The Skinny Fat Problem And What To Do About It

A while back I launched an invitation to my readers to send questions regarding dieting, exercising, eating healthy and more. One of the questions I received was regarding people who are “skinny fat”. The type who looks really well with clothes on, who many even see as skinny. But underneath there’s no muscle definition and there might actually be some cellulite and fat rolls. Many of these people feel they do everything right. They eat clean, they exercise and yet they aren’t seeing any changes. How can this skinny fat problem be defeated?

The main causes of skinny fat

There are three main causes that lead to skinny fat. Too much cardio, too little calories, too little strength training. Genetic factors also have a say, so if your parents were the same type, your main cause is probably here. Don’t worry though, if genetic factors are what’s making you skinny fat, the battle is not lost, some of the same principles can help you, though you might need to fight a little harder.

Too much cardio

While cardio is good for losing weight & fat, if you overdo it, it can stop your progress in strength training. Cardio is important when you’re overweight, when you absolutely need to improve your endurance and your cardiovascular health. However, when you’re at a normal weight and you want to improve body composition, large amounts of cardio won’t help. There’s actually research that shows cardio does little for weight loss.  Don’t ditch cardio altogether, especially if you love it. I believe the key to having a successful workout routine is doing what you love. But at the same time, look towards something else if you really want to improve body composition and get rid of the skinny fat problem.

This is something I know from my own experience as I love cardio, especially group classes at the gym (Tae Bo, Zumba, Step Dance etc). There was a time when I had the best resistance in the world, I could do cardio for hours. But give me a pair of light weights and make me squat or do bicep curls, I’d stop after 10 reps. One day I decided to listen to my trainer and do the switch. I went to almost no cardio and 4 weight training sessions per week. In 3 months results were already showing, I was finally getting some muscle definition, I wasn’t skinny fat anymore.

Too little calories

Restricting calories too much can lead to significant muscle loss. The body has to consume quality nutrients somehow, so it starts consuming your muscles, while storing the fat! Now who would want that?! Check how many calories you should eat as per your BMR and the activities you are doing. There are many calculators on the Internet that can help you. It is important to be honest about your activity levels though. If unsure, ask a trainer who knows you, who sees you often at the gym, where he would assess your physical activity. Eat the right amount of calories, even if the number seems huge at first. If you were restricting, it’s possible you’ll notice a little weight gain at first. But once your body becomes accustomed to the new level of food, it will start letting go of the fat.

Getting the calories from the wrong sources

Equally important is where you get your calories from. If the source of all your calories is junk food – think pizza, pasta, fries, McDonalds – basically a horrible combo of carbs and unhealthy fats, you’ll end up skinny fat even with the right amount of calories. I’m not gonna tell you to go on a crazy low carb, low fat, high protein diet. While that type of diet helps muscle growth and it is the diet of most bodybuilders, it’s also an extreme diet that can cause imbalances over time.

You want to get your calories from good sources, from whole foods. Fruits, veggies, eggs, lean meat (or beans, tofu etc. if you’re vegan), whole wheat grains, nuts and seeds. If you’re already doing this and you’re not seeing results, it’s likely you are indeed eating too many carbs. Maybe you’re overdoing it with the fruit? Maybe on the contrary you’re exaggerating with the healthy fats and eating tons of nuts? Like I’ve repeated many times here, balance is key when it comes to dieting.

Too little weight training

If you want muscle, you gotta train them. We already established the problem with cardio, but just doing less cardio isn’t what you want. You have to actively train those muscles to help them grow. You don’t have to start with huge weights. Start small, the lightest weight you can and when you feel it’s too easy, increase the weights. Alternatively, you can also try resistance bands. They are a great way to work your muscles without the risks associated with lifting weights, especially if you are a beginner. If you are more advanced with weight training, you feel you hit a plateau but also aren’t ready to move up one weight, resistance bands can be an amazing solution!

If you need a workout routine to beat the skinny fat I recommend this article. As with everything diet and fitness, adapt it to your level and your goals. For example, HIIT for my body has always been a bit too much. It makes me feel extremely tired and I need a longer period of rest after a day of HIIT. For this reason, I only incorporate about 1 session every two weeks. If I feel super energetic I might go for once a week. Again, adapt it to how you feel, while also keeping in mind the main goal to build muscle.

Don’t let this become an obsession

Being skinny fat is in most cases a sign that there’s something you might be doing wrong. So follow the steps above and see where you can improve. On the other hand, don’t let this become an obsession. Unless you are a model, or a fitness trainer that makes a living out of how much muscle you have, your focus should be on health. Well, scratch that. Your focus should always be on health. If your career makes you sick, maybe it’s a sign you have to change it. If you have a well balanced diet and your workouts are a healthy mix of cardio, resistance training and relaxation, maybe you should let it go.

Also, if you’ve only just started this journey of changing your body’s composition, remember it takes time. It actually takes much more time and patience than simple weight loss. We could be talking about months or even years of work. So create a routine that you can sustain for that amount of time, a routine you love. Maybe divide the big goal into smaller goals to help you see progress. Check out my article about setting fitness goals if you need more info on this.

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The Skinny Fat Problem and what to do about it - gain muscle, lose fat

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