Skip to content

Skinny Fat – What is It and How to Fix It

Kim: [00:00:00] Welcome to episode 67 of the Fitness Simplified podcast. I’m your host, Kim Schlag. On today’s solo episode I am tackling the subject of “skinny fat.” What is it, and how can you handle this situation? 
[00:00:18] If you are somebody who feels that they are skinny fat, it is possible you are approaching this in a way that is actually counterproductive. So, I’m going to walk you through four steps you can take to get rid of skinny fat. Let’s go.
[00:00:38] I’m feeling the energy today, my friend. I am well caffeinated, which doesn’t happen often. I just discovered that my intolerance to caffeine that appeared last year appears to be going away. I’m only 48 hours into it, so we’ll see. 
[00:00:55] One of the things that can happen with perimenopause is that you can develop an intolerance to caffeine, which makes you have bathroom-type sickness. And so that was now working in my life, so I cut caffeine out, which meant that my favorite daily pre-workout — and even not pre workout — just once a day caffeinated hot chocolate had to be a thing of the past. I decided to try it out yesterday, just little mini dose, just a little bit. It’s all good.
[00:01:22] Tried it again this morning, still feeling good. Hopefully I’ll make it through this recording without anything happening because I just finished drinking it. 
[00:01:32] Today’s topic also has me jazzed up. We are talking about “skinny fat,” what it is and what to do about it. I know not everyone will approve of the name, skinny fat, but it’s a pretty apt descriptor.
[00:01:47] I am working with several clients right now who fit this bill. They are fairly lean already, they look good in their clothes, but without them they appear soft and lacking in shape and definition. If this sounds like you, then you fit this description of skinny fat. These are not derogatory terms. These are literally descriptors.
[00:02:09] And today we’re going to talk about how one gets from skinny fat to a lean, mean, toned machine and what probably caused you to be skinny fat in the first place. 
[00:02:22] Skinny fat is a result of having not much muscle and more than desired body fat. So even though you could be a relatively small person, if you don’t have much muscle and you have more body fat, you will have this resulting look of “I’m soft. I’m not defined.”
[00:02:42] Often people who fit this description laser focus on losing the body fat, right? They’re like, “Ooh, I don’t like the way I look. I think that the answer lies in weight loss.” Most women think that the answer to whatever is going on with their body shape is always fat loss and they chase after their fat loss goal with a combination of 1) calorie restriction, with the calories being quite low in this case because people who are skinny fat are not large people in the first place, and 2) cardio and usually a lot of it. 
[00:03:18] And interestingly, this plan can exacerbate the issue as the excessively low calories and high amount of cardio in combination with a lack of appropriate emphasis on protein and strength training means that the person loses muscle, which is the exact opposite of what they need. 
[00:03:39] So what’s the solution then? 
[00:03:41] Flipping the script to focus instead of on fat loss to a focus on body recomposition, which is when you both gain muscle and reduce body fat. Here are the four steps to accomplish that. I’m going to list them all briefly first, and then we’ll take a deep dive into each of them.
[00:04:02] So, #1 is training, with a main focus on progressive strength training using largely compound moves. I’m going to explain what all of that means in normal words in just a second after I lay out the other steps. 
[00:04:17] So step #2: a nutrition plan that has you eating around maintenance calories. So, this is not going to be a deficit plan. 
[00:04:26] Part #3: nutrition plan that includes sufficient protein. 
[00:04:31] And part #4 is less emphasis on cardio. 
[00:04:35] Note that I didn’t say “totally avoid cardio” — though you could — we’re just going to say less emphasis on cardio. 
[00:04:42] So let’s look at each of these four parts. We’re going to start with the training part. This is going to be the bulk of our discussion today. This is where your main focus. This is going to be. 
[00:04:54] You’re going to work on a progressive strength training program using the largely compound moves. You’ve got to lift some weight and not in a willy-nilly, tried that body pump class here and then that Beachbody program there, followed by a few swipe workouts kind of way.
[00:05:14] To build muscle, which is what you’re lacking if you’re skinny fat, you will need more than what I just described. And let’s be clear that the toned look you’re after is largely dependent on you nailing the muscle building part of the equation. You’ve been hammering away at the fat loss piece, or you’re just naturally fairly lean, let’s turn your focus to building muscle with the assurance you will not turn into The Rock. 
[00:05:40] Muscle building is a slow, deliberate process. There is absolutely, without a doubt, a genetic component with some people, including some women, being able to put on muscle more easily than others. But even in those cases, muscle is a deliberate, consistent work and it does not suddenly appear.
[00:06:02] At any point that you feel you have built the maximum amount of muscle that you would like, you can adjust your training and nutrition to maintain it instead of building more. For most of us too much muscle will literally never be the problem. So how should you train? I’m going to hit on three important variables here.
[00:06:24] The first being the focus on compound moves. These are multi-joint exercises that use a lot of muscle. I’m talking about variations of squats, deadlifts, lunges, upper body pushes — both horizontal and vertical — so things like bench press, chest press military press, pushups; and then upper body pulling movements. Again, both horizontal and vertical. These include all of your row variations, pull-ups, and pull downs. 
[00:06:56] The bulk of your workouts should be made up of those exercises I just mentioned and their many, many, many, variations. A much smaller percentage of your workout can be isolation exercises. Things such as triceps extensions, and biceps curls, and leg lifts.
[00:07:12] Many women have that equation totally flipped with the majority of their training being isolation exercises, while including relatively few compound exercises. 
[00:07:24] The second important factor with regard to training is about how you perform these exercises. They need to be performed with intensity and progression. What this means, I’m going to give you a little illustration here, so if you always do 10 reps of reverse lunges, for example, with 5-pound dumbbells, you will not cause your body to have a reason to adapt. But if you progress that lunge by doing the same 10 reps, but now using 10 pounds instead of 5 pounds, and then another time doing 10 reps with 12 pounds, and then maybe you drop the reps to only 8 reps, but now you use 20-pound dumbbells. And then you work your way up to doing 10 reps at 20-pound dumbbells and then 10 reps at 25-pound dumbbells. That is what progression is and that is what will cause your body to adapt. You’re telling it, “Hey, I’m lifting more heavy stuff here. I need more muscle.” 
[00:08:25] So keep your focus in the gym squarely on getting stronger. Really pay attention to the reps given in your training plan.
[00:08:35] For example, if it calls for 10 reps, that doesn’t mean do 10 and then stop because you hit the number written on the paper. It means do 10 with reps 9 and 10 being incredibly challenging. You can get through rep 10 with great form, but you definitely couldn’t do more than 1, maybe 2 more. And you want to bring that intensity to every rep of every set.
[00:09:04] So, it’s not just about doing the number on the paper, it’s about how you feel doing them. How hard is it to do those reps? 
[00:09:12] Now the third factor when it comes to training for overcoming skinny fat — and honestly just good training, generally — don’t chase variety. I hear from a lot of women that they like to “switch things up” so they don’t get bored.
[00:09:26] And it is important to enjoy your training. That will keep you consistent and consistency is everything. But here’s the thing I want to remind you; I want you to remind yourself of this if you start getting bored: you know what’s not boring? Results. Results are freaking exciting. 
[00:09:44] If you have been trying workouts in this kind of “switch things up, do something different all the time,” kind of way, and not seeing results, you wait until you do this with progression and you stay with the same training plan for four to six weeks at a time so you can progress as I described, you will see results and there is nothing more exciting than that. Remind yourself of that. 
[00:10:06] Now, if you still want more variety, a great place to add a bit in is with finishers.
[00:10:12] These are short circuits at the end of a few training sessions per week. These can be strength, cardio, or mobility based. You can do them for time, as in set the clock for six minutes and do as many rounds as possible, or you can do a set number of rounds, like do five rounds of these three exercises as fast as possible.
[00:10:33] I send these kinds of finishes out in my emails regularly, so make sure you get on my email list. You can find it at kimschlagfitness.com on the page marked “email,” and you just sign up there and you’ll get my emails. And like I said, I send out finishers regularly and I’ll put that in the show notes.
[00:10:51] So, finishers are a great way to keep a little more variety in your training program while you focus on progressing across weeks with your regular training plan. 
[00:11:01] Now, all that we’ve discussed so far is just part one — and it’s before the longest part, the rest don’t require quite so much dialogue. 
[00:11:10] Part two, of your “Conquer Skinny Fat” program is a nutrition plan that has you eating around maintenance calories.
[00:11:18] If you’ve been tracking calories in your deficit, you’re going to start with where you’re at with those calories and you can move to maintenance by reversing over a period of weeks. Try adding in a hundred calories three days per week, and do that again every few weeks, watching the scale over time. When it evens out around the same number, instead of continuing to decline over time, you will know you’re at maintenance. 
[00:11:46] Remember the scale will always fluctuate just like you were in a deficit — the scale was down some days and spiking others. That will continue to happen in maintenance. Our bodies are largely water and for many reasons how much water we have in us at one time changes and the scale fluctuations reflect that change. 
[00:12:05] Expect it. Weigh daily and watch the trend month to month.
[00:12:11] Now, if you haven’t been tracking consistently, you can use a formula to estimate your maintenance calories. Multiply your body weight times 14 — your body weight in pounds times 14 — that is your starting daily maintenance calorie amount. 
[00:12:29] Be consistent with those calories for four weeks, weighing daily and watching the trend. Adjust calories up as needed if you’re continuing to see the trend in the scale going down, because that would indicate that you’re still in a deficit. So, you can adjust up a little bit at a time, as I discussed previously. 
[00:12:48] Now, the next piece of the nutrition puzzle is protein. This is a super straightforward calculation: multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.8 and multiply your body weight in pounds by 1.0.
[00:13:01] That’s your protein target. 
[00:13:03] So if, for example, you’re 125 pounds and you multiply that by 0.8, that’s 100 grams of protein daily. Then multiply your weight of 125 pounds by 1.0, that’s 125 grams of protein daily. So, your goal is to eat between 100 and 125 grams of protein daily, in this example. 
[00:13:25] Protein is the building block of muscle. Eat your protein, ladies. 
[00:13:30] If you haven’t been eating nearly this amount, which many, many of you probably have not, stick to the bottom end of your range at the start. In this example, that was 100. Divide that number, your total daily protein, by the number of meals and snacks you eat. So, if, for example, this person who’s supposed to get 100 grams of protein, eats three meals and a snack every day, that’s 4. Divide 100 by 4 to get 25 grams of protein at each meal. Approaching it this way makes it much more manageable. That’s like three eggs and some egg whites in your breakfast omelet, a scoop of protein powder with your snack, a little bit over a cup of Greek yogurt with your lunch and a lit
tle bit more than 4 ounces of rotisserie chicken at dinner.

[00:14:17] So base each meal around protein, and you will be able to hit that target. And do this in advance, don’t do it as you go. Plan this out either the night before or the morning of and then just follow your plan. 
[00:14:30] Moving on to the last element of your “Conquering Skinny Fat” plan: cardio. 
[00:14:36] It is honestly not a huge part of the plan.
[00:14:40] You can still do some. If you enjoy running or taking a spin class, by all means, do a few short runs or one spin class per week. It’s likely going to take some mental work to switch from a massive focus on cardio to one on strength training. Push through that. 
[00:15:01] Now this doesn’t mean you can’t do any cardio. Keep moving, okay? Just because we’re focusing on strength during doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be moving. Keep moving. It’s healthy for you. 7,500 steps daily has been shown to reduce all-cause mortality and your health is number one. Don’t let anyone convince you that any cardio you do will take away all your gains.
[00:15:23] It’s a matter of degrees. You should not be hammering away at cardio an hour a day — or more — that is going to impede your progress and keep your focus away from where it needs to be, which is on muscle-building. But a few times per week is fine. Keep strength training your focus and sprinkle in cardio if you want to, keeping your daily movement up around 7,500 steps for overall health.
[00:15:48] Now, the final topic that I want to drive home: you likely have measured fitness progress by watching that number on the scale go down. That won’t work now. Progress is a huge motivator, so measuring your progress appropriately is key to your ultimate success. 
[00:16:05] The three pillars of progress monitoring — other than the scale — are progress pictures, front, back, and both sides, head to toe. Get your whole body in that shot. Same lighting, same clothes, same pose, wearing his little clothing as possible. Preferably either a two-piece bathing suit or a sports bra and shorts or sports bra and underwear. 
[00:16:33] Make side-by-sides. I use the app “Pic Stitch” to create the side-by-sides for my clients each month. It is incredible. 
[00:16:41] If you just look at a picture of yourself, you might look at it and be like, “I don’t see any difference.” If you put it side by side with your original picture from month one and then look at that picture from each side, you will be able to see the differences that are there.
[00:16:54] Number two is the fit of your clothes — real clothes. With a waistband. That means get out of your standard COVID wardrobe and put on a pair of jeans or a skirt and then do that at least monthly, put that same item of clothing back on every two weeks, every month, notice changes in the fit of your clothes.
[00:17:15] And then the last pillar is measurements. 
[00:17:17] One time per month: chest, smallest part of your waist, at your belly button, around the largest part of your butt, around the widest part of your right thigh, and around the widest part of your right bicep when it is unflexed. Do that monthly. 
[00:17:38] All of that together is going to be able to give you a total picture of what your results are in combination with this question: 
[00:17:46] “Am I getting stronger in the gym?” 
[00:17:49] Keep your focus on that as well. 
[00:17:51] I know it can be hard to consider doing things differently, but let me ask you this: how long have you been doing the, “slash your calories, up your cardio” plan and not getting the results you want? Do you really think the answer lies in yet lower calories and more hours of cardio?
[00:18:10] How low will you take your calories? How far will you run? 
[00:18:15] Give this plan I outlined here your all-out effort for three months. You can always go back to a deficit and more cardio, right? They’re not going anywhere. You can always go back. Three months, give this plan a really consistent try. 
[00:18:29] Don’t do it haphazardly, don’t do it for a week or two and then go back to your cardio and then come back to this. It won’t work. Stick with this for three months. Tag me in your Instagram stories to keep me up to date on how it’s going. You’re going to get some amazing, amazing results.
[00:18:57] Thanks so much for being here and listening in to Fitness Simplified podcast today. I hope you found it educational, motivational, inspirational, all the kinds of -ational. 
[00:19:08] If you enjoyed it, if you found value in it, it would mean so much to me if you would go ahead and leave a rating and review on whatever platform you are listening to this on. It really does help to get this podcast to other people.
[00:19:22] Thanks so much.