Am I skinny fat?

Am I skinny fat?

Skinny fat means having a body that has low levels of muscle mass (skinny) while also having a high level of body fat (fat.) Put them together, and you have the skinny-fat body.

The problem with the definition is that it’s fairly vague. But after nearly 10,000 ectomorphic men and women have joined our coaching communities as clients, we’ve noticed that many people often identify themselves as skinny fat when:

  • Someone looks skinny in a t-shirt (arms don’t fill it out), but their stomach may press against tightly on the shirt. In other words, their belly fills out your shirt sooner than their arms do.
  • They wonder why they’re skinny everywhere except their belly (the dreaded skinny-fat belly.)
  • They say they’re definitely not overweight, they might be normal in terms of BMI, but they feel too fat.

We’ve tried to make a more concrete definition by using average sizes (to see if they’re skinny), markers of good strength, and body fat levels that are overweight.

Men—Skinny-fat test

  • Below average arm-size: Under 13″ (33cm).
  • Low level of strength: can’t bench 185 pounds (84kg).
  • 20%+ body fat percentage

Women—Skinny-fat test

  • Below average thigh-size: Under 20″ (51cm).
  • Low level of strength: can’t Goblet squat 50 pounds (22kg)
  • 29%+ body fat percentage

The skinny-fat belly—some have it, some don’t

Some skinny-fat people are active and have good posture. They stand tall and don’t have much of a pot-belly. But they still have high levels of regular fat (subcutaneous fat) and low levels of muscle. An example of this might be a vegan jogger. They eat low levels of protein (low muscle mass), the foods they do eat have a high energy-to-protein ratio (adding to fat mass) and avoid resistance training like lifting weights (low muscle mass.)

Some skinny-fat people are more sedentary (under 7,500 daily steps), and they often sit more during the day. Their posture adapts to sitting, and their hips tilt forward (called anterior pelvic tilt.) To maintain balance, their head will jut forward, often causing neck strain and headaches (this is called forward head syndrome). Their shoulders also round forward, making it harder for them to get their arms overhead. When they stand, their belly sticks out due to posture. The downside of sitting more is fat begins to store more at the belly. We’re not sure if this is due to hormone issues or blood flow issues from sitting, but the fat begins to acclimate at the belly. This is called stubborn belly fat, and it’s much harder to burn than regular fat (subcutaneous.)

Skinny-Fat Belly Postural
Anterior pelvic tilt versus “neutral” and proper posture. Illustration credit Bony to Beastly, The Skinny on Abs

Skinny-Fat Celebrity Body Examples

We think Jason Segel and Leonardo Dicaprio are good examples of skinny-fat bodies. They’re marked by both low levels of muscle mass and higher levels of body fat.

Skinny fat celebrities from Hollywood


What should I do next if I’m skinny-fat?

Skinny-fat people will need to:

  • fix their skinniness by increasing their muscle mass.
  • fix the high levels of regular body fat by burning it off (subcutaneous fat).
  • if they have stubborn belly-fat (includes visceral fat), they’ll need to burn that off too.

To accomplish this, they’ll need to:

  • Get into a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit is when you’re consuming less energy than you’re burning off. This will help to burn regular fat (the subcutaneous kind).
  • Increase their protein intake. When eating at a calorie deficit, it’s easy to lose a lot of muscle strength. Skinny-fat people don’t have much muscle to lose, so they’ll need to eat more protein. (Protein powder can be helpful, but it won’t make you feel as full as eating meat.)
  • Do resistance training, like lifting weights to increase muscle mass. When eating at a calorie deficit, it’s very easy to lose muscle if you’re not working out. If you’re lifting weights, that tells your body to keep the muscle as it’s needed. Then, with a good program, enough protein, etc. you can actually build new muscle despite eating in a calorie deficit—this is called body recomposition. Skinny fat people may want to see our workout article specific to their body type. For example, they may want to work out more often with shorter workouts to improve the nutrient partitioning of the food you eat (less gets stored as fat), and you’ll get better gains even though many skinny-fat people have poor rep capacity. (Shorter workouts keep your reps high-quality.)
  • Go for a daily walk outdoors to build their fitness to melt off stubborn belly fat. Stubborn belly fat, which includes visceral fat under the abs, doesn’t respond well to eating less food. It’s a problem caused by being too sedentary and inactive. The good news is that it does burn off through aerobic work—without even getting into a calorie deficit! So if you have a belly, you’ll need to develop your aerobic foundation. We coach our clients to focus on being able to walk enough first before doing any jogging or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). For example, getting to 7,500 daily steps, and once that feels easy, getting to 10,000 daily steps.
  • Get more sunshine to allow their hormones to work properly. Sunshine lowers blood pressure, makes it easier to work out, improves mitochondrial health, vitamin D is correlated with higher testosterone levels (healthy hormones), melatonin (hormone at night to burn fat), POMC, (appetite and body weight set point regulation), etc. This is why we advocate doing the daily steps outdoors (and you get the bonus of fresh air and antioxidants from nature.) Ditch the sunglasses and sunscreen and if you’re pale, ease yourself into the sunshine and/or walk mostly in the early morning and late day at first to get used to it.
  • Get enough high-quality sleep to allow their hormones to work properly. Good sleep becomes even more critical during a calorie deficit to burn more fat while still building muscle. Poor sleep is associated with losing more muscle and holding onto fat while in a calorie deficit.

If you’d like to learn more, see our other articles and join our free skinny-fat newsletter course below:

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