Key Takeaways

  1. Skinny fat describes a condition in which someone is a relatively normal weight, but has very little muscle and too much body fat.
  2. The three primary causes of skinny fatness are severe calorie restriction, excessive cardio, and a lack of heavy, compound weightlifting.
  3. The solution to skinny fatness is the opposite: moderately reduce your calorie intake, do just enough cardio to keep burning fat, and do lots of heavy, compound weightlifting.

If you currently look like this:



Or this:



And want to look more like this:



Or this:



Then you need to pay close attention to everything we’re going to cover in this article.

Because here’s the bottom line:

  • You can follow every “clean eating” rule on the Internet . . .
  • You can jog until your joints are ground to dust . . . 
  • You can swallow a mountain of supplements every day . . .
  • You can do every home workout program ever made . . . 

 . . . and you can still be “skinny fat,” like the people you just saw. For the rest of your life.

Learn how to train, diet, and supplement properly, though, and you can have the body of your dreams.

In this article, you’re going to learn . . . 

  • What skinny fat is
  • Why people get skinny fat
  • How to eat and train to get rid of skinny fat
  • And most importantly, how to never be skinny fat again

So let’s get started.

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What Is Skinny Fat, Anyway?

“Skinny fat.”

The phrase kind of defies logic.

How the hell can someone be both “skinny” and “fat” at the same time? What kind of satanic curse is this?

Well, the “skinny” refers to having relatively low levels of lean muscle mass and the “fat” refers to having too much body fat.

And when you combine these things—too little muscle and too much fat–you get the “skinny fat” look.

For example, here are some skinny fat guys:

skinny fat guy

skinny fat guy 1

skinny fat guy 2

And here are some skinny fat gals:

skinny fat gals 2

skinny fat gals 1

skinny fat gals

In other words, how skinny fat you are more or less boils down to your body composition. 

That is, how much of your weight is either fat or muscle. 

Even if you’re at a relatively healthy weight or BMI, it’s possible to have a skinny fat physique.

If someone is at a healthy weight, their problem isn’t generally that they have too much body fat. Instead, it’s that they have too little muscle. 

This is particularly hard for many women to wrap their heads around, as they tend to be more concerned with losing fat than building muscle.

While reducing your body fat percentage can be helpful for improving your physique, it’s often not sufficient.

For example, check out the following two pictures:



The kicker here is both of these women are more or less at the same body fat percentage!

The major difference between their physiques is the amount of muscle they’re carrying. The first woman has little and the second has quite a bit.

You see, the less muscle you have, the more prone you are to look skinny fat despite being at a healthy weight. An extremely under-muscled guy at 15% body fat can look skinny fat whereas a musclebound guy at the same level of body fat can look downright intimidating.

Likewise, an under-muscled guy typically has to get down to sub-10 percent body fat to get abs and develop some real muscle definition. A musclebound guy can often look “lean” despite hanging out at 15% body fat.

Now, if you’re a woman and are already squirming at the thought of gaining muscle and winding up “bulky,” I understand.

But it doesn’t work like that.

The truth is it’s very hard for women to build enough muscle to look bulky. It takes years of intense, dedicated training and eating to gain enough size for this.

What does cause bulkiness, however, is adding muscle when body fat levels are too high. All this accomplishes visually is a larger, but not more defined, look.

You see, you can only develop the muscle definition most of us are after by building a moderate amount of muscle mass and then reducing your body fat percentage.

That is, you aren’t going to get toned legs, a flat stomach, or defined arms without losing some fat along the way.

I talk about this and more things that all women should know before they start working out in this article: 

The Top 5 Things All Women Need to Know About Working Out

So, an imbalance between muscle and fat levels is what causes the skinny fat look.

You want enough muscle mass to have some shape, definition, and curves, and not so much fat that it smothers and obscures the muscle underneath.

Summary: Skinny fat describes a condition in which someone is a relatively normal weight, but has very little muscle and too much body fat.

Why People Wind Up Skinny Fat

There’s a foolproof way to become and stay skinny fat:

  1. Severely restrict your calories.
  2. Do large amounts of cardio.
  3. Do little-to-no resistance training.

If those things sound familiar, that’s because they comprise the bulk of the mainstream weight loss advice.

Flip through the pages of just about any workout magazine or book, and especially those targeted to women, and you’ll find “experts” advising one or more of those terrible weight loss strategies.

Why do these things make you skinny fat, though?

Let’s break it down.

Why severe calorie restriction can make you skinny fat.

If you’re a regular here, you already know that meaningful weight loss requires that you feed your body less energy than it burns over time.

Get carried away with this knowledge, however, and start feeding your body a lot less energy than it burns, and you’re asking for trouble. The type of trouble that results in significant muscle loss and metabolic slowdown.

To make matters even worse, when the scale gets stuck (and it always does at some point), most people respond by eating even less or doing even more cardio, which only accelerates the muscle loss.

This is a one-way street to skinny fat, and is why I recommend you use a moderately aggressive calorie deficit of 20 to 25% for losing weight.

Research shows that, when combined with regular weightlifting workouts and a high-protein diet, a 20 to 25% deficit allows for rapid fat loss while also preserving muscle.

Summary: Severe calorie restriction results in rapid muscle loss that perpetuates skinny fatness.

Why doing too much cardio can make you skinny fat.

If you think that you have to do hours and hours of cardio every week to finally lose that belly fat, you’re not alone.

And you’re going to love me for this:

When it comes to improving body composition—losing fat and building or preserving muscle—cardio isn’t very important.

Many people are surprised to learn that research shows that doing regular cardio workouts guarantees little in the way of weight loss. In fact, many people who think that they can lose weight by just doing cardio wind up fatter than when they began.

That isn’t to say that cardio itself is useless or that it directly causes weight gain.

If you know what you’re doing with your diet, cardio can help you lose fat faster—and high-intensity interval training is particularly good for this—but it’s by no means vital.

In fact, if you want to get and stay lean without sacrificing muscle and strength, you have to be judicious in how much cardio you do (more isn’t better).

There are two main reasons for this:

What’s more, although cardio can burn a lot of calories, it doesn’t increase fat loss as effectively as weightlifting. That is, if you were to burn the same number of calories from just weightifting or cardio, a greater percentage of the calories would come from body fat if you were weightlifting.

Thus, the standard weight loss prescription of 1 to 2 hours of cardio 4 to 7 days per week is just far from ideal. And especially when you combine it with some form of starvation dieting, which supercharges the damage to your physique.

Summary: Excessive cardio causes skinny fat by accelerating muscle loss, making it difficult to lift weights, and failing to effectively increase fat loss as well as weightlifting.

Why doing little-to-no resistance training can make you skinny fat.

Many weight loss regimens include very little or no resistance training, or very low-intensity training, and this is a huge mistake.

An intense weightlifting session may not burn quite as many calories as a high-intensity cardio session, but it burns quite a bit more than many people think (and definitely enough to noticeably speed up fat loss).

And then there’s the “afterburn effect” or, scientifically speaking, “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption” (EPOC), which is an increased rate of oxygen uptake that occurs after exercise and results in additional calories burned.

This is where weightlifting really shines because a single session can elevate your metabolic rate for several days.

Heavy weightlifting is especially effective in this regard, with research showing that training with heavy weights (80 to 85% of 8RM in this case) can result in hundreds more post-workout calories burned than training with lighter weights (45 to 65% of 8RM).

There’s even more to consider though.

Resistance training is the only way to maximally preserve muscle while losing fat.

Remember, when you say you want to “lose weight,” what you really mean is you want to lose fat and not muscle.

You can accomplish this fairly easily if you know what you’re doing. In fact, you should be able to lose little-to-no muscle and strength while dieting for fat loss, even if it takes several months to reach your desired body fat level.

That’s the goal, and just a few weight training sessions per week is enough to accomplish this.

Summary: Resistance training is the most effective way to maintain or build muscle mass while losing fat, and neglecting weightlifting for cardio is a surefire way to stay skinny fat.

How to Get Rid of Skinny Fat

Now that you know the shortcut to skinny fat—large calorie deficit, way too much cardio, and way too little resistance training—let’s talk about how to prevent and, if necessary, undo the damage.

“Should I try to lose fat or build muscle?”

There’s the million-dollar question that plagues skinny fat people everywhere. They know the type of physique they want but how do they actually get there?

Guys tend to think they should just focus on building muscle and girls are inclined to want to lose more fat. And they’re both going to get nowhere . . . because they need to do both.

That is, they want to set up their diet and training so they can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.

This is commonly referred to as “body recomposition” and it’s the only way out of the skinny fat predicament. Too much fat and too little muscle is what got you into this mess and you have to flip that around to escape it.

Now, you’ve probably heard that it’s impossible to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously. 

That’s untrue.

If you’re new to weightlifting (and heavy weightlifting in particular), and you probably are if you’re skinny fat, you absolutely can build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

This is particularly true if you still have “newbie gains” left on the table. 

That is, if you’re a man and you haven’t gained at least 15 to 20 pounds of muscle since you started lifting weights, you likely can effectively “recomp.” The same thing is true if you’re a woman who hasn’t gained at least 8 to 10 pounds of muscle after a year of lifting weights.

In this case, you should have no trouble building muscle and losing fat simultaneously, if you know what you’re doing.

You can read this article to learn exactly how to recomp effectively:

The Secret to Body Recomposition: Lose Fat & Gain Muscle

Here are the key things you need to get right: 

  1. Do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting.
  2. Be stingy with your cardio.
  3. Learn how to diet properly.

Do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting.

Although you have to both lose fat and gain muscle to put your skinny fat days behind you, when you look at the bigger picture, gaining muscle is more important. That’s what will ultimately give your body the look and shape you want.

And when you want to maximize muscle growth, you have to emphasize heavy, compound weightlifting in your workouts. High-rep “pump” workouts that emphasize isolation movements are far less effective for muscle building.

The big “secret” why so many fitness models and bodybuilders do and recommend these types of workouts is steroids. Plain and simple. Grinding away for hundreds of reps per workout is fantastic if you’re on drugs but won’t get you very far as a natural weightlifter.

So, instead of chasing a huge pump every week, your primary goal is to get very strong on exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press, and you need a workout program built with that in mind.

Read this article to learn what kind of workout routine you should follow to stop being skinny fat:

How to Create the Ultimate Muscle Building Workout

Be stingy with your cardio.

The proper way to include cardio in a weight loss regimen is to keep individual sessions and the total weekly amount as short and low as possible.

You want to do just enough cardio to keep the fat burning and no more.

After working with thousands of people, here’s what I’ve found seems to be the “sweet spot” for maximizing fat loss and minimizing muscle loss:

  • No more than 20 to 30 minutes per cardio session.
  • No more than 1.5 to 2.5 hours of cardio per week.

How can you possibly influence fat loss with only 2 hours of cardio per week, you wonder?

Regular cardio won’t cut it. As I mentioned earlier, high-intensity interval training is the answer.

Read this article to learn how to use high-intensity interval training to stop being skinny fat: 

The Top 3 Reasons to Do High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Learn how to diet properly.

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:

If your calorie intake has been very low for quite some time, and you aren’t losing much or any weight, chances are good you would benefit from taking a more moderate approach.

There are several reasons for this.

As I mentioned earlier, crash dieting is one of the most reliable ways to burn away your hard-earned muscle—especially when combined with high-rep, low-weight resistance training.

Thus, overly restricting your calorie intake is at direct odds with goal number one of solving skinny fatness—building muscle. 

Second, 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 significantly reduced your daily calorie expenditure.

I’m sure you can guess what this means: losing weight is going to be considerably harder if you’re starting in this impaired condition.

If that’s you, don’t worry—you haven’t “damaged” your metabolism or forced your body into “starvation mode.” 

Your body has simply adapted to its new allotment of food by burning fewer calories, and this is a natural, intractable reaction to calorie restriction.

One of the best ways to avoid this problem is to only restrict your calories for a few months at a time before coming up for air. 

If you’ve already been restricting calories for quite some time, though, the solution is simple: 

Stop restricting calories. 

Increase your calorie intake enough to maintain your weight. In other words, eat about your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) every day. Do that for at least two weeks to get your mind and body ready for another bout of cutting, and then set your sights on fat loss again.

Once you’re ready to start cutting again, follow the instructions in this article: 

The Complete Guide to Safely and Healthily Losing Weight Fast

10 Impressive Skinny Fat Transformations

If you’ve been skinny fat for a while, chances are good you’ve tried other methods to fix this problem. And since you’re reading this, chances are good they didn’t work.

And if you’re skeptical, I understand. 

If you follow the advice in this article, though, exactly as I’ve laid it out, you will not be skinny fat in three to six months (depending on how skinny fat you are). 

Case in point? Check out these success stories from people that have done my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs:

skinny fat andrew L

karen- skinny fat

chris b2

skinny fat kim

ash skinny fat

jan skinny fat

You can achieve results like these too if you follow the blueprint I’ve laid out for you in this article. 

And if you ever run into problems along the way, leave a comment below and I’ll help you out!

The Bottom Line on Skinny Fat

There’s no reason to be skinny fat. 

It’s not a genetic curse or mysterious affliction. It has very specific causes and a very specific solution.

Skinny fat describes a condition in which someone is a relatively normal weight, but has very little muscle and too much body fat.

The less muscle you have, the leaner you’re going to have to be to not look skinny fat. And if you have very little muscle, you don’t have much of a choice: you can either look skinny fat or frail and starved.

Fortunately, the road out is just as straightforward: you need to add muscle and reduce your body fat percentage.

The three main mistakes that cause skinny fatness are:

  1. Severely restrict your calories.
  2. Do large amounts of cardio.
  3. Do little-to-no resistance training.

Severe calorie restriction results in rapid muscle loss that perpetuates skinny fatness.

Excessive cardio causes skinny fat by accelerating muscle loss, making it difficult to lift weights, and failing to effectively increase fat loss as well as weightlifting.

Resistance training is the most effective way to maintain or build muscle mass while losing fat, and neglecting weightlifting for cardio is a surefire way to stay skinny fat.

The solution to skinny fat, then, is to do the opposite of this.

You should . . . 

  • Do a lot of heavy compound weightlifting.
  • Be stingy with your cardio.
  • Learn how to diet properly.

These things take time, know-how, and grind, but are easy enough to do. And once you’ve gotten the ball rolling, you’ve put yourself 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.

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