The Skinny Struggle is Real
I spent almost 10 years of my life trying and failing to gain weight. In fact, when I tried to bulk up, I would often lose weight. And whenever I did gain a few pounds, I’d get a cold or take a break, and the weight would melt right off. I’d wind up right back where I started.
I didn’t understand why it was so damn hard for me to gain weight. Was it because I had an ectomorph body type? Could it really be that simple? But if that were the case, how come so many ectomorphs are able to bulk up? How was I different? Was I a hardgainer? Was I non-responder to weightlifting?
Other people would see me struggling to gain weight and they’d figure I just I wasn’t eating enough calories. They’d tell me to “just eat more.” Then they’d look at me like they’d just solved all of my problems, totally confident they’d given me the information I’d been missing all my life.
I had been skinny all of my life, though. “Just eat more” wasn’t new advice. I mean, it’s not like I hadn’t tried to eat more. Of course I had. I’d been trying to gain weight my entire life.
I get it. That advice would work fine for most people. After all, gaining weight is second nature for most people. If you tell the average dude to eat more, he’d be able to. Hell, he’d probably even like it.
So the assumption is that no matter how fast our metabolisms are, and no matter how small our stomachs are, we’re just supposed to tough it. We’re supposed to force-feed ourselves. But after grinding out a brutal bulking diet for a few weeks, feeling bloated and tired the whole way through, we’ll inevitably give up. It’s just not a sustainable diet.
So at that point, most of us blame our ectomorph genetics, thinking that we’re doomed to stay skinny forever. But some ectomorphs do it. Some skinny guys are able to bulk up. What’s their secret?
In this article, we’ll cover:
- Why is it so hard for ectomorphs to gain weight?
- What’s the best ectomorph bulking diet?
- What type of exercise should ectomorphs do to bulk up?
- How quickly can skinny guys build muscle?
The Art of Not Disappearing on Vacation: How to Maintain Muscle Mass Without Lifting
Imagine being in the midst of a bulking routine, and things are going super well—you’re gaining weight on the scale each week, steadily building muscle. But then, lo and behold, disaster strikes. And not just a run of the mill muscle disaster, like running out of trail mix, but the worst kind of disaster imaginable: a vacation.
And I’m not talking about one of those cushy vacations at a resort that includes a gym, I’m talking about one of those vacations where we’re forced to stop lifting weights entirely.
For many of us, even just the thought of taking a break from our workout routines gets our hearts racing, our minds spiralling down into the depths of pure terror. Unfortunately, I’ve been there too. I know what you’re thinking:
- How much muscle will you lose if you don’t go to the gym for a week or two?
- Can you build muscle with bodyweight workouts?
- How many mojitos does it take to spike muscle protein synthesis?
- Why don’t they make luggage big enough to fit a barbell?
- Will the customs agent see whey protein but think you’re trafficking drugs?
- Will you be able to build muscle in prison?
In desperation, you might start googling around to learn more, but since only 3% of the population is trying to gain weight, good luck trying to find an article for people who are worried about losing weight when they stop working out.
So what do you do? Cancel your vacation? Do bodyweight workouts? Or take a break from lifting?Read More
The Best Lifts for Building Muscle
One of the most common questions we get asked is, “What exercise is best to grow my small chest (or arms, shoulders, abs, etc)?” It’s a surprisingly large question. Yes, some exercises tend to be better for activating certain muscle groups, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg:
- Effectiveness: how well they build the target muscle groups
- Efficiency: how many different muscles they bulk up at once
- Learning curve: How easy they are to learn and master
- Risk-to-reward ratio: How likely they are to strengthen versus injure us
So we’ve put together a guide showing you the best exercises for each muscle group. These exercises represent your best chance of safely building muscle as rapidly as possible for your experience level.Dive in
The Skinny-Fat Workout & Diet Guide
Skinny-fat is when you’ve got a body-fat percentage of over 20% but still look skinny in a t-shirt. It’s when you’ve got skinny arms but still have fat around your belly. Why does that happen? Why are you gaining fat instead of muscle when you gain weight? And why are you losing muscle instead of fat when you lose weight?
It’s a confusing situation because it’s not clear whether you need to focus on bulking to build muscle or cutting to lose fat. As a result, some experts recommend body recomposition, where you gain muscle and lose fat while maintaining the same bodyweight. Is body recomposition the best approach for skinny-fat guys?
Finally, how should skinny-fat guys approach diet and exercise? What’s the best skinny-fat workout? What’s the best skinny-fat diet?Read More
The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Bulking Habits
Maybe you know that skinny guy who gets totally amped up to gain some weight and build muscle. He’s tried and given up in the past but blames his failure on not trying hard enough—on not having enough motivation. He starts off strong: hitting the gym 5 times a week, eating 100% clean (whatever that means to them), and spending hundreds of dollars on bizarro supplements that he read about on the Internet that even the supplement salesman is confused by.
A few weeks go by and after sacrificing so much in his life: time, energy, money… the scale hasn’t budged. Or maybe his weight even dropped because he cut out the easy calories he was getting from junk food.
Feeling disappointed and burnt out, he slowly stops going to the gym and throws in the towel.
Why does this keep happening? Some people might say that he didn’t have the grit or willpower to tough it out. But honestly, this guy has incredible willpower and motivation—that’s a brutal routine that many professional fitness models couldn’t even keep up. His willpower isn’t the problem. Anyone with that routine will either reach capacity and burn out, or switch their energy to something else—something new and exciting (new job, holidays, new relationship)… and then there’s no room left for the crazy muscle-building routine.
I’ve been that guy too many times to count. (And not just with building muscle, either.)
Us skinny guys aren’t even having a hard time building muscle because we’ve got bad genes, although that was an excuse I once used. No, us skinny guys are actually pretty great at building muscle!
In the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, partially thanks to a phenomenon called newbie gains, the average member will gain ten pounds in the first five weeks and twenty within the first three months. You can see some examples of their muscle-building transformations here.
While this may sound crazy, especially if, like us, you’ve tried and failed to bulk up in the past… these results line up well with what’s found in research. The largest and most thorough muscle-building genetics study found that skinny guys build muscle faster than anyone else (study). Some guys in the study added two inches to their arms and doubled their strength in just the first three months.
Because we’re so far away from our genetic muscular potential, we’re able to build muscle at an accelerated pace.
So why do so many of us skinny guys fail at building muscle over and over again?Read More
As a skinny guy my abs are my pride and glory. Will bulking make me fat?
If you’re a skinny guy who prides himself on having great ab definition, the idea of bulking up can be intimidating. The same is true for skinny-fat guys who have fought hard to lose fat and are now faced with the prospect of gaining it back.
Frankly, most people who bulk up do wind up gaining some fat. That’s not because they’re doing anything wrong, either. When gaining weight, you need to eat in a calorie surplus. And when you eat in a calorie surplus, there’s always the risk of some of those extra calories being stored as fat.
The good news is that as a naturally skinny guy—even if you’re naturally skinny-fat—you’ll probably have a small number of fat cells than the average overweight person. Because of this, ectomorphs tend to be a bit more resistant to gaining fat than the other male body types (study). If you bulk cleverly, you should be able to build muscle quite leanly.
There are also a few things you can do to reduce your risk of gaining fat while bulking:
- Follow the best bulking program you can find. The better your bulking workouts are, the more muscle growth they’ll stimulate, and so the more calories your muscles will soak up. It’s usually better to skip the bodyweight workouts and strength training programs, focusing instead of on bonafide bulking routines.
- Keep your calorie surplus relatively modest. With a good workout routine and a good bulking diet, most skinny guys are able to build muscle quite quickly and leanly during their first few months of training. During this period, we normally recommend gaining around a pound per week. However, if you’re worried about gaining fat, eat in a smaller surplus and gain weight more slowly. Gaining 0.5 pounds per week will give you a better shot of avoiding fat gain while bulking.
- Eat enough protein. Protein is the raw material that muscle is built out of. In order to build new muscle mass, we need to be consuming enough protein to build that muscle with. Unless you’re bulking on a vegan diet, getting enough protein from whole foods isn’t that difficult. If you’re finding it difficult, though, try getting a protein powder.
- Eat a higher carb diet for leaner gains. This one is surprisingly controversial, especially now that ketogenic diets are becoming more popular. However, keto isn’t designed for bulking, it’s designed for weight loss. The same is true with low-carb diets. Most guys are able to build muscle more leanly if they get up to around 50–60% of their calories from carbohydrates. (Having a little bit of sugar in your bulking diet is usually okay, too, provided that it’s not more than 10% of your total calorie intake.)
- Eat mostly whole foods for general health. Whole foods tend to contain more vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and dietary fibre. That’s going to help you build more muscle, and it’s going to help reduce the amount of fat you gain (study). Now, it’s true that foods that are higher in fibre are also more filling, which can make it hard for us skinny guys to eat enough calories. But there are ways to eat more calories while still eating a diet that’s healthy overall.
- Add in some cardio alongside your bulking workouts. If you’re new to exercising, lifting weights will probably improve your cardiovascular health. Even then, though, you’ll probably be able to build muscle a little bit more leanly if you add in a little bit of dedicated cardio to your bulking routine.
- Bulk up your abs. Most overweight people are naturally muscular in their abs and lower bodies. After all, they need to carry around their extra bodyweight with them everywhere they go. This gives their abs a ton of stimulation as they go about their everyday lives. This isn’t true for ectomorphs. Our lighter bodies don’t require as much core strength, so unless we train our abs directly, us skinny guys will often wind up with fairly skinny abs.
There’s more good news, too. Lifting weights will improve the insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells, making it more likely that the food you eat will go to muscle instead of fat (study). Plus, having more muscle mass on your body will further improve your insulin sensitivity, making it easier to be lean and muscular in the longer term (study, study).
There are tons of things that affect how lean your gains are—we’ve written an entire book about it. However, if you keep these principles in mind, you should do pretty well.
Why Can’t I Build Muscle?
Our specialty is helping naturally skinny hardgainers bulk up. One of the main questions we get is: why can’t I build muscle? We have skinny guys coming to us after years of trying and failing to build muscle. No matter what they try, their bodies don’t grow. It’s a rare issue. Most people are overweight. But it’s not rare here. This is what we do.
So, first of all, I’m a hardgainer myself. I grew up skinny, and I spent several years trying to build muscle without gaining a single pound. Even though I was exercising, lifting weights, and eating as much food as I could, my body refused to gain muscle. I gave up several times, assuming that my genetics would keep me skinny forever. Sometimes I was so frustrated that I would give up for months or even years at a time.
But I did eventually figure it out. I did eventually succeed at building muscle. Here’s a photo showing me at 130 pounds and then at 190 pounds, at around 11% body fat in both photos:
My transformation was completely natural—just weight training, eating a good bulking diet, and improving my lifestyle—and I was able to gain 55 pounds within just two years. So not only was I able to build muscle, but I was able to build it quite quickly. It’s kind of crazy remembering back to when I thought I had poor muscle-building genetics. I didn’t. I just wasn’t training and dieting in a way that suited my naturally skinny “hardgainer” body type.
I’m not an outlier, either. Before he started helping college, professional, and Olympic athletes bulk up, my business partner, Marco Walker-Ng, BHSch, PTS, PN, gained 63 pounds while getting his health sciences degree and his personal training certifications:
And we’ve reproduced these results in thousands of online clients over the years, such as Hugo, who gained forty pounds during a single year:
So then the question is, if our genetics aren’t limiting our muscle growth, what the Hell is going on? Why is it so incredibly hard for us to build muscle? Why is it that we spend years without making any gains and then all of a sudden explode into growth?
The first reason is the more obvious one. Hardgainers are good at building muscle, we’re just not very good at gaining weight. And if we aren’t gaining weight, there’s no surplus material to build muscle tissue with, and so we fail to gain any muscle. It’s only once we succeed at gaining weight that our muscle growth kicks into gear.
For instance, one study looking into muscle-building genetics found that skinny guys are able to build muscle more quickly than other body types. And that’s great, right? But the researchers knew that to gain muscle, we have to gain weight, so they disqualified all the participants who weren’t able to gain weight.
(Note that skinny-fat guys have a slightly different issue. We have a separate article for skinny-fat guys.)
Why Can’t We Gain Weight?
So what this study shows us that we can build muscle wonderfully well if we can succeed at gaining weight. But for hardgainers, gaining weight can be extremely difficult. We have a full article on why it’s so hard for hardgainers to gain weight, but here are a few reasons:
- Because our torsos are thinner, our stomachs are physically smaller.
- Because we have less fat to insulate us, more of our body heat radiates outwards, and our metabolisms rise higher.
- Being thin gives us a greater surface area relative to our weight, causing us to radiate even more heat outwards, and causing our metabolisms to rise even higher.
- Many of us are fidgety and/or put our bodies in inefficient positions, raising their metabolisms higher still.
- Because we’re more insulin sensitive, we feel full more easily, at which point it becomes extremely uncomfortable to continue eating.
- When we get stressed or busy, our appetite disappears and we often forget to eat.
So as you can see, our stomachs are smaller, our metabolisms are faster, and our appetites are less aggressive. This can make it very difficult to eat enough food to gain weight, which is made harder still because all of the popular diets were created for overweight people trying to lose weight.
For example, intermittent fasting is often advertised for helping people make lean gains. But the base assumption is that people are overeating. It’s a diet designed to help people eat less food. Not only does intermittent fasting make it harder to gain weight (study), but it’s also actually quite bad for building muscle.
Another example is low-carb and ketogenic diets, which have become popular diets to combine with weight training. Again, the whole point of limiting carbohydrates is to reduce our calorie intake, making it harder to gain weight. These are weight-loss diets. No wonder that if we try to use them to gain weight, we fail.
Why Don’t We Build Muscle When Working Out?
The other problem that hardgainers run into is that most workout programs aren’t designed to stimulate muscle growth.
Some types of exercise, such as cardio, obviously aren’t designed for building muscle. I went through phases of focusing on cardio because I was fed up with being the skinniest guy at the gym. At least with cardio, it’s something that I was naturally good at. I could tell that my lighter frame gave me an advantage over the typical overweight person. Cardio is quite good for our health, too. We build more blood vessels, improve our oxygen delivery, and develop a higher red blood cell count. Great things, but I knew it wouldn’t help me build muscle, and I knew that building muscle was even more crucial for my health. After all, I was clinically underweight. So I would eventually turn back to weight training. And that’s where things got confusing.
With weight training, I assumed that all of it was designed to stimulate muscle growth. But that’s not the case. The vast majority of people are overweight. In fact, according to one survey, only 3% of people are trying to gain weight. We’re a tiny minority. Even with weight training, most programs aren’t designed to help skinny people bulk up.
For instance, CrossFit is a type of exercise known as high-intensity power training (HIPT), which is quite similar to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), except that it promotes fitness adaptations by using explosive Olympic weightlifting instead of sprints. In my naivety, I didn’t realize that CrossFit was just another type of cardio—cardio done with weights.
Now, CrossFit can certainly stimulate some muscle growth as a byproduct, especially if you gain weight and muscle easily. But the time under tension is very low, the lifts aren’t great for stimulating muscle growth, there’s no system of steady progressive overload, and there’s a huge emphasis on power and momentum. CrossFit is not a good way to train for muscle growth.
So what about the opposite of CrossFit? What if instead of doing high-rep Olympic weightlifting, we choose low-rep strength training? That’s where things get really confusing. Strength training programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5 often claim to be quite for building muscle, and that’s not entirely wrong. They’re quite a bit better for building muscle than cardio programs. But these programs aren’t designed for muscle growth either. Rather, the low rep ranges are designed to help people learn to contract their muscles more forcefully. They’re designed to make people stronger for their size. And the lifts—the low-bar squat, bench press, and deadlift—are chosen to help people use the heaviest weights possible, not to help people build muscle.
For example, let’s consider the main strength training lift, the low-bar squat (as pictured above). Most strength training workouts start off with a few sets of low-bar squats, and that’s perfectly fine if your goal is to become a better powerlifter. It’s a great lift for packing meat onto our hips, adductors, and quads. But it uses a relatively small range of motion, it does a poor job of engaging our upper-back muscles, and it can be hard on the hips and shoulders. If our goal is to gain muscle mass, it’s not the best option.
Now consider something like a front squat (pictured above). Front squats are a bit lighter than back squats. Most people can only front squat about 75% as much weight as they can back squat. But they use a much deeper range of motion, they’re much easier on the hips and shoulders, they improve our posture, and they also bulk up our upper backs. As a result, we have a lighter lift that’s easier to recover from, safer, and quite a bit better for stimulating muscle growth, especially in our upper bodies.
We can improve strength training in a number of other ways, too:
- If we increase the rep range from five reps to ten reps, we can stimulate around twice as much muscle growth per set, making our workouts twice as efficient, and freeing up more time for other lifts (meta-analysis, study, study, study).
- We can choose lifts for other muscles that we’re eager to grow: chin-ups and curls for our biceps and upper backs, the overhead press to build bigger shoulders, lateral raises for wider shoulders, and triceps extensions for bigger triceps. We can also bulk up areas that aren’t trained by compound lifts, such as building a thicker neck.
- We can use a mix of shorter and longer rest times to build even more muscle.
This is how the thinking differs between strength training and hypertrophy training—training designed to stimulate muscle growth. When our goal is to train specifically for muscle growth, we can design workout programs that stimulate much more muscle growth, making it far easier to build muscle. Not only will that allow us to build muscle more leanly, but it can even help to increase our appetite and slow our metabolisms. The more muscle growth we can stimulate, the less likely our bodies will be to burn off extra calories.
You’re not crazy. It can be really hard for skinny hardgainers to gain weight. It’s a well-documented phenomenon with decades of research to back it up. And if we can’t gain weight, then we can’t build muscle. Again, this isn’t controversial. Gaining weight is at the heart of building muscle, especially for guys who are starting off skinny and underweight.
We’ve been there ourselves and we’ve helped thousands of skinny guys bulk up. Almost all of us have gone through a long period of our lives when we worried that it would be physically impossible to build muscle. Some members make it into their forties and fifties before they finally manage to bulk up. For example, our client Eddi only succeeded at gaining muscle right before his sixtieth birthday:
However, it isn’t impossible to gain weight. If you combine a proper bulking diet with a good hypertrophy training program, not only will you finally be able to build muscle, but you’ll probably be able to build muscle faster than any other body type (study).
Here’s what to read next:
Why is one of my shoulders higher the other? And one pec bigger than the other?
My left shoulder has been higher than the other for as long as I can remember. I always thought of it in a superficial way, and figured it must be because I always carried my backpack slung over my right shoulder, pushing it down. Marco had the same thing, but thought it had to do with his skateboarding habits.
We were both sort of right… but mostly wrong.
Both are caused by the same thing: the fact that our bodies are innately asymmetrical. Our brain has a left and right side, and both perform different functions. Our hearts and livers are on just one side of our bodies. The right diaphragm is bigger than the left and has a longer attachment on the spine. Our left and right lungs expand to different degrees. One hand usually possesses more find motor control than the other. We usually favour one leg over the other as well, as Marco discovered when he was skateboarding.
It’s no wonder that over the course of our lives we fall into patterns of asymmetry, and that these effects can be seen when we look in the mirror.
If you go and look at the mirror right now, you will probably notice your left knee rotates out and your right knee rotates in. You may also notice that one shoulder sits higher than the other—usually the left. Another common compensation is a right rib hump. Your right rib on the backside will be more filled with air due to this twisting of the ribcage. One pec might thus grow bigger than the other and sit on your rib cage a little differently. If you don’t have a mirror handy, this pelvis/rib twist usually looks something like this:
For most people this isn’t a problem. The links between posture, performance and injury are iffy, since our bodies are so good at creating functional compensation patterns. It’s hard to tell whether they really have a large impact on one another, especially when we’re not currently injured or in pain. Better posture and better symmetry could theoretically improve your mood, your confidence, your breathing, your anxiety, your strength. It’ll certainly make you look better too. And if you’re currently in pain, it might help you get rid of it.
A good weightlifting program will do a good job of this, provided you develop good habits, train in a balanced way, and lift symmetrically. Even just learning how to squat well and squat heavy can work wonders.
Sometimes it can take a little extra work though. Here’s a good drill to help you learn to hold your hips in a good position while moving. Since most postural issues stem from the hips, mastering this will usually address the asymmetry at its root and allow you to develop a more balanced upper body.
Take it away, Marco:
Do Skinny Guys Need to Squat or Deadlift to Bulk Up?
No lift is mandatory. You can bulk up without squatting, without deadlifting, or, in extreme cases, without doing biceps curls. So long as you’re stimulating some of your muscles, then some of your muscles will grow. So the worst thing you could possibly do as a skinny guy is avoid lifting weights simply because you can’t do a particular movement or lift.
How to Bulk Without Squatting
Squats tend to be easy to skip. If you skip your squats, you’ll probably get away with it. People don’t really look at your legs, and they don’t play a large role in male aesthetics. I mean, this survey about the ideal male body doesn’t include a single leg. Not even one leg. Most of the research about how male muscularity relates to attractiveness doesn’t include legs either.
But on the off chance that anyone ever asks why you never squat, you can just tell them that you have cranky knees or some other common injury. Cranky knees are quite common, and not just in people who are trying to avoid squatting. Another good excuse is to just blame your small legs on the squat rack always being busy.
If neither of those excuses do the trick, try claiming to have early-onset arthritis from doing too much squatting in the past.
If all else fails, just pick the best squat variation for your needs. Some are easy on the knees, some load the spine less heavily, and some are better for guys with pre-existing lower back injuries. I know it’s not ideal, but if you have to squat, there will almost certainly be a squat variation that works well for you.
How to Bulk Without Deadlifting
Skipping deadlifts is a little harder. Small legs are easy to hide by wearing loose pants or by filling your pockets with paper-back books. The problem is, deadlifts train the entire posterior chain. Yes, you could build your upper back with front squats, rows, and even chin-ups, but there’s no getting around the fact that the deadlift is by far the best exercise for bulking up your upper traps and thickening up your torso.
Still, there are a couple good excuses you could use. The main excuse for not doing deadlifts is having a sore lower back. Yes, it’s true that deadlifts are often an effective way to rehab a sore lower back, given that they strengthen the spinal erectors, but most people don’t know that. And besides, on the off chance that someone points out that deadlifts are good for bad backs, you can rightly respond that you’d need to talk to a physiotherapist before doing them. (It’s wise to talk to a physiotherapist if you have a chronic injury. They’ll probably recommend that you eventually do deadlifts to fix a bad back, as mine did, but back injuries can vary in type and severity, and you may want to ease into them.)
Another good excuse for avoiding deadlifts is that you don’t want to bang up your shins or ruin the smoothness of your hands.
If all else fails, you can probably find a deadlift variation that suits you and your goals. Perhaps a sumo stance if deadlifts make your lower back overly sore. Or perhaps a dumbbell sumo deadlift if you’re working on overcoming a chronic back injury. Or maybe a conventional deadlift if your main goal is to build a thicker torso.
Can You Bulk Without Biceps Curls?
What about skipping curls? Skipping biceps curls has gotten quite common in the strength training community. The most obvious excuse for skipping biceps curls while bulking up is by doing chin-ups “instead.” If you do chin-ups with an underhand grip, they’ll train your biceps just as well as biceps curls would.
However, that excuse fails because of the word “instead.” There’s no reason for it. Doing biceps curls in addition to chin-ups would help you build even bigger biceps, so I can’t think of a good reason not to do both. That’s why some lifts are easier to skip that others.
What Lifts Do You Need to Do While Bulking?
Bulking programs can be quite flexible once you know the rules. If you want a good framework for what lifts to include in your bulking program, here’s our article about how to structure an ideal bulking workout, and here’s our article about the “Big 5” Bulking Lifts. You don’t need to do every lift, and your workout routine doesn’t need to be perfect. So long as you lift weights and eat a good bulking diet, you should be able to make good progress.
If you can’t squat, that’s fine. There’s probably a variation that will suit you, but meh, not squatting isn’t the end of the world. The same is true with deadlifts and, really, any other lift.
The only lift you really can’t skip is the biceps curl. Curls are what bulking is all about.
Should You Bulk If You’re Skinny-Fat?
Our specialty is helping skinny guys bulk up, so no surprise, then, that one of the most common questions we get from skinny-fat guys is whether it’s okay to bulk or if they should cut down to a lower body-fat percentage first.
At first glance, neither bulking nor cutting sounds very appealing. Most skinny-fat guys have the awful experience of bulking up and seemingly just gaining fat or trying to lose weight and just winding up even skinnier.
To be fair, when you bulk, you’re probably building some muscle. It’s just you aren’t noticing it because it’s hidden by the fat. And when you cut, you probably aren’t losing that much muscle. It’s just that you’re getting smaller overall, your muscles aren’t as puffed full of glycogen, and you don’t have quite as much energy to train. Even if everything is going fine, it can seem like you’re losing muscle.
Either approach can help, as long as you do it correctly: bulk leanly and maintain your muscle mass while cutting. Mind you, that’s easier said than done.
We’ve written a full guide for skinny-fat guys here.
Nutrition plays a role here, but most of the guys that we see who are struggling with this are doing cardio or p90x style programs when trying to lose fat. These are programs designed for your average person looking for weight loss. And weight loss is what they get. They lose some fat, they lose some muscle.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Cardio can be effective, but it should be combined with hypertrophy training—training designed to stimulate muscle growth. If you do some cardio alongside your lifting routine, then burning some extra calories and raising your metabolism a little higher can help with body recomposition. It can help skinny-fat guys build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. But the main driver of that body recomposition is hypertrophy training, not cardio, so emphasize the hypertrophy training.
The other option is to combine a bulking program with a fat-loss diet. Eat for fat loss while training for muscle size. Your diet will take care of the fat loss, and your training will ensure that you don’t lose muscle. In fact, you may even gain muscle while cutting.
Not everyone succeeds at losing fat and building muscle simultaneously, but skinny-fat guys often have success with it, especially if they’re relatively untrained or out of shape (study, study). For an example of that, here’s what happened in a study comparing weightlifting with aerobics when in a calorie deficit:
- The aerobics group lost seven pounds of fat while also losing six pounds of lean mass. (Thirteen pounds lost overall.) If you were a 170-pound man with 20% body fat, this would bring you down to 157 pounds with 17% bodyfat. You’d have lost a fair bit of muscle and still wouldn’t be anywhere close to having abs.
- The hypertrophy training group lost 22 pounds of fat and gained four pounds of lean mass. (Eighteen pounds lost overall.) If you were a 170-pound man, this would bring you down to 152 pounds with 8% body fat. You’d have fitness model abs, a few pounds more muscle, and could begin bulking leanly from there.
That’s the approach we take with our clients, doing a few weeks of cutting combined with hypertrophy training, and then doing a couple of months of lean bulking. After a few months of that, the transformations can be quite impressive:
Okay, I’ll end this one here. Here’s where to go next: