Men are gaining weight and losing muscle. Dad bods are everywhere.
What's a dad bod? It's the "average guy" physique that's not particularly lean or muscular. It's more of a hot-dog devouring, beer-drinking suburban father.
For the average population, the term "dad bod" is endearing compared to "skinny fat," which may offend some delicate sensibilities. Some folks view the dad bod as relatable or a sign of body acceptance. But today's average man is far from a pillar of health, and he's probably not thrilled about it.
Sure, the changes men undergo when they become fathers aren't all bad. But part of being a father is being a leader, and that includes your health and vitality.
Men undergo physiological changes as they age and become fathers. These changes make it more difficult to gain strength, build muscle, and lose fat.
Compared to non-fathers, dads have higher levels of the hormone oxytocin. Also known as the "love" hormone, oxytocin is linked to maternal bonding and forging relationships, both crucial components in successful relationships and parenting.
Studies indicate elevated oxytocin and prolactin levels in men make fathers more alert, sympathetic, and responsive to infant cries compared to non-fathers (2). Higher levels of prolactin levels in men likely contribute to child-caring behavior and the emotional traits that go along with it.
Increased prolactin levels are also linked to decreased libidos in parents, probably to help them spend more time caring for their kids rather than trying to make more.
These biochemical changes in fathers are important, but let's examine the other side of the coin.
Men's testosterone levels have been dropping precipitously, regardless of parental status, for a generation. T levels have dropped by one percent per year since the 1980s (6), meaning men today have testosterone levels 20-percent lower than men from the same age a generation ago.
Overall, we're weaker, fatter, less muscular, less motivated, more flaccid, less fertile, and less healthy than generations before us. So, where does fatherhood factor in?
Men who live with their pregnant partner can experience a 20-30 percent drop in testosterone until six months after the baby is born (3). The mechanism behind this drop is unclear. Some hypothesize there may be a pheromone effect at play in decreasing men's testosterone to support the mother and child.
This is an interesting area for future study, along with the decreasing T levels on a societal level, but let's dig into areas we know more about.
Fathers are likely to experience more stress. Stress is systemic and can increase cortisol while decreasing testosterone.
Speaking from first-hand experience, becoming a father is stressful. An entirely new world of responsibility is suddenly knocking on your door. You become more concerned about the safety and health of those around you.
Your role as a provider is amplified. You worry more about providing food, shelter, and care for your family. Many men also become fathers in their 20s and 30s, just when they're hitting their professional stride. Managing professional ambitions and the challenges of a growing family means less time to train and a harder time getting sleep.
The added responsibility coupled with less sleep is likely the biggest testosterone-zapping combo fathers face.
Think about it. The majority of testosterone release occurs at night. Proper sleep reduces inflammation and cortisol. Sex hormone-binding globulin (SHGB), which binds up testosterone in your blood, also decreases with adequate sleep.
Just one week of sleeping for 5 hours per night decreases testosterone by 10-15 percent compared to sleeping for a full 7-8 hours (1). When your sleep is limited for weeks or months on end, the decrease in testosterone production becomes even greater.
So when you're burning the candle on both ends to provide for your family and getting interrupted sleep, your test levels are going to plummet faster than a bowling ball off a diving board.
There's no one-size-fits-all solution to optimizing sleep. You're often at the whims of your child. But you're not powerless.
So work to set consistent waking and rising times for your kids. If a significant other is in the picture, consider trading off days and working on a rotating schedule for some level of consistency.
Develop an evening routine around reducing blue light exposure, minimizing stimulant use in the afternoon, and optimizing the pre-bed nutrients shown to encourage deep and restful sleep. Consider using ZMA®.
Realize you won't be perfect. But create a structure with the understanding that it'll be fluid, and do the best you can to stick with it.
The biggest obstacles are a lack of time and compromised recovery. If you approach your training and nutrition with the same plan you did pre-fatherhood, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Try the following strategies.
The most important thing you can do is reduce diet complexity. It's crucial to stay consistent with meal choices to reduce food-related stress and prevent the temptation to reach for fast, unhealthy foods when you're slammed and starving. There are three strategies to do this:
1 If you do well with fasting, skipping breakfast can reduce the number of meals you need to prepare each day.
The only "magic" here is that it may reduce food-related stress and allow you to eat larger, more satiating meals without blowing through your calories. Put another way, if you're only going to eat from 12-8 PM, your chance at grabbing "junk" is reduced.
2 Pick a few staple meals, especially early in the day.
Your days are slammed with a combination of work and family obligations, particularly morning and afternoon. So the more meals you can automate, the better you'll do.
An easy example is overnight oats with protein, berries, Superfood, and coffee for breakfast. At lunch, have batch-cooked lean meat, white rice or potatoes, and frozen broccoli.
3 Consider a meal delivery service.
Dozens of quality delivery services will send healthy meals to your door. It's not the cheapest option, but it works.
For my first six months of fatherhood, I ate scrambled eggs, spinach, and sweet potato for breakfast. Salmon or chicken with rice and bell peppers was my lunch. I had workout nutrition in the middle, so the only meal my wife and I needed to worry about was dinner.
If you're struggling to get enough sleep, insulin sensitivity will be negatively impacted. Even a partial night of sleep increases insulin resistance (5), which carries a host of potential issues from long-term risks of diabetes and, more immediately, fat gain if calories are over-consumed.
While calories are king for fat loss, you can't blindly ignore potential hormonal changes that accompany lifestyle changes. Keep carbs to 30-40 percent of total calories and focus at least 30-percent of your carbs within the two hours before/after training.
In this case, intelligent supplementation to support training and muscle growth, like Sureg® Workout Fuel, would be perfect.
You must maximize training efficiency to prevent or destroy the dad bod. When you're low on sleep and high on stress, this is the smartest approach.
Aim to train 4-6 times per week but keep workouts short. There are four reasons for this:
Time is the biggest constraint for most dads. A typical five-day split that has you in the gym for an hour each time isn't practical. You'll either have to reduce training frequency to three longer workouts or multiple-short workouts spread throughout the week.
In my experience, it's easier to book exercise most days of the week but keep sessions shorter. This creates some level of consistency in a chaotic schedule. Training more often also reinforces the habit and tends to keep busy folks inline in other areas of life, like nutrition.
2 Muscle protein synthesis
A 2010 study analyzed training frequency and the anabolic response (4). Researchers found that repeated bouts of resistance exercise and protein ingestion trigger an anabolic response and growth.
In drug-free lifters, muscle protein synthesis stays elevated for 24-36 hours post-workout. Hitting muscles multiple times per week may lead to better growth and body composition than obliterating each muscle once per week.
3 Insulin sensitivity
Poor sleep decreases insulin sensitivity. Resistance training increases insulin sensitivity. By training more often, you may be able to offset the decreases in insulin sensitivity. And you'll prime your muscles frequently to handle nutrients for growth effectively and burn some body fat.
This is the glue tying everything together. Stress is systemic and, likely, at an all-time high as a new parent. Therefore, training should be intense but short. You need to get in the gym and get on with your busy life. All fluff must be eliminated, and focus must be maximized.
Do the workout 4-6 times per week, however that fits your schedule. If you have to go four times one week, but can make time for six the next week, just continue following the workout order listed.
The sets below are work sets. Do 1-3 sets of 5-8 reps to ramp up to work sets on the first exercise of the day.
|A||Incline One-Arm Bench Press||2||6-10||90 sec.|
|B||Flat Barbell Bench||4||5||2 min.|
|C||Seesaw Press||2||6-10||90 sec.|
|D1||Seated L Lateral Raise||4||12-15||45 sec.|
|D2||Triceps Rope Push Down||4||12-15||45 sec.|
|Time permitting: 100 push-ups for time|
|A||One-Arm Row||2||5-8||2 min.|
|C||Chest-Supported Row using the 10-6-10 method, shown below||2|
|D1||Cable Face-Pull||3||12-15||45 sec.|
|D2||Alternating Dumbbell Hammer Curl||3||10||45 sec.|
|A||Single-Leg Dumbbell RDL||2||6-10||90 sec.|
|B||Dumbbell Step-Back Lunge||2||6-10||90 sec.|
|C||Barbell Back Squat||3||6-8||90 sec.|
|D2||Plank||2||1 min.||1 min.|
|Every Minute on The Minute (EMOM) for 12 minutes|
|A1||Neutral Grip Pull-Up (Even Minutes)||4-6|
|A2||Push-Up (Odd Minutes)||10|
|B||Alternating Dumbbell Biceps Curl||3||8||90 sec.|
|C1||Incline Dumbbell Biceps Curl||4||12-15||45 sec.|
|C2||Incline Dumbbell Skull Crusher||4||12-15||45 sec.|
|A||75-Degree Incline Press||2||6-10||90 sec.|
|C||Half-Kneeling Dumbbell Press||3||8-10||1 min.|
|D1||Seated Dumbbell Lateral Raise||3||12-15||45 sec.|
|D2||Dumbbell Bent Over Lateral Raise||3||12-15||45 sec.|
|A||Stability Ball or Machine Leg Curl||3||8-12||1 min.|
|B||Bulgarian Split Squat||4||6-8||2 min.|
|C||Barbell RDL||4||6-8||2 min.|
|D||Front-Foot Elevated Split Squat||6||6||1 min.|
|E||Stability Ball Crunch||4||15-20||45 sec.|
Just set a step goal of 8,000 steps. Push the stroller. Carry your kids. Park further away at work. Small actions add up. Walking is the best way to reduce stress while improving health and body composition.
No doubt, there are some crucial shifts in male physiology in response to becoming a father. And men who aren't fathers can still develop the dad bod if they face some of the same issues, namely a lack of sleep.
But all hope is not lost. There's a balancing act involved. You can't demand perfection from yourself. You can control a lot more than most are willing to admit. If you dial in your sleep, work to manage stress, and adapt your training for your life, you can go from dad bod to shredded.
- Leproult R et al. Effect of 1 Week of Sleep Restriction on Testosterone Levels in Young Healthy Men. JAMA. 2011 Jun 1;305(21):2173–2174. PMC.
- Fleming AS et al. Testosterone and Prolactin Are Associated with Emotional Responses to Infant Cries in New Fathers. Hormones and Behavior. Academic Press. 2002 Dec;43(4):399-413.
- Gettler LT et al. Longitudinal Evidence That Fatherhood Decreases Testosterone in Human Males. PNAS. National Academy of Sciences, September 27, 2011.
- West DWD et al. Anabolic processes in human skeletal muscle: restoring the identities of growth hormone and testosterone. Phys Sportsmed. 2010 Oct;38(3):97-104. PubMed.
- Spiegel K et al. Sleep loss: a novel risk factor for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2005 Nov;99(5):2008-19. PubMed.
- Travison TG et al. A Population-Level Decline in Serum Testosterone Levels in American Men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Jan;92(1):196-202. PubMed.