Being skinny fat is one of the more confusing problems in fitness. The reason is that, if you are skinny fat, the world doesn’t see you as fat. They see you as skinny because that’s what you look like with your clothes on. Even most fitness professionals you try to seek advice from will probably give you off the cuff advice without really thinking about it. Such advice would most likely be “lift weights and eat as much as humanly possible.” Here they get half the answer right: lifting weights will create the hormonal response necessary to begin building muscle mass to get you out of skinny. On the other hand, eating everything in sight will likely just add to your fat mass, and even decrease your potential for building muscle!
***PICTURE CREDIT: SkinnyFatTransformation.com
Let’s dissect the problem to find out exactly what I’m talking about.
What is the Definition of Skinny Fat?
There is actually a scientifically defined term for skinny fat. A metabolically obese normal weight (MONW) individual is a person with a normal weight and BMI, but who displays characteristics of metabolic disorder, including higher bodyfat percentage, insulin resistance, higher blood lipid counts, and a lower capacity for endurance (Vo2 max). , Additionally, people with this condition will have an abnormal distribution of fat around the visceral area (midsection) compared to the rest of the body. As such, individuals with this body type are at risk for many of the same conditions as metabolically obese overweight individuals, including pre-diabetes, diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.
So in simple terms, a skinny fat person is a person who is at normal or underweight for his or her frame (BMI), with a bodyfat percentage of 22% or more. I did not come to 22% arbitrarily. 21% is the threshold for being above average bodyfat in men ages 18-30 according to the Jackson and Pollock scale.
There are two important take aways from this definition:
- Whether you are 150lbs or 300lbs, being metabolically obese can and will cause adverse health effects. This problem goes far beyond vanity, which makes the goal of improved body composition very vital for a person’s well being.
- Second, while skinny fat people exhibit normal BMI, the pathway to positive body composition change will be very much the same as that of an overweight person because these conditions are caused by the same metabolic factors.
So What are the Solutions?
I’m going to break this down into three simple steps:
- Increase Physical Activity
If you are skinny fat, most fitness professionals are going to tell you not to do cardio and to avoid unnecessary physical activity. This, in my opinion, is really bad advice both for your health and to get you out of the skinny fat syndrome.
Remember, if we get back to the base of the problem, your major problem is not that you are skinny. Your major problem is that you have a high body fat percentage compared to that of your lean mass. As such, the problem is really not the number of calories you are eating, it is how your body is using them. The key here is in doing everything you possibly can to increase your insulin sensitivity.
One factor that can and will make you insulin resistant is lack of physical movement. An extensive body of research demonstrates that sitting for extended periods of time (two hours or more) has a seriously negative impact on metabolism. Research also shows that sitting will destroy your health even if you work out regularly.
It sounds counter intuitive, but if you want to stop being skinny fat, then the most simple thing you can do is avoid sitting and move.
- Rather than sitting for hours at a time during work hours, either invest in a standing desk or get up every 30-60 minutes and perform a set of 20-30 air squats or pushups.
- On your lunch break, take a ten to fifteen minute walk after eating.
- Work cardio into your routine. Your fat mass is the enemy and it will not help you to “look bigger or more muscular.” Performing three or four 30 minute cardio sessions per week will help increase insulin sensitivity, and in turn, will help you build muscle.
- Lift Heavy Weights
This is one most of you guys are going to agree with me on. If you want to stop being skinny fat, you need to lift weights. The biggest factor here is again insulin sensitivity. Research demonstrates that lifting weights will decrease insulin resistance. Lifting weights, in essence, will help your body shuttle more nutrients to your muscle cells, rather than your fat cells. An added benefit, and one you are probably already aware of, is that lifting weights will also positively effect your testosterone levels.
There are a lot of arguments as to what the best resistance training protocol is to increase hormonal response. Here are my tips:
- During your training session, work up to at least 60% of your single repetition max on your main movements and perform no less than 5 repetitions with it. Research demonstrates that there is no real difference between 5 or 12 repetitions, but the threshold to get a good hormonal response from training appears to be this 60% of your 1RM.
- Keep the rest periods to under a minute. Research has demonstrated that rest periods under a minute create a more significant hormonal response to resistance training than longer rest.
- Decrease Glycemic Load Through Diet
Most trainers and fitness personalities are going to tell you to load up the carbs as high as possible. Here, my advice diverges from the masses severely. Again, if you are skinny fat, the problem is likely insulin resistance. The worse thing you could possible do to yourself would be to load up on carbohydrate.
Many would say that low carbs are necessary for building muscle. Researchers from the University of Connecticut tested this theory by giving subjects either a low carbohydrate/high fat diet or a high carbohydrate/low fat diet. What they found was that the low carb group actually doubled the muscle gain of the high carbohydrate group. Additionally, research also demonstrates that ketogenic diets are beneficial for reducing the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
While everyone else in the world will tell you to eat as many carbs as you can fit in your mouth, my advice is this: moderate your carbs to under 50-100 grams per day so that they comprise less than 10% of your total caloric intake. Get 60% of your calories from fats like egg yolks, butter, coconut oil, and grassfed beef. Finally, keep your protein intake to around 30% of your total calories. A diet like this will increase your insulin sensitivity by switching your body from burning sugars to burning fat from your fat stores.
- Cut your carbs and raise your fat levels
- Eat meat, whole eggs, grassfed butter, coconut oil, nuts, olive oil, green vegetables, and moderate amounts of fruit.
- Avoid juice, soda, bread, pasta, pancakes, baked goods, and more than ½ cup of rice or 4 oz potatoes a day.
There are plenty of people out there who would disagree with what I just wrote. I’m not saying that I am God when it comes to fitness, but there’s many people in the fitness industry who just simply preach the status quo without doing any of their own research. All of my points here are referenced, and I encourage you to check my research and to challenge me on anything you see here. Email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Ruderman et al. 1998. The metabolically obese, normal weight individual revisited. Diabetes. 47(5), 699-713
 Cones et al. 2007. Characteristics of metabolically obese normal-weight (MONW) subjects. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 32(1), 4-12.
 Teixeira et al. 2015. Main characteristics of metabolically obese normal weight and metabolically healthy obese phenotypes. Nutrition Reviews. 73(3), 175-190.
 Dunstan et al. 2012Breaking Up Prolonged Sitting Reduces Postprandial Glucose and Insulin Responses. Diabetes Care. 35(5), 976-83.
 Biswas et al. 2015. Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. 162(2), 123-32.
 Pollock, M. L., Franklin, B. A., Balady, G. J., Chaitman, B. L., Fleg, J. L., Fletcher, B., Limacher, M., Pina, I. L., Stein, R. A., Williams, M, and Bazarre, T. (2001). Resistance exercise in individuals with and without cardiovascular disease: Benefits, rationale, safety, and prescription. Circulation, 101, 828-833.
 Shakeri et al. 2012. The effect of different types of exercise on the testosterone/cortisol ratioin untrained young males. Annals of Biological Research. 3(3), 1452-1460.
 Kumar et al. Age-related differences in the dose-response relationship of muscle protein synthesis to resistance exercise in young and old men. The Journal of Physiology. 587(1), 211-17.
 Kraemer, W.J., Marchitelli, L., Gordon, S.E., Harman, E., Dziados, J.E., Mello, R., Frykman, P., McCurry, D., and Fleck, S.J. (1990). Hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise protocols. Journal of Applied Physiology. 69(4):1442-1450.
 Volek et al. 2002. Body composition and hormonal responses to a carbohydrate-restricted diet. Metabolism. 51(7), 864-70
 Volek et al. 2007. Low-carbohydrate nutrition and metabolism. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 86(2), 276-84.