Running is a popular form of cardiovascular exercise people perform to lose weight, improve their health, and get fit.
But how beneficial is it for beginners, and could running make you skinny fat?
Read on to find out.
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What Does It Mean to Have a Skinny Fat Body Type?
Skinny fat, also known as normal weight medically obese (NWMO), is a body type characterized by low muscular development and a high body fat percentage (1).
A skinny fat individual typically appears thin while wearing clothes, but a layer of fat covers their body, robbing them of muscle definition and vascularity.
Men with the skinny fat body type usually have more chest, belly, and lower back fat, whereas skinny fat girls store more fat around their lower back, stomach, buttocks, and thighs.
Here are a couple of photos to illustrate the average skinny fat man and woman:
Numerous things can lead to a skinny fat physique. Among these, we have improper dieting, genetic predisposition, and poor lifestyle choices: excessive drinking, mainly eating processed junk, not sleeping enough, etc.
Is Running a Good Way to Shed Weight And Get Fit?
Many people dip their toes in fitness through activities like jogging. It is straightforward enough, doesn’t require much for you to start, and you don’t have to be at a gym to do it.
Another reason people pick running as a form of exercise is that they believe it is the best way to shed fat and get fit. But is that the case?
Aerobic activities like running are good for burning calories, which can support weight loss when combined with reduced food intake. Increasing your calorie expenditure through cardio and decreasing your intake allows you to create a deficit and start losing weight (2).
Unfortunately, running is not the best way to shed fat and achieve your desired physique. An issue with running is that it doesn’t provide a significant muscle stimulus and does a poor job of protecting lean tissue while dieting.
Combining low-intensity exercise with caloric restriction is the reason why running makes you skinny fat. Let’s explore the idea.
Why Does Running Make You Skinny Fat?
The problem with running is that it trains a small percentage of your muscles in a way that doesn’t result in much hypertrophy (growth).
According to EMG data, jogging mostly activates the calves and works the quadriceps (3). Increasing the incline shifts the emphasis to the posterior muscles (glutes and hamstrings), but that is it (4). What about the shoulders, biceps, triceps, and other upper body muscles?
Further, running doesn’t provide the same growth stimulus as weights do. As a result, your body doesn’t have a solid reason to keep muscle around while dieting.
Does that mean running is useless and should be avoided at all costs? Not necessarily. The activity can be a fantastic addition to a solid workout plan. Let’s discuss what that means.
The Alternative Approach That Works Much Better
Step 1: Calculate Your Calories and Macronutrients
Improving your body composition by building muscle and losing fat requires attention to detail and starts with a solid eating plan.
Calculating your calories and macronutrients might seem dull and unnecessary, but putting in the effort ensures accuracy and allows you to reach your goals more quickly.
You can determine your calorie needs by using an online calculator. Alternatively, a formula and multiplier. Start by determining your basal metabolic rate (BMR)––the number of calories your body burns at rest each day. Here’s the formula:
English BMR Formula (Imperial)
Women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)
Men: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years)
Metric BMR Formula
Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) - (4.7 x age in years)
Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) - (6.8 x age in years)
Once you have your BMR value, multiply it by one of the following numbers. Use the one that best represents your activity level:
If you are sedentary (little or no exercise): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.2
If you are lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
If you are moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
If you are very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725
If you are extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.9
Once you get your TDEE, remove 200 to 250 calories to create enough of a deficit for a body recomposition––simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss.
Once you determine your calorie needs, calculate your macronutrients with the following rules:
- 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (5)
- 0.35 to 0.45 grams of fats per pound of body weight
- Remaining calories from carbohydrates
So long as you eat the correct number of calories and get your protein and fats in order, you will consume enough carbohydrates.
Step 2: Put Together a Simple Meal Plan
A meal plan is not mandatory and might even be counterproductive for some people. For example, folks that tend to become obsessed with certain behaviors might be better off improvising.
But, if you’re interested in dietary structure and want to take the guesswork out of the equation, a skinny fat meal plan might be precisely what you need. Once you’ve calculated your calories and macronutrients, it comes down to determining what you will eat to reach your goals.
You can even combine meal planning with prepping: the act of cooking food for several days in a row. Doing so can also save money and make you more likely to stick with your eating plan.
Step 3: Start Tracking Your Food Intake
Once you’ve laid the groundwork, it comes down to getting started with your food tracking. One option is to download a simple app like MyFitnessPal. You can record the foods (and respective quantities), and the app will automatically calculate your calories and macronutrients.
An alternative method is to use a simple notebook or log for your food intake. To ensure accuracy, write down everything you eat and weigh your foods on a kitchen scale. The drawback is that you have to do all the calculations manually, which can get burdensome.
Tracking your macros and food intake doesn’t have to be forever. You can use it to learn how much food your body needs and get better at estimating how many calories you’re consuming.
Step 4: Introduce Some Strength Training
As discussed above, weight training is crucial for adding muscle to your frame and protecting it while losing fat.
The great thing is that you don’t have to follow a specific training plan. You can experiment with exercise selection, weekly frequency, and every other variable. The goal is to have a workout plan that fits your needs, preferences, schedule, and overall goals.
You can check out these three training plans for inspiration. I’ve designed these to work well for skinny fat individuals who want to achieve a body recomposition. Alternatively, put together a plan for yourself, but keep the following training rules in mind:
- It’s best to train all muscle groups twice per week (6). For example, if you train the chest on Monday, you could also train it on Thursday or Friday.
- Use various weights. Do sets with heavier weights (5-8 reps), moderate weights (8-15 reps), and lighter weights (15+ reps) for the sake of variety and enjoyability.
- Do at least two exercises per muscle group. Variety is necessary for stimulating more motor units (muscle fibers) and achieving balanced muscular development. For instance, do a vertical pull (e.g., lat pulldown), a horizontal pull (e.g., bent-over row), and a hip hinge (e.g., deadlift) for your back muscles.
- Train hard but leave two to three reps in the tank most of the time (7). Pushing yourself is necessary for progress, but excessive training to failure can leave you overtrained.
- Train with proper technique and a full range of motion. The weight you lift should always come second to proper form. Too many people sacrifice their technique to lift more weight, only to end up injured, small, and weak.
Step 5: Track Your Progress
Tracking your progress is also necessary for knowing if you’re moving in the right direction. The best way to track your results is through progress photos, weigh-ins (weekly averages), circumference measurements, and gym performance.
The more things you track, the more accurate the process, and the easier it will be to gauge if you’re doing everything well. You can read everything about skinny fat progress tracking here.
Step 6 (Optional): Do Some Cardio
As mentioned earlier, running can be an excellent addition to a decent workout plan emphasizing weights and progressive overload.
As an activity, running offers numerous unique benefits, and you’re free to do it a few times per week. But it’s important to note that skinny fat individuals or those seeking to lose weight should prioritize resistance training to protect their muscle mass and lose mostly fat (8).
A good cardio routine can help you create a calorie deficit and lose weight without restricting your food intake as much.
So, to the question ‘why does running make you skinny fat,’ the answer is simple. Running is a beneficial activity but fails to provide the stimulus your muscles need to grow. As a result, you remain small and struggle to lose fat effectively.
One way to avoid these potential issues is to focus on weight training and pay more attention to your diet while doing cardio from time to time.
1. Romero-Corral A, Somers VK, Sierra-Johnson J, Korenfeld Y, Boarin S, Korinek J, Jensen MD, Parati G, Lopez-Jimenez F. Normal weight obesity: a risk factor for cardiometabolic dysregulation and cardiovascular mortality. Eur Heart J. 2010 Mar;31(6):737-46. doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehp487. Epub 2009 Nov 20. PMID: 19933515; PMCID: PMC2838679.
2. Strasser B, Spreitzer A, Haber P. Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007;51(5):428-32. doi: 10.1159/000111162. Epub 2007 Nov 20. PMID: 18025815.
3. Gazendam MG, Hof AL. Averaged EMG profiles in jogging and running at different speeds. Gait Posture. 2007 Apr;25(4):604-14. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2006.06.013. Epub 2006 Aug 2. PMID: 16887351.
4. Wall-Scheffler CM, Chumanov E, Steudel-Numbers K, Heiderscheit B. Electromyography activity across gait and incline: The impact of muscular activity on human morphology. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2010 Dec;143(4):601-11. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21356. PMID: 20623603; PMCID: PMC3011859.
5. Stokes T, Hector AJ, Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SM. Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 7;10(2):180. doi: 10.3390/nu10020180. PMID: 29414855; PMCID: PMC5852756.
6. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8. PMID: 27102172.
7. Santanielo N, Nóbrega SR, Scarpelli MC, Alvarez IF, Otoboni GB, Pintanel L, Libardi CA. Effect of resistance training to muscle failure vs non-failure on strength, hypertrophy and muscle architecture in trained individuals. Biol Sport. 2020 Dec;37(4):333-341. doi: 10.5114/biolsport.2020.96317. Epub 2020 Jul 5. PMID: 33343066; PMCID: PMC7725035.
8. Miller T, Mull S, Aragon AA, Krieger J, Schoenfeld BJ. Resistance Training Combined With Diet Decreases Body Fat While Preserving Lean Mass Independent of Resting Metabolic Rate: A Randomized Trial. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018 Jan 1;28(1):46-54. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0221. Epub 2018 Jan 24. PMID: 28871849.