You’ve probably heard this term before. And sure, it sounds bad, but what exactly does it mean?
Put simply: skinny fat describes the condition when you look skinny with clothes on, but you have no noticeable muscle definition, or even look chubby, with your shirt off. In other words, you have a relatively high body fat percentage and relatively little muscle mass, but you’re not noticeably obese.
I’d venture to guess that the majority of the American population qualifies as skinny fat – and clearly this is not something that you want to be. So how do you avoid getting skinny fat? And if you’re already skinny fat, what’s the best way to improve your condition and build a lean, muscular body?
Am I At Risk of Getting Skinny Fat?
If you’re not currently skinny fat, then you run the highest risk of becoming skinny fat when trying to lose weight.
You see, weight loss can be done in two general ways: healthy and unhealthy.
Healthy weight loss occurs when you drop weight and maintain (or increase) your lean muscle mass. The result is that most, if not all, of the weight you lose comes from stored body fat. This leaves you with a lower bodyfat percentage and looking leaner and more defined.
Unhealthy weight loss occurs when you drop weight and lose muscle mass in the process. While you successfully lose weight, some of the lost weight comes from stored body fat and some of it comes from lean muscle tissue. The result is that you’re lighter, but you don’t look much leaner.
You essentially become a smaller version of yourself: less fat, sure, but also less muscle mass.
So the obvious question is: how can you guarantee that you lose weight the healthy way, maintain your precious muscle, and avoid getting skinny fat? I’m glad you asked…
How Do I avoid Getting Skinny Fat When Losing Weight?
In general, the best way to lose weight and avoid getting skinny fat is to eat fewer calories and lift weights. It’s that simple!
When you lift weights, you give your body a reason to maintain your muscle mass. You see, a lot of people focus on doing cardio when they’re losing weight. And in isolation, this isn’t entirely a bad thing. But it can become a problem if it causes you to neglect your strength training regimen. Various studies confirm this fact and show that subjects who lift weights while losing weight end up with more muscle and less fat versus subjects who do only cardio while losing weight 1,2.
Now, lifting weights alone is not enough. You can lift weights a few times per week and still end up skinny fat. The important thing is that you maintain your strength. You see, a lot of people opt to change up their lifting program when they decide to cut down. They think that because they’re focused on burning fat, this somehow gives them permission to stop lifting heavy. So they alter their routine and start to do more cardio and lift lighter weights for a higher number of reps.
Don’t make this mistake! If you normally squat 225 pounds and bench press 185 for 3 sets of 8, and then you start using less weight and you up the reps to 15 or 20, you risk burning muscle tissue and becoming skinny fat. You need to give your body a reason to maintain every last ounce of your muscle tissue. And the easiest way to do this while losing weight is to maintain (or increase) your strength levels.
You must apply the same stimulus that caused your body to build all of the muscle mass you currently have in the first place. You must maintain the intensity and keep pushing yourself in the gym and lifting heavy!
What About my Diet?
Maintaining your strength is tougher than it sounds because you have less energy by definition when losing weight. This is due to the fact that you must eat fewer calories than your body burns in order to lose weight3.
The implication is that you must lose weight gradually in order to preserve maximum muscle mass. When you eat very little and put your body in an extremely large caloric deficit in hopes of losing weight quickly, it actually backfires and makes it a lot more challenging to maintain your strength levels.
This is due to 2 main factors. First, because you’re eating fewer calories your body will have significantly less energy when you hit the gym and this will make it hard to lift with the same intensity as you would when you are not restricting your calories.
Second, when you place your body in a large caloric deficit, it must burn more and more body tissue to generate the energy you aren’t getting through your diet. This is essentially why you lose weight. And when it has to make up for such a large deficit, it’s inevitably going to need to burn both muscle and fat to do so4.
The moral of the story? You should be patient and lose weight at a controlled and steady pace. I suggest no more than 1 pound per week in order to preserve maximum muscle mass.
I'm Already Skinny Fat. What Should I Do?
If you’re already skinny fat – don’t worry – you can improve your condition with a bit of work. There are two obvious routes you can take:
- Focus on building muscle and increasing the amount of muscle mass on your frame
- Focus on burning fat and maintaining muscle (using the guidelines above) to decrease your body fat percentage
Both of these options will work to make you more ripped and less skinny fat. But which option is better for you?
The answer to this question depends on your personal circumstances. If you currently have very little muscle mass, then your best bet is to focus on getting stronger in the gym and building muscle. Don’t worry about restricting your diet or losing weight just yet.
And if you have some muscle, but it’s covered by a thick layer of fat (you have a relatively high body fat percentage), then it’s best to focus on losing weight and maintaining (or improving) your strength in the gym. Perform a couple days of cardio per week to accelerate fat loss, but don’t overdo it.
If you aren’t sure which of the two above groups you fall into, then think about what is more important to you: getting bigger or getting leaner? Make your decision and then focus your diet and training accordingly.
And, at the end of the day, remember that by eating healthy and working out you’re already improving your body and your overall quality of life. Keep pushing to improve, but don’t beat yourself up for not having your dream body – you’ll get there in time!
- Bryner, R. W., Ullrich, I. H., Sauers, J., Donley, D., Hornsby, G., Kolar, M., & Yeater, R. (1999). Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 18(2), 115-121.
- Janssen, I., & Ross, R. (1999). Effects of sex on the change in visceral, subcutaneous adipose tissue and skeletal muscle in response to weight loss. International journal of obesity, 23(10), 1035-1046.
- Faires VM. Thermodynamics. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1967.
- Hoie, L. H., Bruusgaard, D., & Thom, E. (1993). Reduction of body mass and change in body composition on a very low calorie diet. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders: journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 17(1), 17-20.