Eat Smart to Lose Fat


Muscle Building 101: How to Cure Skinny Fat

“Skinny Fat” describes someone at a relatively normal body weight with low muscle mass and a high body fat percentage. The main causes of this body type are related to calorie restriction, high amounts of cardio, and a lack of strength training.

I’ve never been overweight, but that doesn’t mean I’ve always loved my body. I’m fairly short (5’4”), have a small build, and except for pregnancies I’ve been in a certain weight range my entire adult life. The thing is, I never felt confident about my body. I felt soft, flabby, and have referred to myself as Skinny Fat. 

Like many women, I believed the answer to loving my body was to eat less and lose body fat. This led to years of calorie restriction and high intensity workouts that never seemed to give me the body I wanted.

I finally learned that losing weight alone is not the answer. To achieve a toned body, you need to focus on body recomposition, building lean muscle, and eating more food rather than less. 

What is Skinny Fat?

First off, I want to say that I never use the term “Skinny Fat” in a derogatory way. It’s simply a way for me to communicate with clients about a specific combination of body composition traits. 

That being said, skinny fat is used to describe someone with a normal body weight and BMI, low muscle mass, and a high body fat percentage. More often than not, these individuals look relatively normal, they simply lack the definition of leanness of a more muscular build.  

This lack of definition is usually what causes people to change their diet and exercise patterns in search of a leaner, more toned, body. Below is the right way to do just that. 

Eat Enough Calories

Rather than cutting calories, you should focus on eating at a maintenance level or eating more calories than you burn, which is called a calorie surplus.

Maintenance calories is the amount of calories that keeps you at your current weight.  

Keep in mind, the scale will always fluctuate even in maintenance. Scale variations are due to many factors besides body fat – such as water, sleep, sodium, stress or hormones.  

If you’re not sure where to start, there’s an easy formula you can use to estimate your maintenance calories: Multiply your body weight times 14 and that is your starting daily maintenance calorie amount. 

Weigh and track your food consistently at this calorie level for at least four weeks and watch the overall trend of your body weight.  You can then adjust calories up or down as needed.

For those who are not new to lifting, or want to be more aggressive with their muscle gain phase, they can eat at a calorie surplus – also called a “bulk.” 

A calorie surplus means you will eat slightly more calories that you burn on a daily basis to help support muscle growth. By consistent strength training (and adequate protein, which we will discuss next) the weight you gain will be in added muscle mass rather than fat.

Your calorie surplus starting place can be estimated by multiplying your body weight times 16.   Same rules apply as above, which is to track your food intake and body weight for at least a month to observe trends.

I hired my own nutrition coach when I got brave enough to try a calorie surplus.  I intentionally gained weight for the first time in my life! 

It was harder than you might think…  I had to be very organized about my food and eating almost felt like a part time job.  I ate three meals and three snacks per day, most of my extra calories were in the form of carbohydrates.  I sometimes ate even when I wasn’t hungry. 

Foods that are great to eat when bulking are high in calories and carbs but not very filling.  I enjoyed dried fruits, (especially mangos), gummy bears, oatmeal, and added honey and maple syrup to some meals.

Eat Enough Protein

You’ve probably heard about the benefits of protein. Protein is vital for our diets, especially when our goal is building muscle. 

A simple formula to calculate your daily protein target is as follows:

  1. Take your body weight in pounds 
  2. Multiply that number by 0.8-1.0

Go ahead and calculate that for yourself – I bet you’re not eating enough!  

When you’re not used to eating this much protein, it can be challenging to work it into your diet. When starting out, aim for the bottom end of your range then work your way up. 

Finding out how much protein you need to eat per-meal is also a helpful way to ensure you are reaching your goals during the day. 

For instance, if I wanted to eat 125 grams of protein per day, I would divide that number into the amount of meals and snacks I planned to eat. Your plan will look something like this:

125 grams of protein 

3 meals 

2 snacks 

Divide 125 by 5

The end result is that you would aim for about 25 grams of protein with each snack and meal for the day. For some high-protein foods to incorporate into your day, pick a couple from the list below:

Chicken, Beef, Pork, Fish, Eggs

Cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, Milk

Lentils, Tofu, Tempeh, Oats, Almonds

Need a quick and convenient option? Try a protein shake, Built Bar, or Nick’s Sticks

Lift Heavy Weights

When you give your body the right fuel, it allows us to turn that energy into muscle.

To build muscle you need to do progressive strength training using largely compound moves– these are exercises that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Think squats, deadlifts, bench presses, row, and overhead barbell presses. 

Now, because these exercises work several muscle groups at once, they are also an effective way to build muscle, burn calories, elevate your heart rate, and even improve mobility and coordination. 

In addition to using compound exercises, you’ve got to lift heavy weights…  Not a body pump class, or a Beachbody program, or whatever random programs you might see on Instagram. Just heavy lifting and dedication. 

By lifting heavy and slowly but steadily increasing the intensity over time, you’re signaling your body’s natural ability to adapt, and you’re telling it to build more muscle. This way, we are using our biology to our advantage. 

One final point that I want to address is bulk. 

Most women worry that lifting heavy weights is going to make them wide and bulky. This is a myth. Women simply don’t have the genetic makeup or testosterone levels to get jacked like John Cena.

So lift away– you’ll be happy you did.

Do Less Cardio

Notice I didn’t say none – just less.

Getting rid of Skinny Fat means your focus should be on getting stronger and building muscle. This has nothing to do with how much you sweat or how many calories your watch says you’ve burned. In some cases, too much cardio can actually diminish muscle growth– the opposite of what we want.

This doesn’t mean to stay away from cardio entirely. Doing a cardio routine 1-3 times a week, especially if you enjoy it, is great for your health. Similarly, always try to get in those 7500 steps per day as part of having an active lifestyle. Just be sure cardio is not your main focus.

Measuring Progress with Meaning

You’ve likely spent many years of your life measuring progress by a decreasing number on the scale. When you are trying to tone up however, numbers no longer are a reliable metric for success. This is because a lower number doesn’t necessarily mean a leaner body. 

When working on body recomposition, there are other, more meaningful, ways to measure your progress:

  • Take waistline circumference measurements
  • Assess the fit of your clothing
  • Take side by side progress pictures

To push yourself a little further, try asking yourself about fitness.  Are you able to lift weight with more reps? With more weight?  

(For a more in depth explanation of progress measures, see my article “Numbers Lie,” here.)

All of these together are going to give you a snapshot of your achievements. Keep track and watch yourself get strong!

Commit to Change: Commit to You

To truly change your physique, you need to focus on eating more food rather than less, and building lean muscle. 

If you want to give this plan a try, you need to be ready to commit for 3 to 6 months of deliberate and steady work. This gives your body enough time to adapt, build muscle, and build strength without causing unnecessary injury or strain.

Don’t do this haphazardly, don’t do it for a couple weeks and then jump back to cardio.  Cardio’s not going anywhere!  

I know it’s hard to fight the urge to measure gains by a lower body weight, but I promise you, getting rid of the Skinny Fat look is not a numbers game. Instead, care for your body, make a commitment to yourself, and then make a plan to get toned, tight, eat more food, and build muscle. 

While it may be unexpected, this is the cure you’ve been seeking all along.

Muscle Building 101: How to cure skinny fat

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