How not to become skinny fat

“Do you even lift?”

“You look so skinny!”

If you hear this from anybody and you’ve been hitting the gym for over one year, you are not doing it right. A lot of the guys that I see at my gym, some of them have been in the gym longer than me, fit the skinny fat profile perfectly and it’s not genetics.

What is skinny fat?

Skinny fat is the term used to describe a person that has very little muscle mass, looks skinny with clothes on, but is all flabby underneath, even though the body fat percentage is not high. There is hardly any muscle definition or separation in a skinny fat person.

I’ve been told that a picture is worth a 1,000 words so I’ll shut up and let the examples below do the talking.

skinny fat

I mentioned before that I see a lot of skinny fat people at my gym, yet they put in the effort and time. Some may think its genetics and this is pretty much how they will look ever. But this is not the truth. Anybody can look at leased toned up; if not like the models you see on the magazines covers, regardless of genetics.

No matter what you’ve been dealt with at birth, you can look muscular and have a great physique; you just need to put in the effort in the right way. Skinny fat people look the way they do because of the poor advice out there, poor diet plans and poor training routine.

But we are going to fix this in this article. Read on and find out how to go from skinny fat to muscular and have a physique that you are happy with.

Body composition

Being skinny fat as a lot to do with body composition. If you are not familiar with the term, in a nutshell, body composition refers to the ratio between lean body mass or muscle mass and fat mass. If you want the long version, I’ve got the topic covered in this article.

In short, poor body composition is what makes one look skinny fat. Most people only look at total body weight and they set poor goals, such as “I want to lose weight”.

The focus should be on fat loss while maintaining or building muscle, not on weight loss. This is where most people start with the wrong foot. Body weight doesn’t matter that much, muscle mass and fat mass is what matters. You can have a 200 pounds guy looking all muscular and ripped, and you can have a 170 pounds guy looking all flabby.

In fact, skinny fat individuals will have to gain as much as 15-20 pounds in order to have a toned up physique, not to lose weight. Body fat level is not their problem, the lack of muscle mass is.

Don’t be afraid to put on some weight. Don’t look at the number on the scale as your enemy. Take a look in the mirror and work on improving your image. If you are skinny fat this involves putting on more weight (muscle mass).

Muscles are much more dense than fat, hence the increased body weight in toned up individuals. Again, stop putting your focus on losing weight, put it on body composition.

1 pound fat vs muscle

You want to have the perfect combination of muscle mass and fat mass. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your body fat percentage can be while still having that athletic look. If you are lacking muscle mass, you can have a very low body fat percentage and still not look good.

The “skinny fat” recipe

Yes, there is such a thing as a skinny fat routine. Going back to the skinny fat people at my gym, if you could observe their training routine you would notice it is something like this:

  • Using light weights
  • Doing a shit load of reps
  • Mainly isolation exercises
  • Lots of cardio training

In terms of nutrition the common mistakes are:

  • Under eating
  • Low protein diet
  • Low carb diet

That’s like the perfect recipe for becoming skinny fat and that’s what some of the most trendy diet plans and training routines are telling you to do.

If you are doing this stuff, stop right now. It doesn’t do you any good; it’s only making things worse and keeping you in the skinny fat zone.

Let’s start off by looking at the training mistakes skinny fat people do.


The “skinny fat” training routine

Skinny fat people have one thing in common – they have very little muscle mass. Even though they seem to be putting in the effort in the gym, the results simply don’t seem to show. That’s because they are putting in the efforts in the wrong direction.

  1. Light weight & high reps

It has been scientifically proven that working in high rep ranges (over 12 or so) and using low intensity (below 70% of 1 PRM) is not optimal for muscle growth. This has to do with the skeletal muscle anatomy actually.

Skeletal muscles are made out of two types of muscle fibers – type I (slow-twitching) and type II (fast-twitching).

Type I fibers are responsible for endurance, have very little strength and growth potential. These types of fibers are used in low weight resistance training and aerobic exercises such as cardio. Behold the reason for which people that do high reps, low weight training fit perfectly in the skinny fat profile. There is physically no way build muscle mass by doing this type of routine.

Type II fibers on the other hand are responsible for strength, have very little endurance and have great growth potential. These are the fibers that are used when doing high intensity (heavy load) resistance training or anaerobic exercises. Using the type II fibers will result in increased muscle mass overtime, hence better body composition.

Therefore, doing workout routines which focus on high reps and low weight are not helping muscle growth. Many people are afraid of getting over-trained or injured by increasing the weights, but both these “risks” can be minimized by setting the workout volume correctly and by having good execution form.

A good training intensity for optimal muscle growth is around 85% of 1RPM, which would allow you to work in the 6 to 8 rep range.

  1. Too many isolation exercises

Another common mistake is focusing too much on isolation exercises – movements that use only one joint (also called single joint movements). Examples of isolation exercises are bicep curls, triceps extension, leg extension, lateral/front raises, etc.

According to studies and anecdotal evidence as well, it looks like compound exercises (multi joint movements) are more effective for both muscle growth and losing fat.

With compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and bench press, several muscles are involved in the movement, resulting in more energy consumed by the body through this type of workout. Also, by using more muscles and more joints (as compared to isolation exercises), we are able to move heavier weights which results in increased muscle hypertrophy and new fiber recruiting, by targeting the type II fast-twitching fibers.

I am not saying isolation exercises are bad or that you should not include them as all in your routine, you should, just make sure your focus is on the compound movements. Personally I like to do 1-2 heavy compound exercises at first and then finish off with 1-2 more moderate isolation exercises per each muscle group.

  1. Too much cardio

I see a lot of skinny fat persons using as much as half their time in the gym on the treadmill. That’s a mistake I used to make as a beginner as well, it will help you lose weight, but do too much of it and it will hinder muscle growth as well as damage your metabolism due to the severe caloric deficit it will get you in.

Studies have should that aerobic training such as cardio can and will interfere with weight training and muscle growth. As a skinny fat person your fat levels shouldn’t be too high and your goal should be muscle building. That’s why most of your energy should be put in heavy weight lifting and only a small amount of time and energy should be put into cardio.

Personally, I do as little as 20-40 minutes of HIIT cardio per week (1-2 sessions) when cutting and still see constant weight loss each week. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great way of keeping your cardio training short, effective and ‘muscle friendly’.

If you are already in a caloric deficit (by eating less), the time and energy you put into cardio should be carefully planned, because preservation (or growth) is very tricky in a deficit due to the fact that protein synthesis in a deficit is reduced, and too much cardio it will only make to worse.


The “skinny fat” diet plan

Combine lots of cardio, light weight, high rep training with a poor diet and you’ll be on your way to skinny fat city.

The biggest diet mistake you can make is not setting a proper energy balance. I probably talked about this before but I will keep it brief in this article. Caloric deficit means you are eating fewer calories than your body needs, therefore it will tap into the stored energy and you will be losing weight. Sounds great so far, right? It is, if you are in a minimum or moderate deficit.

But most beginners are eager to lose weight fast and due to the lack of knowledge, or because of the misleading information out there, are eating way too little or start following stupid diets, which cause several problems.

Caloric intake and energy balance has the biggest impact on how our bodies look. Most skinny fat people are under eating which cause severe metabolic slow down. The more aggressive the caloric deficit is the slower the metabolism will become. It’s a game of adaptation and how our body is programmed to survive, you cannot overcome metabolic adaptation.

Anyways, eventually you will end up eating incredibly small amounts of food and lose no weight because the metabolism has slowed down a lot. On top of that, by eating very small amounts of food, your energy level will be very low, your workouts will suck, you will be in a bad mood all the time, your protein intake has to be very low as well because the calories are low and you will lose muscle mass.

Nowadays, we have access to tremendous amount of information very easy – but this is both an advantage and a disadvantage because there’s also a lot of bad information on the market. I am talking about various diet plans such as low carb or low protein which do not support in any way muscular and strength growth.

Bottom line, severe caloric restriction and low protein diets are the way to becoming skinny fat.


The skinny fat to muscular plan

We’ve covered pretty much all the mistakes that skinny people do and you probably have a good idea of the “don’t dos”, now it’s time to outline the solution to the skinny fat problem.

  1. Proper training

You’ve probably figured it out by yourself, but let’s recap.

Focus your workout routine on heavy compound movements. Include exercises such as bench press (incline, flat, decline), deadlifts, squats, military press, dips, pullups, etc.), but you can also throw in a few isolation movements. Just make sure you put more effort on the compound exercises.

Pick a weight that allows you to do no more than 8 repetitions. You can even as low as 5 reps per set if you are comfortable with heavy weights. Generally speaking, your working weight should be 85% and above of your 1 RPM.

The workouts should be high intensity, low volume – this is optimal for muscle hypertrophy and that’s the solution to the skinny fat problem – more muscle mass.

High intensity workouts will require longer resting periods between sets, so don’t be afraid to rest up to 3-4 minutes when using heavy weights. Your central nervous systems and the muscles will need it.

Your goal should be to get stronger and stronger over time. Getting stringer means you made more gains. Track your strength progress in the gym and use progressive overloading to optimize muscle growth.

A high intensity type of resistance training is optimal for muscle growth but also for fat loss. Therefore, you can cut back on the cardio a little bit. As I mentioned above too much cardio will affect muscle development.

Keep your cardiovascular training at 1 hour maximum per week. I recommend doing no more than 3 HIIT cardio sessions a week. Personally I do just 1-2 sessions of 15-20 minutes each and it works great for me. Short and intense cardio sessions are preferred over longer, steady pace type of cardio.

  1. Proper nutrition

No matter how good a workout plan is, no matter how well you do in the gym, if your nutrition is not on spot the results will not be optimal. Half the battle is done outside the gym, in the kitchen to be more specific. But the battle is not that hard as you might think. A good diet plan can be quite enjoyable and easy to follow.

First and foremost you need to get your calories right. Knowing your maintenance level and setting a moderate deficit is very important. Don’t restrict more than 20% of your calories and you will be fine.

However, if you are already eating very few calories and not losing any weight, don’t restrict you calories even more. Your metabolism has slowed done too much already. Instead, start eating more for a one month or so. Do a complete reset. You can even stop any type of diet and start eating whatever you what, how much you want, take a break from counting calories and from the stress of dieting.

This may result in gaining a few pounds but I found it to be very beneficial for resetting the metabolism and for preparing for a cutting phase. The optimal approach would be to start reverse dieting if you are afraid to gain more weight.


Assuming you’re not in this situation and you look flabby (have a body fat percentage of 15% or more for males and 25% or more for females), you should start restricting up to 20% of the calories and the fat loss should be at a steady and healthy rate of 1 pound per week, without interfering with your workouts or muscle mass.

Stick with the caloric deficit until you reach 10% body fat if you are a male or 20% if you are a female. At that point you can start reverse dieting and go into maintenance or 200-300 calories surplus if you want to focus on building muscle.

Now that we have set the calories, let’s look a little bit at macros.

As you may know, protein is the building blocks of muscle fibers. You need to get plenty of it when cutting – as much as 2-3 grams per kg of body weight. This help muscle growth or preservation in a deficit.

Next important thing are the carbs which fuel your muscle with glycogen and energy throughout the workouts. Forget about the low carb bullshit. You need your carbs if you want to lift big and get stronger. Get up to 40-50% of the calories from carbs and the rest from fat.

Fat is not supporting muscle growth directly, but a minimum amount is needed to keep your body running smoothly at hormonal level, keeps the skin and joints in good condition.

That’s it guys and gals, apply these guidelines and you should be able to see the changes in your physique in a few months.

Let me know if you have any comments and don’t forget to reach me out at

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