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April 12, 2021 10 min read

It goes without saying that the human body is complex. This sometimes leads to situations where we think we’re doing the right thing, but not getting any results.

Putting “skinny” and “fat” together is an oxymoron. For those of us who may not know what it means, it can be difficult to picture.

But skinny fat is very real and very common. While you might not be fat, there’s nothing under your body fat to have you looking your best. Muscle is the key ingredient, and skinny fat guys are missing it. Down below we look at exactly how this happens, and how you can turn “skinny fat” into “jacked and ripped.”

What Exactly is Skinny Fat?

The exact definition of skinny fat is when someone has above healthy levels of body fat while also maintaining below-average levels of muscle.

There isn’t however a strict definition. It can sometimes be difficult to draw lines around individuals, especially since we all vary so much. But it is worth examining what the difference is between being overweight and skinny fat.

When you start to gain a lot of weight, not all of it is body fat. There’s a significant percentage that’s muscle rather than fat—at least if you’re staying at least a bit active. But if you’re not staying active at all, that’s how you get skinny fat.

Being skinny fat also means that your body weight is in the normal range for your age group or your height. While things might look good after a cursory glance, they don’t look so great once you look at your body fat percentage. This is the number that can tell you how much of your body’s weight is fat, and how much it should be.

Replacing the muscle with fat for your “healthy” weight range comes with similar drawbacks as being overweight does. Additionally, skinny fat is much more common than simply being skinny. Most people will naturally put on weight as they age if they don’t work out, so skinny fat is almost guaranteed for any former-skinny people.

Blood pressure gauge show Hypertension or High Blood Pressure.

Skinny Fat and Health

We mentioned above that skinny fat isn’t necessarily healthy, even if your weight seems to be in the healthy range for your age and height. It’s even possible to be metabolically obese when you’re at a normal body weight.

This means that while you might not seem to be overweight by clinical standards or charts, you can still suffer from the same complications that obese people suffer from. This includes things like high blood pressure, triglyceride levels, cholesterol, and insulin resistance.

However, it’s safe to say that this is an extreme. Most skinny fat people don’t have to worry about the full complications, or at least not to the same extent as obese people.

Nevertheless, maintaining a healthy amount of muscle is still extremely important to ensure your health and longevity. For example, research has shown that having higher body fat and higher lean muscle mass is better at lowering the risks of dying from heart disease than having low levels of body fat along with less muscle mass.

This just goes to show how important it is to be fit, rather than simply “healthy” based on a chart or a single standard (such as a weight to height ratio). While it’s definitely better to be skinny fat than obese, a higher quality of life and better longevity can be achieved if someone who is skinny fat, bulks up. Muscle mass is important to your health, not just your body fat. But how do you tell if you’re skinny fat?

Are You Skinny Fat?

There isn’t a clinical definition of skinny fat, since it’s mostly based on how someone looks. People carry weight differently and have different physiques, so it can vary from one person to the next. Having said that, however, there are some rules of thumb we can follow to better gauge whether someone is skinny fat or not.

For example, looking at body fat is a good start. A guy in between 10% to 20% body fat or a woman between 20% and 30% body fat could be considered skinny fat. This depends on whether you’re not naturally muscular. Also, not having done any weight training within the past few months, or ever, probably means you are skinny fat. If you used to work out a lot, chances are that some of that muscle has been retained, however.

Another great way to check if you’re skinny fat is by seeing how strong you are in relation to other people of your age and weight. Using a National Strength and Conditioning Association approved chart can help figure out where you’re at when it comes to the bench press, for example.

Let’s take a 198 lb man with no experience in weightlifting. This chart puts this person at being able to bench 135 lbs. However, keep in mind that you should be aiming higher than “no experience” since many with no experience are skinny fat. If you fall into the body fat percentages for skinny fat and can’t bench at least 175 lbs, chances are that you should be trying to bulk up.

Now that we know who exactly qualifies for skinny fat, let’s take a closer look at how exactly skinny fat happens.

How to Become Skinny Fat

In order to better understand how we should go about getting rid of skinny fatness, it’s important to see how we got to this position in the first place. This will provide a perspective on what not to do, and how to change your current routine to better reflect that body you want—rather than the one you might have.

Since the body is so complex, there can be several reasons why someone might be skinny fat. We’ve roughly split these up into the type of training you’re doing, diet, and other aspects that can influence muscle growth (or the lack of it).

Physical Activity and Skinny Fat

The most obvious physical “routine” that will lead to skinny fatness is not having a routine at all. Not working out, as is probably obvious by now, is not the way to go if you’re looking for aesthetics and gains.

Part of this stems from growing up skinny without having to calorie count or workout—it came naturally. As we age, the things that used to fly don’t anymore.

And that’s why our physical activity has to be adapted to our changing metabolisms and our shifting goals. Your lifestyle will inevitably catch up to you if you don’t keep an eye on it.

Fat lazy man sleeps tired lies on the track in the stadium.

Working Out the Wrong Way

Let’s be clear here—skinny fat does not necessarily mean you’re an all-around physically unfit person. There are things that will come easy that won’t necessitate significant muscle mass. For example, most moderate cardio activities, yoga, and certain sports.

While these activities are important for holistic and well-rounded fitness, they don’t offer the same things as weightlifting might. And they definitely won’t do as much for you in terms of aesthetics as pumping iron will. This can be a vicious cycle, since skinny fat people may be more inclined to do the things they’re already good at.

Even if you’re trying to lose weight, strength training is often de-emphasized in many weight loss programs. High-intensity cardio is definitely the way to go if you’re trying to maximize calorie burn, but intense weightlifting is very good at this as well. You want to include both if you’re trying to lose weight.

This is in addition to the afterburn effect, which refers to the extra oxygen your body uses after you’ve finished a workout. And the more oxygen your body uses in this way, the more calories you burn.

Weightlifting is especially good for maximizing afterburn, and the heavier the better. Even a single session of heavy weightlifting can possibly elevate your metabolic rate for days after the gym session. Putting it all together, this can result in hundreds of extra calories burned after you’ve already finished your workout.

Cardio and Dieting

This is maybe one of the more insidious ways someone can become skinny fat—combining a lot of cardio with not enough food. It should be stated from the beginning that there’s nothing wrong with cardio, and in fact, it’s a very good thing to include in your workouts.

Especially in combination with weightlifting, cardio provides amazing benefits health-wise. However, it’s important to combine the right ingredients to make cardio worthwhile. Many people, in order to maximize weight loss, turn to cardio and extreme calorie deficits. This causes two things to happen.

One is that you’re not getting enough calories (and most likely, protein) to sustain muscle—let alone build any. Your body needs fuel, especially if you’re being physically active. This will result in a lower amount of muscle mass and lower amounts of body fat.

Furthermore, cardio doesn’t stimulate muscle growth, and in fact, it interferes with strength development and muscle growth. The effects of cardio increase the longer you do it for, in terms of sessions. Going for an hour jog a few times a week definitely has its benefits, but you’re not going to get the body you want if you’re not supporting it with the right food and other exercises.

A starvation diet with too much cardio is the silver bullet for an aesthetic physique, and it’s a one-way ticket to becoming skinny fat.

Other Factors Affecting Skinny Fatness

While the aspects we’ve looked at above are the most important, there are a couple more that are worth mentioning. The first is low testosterone. This is a complex thing to measure, and an even more complex thing to fix.

Keep in mind that you don’t need high testosterone, just enough within a normal, healthy range. There are several factors that affect testosterone, including stress, diet, and body fat.

Not getting enough sleep also negatively affects testosterone levels, and lack of sleep by itself can lead to not getting the results you want. When we rest, that’s when our bodies build muscle. Getting enough sleep is also essential for properly losing weight, for several reasons we won’t get into here.

Fixing Skinny Fat: Diet

It makes sense that getting rid of skinny fatness is going to start with mediating the issues we outlined above. One of which is the lack of a proper diet.

Every workout program is going to come down to at least 70% diet, and the rest will be working out. Getting your meals under control and understanding what you’re putting inside of your body is more than half the battle when it comes down to getting fit.

So, what do you want to avoid?

Eating too much processed foods is never a good idea unless you’re treating yourself to a Saturday Fatterday—and even then it should be within limits. This is often called “dirty bulking.” Obviously, this isn’t good for your gains when it comes to the long-term outlook.

You should also steer away from eating too many saturated fats. Some saturated fat is necessary in order to produce hormones, but too much will lead to more fat gains than muscle ones. Fructose is similar—although it’s found in fruits (which are fine), it’s also found in regular sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

So, what do you want to be eating?

For one, you should be eating enough. It will depend on your starting point, but you don’t want to be doing a starvation diet whatever your starting weight is. The key is to focus on a healthy balance of whole foods.

These should be made up of healthy fats, healthy carbs, and lean proteins. Protein is especially important in this case because that’s going to be what gets you from skinny fat to shredded.

Man lifting weights at the gym

The Workout to Lose Skinny Fat

When you’re starting out as skinny fat, you find yourself in an interesting position. Are you supposed to cut to lose the fat? Or bulk up to fill out your frame?

The good news is that since you’re probably a beginner, it’s relatively easy to do both when you’re starting out. Hypertrophy training specifically is meant to build muscle mass, rather than strength. It’s done by using light to moderate weights, but going for more reps. On the other hand, strength training uses heavier weights for fewer reps.

This matters a lot when you’ve already gotten into the swing of things, but at the beginning, all that really matters is that you’re doing compound weightlifting—the specialization will come after your newbie gains have been amassed.

Saying that, it will be more helpful (at least at the beginning) to go heavier rather than lighter. Big muscles are strong and strong muscles are big, for the most part.

In the beginning when you’re just trying to get rid of skinny fat, then the distinction will hardly matter. What matters is that you’re pumping iron.

Compound lifts are also recommended since they use several muscle groups and are therefore more effective. Examples include deadlifts, squats, and the bench press.

Cardio and Getting Rid of Skinny Fat

While we talked above about how cardio might be the reason skinny fat happens for some people, that doesn’t mean you should exclude it from your training routine. Cardio will, as always, be very important. But it’s even more important to know how to use it correctly.

If you’re trying to get rid of skinny fat, you’ll want to maximize the fat-burning effects of cardio. This means two things. One, cardio should be done at a high intensity. You want to be working up a sweat and ramping up your heartbeat fast during every session.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a good way to include this since it has you performing at a very high intensity for a short while and alternating with breaks of moderate activity.

Second, you don’t want to be doing too much cardio throughout the week. This will depend on the individual, but too much cardio will burn through your muscle gains as well as your body fat.

No more than around 2 hours of cardio per week, at the very most, is recommended for people. This may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that it should be done at a high intensity to maximize fat loss.

Building Muscle and Losing the Skinny Fat Physique

In a lot of ways, those of us who may be skinny fat are in the perfect position to completely transform our bodies. While skinny fat isn’t a great place to be, the road ahead is clear and well marked.

Caloric restrictions may help control weight gain and keep you in a normal weight category, but they won’t help you gain muscle and lose the skinny fat look. BMI and body recomposition should be kept in mind when planning meals, regardless of body type. Belly fat and love handles will become problems of the past.

You will want to watch your cardiovascular activity to ensure that they’re working for your skinny fat transformation, and not against. While cardio is important in any workout plan, gaining enough muscle should be emphasized in the skinny fat workout.

Ensure that you’re working your muscles with resistance training. The right training program will have plenty of heavy weights, dumbbells, barbells, chin-ups, and pull-ups. A good workout routine will transform your body composition from a “skinny fat body,” to a chiseled physique.