Skinny With Low Body Fat but no abs

If you’re a skinny guy but cannot see your abs—the good news is that you can fix it. You may even be as skinny as I was, and wondering “why can I see my ribs but not my abs?

You can build up a fearsome, masculine body with a shredded core and visible six-pack.

The only thing is—you got your work cut out for you. Let’s take a look at what’s going first, then the roadmap to fixing it.

Why are my ribs showing?

Your ribs are showing because you’re likely underweight in terms of BMI—like I was.

In the top photo of this article (taken for a photography class assignment), I was 21 years old, 6’0 feet tall (183cm in height), and yet I only weighed 130 pounds (59kg).

If you look at the chart below, you can see that’s in the underweight category for BMI. This means I was in a category of bodyweight likely to have health problems due to low weight.

BMI Chart from CDC & WHO Guidelines
BMI Chart—Guidelines from the CDC & WHO with updated data from a 2010 NIH Study

And that was true for me as well—I did have health problems. I got into lifting weights because of my crippling chronic tendonitis (also known as tendinosis) and I was missing a patch of hair in my beard (alopecia.)

The reason I couldn’t see abs is because even though I was dangerously underweight, I still had belly fat. This kind of fat is especially bad because of what it signals about your health. 

From the Mayo Clinic page “Belly fat in men: Why weight loss matters“:

The trouble with belly fat is that it’s not limited to the extra layer of padding located just below the skin (subcutaneous fat). It also includes visceral fat — which lies deep inside your abdomen, surrounding your internal organs.

Regardless of your overall weight, having a large amount of belly fat increases your risk of:

—Cardiovascular disease
—Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
—Colorectal cancer
—Sleep apnea
—Premature death from any cause
—High blood pressure

That’s spot on. But I want to clarify one thing. It’s not the belly-fat that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, but rather that belly-fat is a visible sign of likely having bad cardiovascular health.

Belly-fat is a sign of living a “sedentary” (not-active) lifestyle that causes chronic inflammation from not moving enough. That inflammation stores body fat around the belly.

In my case, I was glued to a computer chair starting from the age of 14 (running a video-game website with my team. Then I went to university to get my degree in design (design thinking, research in design, communication design, etc.) so I spent every waking moment either sitting in class or sitting on my computer.

If I can see my ribs, am I too skinny?

I would wager that you’re too skinny—yes. In my experience, when I could see my abs, I was clinically underweight. Take a look at your weight and your height and see what your BMI is. You may need to clean up your diet and exercise more to build some muscle.

Should you be able to see your ribs?

In my opinion, no. I was suffering from many health issues from being clinically underweight. I am much happier and more energetic after improving my diet and lifting weights and gaining some healthy amounts of muscle. I can no longer see my ribs and I’m in a much better spot in terms of health, energy, mentality, etc.

Skinny with no abs—I can’t lose more weight

In the Mayo Clinic article, it talks about the critical importance for men with belly fat to focus on losing weight.

This is because the majority of people in North America, and much of the Western world, is struggling with obesity. They’re carrying too much fat everywhere, so weight loss would help them improve their health.

The problem is that if you’re like me, someone with low bodyfat, you don’t have any more weight to lose.

I was already dangerously underweight, so I couldn’t focus on weight-loss.

The solution would have to be another approach—one that matched my extremely skinny body-type (sometimes called skinny-fat.)

How to fix being skinny With Visible Ribs

I got into this situation of being super low body-fat but with belly-fat by:

  • Being inactive and living a sedentary lifestyle, sitting indoors all day.
  • Never challenging my muscles with resistance, so my muscles didn’t need to grow big and strong.
  • Not knowing anything about nutrition. I was consuming tons of processed garbage like cookies, chips, and Coca-Cola, which stores preferentially as belly-fat.

The solution that worked for me:

  • Lifting weights 3x a week. Lifting weights activates “muscle-protein synthesis,” the process of sending protein to your muscles to build them up.
  • Walking thirty minutes outside in the sunshine to the gym (and back.) When I first was fixing this problem, I was training at my university gym, and while it was free, it wasn’t exactly close. This meant that I was now walking 3 hours outside in the sunshine each week.
  • Eating lots of meat and vegetables with my diet made up of least 80% whole food (20% discretionary / junk.) The funny thing is that even though I had belly-fat, I was eating more food, like lean meats, and getting bigger and leaner because now I was exercising. Real food contained the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fibre, and a million other good things that lowered my inflammation, and helped me feel amazing.

The Lean to Mean Experiment—gaining muscle fast as a skinny guy

In May 2010, my business partner and I decided to do an experiment together to stop being skinny, which we called Lean to Mean.

I ended up overhauling my diet, lifting weights and walking a lot more, and I ended up gaining 22 pounds in just 30 days.

I gained 4.75 inches on my shoulders, too.

I no longer had visible ribs with super low body-fat with no abs. My ribs were now covered more with muscles, and my abs and obliques got way bigger and stronger.

After three months of heavy bulking, I now had a healthy BMI. My weight gain was not 100% lean mass, and so I wanted to burn off a few pounds of fat while holding onto my new muscle. I was still lifting 3x a week, walking to the gym, and then added in some HIIT (high-intensity interval training) running outside in the sun. I dropped a few pounds and now had visible abs in just four months.

The Gameplan

  • Eat 0.8g of protein per body weight pound every single day.  If you weigh 130 pounds, then you should aim for 105g of protein each day. It’s best when your protein is spread out across a few meals. Eating this much protein will help you rapidly build muscle mass. This will make you bigger and stronger without just getting fatter. If you’re skinny, the chances are that you’ve got a small stomach and appetite, so you may need to try and eat some meat or bone broth for every meal.
  • Do resistance training 3x a week. Bodyweight training is free and may be “heavy” enough for you to start. There are a couple of downsides to bodyweight training though. The first is that it’s painful from the burn. It’s much easier to do a dumbbell bench press with the appropriate weight for six reps than it is to do 20 push-ups. The second reason is that you will need weights not too long into training to keep progressing. So many people choose to lift weights right away. Either way, we have a free bodyweight workout that will help with building muscle and fixing up posture. Or you can buy a comprehensive system (check out our programs here.)
  • Go for a walk every day outside in the sun. Let’s be clear, sitting isn’t bad in and of itself—but always sitting is. The CDC says that we need to walk at least 22 minutes uninterrupted each day. You could try aiming for an ambitious 10,000 steps a day if you want even more rapid results. 10,000 isn’t a magical number, but it’s in the healthy range of movement. If the idea of walking sounds boring, but you’re up for bulking, keep in mind that walking more is a key way to prevent fat gain as you gain weight. A $20 pedometre (step counter) is all you need to get started, and it will help you reduce inflammation and burn your belly-fat. If you don’t like the idea of walking outside for whatever reason, you should know about the benefits. Bright light has been found to help with improving cardio health (study) meaning your dangerous belly fat would be burnt off faster, and you’d get all the benefits of vitamin D production (studyarticle).

If you want to do some more reading, check out these articles for a few more ideas: