s often said that training the core muscles between sets of squats or deadlifts will fatigue those muscles and lower the quality of your big lift on subsequent sets.  The truth is, in an industry based on science-based inference, that can’t be a one-for-all directive. In the case of a lifter with a weak trunk or very long leverages that are unfavorable for compound barbell movements, sometimes lighting up the trunk muscles through a solid set of direct core work may be just what the doctor ordered for a better quality set of squats or deadlifts. Especially in the case of the internal and external obliques to help stabilize the spine.  Especially in the case of higher rep work in the big lifts, I’ve found it to do far more good than bad in improving workout quality.


Without a doubt, this has been a year that warrants some solid reflection. Moving forward to apply many of these new thoughts on training should make things very interesting, and should also continue to shape my work as a writer, and my subject matter as a speaker.  At this point in time, I do believe that in and out of the gym, maintaining is gaining. So hopefully that means I’ll have plenty more good stuff to report by this time next year.

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