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Building Muscle

What is Skinny Fat and How Do You Fix it?

“Skinny fat” is not a term you’re likely to hear at your doctor’s office or read in a scientific journal anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real thing.  It’s simply a colloquial phrase used to describe the characteristics of a person’s physical appearance that medical experts usually explain in other -- oftentimes more complicated -- ways.  

That’s why in this article, we’re going over everything you need to know about the skinny fat phenomenon, from how to tell whether or not you are skinny fat, to tips and advice for improving your appearance.  But before we get into any of that, let’s first discuss what skinny fat actually is.  

What is Skinny Fat?

The phrase skinny fat is commonly used to describe individuals who appear to be at a normal weight, but in reality, their body composition is less than ideal.  More specifically, people who are skinny fat have abnormally low amounts of muscle mass and high percentages of body fat, which helps to explain the oxymoronic term “skinny fat”.  

In other words, that means that a person who is skinny fat may have a body mass index (BMI) that falls within the normal range (18.5 - 24.9), however, they have more body fat than what is considered healthy by organizations like the NIH (the acceptable ranges are 18% - 25% for men and 24% - 31% for women).   

The issue with BMI is that the calculations are based solely on your height and weight; they don’t take into account things like your body fat and lean mass (muscle and bone).   So while BMI can be a helpful tool for some things, it’s not necessarily going to be reliable when it comes to assessing your body composition -- just because your BMI is normal, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a healthy distribution of fat to lean mass.     

What Are the Causes Behind a Skinny Fat Appearance?

When it comes to having a skinny fat appearance, the main issue for most people is simply that they don’t have enough lean muscle mass. 

So, even though the scale may reflect that you’re at an appropriate weight -- or even thin -- a look in the mirror may reveal that you’re less than lean -- i.e. you have little visible muscular development.  This could be for some or all of the following reasons.

⫸Inadequate Protein Intake

There’s no nutrient more important than protein when it comes to the development and overall function of your muscles.  In fact, all of the muscles throughout your entire body are made up of various different types of proteins that are going through a constant state of flux. 

Some of these proteins -- about 1% per day -- are ultimately broken down and used by the body for other purposes, requiring them to be replaced through a process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS).  

In order for MPS to occur though, your body needs to get an ample supply of protein through your diet -- the body breaks down dietary protein into amino acids which are then used to synthesize new specialized proteins that can be sent to muscle cells in need of repair.   

If you’re not getting enough protein in your daily diet, however, it’s going to be next to impossible for your body to replace all of the muscle proteins that are regularly turned over.  Ultimately, the lack of dietary protein leads to muscle loss over time, which, in turn, can lead to the development of a skinny fat appearance.  

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⫸Cutting Too Many Calories for Too long

On top of not getting enough protein in your daily diet, taking extreme weight loss measures can also lead to the development of a skinny fat appearance.   

More particularly, being on a calorie deficit for too long or drastically reducing your calorie intake for an extended period of time can also lead to significant losses in muscle mass.  That’s because when you're taking in fewer calories than your body needs to function, it turns to itself to make up for its energy needs.  

The good news is that when you’re on a hypocaloric diet, your body turns to converting stored fat into energy, which is the perfect scenario for shedding body fat.  The bad news is, your body isn’t picky when your calories are restricted -- it also cannibalizes lean muscle tissue in order to meet its energy requirements.  

So even though you’ll lose body fat during a weight loss intervention, you’re also likely going to losing lean mass as well -- especially if you’re not working out or taking in plenty of protein -- which ultimately means that your body composition may not improve all that much even when you get down to a healthy weight. 

That’s why on top of getting enough protein, it’s also important to manage your calorie intake during a weight loss diet.  While it can be tempting to drastically reduce your calories, which many people ultimately wind up doing,  you only want to go with a moderate (10 - 25%) calorie restriction.

In combination with a regular weight lifting routine, which we’ll talk about in the following section, only moderately restricting your calories has been shown to preserve more lean muscle mass in comparison to an extreme restriction.  

But no matter what, when you diet, you will lose somemuscle mass, even with plenty of protein and exercise, so if you’ve been dieting for a long time, chances are you’ve probably lost a significant amount of muscle mass.   

⫸Not Enough Physically Active

Another potential reason you may appear skinny fat is that you’re not physically active enough.  Even if the scale says that you’re at a healthy weight, if you don’t have regular physical activity built into your daily life, chances are you don’t have a lot of muscular development.  

If you lead a sedentary lifestyle -- i.e. you don’t regularly exercise and/or have a job that requires you to be physically active -- it can really take a toll on your body composition over time.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons muscle loss is such a common thing amongst older folks.  

Is Being Skinny Fat Detrimental to Your Health?

One of the biggest concerns with being skinny fat is that it’s not just a superficial problem -- it can actually impinge on your overall health and well-being if your percentage of lean mass to body fat is out of whack.  

More specifically, having a high percentage of body fat (>25% for men and >31% for women) has been shown to increase your levels of inflammation.  

High levels of inflammation, in turn, have been shown to increase the chances of developing a number of health problems, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. 

How Do You Know if You’re Skinny Fat?

So how do you go about figuring out whether or not you are skinny fat?  Well, the most accurate route is to get tested professionally and have an expert measure your body fat percentage.   

If you’re not interested in going down that route -- it can be pretty costly after all -- you can also buy a set of calipers to measure your body fat percentage yourself -- they’re relatively cheap and still pretty accurate if you use them correctly.  

But the easiest method is simply to look in the mirror.  Assuming you have a normal BMI -- i.e. your weight is considered normal given your height -- if you have little visible muscle mass on your frame but noticeable amounts of body fat (particularly in places like your midsection) it’s a good indication that your body composition could use some improvement.  

How to Improve Your Body Composition

If you’re looking to improve your body composition, there are basically two things you can do -- you can either do a cut (shed body fat) or a bulk (add on lean muscle mass), which require opposite things from a nutritional perspective. 

Now lots of people jump right to the conclusion that they want to lose all of their visible fat and start doing cardio and/or dieting.  

But if you’re skinny fat -- i.e. you have little muscle mass to begin with -- and you do a cut, you could very well end up underweight when all is said and done, which comes along with its own collection health risks. 

That’s why it’s recommended that most individuals who suffer from a skinny fat appearance start off their body recomposition journey with a bulk. 

But you don’t want to do just any bulk, you want to do a clean bulk -- you want to stay on top of your food intake so that you gain muscle and not fat when you’re bulking up. 

On top of your nutrition, you’ll also have to be doing the right things in the gym if you want to make sizeable improvements in your muscle mass.  

1. Eat Enough Calories

First things first, if you want to build muscle you have to be eating enough calories.  In fact, in order to see real, observable gains, you actually have to be eating more calories than your body burns off in a day.

Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) ] is an estimate of much energy your body uses each day given your activity level and it represents the number of calories you need to consume each day in order to maintain what mass you already have.  You can easily estimate your TDEE using an online TDEE calculator.    

Research has, time and again, demonstrated that in order for muscle growth to occur, you need to be taking in more calories than your TDEE -- i.e. you need a calorie surplus

But when we’re trying to correct a skinny fat appearance, we’re not just concerned with adding lean muscle mass, we also want to avoid gaining fat -- we want to increase your body’s ratio of lean muscle mass, so if you’re also gaining fat during your bulk, that’s going to be difficult to do that.  

Ultimately, that means only consuming a modest calorie surplus.  Research shows that adding on somewhere between 250 - 500 extra calories to your TDEE is the best way to minimize fat gains during a bulk.  

It’s enough extra calories to support the muscle-building process, without being so excessive that some of those extra calories end up being stored as body fat.  So if your TDEE is 1900 calories per day for example, your calorie intake should be somewhere between 2150 and 2400 calories per day.   

But you don’t want to be getting your calories from just any foods when you’re bulking up.  In order to further minimize unwanted fat gains and support your overall health, you’ll want to focus on nutritious, whole foods, and avoid things like highly processed foods along with foods that have been shown to cause inflammation.  

2. Consume Enough Protein

In addition to staying on top of your calorie intake, you’ll also need to be consuming an adequate amount of protein in order to support the muscle-building process.  

As we’ve already discussed, proteins make up the foundation upon which your muscles are built, so it may come as little surprise that you need to be taking in an ample supply of dietary protein if you’re trying to build muscle. 

In fact, without an adequate protein intake, you wouldn’t be able to gain any muscle mass at all, no matter how many extra calories you consumed.  

So how much protein should you be consuming each day if you want to increase your muscle mass?  Well, organizations like the NIH recommend that somewhere between 10 - 35% of your total daily calories should come from healthy sources of protein.  

When it comes to building muscle, in particular, a decades-long standard in the bodybuilding community has been to consume 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, and for just about everyone, that number should fall nicely within the NIH’s recommended range.  So if you’re a male who weighs 150 pounds, you’d be looking to consume at least 150 grams of protein per day.  

3. Do Resistance Training

Getting your calorie and protein intakes dialed in is a good start, but in order to see real, measurable increases in muscle mass, you also have to be participating in a resistance training program.  

More particularly, not only do you have to lift weights, but you also have to do the right exercises at the right intestines.  When it comes to exercise selection, research shows that compound movements -- i.e. exercises that recruit multiple muscle groups -- are superior to exercises that only engage a single muscle group (isolation movements).

Now that doesn’t mean you can’t also do isolation movements, but any serious muscle-building workout should be centrally oriented around compound movements. 

Start out your routine with heavier compound movements like the squat, deadlift, bench press, row, and overhead press, and then move on to lighter isolation exercises like the bicep curl and tricep extension afterward. 

When it comes to the intensity of your workout, you’ll need to be working with weights that are challenging to lift in the 8 - 12 rep range in order to maximize your muscle-building potential, especially on your compound lifts. 

On top of that, you’ll need to do multiple sets per exercise and multiple exercises per training session in order to increase your muscle mass.  

Finally, you’ll need to increase your training volume over time in order to see steady, continued muscle growth over the course of your bulk.  In other words, every 6 to 8 weeks or so, you’ll need to increase the amount of weight you lift and/or the number of sets and reps you do on a given exercise in order to continue seeing progress over the course of your body recomposition.    

4. Don’t Overdo it With the Cardio

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you don’t want to get too overzealous with cardio, when you’re trying to add lean muscle to your frame.  Now that doesn’t mean that you should completely eliminate cardio from your workout routine if it’s something you’re into, but rather that you should keep it in check over the course of your bulk. 

That’s because doing cardio increases your daily energy expenditure, which ultimately means that you have to eat even more calories per day in order to achieve a calorie surplus.  For those who already have trouble loading up on extra calories, doing too much cardio can make hitting your calorie goals even more challenging.  

On top of that, research also shows that doing cardio and weight training in the same session can interfere with the physiological processes behind muscle growth, especially when both forms of exercise engage the same muscle group(s).  

Long story short, if you are going to do cardio during your bulk, make sure that you’re doing your weight lifting and cardio in different training sessions -- ideally on different days if possible.  That will help to assure that all of the work you’re doing in the weight room will pay actually pay off when all is said and done.   

Wrap Up

The phrase skinny fat is a colloquial term used to describe a person who appears to be at a normal weight, but in reality, has a less than ideal body composition.   More particularly, a skinny fat appearance is characterized by a lack of muscle mass and an above-average percentage of body fat.   

On top of negatively impacting your appearance, being skinny fat -- and particularly having a high body fat percentage -- can have serious health implications as well. 

In addition to raising your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, having an unhealthy amount of body fat has also been shown to increase the risk of mortality from heart disease and cancer.  

If you are suffering from a skinny fat appearance, it may be most advantageous to add lean muscle mass to your frame in order to balance out your ratio of fat to muscle. 

In order to do that, you’ll have to moderately increase your calorie intake, consume an ample amount of protein, and participate in a regular weight lifting routine.    

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