Skinny fat should you bulk or cut? Before you start a bulking phase to build muscle you need to be starting from an ideal body fat percentage. If you are considered to be skinny fat then you first need to cut down to a body fat percentage of 10% – 12% before you start a bulk and muscle building phase.
It’s amazing how many people are either bulking when they should be cutting or cutting when they should be bulking.
This will come down to personal goals and characteristics of the individual but there should always come a time when you critically analyse your physique and make a reasonable judgement as to what course you should take with a diet.
The reason I feel strongly about this is because the human body is an amazing machine that can run optimally depending on a goal and how you approach it. I’ve recently seen comments and questions from people asking whether they should bulk at body fat percentages as high as 24%!
As a beginner I can appreciate that this is a genuine question when there is so much opinion on the internet these days but sometimes you need to take a step back and take a critical viewpoint and if you are carrying a significant amount of body fat then you need to take your body recomposition steps methodically.
One category of person that is in the murky gray area when it comes to physique development is the skinny fat individual.
What Is Skinny Fat
The term skinny fat is an oxymoron. Skinny fat defines someone that has typical characteristics of being a skinny person, ie low muscle mass, visibly skinny arms and when clothed you would be of the assumption that this person has very low body fat.
The opposite however is true, this person may have low levels of muscle mass, may have skinny arms and when clothed may look like they have a low level of body fat however in actuality they are concealing a great amount of body fat around the midsection.
A skinny fat person is therefore someone who looks skinny to the casual observer but they are really carrying a high (relatively high but not in the region of being considered obese) body fat level.
The deception comes from really the way humans store body fat. For males in particular there is a genetic predisposition to store body fat around the midsection, primarily the stomach/abdomen, lower back and hips.
This level of fat storage when combined with a lack of overall muscle mass is what causes the unique look that we’ve come to know as skinny fat.
Why Am I Skinny but Have a Belly
Skinny fat is a surprisingly common body type in modern society due to a more sedentary lifestyle combined with the evolution of highly processed food groups high in simple sugars and saturated fats.
That sounds like a bitter statement but my work is 75% office based and I’ve noticed personally that my posture, activity level and even metabolism has taken a hit due to the lifestyle so it’s not a rant on my part, more of an astute observation that I can actually relate to.
I touched on it earlier but the midsection is an area where the majority of males will store the majority of their body fat when they are between the 12% – 16% range. This will vary for every to a degree but once you go up towards the 20% body fat range then excess fat is stored all over.
When you are naturally skinny and first start to gain weight and store excess body fat (usually from the early-mid 20’s onwards) then the midsection is the first place that you will notice it and this is the development of a belly.
Now like I say, if you are already skinny then early on the rest of your body will still have comparatively low levels of body fat and the distribution is off. This is when you will start to notice that you are what is termed skinny fat.
Skinny Fat Should You Bulk or Cut
Once you get to the skinny fat level then one of two things will happen. The first is that you do not take action and will gradually gain more body fat over time.
I didn’t actually mention this earlier but the only reason that you have developed a belly in the first place will be due to a calorie surplus combined with a minimal amount of energy expenditure. Your weight, body fat levels and body composition as a whole will only change once your energy balance changes from day to day.
What I mean by this is that many people might go from school and university leading and active life and holding down a part time job that is quite active (hospitality, retail etc..) to then getting a career that is more of a desk job and sedentary by nature.
This is a big generalization but chances are that this is exactly the situation you have found yourself in. Instead of guessing your current lifestyle however, it’s easier to explain the root cause.
As soon as your calorie intake surpasses your energy expenditure then you will start to metabolise and store these excess calories as body fat.
Just to put it out there, weight training will increase the demand for muscle glycogen in the muscle (energy storage created by absorbing and metabolising carbohydrates) so if you go into a calorie surplus and hit the gym you’ll start to look physically better.
Besides from that unique example, a calorie surplus in most will start to be stored as body fat, therefore if you are skinny fat it should be easy to pinpoint the time this weight gain starts because it would have tied in with a lifestyle factor change.
If you have become conscious of this new look and want to change it then naturally you are going to look to turn to exercise and dieting in order to improve your health and physique and after a few google searches you will now be faced with the decision of should you bulk or cut.
What Is a Bulk
A bulk involves consuming a calorie surplus with the sole intent of gaining more muscle mass, for some this will mean increasing size in general as well through water retention and cell swelling but this is for the very skinny individuals that are subconscious about their size.
For the majority however, the sole purpose of a bulk is to have a surplus of calories available so as to facilitate muscle growth.
There are a few ways that you can go about a bulking phase and I’ve covered a lot of individual methods in previous articles:
The scope of how to approach a bulk is too large to cram into this article however it’s important to note that you can’t start a bulking phase from a high body fat percentage.
It doesn’t matter how minimal your lean muscle mass is, the higher the body fat percentage the less optimal your nutrient partitioning will be. What this means is your surplus of calories are more likely to be stored as body fat than they are to be utilized by your muscles.
There will always be exceptions but you really need to start a bulk from a body fat level where your metabolism and nutrient partitioning are running optimally.
What is a Cut
In contrast, a cut involves consuming a calorie deficit with the sole intent of losing body fat. For most the focus should be on losing body fat whilst still maintaining muscle mass for the duration of the cut.
It’s pointless from a physique perspective in pursuing fat loss aggressively if you lose muscle mass and overall aesthetics in the process.
As someone falling under the category of skinny fat however, you will already have low levels of muscle mass and for that reason I would definitely recommend pursuing a more aggressive approach to cutting in order to burn body fat at a quicker rate.
Besides someone well in excess of a body fat percentage of >20% this is the only other time when I would say that you can get away with a more aggressive cut.
If you are considering when is best to start a cut then similar to the bulking phase you can check out my more in depth guide here:
Skinny Fat, Bulk or Cut?
When skinny fat you should start with a cutting phase 90% of the time. It’s easy to argue that increasing your energy expenditure when lifting weights will burn fat and help to build muscle in the process however the same is true when cutting.
When increasing calories on a bulk you will kickstart your metabolism and start the fat burning process and for beginners it is very much possible to build muscle and burn body fat at the same time.
The only reason that I am against this approach is that people starting out do not understand the importance of tracking macros or at least following a set meal plan that has your meals and calories set out.
For this single reason I believe more inefficiencies will come from bulking without the correct knowledge base to do so. Cutting on the other hand is a set goal that will get you into the habit and lifestyle of not only working out but also in manipulating calorie intake.
Calorie intake is the key to body composition regardless of what your goal is and going through a cutting phase when skinny fat will give you a better foundation from which to build a physique moving forward.
Cardio or Weights When Skinny Fat?
Getting your calories in line when skinny fat should be your main priority, going on a cut and having a deficit of around 300kcals per day is a great starting point however what most will be most eager to jump into is the cardio and weights when skinny fat.
A cutting diet will mean your focus automatically shifts to upping (or in most cases starting) your cardio routines. This is of course needed to up your energy expenditure and prompt the fat burning process however it should be done alongside a weight training plan.
Weight lifting alone will also up your energy expenditure for the day however what it will do is also increase the body’s demand for the nutrients that you consume. You will need protein to repair and grow muscle tissue and carbohydrates to fuel your workouts and replenish your muscles energy stores which are known as muscle glycogen.
With this increased demand you will be better utilizing calories and storing less as body fat whilst still going through the fat burning process during a cut. This is very short term as eventually you will need more calories to support this process, you can’t function at that level in a calorie deficit.
Therefore you should look to include weight training between 3-4 days per week as someone that is skinny fat. In terms of cardio look to incorporate 4-5 days per week of low intensity steady state cardio sessions or 2-3 high intensity interval training sessions.
It’s also worth tracking your steps as this is easy to monitor and manipulate for energy expenditure purposes. If you need to up your energy expenditure instead of cutting calories further then increasing your daily step count is a great way to do this and more easily adhered to.
Also check out this bulking and cutting guide for skinny fat guys
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