What Does Skinny Fat Look Like & How to Get Rid of It

Read this article to figure out once and for all how to get rid of the skinny fat look.


Skinny fat seems like a bit of an oxymoron, similar to jumbo shrimp or Hell’s Angels.


The two ideas seem about as far apart as ideas can get. Yet, for many people, skinny fat is all they’ve ever known.


Despite following the advice of experts, diligently going to the gym and eating a low-calorie diet, you find yourself disappointed with your fat loss results. Yes, you lose weight and got skinnier, but here’s the thing.


Being thin doesn’t mean you look great with your shirt off or that you’re even healthy, if you are skinny fat.


What is skinny fat?


How do you become skinny fat, and more importantly, how do you get rid of it?


We’ll tell you how to lose your skinny fat belly, build muscle, and a whole lot more ahead.


Let’s start at the top.


What is Skinny Fat?

“Skinny fat.”


The expression is kind of confounding. How can a person be both “skinny” and “fat” at the same time?


It’s pretty simple really.


You have the skinny fat look when you have too little muscle mass (i.e. skinny) and too much body fat.


So, is this something that’s caused by crappy genetics, eating too much gluten, or not following a ketogenic diet?


No, not in the least.


You get the skinny fat look from not having enough muscle on your body compared the amount of fat you’re carrying.


You see, the less muscle mass you carry around, the more likely you are to look skinny fat even an lower body fat percentages. For example, let’s say two guys are at 15% body fat. Guy A has relatively little muscle, while Guy B has a fair amount of muscle.


Guy A is going to have the skinny fat look, while Guy B is going to pass the “do you even lift?” eye-test.


What about women?


While most women cringe at the thought of being muscle bound and unfeminine looking, the simple truth is that it’s incredibly difficult for women to build enough muscle to look bulky, regardless of what the fitness magazines preach. They simply don’t produce enough testosterone to pack on size as quickly or as much as men.


The only instance when women can look too bulky is when they:


  1. Hop on a cycle of designer steroids

  2. Add muscle with an already high level of body fat


With that said, let’s take a closer look into why people get skinny fat and the common diet and exercise mistake they make.


How Do You Get Skinny Fat?

Getting skinny fat essentially results from a combination of three things:


  • Excessive calorie restriction

  • Hours and hours of cardio

  • High-rep weightlifting with light weights


If these three things sound familiar, that’s because you’ve come across these “pointers” before. These are the same tips fitness and lifestyle magazines, especially those geared towards women, give as advice for losing weight fast and sculpting the “ideal body.”


But there’s a few reasons why this is a terrible method to dropping fat fast.


Allow us to explain…


When you drastically reduce calories, while at the same time increasing the amount of cardio you’re doing at the gym, your body doesn’t have enough energy to perform, repair, and recover adequately from exercise.


As a result, your body will start breaking down its own muscle tissue to obtain the energy and amino acids it needs to survive.


You see, muscle is incredibly “expensive” for your body to maintain from a calorie standpoint. So in an effort to conserve energy expenditure, increase available energy, and ultimately prolong lifespan, you body will catabolize (“break down”) muscle tissue.


As a result, weight loss occurs, but it’s not the “right” kind of weight loss. While the number on the scale is going down, it’s not necessarily fat that you’re losing, which means you’re not improving your body fat percentage or reducing the appearance of skinny fat.


Let’s dive a little deeper into why these three factors are a terrible way to solve the skinny fat dilemma:


Extreme Calorie Restriction Will Make You Skinny Fat

We’ve stated it time and time again that true, sustainable weight loss requires that you consume less energy than you burn.


This advice, while sound, can be taken to the extreme, though, when individuals want to lose weight fast. As a result, they severely cut their calories, which leads inevitably to a slowing of their metabolic rate and muscle loss.[1]


And, to make matters worse, at some point during the extreme weight loss venture, people will hit a plateau where the number on the scale stops going down. To break through this weight loss plateau, individuals will further cut their calories and/or do even more cardio, which only quickens the pace at which you’re losing valuable muscle mass.


Suffice it to say that you just bought a one-way ticket to skinny fat-ville, and this is why we repeatedly stress in any of our weight loss transformation programs to use a moderate calorie deficit.


Research has documented that when using a moderate calorie deficit (e.g. 20-25% below maintenance) combined with resistance training leads to rapid weight loss while at the same time sparing lean muscle mass.[2] This is exactly what you want when dieting to eliminate body fat.


Next, let’s look at why chronic cardio is another one-way ticket to skinny fat.


Excessive Cardio Training Will Make You Skinny Fat

For decades it’s been preached in magazines, news outlets, and daytime doctor shows that the secret to losing belly fat is to perform hour after hour of cardio.


Yet, how many times have you done this exact exercise routine only to hit a weight loss plateau and abandon your workout program due to a lack of results?


That’s because cardio isn’t the secret to losing fat or forging an iron physique.


You read that right.


Cardio is not necessary to lose body fat.


Research backs this up as studies have shown that performing regular cardio workouts does little to accelerate weight loss.[3] You might be surprised to learn that people who do regularly engage in cardio training as their predominant form of exercise for losing weight end up fatter than when they initially began.[4]


Now, don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that cardio is bad for you, or that it inherently leads to fat gain. It’s just that cardio all that great or effective for burning body fat while preserving lean muscle mass.


This is due to a combination of factors. More specifically, the more cardio training you perform, the more it hinders gains in muscle and strength. And, on top of that, the longer these sessions last, the more magnified these interferences between cardio and muscle gain are.[5,6,13]


That being said, cardio can fit into any well-rounded training program, and if you do choose to perform it, high-intensity interval training is the way to go, especially if you’re short on time and want to keen to get lean without losing muscle and strength.


Therefore, the old advice to limit weight training and focus on long bouts of steady-state cardio for fat loss is about the worst thing you can do when trying to get rid of the skinny fat look, all the more so when combined with extreme calorie restriction.


Let’s now look at the final piece of the skinny fat trifecta -- limiting resistance-training.


Avoiding Heavy Weights Can Make You Skinny Fat

As we just touched on above, conventional magazine weight loss programs frequently limit, or outright neglect, resistance training, which is a huge mistake.


This arises from the notion that the calorie burn from cardio is greater than that from weightlifting during the workout. However, while lifting weights doesn’t burn as many calories as a cardio session, it does bring about something called the “afterburn effect.”


What is the Afterburn Effect?

Also known as “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption” or, EPOC for short, the afterburn effect refers to the increased rate of oxygen uptake and utilization that occurs in the hours following a bout of resistance training. The main effect arising from the afterburn effect -- increased calorie burning.


Inf fact, research has shown that after just one bout of resistance training, your metabolic rate can be elevated for several days.[7]

Lifting heavy weights, in particular, has been shown to be extremely particular as studies shown that lifting with 80-85% of your 1-rep max can lead to substantially more calories burned post-workout than training with lighter weights.[8,9]


But, this isn’t the only reason heavy lifting is good.


Consistent weight training also helps preserve lean muscle mass when dieting, meaning that when you lose weight, you’re losing fat not muscle.[10]


Now that we’ve shown you in-depth how a person becomes skinny fat, let’s now give you the information to banish your skinny fat woes for good.


The Skinny Fat Solution

If you presently are skinny fat, that means you have too little muscle mass and too much body fat.


In this instance, you might be tempted to do a body recomposition and “trade fat for muscle.” Let us caution you against this approach to reshaping your physique, as unless you’re relatively new to resistance training, trying to burn fat and build muscle at the same time is a highly inefficient process.


You would be far better served to pick one goal and focus on that for the time being. This begets the question:


“Should I try to lose fat or build muscle?”

This is a question millions of people battling the skinny fat dilemma deal with on a daily basis.


Women tend to think that they should focus on losing fat first, while men more often than not default to making gains and building muscle.


The simple truth is that you need to do both. If you have some muscle mass on you, you can opt to lose fat first, as it will be easier to build muscle and avoid excess fat gain if you start your massing phase already lean.


Regardless of which option you choose, you must do the following to solve the skinny fat conundrum:


Set Up a Proper Fat Loss Diet

You’ve heard the saying before:


“You can’t out exercise a crappy diet.”


And, that saying couldn’t be any truer. If you’re following a terrible nutrition plan, or not following one at all, even the most perfectly optimized training program won’t do a lick of good for you and your results.


The good news for you, is that setting up a diet or formulating a proper nutrition plan isn’t all that hard, despite what the fitness and nutrition “gurus” on YouTube tell you.


If you’ve been utilizing an extremely low calorie, low protein diet to banish belly fat, the first step you need to take is boosting your metabolic rate back to its normal speed. You see, when you diet for prolonged periods of time using severe calorie deficits, your body has an interesting way of fighting back. Essentially, it slows itself down and burns less calories.


Fortunately, this metabolic slowing isn’t permanent, but you do need to take steps to correct it before continuing to lose anymore body fat. The way to correct this slow metabolism is in the form of reverse dieting. We’ve covered it before, and you can find out how to reverse diet, here.


Now, if you’re already eating around your maintenance calories, you can jump right into a fat loss diet sans the reverse dieting.


All you need to do to set up a fat loss diet is use a moderate calorie deficit (roughly 20-25% below TDEE) and make sure you consume enough protein, as that is the macronutrient that plays the most important role in protecting muscle during dieting.


If you need to learn more about TDEE or how to set your macros, check out this article.


Limit Chronic Cardio

The key to weight loss or gain in any training program is diet. What you put into your mouth and how much has far more impact on your transformation success than any amount of cardio ever will.


That being said, cardio is not necessary to get rid of the skinny fat look, but it can help increase your calorie expenditure during the day, and ultimately help you to lose fat faster.


The best way to go about incorporating cardio into your body recomposition plan is to key the sessions short and intense, and only perform a couple of them each week.


Basically, you want to do enough cardio to keep calorie burning high without doing so much that you hinder muscle recovery and growth from your strength training sessions.


Speaking of strength training, let’s address the final piece of the skinny fat solution.


Lift Heavy Weights 3-4 Times Per Week

Eliminating the skinny fat look requires you to gain muscle and lose fat, but in the grand scheme of things, building muscle is far more important.[12] Muscle is what helps you look good naked or in tight clothing. It’s also a key factor in lifespan and longevity. As such, you want to do everything in your power to build as much muscle as possible naturally.


The most effective way to build muscle is to perform compound exercises with heavy weights somewhere in the range of 70-85% of your 1-rep max. This is the “sweet spot” for muscle building and gives a nice mix of muscle and strength gains.


Yes, the pump can help build muscle, but most exercise scientists agree that the primary drive behind hypertrophy (a.k.a. Muscle growth) is mechanical tension -- i.e. lifting heavy ass weight.


Therefore, instead of chasing a sick pump all the time every workout, save it for the last few sets of your training days. The majority of your time in the gym should be spent trying to get as strong as possible on the best muscle building exercises such as the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press, barbell row, and pull up.


If you need help find a workout program to guide you along the path to training success, check this one out.


Body Weight is just a number

One last thing that we should mention in regards to getting rid of the skinny fat look is how you should go about tracking your progress.


When dieting, many people default to using a scale to track whether their training and nutrition program is successful. If the number on the scale is going down, then most people assume the plan is working. But if the number on scale stops going down, or heaven forbid goes up, they freak out, removing more calories from their diet and performing even more cardio. Both of which we’ve already told you not to do.


The truth is that while the scale can be an indicator of the effectiveness of your weight loss program, it is not the only indicator, or that useful of one.


You see, the scale just gives a number of your total weight. It says nothing about how much muscle or fat your body has, nor which of those you are losing when you do lose weight (or gain it, for that matter);.


Weight alone does not tell you whether you are skinny fat or not. It’s possible that two people weigh the exact same, yet both have very different amounts of muscle and body fat.


Therefore, we suggest that you take pictures and use calipers or a tape measure to track your weight loss and body recomposition progress.


These provide a more “authentic” means for gauging your success with losing fat and building muscle and help give you better insight into what you need to fix to get your desired results. Another added bonus of taking pictures, is that you can look back at the end of your weight loss journey and see just how far you’ve come.

The Last Word on Skinny Fat

To sum thing up, being skinny fat is a result of having too much body fat and not enough lean muscle mass.


The good news is that you don’t have to stay skinny fat forever. You just need to add some muscle and lose some body fat.


The easiest way to do this is:


1. Lift heavy weights for a reasonable number of reps

2. Consume sufficient protein and calories

3. Avoid doing too much cardio


Do those three things, and you can eliminate unwanted belly fat, build lean muscle, and get the body you’ve always wanted.


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  2. Huovinen, H. T., Hulmi, J. J., Isolehto, J., Kyrolainen, H., Puurtinen, R., Karila, T., … Mero, A. A. (2015). Body composition and power performance improved after weight reduction in male athletes without hampering hormonal balance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(1), 29–36. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25028999

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  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23524363

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  8. Thornton, M. K., & Potteiger, J. A. (2002). Effects of resistance exercise bouts of different intensities but equal work on EPOC. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(4), 715–722. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11932584

  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19729520

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  11. Noakes, M., Keogh, J. B., Foster, P. R., & Clifton, P. M. (2005). Effect of an energy-restricted, high-protein, low-fat diet relative to a conventional high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet on weight loss, body composition, nutritional status, and markers of cardiovascular health in obese women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81(6), 1298–1306. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/81.6.1298

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