How the hell does one go from skinny fat to fit?
You've seen the amazing transformations and success stories. People start skinny fat or overweight and manage to change their bodies in such profound ways. Some share what they've learned along the way. Others only show only the end product.
But deep down, you know what you want to achieve: lose the fat and build muscle.
And do you want to know a secret? It does come down to this. It is that simple.
But where do you begin? How do you approach it? A thousand questions arise.
In reality, the whole process is pretty straightforward. What you need is to know the basics and apply them consistently. Once you get going, the entire process can be enjoyable.
What Does 'Skinny Fat' Look Like?
To diagnose whether you fall into the skinny-fat category, we first need to look at what it is.
A skinny-fat person typically appears thin with clothes on but has a high body fat percentage. The person has love handles, a pouchy gut, and, in some cases, man boobs.
Here is a skinny-fat guy:
And here is an example of a skinny-fat girl:
Why Do People Get Skinny Fat?
To be skinny-fat, you need to have little muscle mass on your frame and a high body fat percentage. You may appear thin and fit while wearing clothes, but not so much when you're shirtless.
Aside from genetics and leading a sedentary lifestyle, bad training and nutritional habits are often responsible for the skinny-fat look.
When most people decide they want to transform their bodies and lose weight, they often jump the cardio bandwagon. They combine lots of cardio with a severe slash in calories. In a few short months, they go from overweight to skinny-fat.
(For some people, this weight loss approach also leads to binge eating episodes, but this is a topic for another time.)
The reason for this effect is simple:
Because of the severe calorie deficit, you are bound to lose weight. But, by not practicing strength training and not consuming enough protein, you are very likely to burn muscle for energy alongside fat.
You might be wondering, "Well, I finally look thin, so what's wrong with this approach?"
The biggest mistake you could make with your weight loss is to let yourself lose a lot of muscle mass in the process. Even if you don't aspire to get jacked, having more muscle is incredibly beneficial.
Having more muscle means that your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and, by extension, total daily energy intake (TDEE) are higher. As a result, you can eat a bit more food without gaining weight.
Having more muscle on your frame also makes you look much better once you've lost some fat. Instead of looking skinny-fat, you have a lean and athletic physique.
Take a look at the below two photos. The first one is of your typically skinny-fat guy. He might have recently come out of a massive weight loss journey, but he still has a considerable amount of fat and little muscle on his frame.
In the second photo, the person also has some fat on his frame, but he also has a lot more muscle mass. As a result, he looks great. You can tell that he trains and eats well.
What Makes the Typical Weight Loss Approach Contribute to the Skinny-Fat Look?
If you're like most people, you might be thinking, "Well, I'm eating healthily and exercising regularly. Why can't I get decent results for my work?"
It's frustrating, I know. But what the typical weight loss approach fails to do is be precise. For example, you might be eating nothing but clean foods every day, but are you eating enough calories for your goals? Are you eating enough of each macronutrient - proteins, carbs, and fats?
You might need to eat around 2,200 calories per day to lose weight, but you might be eating 1,600 and unnecessarily making things more difficult and less effective for yourself.
The best thing you can do is count your calories and macronutrients. That way, you know exactly how much food you need to eat every day to achieve your goals as smoothly as possible. You will create enough of a deficit to serve your needs. When the inevitable fat loss plateau comes, you will have the room to drop your calorie intake a bit more and resume the fat loss journey.
Also, if you follow the principles of flexible dieting, you'll be able to enjoy foods like pizza and chips in moderation and still lose fat. This type of eating has become incredibly popular in the last decade or so, and it's because it allows dietary freedom. It's easier to follow, and you get to enjoy your nutrition while making progress.
This is where clean eaters hit a turning point. They eat 'clean,' exercise plenty, and lose weight every week. But then, weight loss stops, and that continues for weeks. Most people panic and slash their calories even more or get angry and quit. As you can imagine, neither scenario is beneficial.
The other aspect of the flawed weight loss approach has to do with exercise—specifically, the amount and type of training.
Most people combine a severe calorie restriction with a sudden and massive increase in physical activity, typically in the form of cardio. Because of cardio's low-intensity nature, it doesn't serve you well because it doesn't help protect muscle mass when dieting.
Folks who diet and only do cardio tend to lose a lot of muscle mass alongside the fat, which further contributes to the skinny-fat look. Allow me to illustrate what I mean:
The above is a photo of some long-distance runners. While not skinny-fat, they share one common characteristic: low muscular development.
Now, compare them to a woman who lifts weights:
As you can see, the difference is noticeable. The long-distance runners are skinny but don't have much in the way of muscle. But, the fitness model has a decent amount of muscle mass and looks great.
The bottom line?
Combining regular strength training with an adequate protein intake and a moderate calorie deficit will help you maintain a lot more muscle mass and lose fat instead. We'll go over the specifics in the following points. This will help you get rid of the skinny-fat look, and you might even experience a degree of body recomposition in the process (especially if you're new to lifting weights).
The Skinny-Fat Solution: How to Go From Skinny Fat to Fit
Despite seeing many 'one-shoe-fits-all' solutions out there, there are different categories of skinny-fat individuals—three, to be exact. Each requires a different approach, and you should follow the plan that best suits your current situation.
How to Fix The Skinny-Fat Look As a Complete Beginner
You're new to training. You've never lifted weights or have only done so for short periods in the past. You don't have much muscle mass, but your body fat percentage is high, and you look skinny-fat.
This is where most guys and girls start. The great thing about this stage is that you have the opportunity to pull off a body recomposition (build muscle and lose fat at the same time). Here, you get to enjoy newbie gains: your body isn't used to the stress of training and is highly susceptible to positive adaptations, even if you're not eating too many calories.
How to Train During This Period
I typically prescribe at least some heavy lifting in a program, but you should wait as a gym newbie. When you're first starting, it's essential to focus on learning the movements before adding much weight to the bar.
Too often, beginners load up the bar and lift with poor technique. This prevents them from training the right muscles well and increases the risk of injuries and aches.
For the first few months of training, you should focus on a few core movements and gradually improve your technique. As a beginner, you'll be able to improve your strength regularly while maintaining good form.
If you're interested in a simple and effective beginner program, I've put together one for you:
Download a FREE skinny fat workout plan
Here are some instructional videos on how to perform the basic lifts:
How to Make Your Nutrition Work For You
Let's face it:
No matter how good your training plan is, your nutrition is what dictates change. If you don't pay careful attention, you won't see the results you hope for.
Since your goal is to lose fat and get rid of the skinny-fat look, you need to be in a calorie deficit: consuming fewer calories than you burn each day.
Once the newbie phase is over, building muscle while eating in a deficit will become increasingly more difficult. But, for the first few months, you can make significant gains.
To cover your nutrition well, you'll have to calculate your caloric needs and track them alongside protein. Start by calculating your BMR: the number of calories your body burns every day at rest.
BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)
BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) - (4.7 x age in years)
BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years)
BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) - (6.8 x age in years)
Once you have your BMR, it's time to use the below activity multiplier to find what your TDEE is: the number of total calories your body burns each day.
- Sedentary (little or no exercise): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
- Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725
- Extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.9
Now, calculate a moderate deficit of 250 to 400 calories. Of the three macronutrients, I recommend keeping track of protein alone: get around 0.8 grams per pound of body weight.
Here is an example:
Mary is 29-years-old, weighs 135 pounds, and is 5'7" (about 67 inches). So, to use the above formula:
BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)
BMR = 655 + (4.35 x 135) + (4.7 x 67) - (4.7 x 29)
BMR = 1421 calories
Let's also say that Mary is moderately active. She does moderate exercise three to five times per week. In this case, we will use the 1.55 activity multiplier. So:
1421 x 1.55 = 2200 calories
Now, let's apply a 300-calorie deficit to this number:
2200 - 300 = 1900 calories
This will be Mary's starting point. Also, because she weighs 135 pounds, she should aim for around 108 grams of protein per day.
With that said, keep in mind that these calculations only give us a starting point, and we should then monitor our progress (more on that below) and make adjustments as needed.
I wrote an entire guide on body recomposition (the art of building muscle and losing fat simultaneously. You can check it out here.
How Long Does This Period Last?
You should follow this path for as long as you can make progress. This will vary from person to person, but it usually lasts anywhere from three to six months.
Once the newbie gains are gone, your lifts will most likely stall. Being in a caloric deficit won't cut it anymore. At this point, you will have two options:
- Continue with your caloric deficit and get leaner.
- Increase your calories up and go into a small surplus to start building muscle.
(I wrote about the recovery diet more in the next section. You can learn the exact process and apply it if you decide to increase your caloric intake.)
What it comes down to is your personal decision and how you prefer to look. Sean Nalewanyj made a great video on this exact topic, and I encourage you to check it out.
How to Approach Being Skinny Fat After You've Just Lost Some Weight
You're new to training. You might have spent some time playing around with weights, but your primary focus has been cardio for weight loss. You don't have much muscle on your frame, but you don't like how you look after your weight loss period.
The primary difference from the previous category is that you had to lose weight to become skinny fat.
This is another common category of skinny-fat people, and I was once in this same position, clueless as to what I should do. If the above describes you well and you can answer with a yes to the three statements below, then you fall into this category and should read on.
- "I've lost quite a bit of weight recently, and everyone is complimenting me on my great results. Yet, when I look at myself in the mirror shirtless, I don't particularly like what I see."
- "I have been in the gym during my weight loss, but I didn't do a lot of lifting. My main focus was on cardio."
- "I went about my weight loss in a typical manner: clean eating paired up with a lot of cardio work."
This category is a bit trickier than the first one because of one thing:
You've already spent a lot of time in a calorie deficit. You've experienced the adverse effects of dieting: a lower metabolic rate, higher hunger levels, food focus, and such. Staying in a calorie deficit is not a wise decision right now.
The next best route for you is a recovery diet. Whether you want to lose more fat or start building a solid muscle base, this is a mandatory step, so don't skip it. Also, if you haven't been tracking your calories so far, don't worry.
Calculate your TDEE with the above formula and activity multiplier, and start eating around that number. Keep your calories there for up to ten days and weigh yourself every morning on an empty stomach.
Do a waist measurement now and after seven days. Take a few progress photos now and after seven days: one front, one side, and one back, all in a relaxed state. Take them at the same time of day, using the same poses, and in the same light.
The goal here is to determine whether you're eating at maintenance. If you keep losing weight after seven days, bump your calories by about 150 and go for another seven to ten days.
Once you're at maintenance and eat that way for a while, you will allow your body to recover and get back to normal:
- Your hormones will begin to normalize after the diet
- You will restore your muscle and liver glycogen stores
Most importantly, you will put yourself in a better position to decide what you want to do next. The entire process should take you up to six weeks. At that point, you will have two options:
- Add a small calorie surplus of 200-250 and start building muscle over time.
- Add a moderate calorie deficit of 250-400 calories and focus on further losing fat.
At this point, it mostly comes down to personal preference. You're at a great spot to start building muscle, but you can also keep losing fat. If you haven't watched the video I posted about this very dilemma, I encourage you to check it out.
Also, because you're a gym newbie, your training will be the same as for the previous category. You can download a beginner program I put together below:
Download a FREE skinny fat workout plan
How to Approach Being Skinny Fat If You've Got Some Lifting Experience
You've put some time under the bar, and you've achieved some muscle and strength gain. Still, your body fat percentage is high, and you're skinny-fat because you haven't built much muscle yet.
This category is different from the above two in a few significant ways:
- I assume that you've been practicing compound lifts, and your technique is decent. If not, you're at least proficient in some resistance exercises. You can also check out the videos I posted above.
- I assume you've gained some muscle thanks to your newbie status, and you're slowly adding weight on the bar.
- I assume you keep track of your calories and protein. I also guess that you have a good idea of how much weight you've gained in the last few months.
This is an excellent place to start a fat loss phase because you now have some muscle mass to justify it. Also, some folks in this situation might experience a degree of body recomposition. It's difficult to say how experienced you need to get for body recomposition to become borderline impossible.
By doing this, you will set yourself up for a fantastic bulking cycle afterward because you will be leaner, which carries some benefits. Namely:
- You can bulk for a bit longer. In other words, you have a slightly longer 'runway' before you get overly-fluffy.
- You can see progress better because you won't have a thick layer of fat covering your muscles.
- You get to look better thanks to having less fat on your frame. Let's face it: we all care about this one.
Now, let's take a look at what you need to do here.
How to Eat During This Phase
The biggest mistake most people make when trying to lose fat is to jump headfirst into the process. They immediately add a lot of cardio and cut their calories too much, which sets them up for failure from the start.
To avoid this mistake, you need to pace yourself. Start by decreasing your calorie intake gradually over a few weeks. For example, if you're currently eating around 3,600 calories per day, don't immediately drop them to 2,000. Instead, drop them to approximately 3,200. Monitor your progress for a couple of weeks and see how your body responds.
From there, drop them by another 200 and go for another week. Monitor progress, and if you find that you're still not losing any fat, lower your calories by another 150-200.
Within three weeks, you should be in a calorie deficit and losing fat. The goal of this is simple:
Find the highest number of calories you can lose significant fat on. This sets you up for success because you have room to decrease your calories further once weight loss inevitably slows down. Once your fat loss plateaus, you can either:
- Decrease calorie intake by 100 per day and see if that gets you going again
- Start incorporating cardio and keep your calorie intake the same
But to achieve this, the process needs to be gradual. As far as diet composition goes, you should mostly track your protein - aim for around 0.8 grams per pound of body weight. For nutritional choices and such, I recommend adopting a flexible dieting mindset.
Progress photos, circumference measurements, and morning weigh-ins are valuable tools that will help you better track your progress. We'll go over these more in-depth below.
How to Train
A big misconception about fat loss training is that you need to use light weights and do tons of repetitions to 'bring out definition.' This is a huge mistake.
Sure, training with lighter weights has its benefits. But you shouldn't base your entire training program on that and completely disregard the other repetition ranges. The reason for that is simple:
Training exclusively with light weights will lead to a lot more muscle and strength loss than you need to endure. If you instead use a mixture of intensities and repetition ranges, you'll be able to retain more muscle and strength in the process.
There are two big reasons why using only light weights is counterproductive:
- Spot reduction is a myth. Feeling a burn in your muscles doesn't mean that you'll burn more fat in that area.
- Muscle retention while dieting depends on two factors: consuming enough protein and putting your muscles under heavy loads.
My main idea here is that you should keep your training the same, at least initially. Use the same weights, repetition ranges, exercises, and overall program. As far as your training volume and frequency go:
Being in a calorie deficit will lead to lower energy levels and a decreased ability to recover from training. There is no way around this. Once you've been dieting for several weeks, doing high-frequency and high-volume training won't cut it anymore.
Aside from regular deload weeks, you should also gradually reduce your volume across all workouts. You can even remove one to two training days (depending on your training frequency) and combine more muscle groups. Here is an example of volume reduction:
Let's say that you're doing 16 sets for chest, 16 for back, 18 for your entire lower body, 12 for shoulders, and 9 for biceps and triceps each. Here, you can drop two working sets from each body part and see how it impacts you within a couple of weeks. It might not seem like much, but that simple change will reduce your overall volume by 12 sets.
I recommend getting rid of sets from your accessory and isolation exercises and keeping your compound lifts the same.
Here is how you can reduce your training frequency:
If you follow a typical four-day split but find it hard to keep up, knock one day off and combine more muscle groups into fewer workouts. For example, say that your current split looks like this:
Chest and triceps
Back and biceps
Shoulders and traps
You can transition to a three-day split:
Chest and triceps + shoulders
Back and biceps + traps
Notice how we added the shoulder work on Monday and the trap work on Wednesday.
I've written a lot more about strength training for fat loss here.
How to Track Your Skinny Fat Progress Effectively
While we haven't gone over progress tracking thus far, this process is of enormous importance. Many people spend countless hours in the gym, yet they can't find a few minutes to fill in their workout log or take a couple of progress pictures. Without data, you won't know how far you've come. Even worse, you won't know whether your current plan works.
Tracking your progress is even more important for fat loss. It gives you a much better understanding of whether you're on the right track or need to adjust things. For example, eating a mere 200 calories more than you should every day can significantly slow down your fat loss.
Here is how to track your progress effectively:
1. Progress photos
I recommend taking a set of up to ten photos of yourself to have a good understanding of where you begin. Take photos of your back, front, and side in a relaxed and flexed state.
After that, take progress photos every two to three weeks. Take them at the same time of day (ideally, in the morning), under the same light, and while using the same poses.
No matter what your starting point is, taking the photos in the same way each time will give you a good idea of how your body is changing.
Body weight can also give you valuable insight into how your body is changing over time. To make weigh-ins effective, you should take several per week (at least four) and calculate the weekly average. As you wake up in the morning, go to the bathroom, and step on the scale afterward.
Write down the exact value each time and then calculate the week's average. Daily fluctuations are normal and expected, so comparing changes from week to week will give you much more accurate data.
3. Circumference measurements
Aside from visual and body weight changes, taking measurements of key areas on your body will help further tell you how you're doing. For example, if you find that your weigh-ins stall for a couple of weeks but your waist gets smaller in that same time, you can conclude that you're losing fat, but that maybe you're retaining more water, which is masking your progress.
Like the previous tracking methods, I recommend doing this in the morning on an empty stomach. That way, you can avoid bloating that can occur later in the day and skew your results.
I recommend taking measures of the following:
- Left and right upper arm
- Chest (at nipple line)
- Two inches above the navel
- At the navel
- Left and right thighs
Here is a comprehensive video by Scott Herman on how to take accurate measurements.
As for the frequency, I recommend taking measurements every two to three weeks, much like you would take progress photos.
4. Gym performance
Tracking your workouts is also essential as it gives you further insight into how things are going. Plus, seeing that you're doing better can be a huge motivator in the long run.
You can get yourself a workout log or a plain notebook. It doesn't need to be anything fancy. Write down the date, what exercises you've done, the number of sets, and the number of reps.
I use an app called Evernote. I've created separate notes that represent each workout. On top of each note, I write the focus of my workout (e.g., deadlift session, squat session, etc.) and the date. On workouts where I do bodyweight movements (such as pull-ups, dips, etc.) I also write my morning weigh-in. You don't have to be as detail-oriented if you don't want to.
Below that, I list each exercise along with the number of sets and reps that I do. On the compound lifts, I also record my rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and whether I'm wearing a belt or not (for the squat and deadlift).
Once the training week is done, I sit down for about 15 minutes and write down each workout in my notebook. After that, all I have to do is revisit each note, change the date, adjust loads on some exercises, and I'm done.
How Long Is The Skinny Fat Transformation Going to Take?
Changing your body composition will be challenging. You will need to put in the work, and you will have to push through things, even when you don't feel like it.
Despite the hard work, you will find yourself feeling like you're not making progress at times. This is one reason why I emphasize progress tracking so much: you have hard data of your progress, even when you feel like you're stalling.
The best answer I can give you is this:
It's going to take as long as it needs to until you reach your desired look. Don't despair, and don't compare yourself to people who've been at it for years. Do your work, track your progress, and you will succeed.
Going From Skinny Fat to Fit: Do Supplements Play a Role In The Equation?
I don't like to rely on supplements too much. I take a handful of products that have significant scientific backing. Everything else, I discard.
So long as you follow the plans outlined above, you will achieve great results without spending a single cent on any products. Still, I recommend the following:
1. Creatine monohydrate
Creatine is one of the few products worth taking. If you're interested in learning more about it, I welcome you to check out the article I wrote on it a while back.
Take the standard three to five grams per day, and don't worry about the timing.
2. Protein powder
Protein powder is not mandatory for muscle gain or fat loss, but I take and recommend it because it's a convenient source of protein. Instead of having to eat yet another chicken breast, you can have a quick scoop of protein powder and go about your day.
Protein powders are also a cheap source of protein. Sure, you have to pay a bit more upfront, but the cost per serving is typically less than poultry, meat, and such.
3. Fish oil
This is more of a health supplement, but I recommend it for most people because the average person rarely eats fatty fish.
Omega-3's are proven to support our well-being and could even benefit our fitness efforts. You can learn a lot more about them in this article.
Transforming your body doesn't happen easily. It takes dedication and discipline to form life-transforming habits, and you won't always feel like going to the gym to train.
But do you know what? It's all worth it. You will prove to yourself that you can achieve something admirable, so long as you put your mind to it and do the work. In doing that, you won't merely transform your body. You will also elevate your mindset and adopt a superior approach to everything. Your life, finances, relationships, and everything in-between will be better.
As cliché as it may sound, fitness is not just about the physical, but also about the mental. The rewards are well worth the effort.