The IMPACT of training: Old-school fundamentals meet cutting-edge sports science

Sultan Butt, a former Varsity Blues rugby player and a coach in the IMPACT training program, oversees an exercise (photo by Calvin Thu)
Sultan Butt, a former Varsity Blues rugby player and a coach in the IMPACT training program, oversees an exercise (photo by Calvin Thu)

In the top tier of the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, to the giddyup backbeat of “Blinding Lights,” an engineering PhD student named Anustup Das is doing reps on the bench press. It’s his final week of a class called IMPACT. He’s lifting double the weight stack he started with. Everybody has noticed: this man looks physically different from the day he started: more sculpted and lithe. But Das doesn’t care about any of that. What matters is that he’s just way more powerful and explosive. He will strike fear into his next opponent, in the sport he plays at a high amateur level — a sport you wouldn’t think you’d need a lot of fitness for but you do: table tennis. 

IMPACT is a gym-based training regimen that combines old-school fundamentals with cutting-edge sports science. Working with barbells and dumbbells, kettle bells and medicine balls, participants meet in what may be the best evidence-backed fitness program in the country.

An IMPACT class is a bit like a fantasy camp. For an hour you put down the books or the lab coat and scrub into what’s essentially the same fitness program you’d be offered if you were earning your letter in a U of T team sport. “It’s a varsity workout for people who aren’t varsity athletes,” says Sultan Butt, a former rugby player with a gentle-giant vibe who’s one of the IMPACT coaches.  

But here’s the difference. IMPACT isn’t a one-size-fits all muscle-buster. “It’s challenging, but it’s challenging on your own terms,” says Ehren Chang, another of the coaches. “We meet you where you are. Every one of these exercises can be adapted up or down, in difficulty and intensity, depending on your level and how you’re feeling today. Got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? No worries, let’s go a little lighter or do fewer reps.” Bottom line: “Your workout is tailored to you, so you’re right in your sweet spot every time.” 

The coaches are U of T KPE graduates who were high-level athletes themselves. Butt played flanker on the Varsity Blues rugby squad. Chang was a nationally ranked singles figure skater. Program director Alex Malone, short and skookum in the Barry Sanders mold, was a running back for the Varsity Blues football team. 

They wear their expertise lightly. As the students work out, a coach will quietly circulate, watching everyone’s form and making tweaks as required – which is essential for doing weight work safely and effectively. “A lot of people are scared of deadlifts,” says Chang. “They’re like, ‘I’ll hurt my back.’ But you won’t if you progress slowly and you have the right technique.” Once you master the main exercises for the almighty “posterior chain,” you have the basis of a skeletal muscular strength program going forward. And there is no expiry date.

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The punk frontman and gym rat Henry Rollins once proclaimed “the best life extender is iron.” He wasn’t talking about the nutritional supplement. Research has confirmed that one of the most robust correlates of longevity is leg strength. 

Strength is different from bulk. “It’s not about building what my dad calls ‘the pretty muscles,’ says Malone. The new byward in exercise science is “functional strength.” The idea is to build power and endurance in a way that will actually be useful for you day-to-day.

To this end, IMPACT benefits hugely from its affiliation with the KPE’s academic wing. It has access to proprietary exercise science from U of T kinesiologists — including the work of KPE biomechanics professor David Frost, who trains firefighters and first responders across North America. “We use the framework Dave developed, and we put it into a digestible package,” Malone says. The objective is fitness for life. When your body is prepared, you are prepared: that’s it.

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IMPACT is an acronym for Integrated Movement Performance and Agility Conditioning Team. It’s that last word that’s the secret sauce. A varsity team trains hard together partly to build esprit de corps — and that’s the principle here, too. You may not have known these people at the beginning. But after working out with them, they become your tribe.

“When you do it at home you don’t hold yourself accountable,” says Das. “But now everyone will miss you if you don’t show up.” The sociologist Emile Durkheim called it “collective effervescence”: the juice we get from others. 

For the last ten or fifteen minutes of the workout, the IMPACT coaches will sometimes crank up the intensity a little bit, raising a film of perspiration, the way a chef might finish a bruschetta with a drizzle of EVOO. “For many people, that little taster at the end scratches the itch of interval training,” says Malone.
And now the class is over, “and you’ve got that buzz. And you’re going, ‘I learned something, I progressed, and I got a little extra sweat at the end…. Now it’s like: Let’s keep the wins going and set you up for success.”