When I get home from work each evening, I open the door and immediately hear the drop of a toy, a high-pitched squeal (not sure if it’s from me or him), and the pitter-patter of my 18-month-old’s feet running through the house to come and greet me.
I bend down to his level as he jumps into my arms. I pick him up and we both laugh and hug each other tightly. For any father, this is one of the greatest feelings in the world. Sadly, many dads don’t get to experience it that often because they’re unable to get up and down from the floor or lift, and carry their kids without risking or worsening injuries.
Fathers today are far more engaged in the child-rearing process than previous generations. But we are also one of the most sedentary. Our work environments and increased use of technology can often result in us sitting for long periods in a position that can be detrimental to our health.
These generational traits do not complement each other well. That’s why more and more young dads are presenting to physios and chiropractors with injuries to their back or hips caused by lifting and carrying their kids.
So where does it go wrong?
If I channel my inner Sherlock Holmes and break down my evening routine to it’s basic biomechanical elements, my inner monologue would go something like this.
Force approaching rapidly. Adrenaline released. Widen stance slightly and externally rotate knees to activate deep hip stabilisers. Engage core muscles to provide stability for the spine. Hinge backwards at the hips to protect flexing through lower back and lower centre of mass by squatting down. Brace for impact. Once object is secured in arms, externally rotate shoulders to stabilise scapula, tighten core musculature to maintain neutral spine, and drive up from the hips without allowing knees to collapse inwards. Oxytocin released, cuddle enjoyed.
As you can see, there are a few different aspects of physical preparation that are required when picking up kids that must be tackled to do it effectively and without pain.
We need strong and mobile hips, control of our core muscle tension, plus the ability to carry heavy loads while maintaining a neutral and agile spine. As soon as we sit and slouch forward for long periods, all of these functions are diminished and slowly weakened.
Luckily, there are a few exercises to improve these functions and hopefully get your dad-game back on track.
1. Spend Time in Joint End Range
To spend time with your kids, you need to be able to get down to their level and stand back up again. One of the best ways to practise squatting down is to actually spend time taking the required joints (hips, knees, ankles) to their end range.
Get into a squat stance, hold on to a fixed object in front of you such as your desk, and with a neutral spine sit down into as deep a squat as you can manage. Hold for two minutes. Slowly work your way up to as long as 10 minutes over the next month.
It’s really important that you take big deep breaths while you are in these positions. This will tell your brain that it’s OK to be in that pose and slowly afford your joints a little more range to work with so you can move up and down more freely and confidently.
2. Improve Joint Stability & Core Control
Having core strength is great. Being able to apply the right amount of core and joint stability to the right stimulus is even better.
Think of your stabilising muscles around the hips, spine, and shoulders as light dimmer switches. When the load is heavy and more difficult to manage they work at a greater intensity, but when the load is lighter they only require a smaller amount of activation.
Here are a couple of exercises that will help build stability through varying loads:
Stand side-on to a resistance band or cable attachment with both hands around the handles, holding handles in both hands at the belly button.
Step out to the side to take tension in the band or cable. Externally rotate knees for hip stability, bring your ribcage over the pelvis for core stability, and externally rotate shoulders for scapula stability. Slowly extend arms out in front of the body and back without allowing the body to lose control at any of your stability centres.
As you take your arms further away from your body you will need to ‘dial up’ the amount of tension required. As always, try and maintain breathing throughout.
Work for about 30-60 seconds each side with a 60 sec rest after each set. Perform 2-4 sets every other day.
Kettlebell Horn Carry
Hold a Kettlebell (or dumbbell) at chest height. Rotate you shoulders back for stability and slowly press the weight out from you chest. You will get to a point where you feel the tummy muscles start to fire as they recognise a need for spinal support. Keep the weight where it is and slowly start to walk around. Keep the ribcage directly over the pelvis, no leaning back or forward, and maintain core activation, shoulder stability, and dynamic hip stability as you move.
Work for about 30-60 seconds each time and increase the weight when you feel it gets easier. Just like a growing baby!
3. Sit Less & Move More
Simply standing up and moving around for one or two minutes every half an hour can greatly cancel the effects that long periods of inactivity can have on our health. Standing and walking around immediately engages our strong postural muscles such as the glutes and erector spinae, and helps flush our joints with much needed blood and nutrients. This is the first step to improving our physical function and preventing against stiff and sore dad bods. Set a timer on your phone to remind you to get up.
As a father of two little boys, I know I need to keep myself strong, mobile, and pain-free so I can do all the things I want to do with them as they grow. There should be no greater motivation. Get up, get down and get playful,
Van is an Accredited Exercise Scientist and Founder of Community Moves Health & Fitness. He has over 15-years’ experience in Health & Fitness, Education, and Sports Development. Check out his website here.