Recipe for Being Skinny Fat

Everyone wants to look better naked, right?  It might not be at the top of your personal priorities, but I’m sure that you want it.  You might care more about personal performance, or being healthier in general, but in reality, we all have aesthetic goals.  Personally, I think that they’re a little over rated, and that our cultural obsession with various physical ‘ideals’ has left us with a self-conscious population who seem to be magnetized to the mirror, exercising ineffectively with minimal results, and growing lazier with the development of each new gizmo and gadget released on TV.

Okay, maybe that’s cynical; am I really calling people who care about their health and appearance lazy?

Yes.

See, I’m all for proper nutrition and exercise; eating to support your body, and busting ass in some workouts while allowing for recovery and regeneration when necessary.  As it turns out, I feel that most people who could be classified as ‘skinny fat’ don’t follow these rules, and jump through hoops to focus on their own singular goal, neglecting their long term health in the process.  Trying to make a quick difference without making the necessary changes to sustain a long, healthy life?  You’re just being lazy.

When it comes to not being skinny fat, most everyone is going to agree that you’re going to need to pick up some heavy stuff to maintain/gain some muscle on your frame.  See, with all the fun you have in your Zumba classes, and despite all of the aerobic benefits of your daily 9 mile runs, that’s going to do very little for giving your body any appreciable level of muscle mass.  You’ll lose some weight with your exercise, and may be smaller, but you’re not going to be much leaner.  That weight loss will include muscle mass with the fat that you lose, so while you may fit into smaller clothes, and weight less on the scale, measures of body fat will leave you with startlingly high numbers.

If you want to ‘see’ skinny fat, open any of your favorite fashion magazine or check out the ‘cardio’ session of your local gym.  The people that are thin, but still soft looking?  That’s the skinny fat population.  As it turns out, they have a pretty good recipe for attaining this look.

Let me tell you a story about a guy.  I see him on a fairly regular basis when I’m at Adelphi; it seems that he’s always in the gym, any time I fill up my water bottle, chat with friends, or actually workout.  It also seems that in the past year that I’ve been there, his body hasn’t changed a single bit.  After watching his lack-of-progress through the fall, I finally asked him one day over the winter what he was training for.  You already know the answer: He wanted to put on some muscle mass, and lose body fat.  Say it ain’t so!

His training efforts involved a purely upper body split, that looked something like shoulders, chest/tri’s, back/bi’s, and abs.  He also ran 2 miles a day on the treadmill, and did some sort of crunch exercise every single day.  Talk about ineffective!  What’s worse, is that he thought this type of exercise would help him get passed his poor diet.  In his words, “It’s so hard to eat healthy…that’s boring!”  Yea, okay.

I decided it would be a good idea to share with him some enlighted resources, to break his addiction to Muscle & Fiction, and BodyBuilding.com.  My recommendations included the articles on T-Nation, EliteFTS, and I specifically told him to check out products from Mike Boyle and Eric Cressey.

Why not recommend the best, right?

A few weeks later, I was packing up my gym bag to head outside to run sprints.  While I did this, I asked him what he thought of the information he read.  “I didn’t really think about working out that way, ya know?”  Uh, yea, that’s why I told you to read those websites.  “I guess those guys are really good, like, they have a big following.”  Yes, because they’re the best at what they do.  “It’s just hard for me to change what I’m already doing, ya know?”  Um, yes, that’s called being stupid.

Do you remember first learning short division in elementary school?  I remember thinking it was the most awesome thing ever.  You mean we don’t need to do it one number at a time?  Long division worked, but it was inefficient, time consuming, and boring as could be.  Now, imagine if you found out about short division, or even using a calculator, but you still insisted that long division was for you.  You spent all of your time and energy getting very little work done, while your peers and classmates achieved a lot more with a lot less time investment.  Wouldn’t you see a problem there?

Currently, I haven’t seen our nameless friend make any changes in how he’s exercising, and his physique hasn’t changed either.  He’s the prototypical skinny-fat male.  Being skinny-fat doesn’t discriminate though, it’s easily attainable for both men and women.  Since you’ve heard a gym story from school, I’ll now share a story about a female who’s attempting to achieve the same awkward physique. (Please note sarcasm.)

A few days ago, I recieved the following text form one of my friends: “How health is eating nothing but veggie burgers and microwave vegetables every meal?  And only drinking water.  And not taking dietary supplements.  And not exercising.  Also no fruit, and no grains at all.”  As you could bet, I was ready to jump through the phone and shake my friend.  After explanation, he told me that this was his (female) room mates ‘weight loss plan.  It sounds healthy right?

Eat more vegetables.  Drink more water.  Awesome, that sounds good.  No dietary supplements?  I’m not sure; most marketed supplements are crap, but health supplements like vitamins and fish oil are going to be great for you.  Veggie burgers aren’t going to be as healthy as real meat, but that could be a personal preference thing.  The worst part, clearly, is no exercise.  WHAT?!

The caloric deficit created by the vegetables and patties is going to create weight loss; yes.  But without exercise, that weight loss will include substantial amounts of muscle, leaving his well-intended room mate to have a low BMI and high body fat percentage; classic skinny-fat.

Which size 2 would you rather look like?

If you WANT that soft and lumpy look, then by all means, avoid lifting appreciable weight and scrap solid nutrition practices.  You’ll lose weight if you’re in a caloric deficit, and you may meet your weight loss goals.  Your physique won’t show off your hard work, and you won’t increase your health while you’re making these changes.  To me, diet without dedicated exercise is a cop out; your body is meant to sweat and work hard, and eat a variety of plant and animal products.  When you do those, you’re bound to look better naked.

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29 Replies to “Recipe for Being Skinny Fat”

  1. This is a fantastic post! It’s like you took the words out of my mouth 🙂 I will definitely be linking to you on an upcoming post if you don’t mind…

    1. Tara, that would be wonderful, thanks so much! I’m going to return the favor with your “To All The Haters” post, it was awesome! We need more people reading blogs like yours and spending less time comparing the Olsen twins in some fashion magazine.

  2. I really appreciate this post! I do have a small criticism however; in your comparison photo of size “2” women, it would be nice if you selected a photo of a lean size 2 woman who does not have enhanced breasts. The reality for most lean and muscular women, myself included, is much smaller breasts.

    1. Lindsay, I’m sorry to say, that wasn’t even something I thought about! Someone just asked me who actually looks like that, and I replied ‘only people that get paid to look that way’, but I didn’t even consider the implants as a part of that ‘look’. I’ll see if I can find a leaner lady without the cosmetic help; I’m sure it detracts from the overall message.

  3. Harold, for someone like me who’s 5″4″ 104 pounds and lifting heavy 4 days a week with no cardio. How do I gain w/o looking skinny fat? I’m eating 2400 calories a day. is it better to stick to 40/40/20 carbs, protein, fat or 40/30/30? Any suggestions? loved this post!!

    1. Amy, it seems that the inability to gain weight could be a gifted condition, but I understand the difficulty in putting on lean mass without the associated fat. I try not to think about the macronutrient break down as much as food quality and a balanced plate at every meal, but I think that 20% fat would be slightly low. Based on those ratios and your overall caloric consumption, I think it’s safe to say that your protein and carb consumption are adequate, so let me ask you two things: How frequently are you eating? We usually hear about 5-6 smaller meals through out the day, but 3-4 larger ones may make it easier for your body to grow. What about your training? You said 4 days per week, but what exactly do those sessions consist of? Let me know some exercise selection and intensity, and I’ll be able to better let you know.

  4. I am eating the 6 meals a day.
    every 2-3 hours. My weight training consists of
    Monday: shoulder/tri’s chest(as heavy as I can go)
    Tuesday: hamstrings/glutes
    Thursday: Back/Bi’s (heavy)
    Friday: quads/calvrs
    Sunday: TRX
    I try to go as heavy as I can for upper body and then on lower body I try to do a weight where I can get 8-10 reps.
    Thank you so much for your help.

    1. Thanks, Meg! While most people would say 5 sounds better than 5, I think it depends a little more on exactly what you’re doing in each workout. A 4 times per week upper/lower split (twice each) would likely work better than a 5 day per week split of chest/back/legs/arms/abs (or something else of that nature.) That being said, I’m sure we could figure out plenty of 5 day per week splits that work just as well. I’m sure you have more questions, why don’t you send me an e-mail and we’ll talk about it!

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  7. I don’t think either of those girls have desirable bodies! Obviously I don’t want to be skinny fat, but the comparison photo of what you ‘should’ want to look like always has abs that look like they’ve been chiseled out of her stomach (it’s ironic that this is unattractive to me, since people often say they want ‘chiseled’ abs). Also that girl is spray tan central.
    What’s so bad about being a little soft? It makes me feel feminine, I like it. Why is it so bad to be soft and healthy?

    1. Lisa, you make some great points. The spray tanned look tends to be what we see in the media for all levels of body composition. As far the leanness levels, I was trying to expose differing levels of what is stereotypically considered desirable. In the long run, we should strive for what we consider desirable, not what’s projected as societal ideals. Confidence in ones body is far more important than aesthetic look one may have.

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  9. Hello, I’d like some help here.
    I’m a 20 yo female, 5’8” tall and about 127lbs (1.72m and 58kg). And while I am no athlete by any means I like to think about myself as somewhat active: I do intense Pilates twice a week and walk a fair amount every day (my college campus’ is really huge, so I have no other option). The thing is: while i absolutely love strenght and stretching trainings (so much that, if I could afford, I’d do Pilates/Yoga every day), I HATE cardio, specially because the climate here is always insanely warm and dry (hello, northeatern Brazil!). I try to eat healthy, though there is not much variety available in my region – thanks to climate, again. My Body fat % is estimated in 22%. I do have some muscle definition, especially in the abs, but not as much as I would like.

    Anyway, the problem is that while I have a skinny upper body with small breasts and collar bones protruding, my lower half tend to stock fat like crazy. I can’t concentrate on building my upper body because I get too muscular. On the other hand, I can’t do too much cardio because then I’d also get too skinny on my top. And not to forget my weight is not exactly high, so I can’t diet either. What should I do?!

    1. Liana,

      I can feel your passion for training from all the way in New York! It’s great, and you seem to be doing well; go you! I would say that training for strength is one of the most effective things you can do, and should show you the results you’re looking for. I like to recommend full-body or upper/lower split workouts that include deadlifts, chinups, squats, push-ups, rows, overhead pressing, single-limb work, core stability work, etc. They pack a potent metabolic punch, meaning that depending on the diet, you can burn fat and build muscle. If you want to talk specifics, shoot me an e-mail at Harold.J.Gibbons@gmail.com and we’ll talk!

      Harold

  10. A good, honest piece. What I don’t understand is why anyone who is willing to make a change for no other reason than their appearance would want to do something that is going to end up making them skinny fat anyway. The change is to have confidence in how you look naked, right? And losing weight still requires effort and change – just like doing it right and losing fat. It seems like the hard work without the results. Masochism.

    I’m a fat chick in the process of changing my habits and I sure as hell don’t envision a goal body only my girlfriends will admire. Because in all honesty, I think women are the only ones that think a skinny-fat body is appealing for its clothes-hanger properties. I want to be hot, dammit!

    1. Meg, thank you for the comment! I’m glad we’re in agreement on the idea of training for what somebody else finds attractive, but also to the sad irony of working with something that’s less effective: “hard work without the results.” It is masochism!

      I’m glad you’re working to make health-enhancing habits that work! If you’d like any advice, let me know; I’ll be glad to help!

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