Skinny-fat guys are in a tough spot. They want to be bigger so they aren’t skinny anymore—so they should bulk, right?
But they’re sort of fat, too—so they should cut to get lean, right? (Cutting means to burn fat while trying to hold onto your muscle.)
Here’s the answer, totally specific to their situation:
They should be cutting—getting into a calorie deficit—to get leaner. But they can build muscle at the same time if they lift weights and eat enough protein every single day.
Yeah, the covetous position of building muscle and getting leaner at the same time. How can skinny-fat guys do this when almost no one else can?
- Because they’re skinny, they are far from their genetic potential, and their body is practically begging for them to build muscle.
- Because they’re fat, they already have tons of accessible energy to build muscle with. In fact, this is the reason why lean people bulk because they consistently need a lot of extra energy to build muscle.
So with all that said, where does intermittent fasting fit in for the skinny-fat guy?
Skinny-fat guys and Intermittent Fasting
Well, the main advantage of intermittent fasting is:
- get into a calorie deficit without trying. One study inadvertently showed this benefit when researchers told study participants to do intermittent fasting but to eat enough not to lose weight. But those in the study couldn’t eat enough in only 8 hours, making them lose weight without trying.
- helping people deal with hunger while cutting. This 2015 review showed that those on intermittent fasting were better at dealing with their hunger.
It’s not easy to get into a calorie deficit to lose weight. Usually, it requires tracking what you eat with a food log, which is why MyFitnessPal, a digital food tracking app is so popular. So intermittent fasting makes this incredibly easy.
Second, it’s hard to deal with hunger when you’re losing weight. Your body is continually reminding you to eat. It’s hard to focus at work, you start to get moody at your loved ones, and people are eating great snacks around you at work and home.
But with intermittent fasting, you likely won’t need to track calories to get into a calorie deficit, and you can eat big, tasty, and satisfying meals.
Example: 16/8 intermittent fast as a skinny-fat guy
In the most typical version of intermittent fasting, the 16/8 version, where you fast for 16 hours and only eat for 8 hours, almost everybody cuts out breakfast. They’d eat from 12:00 pm to 8 pm. That means your lunch, dinner, and snacks in your 8-hour feeding window can be much bigger.
For example, let’s say you eat 2,200 calories daily. You want to be eating a calorie deficit around 1,800 to start losing weight. If you eat four meals a day, that might mean eating 450 calories per meal for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and one snack. It’s not a ton of food per meal. It’d be very easy to overshoot one of them.
But if you cut out breakfast by doing intermittent fasting, suddenly you’ve just freed up another 450 calories to spread out across your day, such as having an extra large dinner with your family. Imagine finishing a huge dinner, totally stuffed and feeling great, while still losing weight!
Obviously, some people who are excellent bingers can break the main benefit of intermittent fasting, and get into calorie maintenance (or possibly even gain weight.) But most people will do great with it and find themselves naturally getting into a calorie deficit.
Skinny-fat guys could give intermittent fasting a shot
We’d suggest skinny-fat guys give intermittent fasting a try. Just keep in mind though that intermittent fasting isn’t magic. You can get the same results eating with a regular meal pattern and tracking your calories, lifting weights, and eating enough protein. All it does is help to simplify calorie intake and hunger.
And for some people, intermittent fasting might even complicate things. For example, if you work an extremely stressful job, not eating breakfast is probably going to backfire on you. (But then again, cutting and losing weight in itself is always going to be a bit stressful.) Those people with stressful jobs might do better with a weekly 24-hour fast, so they can perform well at work, while still getting into a calorie deficit from the whole day fast on a low-key day.
Intermittent fasting won’t fix a bad diet or workout program
Skinny-fat guys can’t just skip breakfast and expect to become leaner and more muscular. If they do this, they’ll likely just lose weight due to the calorie deficit, meaning they’ll lose both fat and muscle. So they’ll become even skinnier and weaker. If this happens, they become at risk of becoming even fatter as their body rebounds in weight to reclaim it’s health (through a slowed metabolism and increased appetite, 2020 study).
They can avoid losing muscle and even build some but they’ll need to:
- Lift weights a few times a week. Lifting weights causes muscle protein synthesis, which is where the protein you eat will be direct to go to your muscles to help make them bigger and stronger. (Check out our free beginner’s bodyweight workout here or our paid True Gains nutrition/lifting program.)
- Eat 1g of protein every single day. You need to eat protein to live, as it makes up your cells, skin, hair, organs, and even brain chemicals. But to build new muscle, you’ll need to eat so much protein that you’ll be eating above and beyond what you need to live. Your body can maximize muscle protein synthesis when you eat at least 30g of protein every 3–5 hours.
A huge downside of intermittent fasting we rarely see mentioned—and the fix
Intermittent fasting is especially great for average and overweight guys who have lots of muscle already. They don’t need to focus on retaining their muscle as much. If they lose a few pounds of muscle, no big deal.
But skinny-fat guys are different. Not only do they have no extra muscle to spare, they need to build lots of new muscle too.
So when you do the typical 16/8 intermittent fast, you cut out breakfast, allowing you to get into a deficit. But you’ve also cut out one session of muscle protein synthesis during breakfast. As we know, one study showed that maximizing MPS can increase muscle gains by 25% (study), so this isn’t something we can afford to miss out on.
Secondly, eating less meals makes our protein efficiency worse. In a 2015 study comparing eating 2 meals a day to 6 meals a day while in a calorie deficit with the same amount of protein, those eating 2 meals a day lost more lean mass. So eating more total protein will be necessary when eating less frequently.
But there’s an easy fix. Because there doesn’t seem to be anything magical happening from intermittent fasting except controlling calories, we can have a lean protein powder source with water during the “fast.”
You shouldn’t lose any of the benefits of IF by doing this while reaping some benefits of another session of muscle protein synthesis. I use a whey isolate protein powder, which is 93% pure protein, and mix it with water and have that for “breakfast.” That way I’m still getting into a calorie deficit naturally, while still giving my body lots of protein evenly spaced throughout the day.
Skinny-fat guys won’t want to do intermittent fasting forever
Eventually, once you shed your skinny-fat label, maybe you lose 15 pounds of fat and gain 15 pounds of lean mass, maybe now you’re looking lean and fit… but still a bit small. You want to gain weight and get bigger without getting fatter.
Well, now you’re in the perfect position to do a lean bulk. Trying to gain weight while doing intermittent fasting is like shooting yourself in the foot. You can read a great article about intermittent fasting and bulking on Bony to Beastly. But, because gaining weight will mean getting into a calorie surplus, and the main benefit of intermittent fasting is getting a calorie deficit, they are conflicting goals.
- Skinny-fat guys should focus on getting into a calorie deficit because they can get leaner and build muscle at the same time (like we teach in our True Gains program.)
- Intermittent fasting is a great tool to get into a calorie deficit without tracking calories.
- Intermittent fasting can help you manage the feelings of hunger while being in a calorie deficit.
- Intermittent fasting allows you to eat large meals with family and friends, and not just avoid getting fatter, but actively burn it! (unless you’re in the minority and are exceptionally skilled at binging.)
- One downside of intermittent fasting, a missed muscle protein synthesis opportunity, can be fixed by having a lean protein powder with water as you fast.
- Another downside is less meal frequency means you might need to eat more total protein to counteract the inefficiency of eating less often.
- Once you’re no longer skinny-fat and are now leaner and stronger, if you want to continue to get bigger, you should look into doing a lean bulk because the benefits of naturally limiting calories through intermittent fasting will now be the opposite of what you want.
If you want to learn more about intermittent fasting, be sure to check out our super-guide on IF here.