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 to be in 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?
- What Does Skinny-Fat Mean?
- How to Know If You’re Skinny-Fat
- Why Do You Gain Fat & Lose Muscle?
- Why Are You Skinny-Fat?
- Skinny-Fat Genetics Can’t Stop You
- The Skinny-Fat Workout
- The Skinny-Fat Diet
- Should Skinny-Fat Guys Do Cardio?
- The Importance of G-Flux
- Improving Nutrient Partitioning With Sleep
- Skinny-Fat Supplements
- Is Body Recomposition the Right Solution?
- Should Skinny-Fat Guys Bulk or Cut?
- How to Cut as a Skinny-Fat Guy
- How to Bulk as a Skinny-Fat Guy
- Zig-Zag Towards Lean Muscularity
What Does Skinny-Fat Mean?
- Skinny-fat: when someone has a below-average amount of muscle combined with an unhealthy amount of body fat.
Mind you, skinny-fat is a slang term so there’s no strict definition. But if you’re under-muscled while being overweight, you could call that being skinny-fat. The difference between being skinny-fat and being overweight is that most people gain around 67% fat and 33% lean mass while gaining weight, so as their body-fat percentage rises, they also become more muscular.
As a skinny-fat guy, on the other hand, you might actually have a “normal” body weight, it’s just that your body-fat percentage is too high, giving you some of the health problems that come along with being overweight. It’s less a problem of eating too many calories, more a problem of your body preferentially storing calories as fat instead of muscle.
Being skinny-fat seems to be more common than being skinny. If we compare Google searches over the past ten years, we see that far more people are searching about being skinny-fat (yellow) than are searching about being an ectomorph (blue) or a hardgainer (red). After all, most skinny guys who don’t get in the habit of working out and eating a good diet will gradually become skinny-fat as they age.
How to Know If You’re Skinny-Fat
To figure out if you have a below-average amount of muscle mass, we can look at both muscle size and strength. The average adult man has 13″ biceps and can bench press around 185 pounds (source). If we’re smaller or weaker than that, it’s a sign that we’re less muscular than the average man. That’s where the “skinny” part comes in.
For body-fat percentage, most research finds that the health downsides start to crop up when our body-fat percentage rises above around 20% or when our visceral fat accumulates to the point where our waists are larger than 37 inches (source). Figuring out our body-fat percentage with any degree of accuracy is difficult, but if you can’t see any hint of your abs, you’re almost certainly above 15%. Fortunately, it’s easy to measure the circumference of your waist at the narrowest point.
Now, even if you don’t technically meet the definition of skinny-fat, you may still feel skinny-fat. Maybe your biceps are 13.5 inches and your waist is 35 inches, but because your arms don’t look muscular and you have a bit of a belly or love handles, you may wish to get both leaner and more muscular. And I can relate to that. I’ve been there.
Why Do You Gain Fat & Lose Muscle?
Back when I first started trying to build muscle, I bulked myself into having a little belly with love handles. I had lost my abs, but my 11-inch arms were still too skinny to fill out a small t-shirt. I certainly couldn’t bench 185 pounds. In fact, I couldn’t even bring an empty barbell down to my chest without my shoulders hurting. I had started lifting weights and trying to improve my diet, but I was horrified by how much fat I’d gained and how out-of-shape I looked. My stomach stuck out further than my chest, causing my shirt to cling to my gut.
So I put my bulk on hold and geared into a cut. During that cut, I lost all of the muscle I had gained while bulking. I was right back to where I started. Right back to being skinny. I don’t think I’ve ever struggled with anything quite so confusing and frustrating. It turned me off of lifting for a full year. And that, of course, only made things worse.
This process of gaining fat while bulking and then losing muscle while cutting is what defines the skinny-fat cycle. It’s a problem born of poor “nutrient partitioning.” Our bodies prioritize fat gain when we’re in a calorie surplus and then burn muscle when we’re in a deficit.
- When we bulk we get fatter because our bodies aren’t investing into muscle growth. There a number of reasons for this: we aren’t working out properly, we aren’t eating enough protein, we’re eating too much, we’re overly stressed, we’re sleeping poorly, or we’re eating too much dietary fat (a controversial point, admittedly).
- When we cut we get skinnier because our bodies are burning muscle for energy. Again, there a few reasons for this: we aren’t stimulating muscle growth with our workouts, we aren’t eating enough protein, we aren’t getting enough sleep, or we’re overly stressed. (Eating too much fat isn’t an issue when losing weight, which is why low-carb and ketogenic diets are so popular.)
So, of course, the next thing I tried was something called body recomposition—trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. I started lifting weights again, and over the course of six months, I lifted weights and ate more protein. Over the course of those six months, I didn’t gain any muscle or strength, and I didn’t lose any fat. Sometimes I had a good workout or looked a little better in the mirror, but it never added up into consistent progress. By the end of it, I wasn’t really sure if I’d made any progress at all.
When the typical advice fails, that’s when skinny-fat guys fall into the worst trap of all—atypical advice:
- Grains are making you skinny-fat, so you need the paleo diet.
- Insulin is making you skinny-fat, so you try keto.
- It’s a growth hormone issue, so you start intermittent fasting.
- Sugar is the problem, so you do a clean bulk.
There are endless varieties of atypical diets that claim to be great for building muscle while losing fat. Truth is, many of them can be effective. But they’re effective for the same reasons that a traditional approach is effective, and the traditional approach hasn’t solved your skinny-fatness. So whatever diet you choose, you’re still doing something wrong on a more foundational level. Or at least I was, anyway.
Now, just for some perspective, you can find some solace in the fact that your path to building a lean and muscular body isn’t as arduous as the average man’s. Most guys are full-blown overweight or obese. Being skinny-fat is actually a sign that you’ve done at least a few things right. We just need to get you doing a few more things right.
We can start by narrowing in the category of problem. Your problem is that you’re gaining fat when you’re in a calorie surplus and losing muscle when you’re in a calorie deficit. This is a nutrient partitioning issue, and there are a number of things we can do to improve nutrient partitioning, ranging from improving your exercise routine to improving your diet to eating more protein to getting better sleep.
As we go through the different ways to improve nutrient partitioning, you’ll realize that our approach isn’t novel. There’s nothing revolutionary in this article. We’ve used this same approach with professional and Olympic athletes. Your doctor would likely agree with all of it. We aren’t trying to do things differently, we’re trying to do things correctly.
Why Are You Skinny-Fat?
The first thing we want to do is poke around for the source of the problem. Sometimes that can lie in your history. Most of our skinny-fat members have variations of the following stories:
- Not doing any physical activity: most of us were skinny guys growing up. We didn’t necessarily do much exercise or eat very well, but we were at least somewhat active and never put on much weight. Fast forward a few years—maybe even a decade—and our lifestyles inevitably catch up with us. If we still aren’t exercising, or at least being active in our daily lives, it will start to show in our physiques.
- Not training for muscle growth: most of us prefer doing things that we’re naturally good at, and we gravitate towards activities where we feel like we belong. As a skinny-fat guy, there are plenty of activities where your body will do just fine: jogging, yoga, cycling, and so on. These activities are good for improving your health, but they don’t improve nutrient partitioning, and so they won’t help you overcome your skinny-fatness.
- Dieting while only doing cardio: Now, don’t get me wrong, cardio combines great with hypertrophy training, allowing people to build lean and muscular physiques without any problem. But some guys cut by combining a fat-loss diet with only cardio. Cardio doesn’t stimulate muscle growth in a surplus, and it doesn’t stimulate muscle maintenance in a calorie deficit. If you’re losing weight without lifting weights, that’s a sure way to lose your muscle along with your fat. It’s incredibly important to train for muscle growth even while cutting.
- Not doing dedicated hypertrophy training: there’s nothing wrong with strength training if your main goal is to gain strength, or doing CrossFit if your main goal is to improve your fitness, but if your main goal is to gain lean muscle, then that’s a different type of training: hypertrophy training. Hypertrophy training is designed to stimulate as much muscle growth as possible, which means that more calories will be shuttled towards building muscle and fewer towards fat storage, improving nutrient partitioning.
- Dreamer bulking: this was me. I was incredibly skinny and incredibly eager to bulk up, so I bulked up far too quickly. It’s not necessarily that I was doing anything wrong with my training, diet, or lifestyle, I was just eating too many extra calories, gaining weight too quickly, and the extra calories were spilling over into fat gain.
- Low testosterone: there are a number of reasons why men can have low testosterone, and there are a number of solutions, depending on the cause. We have an article on testosterone written by a urologist about how testosterone relates to muscle growth and how to see if yours is low. You don’t necessarily need high testosterone, mind you. Anywhere within the normal, healthy range is perfectly fine, and that accounts for almost all of us. (Also note that working out, diet, sleep, stress, and body-fat percentage all affect our testosterone levels.)
- Not prioritizing sleep: one of the best things we can do for our health, muscle growth, and fat loss is to get enough good sleep. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, it can be really hard to build a lean and muscular physique.
As you look at this list, you may realize that you’re doing most things correctly already, and that’s great. Try to find the things you aren’t doing correctly. That’s where the skinny-fat solution will lie.
Skinny-Fat Genetics Can’t Stop You
Casey Butts, PhD, found that genetically gifted guys can build roughly 5% more muscle than the average guy. Guys with poor genetics, on the other hand, can build about 5% less muscle than the average guy.
For example, he found that the average 5’10 guy could get to a lean 200 pounds, the genetically gifted guy could get to about 210 pounds, and the guy with poor muscle-building genetics could get to around 190 pounds. If you’ve seen 5’10 guys at a lean 190 and 210 pounds, you know that they both look like they could win an Olympic wrestling match.
Even if you have the worst muscle-building genetics, you can still build a fearsome amount of muscle. Maybe not enough to win a natural bodybuilding competition, but more than enough to build a remarkably strong and muscular physique.
Genetics also plays a role when it comes to our natural body-fat percentage. People have varying levels of insulin sensitivity, differing quantities of fat cells, and even our metabolisms respond differently to overfeeding. Perhaps you’re someone who gains a higher proportion of fat when you gain weight, and some of that may be due to your genetics.
So you might not be able to become a hulking mammoth of a man who looks like he must be on steroids, and you might not be able to diet down to 7% body-fat.
Or maybe you can. Unless you’ve been lifting well and eating right for a few years, your current condition is probably not the best predictor of how far your genetics can take you.
However, even the worst skinny-fat genetics won’t stop you from building a strong, lean, and muscular physique. If we want to quantify that, let’s say good genetics would allow a 5’10 man to get to 210 pounds at 8% body fat, whereas poor genetics would allow him to get to 190 pounds at 12% body fat. Both bodies will look completely ideal. In fact, even the guy with poor genetics will have about 30 more pounds of muscle than Brad Pitt did in Fight Club.
If you think your genetics are holding you back much more than that, it’s probably because you aren’t lifting right (or you aren’t lifting at all), you aren’t eating a good bulking diet, you aren’t sleeping well, or you haven’t been doing it consistently for long enough.
If you’re curious about how big and strong you can get, and how quickly you can do it, here’s our article about size and strength standards for ectomorphs.
Understanding the Skinny Part of Skinny-Fat
To understand why some people are naturally skinnier than others, let’s take a look at what’s taking place inside our muscle fibres. There are a number of reasons why some people build muscle more easily than others, but the strongest predictor of natural muscularity is the number of nuclei in our muscle fibres, like so:
Naturally muscular guys have a tremendous amount of these nuclei in their muscle cells. Maybe they were born that way, maybe they acquired them through a childhood of being active, or maybe they acquired them through exercise (at which point they aren’t really “naturally” muscular, but the effect is the same). Regardless of how they got those nuclei, they have them, and so they’re naturally more muscular.
You can think of these nuclei as being sort of like wifi routers, where each router can project an internet signal within a certain area. If we stay inside that area, we get a good internet signal. If we go beyond that area, we lose the signal. The only difference is that instead of installing internet devices around the house, we’re building muscle.
If we want to build muscle within the area that our nuclei can control, no problem. We can build muscle fast and easy. But once we’ve maximized those domains, there’s no more room for growth. If we want to build more muscle, we need to start installing more wifi routers. This is why beginners, formerly muscular people, and genetically gifted people are often able to quickly build muscle while losing fat:
- Beginners may not have many nuclei in their muscle fibres, but they haven’t maximized their myonuclear domains yet, and so building muscle is fast and easy.
- Formerly muscular people have acquired more nuclei through training, and so when their muscles shrink, it’s tremendously fast and easy to bulk them back up again.
- Genetically gifted people naturally have more nuclei, allowing them to build more muscle before running up against the limits of their domains.
The problem with not having an abundance of nuclei in our muscle fibres is that it limits how big our muscle fibres can get. In fact, most of us only start off with enough nuclei to gain around ten pounds of muscle. This leads to a burst of muscle growth when we first start training for muscle growth … but then once we hit the edge of our domains, muscle growth slows and fat storage increases. This is why people who are in peak condition have a hard time building muscle while losing fat:
- Experienced lifters in peak condition have already maximized their nuclear domains. They may be muscular, yes, but continuing to build muscle is slower and harder. New wifi routers need to be installed.
This might also explain why you can keep gaining and losing the same ten pounds of muscle without feeling like you’ve made a lasting change. As you bulk and cut, your muscle fibres are just inflating and deflating. You aren’t making any permanent changes.
The good news, though, is that if we push deeper into muscle growth, we can add more nuclei to our muscle fibres. If we continue training for muscle growth, eating enough protein, and eating enough calories, our muscle fibres will add extra nuclei to allow for more muscle growth, like so:
Best of all, due to the phenomenon of muscle memory, these nuclei stick around forever. Even if we stop lifting weights, we keep the extra nuclei. Even if we go through a period of starvation, we keep these extra nuclei. It’s a permanent adaptation. By working out and dieting, we can become “naturally” muscular.
Of course, if you stop working out, your muscles will still deflate. But they probably won’t ever shrink as small as they were before. And when you start lifting weights again, they’ll return to peak size rather effortlessly. After all, once you’ve added these nuclei to your muscle fibres, you’ll be “naturally” muscular for the rest of your life.
Now, how does this relate to being skinny-fat? When we have an abundance of nuclei in our muscle fibres, our muscles are primed for growth, and so they tend to hog the calories that we’re eating, shuttling them towards muscle growth instead of fat storage. This improvement is quite profound, too. For instance, it gives us greater insulin sensitivity, allowing us to clear sugar out of our blood more quickly and invest it in muscle maintenance and growth (study).
Plus, this is just one of the many improvements that we get from training for muscle growth. Stimulating muscle growth with our workouts further improves our insulin sensitivity, helping us clear sugar out of our blood even more efficiently, and allowing us to benefit from higher carb intakes (study). And lifting weights comes along with a host of other benefits, including stronger bones and tendons, a lower risk of getting sick, and a lower chance of dying in general (study, study, study).
If we can build enough muscle, we can permanently upgrade our bodies, getting rid of the “skinny” part of skinny-fat once and for all.
Understanding the Fat Part of Skinny-Fat
To understand the “fat” part of skinny-fat, let’s take a look at how gaining fat affects our physiology. Similar to how we can gain new nuclei in our muscle fibres, we can also increase the number of fat cells we have—fat-cell hyperplasia. However, you have to gain quite a lot of fat for that to happen. Brad Dieter, PhD, talks about fat-cell hyperplasia starting to take place once people reach a BMI of about 35. For example, when someone is 5’10 and 240 pounds, gaining more fat can increase the number of fat cells they have.
Fortunately, you’re not morbidly obese, just skinny-fat. In your case, you probably still have the same number of fat cells you’ve always had. Your fat cells are just inflated with stored energy. That won’t reduce your ability to get and stay leaner. In fact, it helps. The more inflated your fat cells are, the easier it is to access their energy, and so the easier it is to lose fat. This is why overweight people are often able to lose fat even while building muscle.
However, having too much body fat can negatively impact our ability to build muscle, sort of. As our body-fat percentage climbs up over 20% or so, our hormones begin to change. We stop producing as much testosterone, start producing more estrogen, and our insulin sensitivity becomes blunted—it’s harder to clear the sugar out of our blood, harder to invest those nutrients into muscle growth. That can make it harder to build and maintain a lean and muscular physique, but it’s not clear by how much. There’s some research showing that having a higher body-fat percentage tends to result in worse nutrient partitioning when gaining weight, but most of that research doesn’t include weight training, so I’m not sure how well it applies here. A good weight training routine can be incredibly powerful.
Even so, by cutting down to a healthier body-fat percentage, we can improve our hormone production: more testosterone, less estrogen, less cortisol, less inflammation, and higher insulin sensitivity. If we do that while also getting into the habit of lifting weights, eating enough protein, eating a sensible number of calories, and getting good sleep, then it can feel quite natural to maintain a lower body-fat percentage.
It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. After all, the more deflated our fat cells get, the harder it is to access their energy:
- Cutting from 20% down to 15% might be easy. You might even gain some muscle while doing it. In fact, many overweight people experience body recomposition whether bulking or cutting, provided their training, diet, and lifestyle are good enough. This also tends to result in a dramatic improvement to our appearance, with our face becoming more chiselled, our stomach becoming flat, and muscular definition starting to appear in our arms and chest.
- Cutting from 15% down to 10% will likely be harder, and you might find that you’re only just barely maintaining your muscle size and strength. Even with a good workout routine and diet, it can be hard. On the bright side, though, it tends to have a neutral-to-positive effect on our health and hormones, and some people find that it improves their appearance.
- Cutting from 10% down to 8% might be quite difficult, rather unpleasant, our hormone profile can start to get worse, and most people lose a bit of muscle in the process. It can look impressive in some contexts, but most people start to look smaller in clothes, and their necks and wrists can start to look bony.
So, what should we do with this information? It means that if your body-fat percentage is over 20% right now, it might be a good time to cut, burning some fat while building muscle. Then, when you get down to 15% body fat, you can decide if you want to keep pushing leaner. Then, if you cut down to 10% body fat, eh, probably time to stop. Once you’ve cut down to around 10–13% body fat, it’s probably better to focus on building muscle.
Now, to be clear, these guidelines are quite rough. Different people have different numbers of fat cells. For some people, getting down to 10% is quite easy. For others, it’s hard to even maintain 15%. For me, my magic number is 11%. Point being, anywhere under 20% body fat is healthy, so don’t get too hung up on whether you should start bulking at 13% or 16% body fat. If you’re finding it hard to keep losing fat, it might be time to focus on building muscle instead.
The Skinny-Fat Workout
The Importance of Resistance Training
Skinny-fat people have a problem of gaining fat instead of muscle, right? By far the best way to fix that is to stimulate massive amounts of muscle growth with our training. Most people realize that weight training can be good for building muscle, but even then, they still underestimate how effective it can be. The amount of muscle-protein synthesis we can stimulate with a good workout routine overshadows almost every other factor. Calorie cycling done absolutely perfectly is a drop in the bucket. Weight training done properly is a waterfall.
Research clearly shows that following a good workout routine is enough to cause simultaneous fat loss and muscle growth in men with poor body composition, especially when combined with a high-protein diet (study). It’s by far the most important factor. So before going into the finer details of lifestyle and diet, it really pays to improve the stimulus that we’re getting from our workouts.
The catch is, most of these studies that find improved muscle growth and fat loss use professionally programmed workout routines that the participants strictly adhere to. It’s not enough to just go to the gym and sling some weights, we need to actually train. And we need to train specifically for muscle growth. That’s what pushes us outside of our comfort zones and forces us to train all of our muscles intensely enough to stimulate growth (not just the ones we’re most excited about). That’s when the amount of muscle growth we can stimulate really starts to become profound.
How to Train for Muscle Size
So, the question becomes, what’s the best way to stimulate muscle growth with our workouts? And that can be confusing at first. There are a lot of different ways to exercise. Some types of exercise, such as CrossFit, are designed to improve our general fitness while helping us gain some muscle size and strength as a byproduct. Others, like Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5×5, and Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, are designed to improve our general strength while helping us gain some muscle size as a byproduct.
That’s all well and good, but we have the specific goal of building muscle. We don’t want to stimulate muscle growth as a byproduct, we want to go after muscle growth as aggressively as we possibly can. After all, the more muscle growth we can stimulate, the higher our insulin sensitivity and muscle-protein synthesis will rise, the more calories our muscles will soak up, and the fewer will spill over into fat gain. If our workouts are good enough, we may even be able to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously (at least while we’re still skinny-fat). That’s what hypertrophy training is for.
Hypertrophy training is a bit of a technical term. Hypertrophy means “muscle growth,” so hypertrophy training is specifically designed to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth. Some people call it bodybuilding, and that’s fine, but bodybuilding has its own culture and customs. Hypertrophy training removes the spray tans, speedos, and all of the stuff associated with competitive bodybuilding. You can still wear a speedo, of course, but that’s not a part of hypertrophy training.
Strength Training Versus Hypertrophy Training
For an example of why it’s so important to train specifically for muscle growth, let’s consider the difference between strength training and hypertrophy training. With strength training, lifting heavy weights in low rep ranges improves our brains’ ability to communicate with our muscle fibres, which has been nicknamed neural gains (study). Over time, we learn how to better contract our muscle fibres for a single all-out rep. We become stronger for our size.
Now, to be fair, strength training does stimulate some muscle growth. But that muscle growth is merely a by-product. When we aren’t training for muscle growth directly, we can’t expect to stimulate as much of it.
To get an idea how these different styles of training affect muscle growth, we can look at a recent study by Brad Schoenfeld, PhD. He split the participants into two groups, putting the first group on a strength training program and the second group on a hypertrophy training program. After eight weeks of training, he measured their 1-rep max strength and muscle growth.
Unsurprisingly, the professionally programmed strength training routine was able to produce large increases in 1-rep max strength. What’s remarkable, though, is that the strength training group increased their 1-rep max by nearly twice as much as the hypertrophy training group, showing that two different weight training routines can produce very different outcomes.
Equally unsurprisingly, the professionally programmed hypertrophy routine was able to produce large increases in muscle size. But again, what’s remarkable is that they gained over twice as much muscle size as the strength training group, again showing that the style of weight training can have a big impact on the sorts of results we can expect. In this case, the main difference was merely doing a few more reps per set, putting the participants within the so-called hypertrophy rep range.
So if we want to build bigger muscles, we should train specifically for muscle size, not for muscle strength or general fitness. And if you’re new to learning about building muscle, that can sound really confusing. After all, it’s common to hear a few different truisms in the fitness industry:
- A bigger muscle is a stronger one.
- Strength training just makes us strong for our size.
- Bodybuilders have muscles that are big but weak.
These statements all have a grain of truth in them, but without understanding the nuance, they become meaningless.
- A bigger muscle is a stronger one, but there are different kinds of strength. If you spend most of your time doing sets of twelve repetitions, then you’ll develop a mix of strength and work capacity that makes you stronger at doing sets of twelve repetitions. But because you aren’t practicing lifting heavy, you won’t be as good at testing your 1-rep max. So it’s true that a bigger muscle is a stronger one, but training in different rep ranges makes us better at lifting in those rep ranges.
- Strength training does make us stronger for our size, at least in a powerlifting sense. If you’re training in lower rep ranges, you’ll get better at lifting in those lower rep ranges. And because those lower rep ranges aren’t nearly as good at stimulating muscle growth, you’ll become stronger for your size. However, if you spend some time doing hypertrophy training, then you’ll have a far higher strength potential. You could then train those bigger muscles to lift in lower rep ranges. (This is what most powerlifters do. They go through both hypertrophy and strength phases.)
- It’s true that many bodybuilders have big muscles but aren’t able to lift very much on the big compound lifts. Is that because their muscles are big but weak? No. The muscles that they train are very strong. If they build bigger biceps by doing biceps curls, then their biceps will become quite strong, but that won’t necessarily translate to their squat, deadlift, or bench press strength. After all, if they don’t bulk up their spinal erectors or forearms, they won’t be able to deadlift very much weight. If you judge them by their deadlift strength, they’ll seem quite weak.
So what we’re seeing is that strength training is good for improving our 1-rep max strength, whereas hypertrophy training is good for improving our muscle size and general strength (because bigger muscles are stronger muscles).
Now, there’s the odd outlier study, such as this one, which shows greater muscle growth from strength training, but if we look at all the research on muscle growth, it shows that strength training only produces about 50% as much growth per set as hypertrophy training (systematic review).
The difference between strength training and hypertrophy training grows even wider when we consider that hypertrophy training tends to include more total sets, resulting in even more muscle growth being stimulated.
And the difference grows wider still when we consider that strength training and hypertrophy training tend to use different lifts. Strength training programs are built around lifts that give us good leverage and allow us to lift more weight (usually the low-bar squat, wide-grip bench press, and deadlift). Hypertrophy training programs are built around lifts that allow us to stimulate more muscle growth (such as the front squat, moderate-grip bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up).
Not only is the different lift selection better for stimulating muscle growth, but it also shifts the balance of that muscle growth more towards our upper bodies. Instead of the squat making up 1/3rd of our compound lifts, it now makes up 1/5th. And instead of doing a low-bar squat, which is lower-body dominant, we’re doing front squats, which stimulate growth in our upper backs.
Now, it’s not that strength training programs only use the Big Three powerlifting lifts. But the emphasis is usually on them. For instance, both Starting Strength and StrongLifts start every single workout with low-bar squats. And it’s not that hypertrophy training programs only use the Big Five lifts. A good hypertrophy program will include plenty of assistance and accessory lifts, too. But most workouts will start with 1–3 of the bigger compound lifts.
On that note, we shouldn’t make the opposite mistake, either. It’s one thing to shift some work to our upper bodies, but we still want to make sure that we’re fully stimulating our legs. After all, our quads, glutes, calves, and hamstrings are the biggest muscles in our bodies (source):
- The Quads: 1800 cm³
- The Glutes: 1200 cm³
- The Calves: 850 cm³
- The Hamstrings: 700 cm³
- Shoulders: 400 cm³
- Chest: 250 cm³
- Lats: 250 cm³
- Triceps: 250 cm³
- Traps: 200 cm³
- Biceps: 100 cm³
- Forearms: 100 cm³
I realize that most guys are more eager to bulk up their upper bodies than their lower bodies, but if we aren’t training our lower-body muscles with the same fervour as our upper-body muscles, we won’t be able to build muscle anywhere near as quickly and it will be more likely for surplus calories to spill over into fat gain. Furthermore, since we’ll have less overall muscle mass, our general health, insulin sensitivity, and hormone profile won’t see the same improvements.
To get the best of both worlds, then, we do want to include plenty of upper-body lifts in our workout routines, but we want to train each movement pattern hard enough to stimulate muscle growth everywhere. It’s not that every workout should start with squats, but we should probably be squatting as often as we bench press, deadlifting as often as we overhead press. And perhaps more controversially, we also think that we should be doing isolation lifts like biceps curls as often as we do those big compound lifts.
A good hypertrophy training program will usually add in plenty of isolation lifts for our arms and shoulders. Otherwise, most of the stimulation from our compound lifts will go to our torsos (glutes, back, chest, front delts) leaving our biceps, triceps, forearms, and side delts lagging behind. This is especially true for skinny guys, but it’s also just the nature of compound lifts. For example, take a look at how much triceps growth is stimulated by the bench press compared to a triceps extension:
The bench press is a great lift for building a bigger chest, but if we consider our triceps, they aren’t stimulated heartily enough. This is true with all lifts that involve movement at the shoulder (because movement in the shoulder joint prevents our triceps from fully engaging). But by adding in a couple of sets of triceps extensions (where all the movement is in the elbow joint), we can bulk up our triceps more than twice as quickly. And again, that won’t just speed up muscle growth, it will also increase our overall muscle-protein synthesis, reducing our chances of gaining fat.
One argument against using isolation lifts is that they aren’t as functional, but that’s kind of a ridiculous argument. As we’ve just shown, the function of the long head of our triceps is to extend our elbow joints when we aren’t pressing anything. To train that function, we need triceps extensions. If we want to build a muscular physique, we need to train all of our muscles using the movements that they’re built for.
Finally, a good hypertrophy program will also help us develop muscles that aren’t trained with compound lifts, such as building a thicker thick. Even something as simple as building a bigger neck can have a profound impact on how strong we look.
That gives us a muscle-building routine with a fairly equal emphasis on a wide variety of lifts and muscle groups:
- The Front squat (or goblet squat): for our quads, glutes, calves, and upper backs. Fortunately, even though our quads are the biggest muscle in our bodies, they’re quite thoroughly stimulated with just a single lift, making leg training pretty efficient.
- The Deadlift (or Romanian deadlift): for our hamstrings, glutes, and lower backs. Our hamstrings and glutes are huge muscles, but they’re both trained very well with just a single lift.
- The Bench Press (or push-ups, etc): for our chests, shoulders, and triceps (sort of).
- The Overhead Press (or close-grip bench press, etc): for our shoulders, upper chest, and triceps (sort of).
- The Chin-Up (or lat pulldowns, etc): for our upper backs and biceps (sort of).
- Arm training: because our biceps, triceps, and forearms aren’t fully stimulated with the big compound lifts.
- Neck training: because none of the big compound lifts train our necks. One of the reasons that skinny guys still look thin even after they start lifting weights is because they aren’t paying enough attention to their necks and traps.
- Ab training: because the compound lifts don’t do a good job of training our visible ab muscles, either. The compound lifts mainly challenge our transverse abdominals (our corset muscles) not our rectus abdominals (our six-pack muscles).
Now, if you’re still a beginner, some of these lifts are fairly advanced. For instance, front squats can be tough to learn if you haven’t developed the size and strength for them yet. In that case, no problem—there are beginner variations that are just as good at stimulating muscle growth.
If we look at the goblet squat, we get all of the same stimulation in our quads, glutes, and upper backs, but the lift is much easier to learn, and we’ve added in a bit of extra stimulation to our arms and shoulders (because the weight is held in front of us). So it’s not that any one specific lift is crucial, it’s just that we need a good way to stimulate muscle growth in all of our muscles. Including our legs, yes, and our chests and backs, of course, but also our arms and even our necks.
We’re combining big compound lifts (like the bench press) with isolation lifts for the muscles that aren’t being properly stimulated (like our biceps and triceps) and then adding in isolation lifts for neglected muscles (like our forearms and necks). Now in a t-shirt, all of a sudden we start to look more athletic. The skinny-fat look fades.
For more details on what a good hypertrophy training program looks like, we’ve got a full article on hypertrophy training.
The Skinny-Fat Diet
Protein for Skinny-Fat Guys
Hypertrophy training is by far the best way to stimulate muscle growth. And so if we want to stimulate even more muscle growth, improving our workouts is the very best way to do that. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. It’s one thing to stimulate muscle growth, it’s another thing to actually build muscle. Proteins are the building blocks that we build muscle out of, and so if we aren’t eating enough of it, then we won’t be able to build as much muscle.
Think of it this way: our maximal rate of muscle growth is determined by how much muscle growth we stimulate with our workouts, but to actually build that muscle, we also need to eat enough protein. Then, once we’re eating enough protein to facilitate that muscle growth, eating even more protein doesn’t provide any extra benefit. So the goal isn’t to eat “more” protein, the goal is merely to eat “enough” protein to adapt from our workouts.
If we look at this study, all of the participants were put on a hypertrophy training program and instructed to eat in a calorie deficit. Half of them ate a fairly average amount of protein (about 0.5 grams of protein per pound bodyweight), whereas the other half were instructed to eat a gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day. For a 150-pound man, that’s the difference between eating 75 grams versus 150 grams of protein per day.
After four weeks, the participants who were eating a standard amount of protein lost 7.7 pounds of fat but failed to gain a significant amount of muscle. That’s already a pretty good improvement in body composition, but the group who was enough protein lost eleven pounds of fat while gaining 2.6 pounds of lean mass. They achieved body recomposition while cutting.
So what we’re seeing here is that if we want to gain muscle while cutting, working out is incredibly important, but it might not be enough. However, if we also make sure to eat enough protein, most of us are able to build muscle while cutting, especially if we’re new to serious hypertrophy training, and especially if we’re still skinny-fat.
High-Carb Versus Low-Carb Diets
In this two-week study, the researchers took non-obese participants and split them into two groups: the first group was overfed with carbohydrates, the second was overfed with fat. Neither group lifted weights or exercised. Here’s what happened:
So what we’re seeing is that getting a calorie surplus from eating more dietary fat caused proportionally more fat gain (47% muscle, 53% fat) whereas getting a calorie surplus from carbs caused more muscle gain (56% muscle, 47% fat). Now, in both of these cases, nutrient partitioning was pretty bad. The reason is that they were gaining weight quickly without working out, improving their diets, or improving their lifestyles. But even so, we’re seeing that eating more carbs causes slightly leaner weight gain.
If we look at the research conducted on healthy men who are put on a hypertrophy training workout program, the benefits of a higher-carb diet become more substantial. After all, as we covered above, hypertrophy training increases our insulin sensitivity, allowing us to more efficiently clear sugar from our blood and invest it into muscle growth. Plus, when we do bodybuilding-style training, our muscles start to store more glycogen, which is made out of the glucose that we clear out of our blood. This glycogen makes our muscles look bigger, gives us more energy in the gym, and helps us build more muscle.
For an example of what a higher carbohydrate intake does when combined with a good hypertrophy program, these are the results of a study where the participants were given weight-gainer shakes containing roughly 1,800 calories from carbs. Now, we’re not recommending that you consume 1,800 of processed carbs every day. Far from it. That’s total overkill. But there’s no reason to fear carbs, either. Carbs don’t make people skinny-fat and, in fact, getting more calories from carbs tends to result in faster and leaner muscle growth.
This may sound controversial, especially since keto and low-carb diets are popular among people who are trying to lose fat. But keep in mind that we aren’t overweight people trying to lose weight, we’re skinny-fat people who are trying to build muscle. For us, we want to put muscle growth front and centre in our workout routines and diet. For that, we can turn to sports nutrition research. The Journal of Sports Science recommends 2–3 grams of carbs per pound bodyweight per day for guys trying to gain muscle strength and size. For a 150-pound man, that’s 300–450 grams (1200–1800 calories) of carbohydrates per day.
Skinny-Fat Macros (Carbs, Protein & Fat)
While bulking as a skinny-fat guy, I’d recommend aiming for macros along the lines of 50–60% carbs, 20–30% protein, and 20% fat. For a more detailed explanation, here’s our article on the best macros for bulking. Since you’re just skinny-fat, not obese, our recommendations are the same. After all, the goal is still to build muscle quickly and leanly.
When you’re cutting, protein is still incredibly important, but you can be more flexible with your carb and fat macros. We recommend eating at least 1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day. If you can do that, you don’t need to worry about your carb and fat macros. You don’t even need to track them. After all, both low-carb and low-fat cutting diets work quite well. The only thing to watch out for is going so low in fat that you impair your hormone production or going so low in carbs that you aren’t able to eat many fruits and vegetables. Ideally, you’d continue eating some fat and some carbs. But you don’t need to be strict about it. You can eat according to your preferences.
Finally, although macros are quite important, we also want to dive one level deeper. Since your nutrient partitioning isn’t great right now, there are three other things to watch out for:
- Eating too much processed food: some people try to build muscle by adding a lot of processed junk food into their diets. This “dirty bulking” approach to bulking makes it easier to eat more calories, but getting too many of our calories from processed food tends to raise our fat intake higher, gives us fewer nutrients per calorie, and might result in a disproportionate amount of fat gain (study). As a result, we recommend getting around 80% of your calories from minimally processed whole foods when possible. Here are some examples of healthy bulking foods.
- Eating too much fructose: there’s some research showing that if we eat too much fructose while bulking, it can cause us to store proportionally more body-fat than if we were eating other carbs, such as starches or glucose (study). Fructose is mainly found in fruits, and fruits are perfectly fine, but it’s also found in table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which should be consumed in moderation. This is why starchy carbs (pasta, rice, potatoes, grains, legumes) are popular with bodybuilders, whereas processed sugars are not.
- Eating too much saturated fat: there’s also some research showing that if overdo our intake of saturated fat while gaining weight, we gain less muscle and more fat. Worse, we gain more visceral fat (study). To be clear, eating some saturated fat is healthy (up to about 10% of total calories). It helps us produce hormones like testosterone. But when we’re adding calories into our diets to build muscle, it’s better to get most of our fat from sources like nuts, olive oil, fatty fish, and fish oil.
The Basics of a Good Skinny-Fat Diet
Okay, so the two most important dietary factors as a skinny-fat guy are to eat the right amount of calories to either bulk or cut, and then to eat enough protein to optimize your nutrient partitioning. Here’s a quick summary:
- Eat the right number of calories to either bulk or cut at a reasonable pace. If you’re gaining weight, the goal is to gain muscle leanly. If you’re losing weight, the goal is to build a bit of muscle while quickly losing fat.
- Eat enough protein. Of all the dietary changes skinny-fat guys need to make, the most important thing is making sure that we’re eating enough protein to build muscle as fast as possible while bulking, and eating enough protein to gain and maintain muscle while cutting. In both cases, the ideal protein intake is roughly one gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day.
- For your bulking macros, getting your extra calories from carbs usually works best (50–60% of calories from carbs).
- For your cutting macros, you can cut back on both carbs and fat, but you don’t need to be strict about it (say 30% carbs and 30% fat). That way you can still eat a healthy and balanced diet containing nuts, fish, olive oil, eggs, fruits, vegetables, legumes, meat, and so on.
- Spread your protein intake out between meals. Try to eat at least twenty grams of protein in each meal so that you can stimulate muscle-protein synthesis at multiple points during the day. (Although to be clear, the muscle-protein synthesis we stimulate with our meals pales in comparison to the muscle growth we stimulate with our workouts.)
- Eat mostly whole foods. You don’t need to restrict carbs or completely eliminate sugar or junk food. But getting around 80% of your calories from minimally processed whole foods is usually wise.
Should Skinny-Fat Guys Do Cardio?
When most people think of fat loss, they think of cardio. The idea is that cardio routines (jogging, aerobics, bodyweight circuits, and so on) help to burn calories, speeding up fat loss. That’s true. The only problem is that cardio does little to preserve muscle mass as we lose weight. We lose a mix of both muscle and fat, often winding up skinny-fat by the end of our diets.
For example, in this 12-week study, the researchers split the participants into three groups. The first group wasn’t given any sort of workout program, they were just instructed to eat in a calorie deficit. This caused them to lose weight, with 67% of that weight loss coming from fat and 33% of it coming from muscle.
What’s interesting is that this is the same ratio of muscle-to-fat gain that the average person has while gaining weight. This means that when alternating between calorie deficits and calorie surpluses, their body composition would stay about the same. They aren’t getting leaner or more muscular, just bigger and smaller.
The next group of participants was instructed to eat in a calorie deficit and were given a cardio workout routine to follow. This caused them to lose 76% fat and 24% muscle. They aren’t just losing weight anymore, they’re starting to shift their ratio of muscle to fat.
The third group of participants were told to eat in a calorie deficit, and they were given a cardio and hypertrophy training workout routine. By adding in the hypertrophy training, they lost pure fat. No muscle loss whatsoever. And since all of the weight loss came from fat loss, they burned fat 30% faster than the cardio group. This is what we call “cutting”—losing weight while training for muscle size.
What’s neat about this study is that the participants weren’t told to eat more protein or improve their sleep or anything else. This was just a calorie deficit combined with a workout program. And already we have full muscle maintenance while rapidly losing fat—nearly two pounds of fat loss per week for twelve weeks.
Now, this is just one study. Ideally, we’d have at least a few studies to look at. And we do. Another study tried to replicate the results of the above study and got even more polarized results:
If we look at the “weight loss” group who were doing just cardio, we see that they lost almost as much muscle as fat. That means that as they were losing weight, their body composition was actually getting worse. This is exactly how someone might wind up skinny-fat.
If we look at the “cutting” group who were doing hypertrophy training, though, we see much better results. Not only were they losing fat three times as fast, but they were also able to gain muscle while doing it. We have an example of body recomposition. And as with the previous study, this is without improving their diets or incorporating any lifestyle changes.
The above studies show that doing just cardio causes us to burn both muscle and fat as we lose weight. But we’re not trying to throw cardio under the barbell. Quite the opposite. Notice that the study participants who got the best results did both lifting and cardio. So it’s not that cardio isn’t important, it’s just that cardio isn’t enough.
Cardio is actually quite helpful for skinny-fat guys. Hypertrophy training is infinitely more important, so if you only have three hours per week to exercise, spend it doing hypertrophy training. But if you have the time and energy to add in a bit of cardio, that will only make things better. Not only will it speed up your progress and improve your cardiovascular health, it may also improve your body composition.
The Importance of G-Flux
The next thing we can talk about is the idea of increasing our “g-flux,” which is how many calories we consume and burn every day. This is what people are often referring to when they talk about having a fast metabolism or being a hardgainer—even though they consume a lot of food, they burn all of the energy, preventing those calories from being stored as fat.
There’s a genetic component to being a hardgainer, but the main difference in how many calories we burn comes from how active we are. It has to do with how much time do we spend running instead of walking, or walking instead of standing, or standing instead of sitting, or sitting instead of lying down. And when we’re lying down, are we lying there inert or we twiddling our thumbs?
Now, why does this matter? After all, all that matters is whether we’re in a calorie surplus or a calorie deficit, right? Why would it matter if we’re losing a pound per week while eating 3,000 vs 1,500 calories? Why would it matter if we’re bulking while eating 2,000 vs 4,000 calories?
The more active we are, the more calories we burn. The more calories we burn, the more food we need to eat. And when we eat more food, we take in more nutrients: more carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fibre, and so on. When we’re eating more food, we have more nutrients churning through our systems, giving us a better chance of having the nutrients we need to be healthy, have a strong hormonal system, and to build muscle with.
To quote Ryan Andrews, MS, RD, from Precision Nutrition, having a higher g-flux comes along with the following benefits:
- Simultaneous increases in lean mass and losses in fat mass
- Increased metabolic rate
- More rapid adaptations to training stress
- Better recovery
- Improved nutrient partitioning (in other words, what your body does with what you eat)
- Improved micronutrient delivery (in other words, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients get where they need to go)
- Increased tissue remodelling and turnover
- Improved health
As a skinny-fat guy, these are exactly the benefits that we want. And to get them, we don’t necessarily need to do any dedicated cardio. All we need to do is be more active. That might mean playing some casual sports, going on hikes, walking to get your groceries, doing yoga, or whatever kind of physical activity you prefer. Even better if you get some sunlight while doing it (for the extra vitamin D).
Here are a few ways to increase your g-flux:
- Get a pedometer and aim to get around 10,000 steps per day on average. Since that’s an average, that means you can do 15,000 steps one day, 5000 the next. The important thing is getting your 70,000 steps for the week.
- Go on a 30-minute walk in the sun every day, especially during the winter. Again, if you miss a day, simply make up for it the next day. The important thing will be getting 3.5 hours of walking per week.
- Do 2–3 biking sessions per week, each lasting 20–60 minutes.
As with cardio, having a higher g-flux isn’t nearly as important as following a good hypertrophy program and eating enough protein—master those two things before you buy a pedometer—but it’s one more piece of the puzzle that can make it easier to build muscle or lose fat faster. And it’s great for our general health and fitness.
Improving Nutrient Partitioning With Sleep
Getting good sleep is part of living a healthy lifestyle, with a myriad list of health benefits, ranging from better hormone production to improved willpower and appetite. What many of us don’t realize, though, is that sleep can also help us build muscle more quickly and leanly.
A recent study found that not getting enough sleep slows the rate that we can build muscle. That might not sound so bad, but since we’re constantly breaking down and building muscle, when muscle growth slows, it can lead to muscle loss. What’s interesting is that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) increases our rate of muscle growth, cancelling out the harm of not getting enough sleep. What we see, then, is that a training program that should be producing muscle growth is just preventing muscle loss.
Now, to be fair, HIIT isn’t the best way to build muscle. It’s possible that if the study participants were doing hypertrophy training, they would have been able to overcome the effects of poor sleep and slowly build muscle. A lot of people are able to do that. They wake up early to sneak in a workout. That works. You may notice a theme here: a good training routine is the most important factor.
But what happens when we follow a good bodybuilding program and get proper sleep? We have a study that tested exactly that. The researchers gave all of the participants a weight training program to follow, but they also gave half of the participants a quick lesson about how to improve their sleep. Here’s what happened:
After ten weeks, both groups had succeeded in gaining muscle, but the participants who were taught how to improve their sleep gained around 30% more muscle mass. That’s great, and building more muscle tends to mean storing less fat, but it doesn’t necessarily mean better nutrient partitioning. For that, we need to look directly at what happened to their body fat:
The group who just lifted weights gained quite a bit of muscle, yes, but they also gained some fat along with their muscle. This is what we often think of when we think of “bulking”—a mix of muscle and fat. But what’s interesting is that the group who also focused on improving their sleep were able to build more muscle while simultaneously losing fat.
So what we’re seeing is that by improving our sleep, we can improve our nutrient partitioning, causing our body to send more calories towards muscle growth, fewer towards fat storage. If we combine a good hypertrophy program with proper sleep, we can get faster and leaner muscle growth. In fact, we may even be able to lose fat while building muscle.
This brings up the obvious question, then: how do we improve our sleep? For that, we’ve got a full article on improving sleep for muscle growth.
There are a few supplements that can help skinny-fat guys, but they aren’t any kind of magical solution. Mostly, they just help us lift harder, eat enough protein, or get better sleep. Still, they can indeed help.
Here are a few good supplements that can help with body recomposition, all of them totally optional:
- Protein powders, such as whey, by making it easier to eat more protein.
- Creatine, by improving our workout performance, increasing our lean mass, and improving our ability to build muscle.
- Caffeine, by improving energy, reducing fatigue, and making lifting a little bit less painful.
- Melatonin, by improving sleep. However your body can produce it naturally if you get into a good bedtime routine. You probably don’t need it.
For more, we have a full article on supplements that can help people gain muscle while losing weight.
Is Body Recomposition the Right Solution?
We get a ton of questions from skinny-fat guys asking if they can build muscle and lose fat at the same time, which is called body recomposition.
First of all, that depends on how you define body recomposition. If we’re bulking and we wind up losing fat, as happened in the carb overfeeding and sleep studies, that’s body recomposition. Or if we’re cutting and we wind up building muscle, as happened in the hypertrophy training + cardio studies, then again, that counts as body recomposition. But what most people mean when they say body recomposition is:
- Body recomposition: building muscle and losing fat while maintaining a similar overall body weight.
So body recomposition often assumes that you aren’t bulking or cutting, you’re just hypertrophy training, eating more protein, getting better sleep, eating a better diet, and maintaining about the same body weight week after week. Is that an effective approach?
To understand how body recomposition works, we need to understand how muscle is built and fat is burned. Throughout the day, you’re constantly gaining and losing weight. Maybe you have a big dinner, driving into a calorie surplus and gaining a bit of muscle and fat. Then you go to bed for eight hours, falling into a calorie deficit and losing a bit of muscle and fat. In the end, it tends to balance out. Your body composition stays about the same: the same amount of muscle, the same amount of fat, and the same overall body weight.
That’s where body recomposition comes in. The idea of body recomposition is that when you’re in those brief calorie surpluses, you find a way to build muscle more leanly. Then, when you’re in those brief calorie deficits, you find a way to burn more fat. If you can do that, then you’ll gradually become leaner and more muscular without needing to bulk or cut. As you go through those small surpluses and deficits, it’s almost like going through nano bulks and cuts.
It’s true that body recomposition is possible, especially if you’re out of shape and new to lifting weights. When most people first start following a good hypertrophy program, they gain some muscle and lose some fat. Combine that with a higher protein intake and even more body recomposition takes place. Add in better sleep, and the effects are more exaggerated still. Going deeper into the jungle, there are some other methods that may provide modest body recomposition benefits:
- Calorie cycling: eating more calories surrounding your workouts, when your muscles are more insulin sensitive, and you’re most likely to gain muscle leanly.
- Carb cycling: eating more carbs surrounding your workouts, when they’re most likely to help you gain muscle.
- Protein cycling: eating a ton of protein surrounding your workouts (e.g. 60 grams of whey protein) to boost muscle growth with little risk of fat gain.
- Protein distribution: if you have at least 20 grams of protein with every meal, that will keep your body in a heightened state of muscle protein synthesis, allowing more of the calories you’re eating to be invested into muscle growth.
- 16:8 intermittent fasting: some research shows that if you skip breakfast, it will extend your overnight calorie deficit, and you’ll be able to burn fat during your mornings. Then, in the evenings, you can eat a diet that helps you to build muscle. It isn’t proving to be very effective, but it might produce a modest positive result.
These strategies all work a little bit, but they’re not very powerful. See, the problem with body recomposition is that you’re trying to build muscle during fleeting calorie surplus, and you’re trying to lose fat during fleeting calorie deficits. To build muscle leanly during these ephemeral surpluses, you need excellent nutrient partitioning. And to lose fat during ephemeral deficits, again, you need fantastic nutrient partitioning. In fact, the entire plan hinges on having damn-near-perfect nutrient partitioning… which is the thing that skinny-fat people struggle with the most.
These approaches can help with nutrient partitioning a little bit, yes, but again, they’re just not powerful enough to produce dramatic results, especially if you aren’t a beginner, don’t have great genetics, or already have trouble with nutrient partitioning.
Now, if you follow a body recomposition plan with temerity and consistency, it may produce slow and steady progress that gradually improves your body composition, health markers, and appearance. Those slow changes won’t be enough to transform your skinny-fat physique over the next few months, but it might be enough to transform your physique in the longer term—over the next few years.
If you want faster results, though, it can really help to go through periods of bulking and cutting. After all, here are the heavy artillery of muscle growth and fat loss:
- Overall calorie surplus (bulking): a calorie surplus is the most anabolic “diet” of all, significantly raising testosterone production (study), lowering cortisol, enhancing cellular signalling, activating all of the muscle-growth pathways, and allowing for massive amounts of muscle growth. This will allow you to absolutely obliterate the skinny part of skinny-fat. This is how you can gain up to 20 pounds of muscle within just a few months.
- Overall calorie deficit (cutting): a calorie deficit is the best “diet” for losing fat, causing a dramatic and consistent fat loss from beginning to end. This will allow you to quickly shred fat. This is how you can lose 20+ pounds of fat in just a couple months. Best of all, if you’re a beginner, you can gain a few pounds of muscle while cutting, getting all of the muscle growth benefits of body recomposition but with 3x the fat loss.
To quote Mike Israetel, PhD, from Renaissance Nutrition:
The single most important change you can make to your diet to gain more muscle is to eat more food. It’s that simple. All else being equal, eating more is the most powerful tool for muscle gain, as long as you’re training hard. Conversely, given hard training, the best tool for fat loss is to eat less!
In reality, it’s all about calorie balance. To gain muscle, eating more calories than you burn is the best strategy. This is best accomplished by eating more food rather than restricting activity. In fat loss, however, a combined approach seems to work best: eat a bit less and do more activity, whether it be lifting, cardio, or just leading a more active lifestyle.
All these body recomposition tactics can help, but if you aren’t leveraging longterm calorie deficits or surpluses, you’re going to have a hard time consistently building muscle or losing fat. Body recomposition requires years of hard work to accomplish what can be done with a few months of much easier bulking and cutting.
Should Skinny-Fat Guys Bulk or Cut?
The more muscle you can gain, the easier it will be to stay lean and muscular. And the leaner you get, the better your hormone profile will be, also helping to keep you lean and muscular.
You now have two straightforward goals:
- Gain muscle (say twenty pounds)
- Get lean (say 12% body fat)
So, should you start by bulking or cutting?
Should You Start With a Bulk?
Building muscle first is a great option for guys who are on the skinny side of skinny-fat. For example, DoctorB came in with a bit of a belly but still with a fairly low body-fat percentage overall. His goal was to build muscle as quickly as possible. This made bulking a good choice for him, and he did a great job of it:
If you bulk properly, even as a skinny-fat guy, you can build muscle fairly quickly. Problem is, it’s going to be challenging to keep your gains lean. In fact, even if you succeed in keeping your gains totally lean, they won’t look lean. If you build up bigger abs under your belly, those abs will only push your belly out further, making it look like you gained fat.
In DoctorB’s case, you can see that although he clearly gained a ton of muscle, he also gained some fat. Not the end of the world. He cut it off right afterwards. But you need to be prepared for that.
If looking chubby-strong scares you, best to cut first.
Should You Start With a Cut?
If you’re on the chubbier side or if you’re new to lifting weights, then cutting is almost always the better choice. Most studies show that untrained guys who lift weights while cutting can build muscle even while losing weight.
For example, this 6-month study showed that guys were able to build muscle while cutting without even paying attention to their protein intake:
- Lifting + fitness routine: 22 pounds of fat loss, 4 pounds of muscle gain, 18 pounds lost overall.
And here’s a four-week study showing that you can get even quicker results by intentionally raising your protein intake:
- Lifting + fitness + protein: 10 pounds of fat loss, 3 pounds of muscle gain, 7 pounds lost overall.
If you’re a skinny-fat guy who’s new to lifting, those are realistic results for you. Everyone is a bit different, so don’t get too attached to those specific numbers, but you should be within this ballpark.
For an example of that, Eric lost four pounds and gained two inches on his biceps during just his first five weeks of cutting. As you can see, his progress seems to have literally made his jaw drop:
This approach works incredibly well on guys who are new to working out, and the results are consistent and reliable. Every day you’ll wake up looking better than the day before.
How to Cut as a Skinny-Fat Guy
Cutting as a skinny-fat guy is similar to cutting as someone who’s overweight. The first difference is that the typical overweight person has more muscle mass, which means they might not be as concerned about maintaining/gaining muscle as they lose weight. The second difference is that the overweight person will need to cut for much longer, they’ll need to learn how to maintain a substantially lower body-weight, and so they may need to take more drastic approaches to appetite and hormone management.
For a skinny-fat guy, we want a quick and aggressive cut that aims for muscle growth while losing fat:
- Lift weights 3 times per week (or more), doing a hypertrophy program. I’d recommend doing three full-body workouts per week. Start each workout with a couple of big compound lifts. Something along the lines of front-loaded squats, conventional deadlifts, chin-ups, bench press (or push-ups), overhead presses. The lifts will vary depending on your experience level, but the idea is to choose bigger compound movements that work all of your major muscle groups. For example, if you’re a beginner, you could start one workout with goblet squats and lowered chin-ups, the next with Romanian deadlifts and push-ups. Then, after you’ve done a few sets of those bigger exercises, feel free to fill in the rest of your workouts with smaller ones: biceps curls, rows, lateral raises, and so on. Keep most of your lifts in the 6–20 rep range. (Better still, follow a professionally programmed hypertrophy routine.)
- Eat at least a gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day. If you weigh 150 pounds, eat 150 grams of protein per day. Ideally, you’d spread that protein intake out over the course of a few meals. Maybe 30 with breakfast, 30 with lunch, 30 as a snack, 60 for dinner.
- Lose one pound per week. The easiest way to get into a calorie deficit is to remove 500 calories from your diet. If you have no idea how much you’re currently eating, 13–15x your bodyweight is a good place to start. If you weigh 150 pounds, start with 1950–2250 calories. The trick, though, is to weigh yourself every week and then adjust your calories depending on whether you lose weight or not. 200-calorie increments tend to work well for this. So if eating 2250 calories doesn’t cause weight loss, drop your calorie intake down to 2050. If that doesn’t work, drop it to 1850. Keep adjusting until you’re losing a pound per week, and be prepared to keep adjusting as you dig deeper into your fat stores.
- Set aside at least 8 hours per night for sleep. The better you sleep, the better your hormones will be, the more energy you’ll have, the more muscle you’ll build, and the more fat you’ll lose. We’ve got a guide on improving your sleep here.
- Try to get outside, be active, go for walks. The more active you are, the more calories you’ll burn, and the more calories you’ll be able to eat while still losing weight. The more calories you can eat, the more nutrients you’ll get, and the better your body will function. You don’t need to do intense exercise, though. Going on long walks is a great way to burn some calories. And if you can do it outside, even better—sunlight will help with vitamin D production, which will help you produce more testosterone (more muscle) and melatonin (better sleep).
Over the course of the next five weeks, that should allow you to lose around 4–5 pounds, and you’ll probably gain some muscle while doing it, especially if you’re following a proper lifting program. This is like body recomposition but better.
How to Bulk as a Skinny-Fat Guy
If you follow our advice and you start with a cut, you’ll be entering into your bulk fairly lean, and so you’ll be able to bulk almost like a typical skinny guy. The difference is that since you have a history of being skinny-fat, we’re going to take a slower approach to bulking (gaining 0.5 pounds per week) and we’re going to keep your activity levels high as you do it (including some walking, physical activity, or cardio). That’s going to give you a better shot at building muscle leanly.
Here are some rules of thumb for building muscle leanly:
- Lift weights 3 times per week (or more), doing a hypertrophy program. Your lifting routine should be the same whether bulking or cutting. So just as we explained above, start each workout with a couple of big compound lifts like front-loaded squats, conventional deadlifts, chin-ups, bench press (or push-ups), overhead presses. The lifts will vary depending on your experience level, but the idea is to choose bigger compound movements that work all of your major muscle groups. For example, if you’re a beginner, you could start one workout with goblet squats and lowered chin-ups, the next with Romanian deadlifts and push-ups. Then, after you’ve done a few sets of those bigger exercises, feel free to fill in the rest of your workouts with smaller ones: biceps curls, rows, lateral raises, and so on. Keep most of your lifts in the 6–20 rep range. (Better still, follow a professionally programmed hypertrophy routine.)
- Eat at least 1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day. If you weigh 150 pounds, eat 150 grams of protein per day. Ideally, you’d spread that protein intake out over the course of a few meals. Maybe 30 with breakfast, 30 with lunch, 30 as a snack, 60 for dinner.
- Gain 0.5 pounds per week. The easiest way to get into this calorie surplus is to add 250 calories to your diet. If you have no idea how much you’re currently eating, 16–18x your bodyweight is a good place to start. If you weigh 150 pounds, start with 2400–2700 calories. The trick, though, is to weigh yourself every week and then adjust your calories depending on whether you gain weight or not. 200-calorie increments tend to work well for this. So if eating 2400 calories doesn’t cause weight gain, bring your calorie intake up to 2600. If that doesn’t work, bring it up to 2800. And so on.
- Set aside at least 8 hours per night for sleep. The better you sleep, the better your hormones will be, the more energy you’ll have, the more muscle you’ll build, and the more fat you’ll lose. We’ve got a guide on improving your sleep here.
- Try to get outside, be active, go for walks. The more active you are, the more calories you’ll burn, and the less likely you’ll be to store fat. You don’t need to do intense exercise, though. Going on walks is a great way to burn some calories. And if you can do it outside, even better—sunlight will help with vitamin D production, which will help you produce more testosterone (more muscle) and more melatonin (better sleep).
Zig-Zag Towards Lean Muscularity
When you get to 15–20% body fat, it’s usually best to switch to cutting. It’s totally up to you whether gear into a cut at 15% or at 20% body fat. If you want to look great year-round, I’d stop bulking at closer to 15%, but going as high as 20% shouldn’t negatively impact your health or hormones. (Here’s our guide for estimating your body-fat percentage based on how you look in the mirror.)
While cutting, aim to lose around 1 pound per week. I would expect to cut for around 12 weeks, at which point you should be lean enough to bulk again. Best case scenario, over the course of those 12 weeks, you’ll lose around 15 pounds of fat while gaining a few pounds of muscle.
10-20% body fat is your bulking zone, where you focus on building muscle and strength as leanly as possible. For most skinny beginners, we recommend gaining a full pound per week. But we recommend that skinny-fat guys bulk a little more slowly. That will give you a better chance of keeping your gains lean. I’d aim to gain around 0.5 pounds per week.
If you want to bulk first, your path out of skinny-fatness will look like this:
The problem with this approach is that you won’t be losing much, if any, fat while bulking up. In fact, your body-fat percentage might gradually climb higher, which can make it even harder to build muscle leanly. Still, this approach works much better than body recomposition.
If you’re following our recommendation of starting with a cut and then gearing into a lean bulk afterwards, your progress should look more like this:
The benefit to this approach is that as you lose fat, you have a great chance of building a few pounds of muscle. Furthermore, getting leaner is going to make it easier to stay lean when you switch to bulking.
At all times, whether you’re bulking or cutting, always be fighting to gain strength on your lifts. I don’t mean that you should always be testing your 1-rep max on the squat, bench, and deadlift, I mean that every workout, you should be fighting to either add weight or to get extra reps on all of the lifts that you’re doing. Turn your 6-rep max into your 8-rep max. Gradually increase your 10-rep max. Get stronger in the rep ranges that you’re lifting in. Get stronger at the bulking lifts that you’re doing.
When you’re gaining weight, you’ll be building muscle more quickly, and so gaining strength should be easy. When you’re losing weight, it’s going to be hard to build muscle, and so it will be hard to gain strength. Still, keep fighting for those strength gains. That’s how you’ll force your body to build muscle while cutting.
Being skinny-fat is defined by being both under-muscled and over-fat, giving us two clear goals to work towards: build muscle and lose fat. It’s possible to build muscle mass and lose fat simultaneously, which is called body recomposition, but remember that you don’t need to maintain the same body weight to achieve body recomposition.
The most reliable way to build muscle is to “bulk,” which means steadily gaining weight to facilitate muscle growth. Having an abundance of nutrients gives us a more anabolic hormone profile and gives us plenty of material to construct muscle with, making it relatively easy to build muscle. It’s possible to lose fat while bulking, especially if you’re a beginner, following a good hypertrophy program, eating enough protein, getting enough good sleep, and gaining weight fairly slowly (around 0.5 pounds per week). There are numerous examples of this in a wide variety of studies. But bulking is generally considered a success as long as you’re mostly gaining muscle.
The most reliable way to lose fat is to “cut,” which means steadily losing weight to facilitate fat loss. Having a shortage of energy forces our bodies to get the energy it needs from stored tissue, making it fairly easy to burn fat. It’s possible to build muscle while cutting, especially if you’re a beginner, following a good hypertrophy program, eating enough protein, and getting enough good sleep. It’s possible that your muscles will deflate a little bit, but that’s mostly because they’re holding onto less glycogen. And besides, since the nuclei we add to our muscle cells are permanent, any muscle that you lose will pop back when you finish your cut. That means that bulking fairly aggressively, losing 1–2 pounds per week, is okay. But slower paces are fine, too.
Since you probably want to gain muscle and lose fat, it can be hard to decide between bulking and cutting. When in doubt, go with your gut. As in, get rid of your gut. Cutting is a good default choice. It’s easier to build muscle while cutting than it is to lose fat while bulking. You have a better chance of achieving body recomposition if you start with a cut. But there’s no wrong answer. Bulking and cutting will both help you march closer to your goals.
Whether you’re bulking or cutting, your list of priorities looks like this:
- Follow a good hypertrophy training program. The more muscle growth you can stimulate, the faster you’ll build muscle and the less likely it will be for extra calories to spill over into fat gain. Even when cutting, training for muscle growth is the most important factor, as it will help you maintain (or even gain) muscle while burning fat faster. Nothing improves nutrient partitioning better than a good hypertrophy training program.
- Eat enough protein. If you eat at least a gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day and follow a good hypertrophy program, most research shows that people with poor body composition can achieve simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss. But even if you’re just gaining muscle or losing fat, it will greatly improve your nutrient partitioning.
- Get enough good sleep. Beyond hypertrophy training and protein, the next most important thing is improving your sleep. There’s quite a lot of research showing that improving your sleep will lead to faster muscle growth and/or fat loss.
- Eat a good diet. We could go into exhaustive detail here, but as a general rule, eat a diet made up mostly of minimally processed whole foods, but don’t fear the occasional treat. More fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, dairy, fish, and, perhaps, some protein powder. Less processed sugar, saturated fat, and processed food.
- Be active. Being active can range from doing cardio to simply going on more walks. This is further down the priority list, but any extra energy you have after doing all of the above would be well spent by, say, going on a long walk in the sun a few times per week.
It won’t always be easy, and you’ll probably need to grapple with worries of losing muscle or gaining fat. When in doubt, remember that if you’re consistently getting stronger week by week, month by month, and year by year, then you’re on the path to becoming lean and muscular.
If you want help with your hypertrophy training, diet, and lifestyle, or if you want to join a community of like-minded people, track your progress, and get coaching from us as you progress through the program, I think you’d love our Bony to Beastly Program.
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