I call this hardgainer purgatory.
It typically comes in the form of puny arms, scrawny chicken legs, and a beer-belly that was not necessarily produced by alcohol consumption.
If your shirts are loose around your arms and tight around your belly, you’re probably skinny-fat.
Essentially, you’re too skinny to want to focus on weight/fat loss, but too “fat” to bulk up in the traditional sense.
Sound like you?
Before we get into the ultimate skinny-fat solution, let’s get something clear – just because you have a bit of a belly does not mean you’re fat.
Got it? Good!
Now, like finding any solution, we must first identify the problem.
Why You Are Skinny-Fat
Poor Fat Distribution: Perhaps you don’t exercise or keep a mindful eye on your diet, so you gain a bit of fat. Your BMI is still in the healthy range, but that spare tire you’re sporting around your midsection says otherwise. This is caused by poor body fat distribution which is determined by your genetics. Some people distribute body fat more evenly while others seem to store it predominantly around their waist, hips, or thighs.
High Calorie Surplus: I got an email the other day that read: “I’ve been following your training program, progressing in all of my lifts, and have gone from 153 to 165 in the first 2 weeks…but the only results I see are around my belly.”
As I mentioned here, a beginner can expect to gain about 2 pounds of muscle, per month, maximum.
That’s about 0.5 lbs of lean tissue per week.
If you’re gaining 6 pounds per week, and only a small fraction of that is lean muscle tissue, then what do you think the rest is going to be?
Faster weight gain, despite training being in order, does not equal faster muscle growth.
Lack of a Clear Goal: Most skinny-fat people want to lose fat and build muscle. Instead, they should want to build muscle and lose fat. Did you spot the difference?
They fail to track their nutrition because (1) they think the solution is cardio and weight training…or (2) they’re torn between eating in a surplus (to build muscle) and eating at a deficit (to reveal their sixpack).
1. Your body fat ends up around your waist while completing sidestepping your chest, arms, and legs.
2. You’re putting on body fat much faster than muscle mass.
3. You’re spinning your wheels trying to do too much.
4. Or all of the above.
Now let’s get into the fun stuff!
The Skinny-Fat Solution
A true intermediate lifter will have gained anywhere between 15-30 pounds (roughly) of lean muscle tissue. With those types of muscle gains, you can be fat-swole…but not skinny-fat.
The solution for that (fat-swole) is simple – start cutting, aim to maintain muscle mass, and get lean enough to show off your new suit of armor. (Read This: Get Ripped Without Losing Muscle Mass)
But what about skinny-fat guys?
Should You Bulk or Cut?
In my Should I Bulk or Cut article, we talked about nutrient partitioning ratios and how someone who’s above 18% body fat should focus on fat loss – someone who’s below 12-15% body fat should focus on building muscle.
But here’s the thing…
Nutrient Partitioning is determined by body fat, not belly-fat.
Having a belly with no sign of abs does not mean you’re obese, overweight, or have a high body fat percentage.
Take two almost identical males who are 5’10, 170 pounds, 14% body fat, and have the same exact fat free mass. One has poor fat distribution while the other distributes fat evenly throughout the body. One matches my description of being skinny-fat while the other sports a flat stomach with slightly thicker arms than the other.
So again, my point is this – having a belly does not mean you’re fat.
And because you are still in the “newbie phase” of training where you can expect to build muscle, rapidly, while torching belly fat at the same time, I recommend that you focus on building muscle mass instead.
You see, muscle mass is extremely metabolically active and will do much more toward overall fat loss than just doing tons of cardio (which has been shown to impair muscle and strength gains).
How Much Should You Eat?
Consuming less energy than you are expending in hopes to burn off unwanted belly-fat is an option, but not a smart one.
If you choose to go this route, you’re going to end up with a flat stomach, yes…but you’re just going to end up skinny-skinny in the end.
That means no stomach fat protruding through your t-shirts, but you can count on those shirt sleeves staying baggy.
At the very least, eat at maintenance and recomposition your body. Eating just enough calories to maintain your weight, while training intelligently, will allow you to build a bit of muscle and lose fat at the same time.
The problem here is – you’re not going to build as much muscle as possible.
More muscle mass equals faster fat loss in the long run.
Eat Enough to Build Muscle, Maximally!
Ideally, you want to eat in a slight caloric surplus – aim to gain about 0.5 lbs per week (no higher).
More calories = better gym performance.
Better gym performance = more muscle mass.
More muscle mass = more metabolic activity.
And although you may not end up with a fully visible sixpack – you’ll be well on your way to a lean, muscular physique that trumps a flat belly with arms that resemble toothpicks.
How Many Calories to Build Muscle and Burn Fat?
Finding a starting point and tracking your progress is critical for anyone who is trying to build the maximum amount of muscle mass without adding any additional belly-fat in the process.
If you’re skinny-fat, I would recommend starting here: Bodyweight x 16 = Daily Caloric Intake
The 16 is determined by a few different factors:
1. The Thermic Effect of Food
2. The Thermic Effect of Activity
3. Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
4. Resting Metabolic Rate
Now because these will all vary from person to person, the 16 won’t always be accurate; however, it isn’t meant to be a definitive answer. It is simply a starting point.
How do I know I am eating enough…but not too much?
Once you’ve got your calories in order, we must find out whether this number puts you in a slight surplus, at maintenance, or at a deficit.
1. Track your weight daily.
2. Get an average of your weigh-ins at the end of the week.
3. Continue tracking your calories and weighing in, daily.
4. Get an average of your weigh-ins for the following week and compare.
If your average has gone up, you’re in a surplus and are eating enough to build muscle mass.
The question now becomes: are you at too high of a surplus?
Going back to what I mentioned earlier – you should aim to gain about 0.5 pounds per week to ensure that the majority of your weight gain is lean mass.
If you’re gaining 1 pound per week, you’re likely to end up fat-swole. In this case, I would reduce the intake by about 250kcal and repeat steps 1-4 (above).
If your average weigh-in remains the same (or is less than a 0.5 lbs increase), then you’ll need to increase your calories, slightly. An increase of 100-250kcal (depending) should suffice.
In the rare case that your average weigh-in decreases, this simply means you’re eating in a deficit at this intake amount. You’ll have to bump your calories by about 250-500kcal (depending on how much of a deficit you are in).
Minimize Fat and Maximize Muscle
As someone who’s sporting a bit of a belly – you may find that, due to nutrient partitioning, you store body fat a bit more efficiently than a leaner individual.
This is why it is extra important that we adjust the macronutrient ratios we are consuming our calories in.
Macronutrients: a type of food (e.g., fat, protein, carbohydrate) required in large amounts in the human diet.
How Much Protein?
There is plenty of research out there on protein intake for building muscle mass. The overall consensus seems to be somewhere between 0.8-1 gram per pound of bodyweight for someone who is overfeeding.
In the case of someone who is skinny-fat, however, I would like to see a higher protein intake. Aiming for the higher end (1g per pound) would reduce the amount of calories you’ll get from carbs. Now although the likelihood of carbohydrase getting stored as fat is unlikely (for active individuals), protein being stored as body fat is even less likely.
How Much Fat?
There is pretty clear evidence that consuming 20-35% of your total calories in dietary fat is more than enough to experience the benefits of a healthy fat intake (e.g. reduced inflammation, reduced risk of heart disease, improved mood, anabolic hormone production, etc.)
This ends up being about 0.3-0.4 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight.
For someone who wants to build muscle mass but has a bit of belly-fat to burn, I would recommend staying on the lower end of that spectrum.
This is simply due to the efficiency in which the human body will store dietary fat as body fat– particularly when we are overfeeding.
How Many Carbohydrates?
Anyone who is training, regularly, should never be afraid of carbs. Truth is, despite what you may have read in a muscle magazine you skimmed through at your local barber shop, carbs are not very efficiently stored as body fat.
In fact, carbohydrates play a vital role in your ability to perform in the gym. This is why I recommend that you eat as many carbs as your metabolism will allow, without spilling-over. This is especially true for individuals who are performing any type of cardio or extra physical activity in addition to weight training.
Calculating Carbohydrate Intake
Protein and fat intake are pretty straight forward. Carbs, on the other hand, are a bit more complicated to calculate.
Let’s say you’ve found, by using the strategy listed earlier, that you need to consume 2400kcal.
First, figure out how many calories you’re getting from protein.
If you weigh 160lbs, then you’ll be consuming 160g of protein. Every gram of protein contains 4 calories.
160 x 4 = 640 Calories from protein
If you’re consuming 0.3g per pound of bodyweight, then you should be at 48g of fat per day. Every gram of fat contains 9 calories.
48 x 9 = 432 Calories from fat
640kcal + 432kcal = 1072kcal
Now subtract 1072kcal from your total daily calories (2400kcal).
2400kcal – 1072kcal = 1328kcal remaining.
Because there are 4 calories in every gram of carbohydrates, we’ll simply divide 1328 by 4 to get our daily carb intake.
1328/4 = 332g of carbs per day.
Simple enough, right?
Should I Do Cardio?
Cardio, when it comes to body composition, is simply a tool. One that we can use in order to increase our energy expenditure.
Typically we add cardio when we are cutting and remove it when we’re bulking; however, in this case, I am pro cardio.
Let me explain why…
The more you exercise (to a degree), assuming you’re consuming adequate calories, the better your body composition.
To achieve optimal body composition and health, it is essential to find the right balance between energy intake and expenditure. Keeping G-flux high is vital to maintaining a lean body and staying strong, functional, and healthy. – Ryan Andrews
Other Benefits of Higher G-Flux
• Increases in lean mass and decreases in fat mass
• Improved nutrient partitioning
• Better recovery
• Increased metabolic rate
How to Increase G-Flux
• Increase your weekly amount of physical activity*
Now this doesn’t mean that we should aim to add 4, 1 hour long, steady state cardio sessions to our week. And increasing your training frequency before you’re ready will just end up setting you back – doing more bad than good.
However, adding in a couple of short HIIT sessions to your week will do more for your body composition than weight training alone.
What’s The Best Workout for Skinny-Fat Guys?
A better question would be: what’s the best workout for a beginner who wants to build size and strength?
As I stated earlier, due to being hyper-sensitive to the stimulus from weight training, you’ll be able to build muscle and burn fat at the same time. And the more muscle you build, the more efficiently you can burn fat.
What If I Don’t Care About Strength?
Whether you care about strength or not is irrelevant.
It is very clear that the main contributing factor to muscle growth is progression. As long as we are increasing workload, we are stimulating the muscle enough to cause adaptations.
If you start off at 135 lbs on the bench press and can perform that for 4 sets of 8 reps, you’ve done a total workload of 4320 lbs.
If you come into the gym next week and perform 4 sets of 8 reps with 140 lbs, your workload will have increased by 160 lbs.
You, my friend, have gotten stronger.
So although you don’t have to train like a powerlifter, you should have the same goal – to get stronger.
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A few basic ways this can be done are:
1. Adding weight to the bar (without sacrificing volume)
2. Performing more reps (without sacrificing load)
3. Increasing training density (performing the same workout, without sacrificing load or volume, in less time)
As long as you are progressing, you’ll grow.
A few other factors are:
• Volume (sets and reps)
• Intensity (how heavy you’re training)
• Frequency (how often you’re training)
Use this guide to find a proven program that fits your needs: The Beginner’s Guide to Maximum Newbie Gains
Once you’ve selected a training program, you’re all set to go from skinny-fat to jacked and shredded.
The “cure” for skinny-fat is simpler than most “experts” make it out to be. But simple isn’t sexy – so they (the experts) have to find a way to make it enticing; like they’re giving you the secret.
Truth is, it’s no secret at all.
Take advantage of the magical phase that takes place when you’re new to training. Follow a done-for-you program that has been proven, make sure you’re eating just enough to build muscle, and throw in some extra physical activity to help avoid fat gain.
Confused as to where to start?
Download my FREE novice program, Mass In A Flash.
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