Last Updated: September 15, 2016
Do you feel like you work out way too much and watch your diet way too closely to be skinny fat? Then you want to read this article.
If you currently look like this:
And want to look more like this:
Then you need to pay close attention to everything we’re going to cover in this article.
Because here’s the bottom line:
- You can follow every “clean eating” rule on the Internet…
- You can jog until your joints are ground to dust…
- You can swallow a mountain of supplements every day…
- You can do every home workout program ever made…
And you can still be “skinny fat.” For the rest of your life.
Learn how to train, diet, and supplement properly, though, and you can have the body of your dreams.
Case in point? Check out these success stories from people that have done my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs:
You can achieve results like these too and I’m going to give you the blueprint here.
So let’s get started.
What Is “Skinny Fat” Anyway?
The phrase kind of defies logic.
How the hell can someone be both “skinny” and “fat” at the same time? What kind of satanic curse is this?
Well, the “skinny” refers to having relatively low levels of lean muscle mass and the “fat” refers to having too much body fat.
And when you combine these things–too little muscle and too much fat–you get the “skinny fat” look.
For example, check out the following two pictures:
The kicker here is both of these women are more or less at the same body fat percentage!
The major difference between their physiques is the amount of muscle they’re carrying. The first woman has little and the second has quite a bit.
You see, the less muscle you have, the more prone you are to look skinny fat at lower percentages of body fat. An extremely under-muscled guy at 15% body fat can look skinny fat whereas a musclebound guy at the same level of body fat can look downright intimidating.
Now, if you’re a woman and are already squirming at the thought of gaining muscle and winding up “bulky,” I understand.
But it doesn’t work like that.
The truth is it’s very hard for women to build enough muscle to look bulky. It takes years of intense, dedicated training and eating to gain enough size for this.
What does cause bulkiness, however, is adding muscle when body fat levels are too high. All this accomplishes visually is a larger, but not more defined, look.
I talk about this and more things that all women should know before they start working out here.
So, an imbalance between muscle and fat levels is what causes the skinny fat look.
Let’s take a closer look at the common mistakes that people make that get them there.
Why People Wind Up Skinny Fat
There’s a foolproof way to become and stay skinny fat:
1. Severely restrict your calories.
2. Do large amounts of cardio.
3. Do little-to-no resistance training.
If those things sound familiar, that’s because they comprise the bulk of the mainstream weight loss advice.
Flip through the pages of just about any workout magazine or book, and especially those targeted to women, and you’ll find “experts” advising one or more of those terrible weight loss strategies.
Why do these things make you skinny fat, though?
Let’s break it down.
Why severe calorie restriction can make you skinny fat.
If you’re a regular here, you already know that meaningful weight loss requires that you feed your body less energy than it burns over time.
Get carried away with this knowledge, however, and start feeding your body a lot less energy than it burns, and you’re asking for trouble. The type of trouble that results in significant muscle loss and metabolic slowdown.
To make matters even worse, when the scale gets stuck (and it always does at some point), most people respond by eating even less or doing even more cardio, which only accelerates the muscle loss.
This is a one-way street to skinny fat, and is why I recommend you use a moderately aggressive calorie deficit of 20 to 25% for losing weight.
Why doing too much cardio can make you skinny fat.
If you think that you have to do hours and hours of cardio every week to finally lose that belly fat, you’re not alone.
And you’re going to love me for this:
When it comes to improving body composition–losing fat and building or preserving muscle–cardio isn’t very important.
Many people are surprised to learn that research shows that doing regular cardio workouts guarantees little in the way of weight loss. In fact, many people that think that they can lose weight by just doing cardio wind up fatter than when they began.
That isn’t to say that cardio itself is useless or that it directly causes weight gain.
In fact, if you want to get and stay lean without sacrificing muscle and strength, you have to keep your cardio to a minimum.
There are two main reasons for this:
- Too much endurance training interferes with strength and muscle growth.
- The longer your individual cardio sessions are, the greater these effects are.
Thus, the standard weight loss prescription of 1 to 2 hours of cardio 4 to 7 days per week is just far from ideal. And especially when you combine it with some form of starvation dieting, which supercharges the damage to your body.
Why doing little-to-no resistance training can make you skinny fat.
Many weight loss regimens include very little or no resistance training, or very low-intensity training, and this is a huge mistake.
An intense weightlifting session may not burn quite as many calories as a high-intensity cardio session, but it burns quite a bit more than many people think (and definitely enough to noticeably speed up fat loss).
And then there’s the “afterburn effect” or, scientifically speaking, “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption” (EPOC), which is an increased rate of oxygen uptake that occurs after exercise and results in additional calories burned.
This is where weightlifting really shines because a single session can elevate your metabolic rate for several days.
Heavy weightlifting is especially effective in this regard, with research showing that training with heavy weights (80 to 85% of 1RM) can result in hundreds more post-workout calories burned than training with lighter weights (45 to 65% of 1RM).
There’s even more to consider though.
Resistance training is the only way to maximally preserve muscle while losing fat.
Remember, when you say you want to “lose weight,” what you really mean is you want to lose fat and not muscle.
You can accomplish this fairly easily if you know what you’re doing. In fact, you should be able to lose little-to-no muscle and strength while dieting for fat loss, even if it takes several months to reach your desired body fat level.
That’s the goal, and just a few weight training sessions per week is enough to accomplish this.
How to Not Be Skinny Fat
Now that you know the shortcut to skinny fat–large calorie deficit, way too much cardio, and way too little resistance training–let’s talk about how to prevent and, if necessary, undo the damage.
“Should I try to lose fat or build muscle?”
There’s the million-dollar question that plagues skinny fat people everywhere. They know the type of physique they want but how do they actually get there?
Guys tend to think they should just focus on building muscle and girls are inclined to want to lose more fat. And they’re both going to get nowhere…because they need to do both.
That is, they want to set up their diet and training so they can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
This is commonly referred to as “body recomposition” and it’s the only way out of the skinny fat predicament. Too much fat and too little muscle is what got you into this mess and you have to flip that around to escape it.
Now, you’ve probably heard that it’s impossible to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously. That’s untrue.
If you’re new to weightlifting (and heavy weightlifting in particular), and you probably are if you’re skinny fat, you absolutely can build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
More specifically, if you don’t have at least 1+ years of proper weightlifting under your belt and haven’t already gained your first 15 to 20 pounds of muscle (men, about half that for women), then you can effectively “recomp” and should make it your first priority.
You just have to know what you’re doing. And this article breaks it all down.
Do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting.
Although you have to both lose fat and gain muscle to put your skinny fat days behind you, when you look at the bigger picture, gaining muscle is more important. That’s what will ultimately give your body the look and shape you want.
And when you want to maximize muscle growth, you have to emphasize heavy, compound weightlifting in your workouts. High-rep “pump” workouts that emphasize isolation movements are far less effective for muscle building.
The big “secret” why so many fitness models and bodybuilders do and recommend these types of workouts is steroids. Plain and simple. Grinding away for hundreds of reps per workout is fantastic if you’re on drugs but won’t get you very far as a natural weightlifter.
So, instead of chasing a huge pump every week, your primary goal is to get very strong on exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press, and you need a workout program built with that in mind.
Be stingy with your cardio.
The proper way to include cardio in a weight loss regimen is to keep individual sessions and the total weekly amount as short and low as possible.
You want to do just enough cardio to keep the fat burning and no more.
After working with thousands of people, here’s what I’ve found seems to be the “sweet spot” for maximizing fat loss and minimizing muscle loss:
- No more than 20 to 30 minutes per cardio session.
- No more than 1.5 to 2.5 hours of cardio per week.
How can you possibly influence fat loss with only 2 hours of cardio per week, you wonder?
Regular cardio won’t cut it. As I mentioned earlier, high-intensity interval training is the answer.
Learn how to diet properly.
You’ve heard this one before:
You can do everything right in the gym but if you don’t also know your way around the kitchen, you’ll never see the types of results you’re after.
Well, it’s true.
A bad diet will make even the best workout program impotent.
The good news, however, is that dieting isn’t nearly as complicated or grueling as most “gurus” would have you believe.
If you want the full rundown, check out my books, but here’s what you need to know for the purpose of this article:
If your calorie intake has been very low for quite some time, your first step is bringing your metabolism back up to speed.
When you restrict your calories to lose fat, your body responds in various ways to reduce its total energy expenditure.
And when you have dramatically reduced your calorie intake for weight loss and then left it there for a long period of time, afraid to raise it lest you gain weight, you’ve also left yourself with a metabolism that’s running on fumes.
If that’s you, don’t worry–the “damage” isn’t permanent. In fact, it’s pretty easy to fix. But you do have to focus on fixing it first before turning your sights to fat loss.
The solution is known as “reverse dieting” and I explain how it works here.
If your calorie intake is in a normal range, you can jump right in.
If your daily meals add up more or less to your total daily energy expenditure (which you can learn how to calculate here), then your metabolism is ready to embark on the crusade against skinny fat.
All you need to do is use a proper calorie deficit and macronutrient balance to drive fat loss and a proper workout routine to drive muscle growth, and you can learn how to do this here.
The Bottom Line on Skinny Fat
There’s no reason to be skinny fat. It’s not a genetic curse or mysterious affliction. It has very specific causes and a very specific solution.
The long story short is the less muscle you have, the leaner you’re going to have to be to not look skinny fat. And if you have very little muscle, you don’t have much of a choice: you can either look skinny fat or frail and starved.
Fortunately, the road out is just as straightforward: you need to add muscle and reduce your body fat percentage.
These things take time, know-how, and grind, but are easy enough to do. And once you’ve done it, you’ve put yourself in a position to enjoy the fruits of your labor for the rest of your life.
So use the advice in this article to upgrade your skinny fat physique and build a body you can be proud of.
What do you think about “skinny fat syndrome”? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!