How the hell does one go from skinny fat to fit?
You’ve seen the amazing transformations and success stories.
People starting out 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 the end product.
But deep down you know what you want to achieve: lose the damn 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 and simple. What you need is to know the basics and APPLY them day in and day out.
Once you get going, the whole process can actually be enjoyable.
What Does 'Skinny Fat' Look Like?
Before we can diagnose whether you fall into the skinny-fat category or not, we first need to look at what it is.
A skinny fat person usually appears thin in clothes but actually has a high body fat percentage. The person has love handles, a pouchy gut and in some cases – man boobs.
Here's a skinny fat guy:
And here is an example of a skinny fat girl:
Why Do People Get Skinny Fat?
To look and be skinny-fat, you need to have a low amount of muscle mass and a high body fat percentage. You may appear thin and in-shape while wearing clothes, but not so much when you’re shirtless.
Bad training and nutrition habits are responsible for the skinny-fat look more than anything else.
When most people decide they want to transform their bodies and lose the excess weight, they often jump the cardio bandwagon.
They combine that with a severe slash in calories and ineffective ‘fat-burning’ supplements. And in a few short months, they look skinny fat.
(In some cases, this also leads to binge eating episodes, but that's another topic for another time.)
The reason for that is simple:
This makes the body very likely to burn muscle for energy as well as fat.
Now, you might be wondering: “Well, I finally look thin so what’s wrong with that?”.
The biggest mistake you could make with your weight loss is not trying to keep your muscle mass.
Having more muscle means your BMR(Basal Metabolic Rate) and TDEE(Total Daily Energy Expenditure) are going to be higher. You can eat more calories every day.
But, it also makes you look much better once you’ve lost some fat.
Take a look at these 2 pictures below. On the first one, the person is your typical skinny fat guy. He might have come out from a massive weight loss journey but he still has a considerable amount of fat with little muscle underneath.
Now, take a look at the second one. He has a lower body fat percentage and he also has more muscle mass on him. You can tell he lifts and eats enough protein.
What Makes the Typical Weight Loss Approaches so Bad, Contributing to the 'Skinny Fat' Look?
Now, you might be wondering:
“Well, I’m eating healthy and exercising. Why can’t I get decent results for my work?”.
It’s frustrating, I know. But what your typical weight loss approach fails to do is be more exact.
Sure, you might be eating nothing but clean, whole foods all day, but are you eating enough food?
Are you eating enough of each macronutrient?
You could be under eating every day without even knowing it.
The best thing you can do is actually count your calories and macronutrients. You will know exactly how much food you can eat every day.
Also, if you follow flexible dieting you’ll be able to fit foods like pizza and chips into your diet and still lose fat.
The flexible diet has become quite popular in the last 5-10 years and it’s because it’s not restrictive. It’s not hard to follow and you actually get to enjoy your nutrition while losing fat.
And, by taking the time to count your calories and know your everyday intake, you will be able to eat more food than you think you should and lose fat more efficiently.
You will create enough of a caloric deficit to serve your needs. And when the time comes and your fat loss stalls, you can drop your calorie intake a bit more and resume.
This is where clean eaters usually hit a turning point.
They eat 'clean', exercise plenty and lose weight on a weekly basis. But, one day that weight loss stops, and that continues for weeks.
So, most people either panic and slash their calories into nothingness or get angry and frustrated and call it quits.
The other aspect of the flawed weight loss approach has to do with exercise. More importantly, not due to the lack of it.
See, most people combine a severe calorie restriction with a sudden increase in physical activity(often in the form of cardio).
I’ve stated many times that cardio is actually good for us. It provides many health benefits and everyone should do it.
But, because of the nature of low-intensity cardio, it doesn’t serve you best to rely on it for proper weight loss.
And when I say ‘weight loss’ I mean fat loss. There is a big difference and your goal should be the latter one.
As I said above, LISS cardio isn’t the best way to approach fat loss. You will lose a significant amount of muscle mass as well as fat in the process (which further contributes to the whole skinny-fat look).
Take a look at these long-distance runners:
Now, compare them to a woman who regularly lifts weights and has a relatively low body fat percentage:
As you can see, the difference is tremendous.
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.
Not only will this help you get rid of the skinny-fat look but you will most likely gain muscle and strength in the process if you’re a gym newbie.
The Skinny Fat Solution: How to Go From Skinny Fat to Fit
There are different stages you could be in so I decided to split them into 3 main categories. Each provides a different approach to attacking the skinny-fat look.
You should follow the one which best describes your current situation.
How to Approach Being Skinny Fat as a Beginner
You are a gym newbie. You've never lifted weights or have done so for short periods in the past. You don't have much muscle mass but your body fat percentage is higher and you look skinny fat.
This is where most guys and girls start. What is great about this stage is that you have the opportunity to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
The 'newbie gains' phase is where your body isn’t used to the stress of lifting. You can build muscle, get stronger all while in a caloric deficit.
How to Train During That Period
I normally suggest focusing on heavy lifting, but as a gym newbie – wait. When you're starting out, focus on learning the movements before adding serious weights on the bar.
Too often I see complete beginners training in a low rep-range(1-6) with a screwed up technique. Not only are they NOT getting the most out of the lift but they are also setting themselves up for an injury.
Here are instructional videos on how to perform the most important lifts:
These will be the staple of your training program. For the first few months of training, your #1 goal should be to perfect the technique and increase the weight you can lift.
During the initial newbie phase (which lasts between 3 and 6 months), you’ll have the opportunity to make some great strength and muscle gains.
I’ve put together a beginner’s program. Download it below:
Learn Everything You Need to Know About Nutrition
Now that we’ve gone over the training basics, it’s time to get into the nutritional side of things.
First off, understand that proper training alone isn’t enough to change your body composition.
Since your goal is to lose fat and get rid of the skinny-fat look, you should be in a caloric deficit.
After the initial newbie phase, building muscle and getting stronger while eating in a deficit is going to be more difficult. But, for the first few months, you can make great gains.
This is going to need you to track your calories and protein (the least).
Start off by calculating your TDEE (use the calculator here).
Next, add a moderate deficit of 300-400 calories to that number. To calculate your macronutrient needs, follow these basic rules:
1)Eat roughly 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
2)Eat between 0.3 and 0.6 grams of fat per pound of body weight.
3)Get the rest of your calories from carbs and aim for 10 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories you eat.
Here is how this would look:
Let’s say you weigh 180 pounds and your TDEE is 3000 calories. Add the 400 calorie deficit and you’re left with 2600 calories per day. Now, eat between 180 and 216 grams of protein, 54 to 108 grams of fat and the rest should come from carbs.
As long as your protein and fats numbers are in this range, your carbs are also going to be on point.
Also, keep in mind that as you get leaner over time, you will need to re-adjust your calories and macronutrients by re-calculating your TDEE.
I recommend doing so after every 10 to 12 pounds of weight you lose.
How Long This Period Lasts
You should follow this path for as long as you can make progress with strength and muscle gain. This will vary from person to person but it usually lasts anywhere from 3 to 6 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 have 2 options:
- Continue with your caloric deficit and get leaner.
- Increase your calories up and go into a small surplus of to start building muscle.
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/dilemma and I encourage you to check it out.
How to Approach Being Skinny Fat After You've Just Lost Some Weight
You are a gym newbie. You've spent some time playing around with weights but your main focus has been cardio with the goal of losing weight. You don't have much muscle on your frame but you don't like the way you look after the long weight loss period.
This is yet another common category of skinny-fat people. If the above describes you best and you can answer “Yes” to each of the 3 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 has been cardio.”
“I went about my weight loss in a typical manner: clean eating paired up with a lot of cardio work.”
Now, this current state you are in is a bit trickier than the first one for one big reason:
You’ve already spent a lot of time in a caloric deficit and your metabolism has gradually adapted to your lower calorie intake. Thus, staying in a caloric deficit is not a wise decision right now.
The next best route for you is recovery diet. Whether you want to lose more fat or start building a solid base of muscle, this is a mandatory step so don’t skip it.
If you haven’t been tracking your calories so far, it’s okay.
Calculate your TDEE with this simple calculator and start eating around that number. Keep your calories there for 7 to 10 days and take a weight measurement every morning on empty stomach.
Do a waist measurement now and after 7 days. Take a progress pic now and in the same lighting (if possible) 7 days from now.
Your aim here is to determine whether you’re eating at maintenance. If you keep losing weight for the first week, bump your calories by 100-200 and repeat for another 7 to 10 days.
Your goal here is to put yourself at maintenance calories:
This whole process should last a few weeks at most. At that point, you’ll have two options:
1)Add a small calorie surplus of 200-250 and start building muscle over time.
2)Add a moderate calorie deficit of 250-400 calories and focus on further losing fat.
At this point, it all comes down to personal preference. You’re in an excellent position to start building muscle, but you can keep losing fat. What you decide to do is up to you.
If you haven’t watched the video I posted above where Sean talks about cutting and bulking for skinny fat people, I encourage you to check it out. Here is another link.
As far as training goes, because you’re a gym newbie, your training is going to be the same as for the first category.
Download a beginner’s program I put together below:
How to Approach Being Skinny Fat If You've Got Some Lifting Experience
You have put some time under the bar and you've made some good progress in terms of muscle and strength. But, your body fat percentage is high and you are in the skinny fat category.
This category of skinny fat is different from the above 2 in a few major ways:
- I assume you’ve been practicing the compound lifts and your technique is good. If not, check out the videos I posted above.
- I assume you’ve gained a decent amount of muscle during your newbie phase and you are adding weight to the bar.
- I assume you keep track of your calories, macros (protein the least). And you have a good idea of how much weight you’ve gained in the last few months.
This is a good place to start a fat loss or cutting cycle because you’ve got some muscle mass to justify it.
And you’ll be setting yourself up for a great next bulk cycle because you will be lean starting out which has quite a few great benefits:
- You get to bulk longer and build more muscle.
- You can see progress much better because you won’t have a layer of fat covering your muscles.
- You get to look like you actually lift because your muscle to fat ratio is going to be much better.
Now, let’s get down and dirty into everything you need to do at this point.
Diet for Skinny Fat Individuals
The biggest mistake most people make when trying to lose fat is to jump head first into the process.
They immediately add a ton of cardio, cut their calories low and set themselves up for failure right from the start. To avoid making this mistake, you need to pace yourself.
Start off by decreasing your caloric intake over the course of a few weeks.
If you are currently eating in a surplus of 200-300 calories for a total of 3300 a day, you shouldn’t drop them to 2500.
No, you should decrease your calories less, by roughly 300-400. Keep them like that for a week or two and then decrease them by 150-200 more.
Go for another week and repeat.
By week 3 you should be eating in a caloric deficit and losing fat.
After week 3, drop your calories by an extra 100-150 and start tracking progress. Take progress pictures, body measurements and morning weigh-ins (to calculate your weekly average).
At this point, you will lose fat over time. But, you'll still have a lot more room to reduce your caloric intake when your fat loss stalls.
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.
The bottom line?
The process needs to be gradual.
As far as macronutrients go, the same rules apply:
- Keep your protein intake between 1 and 1.2 grams per pound of body weight.
- Keep your fat intake between 0.4 and 0.6 grams per pound of body weight.
- Get the rest of your calories from carbs and focus on getting 10 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories you eat.
There is a big misconception that when trying to lose fat, you need to start training with low weights for high reps to ‘bring out definition’ or whatever. This is a huge mistake.
Sure, training in the higher rep ranges does have its benefits. But basing your entire training program on that biomechanical capacity won't work well for you.
You will lose much more muscle and strength compared to if you were to train as you normally do.
There are two big reasons why the high rep approach is bad:
- Spot reduction is a myth. Just because you feel a better burn in your pectorals doing high-rep bench press doesn’t mean you’ll lose more chest fat.
- Muscle retention during prolonged caloric deficits relies on 2 main factors: adequate protein intake and how much and how often you put your muscles under heavy loads.
The main point I want you to take away is this:
Keep your training the same, at least at first. Same rep-ranges, the same amount of sets, same workout frequency, and even the same exercise selection.
This isn’t some ‘get in shape with Mike’ bullshit training program from the 80's. Don’t change the way you train and think it will somehow deliver good results.
As far as training volume and workout frequency go:
After dieting for a long period of time, your energy levels will drop. No matter what you do.
At that point, your 4-5 day split that you initially followed might start to overwhelm you. You will start feeling overtrained.
Aside from your regular de-load weeks, you can also reduce your training volume across all your workouts. Or go as far as knock out 1 to 2 training days and combine more muscle groups.
An example of training volume reduction:
Let’s say you do 16 sets for chest, 16 for the back, 18 for legs (total), 12 for shoulders and 9 for biceps and triceps each.
You can drop 2 working sets from each body part and see how you feel after a week or two. This might not seem like a lot but you’d end up with 12 total sets less each week.
I recommend knocking off sets from your accessory exercises and maintain your volume on the compound lifts.
Because these exercises burn much more calories and recruit more muscles to perform.
An example of training frequency reduction:
If you follow a typical 4-day bro-split but you are finding it hard to keep up, then knocking one day off and combining more muscle groups will help.
Let’s say your current training split looks like this:
Chest and triceps
Back and biceps
Shoulders and traps
You can easily transition to a 3-day split for a while:
Chest, triceps, shoulders
Back, biceps, traps
Notice how we added the shoulders in your chest workout and traps on back day.
If you normally follow a 5-day split, there is more flexibility to combine muscle groups and do a 4-day split for a while. Here are 3 great examples:
Shoulders and traps
Back and biceps
Chest and triceps
Chest and triceps
Back and biceps
Shoulders and traps
Chest and triceps
Back and biceps
Shoulders and traps
Training to Failure: What is it and Should You Do It
I’m not going to lie: training to failure can be fun and ego-boosting. In fact, in my first year and a half in the gym, I focused only on training to failure.
I didn’t feel a workout was productive unless I took at least 90% of all my sets to failure. This was a big mistake on my part and here is why:
Training to failure is taxing on your muscle and central nervous system. You are pushing your body to its limits, every set, workout after workout.
Now imagine you drive a car that way:
Instead of switching gears once you reach the 2500-3500 RPM range, you push the pedal to the metal and drive in first gear.
What do you think happens?
The car overheats, engine and gearbox wear much faster and you’re left with a steamy mess on the side of the road. And your body reacts the same.
Stop focusing on pushing every set to failure. Instead, focus on small, gradual improvements over time.
As the author of the bestseller book Bigger, Leaner, Stronger Mike Matthews says:
“Focus on doing 1 more rep with the same weight. If you manage that and the rest of your workout stays exactly the same as the week before, that’s progress.”
Focus on progressive overload, train with optimal volume and take a handful of sets to failure at the end of your workout. You will kick your ass LESS and get better results over time.
Dr. Mike Zourdos, Eric Helms and Greg Nuckols have done an excellent job at reviewing the current literature on training to failure in their monthly research review (Monthly Applications in Strength Sports - MASS) with the following pieces:
- Pushing It to the Limit: Gauging How Far We Are From Failure
- Does Training To Failure Yield Larger Gains?
- Training to Failure Has its Place, but it is Not Necessary
- The Cost of Failure
You can get these and many more articles, videos, audios, and PDFs.
You can also read my full review of MASS here.
How to Track Your Progress Effectively
This step is of huge importance. It never ceases to amaze me how people can spend hundreds of hours at the gym per year. Yet, they can’t take 10 minutes after a workout to fill out their log or take a progress picture.
After all, how will you know how far you’ve come if you can’t tell where you were months ago.
Progress tracking is especially important for fat loss. It gives you a much better understanding of whether you’re on the right path or need to make adjustments.
Eating 150-200 calories more than you should every day can slow down your fat loss over time.
Without further rambling, let’s get down into some of the best ways to track your progress:
For your fat loss phase, I recommend taking a set of 12-15 photos of yourself to have a good understanding and remember where you began.
After that, you should take a progress pic every 3-4 days. The same time, in the same mirror with the same lighting. This is the best way to keep track of how your body changes over time.
When bulking, take a weekly shot of yourself in the same lighting and see how you develop over time.
Yet another great progress tracker. Every morning, on an empty stomach, go to the bathroom, do your thing and then jump on the scale.
Write down your daily weigh-in and take the average for the week.
Over time, your weight will fluctuate and you might be 2 pounds heavier one day then lose 4 pounds.
This is why a weekly average is much more accurate. As long as your weight goes up or down according to your current goal, you’re on the right track.
For your fat loss, it’s important to take body measurements at the start and see how they change over time.
Again, I recommend doing it in the morning on an empty stomach. This way you can avoid any potential bloating that occurs later in the day.
Here is a comprehensive video by Scott Herman on how to take proper and accurate measurements.
As far as frequency goes I recommend taking measurements every 2 weeks.
Workout Log or App
Tracking your workouts is important.Knowing how well (or bad) you did the week prior gives you an immediate goal:
Beat your last week’s workout or if you’re in a caloric deficit, at the least, try to match it.
You can buy the pre-designed workout log or you can go ahead and get a regular A4 format notebook. Write down your numbers on the compound lifts and write down your training volume done.
You can also use a great app for that but a fair warning: It’s not out yet for us Android users. The app is called Rep Count and from what I’ve seen, it’s easy to use, has a great interface and.. well.. you can write down your numbers in there.
How Long is the Skinny Fat Transformation Going to Take?
Changing your body composition is going to be a challenge. You will need to put in the work. You will have to spend quite a few days eating less than you desire.
And you will feel like you’re not making any progress, at times.
This is why I emphasize progress tracking so much – because you have hard evidence of actual progress.
Depending on your current body fat percentage, you might have to stick with it longer. The best answer I can give you is this:
It’s going to take as long as it has to until you reach your desired look. Don't despair and don't compare yourself to people who have been at it for years.
Should You Take Any Supplements?
I don’t like to rely on supplements too much. I take the proven and researched supplements that support my well-being and performance.
I don’t chase the latest “fast-absorbing” protein or “new and improved pre-workout formula” and neither should you. Let’s get into my (short) list of recommended supplements which I take on a daily basis.
Take your standard 5 grams every day. It doesn’t matter what time you choose to do so. Here is a shorter summary of this supplement in a video:
I won’t get much into this one. If you’d like to know more about it, I welcome you to check out the article I wrote on it a while back.
Now, protein powder comes in many, many forms. I’m going to go on a limb here when I say this:
A standard Whey protein is going to work just as great as the 3 times more expensive “fast digesting super 3000 formula” one. You should do yourself a favor and don’t fall for the marketing scams.
If you’d like to read more about protein powder, check out my guide on the matter.
The reason I like taking protein powder is that it’s convenient.
Do you need it to build muscle over time? Heck no.
But you can whip up an overnight oatmeal or a protein shake ready to go in 5 minutes.
You can also check out this list of amazing recipes to try using protein powder.
This is yet another great supplement that not only support your well-being but it has been proven to have positive muscle-building effects over time.
You can read more about it and its positive health benefits in this article.
Changing your body composition doesn’t happen easy. It requires dedication and discipline to form the body and life-transforming habits associated with it.
There will be times when sticking to your diet plan will feel difficult. Sometimes you might not feel like going to the gym and working out.
But do you know what makes it all worth it? The fact that you will prove yourself that you can achieve something great when you put your mind to it.
That will not only translate to you having a great-looking body and better health but also a better approach to everything.
Your life, your finances, relationships and everything in-between.
Becoming a stronger version requires effort but the rewards are far beyond worth it. So, use the information in this article, bookmark it and might I even ask for a share?