I’ve worked with thousands of people and if there’s one thing that frustrates people most about their bodies, it’s being skinny fat.
This is the type of physique that doesn’t look overweight per se but lacks muscle definition. The type that, despite having relatively low levels of body fat, looks soft and shapeless.
You know…a dad bod.
Here are a few examples:
Now, I’m not saying that these people look so bad that they deserve the pillory.
What I’m saying is there are tens of thousands of people out there that work too hard to look like this.
They follow all the rules:
And they look like they don’t even lift.
Why? And what can be done about it?
Well, in this article, you’re going to find out what the problem really is, how most people get there, and how to fix it.
So let’s get started.
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The road to skinny fat usually begins with focusing too much on weight instead of body composition.
You see, when you use the number on the scale as the primary yardstick of your progress instead of how your body composition is changing, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
In case you’re not familiar with the term, body composition refers to the relationship between the amounts of lean (muscle) mass and fat mass in your body.
You improve your body composition by adding muscle or losing fat (without losing muscle).
You see, whether we’re talking health or vanity, how much you weigh doesn’t matter nearly as much as how much muscle and fat you’re carrying around.
And when you have too little muscle and too much fat…you wind up looking skinny fat.
Rule of thumb:
The less muscle you have, the lower your body fat levels have to be to have noticeable muscle definition.
This is why fairly muscular people can look good at higher levels of body fat than under-muscled people.
15% body fat on a guy with a good amount of muscle looks athletic whereas the same body fat percentage on a spindly frame doesn’t.
So, then, the real “skinny fat solution” involves improving body composition, and this almost always involves weight going up.
Yes, even for women. (And if that scares you, check out this article.)
For example, check out the following skinny fat transformations:
In each case, these people ended up significantly heavier–15 to 20 pounds–than when they started their transformations.
And that’s because muscle is very dense and it requires a lot more muscle than people realize to look the way they want (even if they only want to be “toned”).
Now, before we talk about how you can transform your physique, let’s take a look at why so many people wind up skinny fat in the first place.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
The primary reason so many people struggle with being skinny fat is the bulk of mainstream diet and exercise advice is basically a recipe for it.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
If you want to be skinny fat, there’s your prescription.
And if those instructions sound familiar, it’s because that’s the type of fat loss advice you find in many health fitness magazines (especially women’s magazines): starve yourself, do a ton of cardio, and lift light weights.
You’re probably wondering why these things make people skinny fat.
Let’s find out.
Before I explain the relationship between caloric intake and skinny fat, I want to quickly review some dietary basics.
When we’re talking food, a calorie is the amount of energy required to heat up one kilogram of water one degree Celsius. It’s nothing more than stored (potential) energy.
High-calorie foods contain a lot of potential energy and low-calorie foods contain less.
Your body uses the energy in food to perform the millions of cellular activities that keep it alive and it stores a portion of the energy as body fat (a bit of an oversimplification, I know, but it serves the purpose of this article).
In order to lose body fat, you need to regularly feed your body a bit less energy than it burns.
This is known as creating a “calorie deficit” and it causes the body to slowly whittle down its fat stores to meet its daily energy demands.
Many mainstream weight loss “gurus” try to skirt around the issue of calories in versus calories out and proper meal planning.
Instead of explaining how weight loss actually works (energy balance, to start), they just restrict the types and/or amounts of food you can eat.
Ironically, the primary goal of food restriction is just the reduction of caloric intake. By taking away all your favorite indulgences and replacing them with lower calorie, more filling alternatives, you can’t help but eat less.
Make no mistake though–the only reason people lose weight on these types of diets is because they are taking in less energy than they’re expending.
This is why Professor Mark Haub was able to lose 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks, and why you could do exactly the same if you wanted to (but no, I don’t recommend it–nutrition is important as well).
The bottom line is when it comes to weight gain or loss, what you eat is far less important than how much.
Now, when you choose to follow a diet that severely restricts the foods you can eat, two things are likely:
And this is where problems begin.
Many people then try to overcome this metabolic adaptation by eating even less or exercising even more, which means even more fat and muscle loss.
Take this too far or do it too many times and you know where you end up:
A much lower number on the scale but a disappointing image in the mirror.
First, let’s dispel a myth:
Cardio isn’t your enemy if you’re trying to build muscle and stay lean.
In fact, it can even be your friend…if you know what you’re doing.
The problems with cardio begin when you start doing too much…and especially when you’re doing too much while in a calorie deficit.
There are several reasons for this:
1. Endurance training can directly interfere with strength and muscle building.
This is why cardio should generally be kept to a minimum if your primary focus is building muscle and strength.
2. The longer your cardio sessions are, the more likely they will impair strength and muscle growth.
This is why cardio sessions should generally be kept short (and why I’m a big fan of high-intensity interval training).
This is why the risk for muscle loss is higher when you’re dieting for fat loss, and the more you restrict your calories, the worse things get.
Thus, when you’re in a calorie deficit and your body is primed for muscle loss, the worst thing you can do is do a lot of long cardio sessions.
How much muscle you can ultimately retain while cutting is determined by several things such as how lean you are and are looking to get, and your genetics, current fitness level, hormone profile, workout routine, and more.
But the bottom line is you should not lose a lot of strength or lean mass while losing fat, and minimizing cardio is an important part of this.
This is a mistake.
While you may or may not be able to build muscle while losing fat, your goal while dieting for fat loss is to maintain as much lean mass and strength as possible.
Resistance training and high-protein dieting are the best ways to do this.
Research shows that weightlifting plus cardio beats just cardio for fat loss.
This isn’t surprising given how energy intensive both weightlifting and recovering from weightlifting workouts are.
Now, if you want to reap the biggest body composition benefits from your weightlifting when you’re cutting, you want to focus on heavy, compound weightlifting.
You don’t want to do what most people do, which is low-weight, high-rep workouts that involve a lot of isolation exercises.
There are two primary reasons for this:
Now, you may have heard that you should stick to light weightlifting and to limit your training to 2 to 3 sessions per week when cutting or you’ll wind up overtrained.
I’ve worked with thousands of people and haven’t found this to be true. In my experience, it takes a lot more to reach the point of overtraining than many people believe.
Heavy training does place more stress on the body than light training, but that doesn’t mean you can’t train heavy when cutting. It just means you can’t do too much heavy training (and you can learn more about this here).
And while 2 to 3 training sessions per week is fine for maintaining muscle while cutting, there are benefits to 4 to 5 weightlifting sessions per week as well.
Namely, it increases your weekly energy expenditure, which means you can lose fat faster, and second, it can make for less grueling workouts as the more compound movements you have to do in each workout, the harder they are.
(When you train 2 to 3 days per week, you’re going to have to double up on big movements like the bench press and military press and squat and deadlift. If you train 4 to 5 days per week, though, you can spread them out so you’re doing one major compound movement per day.)
Before we move on, I’d like to touch on one other thing you’ve probably heard, and that’s the idea that high-rep weightlifting helps “bring out definition.”
If you want to “bring out definition,” you simply want to reduce your body fat percentage, and high-rep training doesn’t help you do that any better than low-rep training.
In fact, research shows that heavy weightlifting burns more energy than lighter weightlifting, making it more effective for fat loss.
Now that we’ve fully explored what the skinny fat problem is and why people wind up this way, let’s talk about overcoming it.
You’ve probably already put the pieces together but let’s just spell them out.
You’ve heard this one before:
“You can do everything right in the gym but if you don’t also know your way around the kitchen, you’ll never see the types of results you’re after.”
Well, it’s true.
A bad diet will make even the best workout program impotent.
The good news, however, is that dieting isn’t nearly as complicated or grueling as most “gurus” would have you believe.
If you want the full rundown, check out my books, but here’s what you need to know for the purpose of this article:
When you restrict your calories to lose fat, your body responds in various ways to reduce its total energy expenditure.
And when you have dramatically reduced your calorie intake for weight loss and then left it there for a long period of time, afraid to raise it lest you gain weight, you’ve also left yourself with a metabolism that’s running on fumes.
If that’s you, don’t worry–the “damage” isn’t permanent. In fact, it’s pretty easy to fix. But you do have to focus on fixing it first before turning your sights to fat loss.
The solution is known as “reverse dieting” and I explain how it works here.
If you’re eating somewhere around your total daily energy expenditure, then your metabolism is in good shape and you can use your diet to focus on fat loss.
I recommend you focus on fat loss first if your body fat percentage is over 15% (men)/25% (women).
Get it down to the 10% range (men)/20% range (women) before increasing calories to focus on muscle growth. Here’s why.
And if you’re new to weightlifting, I have good news: you should have no trouble gaining muscle while also reducing your body fat percentage (also known as a “body recomp“).
If your body fat percentage is closer to 10% (men)/20% (women), you can plan your nutrition around maximizing muscle growth, as explained here.
As you know, the major problem with a skinny fat physique is the lack of muscle, and thus, focusing on building muscle is key.
This not only means your training emphasis needs to shift from cardio to weightlifting, but to proper weightlifting. What do I mean by that?
Remember that the big “secret” behind the high-rep, high-volume workouts espoused by many fitness models and bodybuilders is…drugs.
It’s really that simple.
Spending a few hours in the gym every day grinding out hundreds of reps is great if you’re chemically enhanced, but it’s a recipe for disaster if you’re natural.
If you’d like to know more about building an effective workout routine that follows these principles, check out this article.
If your goal is simply to be lean, muscular, and healthy, you never have to do more than 1 to 2 hours of cardio per week.
Yes, you read that correctly.
I’ve helped hundreds of skinny fat people cut back from 8, 9, even 10+ hours of cardio per week to 1 to 2 hours and dramatically improve their physiques.
Here’s what it all comes down to:
Follow these rules of thumb and your cardio will never get in the way of your goals.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to best help you beat the skinny fat problem.
PHOENIX’s caffeine-free formulation is quite a bit different than FORGE’s and is actually made to be “stacked” with it (taken together).
PHOENIX helps you burn fat in three different ways:
It accomplishes this through clinically effective dosages of several ingredients, including…
Through these mechanisms, naringin also works synergistically with synephrine and hesperidin to further accelerate the basal metabolic rate.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.
You don’t have to be skinny fat.
It’s not dictated by your genes or some mysterious affliction.
It boils down to this:
The less muscle you have, the leaner you have to be to not look skinny fat.
And if you’re like most people, you don’t have very much muscle, which makes it easy to be skinny fat.
If you do what many people do–very low calorie dieting and tons of cardio–the best you can hope to achieve is looking frail and starved.
Fortunately, though, the solution to the skinny fat dilemma is equally simple.
It starts with adding muscle as priority number one and, once that has been achieved, ends with maintaining relatively low levels of body fat.
This doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but it doesn’t require anything other than basic know-how and grit and grind.
This article lays out everything you need to know. Doing it is up to you.
Remember, too, that once you’ve done it, you’re in a position to enjoy the fruits of your labor for the rest of your life.
So use the advice in this article to upgrade your skinny fat physique and build a body you can be proud of…and let me know how it goes.