For many people, trying to achieve the type of body that they want is similar to trying to get a 3-year old to behave rationally. No matter what you do, nothing seems to work, and you just get more and more unhappy with your body.
One such situation is the person who could be described as “skinny-fat.” This person isn’t obese by any means, and other people may even describe them as thin. But they still look soft and flabby, and carry most of their body fat around their “love handle region” — the hips, lower back, and belly.
So what’s the solution?
First, let’s define what we mean by “skinny-fat.”
When we say “skinny-fat,” we’re talking about someone who has very little muscle mass and who carries most of their fatty tissue around their midsection.
So a skinny-fat person might have stick-thin arms that look like a twig, but still have rolls of fat around their hip region or belly pooches that create the “muffin top” effect when wearing tight pants.
The skinny-fat problem
The problem with the person who is skinny-fat is that if they just focus on losing weight, they’ll end up looking even worse than when they started. The reason for this is their low levels of lean muscle mass. As they start to lose body fat, they’ll just look more like a skeleton.
Worse, if they start a diet that is calorie-restricted for the purpose of losing weight, but doesn’t eat enough protein, or if they add a lot of cardiovascular training and avoid strength training, they might end up losing what little bit of lean tissue that they do have. Once again, they would be worse off than when they started, both from a health and from an aesthetics standpoint.
The skinny-fat solution
So if this is you, what should your strategy be to improve your body composition and feel better about how you look?
1. Recognize that you can’t spot-reduce body fat
In the ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal, “believing that spot reduction is possible” is listed as one of the top ten most common weight loss mistakes people make.
Realize right off the bat that doing hundreds of crunches isn’t going to magically burn the fat off of your midsection. Once you’re in a caloric deficit, you can’t control the places from which your body will start to burn fat. You have to control what you can control and practice patience as your fat cells shrink, knowing that your love handles may very well be the last fat deposits to go.
2. Follow a body recomposition diet
”Body recomposition,” or “recomp,” are fancy terms that mean that you’re trying to maintain your current body weight while replacing fat with muscle. It’s the process of losing body fat and gaining muscle at the same time.
The basic premise of a “recomp” diet is that your caloric level is set at “maintenance” — the number of calories needed to maintain your body weight. This is not the optimal strategy for everyone, but skinny-fat beginner lifters are one group of people for whom this is likely the best approach.
Adam Ali of Physiqonomics has a great article on this topic if you need further guidance on setting up your calories and macros.
3. Start strength training and eating enough protein
Another of the most common weight loss mistakes people make, according to ACSM, is to ignore the need to maintain lean body mass — especially muscle tissue — when on a diet.
Looking lean, ripped, shredded, and toned is a matter of reducing your overall level of body fat, and having adequate muscle mass underneath. So if you’re skinny-fat, you need to have two goals that go hand-in-hand:
- Reduce excess body fat
- Build muscle
There are two basic ways that you can end up losing muscle mass when on a weight loss diet: under-eating protein and avoiding strength training.
When on a diet, you need to be eating at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight in order to maintain (and hopefully build) muscle.
You also need to start resistance training, because this sends the signal to your body to build new muscle tissue (and to preserve the muscle that it already has). Steady-state cardio needs to take a back seat to strength training during this time.
Focus on eating a proper calorie-controlled diet and on consistent strength training, and over time you will achieve your body goals.
4. Embrace the fact that you can “spot-build” muscle
Although you can’t spot-reduce belly fat or fat around your hips, you can “spot-build” muscle. As you lose weight all over your body, having muscle is what will give your body a hardened, toned, defined look that is so appealing to so many people.
There are certain types of exercises that target specific parts of your body.
Squats, deadlifts, lunges, split squats, and glute and hip thrusts train your hip muscles.
Crunches, planks, and compound lifts like squats target your abdominal region.
Heavy deadlifts and squats that require you to stabilize your core under load will strengthen your lower back.
Your strength training program needs to be based around these types of exercises in order to get the body you want.
5. Don’t feel like you need to do lots of cardio
If you’re skinny-fat, your top fitness priority must be strength training. Cardiovascular training — whether that be steady-state cardio or high-intensity interval training — should only be done if it does not prevent you from strength training at least 3 days per week.
This requires a mindset shift. Most people think of exercise as a way to burn calories and lose body fat, but you need to start thinking of your diet as the means to losing weight and your training as the means to building a strong, muscular body.
If your goal is to improve your body composition–lose fat, build muscle, get lean, toned, ripped, jacked, whatever–training serves one purpose above all else.
That purpose is to build and maintain muscle and strength not to burn calories.
If you’re skinny-fat, hope (in the form of your dream body) is on the horizon, if you focus on these two things — eating a proper diet and lifting weights.