How to Go From Skinny Fat to Lean

Skinny fat is quite possibly the most frustrating body composition that there is. I’m not trying to compare it with being heavily overweight or underweight because they each have their own challenges and pain points but frustrating is definitely the right word to associate with skinny fat individuals. 

This is because to the untrained eye, or when fully clothed an individual might actually look to be in good shape and health. It’s only when your top comes off that the deception is real and even though you appeared to be skinny or lean before, the truth is that you seem to be carrying a lot of body fat. 

Skinny fat is even worse because it’s hard to convince yourself that you are not actually in good shape when your weight and clothing sizes seem to say otherwise. 

The truth however, is that if you are what is considered to be skinny fat then you can drastically change your body composition without any drastic changes to your actual weight. 

How to go from skinny fat to lean? To go from skinny fat to lean you will need to lose body fat and get your body fat percentage to 10%-12%. You would also need to build some muscle mass in the process because skinny fat is a combination of a high body fat percentage and low level of muscle mass. 

Most people that are skinny fat are beginners and the reassuring thing to note is that the journey from skinny fat to lean is not a long one, being heavily overweight is often significantly more challenging and therefore I’m going to lay out a quick fire strategy in this article to take you from skinny fat to lean. 

What Is Skinny Fat

Skinny fat is not an over complicated term despite the fact that it sounds like two opposing things, much like saying someone is a tall short person. It’s of course a confusing term but there is some reasoning to why it is called skinny fat. 

Skinny fat basically means that someone of average weight (for their height, age, gender or some other combination of factors) has a high body fat percentage whilst simultaneously having a low level of muscle mass. 

Those that are simply skinny, ectomorphs or hardgainers will have a low level of muscle mass but also a relatively low body fat percentage. Someone that is skinny fat will therefore have similar characteristics but the key differentiation is that they will also have a high body fat percentage. 

Both factors are key contributors to someone that is considered skinny fat, as skinny fat person is also not necessarily unhealthy or unfit, they simply have a body composition that is not desirable from an aesthetic standpoint. 

In recent years the ‘dad bod’ has become synonymous with a skinny fat person. The dad bod is basically an older man that carries some body fat but too look at you wouldn’t necessarily consider them to be fat. 

This is a result of a low level of muscle mass and excess calories that are often from excessive alcohol intake alongside takeaways and fast food. This is a serious generalization and on only really specific to the dad bod craze but it was just to give another example of a skinny fat individual. 

What Causes Skinny Fat

Skinny fat is caused by low levels of muscle mass and a higher percentage of body fat. Not everyone is naturally blessed with good genetics in terms of having a naturally higher amount of muscle mass. 

how to go from skinny fat to lean

I can very much relate to this, while I’ve never been skinny fat you can clearly see from this picture that my transformation was from a very bony frame to just adding lean muscle mass. Therefore not everyone that has low levels of muscle mass can expect to see themselves become a skinny fat individual. 

If that’s the case then what actually causes skinny fat?

Well, skinny fat is a relatively new term that has been coined over the last 20-30 years and has come about as a result of a changing lifestyle for many in the developed world. If you are reading this then you can count yourself firmly in that percentage. 

Advancements in technology, food convenience and ‘desk jobs’ has meant that more and more people are living sedentary lives. Sure there is now more access to gyms, sports teams and leisure activities but that does not mean that everyone is making use of them. 

In the past humans were hunter gatherers and would be active for large parts of the day and would not have an excess amount of calories available so you rarely see renditions of ancestors which you would consider to be fat. 

Today however, you can sit at your desk for 8 hours only taking a break to go to the shop across the road to get a ready made meal that is likely high in calories with a poor macronutrient density. Again I’m generalizing this a bit but I can guarantee you can picture the sort of person that I’m referring to.

This is a cause of growing obesity but also a cause of skinny fat. Those that start putting on body fat and have low activity levels and muscle mass will find that they will quickly and gradually start to get a skinny fat body. 

This is a purely personal opinion and not research backed but to me it’s clear that a sedentary lifestyle in today’s society is a sure way to go about going from average to skinny fat and then from skinny fat to obesity.

It’s not too drastic of a change to go from one level to the next in today’s society and if you are reading this you are likely already aware that this is the current case for you personally! 

The reassuring news as mentioned earlier is that it’s not too difficult a process to reverse the skinny fat process and improve your body composition in the short term.

How to Go From Skinny Fat to Lean

To go from skinny fat to lean you must already be leading a very inactive, sedentary lifestyle and engage in little to no physical activity or resistance training. 

If you did then it would need to be very low impact and intensity because as a beginner you have the potential to build up to and around 25lbs of lean muscle mass within your first year of training. If you put 25lbs of muscle mass on any human frame there will be a noticeable difference in appearance. 

This of course only relates to those that are lifting weights but to have and maintain a low level of muscle mass then you must be leading a somewhat inactive lifestyle. 

It doesn’t take a year to change your position from skinny fat to lean so don’t read that and become instantly disheartened, hopefully you read that and it’s the first step to you picturing what an additional 25lbs of muscle mass would look like on your frame!

Building muscle will be just one part of this process though and you can expect to build 5lbs-10lbs of lean muscle mass when initially looking to change your body composition from skinny fat to lean. Still that’s a very noticeable amount of muscle for most people. 

What will really be transformative will be lowering your body fat percentage. In fact, the only time I would advise someone not to lose body fat when starting out is if you already have a low body fat percentage combined with a low level of muscle mass. In this case a bulk and muscle building phase would be the go to plan. 

For most people their body composition issues are usually related to having too much body fat, it’s a very common issue in today’s society and doesn’t really show any immediate signs of getting much better.

Therefore to go from skinny fat to lean you will need to reduce your body fat percentage to around 10% and start lifting weights in order to build some muscle mass. 

Should You Bulk or Cut If Skinny Fat

I’ve created a very in depth article on whether you should bulk or cut if skinny fat here but for the specific purpose of this article you should go on a cut and consume a calorie deficit. 

The transformation for a skinny fat person is no different to someone that is looking to lose body fat in general, the main difference that I would point out is that you will be following a weight training program that focuses on getting stronger through progressive overload. 

This may seem counter intuitive, usually on a cut and calorie deficit people will experience a decrease in strength but it’s important to note that this is usually true of intermediate and advanced level lifters. 

As a beginner, your potential is less capped by calories consumed because the loads you can handle are much lower. Therefore it’s very much possible for a beginner (skinny fat individual) to build muscle while losing body fat at the same time. 

Can You Body Recomp If Skinny Fat

That final paragraph on the above section basically describes a body recomposition phase and this is the phase I’d recommend a skinny fat person take to get leaner and improve their overall body composition. 

It essentially involves following a muscle building training program whilst also consuming a calorie deficit. I’ll be honest and say there is no program that is dedicated towards a skinny fat person (if there is then it’s a marketing ploy) because the aim is simply to build muscle. 

Therefore you can either check out my list of the best workouts for an ectomorph which focus on building muscle for a naturally skinny guy or use a popular website like T-Nation or Bodybuilding.com to find a beginner program.

That really is the simple part, as a beginner if you pick a program, follow 100% and look to get stronger every single workout then it’s a guarantee that you will build muscle. People will often sell advanced techniques and methods that cause people to jump to and from programs without ever seeing any real progress. 

If you pick a plan and stick to it for 3-6 months whilst progressively getting stronger each week then you will build muscle which is why this is the simple part in theory and why I’m not recommending a specific program. 

The hard part will of course be the dieting phase so I’ll give a quick rundown on how you should look to go from skinny fat to lean from the dieting perspective. 

Know Your Maintenance Calorie Requirements

This is likely the most important factor in your journey to getting lean, if you don’t know how any calories you need to consume to maintain weight then it will be difficult, if not impossible to know how many calories you need to consume to lose weight. 

Being skinny fat might give you the opinion that you don’t overeat but the issue is that you are likely overeating in comparison to your current activity level and energy expenditure. 

To find your maintenance calorie requirements use this calorie calculator to give you a good estimate. My maintenance calories at 6’1, 180lbs in weight are 2,997kcal per day according to that calculator, I have my own personal one which gives pretty much the same reading under the Harris-Benedict formula. 

Unless you pay for a professional dexa scan you don’t really have much chance of getting a 100% accurate reading so these calculators that give a best estimate do a good enough job. 

As you can see 2,997kcals is quite a high intake just to maintain weight but it would not be surprising if you are already consuming this or more despite the fact that you won’t have the same activity level and energy requirements for your level of muscle mass. 

Keep the Calorie Deficit Below 500kcal

One you have your maintenance calorie requirements then the next step is to decide on your deficit, a good rate of fat loss is roughly 1lb per week or 0.7%-1% of your total body mass. For myself at 180lbs this would be a rate of 1.2lb – 1.8lbs per week depending on how aggressively I cut. 

I would personally take a less aggressive approach to look to maintain muscle mass but as long as you stick with the 0.7%-1% guideline then you will lose body fat at a consistent pace whilst also being able to facilitate muscle growth.

It takes roughly a deficit of 3,800kcals to lose 1lb of body fat which is just over a 500kcal deficit per day, therefore I’d use this as an upper limit target when deciding on your deficit. Start out with a 300kcal deficit and see how your body responds over the course of a week. 

Again using myself to demonstrate, I’d need 2,997kcals to maintain weight so with a calorie deficit of 300kcal to start off with I’d be looking to consume 2,697kcals per day. 

Keep Protein Intake High

Finally, when going from skinny fat to lean you will want to keep protein intake high in order to not only facilitate muscle recovery from weight training but also to facilitate new muscle growth. 

You should look to consume roughly 1g of protein per 1lb of body weight so at 180lbs (myself), I’d look to consume 180g of protein as a minimum each day. 

Protein is crucial for not only maintaining lean muscle mass on a cut but also for supporting the growth of muscle tissue

Again I don’t want to complicate it because the journey from skinny fat to lean is less complicated than what you might think, therefore set a protein target at 1g per 1lb of body weight and stick to it. 

Summary

I’ve been very careful not to give any exact plans or supposed fast track methods for how you can go from skinny fat to lean and that is because the information is already out there in abundance (hence my numerous linking to other sources). 

Instead I wanted to demonstrate that skinny fat is caused by two issues that are easily fixed in the short term. Despite the fact that you have a high body fat percentage it’s only high relative to your weight, a lot of people have a high body fat percentage whilst also having a lot of fat mass in general. 

You can also build muscle at a steady pace of 0.5lbs per week as a beginner so in 12 – 24 weeks you could comfortably achieve your goal of being lean by following a set weight training plan focusing on progressive overload and consuming a calorie deficit.

What Next

If you are looking to make changes to your physique by either losing body fat, building muscle or looking to maintain a lean physique then sign up to my weekly newsletter below. Each week I send out actionable tips to help you lose that extra 1lb of fat or build that extra 0.5lb of muscle mass on a weekly basis. 

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