What Is Skinny Fat? And How To Fix It

When people want to get started working out and being in better shape they usually associate that with seeing the scale drop.

“I want to be (insert #) pounds.”

They don’t really have a good reason why.

Maybe they felt best with that weight in the past, or they heard that’s a good weight for their height.

What happens then is people usually drop their food intake (usually in a restrictive way) and then start to ramp up their running or cardio.

They lose weight and they get addicted to that.

Sometimes they will increase how much they are running or eat less to speed up the process.

They also usually say things like “ill focus on putting on muscle once I get to (insert weight).”

They get to the weight they thought they wanted, but they still aren’t happy with their appearance.

What ends up happening with this approach 9 times out of 10 is the dreaded “skinny fat” look.

What is skinny fat?

It is someone who appears to be a normal weight, but they have a higher percentage of body fat and low muscle mass.

I think this is more common in females than males, but it does happen to both regularly. This is mostly because of the stigma of being small that females face.

Not to mention when females hear weight training and building muscle there is still the perception that they will become on of those steroid looking female body builders, but that wont happen.

Muscle is what gives your body that shape.

This is why with online clients we don’t just focus on losing scale weight, and instead we focus on building muscle and losing body fat.

If you are someone who has dieted down to be smaller, but then always been unhappy with your appearance, then chances are you are “skinny fat”.

The good news is that there are some adjustments you can make to fix this if you have done this before or to avoid it if you are looking to lean out.

First let’s look at why this happens

How You Become Skinny Fat

Here are the most common mistakes I see in people who have the “skinny fat” look.

No weight training

The biggest mistake people make when trying to lose weight is avoiding weight training. As I mentioned earlier, muscle is what gives your body that nice shape and weight training is what builds muscle.

As you lose weight its important to weight train so you can build/maintain your lean body mass. This will help with weight loss and again will give you the shape you are looking for.

What’s cool about this is you find out you actually don’t need to go as low on the scale.

Oh and you can usually eat way more than you think.

Not to mention weight training has many other health benefits such as:

  • Increases bone density
  • Increase in strength to do everyday activities
  • Prevents injury.
  • Better joint flexibility
  • Increased confidence

Extreme calorie restriction

The next culprit is the large calorie deficit people put themselves in when they want to get skinnier.

Weight loss is interesting because its tempting to speed up the process. But this usually doesn’t end well.

Since you are not bringing in as much energy your body needs to utilize what energy it has stored in your body.

It will use fat stores and lean body mass.

If you are not weight training then it is more likely to use whatever amount of lean body mass (muscle) you have because it finds this tissue (muscle) to be too costly for how much energy you are giving it. The body places a low emphasis on muscle, unless you give it reason to.

You are losing weight, but from the wrong tissue. Again we want fat loss, NOT muscle loss. This is why just focusing on your scale weight and trying to get that down as quickly as possible is a bad idea.

The quicker you lose the weight and the longer you do this for, the more issues you will run into.

By combining no weight training and extreme calorie restriction you are asking for a decrease in your body composition. Even though the scale is going down.

You see worse effects in someone who is already fairly small/lean compared to someone who has a significant amount of weight to lose.

Low protein

Not only do people go low calorie and not weight train, but they usually combine it with low protein intakes as well.

Most people already dont eat enough protein for their physique goals, but then you combine lower overall energy intakes and you see their protein intake drop even more.

Protein helps you recover from training but it also helps maintain and build muscle.

It also is great for helping you feel full and it also uses the most energy out of the three macronutrients when you absorb and digest it.

If you are bringing in low amounts of energy (due to the calorie restriction) protein will mostly be used for more important tissues in the body and you may use some protein for energy. Again, you body wont keep or build muscle if you don’t give it reason to, especially if you are losing weight.

Bad combo.

Too much cardio/training that makes you sweat.

Another common trait in those who are skinny fat is an overemphasis on cardio and training that makes you sweat and feels tough. This is mostly your bootcamp style of training that I am talking about here.

While any exercise is good, when you combine it with the things mentioned above, an intense style of training like boot camps just doesn’t build muscle and give your body that shape that people want.

So if improving your shape and appearance is your goal, you may need to evaluate your training.

Cardio does help you use more energy, which can help you get into a calorie deficit, but one downside with cardio is that the more you do it the more efficient you become with it.

Meaning your 1 mile run may have burned 500 calories at one point, and now that same run could be burning only 300 calories. In order to burn the 500 calories again you would have to do more running or cardio.

If you combine this with low calorie amounts, no weight training, and low protein levels you are risking your body using muscle to help supply it with energy due to the low amount of energy it is getting through food.

Again it doesn’t find muscle super useful during these times.

Poor sleep/high stress

The other common trait of being skinny fat is poor sleep and high stress levels. Both of these put your body in a poor position to gain muscle and lose body fat.

Studies have shown that those who sleep less don’t necessarily have a tougher time losing weight, but the problem is the weight they are losing, its usually more lean mass that they lose compared to those who get a good night of sleep regularly.

All of these traits tell your body that you don’t need muscle, therefore it will use it as energy and you end up losing weight, but over time the percentage of your weight becomes more fat compared to muscle.

Not what we are looking for.

How to Fix It

Here are the steps we would take with an online client who comes to us with this issue.

Training

Weight training would be the cornerstone of their training. The emphasis would be on increasing strength/muscle to send the signal to your body that muscle is important and that it must prioritize keeping it.

If you need some resources on building muscle here are a few blogs I have written on this topic:

Principles of building muscle
Training splits for building muscle

A few more:

Upper body training

Lower body training

Most online clients who are new to weight training start with 2-3 days per week. Eventually many clients work up to 4-5 days per week.

All you need is 30-60 minutes per session.

Not to mention by weight training you are also getting the many other health benefits that come from weight training.

From a cardio standpoint we would reduce the amount of cardio they are doing and place a greater emphasis on steps.

Here are some resources on the important of steps:

NEAT Overview
Physical Activity and Less Food

Too much cardio can interfere with building muscle so we try to avoid higher intensity cardio like running.

Nutrition

As far as nutrition goes it would depend on the client but we would either:

-Put them at maintenance calories with adequate protein
-Put them at a small calorie deficit with adequate protein.

Maintenance: If a client was already at a fairly low weight then keeping them at maintenance would give them sort of a body recomposition.

The goal of this would be to maintain their body weight, but have more of their weight become muscle compared to body fat.

This will improve their appearance greatly.

The extra calories would also allow them to eat more and give them more energy throughout the day and in their training sessions.

Protein would be around 1g per pound of bodyweight.

Small deficit: If a client did still have some weight to lose, then putting them in a slight calorie deficit would be ideal.

The goal would be to make sure they are still eating plenty of protein (about 1g per pound of bodyweight).

The calorie deficit would probably be between 200-500 calories from their maintenance. Which would equal about a .5 to 1% weight loss per week.

This person should be able to lose body fat and build muscle at the same time, so long as they weight train and keep their protein intake at the adequate levels.

Check out this blog to find your macros.

Sleep

The other thing we would work on with this client is focusing on increasing their sleep quality.

Here are some slepe quality tips:

  • Consistency: Keep a relatively consistent bedtime and wake time. Staying up late and sleeping in on weekends can disrupt your routine during the week.
  • Light: Keep the bedroom extremely dark, to tell the body’s light-sensitive clock that it’s time to sleep.
  • Noise: Keep the bedroom extremely quiet or use a white noise generator (such as a fan).
  • Relaxation/routine: Develop a pre-bed routine that is relaxing and familiar. Television, work, computer use, movies and deep/stressful discussions late at night can disrupt sleep.
  • Temperature: Keep a slightly cool temperature in the room, between 66-72 F or 18-22 C.
  • Stimulants: Eliminate stimulants like caffeine/nicotine, especially later in the day.

Also read here to see what happens when you get a poor night of sleep.

There you have it. If you follow these tips you will no longer have the skinny fat look.

Bonus: Client Testimonial

“𝗡𝗼 𝗺𝗼𝗿𝗲 𝘀𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗻𝘆 𝗳𝗮𝘁”

This was one of the things Paige mentioned when she first started online coaching.

In Paige’s situation, she was already fairly lean. A lot of people in this situation still think that getting leaner/losing weight is the way to go. It’s not.

At some point fueling your body needs to be the priority, not only for looks but for overall health.

In the beginning, she focused on the handful diet, where the goal was to get a lean source of protein 3-4 times throughout the day.

She now tracks her protein and calories so we have more data to ensure she is eating enough to build muscle and increase her gym performance while being flexible with her nutrition.

Since she had previous training experience, a 4 day upper lower split was the routine that has worked best for her.

No formal cardio, just a step goal of 8k per day.

As you can see, if she would have just gone off the scale, she would think she hasn’t made any progress.

When you look into it, she has gained a very small amount of weight and her measurements in her mid section have gone down, all while hitting weight and rep PRs in the gym. A sure sign muscle is being built.

If you need more structure, guidance and accountability with this then fill out the coaching application here and lets get to work.

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