A person is “skinny fat” when they have too little muscle mass (i.e. skinny, scrawny, lanky, etc.) and too much body fat.
Rest assured that being skinny fat is completely “curable.”
It’s not caused by genetics, or the fact that you didn’t eat a gluten-free or keto diet.
The skinny fat look comes from not having enough muscle on your body compared to the amount of fat it has.
This is why it is important to focus on building muscle with your workouts. (and no, women, you will not get “bulky” by lifting weights.)
The less muscle mass there is on a body, the more likely it is to look skinny fat even at low body fat percentages.
The reason for this is that muscles are what gives the body its appealing shape and dimensions.
For example, let’s say two men have a body fat percentage of 15%. Guy #1 has relatively little muscle, and Guy B has paid his dues in the gym and built a decent amount of muscle.
Guy #1 is going to look skinny fat while Guy #1 will pass the “do you even lift?” eye-test.
So, what about women?
By and large, the average female gym rat is under the impression that lifting weights can transform their bodies into that of a unfeminine-looking, muscle-bound She-Hulk.
However, the simple truth of the matter is that it is incredibly difficult for women to build enough muscle to look like some anabolic-fueled bodybuilders regardless of what the fitness blogs and magazines tell you.
The only time a woman can appear too “bulky” occurs when they:
- Use “special” sports supplements (i.e. steroids), or
- Add a considerable amount of muscle while already carrying around a high level of body fat
In other words, building muscle is a very, very good thing for your aesthetics as well as your overall health. Men and women should be focusing on building muscle while losing fat.
With that said, let’s now take a look into why people become skinny fat as well as the common diet and exercise mistakes they make.
How Do You Get Skinny Fat?
Developing the skinny fat looks occurs as a result of doing three things:
- Excessively reducing your calorie intake
- Performing too much cardio
- Not focusing on lifting heavy to build muscle and strength
If you’ve spent any considerable time scouring the fitness blogosphere or magazine rack at the store, you’ve likely seen recommendations that in order to achieve the body you’ve always wanted you need to starve yourself, perform hours of cardio, and lift light weights for high-reps to “tone” muscles and burn fat.
However, these same pointers, while they may sell magazines and ad-space on high-profile websites, are the exact same things leading you to look skinny fat.
You see, when you drastically cut calories, while simultaneously ratcheting up the amount of cardio you’re doing each week, your body doesn’t have enough energy (or protein) to perform, repair, and recover from exercise.
As a result, your body will begin to break down its own lean tissue (muscle) to get the requisite energy and amino acids it needs to survive.
In case you weren’t aware, muscle is very “expensive” for your body to retain from a calorie standpoint (meaning it takes more energy to maintain muscle than fat).
So, in an effort to conserve energy, increase the amount of energy available, and sustain life, your body will catabolize (“break down”) muscle tissue.
Inevitably, individuals following the ridiculously low calorie diet and extreme cardio plan will lose weight, but it’s not the “right” type of weight loss.
Yes, the number on the scale is going down, but that doesn’t always mean you’re losing fat. In the case of consuming too little calories and protein and doing excessive bouts of cardio, you’re losing precious lean mass while increasing the skinny fat look.
Now that you know what causes people to look skinny fat, let’s see how you can prevent it from happening or what you can do to correct it if you presently have the skinny fat look.
How to Fix Skinny Fat
A skinny fat body is one that has too little muscle and too much body fat.
If you find yourself in this situation, you may be tempted to attempt a “recomp” where you try to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously.
However, this may not be the most efficient approach for you to take, especially if you have been training for any considerable length of time.
You see, when an individual is first starting out their body is untrained, and adapts to just about any sort of stimulus. Due to the novelty of training, these individuals can build muscle and lose fat relatively easily.
However, as you become more and more tolerant to the stresses of resistance-training, your ability to recomp efficiently and effectively decreases.
This leads us to the next question...
“Should I try to lose fat or build muscle, first?”
This question is one that millions of people battling the skinny fat dilemma ask themselves daily.
Generally speaking, women focus on losing body fat (“cutting), while men tend to favor starting with build muscle (bulking).
The reality is that you will need to do both if you want to have a successful body transformation.
If you already have a decent amount of lean muscle mass on your body, you should decide to focus on shedding the excess body fat. It’s always easier to lose fat than gain muscle, so, if you’re interested in seeing results quickly, you may want to start your transformation challenge by dropping fat.
Now, if you presently have very little lean mass on your body but a fair amount of body fat, you need to focus on building muscle. The reason for this is that if you try to cut with very little lean mass you won’t really see that much of a difference in the overall appearance of your physique.
Yes, you’ll have dropped some body fat, but due to the lack of lean muscle on your body, you won’t have the muscle tone or definition you hoped to have at the end of your cut.
As we already mentioned, building muscle is more arduous than losing fat for the average person, but it is a necessary step if you want to successfully end your days of looking skinny fat.
Now, let’s address the three things you need to do to fix skinny fat once and for all:
- Follow a proper fat loss diet
- Avoid excessive steady-state cardio
- Perform resistance-training 3-4 times per week
Follow a Fat Loss Diet
In order to lose body fat, you will need to follow a fat loss diet, which means you are burning more calories than you consume each day. Since weight loss is primarily a function of calories in vs calories out, in order to shed body fat, you will need to create an energy deficit.
But, losing body fat isn’t as simple as slashing your calories ridiculously low.
Following an ultra-restrictive diet that is absurdly low in calories and protein will lead to muscle loss, further worsening the skinny fat look.
When we set up fat loss diets, or really any diet in general, we like to begin by setting protein intake as protein is the most important macronutrient when it comes to body composition.
For fat loss diets, we like to set protein between 1-1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight. The reason for this is that when you are consuming fewer calories than the body requires to maintain its weight, you are at a heightened risk of muscle loss.
The reason for this is that muscle is calorically expensive, and since calories are at a premium when you’re cutting, the body will want to eliminate the most taxing energy systems that aren’t absolutely essential to survival.
By consuming a high-protein diet, you will help guard against excess muscle protein breakdown, thereby supporting lean muscle retention while dieting.
Next, we like to set fat intake between 0.3-0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Carbs are the final macronutrient set, and its amount is determined by subtracting your protein and fat calories from your total daily calorie intake and dividing by four (since carbohydrates have four calories per gram).
If you need help figuring out how many calories you need to lose weight, click here.
Now that diet is taken care of, let’s move on to the step #2 of ending the skinny fat look…
Don’t Perform Too Much Cardio
You’ve likely heard that in order to burn fat, you need to exercise at a low-to-moderate intensity to stay in your “fat burning” zone.
And while it’s true that exercising at lower intensities does increase the amount of fat that is burned for fuel during exercise, that doesn’t necessarily translate to greater body fat loss or weight loss.
Remember at the outset, that in order to lose weight, you must be in an energy deficit.
As such, it doesn’t matter how long you are in your “fat burning zone” -- if you’re not burning more energy than you’re taking in daily, you will not lose weight.
Furthermore, performing prolonged bouts of steady state cardio can actually impair muscle recovery, accelerate muscle breakdown, and increase hunger.
Yes, cardio can be a means to increase your energy intake daily, but slogging it out for hours and hours on the treadmill or elliptical isn’t the most efficient use of your time, nor the most efficient way to create an energy deficit.
We’re partial to performing a couple bouts of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) during the week. HIIT is just as effective for weight loss and body recomposition as traditional steady-state cardio, but it takes considerably less time and supports lean muscle mass retention.
If you’re looking for another way to increase energy expenditure during the day without having to do traditional cardio, you can try aiming for 20,000 steps per day and/or performing some short bursts of bodyweight exercises during your free time.
Lift Weights 3-4 Times Per Week
The least emphasized component to eliminating the skinny fat look is that you need to build muscle. The most effective means to build muscle for the average person is to perform resistance-training a handful of times per week.
You can build muscle using just about any program out there -- high reps, low reps, bodyweight exercises, machines, free weights.
It all works.
The thing that matters most with your resistance-training sessions is that you constantly push for progress in your workouts.
The reason for this is that progressive overload is the driver of muscle growth. In other words, you need to continually challenge your muscles to move more weight, perform more reps and more sets so that they are forced to grow.
By constantly challenging your muscles to do more each subsequent workout, you force them to adapt and grow bigger and stronger. Plus, resistance-training also serves as a powerful stimulus to help your body retain lean muscle while dieting.
Being skinny fat is something millions of people deal with each day. By and large, the skinny fat look is caused by a mixture of too little muscle, too much body fat, and poor nutrition and training advice.
That’s where this article comes in.
If you’re looking to build your best body ever, use the tips and pointers in this article to eliminate the skinny fat look once and for all.
And, if you’re looking for added motivation to transform your physique and push your mind and body to new heights, consider entering the 1UP Transformation Challenge where we give away $50,000 in Cash and Prizes to 10 Total WINNERS (5 Female and 5 Male).