Skinny-fat is when you’ve got a body-fat percentage of over 20% but still look skinny in a t-shirt. It’s a confusing situation to be in because it’s not clear whether you should bulk or cut. As a result, some experts recommend body recomposition, where you gain muscle and lose fat while maintaining the same bodyweight.
- If you were just skinny, you could focus on bulking: getting into a calorie surplus, lifting weights, and building muscle. But as a skinny-fat guy, this risks making you fatter.
- If you were just fat, you could focus on cutting: getting into a calorie deficit, being more active, and losing fat. But as a skinny-fat guy, this risks making you skinnier.
- And body recomposition tends to produce slow and unreliable results.
What’s a skinny-fat guy to do?
- Escaping Skinny-Fat Purgatory
- How Do Most People Get Skinny-Fat?
- Your Genetics Can’t Stop You
- Understanding the Skinny Part of Skinny-Fat
- Understanding the Fat Part of Skinny-Fat
- Can Cardio Really Make You Skinny-Fat?
- The Importance of G-Flux
- Can Strength Training Make You Skinny-Fat?
- The Best Diet & Macros for Skinny-Fat Guys
- 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
Escaping Skinny-Fat Purgatory
Back when I first started trying to build muscle, I bulked myself into having a love-handly gut. I had gained a decent amount of muscle, but I knew I needed to get rid of the fat, so I geared into a cut. During that cut, I lost all of the muscle I gained while bulking. I was right back to where I started.
That’s the skinny-fat cycle:
- Bulking up and getting fatter
- Cutting and getting skinnier
- Never becoming lean and muscular
I don’t think I’ve ever struggled with anything quite so confusing and frustrating.
So, of course, the next thing I tried was something called body recomposition—trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. 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, 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, nothing had changed.
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 a low-carb diet
- It’s because you aren’t burning fat for fuel, so you go keto
- It’s a growth hormone issue, so you start intermittent fasting
- Sugar is the problem, so you eat 100% clean
There are endless varieties of atypical diets that claim to be great for building muscle while losing fat. Truth is, most of them actually are pretty effective. However, they’re effective for the same reasons that a traditional approach is effective, and the traditional approach hasn’t solved your skinny-fatness.
So you’re doing something wrong. Or at least I was, anyway.
Regardless, you aren’t going to escape your skinny-fatness by jumping from fat diet to fad diet. What we need to do is figure out what you’re doing wrong and fix it. That way if you bulk, you gain muscle leanly. And when you cut, you maintain your muscle while losing fat.
There’s something in your lifestyle that made you skinny-fat. Now it’s now preventing you from building a lean and muscular physique. Once we can figure out what that thing is, we can address that specific issue, and you’ll start making measurable progress.
Your problem is that you’re gaining fat when you’re in a calorie surplus, you’re losing muscle when you’re in a calorie deficit, and when you maintain your weight, you aren’t gaining muscle or losing fat. This is called a nutrient partitioning issue.
We need to teach your body how to build muscle leanly when you’re in a calorie surplus, and how to burn only fat when you’re in a calorie deficit. There’s a lot of good science looking into how to do that, so let’s go over it. As we do, you’ll probably realize that you’re doing many things correctly already, which is great. Try to find the things you aren’t doing correctly. That’s where the skinny-fat solution will lie.
As we go through the science, 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.
This is the traditional skinny-fat diet and workout, done right.
How Do Most People Get 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:
- Where’d my metabolism go? They were skinny guys growing up. They didn’t do much exercise or eat very well, but they were generally active and never put on much weight. Fast forward a few years—maybe even a decade—and their lifestyles have finally caught up with them. They’ve gone from being skinny to being skinny-fat.
- The person who exercises like a skinny-fat person. 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 heart health, but they don’t improve nutrient partitioning, and so they won’t help you overcome your skinny-fatness.
- Dieting with an emphasis on cardio. Now, don’t get me wrong: cardio won’t kill your muscle gains. But some guys cut by reducing their calorie intake and only doing cardio. 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.
- The guy who relies on strength training for muscle growth. Strength training simply isn’t very good for building muscle. In fact, it’s only about half as effective as hypertrophy training for gaining muscle size. If your workouts are only stimulating half as much muscle growth, you’re going to need to bulk on a calorie surplus that’s twice as small, and so you’re going to have a much harder time gaining muscle leanly. Strength training programs also tend to emphasize the low-bar squat, which will prioritize lower-body growth. That can sometimes make guys look more skinny-fat than they actually are, with bigger legs but smaller upper bodies.
- The dream bulk. This was me. I was incredibly skinny and incredibly eager to bulk up. But in my enthusiasm to get bigger, I got fat. My nutrient partitioning while bulking was no good, so I just went from being skinny to being skinny-fat.
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.
Your 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
The strongest predictor of natural muscularity is the number of nuclei in our muscle cells. When you have a lot of them, they tend to hog the calories that you’re eating, shuttling them towards muscle growth instead of fat storage. In the fitness industry, we call this favourable nutrient partitioning.
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 and lifting things. Maybe both.
The problem with not having many nuclei is that it limits how big your muscle fibres can get. In fact, you probably only have enough nuclei to gain around ten pounds of muscle:
However, this is a problem that your body knows how to fix. If you continue forcing muscle growth, your muscle fibres will need to gain extra nuclei to support that extra muscle mass, 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. You’ll become “naturally” muscular.
This might explain why you can keep gaining and losing the same ten pounds of muscle without anything changing. Your muscle fibres are just inflating and deflating. You aren’t forcing any permanent changes. But if you push deeper, gaining more nuclei in your muscles, then you’ll make yourself naturally leaner and more muscular. Forever.
Of course, if you stop working out, your muscles will still deflate. But they won’t ever shrink as small as they were before. And when you start lifting weights again, they’ll return to peak size almost instantly.
This process is helpful for all skinny guys. What makes it especially helpful for skinny-fat guys, though, is that these nuclei improve nutrient partitioning.
These nuclei are little construction workers whose sole purpose is build and repair muscle. Whenever you eat, they’ll be calling out for calories so that they can get to work. This will make your body more likely to send calories towards your muscles, less likely to send calories towards fat storage.
If you can build enough muscle, you can permanently upgrade your body.
Understanding the Fat Part of Skinny-Fat
In extreme cases, we can increase the number of fat cells we have. This is called fat-cell hyperplasia, and it can happen when someone gains a tremendous amount of fat. Similar to nuclei, these fat cells call out for calories. And similar to adding nuclei to your muscle fibres, fat cells are a permanent addition to your body. If you keep gaining fat cells, at a certain point, getting lean might require fairly drastic measures. Exercise and diet might not be enough.
Fortunately, you’re skinny-fat, not morbidly obese. Your problem is different.
Brad Dieter, PhD, talks about this body-fat set point issue starting to crop up once someone reaches a BMI of about 35 (5’10 and 240 pounds). In your case, though, you still have the same number of fat cells that 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, your body would probably prefer to hover around a lower body-fat percentage.
However, being skinny-fat can impact your ability to build muscle.
As your body-fat percentage climbs up over 20%, your hormones begin to change. You stop producing as much testosterone, you start producing more estrogen, and you become less sensitive to insulin. That’s going to make it harder to be lean and muscular.
However, if you cut down to a lower body-fat percentage, that problem disappears. It will become easier to stay lean and muscular:
Once you can get rid of your body-fat, your skinny-fat “genetics” will change for the better.
Can Cardio Really Make You Skinny-Fat?
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 entirely true.
The problem is that cardio does nothing to preserve muscle mass as you lose weight. You’ll lose a mix of both muscle and fat, often winding up skinny-fat by the end of your diet. And if you’re already skinny-fat, trying to continue losing weight using just diet and cardio is a recipe for a lifetime of skinny-fatness.
For example, in this 12-week study, the researchers split the participants into three groups: no exercise, a fitness routine, or a lifting routine. Each group was put on a weight loss diet. Here are the results:
- No exercise: 14 pounds of fat loss, 7 pounds of muscle loss, and 21 pounds lost overall.
- Fitness workout: 16 pounds of fat loss, 5 pounds of muscle loss, and 21 pounds lost overall.
- Lifting + fitness workout: 21 pounds of fat loss, 0 pounds of muscle, and 21 pounds lost overall.
For another example of how that can work, this study tried to replicate the results of the above study and got even better results:
- Fitness workout: 7 pounds of fat loss, 6 pounds of muscle loss, 13 pounds lost overall.
- Lifting + fitness workout: 22 pounds of fat loss, 4 pounds of muscle gain, 18 pounds lost overall.
We can do even better by increasing protein intake and making better food choices. We’ll get to that soon. First, though, we have to talk about the importance of cardio.
The above studies show that people doing fitness workouts burn both muscle and fat. But I’m 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 routines. It’s not that cardio isn’t important, it’s just that cardio isn’t enough by itself.
Cardio is actually incredibly important for skinny-fat guys. The more you calories you can burn, the more you’ll be able to eat. This is called having a higher energy flux (g-flux), and it’s great for both your health and your body composition.
The Importance of G-Flux
The more active you are, the more calories you burn. The more calories you burn, the more food you need to eat. And when you eat more food, you take in more nutrients: more vitamins, minerals, fibre, and so on. This does improve nutrient partitioning, making it an incredibly important part of the skinny-fat solution.
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 health
- 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
As a skinny-fat guy, these are exactly the benefits that you need. And to get them, you don’t need to do any dedicated cardio. All you 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.
However, having a higher g-flux is just part of the skinny-fat solution. If you want to be lean and muscular, you also need a good lifting program that will stimulate muscle growth. Lifting is going to allow you to build muscle leanly when you gain weight, and it’s going to allow you to maintain (or even gain) muscle when losing weight.
Can Strength Training Make You Skinny-Fat?
The reason I bring this up here is that one of the most popular articles for skinny-fat guys argues that strength training is ideal for skinny-fat guys. That’s simply not true.
There’s a popular misconception that strength training (doing 1–5 reps per set) is the most effective way to gain muscle. It’s a weird claim to make, given that strength training is called strength training because it’s designed to be best for gaining strength. To be more precise, strength training is designed to improve your 1-rep max strength, and for that, it’s very effective (study, study).
Lifting heavy weights in low rep ranges improves your brain’s ability to communicate with your muscle fibres, which has been nicknamed neural gains (study). Over time, you learn how to better contract your muscle fibres for a single all-out rep. This makes you stronger in a powerlifting sense. And it makes you stronger for your size.
Now, to be clear, strength training does stimulate some muscle growth as a by-product, just not very much. And of course it doesn’t. That’s not what it’s for. Strength training isn’t designed to stimulate muscle growth.
There’s a whole separate type of training designed for stimulating muscle growth: hypertrophy training. The purpose of hypertrophy training is to make your muscle fibres bigger and longer, with more glycogen and nuclei inside of them. The best way to do this is to lift in moderate rep ranges: 6–12 reps per set.
For example, a recent study by Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, found the following differences between strength training and hypertrophy training:
The strength training group:
- 30% increase in 1RM squat strength
- 4% increase in quad muscle size
The hypertrophy group:
- 17% increase in 1RM squat strength
- 10% increase in quad muscle size
So what we’re seeing is that strength training doubled the amount of strength gained, whereas hypertrophy training doubled the amount of muscle growth.
There’s the odd outlier study, such as this one, that shows greater muscle growth from strength training, but if we look at all the research on muscle growth, it confirms that strength training only produces about 50% as much growth per set as hypertrophy training (systematic review).
Now, this might make it seem like hypertrophy training just makes your muscles bigger, whereas strength training makes your muscles more capable. That’s not true. Strength training will make you stronger in lower rep ranges (1–5 reps), whereas hypertrophy training will make you stronger in moderate rep ranges (6–12 reps). So if you wanted a stronger 8-rep max, hypertrophy training would be better. Both types of training make your muscles more capable, just at slightly different things.
Here’s why hypertrophy training is better than strength training for skinny-fat guys:
- More muscle: Hypertrophy training is about twice as good as strength training for gaining muscle size (systematic review). If you’re gaining muscle twice as quickly, you won’t be skinny for nearly as long.
- Less fat: If you’re gaining muscle twice as quickly, more calories are being invested into muscle growth, leaving fewer calories available for fat storage. This makes it far less likely that you’ll gain fat while bulking.
- More glycogen: Hypertrophy training burns through quite a bit more glycogen (carbs in your muscles), meaning that more of the carbs you eat will be used to fill your muscles back up with fuel. Again, this makes it less likely that you’ll gain fat while bulking. It has an added benefit, too: your muscles will inflate with glycogen, making them appear bigger and more muscular.
Strength training is absolutely brilliant for making people stronger for their size (better 1-rep max strength for their weight class). But it’s not the best approach for skinny-fat guys who are trying to become lean and muscular. Hypertrophy training will give you much better nutrient partitioning, resulting in more muscle growth and less fat gain.
Here’s our article about whether strength training is good for gaining muscle size, if want to dig deeper into the science of it.
The other problem with many popular strength training programs is that they tend to emphasize the big three powerlifting lifts: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. The big 3 lifts are designed to be ideal for the sport of powerlifting, not for people trying to become lean and muscular.
Here are some examples of how strength training isn’t ideal for skinny-fat guys:
- Range of motion: For a squat to count at a powerlifting meet, you have to squat sufficiently deep, with your hip joint lower than your knees joint. As a result, powerlifters find ways to cut their range of motion short, going just deep enough for their squat to count. This reduction in range of motion reduces muscle growth (study, study, study). What’s interesting is that those studies also show that using a greater range of motion produced more fat loss and did a better job of improving anabolic hormone production.
- Leverage: Powerlifters also find ways to improve their squat leverage, such as using a lower barbell position (low-bar squats), instead of choosing variations that are better for building muscle, such as front squats, high-bar squats, and safety-bar squats.
- Emphasis on the big three lifts: The problem with putting so much emphasis on the squat, deadlift, and bench press is that it prioritizes lower-body growth. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but having proportionally bigger legs and glutes compared to your upper body will tend to make you look less muscular overall.
- Exercise order: How often do you see a chin-up or push press as the first lift of the day in a strength training program? Almost never. How often do you see a squat starting off every workout? Almost always. That’s going to shift your muscle mass to your legs.
Unless you’re a powerlifter, you should favour the biggest range of motion you can manage. That’s not only going to give your target muscles more work, it’s also going to involve extra muscles that wouldn’t otherwise have been stimulated. The more muscle you can stimulate, the more muscle you’ll build, and the less fat you’ll gain.
You should choose lifts that stimulate the most muscle growth. Those won’t always be the lifts that allow you to lift the heaviest. For example, a wide-grip bench press tends to allow skinny guys to bench press more weight. The wider grip shortens our range of motion, giving our lanky arms greater leverage. But if we’re trying to build muscle, we’ll probably want to favour a narrower grip that allows us to better work all of our chest, shoulder, and tricep muscles through a larger range of motion. Similarly, conventional deadlifts are better for growing the spinal erectors, even though skinny guys tend to be better at sumo deadlifts.
You should give equal priority to the other big upper-body lifts. You’ll look more muscular if you put equal emphasis on the other big compound upper-body lifts, such as the chin-up, the row, and the overhead press. Those lifts aren’t measured in powerlifting, and so they’re often under-emphasized strength training programs, but they’re incredibly important for building a strong overall physique.
This is all to say that the emphasis of (most) strength training programs is to adapt neurally in order to improve your 1-rep max on 3 specific contest lifts. For that specific goal, strength training is very good. However, if you want to build a leaner, more muscular, less skinny-fat physique, there are much better ways to lift.
We cover the best way to lift for muscle size here: The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Hypertrophy Training.
The Best Diet & Macros for Skinny-Fat Guys
The most important things about your diet are the ones you tend to hear the most about:
- Calories: Eat the right number of calories to either bulk or cut
- Protein: Eat enough protein (1 gram per pound bodyweight per day is good)
- Whole foods: Eat a diet made up mostly of whole foods (aiming for 80% is great)
- Protein distribution: Try to get at least 20 grams of protein in each meal
Going one level deeper, we can talk about the best macros (carbs/protein/fat) for a skinny-fat guy. This might be surprising, but for most skinny-fat guys, especially while bulking, eating a diet that’s higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat tends to help keep their gains lean.
For example, in this 2-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 to the participants who were overfed with fat:
- They gained 5.1 pounds overall
- 2.7 of those pounds were fat (53%)
- 2.4 of those pounds were muscle (47%)
Here’s what happened to the participants who were overfed with carbohydrates:
- They gained 5.4 pounds overall
- 2.4 of those pounds were fat (44%)
- 3 of those pounds were muscle (56%)
So what we’re seeing is that bulking on a high-fat diet is causing more fat gain, whereas bulking on a higher-carb diet is allowing the guys to build muscle more leanly.
With this study, it’s important to note that those specific measurements hadn’t reached statistical significance by the end of the two weeks. However, the study did reach statistical significance overall, proving that overfeeding on fat does indeed cause proportionally more fat gain.
This recommendation to eat more carbs lines up even better with the research conducted on healthy men who lift weights and exercise, given that carbohydrates improve lifting performance and allow for more lean muscle growth. For example, The Journal of Sports Science recommends 2–3 grams of carbs per pound bodyweight per day for guys trying to improve their strength. For a 150-pound man, that’s 300–450 grams (1200–1800 calories) of carbohydrates per day.
While bulking as a skinny-fat guy, I’d recommend aiming for something 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, you can be more flexible with your carb/fat macros. The main thing will be keeping your calories low enough to lose weight while keeping your protein intake high enough to build muscle—at least 1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day. When it comes to your carb and fat macros, though, you don’t even need to track them. You can eat according to your preferences. If you don’t have a preference, an even split tends to work well.
However, those aren’t the only things that influence whether you gain muscle or fat. Since your nutrient partitioning isn’t great right now, there are two other main things to watch out for:
- Eating too much fructose: If you raise your fructose too high while bulking, it can cause you to store proportionally more body-fat than if you 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 you need to be careful about. Make sure not to get more than around 10% of your total calories from added sugars, especially while gaining weight. This is why starchy carbs (pasta, rice, maltodextrin) are popular with bodybuilders, whereas added sugars are not. (More on how sugar affects body composition here.)
- Eating too much saturated fat: If you’re bulking on a diet that’s high in saturated fat, you’ll gain less muscle, more fat, and more visceral fat, which is the worst kind of fat to gain (study). To be clear, eating some saturated fat is healthy. It helps you produce testosterone and it can help with muscle growth. But when you’re adding calories into your diet to bulk up, it’s better to get most of your fat from sources like nuts, olive oil, fatty fish, and fish oil. (Speaking of which, we have an article on the ketogenic diet.)
By this point, the overall idea is starting to come together:
- Lift weights and be more active in general.
- Active guys benefit from diets higher in protein and carbs.
- Eat mostly whole foods. Around 80% is fine.
- Cut to lose fat (calorie deficit), bulk to build muscle (calorie surplus).
Let’s go over that last point. After all, there are a lot of skinny-fat programs that recommend body recomposition instead of bulking or cutting.
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.
Throughout the day, you’re constantly gaining and losing weight. Maybe you have a big dinner, driving you into a calorie surplus, and you gain a bit of muscle and fat. Then you go to bed for eight hours, falling into a calorie deficit, and you lose a bit of muscle and fat. In the end, it tends to balance out. Your body composition stays about the same: same amount of muscle, the same amount of fat, same overall body weight.
The idea of body recomposition is that when you’re in those brief calorie surpluses, you find a way to build muscle leanly. Then, when you’re in those brief calorie deficits, you find a way to lose fat while maintaining your muscle. If you can do that, then you’ll gradually become leaner and more muscular without needing to bulk or cut.
It’s true that body recomposition is possible, especially if you’re out of shape and new to lifting weights. When you first start following a good lifting program, you’ll probably lose a bit of fat and gain a bit of muscle, even if you don’t adjust your diet.
Of course, you should adjust your diet. If you eat more protein and improve your food choices, it will help you gain even more muscle and lose even more fat, improving your body recomposition.
There are various other diet strategies that can further improve your results:
- 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: 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.
These strategies all work a little bit, but they’re not very powerful.
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 currently your biggest weakness.
These approaches can help with nutrient partitioning a little bit, yes, but again, they’re just not powerful enough to produce dramatic results.
If you follow a body recomposition plan with temerity and consistency, it will produce slow and steady progress that gradually improves your health markers. Those slow changes won’t be enough to transform your skinny-fat physique over the next few months. Besides, you can use these body recomposition strategies in addition to a more effective overall plan.
Here’s 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 the other stuff can help, but if you aren’t leveraging longterm calorie deficits or surpluses, you’re going to have a hard time breaking out of your skinny-fat physique. Body recomposition requires years of hard work to accomplish what can be done with a few months of much easier bulking and cutting.
So let’s get back to the big question: should skinny-fat guys cut or bulk?
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 20 pounds)
- Get lean (say 12% body fat)
So, should you start by bulking or cutting?
Should a Skinny-Fat 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 a Skinny-Fat Guy 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.
So for a skinny-fat guy, we want to emphasize lean muscle growth while bulking:
- 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.
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.
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.