EVERYTHING YOU’VE READ ABOUT WORKING OUT ONCE YOU BECOME A DAD IS A SCAM.
Alright, maybe that’s a bit bold. But it’s also true 95% of the time.
Some back story: A while back, I was talking with a buddy of mine about the idea of focusing Muscle That Matters more intentionally towards dads.
I figured, I’m a dad, and I know how much that influences nearly everything I do. So, in a way, it would make sense to create a tribe of like-minded dads that can all relate to similar challenges and goals.
Both of us agreed targeting the “dad market” (which sounds way lamer than it is) sounded like a good move, still, I couldn’t bring myself around to making the change officially (updating taglines, etc.)
Truth is, I was worried what kind of people I’d attract (or repel) if I started focusing more intentionally on dads. When I look around at the fitness info for dads, I see two dominant approaches:
- You’re a dad now so you don’t have time to workout or worry about things like getting jacked. You know, it’s the whole “dad bod” thing.
- You’re a dad? So what… just keep grinding.
Thing is, both of these options kinda suck.
The first option – the dad bod thing – that’s just kinda… embarrassing. Dude, I’m only 29… I’m not gonna relegate myself to dad jeans and doing insanity in my living room – and neither should you.
Yeah, I got kids. And I’m busy. But I still like to train. Working out – moving weights – is a part of who I am.
The past few years, with two young kids at home and working two jobs and moving multiple times have been the busiest of my life, but I STILL found time to hit the weights a few times per week.
Cause that’s just who I am. So, no, I’m not gonna start wearing ‘dad jeans’ and doing bodyweight squats in my living room. So option one is out.
But what about option two? That’s not ideal, either. With fatherhood comes a whole new level of responsibility – and stress.
You can’t ignore that. You can’t think, “I’ll just push through and keep training and living like I did before I had kids – like all the other single (or kid-less), 20-somethings out there.”
Truth is, things DO change when you’re a dad.
You’re priorities are going to change (at least they should change), and the “side-effects” of having kids, like lack of sleep, increased stress, more time commitments, etc. need to be accounted for in your workout program.
MY ISSUE WITH THE WHOLE “DAD FITNESS” CATEGORY IS THAT EVERYONE SEEMS TO THINK IT’S ‘EITHER, OR.’
You either keep grinding away with the same fitness approach – hours and hours in the gym, that causes you to sacrifice time with your family.
Or, you accept the fate of the ‘dad bod’ and your fitness program becomes insanity in your living room.
This second option is what most magazines, websites, and blogs tend to focus on for “dad fitness.”
Mainstream fitness tends to make a series of sweeping assumptions about dudes with kids:
- They’re a physical mess
- They’re not interested in building muscle to look better because that’s for single, 20-somethings (and if they are interested in that they should just follow the typical advice that works for any ol’ guy).
- They have higher-level goals like being able to keep up with their kids at the park. But really, it’s because they just haven’t found a way to merge getting jacked with the new responsibilities of fatherhood.
- They’re so gullible (and desperate) they think “10 minute body weight circuits, 3 times per week in your living room” will suddenly transform them from dad bod to Man of Steel.
Don’t get me wrong– there are dads out there like this. Plenty, I’m sure.
But lost in the fray are the other guys – the semi-healthy dads who train hard and have built decent physiques but need to figure out how to balance the new stresses and responsibilities of fatherhood with fitness.
Sometimes this is the younger dads who are stuck in that twilight zone between being young, wild, and free, and being a “responsible parent.” Sometimes, age has little to do with it.
That’s why we need another option. Something that recognizes, “hey, things have changed, but I still want to dedicate time to training and building a body that looks and performs well.”
An approach that isn’t going to accept Insanity in the living room as a legitimate workout program.
These are my bros. So this post is for them. Now I may not be a professional bodybuilder or The Rock. But I do know a thing or two about getting jacked and balancing that with being a good (or at least present) dad.
PROGRAMMING FOR THE DAD CROWD
THE BIG LIFTS
Ah yes. The “big lifts.” Exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench/military presses have a place in any intelligent, effective program.
True, these exercises typically provide the best “bang for your buck”, and efficiency is something you should be concerned with as a stressed out, busy dad.
Performed correctly, the big lifts can pave the way for serious gains in muscle and strength.
But done wrong, the big lifts can wreck your progress, leaving you beat up and struggling to recover – which in turn, makes gaining strength and muscle very difficult. And, as you’ll soon discover, recovery is an ongoing trend (or challenge) in the dad fitness formula.
Here’s a few guidelines to do the big lifts right:
- Avoid training to failure (leave a rep or two in the tank each set)
- Instead of just trying to move maximum weight, think of your big lifts as “practice.” Master technique and try to make small improvements in execution of the exercises from workout to workout.
- If it causes you pain, stop doing it and find an alternative variation that you can do.
- Avoid going too low on the reps (stick with 3+ reps). Sure, a 1-rep max is cool for bragging rights, but it also vastly increases the chances of injury.
- Rotate exercises semi-frequently – or make small adjustments in grip, body position, etc. to avoid overuse injuries.
A final note on the big lifts: don’t get too caught up in the powerlifting culture. If all you’ve got access to is dumbbells, don’t freak out – you can still build muscle and get strong without barbells.
And, in general, there are safer alternatives to the traditional “bench, squat, dead” approach of powerlifting.
- An incline barbell press is going to be safer than a flat bench press for the shoulders (plus, it hits the upper chest better, which is where most guys need help anyway)
- Trap bar deadlifts are safer than a conventional straight bar deadlift (plus it hits the upper back and traps better for that “Super Hero” look)
- Front squats, goblet squats, or even single-leg variations like split squats are a better option for guys without the mobility to perform standard back squats safely (which is alotta guys, really – especially if you sit at a desk all day).
Demanding that the powerlifting approach be taken is more of an ego trip than it is an exercise in necessity to get the results you’re after.
Pick a few exercises to rotate between that work each movement pattern (upper body vertical push, upper body horizontal push, lower body hip dominant, lower body knee dominant) and track them to ensure you’re lifting more weight over time.
For some reason, workouts that are considered “efficient” – like those typically crafted for busy dads – almost always label isolation exercises as a waste of time.
Then you’ve got the “functional fitness” crowd that’s eager to dump isolation exercises in the name of “real-world” training.
Fact is, isolation exercises aren’t inherently inefficient if set up correctly.
You can get away with much shorter rest periods with isolation exercises because you’re working smaller muscle groups, which actually makes it possible to get a lot of work done in a short time.
And for the functional fitness argument – really? Like a few sets of DB curls or triceps pushdowns are gonna suddenly make me a non-functional bimbo.
Convincing as that argument is, I won’t be ditching the isolation exercises anytime soon; I’m gonna stick to my guns on this one (see what I did there?).
There’s no better way to bring up (or emphasize) a weak/underdeveloped bodypart than with isolation exercises. It’s what I call “targeted muscle growth.”
These exercises allow a much greater mind-muscle connection than big, compound exercises – something that’s crucial for targeted muscle growth.
Plus, because a man’s ego is tied less to the amount of weight he’s lifting with a bicep curl, as opposed to, say, a bench press, there’s a greater likelihood that you’ll use proper form – which is key for fully developed muscles.
That doesn’t mean you gotta go crazy with the isolation lifts and program in 27 different variations of curls. You should still prioritize the big lifts. Just don’t be afraid to include some pump work in there as well.
CONDITIONING (A.K.A. “CARDIO”)
I won’t ever “do cardio” again. I hate it. Loathe it.
The idea of mindlessly grinding away on a treadmill or elliptical for 60 minutes makes me want to pluck off my eyebrows – which is weird and painful, I’m sure, but it’s the first worst thing that popped into my head.
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to cardio: traditional cardio (a.k.a – 40-60 minutes+ on a machine) sucks. It’s not very effective for fat loss and it isn’t going to do much to keep your inner athlete alive as you’re getting older.
I’m not saying it can’t be done or that it doesn’t have a place, but in the program of a busy new dad, it doesn’t belong. Instead of doing “Cardio”, try one (or all) of these “anti-cardio” conditioning options once or twice per week:
- Take your kids for a long walk (bonus: get a stroller you can push while running and do intervals)
- Go play at the park with your kids (play tag, let your kids chase you around the playground, etc.)
- Do something fun (play some pickup basketball at the YMCA, toss a frisbee at the park, kayak, hike, surf, paddleboard, etc.)
This stuff is more efficient and more fun than traditional cardio. Plus, most of the options get you interacting with your family or other humans — which VASTLY increases the likelihood you’ll actually stick with it – which is the whole goal of this and the most difficult thing to master.
Overtraining is a topic that’s getting more and more attention these days. Most “experts” seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to overtraining:
- It’s mostly a myth. This group of people thinks people who complain of fatigue/lack of motivation to train just need to nut up.
- EVERYONE needs to worry about it. These are the guys watching the clock every workout, skipping the gym every time they don’t “feel it”, and overthinking the “don’t train to failure” advice to the point where they barely break a sweat.
My take? Reality is somewhere in the middle. Overtraining is real. It can happen. But most recreational lifters won’t ever get there.
Still, there are some people – or groups of people – who are more susceptible to the pitfalls of overtraining than others. Dads happen to be one of them.
See, there are a number of things dads face that make recovery an issue. Things like…
- Lack of sleep and/or constantly interrupted sleep
- Increased stress (responsibility of being a parent, increased financial burden, etc.)
- Decreased testosterone levels (from the lack of sleep and
This happened to me.
After my son was born four years ago, I figured I could just keep hammering away in the gym as usual. For me, this meant 5-6 workouts per week, most of which lasted 1.5-2 hours.
I also participated in two transformation contests during that time, which required significant caloric restriction and a lot of exercise.
I ran that for the first year or two of being a new dad, and for a while, nothing bad happened. But around the two-year mark, things started to change for the worse.
First, my energy started to take a hit. It was more difficult to wake up in the mornings and I felt less motivated to workout.
Next, my performance in the gym dropped. My strength decreased and my conditioning seemed to get worse overnight. But I kept going, thinking this was something I just needed to push through.
To make a long story short, I dug myself into a hole that I’m still dealing with today, two years later. I truly believe that I was dang close to true overtraining – if not there.
And let me tell you, it’s not a fun place to be. So with the idea that it may or may not be something you struggle with significantly, here’s a few things to keep in mind about fatherhood and overtraining.
HERE ARE SOME THINGS TO DO OR NOT DO:
Reduce time spent in the gym. Three workouts per week for 30-60 minutes is plenty. Especially if you have young(er) kids at home that don’t like to let you sleep. Two upper body and one lower body strength-training sessions per week is the setup I recommend.
Reduce training intensity. Avoid grinding reps or training to to failure, especially on the big lifts and/or anything using a barbell. You gotta manage fatigue and training with too much intensity is going to make it really difficult to recover with all the other stuff going on in your life.
You may even consider taking a break from the heavy barbell work for a bit (especially if you’ve got young kids at home) and running some body weight + dumbbell stuff for a while.
Last summer, when I was at the peak of my “low quality sleep, stressed to the max” season of life, I ran bodyweight only workouts for 2 months. It was a nice way to mix things up and the lack of heavy barbell work made recovery much more manageable.
Do more “active recovery” stuff. Things like yoga, going for a brisk walk or leisurely bike ride outside is awesome as a recovery tool. Feel free to do 30-60 minutes of these types of things on days you don’t lift.
Avoid long-duration cardio. No need to do a 60-minute slog session on the elliptical. It beats up your joints and makes it harder to recover (plus, who’s got time for that?). Do a 10-minute of intervals at the end of one or two workouts per week and call it good.
Give yourself a break. Find someone you can trust to watch your kids and spend some time alone doing things you enjoy and with your wife/girlfriend. Taking care of kids is hard work. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in life. And it takes a massive toll on you.
You have to find ways to get away – even if just for a few hours once a week – to destress and relax. I didn’t do a good job of this and it crushed me.
As a dad, you gotta be all about optimizing recovery. Chances are your sleep quality sucks, you’re burning the candle at both ends, and you’re stressed to the max.
That’s why all the stuff above is organized like it is: because you ain’t just another 20-something, single dude, with few responsibilities. You’re a dad.
Add to this a modern lifestyle that is fueled by stress. You gotta put in the hours to move up at work. You have to be there for you family. Then there’s the other environmental stuff, like sitting at a computer all day or spending hours hunched over a steering wheel on your daily commute.
It really comes down to this: unless you are taking specific steps to combat all the stuff that’s causing stress in your life, you probably aren’t doing a good job of managing it.
HERE’S SOME PRACTICAL STUFF THAT WORKS EVEN WHILE YOU’RE A BUSY DAD WITH A HUNDRED DIFFERENT THINGS GOING ON:
Train 3 times per week. At first, this may seem strange, considering I’ve spent a good amount of time throughout this article cautioning that doing “too much” in the gym can compromise recovery, but hear me out…
The hour that I spend alone in the gym 3 times per week is absolutely crucial for my sanity and well-being.
I know this can be tricky with young kids at home and all of the other demands of life. It can seem like there’s just no time to get to the gym and you may be tempted to relegate yourself to “home workouts”, but I encourage you to fight for time at the gym (and do the same to make sure you’re wife/girlfriend gets quality alone time doing something she enjoys, if only for an hour, a few times per week to recovery as well).
Go to bed early. If sleep is an issue, as it almost always is with dads of young(er) kids, you need to control what you can control. I fell into the trap of using the time right after my kids went to sleep as “down time” to watch tv, when I should have just gone to bed.
Meditate for 10 minutes per day. This truly has been a lifesaver for me. You don’t even have to meditate if that’s weird to you – just sit in silence and focus on deep belly breathing for 10 minutes. I know, I know – you don’t have time for this.
Again, I get it. A while back, I would do this in my car before going into work because I could never find peace and quite at home with the kids around. It doesn’t have to be a perfect setup, just do it.
Get outside. If there’s sun shining, get outside and go for a walk or take your kids to the park for 30 minutes. It’ll do wonders for mood and recovery and general health.
FITNESS FOR DADS THAT DOESN’T SUCK
I started this post by calling out the two dominant perspectives of dad fitness in the mainstream: The “dad jeans” approach and the “just keep doing what you’ve been doing” nonsense.
While I think both of those options are garbage, there’s a grain of truth to both of them.
On one hand, you do need to recognize things have changed. Fatherhood isn’t a cakewalk. It DOES effect a buncha different areas of your life. And it sure as hell gives “recovery” a run for it’s money.
But that doesn’t mean you can just wimp out, let yourself go, and embrace the dad bod. You can still hit the weights a few times per week and bust your ass to make progress. You can still work hard.
Heck – it’s actually more important now that you do so. You’re the example your kids are gonna look to for what it means to lead a strong, healthy life. Don’t you want to be the dad that sets a good example and never has to sit on the sidelines because you can’t do something?
Hell yeah you do. So go do it.
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