Being skinny-fat sucks... I'm speaking from personal experience here.
I remember looking in the mirror and just feeling... shapeless.
I didn't look obese. But I also didn't look or feel lean, strong, or defined.
Really, my body just felt soft and Gumby-esque.
I was skinny-fat... not the look I was going for at the start of my diet.
Maybe you're in a similar place to where I was. Maybe you're struggling to help clients escape the Gumby Body.
Either way, this is your step-by-step guide to escaping skinny-fat.
How Skinny-Fat Happens
A large chunk of the women and men I coach online start online coaching because they realize something needs to change to finally beat skinny-fat.
If you're in this situation, it's highly likely you took one of two paths to get here:
1. You've always been skinny fat. Despite your best attempts with your nutrition and training, you can't seem to get the lean, strong body you want.
2. You've lost a lot of weight. You've likely lost 25lbs+. You expected to look lean and defined at this weight... but instead, you just look shapeless. (Been there.)
Regardless of where you're coming from, I've found that most people who get skinny-fat are usually following a very similar training and nutrition protocol.
Let's dive into the mistakes you're making, and how we'll change your nutrition and training strategies within coaching to help you create the leanest, strongest, and most confident version of yourself.
1. Lack Of Protein
If you're skinny-fat right now, it's pretty likely you're under-consuming protein.
This is a problem when it comes to building a lean, strong body for a few reasons:
→ Protein is the building block of lean, defined muscle - Without adequate protein, what you do in the gym will burn calories, but you won't be able to actually build lean muscle until you increase protein intake.
While I think we're pretty much past the stigma that building lean muscle makes you look "bulky"... you have to realize that adding a bit of lean muscle is what makes you look defined and strong, instead of just skinny. While much of increasing lean muscle and strength will come from the periodized training program you'll be following during your time coaching, protein is just to important to neglect here.
→ Protein burns lots of calories during digestion - 20-35% of the calories you consume via protein are actually burned off during digestion (the thermic effect of food). This is much higher than the other macronutrients - meaning even if you keep calories the same, simply increasing the amount of those calories that come from protein equates to you burning more calories daily.
By shifting your macros to include more protein, we're increasing your metabolism - leading to a leaner body for you.
→ Protein is much harder for your body to store as fat - Remember a few years ago, when everyone was telling you the key to getting lean was eating a bunch of “negative calorie foods”?
“Just eat lots of celery - it’s a negative calorie food!”
Yeahhh... we're still waiting for the success stories from that diet.
So while eating a bit more celery probably isn’t going to transform your body, protein does seem to be the closest thing we have to a food you can eat an abnormal amount of without gaining fat.
It seems protein is less likely to be stored as body fat than fat or carbs - even if you're eating more calories due to increased protein.
This study took 48 randomized, resistance-trained men and women and had them either:
a.) Consume 1.36g/lb+ of protein daily
b.) Maintain current dietary habits
Both groups did this for eight weeks while undergoing a standardized resistance training program designed to increase lean body mass.
"Compared to the control group, the high-protein group consumed significantly more calories (+ 490 kcal) and protein (3.4 vs. 2.3 g/kg) from primarily whey protein shakes, leading to a diet that was 39% protein, 27% fat, and 34% carbohydrate. Both groups significantly increased FFM (muscle mass) and significantly reduced FM (body fat) compared to baseline, but the reduction in FM (body fat) was significantly greater in the high-protein group compared to the control group (−1.6 vs. −0.3 kg). Accordingly, body weight gain was also significantly less in the high-protein group compared to the control group." (1)
The high-protein group ate ~490 calories more than the lower protein group, and lost more fat.
→ Protein is the most filling macronutrient - Lean protein is the most filling food. Since escaping skinny fat requires both building muscle and losing fat, this also means you'll be dealing with some hunger (as losing fat requires a calorie deficit). Within your nutrition, our focus on driving up your protein will serve you well here. Not only does it help manage your hunger, but pushing up your protein actually keeps you full, and helps prevent any overeating that could lead to fat gain.
2. Lack Of Consistency With Nutrition
The second mistake you're probably making?
Lack of consistency with your nutrition.
Most new nutrition and training clients who've been struggling with skinny-fat have a vague idea of what their "diet structure" is. Something like:
"I eat healthy... for the most part. Sometimes I don't do so great on the weekends, with a cheat day or two. I can't say I have a specific macro or calorie goal."
The reality is, to get you specific results, we need to give you a specific prescription.
Especially when it comes to nutrition, doing things at random will never get you the results you want - which is exactly why having a nutrition coach is so invaluable.
You'll very likely be tracking macros in our time working together. Since you are chasing a very specific result here (losing body fat and building muscle simultaneously), we also need to get very specific with your nutrition - this makes macros the best fit here.
A macro goal also allows us to ensure that your calories align with your goals. While we focus on much more than just calories in-calories out within nutrition coaching, we can't ignore the laws of energy balance when it comes to shifting your body composition.
3. Fear/Avoidance Of Carbs
Carbs have been demonized (unfairly) more than any other macro.
Anectdotally, most people struggling with skinny-fat also have a serious case of carb-phobia.
A few problems here:
→ You're likely replacing carbs with more calorie-dense fats - New clients who have bought into the idea that carbs are "bad", have also typically been over-sold on the idea of healthy fats.
Don't get me wrong, adequate fat is important to health. But, fat also has 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram.
So, when you actively avoid carbs, you're typically replacing them with an excess of calorie-dense fats.
This makes eating more calories than you burn in a day much easier, and leads to fat gain for many.
→ Carbs are your body's preferred fuel source - On our mission to help you beat skinny-fat, building lean muscle and strength is vital.
Thing is - if you're depriving your body of its favorite fuel source, your training performance will suffer, and you won't progress like you could with the training program we create for you.
More intensity in the gym (thanks to carbs) also means you'll be burning more calories, helping you lean out quicker.
→ Carbs aid your recovery - We need you pushing hard in the gym and recovering outside of the gym to actually build a lean, strong body.
Carbs help your case a lot here, decreasing cortisol, increasing insulin, and creating a better recovery environment.
→ Fibrous carbs are the second most filling food - Next to lean protein, high-fiber carbs are the second most filling food. Similar to protein, prioritizing filling foods prevents overeating.
See now why a diet low on both protein and fibrous carbs would be a problem for your physique? You're missing the two most filling foods. This means you're much less full, and likely to overeat more often.
One of the biggest things I do as a nutrition coach is educate you on how to get more nutrients and satiety of your food choices. It's much more than telling you "Do ___ to achieve ___", it's actually educating you on how to change behaviors.
Educating you is key to creating results that you sustain for a lifetime.
Got all that?
Here's the strategy we'll use to help you create a body that looks and feels lean and strong.
→ Set your overall calories specific to your individual needs - Before setting your macros, we need to establish a calorie goal that aligns with your specific needs.
If you have a decent amount of fat to lose: We want you in a reasonably-sized deficit. If you're like most, online coaching will be the first time you've had your training and nutrition absolutely dialed, with smart, individualized strategies for both. This means you'll likely be able to shed fat and increase lean muscle simultaneously.
↑ If this is you, set calories 10-20% below maintenance calories. (Check out THIS BLOG to calculate your calories.)
If you're pretty damn skinny: We mostly just need to focus on helping you add some lean muscle to look and feel strong and defined. A slight calorie surplus will be more conducive to your progress.
That said, we still need to be careful here, as we want to avoid excess fat gain in the process.
↑ If this is you, set calories 5% above maintenance calories. (Check out THIS BLOG to calculate your calories.)
→ Drive protein up to 1-1.2g/lb body weight - Now that we have your calorie goal established, our priority is increasing your protein. For most new clients, this involves lots of education on how to fit more protein into your diet.
→ Set fat at .3-.4g/lb body weight, fill the rest of you calories with carbs - Like we talked about, carbs will help your transformation a lot. We're setting fats at the dosage you need for health, and then driving carbs as high as possible within your calories to maximize your training and recovery.
→ Give you tons of accountability to sticking to this structure daily - Just as important as everything else we've talked about. Every single nutrition and training client gets daily accountability, because without consistency, you won't get the results you want.
This is why so many people have such crazy transformations after hiring a coach - they're the most consistent they've ever been in their lives. Extreme consistency paired with a well-structured nutrition and training protocol is key to creating the absolute leanest, strongest, and most confident version of yourself you've ever seen.
Within online coaching, we always focus on nutrition first.
This is because you nutrition needs to be very individualized to help you achieve the results you want. Plus, if you're like most, you've been very mislead on what your nutrition needs to look like to sustain a lean, strong body. I've found educating you on how to manage your nutrition is the most empowering thing I can do to help you create a better version of yourself that you can sustain for the rest of your life.
All that said, what you do in the gym is still crazy important for escaping skinny-fat. To build a lean, strong body, you can't neglect your training.
Here are common training mistakes that lead to skinny-fat, and your plan to remedy them:
→ If you've found yourself stuck in skinny-fat land, your training has likely been characterized by primarily focusing on burning calories and "feeling the burn" - The most common mistake I see with most people's training in general.
- Lots of bootcamp classes
- Circuit-style training, with very short or no rest periods and lighter weights.
- Focus on isolation exercises in the gym that burn, but don't allow you to move much weight.
- Lots of HIIT cardio, lots of MISS cardio (usually running), or a combination of both.
Most people who get skinny-fat focus on burning calories in the gym instead of getting stronger.
Regardless of how much you crush yourself in the gym, you just don't burn that many calories in the gym. Generally, calories burned through exercise accounts for a measly 5-7% of your total daily calorie burn.
So yeah... pretty damn hard to "burn it off".
Workouts designed to burn calories aren't doing much for your fat loss... and they're also not very effective for building lean muscle or strength (we'll talk about why in a second).
You know that saying about sporks?
...They're not really a good spoon OR fork?
Same concept applies here.
Basically, you're spending a lot of time in the gym spinning your wheels.
→ No structure to training - Structure is always crazy important to building the body you want. Your training program is no exception.
Do you go to the gym without a plan?
Or bounce around from class to class?
↑ Truth is, this is a terrible way to train if you're chasing a leaner, stronger body.
We've already established that training to build strength and lean muscle is essential to escaping skinny-fat. You build lean muscle and strength through progressive overload: gradually increasing the stress placed on the body during training.
Overload can be accomplished in many ways:
- Doing more reps with the same weight as last week.
- Doing the same weight for more reps than last week.
- Lifting the same weight as last week, but faster.
- Lifting the same weight and reps, but with shorter rest periods.
... we could do this all day. Really there are tons of different options that allow you to create overload.
One strategy that is not conducive to progressive overload?
Constantly switching it up.
Doing different movements every week ensures you'll never master the skill of any one movement.
Before you can actually overload a movement, you first have to be competent at the skill. Often the first couple weeks of "getting stronger" at a movement aren't actually you building strength or lean muscle - it's simply your body and brain improving at the skill of the movement.
After this primary skill acquisition phase, you'll start seeing actual strength and lean muscle improvements. You need multiple weeks to practice a movement, and keep pushing for overload to actually change your body.
Basically: The most surefire way to increase lean muscle and strength is to focus on getting stronger at compound movements in the 5-15 rep range. This takes consistently focusing on training movements and movement patterns for a long time - NOT constantly doing things at random.
Many group exercise classes are also based on the flawed logic of focusing on burning lots of calories, and random programming to "shock the body" weekly.
This is exactly why following a well-structured training program with built-in progressions like my online clients get will make such a drastic difference in your physique.
Now, I'm not saying you need to stick to the exact same movements for years on end. Your body does adapt, and benefits from change from time to time. But the more technical a movement is, the less frequently we want to change it.
For example, in your training program, variation would probably look something like this:
Least variation: Squat and deadlift variations. These take the most skill to master. Constantly switching them up means we're always just trying to master the skill, instead of actually getting stronger at them. Weekly progressions are still built in here (e.g. drop two reps, increase load from last week), and rep ranges are altered monthly, but movements stay the same for several months on end.
Moderate variation: Presses, pulls, lunges, most hinges. These don't take as much skill to master and still get a solid training effect from. To keep your program fun and engaging, we'll often change these monthly. We're still focusing on movement patterns, but changing the variation (e.g. changing from a Barbell Romanian Deadlift to a Single Leg Romanian Deadlift).
Most variation: Isolation exercises. The reality is, something like a bicep curl doesn't take much skill - most everyone can feel their bicep working immediately. With isolation exercises, we have a lot more room for variation, and can change these up a lot if needed. That said, I still prefer to program these in four week blocks within your program to ensure you're focusing on overload.
→ Lack of effective reps - The closer a rep is to failure, the more muscle fibers you recruit and fatigue.
Therefore, the closer a rep is to failure, the more it does to disrupt homeostasis and create lean muscle growth. This means that the last few reps of a set before failure are the ones you get the most out of.
This also means that it's all too easy to do lots of high rep, light weight sets that "burn", but do very little to actually change your body, due to lack of effective reps.
The "effective reps" zone is thought to be in the 4-1 reps from failure range. Reaching this range on the majority of your training sets is crucial to building a leaner, stronger body. It also helps explain why doing mostly body weight and band exercises is a largely inneffective strategy for changing your body - you rarely (if ever) reach the effective reps zone.
Understanding this concept simplifies your training a lot. You can change your body using a wide variety of different rep ranges - the reps don't matter near as much as you'd think they would.
What does matter is that you hit the "effective reps" range consistently.
This is something I have my online clients focus on a lot - every training program I write has a recommended proximity to failure for every single exercise. This allows me to help you regulate your training intensity and make sure your progress is optimal, even though we're not working together in person.
The sweet spot for effective reps is thought to be stopping a set with 1-2 reps left in the tank (training to failure constantly creates too much stress for your body to recover from).
From anecdotal experience, new clients struggling with escaping skinny-fat are typically short on effective reps within their training.
Time to educate you on how to apply all of this into a cohesive training strategy that'll help you create your leanest, strongest body ever.
→ First and foremost, I'd highly recommend working with a coach if you've been struggling with skinny-fat for a long time - Individualized coaching with an emphasis on education is a very powerful thing. My clients get such amazing results because everything they do with their nutrition and training is fit specifically to their goals and lifestyles.
The strong focus on educating you means you'll have the knowledge to sustain the results you achieve for a lifetime - it's crazy empowering.
→ Training Split: Upper/Lower 4x/Week - The fact that you're struggling with skinny-fat tells us that you don't need a ton of training volume to build a much leaner, stronger body. You don't need to train more than four times per week.
Typically, I love programming an upper/lower split for clients struggling with skinny-fat. It's almost always the perfect amount of training volume. Now that you're following a well-structured, periodized plan you're progressing quickly in the gym. The total volume you're pushing is probably higher than you're used to, which also creates faster fat loss.
That said, we're not hitting your body with so much stress that you can't recover and actually regress (we're walking a line here).
→ 70% of training volume is focused on the Foundational Movement Patterns - Any time you recieve a training program from me, it will always be built around these six Foundational Movement Patterns:
Training each of these ensures:
You’ve trained your entire body — The dope thing is, as long as you train all these movement patterns, you’ve also trained every major muscle group in your body. So you’ll want to hit all of the movement patterns at least once weekly.
You build a body that looks good AND moves well — These are also the movement patterns that you use most in your daily life. Training and strengthening these patterns means fewer aches and pains outside of the gym.⠀You’ll move like an athlete, not an overmuscled bodybuilder.
Your workouts are geared towards maximum efficiency — You don’t have hours to spend in the gym isolating each muscle group.
Training these movement patterns essentially means incorporating lots of compound lifts. These work multiple muscle groups and joints at the same time. You get a lot more “bang for your buck” out of each set.
The beauty of this approach is, you have freedom to find the movements that work best for YOU and your goals. There are dozens of different exercises that work the same pattern, so you’re able to plug in the ones that work for your anatomy and injury history.
To gain a deeper understanding of how I make this work within your training program, I highly recommend you check out The Movement Hierarchy.
→ 70%+ Of sets are in the 5-15 rep range - Like we talked about, rep ranges aren't nearly as important as achieving effective reps. That said, working primarily in the 5-15 rep range is typically the most time efficient way to be sure most of your sets are effective.
Training below this range doesn't create adequate time-under-tension to build lean, defined muscle.
Training above this range is just unnecessarily painful, and more increases the odds of sloppy form. Ever tried a set of thirty (ending one rep shy of failure)? Yeah, not fun.
→ Majority of sets completed 1-3 reps shy of failure - Again, we have to push you to the effective reps range to create the lean, strong body you want.
→ Cardio is kept to 1-2 session per week - Cardio does help increase calorie burn. But, like we talked about, you won't be able to "burn it off". Most of your time is best spent focusing on your nutrition and lifting weights - this will create much more visual change in your body than endless cardio.
Focus on consistently hitting 8,000-10,000 steps daily. Outside of this, keep cardio to 1-2 sessions per week, at a total of 60 minutes or less.
And that's the strategy I'd take you through as a coaching client to escape skinny-fat once and for all.
It doesn't take tons of HIIT, or starvation diets.
It just takes consistency with a smart nutrition and training strategy, along with lots of education.
↑THAT is how we empower you to maintain a leaner, stronger, and more confident version of yourself long-term.