- Skinny fat describes a condition in which someone is a relatively normal weight, but has too little muscle and too much body fat.
- The three primary causes of skinny fatness are severe calorie restriction, excessive cardio, and a lack of heavy, compound weightlifting.
- Keep reading to learn how to not be skinny fat (hint: it involves doing less cardio and eating more protein and probably food).
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,” like the people you just saw. For the rest of your life.
Learn how to train, diet, and supplement properly, though, and you can have the body of your dreams.
In this article, you’re going to learn . . .
- What skinny fat is
- Why people get skinny fat
- How to eat and train to ditch the skinny-fat physique
- And most importantly, how to never be skinny fat again
So let’s get started.
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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, here are some skinny fat guys:
And here are some skinny fat gals:
In other words, how skinny fat you are more or less boils down to your body composition.
That is, how much of your weight is either fat or muscle.
Even if you’re at a relatively healthy weight or BMI, it’s possible to have a skinny fat physique.
If someone is at a healthy weight, their problem isn’t generally that they have too much body fat. Instead, it’s that they have too little muscle.
This is particularly hard for many women to wrap their heads around, as they tend to be more concerned with losing fat (and reaching or maintaining a specific weight) than building muscle.
While losing weight can be helpful for improving your physique, it’s not as important as optimizing your body composition.
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 despite being at a healthy weight. 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.
Likewise, an under-muscled guy typically has to get down to sub-10 percent body fat to get abs and develop some real muscle definition. A musclebound guy can often look “lean” despite hanging out at 15% body fat.
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.
Frankly, most women can’t build enough muscle to look “bulky” unless they’re carrying around too much body fat.
That’s what really causes bulkiness—above-average muscularity and body fatness, which doesn’t produce a lean, “toned” look, but simply a larger one.
And so, most women who think they’re too “bulky” don’t have too much muscle, just body fat, and if they stripped the fat away, they’d thrill at what they see in the mirror.
You see, you can only develop the muscle definition most of us are after by first building a moderate amount of muscle mass and then reducing your body fat percentage.
I talk about this and more things that all women should know before they start working out in this article:
Summary: Skinny fat describes a condition where someone at a relatively normal body weight has too little muscle and too much body fat, giving them a shapeless, undefined look.
Although many people think they’re healthy if they aren’t overweight according to a BMI chart, this doesn’t tell the whole story.
It’s possible to be a normal weight and have a healthy BMI with an unhealthy level of body fat. In fact, research shows people can be metabolically obese at a normal body weight, meaning they aren’t overweight by medical standards but still suffer from some of the same metabolic complications as their obese counterparts, like insulin resistance, high cholesterol and trigylyceride levels, and high blood pressure.
And in most cases, these people are also skinny fat.
Now, not all skinny fat people have metabolic abnormalities, but it’s fair to say that maintaining a healthy body fat percentage is a good way to lower your risk of these conditions.
What many people don’t know, though, is that building and maintaining muscle may be just as important to your health and longevity as losing fat and staying lean.
For example, a study conducted by scientists at the University of California found that people with high levels of body fat and lean mass were less likely to die of heart disease than people with low levels of body fat and little muscle mass.
In other words, people with a lot of muscle and some extra body fat were less likely to die than their skinny-fat counterparts.
Other studies conducted at the University of Adger, Geneva University, Kaiser Permanente, and the David Geffen School of Medicine have found that people with more muscle mass have a lower risk of diabetes and cancer and a generally higher quality of life.
Summary: Someone who’s skinny fat isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but they’ll probably be healthier and reduce their risk of various diseases by losing fat and building muscle.
There isn’t a precise definition of what qualifies as “skinny fat.”
Unless you’re a metabolically obese, normal-weight person, it’s primarily a subjective determination based on how you look.
That said, a good rule of thumb is if you’re a guy somewhere between 10% and 20% body fat or a woman between 20% and 30% body fat, you’re not naturally muscular, and you haven’t done any strength training in the past year or so (or ever), you’re probably skinny fat.
Summary: If you’re 10 to 20% (men) or 20 to 30% (women) body fat, you’re not naturally muscular, and you haven’t done any strength training in the past year or so, you’re probably skinny fat.
There’s a foolproof way to become and stay skinny fat:
- Severely restrict your calories.
- Do large amounts of cardio.
- Do little to no resistance training.
In other words, ignore the bulk of mainstream fitness and weight loss advice, and especially for women.
Why do these things make you skinny fat, though?
Let’s break it down.
If you’re a regular here, you already know that meaningful weight loss requires you eat less energy than you burn.
To make matters worse, once the scale stops ticking downward (and it always does at some point), you’ll be tempted to eat even less or do even more cardiovascular exercise, which will further accelerate muscle loss.
This is a one-way street to skinny fat and why I recommend a moderately aggressive but not reckless calorie deficit of 20 to 25% for losing weight.
Summary: Severe calorie restriction results in rapid muscle loss, which promotes skinny fatness. Instead, maintain a moderate daily calorie deficit of 20 to 25%.
If you think 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 who 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 be judicious in how much cardio you do (more isn’t better).
There are two main reasons for this:
What’s more, although cardio can burn a lot of calories, it doesn’t build muscle nearly as effectively as resistance training (which can also burn a significant amount of calories).
Thus, the standard weight loss prescription of 1 to 2 hours of cardio 4 to 7 days per week is far from ideal. And especially when you combine it with some form of starvation dieting, which supercharges the damage to your physique.
To learn more about the how to properly combine cardio and weightlifting for optimal results, check out this article:
Summary: Excessive cardio contributes to skinny fatness mostly by accelerating muscle loss and impairing strength in the gym (and thus muscle gain).
Many weight loss regimens include very little or no strength 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.
Summary: Strength training is the single most effective way to maintain and build muscle mass while losing fat, and is thus one of the best ways 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?” That’s by far the most common question I get from skinny-fat people—whether they should “cut” or “lean bulk.”
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 prioritize fat loss. 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.
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.
This is particularly true if you still have “newbie gains” left on the table.
That is, if you’re a man and you haven’t gained at least 15 to 20 pounds of muscle since you started lifting weights, you likely can effectively “recomp.” The same thing is true if you’re a woman who hasn’t gained at least 8 to 10 pounds of muscle after a year of lifting weights.
In this case, you should have no trouble building muscle and losing fat simultaneously, if you know what you’re doing.
You can read this article to learn exactly how to recomp effectively:
Here are the key things you need to get right:
- Do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting.
- Be stingy with your cardio.
- Learn how to diet properly.
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.
Read this article to learn what kind of workout routine you should follow to not be skinny fat:
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.
Read this article to learn how to use high-intensity interval training to not be skinny fat:
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:
To lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit.
If your calorie intake has been very low for quite some time, and you aren’t losing much or any weight, chances are good you’d benefit from taking a more moderate approach.
There are several reasons for this.
As I mentioned earlier, crash dieting is one of the most reliable ways to burn away your hard-earned muscle—especially when combined with a bunch of cardio and high-rep, low-weight resistance training.
Thus, severely restricting your calorie intake works directly against goal number one of solving skinny fatness—building muscle.
Second, when you restrict your calories to lose fat, your body responds in various ways to reduce its total energy expenditure and slow down weight loss.
When you’ve dramatically cut your calories to lose weight and then keep them there for a long period of time, usually due to a fear of gaining weight, you’ve also significantly reduced your total daily calorie expenditure.
This makes further fat loss considerably harder, of course.
If that’s you, don’t worry—you haven’t “damaged” your metabolism or forced your body into “starvation mode.” Your body has simply adapted to its dietary conditions by burning fewer calories, which is a natural, unavoidable side effect of calorie restriction.
One of the best ways to avoid this problem is to only restrict your calories for a few months at a time before raising them back to a “maintenance” level to give your body (and mind) a break.
If you’ve already been eating a lot fewer calories than you’ve been burning for quite some time, though, the solution is simple:
Stop restricting your calories. Take a “diet break.”
Specifically, increase your calorie intake enough to simply maintain your weight by eating your approximate total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) every day. Do that for at least two weeks to get your mind and body ready for another bout of cutting, and then set your sights on fat loss again.
Once you’re ready to start cutting again, follow the instructions in this article to make it maximally effective:
Summary: If you’ve been in a large calorie deficit for a while, increase your calories to maintenance for a couple of weeks, then go into an aggressive, but not reckless calorie deficit of 20% to 25% below maintenance.
If you’ve been skinny fat for a while, chances are good you’ve tried other methods to fix it. And since you’re reading this, chances are good they didn’t work.
So, if you’re skeptical, I understand.
If you follow the advice in this article, though, exactly as I’ve laid it out, you will not be skinny fat in three to six months (depending on how skinny fat you are).
You can achieve results like these too if you follow the blueprint I’ve laid out for you in this article.
And if you ever run into problems along the way, leave a comment below and I’ll help you out!
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.
Skinny fat describes a condition wherein someone is a relatively normal weight, but has very little muscle and too much body fat.
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.
That’s where building muscle comes in. Being skinny fat isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but you can be healthier by reducing your body fat percentage and building muscle.
Fortunately, the road out is just as straightforward: you need to add muscle and reduce your body fat percentage.
The three main mistakes that cause skinny fatness are:
- Severely restricting calories.
- Doing large amounts of cardio.
- Doing little-to-no effective resistance training.
Severe calorie restriction often results in rapid muscle loss that perpetuates skinny fatness.
Excessive cardio causes skinny fat by accelerating muscle loss, making it difficult to lift weights, and failing to effectively increase fat loss as well as weightlifting.
Resistance training is the most effective way to maintain or build muscle mass while losing fat, and neglecting weightlifting for cardio is a surefire way to stay skinny fat.
The solution to skinny fat, then, is to do the opposite of this.
You should . . .
- Do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting.
- Be stingy with your cardio.
- Learn how to diet properly.
These things take time, know-how, and grind, but are easy enough to do. And once you’ve gotten the ball rolling, 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.
+ Scientific References
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- KATHLEEN THORNTON M, POTTEIGER JA. Effects of resistance exercise bouts of different intensities but equal work on EPOC. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 2002;34(4):715-722. doi:10.1097/00005768-200204000-00024
- Fatouros IG, Chatzinikolaou A, Tournis S, et al. Intensity of resistance exercise determines adipokine and resting energy expenditure responses in overweight elderly individuals. Diabetes Care. 2009;32(12):2161-2167. doi:10.2337/dc08-1994
- Escamilla RF, Francisco AC, Fleisig GS, et al. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000;32(7):1265-1275. doi:10.1097/00005768-200007000-00013
- Bryner RW, Sauers J, Donley D, et al. Effects of Resistance vs. Aerobic Training Combined With an 800 Calorie Liquid Diet on Lean Body Mass and Resting Metabolic Rate. J Am Coll Nutr. 1999;18(2):115-121. doi:10.1080/07315724.1999.10718838
- Gergley JC. Comparison of two lower-body modes of endurance training on lower-body strength development while concurrently training. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(3):979-987. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a0629d
- Jones TW, Howatson G, Russell M, French DN. Performance and neuromuscular adaptations following differing ratios of concurrent strength and endurance training. J strength Cond Res. 2013;27(12):3342-3351. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b2cf39
- Melanson EL, Keadle SK, Donnelly JE, Braun B, King NA. Resistance to exercise-induced weight loss: Compensatory behavioral adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013;45(8):1600-1609. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e31828ba942
- Sawyer BJ, Bhammar DM, Angadi SS, et al. Predictors of fat mass changes in response to aerobic exercise training in women. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(2):297-304. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000726
- Huovinen HT, Hulmi JJ, Isolehto J, et al. Body composition and power performance improved after weight reduction in male athletes without hampering hormonal balance. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(1):29-36. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000619
- Durrant ML, Garrow JS, Royston P, Stalley SF, Sunkin S, Warwick PM. Factors influencing the composition of the weight lost by obese patients on a reducing diet. Br J Nutr. 1980;44(3):275-285. doi:10.1079/bjn19800042
- Srikanthan P, Karlamangla AS. Relative muscle mass is inversely associated with insulin resistance and prediabetes. Findings from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011;96(9):2898-2903. doi:10.1210/jc.2011-0435
- Caan BJ, Cespedes Feliciano EM, Kroenke CH. The importance of body composition in explaining the overweight paradox in cancer. Cancer Res. 2018;78(8):1906-1912. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-17-3287
- Rizzoli R, Reginster JY, Arnal JF, et al. Quality of life in sarcopenia and frailty. Calcif Tissue Int. 2013;93(2):101-120. doi:10.1007/s00223-013-9758-y
- Haraldstad K, Rohde G, Stea TH, et al. Changes in health-related quality of life in elderly men after 12 weeks of strength training. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act. 2017;14(1):8. doi:10.1186/s11556-017-0177-3
- Srikanthan P, Horwich TB, Tseng CH. Relation of Muscle Mass and Fat Mass to Cardiovascular Disease Mortality. Am J Cardiol. 2016;117(8):1355-1360. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2016.01.033
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