Do you look skinny in clothes, but hold stubborn and annoying fat on your abs and hips?
If so, it’s very likely that you’re “cursed” with the skinny fat physique.
You know what, I totally get how you feel!
Because I started my fitness journey of with the exact same physique.
And I just want to tell you that here’s no need to worry, because in today’s post I’ll show you how to stop being skinny fat for good. In fact, I’ll give you the exact step by step process to finally get that lean and muscular physique.
What Is Skinny Fat?
I like to describe skinny fat as the physique where you look skinny/normal with a shirt on and fat with a shirt off.
And as I just mentioned, skinny fat was the physique that I started my journey with:
As you can see, I had all the classic characteristics of the skinny fat physique. Fat covering my abs and hips, including a hint of the famous “man-boobs”. Yet I had decently slim arms, neck and face which made me look quite normal in a shirt.
Now, I think that skinny fat can be roughly categorized into two different appearances:
- The “fluffier” skinny fat
- The “skinnier” skinny fat
I would say that I had the “fluffier” skinny fat physique when I started out. While the “skinnier” skinny fat physique, would look something like this:
As you can see, the difference between these two is that the “fluffier” skinny fat physique has a bit more fat and muscle, making it lean more towards the fat physique.
While the “skinnier” skinny fat physique has less fat and muscle, making it lean more towards the skinny physique.
So, now you might wonder:
Why am I categorizing skinny fat like this? Why not just call it skinny fat and get to the “how to stop being skinny fat” part already?
Well, because the body type you start of with will determine your first step in correctly transforming your body. Which we’ll get to in a moment.
But, before doing that, let’s look at:
Why Some Of Us End Up Skinny Fat
Okay, so you know what the skinny fat physique looks like. And perhaps you’ve established whether you’re at the “skinnier” or “fluffier” side of skinny fat.
Let’s now identify why we end up looking skinny fat in the first place:
Factors Determining Skinny Fat
I would say that there are two primary reasons why people get skinny fat:
Let’s look at these one by one:
1. Genetics and skinny fat
Here’s the cold hard truth:
Most people who start out skinny fat have worse genetics, and will need to work harder to build a lean and muscular physique, compared to someone who starts out skinny or fat.
In fact, there are far less skinny fat transformations out there than what there are “fat-to-fit” or “skinny-to-muscular” transformations.
And the main genetic disadvantage that a skinny fat individual has is this:
“Hardgainer when it comes to building muscle. Easygainer when it comes to gaining fat.”
For this reason a skinny fat individual must work harder and longer to achieve the same results as someone who’s naturally skinny or fat.
And here’s why:
- Once you start training as a skinny fat guy, you need to spend time and energy losing fat (something the skinny guy doesn’t have to do)
- Once you’re lean, you will need to build decent amounts of muscle to look good (something most of the naturally fat guys already have)
- And finally, to continue improving your physique overtime, you will need to do bulking and cutting cycles to build muscle while staying lean.
In other words, as a skinny fat guy, you have the curse of two evils and need to put in blood, sweat and tears to become successful.
In fact, it took me ~4 years to reach this physique:
A physique that most naturally skinny guys can reach in ~2 years by training hard and eating a lot. And that most naturally fat guys can reach in even less time by training hard and “just” losing fat.
Now, I’m sure you’re shouting:
What kind of curse from hell is this!?
Well, I feel you man! It’s clear that you’ve been given a less than optimal hand when it comes to getting a ripped physique. In that you must work harder to get the same results.
Don’t let that hinder you, because you can’t do much about your genetics.
And as you can see from the picture above, it’s still entirely possible to build a downright aesthetic physique even if you start out skinny fat (sorry for waving my own “downright aesthetic physique” flag here ;)).
You just need to be a bit more meticulous with your approach to diet and training, and also avoid the following:
2. Environment and skinny fat
If genetics wasn’t enough, people who gravitate towards skinny fat must also be extremely cautious when it comes to their environment.
With environment I mainly refer to the never-ending bullshit called diet and exercise advice given by the mainstream.
Here’s some of the BS advice I’m referring to:
- Severe caloric restriction – typically caused by generic caloric deficit recommendations such as; BW x 11 = your deficit. Period.
- GOMAD – where you eat everything in sight, including 1 gallon of standard milk per day.
- Unbalanced macronutrient intakes – typically caused by fancy restrictive mainstream diets such as; LCHF, Atkins, Paleo, GI etc…
- Excessive amounts of cardio.
- Too much high rep pump training.
Guys who are more genetically blessed, will in all likelihood still see great results following advice like these above (even though their results could be better with another approach).
But if you’re gravitating towards skinny fat, following this kind of advice is a surefire way to stay skinny fat for good… Until, of course, you change your approach.
So, let’s look at that now:
How To Stop Being Skinny Fat – The Three Step Formula To Get Lean And Muscular
I don’t want to turn this into a boring “what not to do” post, instead I want to give it to you straight, in a “what to do” fashion.
And there’s three steps you must take if you truly want to go from skinny fat to ripped.
Let’s start with the first step:
Step #1 – Set Up Your Diet Properly
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before:
“You can’t outtrain a bad diet”
Well, it’s true.
A bad diet will cripple the potency of even the most optimal training program, especially if you’re gravitating towards skinny fat.
The good news though, is that setting up your diet to successfully improve your body composition is a lot easier than what most fitness “gurus” makes it out to be.
But, before we can get to that, we must first tackle the problem that almost all skinny fat individuals bumps into…
…which is knowing where to start:
The Skinny Fat Dilemma: Should You Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?
One of the biggest struggle we who start of with the skinny fat physique experience is the following:
That we need to both build muscle and lose fat to look great. And this causes the dreaded feeling of:
“To fat to bulk, to slim to cut”
And unfortunately, there’s just one solution to this dilemma, which is to suck it up and endure not looking your best for a little while.
How long is a little while?
Around 3-5 months tops, that is, if you follow what you’re about to learn next:
In the beginning of this article I wanted you to figure out whether you’re at the “skinnier” or “fluffier” side of skinny fat.
So that we can determine whether you should focus on building muscle or losing fat first.
Because here’s the deal:
Since you’re skinny fat your long-term goal is obviously to do both. However, to achieve the best results possible while also staying healthy, you must do these separately, and more importantly, within the correct body fat percentage range.
Even though it’s possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, it’s not the most effective strategy unfortunately, however it can work for some people. A better choice would be to utilize bulking and cutting cycles.
And here’s the correct body fat percentage range recommendations for bulking and cutting:
Bulk Or Cut Recommendations
- Focus on fat loss first if your body fat percentage is around 15 % or above
- Focus on muscle growth if/once your body fat percentage is 10 % or below
Here’s how to figure out your body fat percentage: Body Fat Percentage Calculator
This means that in almost all cases, if you’re skinny fat, you should start of with a cut. Since it’s very rare that a skinny fat individual starts out down at 10 % body fat.
And this is exactly what I did as well:
This is me after my first cut which lasted for around 12 weeks. I even built some muscle during this time as well, which is common.
Quick note here, if you start with a cut make sure you have a well set up bulking to cutting transition plan ready. If not you’ll risk regaining a lot of fat once you transition into the bulk. I recommend that you read this post to learn how to set up this transition plan.
Okay, so you know what to do to get rid of skinny fat. Let’s briefly cover how to set up your diet, starting with fat loss:
How to Set Up Your Diet For Fat Loss
I’ve talked extensively about dieting for fat loss in earlier posts:
- How to Diet to Get Ripped: The Complete Guide
- How to Diet For Fat Loss – The 3 Best Strategies for Getting Ripped (Effortlessly)
But here’s what you need to know for the purpose of this post:
Setting Up An Optimal Caloric Deficit For Fat Loss
The higher body fat percentage you start out with, the quicker you can lose body fat without complications. This is why the strategy of diet periodization works so well for getting ripped, which you can read more about here.
Here’s the recommendations:
Recommended Weekly Fat Loss
- If you’re above 20 % bf aim to lose 1.5-2 lbs per week
- If you’re between 15-20 % bf aim to lose 1-1.5 lbs per week
- If you’re between 10-15 % bf aim to lose 0.75-1.3 lbs per week.
If you stick to these rates, you’ll maintain, or in some cases build muscle during your fat loss phases.
Setting Up Optimal Protein Intake For Fat Loss
When it comes to fat loss, your protein intake is crucial to set up correctly, since it’s the macronutrient that will help you maintain or even build muscle during your cut.
With that said though, the optimal protein intakes for fat loss has been highly exaggerated in the fitness industry. In fact, keeping your protein intake lower comes with a host of benefits, without any negatives on muscle growth at all.
Benefits such as:
- Higher testosterone levels
- Improved training performance
- Tastier meals
- Better well being
These benefits are associated with a higher carb and fat intake, which is only possible with a lower protein intake. And on that note, your carb and fat intake doesn’t need to be set up perfectly, but I do recommend that you eat a balanced intake of both.
You can read more about setting up your macronutrients for fat loss here.
For this post, here’s the recommended protein intake:
Recommended Daily Protein Intake When Cutting
- 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, or
- 0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day.
Okay so that’s it for fat loss, but what if you start out more on the “skinnier” side of skinny fat?
Well, here’s what to do:
How to Set Up Your Diet For Muscle Growth
If you’re skinny fat but start out closer to 10 % body fat, then there’s no point going on a cut. You’ll do that later, but for now your goal is to start adding muscle mass immediately, so that you can get that muscular look.
Just as for fat loss, I’ve talked a lot about dieting for muscle growth in earlier posts as well:
- How to Diet to Get Ripped: The Complete Guide
- How to Gain Muscle Without Gaining Fat: The Simple 2 Step Process to Gain Lean Muscle Mass
But here’s what you need to know for the purpose of this post:
Setting Up An Optimal Calorie Surplus For Muscle Growth
As long as your training is on point (which we’ll look at soon), your calorie surplus should be based on your training experience.
If you’re a beginner when it comes to resistance training you can gain muscle very quickly. But the rate at which you can gain muscle falls rapidly as you’re getting more advanced.
As you can see in this table:
|Years of Training||Maximum Muscle Growth Potential|
|20-25lbs (2lbs per month) / 9 – 11 kg (0.9kg per month)
10-12lbs (1lbs per month) / 4.5 – 5.5 kg (0.45kg per month)
5-6lbs (0.5lbs per month) / 2 – 2.7 kg (0.22kg per month)
2-3lbs / 0.9 – 1.3 kg
2-3 lbs / 0.9 – 1.3kg
Lyle McDonald’s average maximum rate of muscle growth table
Okay, so what does this mean for you?
Well, if you’re a beginner, within your first year of training, you can accordingly to the table build around 2 lbs of muscle per month. That’s a lot!
Now, I don’t want to dig into the math in this post, so here’s the recommended caloric surplus based on the different training experiences:
Caloric Surplus Recommendations
Beginners (year 1):
Eat around 200 calories above maintenance every day. This should result in around 2 lbs of weight gain per month.
Novices (year 2):
Eat around 100 calories above maintenance every day. This should result in around 1 lbs of weight gain per month.
Intermediates (year 3):
Eat around 50 calories above maintenance every day. This should result in around 1 lbs of weight gain per month.
Advanced (year 4+):
Bulking is unnecessary, will just lead to excessive fat gain. Eat at maintenance calories daily, and just aim to increase strength in the gym consistently overtime.
The slight surplus you need as an advanced trainee will likely be achieved during times where more food are typically eaten. Such as over the holidays, and special weekends or occasions etc.
Setting Up Optimal Protein Intake For Muscle Growth
Okay, so protein is, just as for fat loss, important for muscle growth as well, however it’s not quite as important.
When you’re in a caloric surplus, you’re not breaking down body tissue in order to fuel your body with energy. So, a very high protein intake is not necessary for that reason.
But, you still need enough protein for the muscle building process (muscle protein synthesis). And research has shown that it’s enough to eat:
Recommended Daily Protein Intake When Bulking
- 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, or
- 0.7 grams per pound of body weight per day.
This intake will allow for more carbs and fats, which will improve lifting performance immensely, which will then lead to more muscle growth.
Finally, when it comes to protein intake for muscle growth, there’s no need to stress out about eating very frequently and making sure that you get a protein shake immediately post workout. Meal frequency and timing is way less important than getting in the total calories and protein throughout a day.
Give Intermittent Fasting a Try
If you’re starting out skinny fat I definitely recommend giving intermittent fasting a try. The reason behind this recommendation is that IF helps a lot with appetite suppression. And the biggest struggle for us skinny fat guys is a high appetite in combination with storing body fat easily while struggling with muscle growth.
With a good intermittent fasting schedule you can buffer calories for later in the day while reducing hunger during the fast itself. This has the potential to make you get and stay lean a LOT easier.
If you want to learn more about using intermittent fasting as a skinny fat individual then read this post after you’re done with this one.
Step #2 – Focus On Heavy Weightlifting
As you know, the major problem with the skinny fat physique is a lack of muscle mass. So focusing on building muscle is key, no matter if you’re in a deficit or surplus.
Okay so how do you build muscle most effectively?
- By focusing on getting stronger on big compound lifts such as squats, bench press, overhead press, deadlifts, pull-ups and rows.
- This is best done within the 4-10 rep range.
But, I’ve heard that it doesn’t matter which rep range I use?
Well, it’s true, but the low to medium rep range is way more effective.
Here’s what I mean in short:
- If you want to build larger muscles, you need to train for progressive overload, which means consistently adding weight to the bar over time.
- And if you want to consistently add weight to the bar over time, you have to consistently get stronger.
- Finally, if you want to consistently get stronger, you have to consistently emphasize lower-rep training.
But I want to do high rep pump work!
Well, you could, but I don’t recommend it.
During the beginner to intermediate stages, you’re too weak to get a good enough training stimulus from high rep training, as the weights you would be using is going to be very light.
By doing sets in the 4-10 rep range on the other hand, you’re getting full muscle fiber recruitment, mechanical tension, and enough volume per set to effectively spark muscle growth at your stage.
Another reason why it’s beneficial to train in the lower rep range, is that in order to build muscle as effectively as possible, you must match the amount of training you do with your recovery capacity.
In the beginner to intermediate stages, your muscles has the potential to grow very rapidly (which is awesome), but their recovery capacity is very low.
And if you were to do high rep training, you would also accumulate more training volume, which heavily taxes your recovery capacity at this stage. This means that you will quickly do more work than what you can recover from, and end up in a plateau.
In the 4-10 rep range on the other hand, you’ll get enough effective volume in without overtaxing your capacity to recover. And this is especially important for skinny fat individuals.
However, later as you get more advanced, that’s when it becomes beneficial to add in additional volume in the form of high rep, pump training.
In fact, an advanced individual actually requires more volume to grow, but at the same time they have the work capacity to be able to recover from the higher volumes as well. Which a beginner to early intermediate trainee simply don’t have yet.
Here’s an illustration of this:
This is even more true if you’re cutting as well. When you’re in a caloric deficit you have even less recovery capacity to work with. So it becomes even more important to keep the volume on the lower end and use a minimalistic training program.
Here’s a good beginner to intermediate training routine:
Workout A – Upper Body
- Bench Press – 5 sets of 4-6 reps
- Weighted Chins – 5 sets of 4-6 reps
- Standing Overhead Press – 3 sets of 6-8 reps
- Cable Rows – 3 sets of 6-8 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Workout B – Lower Body
- Barbell Squats – 5 sets of 4-6 reps
- Romanian Deadlift – 3 sets of 4-6 reps
- Leg Press – 5 sets of 6-8 reps
- Seated Calf Raises – 5 sets of 12-15 reps
And here’s how to progress and get stronger over time with this routine:
- Train 3 times per week on non-consecutive days. For example:
- Monday – Workout A
- Wednesday – Workout B
- Friday – Workout A
- Monday – Workout B
- Rest 3 minutes between sets. Except calf raises where you rest 1-2 minutes.
- When you hit the required reps for all sets, increase the weight with 2.5 kg (5 lbs) on all sets the following workout. If you lose a few reps on the upcoming workout, no worries. Your goal for the following workout is to add back the reps in those last sets so you can increase the weight once again.
- Use a lifting app or paper to track your progress.
If you follow this program consistently, you will increase your strength and size rapidly for a few months up to a year.
Step #3 – Take It Easy On The Cardio
Okay, so the final step if you want to stop being skinny fat, is to take it easy on the cardio.
In fact, if your goal is to get lean, muscular and healthy, doing more than 2 hours of cardio per week is completely unnecessary. Heck for a skinny fat individual, it’s potentially even negative (as I’ve written more about here).
Yep, you read that right.
Here’s the thing:
I’ve helped a lot of skinny fat people get lean and muscular.
And everyone who’s done more than 2 hours of cardio per week before working with me, has achieved great results with their physique from bringing down the cardio.
Why is this?
Well, because most cardio modalities strongly activates endurance developing pathways within the muscle cells. What this does is reducing the strength and muscle development pathways.
In other words, you reduce your bodies ability to build muscle and strength by doing to much cardio activity.
Not only that, cardio also steals a lot of energy and recovery that could go towards doing productive and effective strength training workouts instead.
But won’t cardio help me burn fat?
Yes it will, but the diet do so a lot more effectively without impairing strength and muscle development as negatively.
In fact, 1 hour on the treadmill at a moderate high intensity pace equals around 500 calories. That’s nothing for so much time and recovery capacity invested. If your goal is fat loss, it’s much better to reduce calories via the diet.
With all of this said though, some cardio is likely beneficial when bulking, and it certainly is for health, so I don’t recommend that you exclude it completely.
- Do “lifestyle” cardio like walking, cycling etc. This is low intensity cardio, that doesn’t activate endurance pathways nor does it steal from recovery, while it at the same time help burn more calories. This is also great for health, in fact, it’s been shown that you should walk at least 10.000 steps per day to stay healthy.
- Do 1 max 2 sessions of HIIT or alike. I recommend 8-12 minute intervals. Cardio workouts like this is very similar to pump training with weights, and it promotes muscle growth. However, doing to much of it and you will overtax your capacity to recovery.
Conclusion – How To Stop Being Skinny Fat
Skinny fat can briefly be explained as the physique where you look skinny in clothes, but hold stubborn and annoying fat on your abs and hips.
The reason why someone ends up skinny fat is part genetics and part environment.
You can overcome skinny fat by first accepting that you’ll have to work a bit harder for the same results as someone who starts skinny or fat. And second, by staying away from the mainstreams dieting and training tips.
Dial in a well set up caloric deficit or surplus depending on your starting point, eat enough protein for either goal, approach the gym with the goal to get stronger over time, and take it easy on the cardio.
Focusing on what you’ve learned in this post is a great start towards getting rid of the skinny fat physique, so definitely do that. Now, if you still feel a bit overwhelmed though, here’s what I recommend that you do to make all of this a LOT easier:
Get your hands on a high quality course! This is what I did in the beginning of my fitness journey and it’s the number one reason I was able to undergo my physique transformation sooner rather than later.
Having access to a step by step course and just following it to the T is the only real “shortcut” to building a ripped physique. You basically take what someone else learned over a time course of five to ten years and bring it down to a one, two or three year process depending on your goal and starting point.
Do yourself a favor and don’t wait ten years to build the physique of your dreams, get your hands on a guide and you’ll get there a LOT quicker. I use and recommend the Kinobody and Think Eat Lift courses, you can read more behind why I do so here!