Get Tough: A Beginner's Guide to Impact Training

Walter J. Dorey


Outdoor Fitness, Strength and Conditioning


I’ve taken elbow shots, been punched, kicked and tackled. And this was just in the work-place environment. Some serious roughhousing was normal at some of the factories I worked at years ago. And the hits I’ve taken (and given) from a wide variety of sports? It’s a long list. I’ve taken plenty of hits and rolled right back up in the game, and my friends would ask how I could do that. Well, here’s part of the answer.


Why Is Tempering Important?

An anvil can take a pounding. It doesn’t give in, it doesn’t quit, and it doesn’t cry for help or run to momma. A hammer is designed to dish out a pounding. Its sole purpose in life is sort of like the saying, “Hulk Smash!” Yet, even as it delivers a hard blow, it has to be tough enough to take that impact. So, if you are going to deliver a hit in any sport, you have to be tough enough to endure the self-inflicted collision.



impact training, tempering


That is how I view armor building, as toughening up the body and mind to deal with collisions. Even if you don’t engage in contact sports, you might feasibly trip while walking, hiking or running, take a fall, have a spill off your bike - and there you go: contact!


Notice these stats published by the World Health Organization in 2012:


Falls are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide.

Each year an estimated 424,000 individuals die from falls globally of which over 80% are in low- and middle-income countries.

Adults older than 65 suffer the greatest number of fatal falls.

37.3 million falls that are severe enough to require medical attention, occur each year.


37 million! Which then also begs the question, how many people fall, get injured, and never report it? So even people who do not engage in collision sports would be wise to practice learning how to fall. Some easier tumbling or groundwork skills such as Dan John’s get-back-ups and building up some strength and muscle would be prudent. Having some solid muscle on your body can help when the pain-train comes to visit, and it just might save your life.


Dan John is probably the best-known author of the term “armor building.” I’m not going to talk much at all about armor building with barbells. If you don’t know how to do that, then you should go read Dan’s article on armor building (but not until you finish this article, thank you). I’m going to talk about other methods of gaining some armor or collision resilience.




Certain exercises can have a callusing effect on the body, toughening up the skin and underlying tissues. Other exercises help create greater bone density and muscular density. Personally, I’d rather trade punches with some marathon runner than a well-practiced gymnast. If you can’t figure that one out, well, I can’t help you.


Armor building also helps you develop the mental capacity to tough it out, grit your teeth, and keep going when you take a hit. I’ve seen first-hand how proper training helps a person get tougher, bounce back, or keep going like nothing happened. Whereas other people take a good whack and that’s it, they’re done.


Let’s Build Some Armor

First, let’s look at training implements and how we might use them:


  • Double kettlebell clean-and-presses or push presses and double kettlebell front squats. Also, odd as it seems, windmills and bent presses with a kettlebell or barbell are also good for armor building.
  • Bear hug and/or shoulder carry with a keg, rock, log, or sandbag.
  • Slosh-pipe carries.
  • Kettlebell carries in the overhead and rack positions.
  • Any kind of sandbag cleans, squats, and push presses.
  • Sledgehammer hits on tires or old tree stumps.
  • Tumbling drills, somersaults, cartwheels, etc.
  • Pounding a heavy bag.
  • Get ups with kettlebells or sandbags.
  • Explosive push ups.
  • Hanging leg raises, ab-wheel, clutch flag or full flags on a pole, etc.
  • Digging with shovel and pick-axe.


Now, let’s take a closer look at a few of these:



Loaded carries with a sandbag are awesome for developing the trunk of the body. Try carrying a heavy sandbag in the bear-hug position for a while. It’s tough to breathe with that sack of sand crushed up against your chest and abdominals. Your arms take a beating and it builds strong trunk muscles.


Splitting wood was a favorite of old-time boxers. But not everyone has wood to split, so grab a tire and sledge. It’s safer and you can get in more volume in less time. I know. I split wood for years in New York. Every hit sends an impact wave up the handle. That impact wave challenges your bones, muscle, and connective tissue. Your body responds by toughening up those areas.


"Injuries in training are signs of stupidity: too much, too fast, too hard, too soon."

It’s the same with punching a heavy bag, although the shockwave comes from a different angle/direction. Explosive push ups belong in this category, too, as does digging a hole and refilling it.


Tumbling drills. Every rep you do toughens the body to impact. It teaches you how to fall and survive. If you practice coming back up on the feet after a somersault or roll, then you can train yourself to bounce back up after taking a hit.


Grass drills or up-downs are excellent for the collision sports. Think about the impact from cartwheels, handstands, up-downs, sledge hits, digging, and explosive push ups. The impact is collision conditioning for the hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders - all without throwing a punch.



Safety Measures

In all cases, take it easy with this training at first. Give your body time to adapt to the impact. Skin, bone, muscle, and connective tissue take a while to respond and toughen up.


  • Wear wraps and boxing gloves while working the bag.
  • Use gloves if you need to while using a sledge. It still toughens up the skin.
  • Be sure your tumbling skills are up to par before attempting running or diving rolls on the ground.


You don’t want to get injured. Injuries are not badges of honor. Injuries in training are signs of stupidity: too much, too fast, too hard, too soon. Such injuries take away from valuable training time and can potentially slow you down for the rest of your life. Don’t train though pain if any part of your body is hurting from collision training. Let yourself heal, and then build up more gradually. Figure out what you did wrong and fix it.


impact training, kettle bells


Just the weight of an object on the body can cause a callusing effect. Witness the odd little muscular bump that gradually appears on a kettlebell enthusiast’s wrist where the bell rests. If you have much experience with kettlebells - and get ups and racking the bell for cleans, presses, and front squats - you know what I’m talking about. Time under load toughens the body.


Practice cleans with a sandbag and it will slam up against you. Power cleans with a sandbag to one shoulder helps develop the anti-rotator muscles. Of course, try to catch the sandbag gracefully and be braced to receive the sandbag. Learn how to absorb, redirect, or deflect the collision of the sandbag. Don’t purposely try to pummel yourself with it, but don’t be afraid of it either. I also like to take the sandbag to the ground and throw it around like I’m wrestling.


"Impact waves challenge your bones, muscle, and connective tissue. Your body responds by toughening up those areas."

Start Small

Don’t try to implement all of these methods at once. Pick a few and try them for a month or two. Cycle through them and see which give you the most bang-for-your-buck. Take one or two days a week and play with these various movements and implements, or plug in one or two as a finisher to your routine. Experiment and explore. Have fun. I think it’s good to always have some sort of impact/armor building in your routine. It might just be the added juice you were looking for in your stale routine.


I don’t suffer excuses for not being able to train because of location or lack of equipment. So, if you are lacking in equipment, figure it out. When I lived in an upstairs apartment, I’d load up my car’s trunk and drive out into the desert to train Olympic lifts with a bent bar and rusty metal plates. So, get tough: improvise, adapt, and overcome!


More like this:



1. “Falls,” Fact Sheet No. 344, World Health Organization, October 2012.

See more about: , ,
Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Get updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.