A skinny fat woman has a body that is characterized by both low levels of muscle mass (skinny) and a higher level of body fat. Some skinny women might have too much fat on the legs and butt. On top of that, some women may feel that, despite being skinny, the fat may be only hanging around their stomach—causing love handles, lower back fat, and a potbelly. This is what we call the dreaded skinny-fat pot belly. (Not all skinny-fat women get this, but it’s very common.)
Am I a skinny-fat?
The term skinny-fat is vague, and so without a concrete definition, it’s hard to say precisely what is and what isn’t skinny-fat. So we’ve come up with a simple test to see what we define as skinny-fat.
The skinny-fat test for women:
- Below average thigh-size: Under 20″ (51cm).
- Low level of strength: can’t Goblet squat 50 pounds (22kg)
- 29%+ body fat percentage
Often these women find themselves in the “normal” BMI range for their height and weight, but they also feel that they’re too fat. Because they’re skinny, they weigh less, putting them in the normal category, even though they’re suffering from higher levels of fat (and the associations that go along with that.)
Female Skinny-Fat To Fit Transformations
All of these transformations were accomplished by our clients putting in the hard work over at Bony to Bombshell (full disclosure, I’m a co-founder.)
How do women fix their skinny-fat bodies?
In the typical scenario of someone who’s overweight, they normally just cut calories. Over several months, they might lose 30 pounds—15 pounds lost from burning fat and 15 pounds lost of lean mass (muscle, glycogen, bone density, organs shrinking.)
Depending on how overweight they are, they may come out of a typical diet feeling (and looking) much better.
But for the skinny-fat woman, she has no lean mass that she can afford to lose. Doing a typical diet would leave her feeling incredibly weak and prone to yo-yo weight gain, risking her to become even fatter than she was in the first place.
In reality, many of the women we work with are coming to us wishing they could handle her travel bags a little better, could play more easily with their family and could move more easily like a dancer or an athlete. They don’t want to lose any lean mass like muscle. Instead, they want to build some. But they also feel like they have too much fat—especially around the belly.
Normally, they go searching for a solution on the internet and come across two terms normally defined like this:
Bulking: the process of eating a calorie surplus to gain weight to build muscle.
Cutting: the process of eating a calorie deficit to lose weight to burn fat.
This brings us to the next common question: should I bulk or cut to fix the skinny-fat body?
Our answer is to do both—at the same time. This is often called “body recomposition” where you change the muscle-to-fat ratio by building muscle and burning fat at the exact same time. The downside to this method is that it’s slower compared to bulking or cutting aggressively. But we’ve found that many of our clients prefer to wake up a little bit stronger and a little bit leaner every morning and that it doesn’t take as much strict focus to accomplish.
Body recomposition: building muscle and burning fat at the same time
Here’s the breakdown of body recomposition:
- Get into a minor calorie deficit of a couple of hundred calories. 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 daily protein intake. When eating at a calorie deficit, as in all diets, it’s easy to lose a lot of lean mass. This is because a calorie deficit lowers our body’s process of “muscle protein synthesis”. This is the biological process of adding proteins to your muscle. We don’t know why this happens, but you must eat more protein to offset the inefficiency (while doing resistance training— we’ll cover this soon.) Plus, when you’re eating less energy, normally you’ll also consume less protein. For example, if you stop eating a bagel with peanut butter on it since it has a lot of energy, you might inadvertently cut out 15g of protein from your day. So despite eating less food, you’ll need to eat *more* protein than normal.
- Do resistance training, like lifting weights to increase muscle mass and bone density. When eating at a calorie deficit, our body signals to lower muscle protein synthesis. One way we offset this is by eating more protein. But what’s even more critical is doing resistance training. That’s because resistance training is even more powerful at stimulating the process of muscle protein synthesis. Without resistance training, you’ll lose muscle in a calorie deficit. Lifting weights will be the stimulus your body needs to keep the muscle, and the protein you eat is needed to fulfill the order. The good news is that while skinny people have low levels of muscle mass, that means they’re much further from their genetic potential. It’s much easier to build muscle at first (often called newbie gains) with a decent workout plan. You could even tell your build new muscle despite eating in a calorie deficit—this is called body recomposition. We’ll cover more about what a skinny fat woman should look for in a workout to match their body soon.
- Go for a daily walk outdoors to melt off stubborn belly fat. If you have stubborn belly fat or love handles, that also means you likely have the dangerous visceral fat under the abs. This type of fat is “irregular” and doesn’t respond well to eating less food. That’s because this type of fat is caused by being too sedentary and inactive. Being sedentary means walking less than 7,500 steps each day. The good news is that you can burn off this type of fat through aerobic work—without even getting into a calorie deficit! So if you have a belly/love handles, 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, first, focus on getting to 7,500 daily steps, and once that feels easy, move the goalpost to 10,000 daily steps. This will help the process of getting rid of this dangerous fat.
- Get more sunshine to allow your hormones to work properly. Your body needs the sun to be healthy. Sunshine lowers blood pressure, improves mitochondrial health, and vitamin D is correlated with proper hormones (and even improves libido and sexual satisfaction in women, 2018 study). Sunshine also stimulates melatonin (hormone at night to burn fat and improves fertility), and POMC, which is a precursor (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.) Be sure to ditch the sunglasses and sunscreen. 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 (building a solar callus.)
- Get enough high-quality sleep to allow your hormones to work properly—7.25+ hours each night, likely closer to 9-10. 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. Not getting enough quality sleep can stop your plan even if you’re working out and eating a great diet. Getting more sunshine will help you sleep better, but it’s also important to avoid artificial light at night. Once it sunsets, avoid turning on overhead lights, turn the brightness down on your screens and set it to warm. You can also check out night-time blue-blocking glasses (protects your melatonin.)
Skinny-fat woman’s workout
A good plan will include both:
- Daily walks
- Resistance training
As we covered, it’s critical for the skinny-fat woman to include resistance training in their plan to avoid losing muscle and bone density.
Resistance training just means to use your muscles against resistance. The most common form of this is lifting weights. However, you can get started right now at home just using your body weight and by getting creative. For example, our favourite way to do a workout at home is by getting a backpack and loading it up with books. Then you can hold that bag in front of you as you do Goblet Squats, etc.
If you’re looking for a workout to do at home with no equipment, we have a free progressive hypertrophy 5-day no-equipment routine that lasts for 30 days. (Free download: Women’s 30-day Workout PDF).
If you sign up below, we’ll email you the Google Spreadsheet version, which will allow you to fill it in, pick your favourite finisher exercises (such as for your glutes, shoulders, etc.), and we’ll include our favourite links demonstrating all the exercises.
Your options open up a lot more if you’re open to building a simple home-gym or getting a gym membership. Lifting weights is often easier for beginners and to continually progress compared to bodyweight training.
You ought to get a workout designed for women, but you don’t need a specific workout for the skinny-fat body-type. But if you’re skinny-fat, there are a few things to consider:
- Choose a quality hypertrophy/bodybuilding style workout for women. This means avoiding general fitness or strength training (CrossFit, etc.). Many popular workouts are designed to build strength like Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength or to build fitness (CrossFit). There’s nothing wrong with strength or fitness training if that’s what excites you. But along with burning fat, skinny-fat women need to build muscle. So they ought to choose a muscle-building workout, otherwise known as hypertrophy or bodybuilding style workouts.
- A hypertrophy workout would program in moderate rep ranges of 6–20 reps (neither too heavy nor too light) with the right amount of volume for muscle growth. Occasionally, a good program will have variation, and you can dip to either side, say 4–40 reps. This is often why 8-15 reps are recommended for building muscle, as it’s right in the middle of the muscle-building zone. (Take a deep dive about Hypertrophy on Outlift.com)
- Between sets, wait for your heart rate to slow down again. This helps your body fully rest, which will allow you to get in more reps in the upcoming set, which leads to more muscle growth. (Isolation lifts as calf raises or donkey kicks won’t need as long to rest compared to compound exercises like Goblet Squats.)
- Bring yourself close to failure. If you’re a total beginner, a useful exercise is to take some sets right to technical failure (never let your form crumble, but just bring yourself to the point where you can’t complete the rep properly) just to learn what it feels like to hit muscular failure. Getting close to failure is necessary for a stimulus to build muscle. Sometimes it’s not the best idea to go right to failure, but that mainly applies for heavier lifting low-rep lifting. Higher-rep sets are best taken closer to failure to ensure full muscle recruitment.
- Do compound lifts that stimulate the most overall muscle growth per set. Heavier compound lifts are where lifting weights can come in handy. Our favourites for women are barbell front squats, deadlifts, glute bridges. Some women like building up their shoulders and might like the standing dumbbell shoulder press. Compound lifts help calories go more towards muscle-building and less likely for fat gain.
- Choose a high-frequency weight lifting workout like 5x a week. Many workouts aim to lift weights 3x a week. For skinny-fat women, working out 5 to 6 times a week will work better for them. The reason why is because skinny-fat women are often beginners with lower work capacity. That means splitting up the workload across more days will allow them to execute better rep-quality—leading to better muscle gains. Because the workload is spread out, your workouts will become half as long, making you feel a lot less burned out at the end of the workouts. The other reason higher frequency workouts would be better is because it improves nutrient partitioning of the food you eat. When you workout, your body will handle the calories better. If you only work out 3x a week, you will need to practice calorie cycling to match your workouts. The downside to higher frequency workouts is if you’re hitting the gym and need to get there, get changed, etc. twice as often. But if you’re working out at home, that won’t matter.
- Choose a workout that includes some postural warm-up work suitable for skinny-fat women. Most skinny-fat women we’ve coached sit a lot and have rounded shoulders, forward head, and anterior pelvic tilt. Because of this, they have limited shoulder mobility and may need a bit of attention to get squatting well. Plus, sitting more will stretch our your abs more, making it both harder for abs and your glutes to activate. Many skinny-fat people have poor ab and glute strength and will need to do some catching up in that department. So doing postural drills beforehand will help your body get into a stronger position, allowing your workouts to reap you better results. To get an idea, for the anterior pelvic tilt, doing the 90/90 hip lift and deadbugs to work on the front core and pelvic stability. For getting your arms overhead, try the Back-to-Wall Shoulder flexion mobility exercise.
Right now, Outlive doesn’t have a workout program for women looking to lift weights. If you’re looking to lift weights, I’d highly recommend Bony to Bombshell, which would align perfectly. Just make sure to include some of the other tips like daily walks, more sunshine exposure, etc. You can even ask the team to help you divide up the 3x workouts over six days if you’d like. (Full disclosure: I co-founded Bony to Bombshell.)
Doing cardio work, including walking, can burn the bad type of fat off (visceral and stubborn belly-fat) without even being in a calorie deficit.
Walking contracts your muscles get blood flow and nutrients everywhere and releases antioxidants from your muscles and from your heart—healing the body. How many steps should you aim for?
- Sedentary: Under 7,500 steps
- Lightly active: 7,500–10,000 steps
- Active: 10,000–12,000 steps
- Very active: 12,000+
Not only will it help you burn off stubborn fat, walking more is just plain health. All-cause mortality rate and daily steps from a 2020 study:
Get a step-counter (pedometre), and aim for doing 7,500 steps daily. Once that becomes easy and predictable, which might take a month or two, then you can aim for 10,000 steps a day.
I’ve found that a 10-minute walk will rack up around 1000 steps. So if you’re living a sedentary life, you might be getting 4-5k right now in your daily life. In that case, it might mean adding a 25-minute walk outdoors to your daily rhythm. (Or a 15-minute walk in the morning and a 15-minute walk at sunset.)
You can also combine your steps with your resistance training by pacing between sets. I can usually add 4000 steps as my workouts normally take 30-40 minutes. If it’s late at night and you need 1,000 steps, make a 10-minute phone call to a loved one and pace as you chat.
The good news is that something as simple as walking will help to build up your cardiovascular foundation. Once taking a long walk is easy, that’s when you can gradually push yourself with brisk-walking, then eventually a slight jog. Then your body will be a better position to experiment with HIIT (high-intensity interval training) after.
A sample workout plan schedule for a skinny-fat woman
- Monday: Hypertrophy Workout #1, walk 7,500 steps
- Tuesday: Hypertrophy Workout #2, walk 7,500 steps
- Wednesday: Hypertrophy Workout #3, walk 7,500 steps
- Thursday: Hypertrophy Workout #4, walk 7,500 steps
- Friday: Hypertrophy Workout #5, walk 7,500 steps
- Saturday: Rest, consider a bigger walk—7,500–10,000 steps
- Sunday: Rest (don’t do anything that feels like it’s work)
What should a skinny-fat woman eat?
You can take a deep-dive on this topic in an article on what a skinny-fat person should eat.
- In general, skinny fat women ought to eat:
- High protein-to-energy ratio foods like fish, meat, protein powders, and vegetables. (Eggs and tofu are still great options even though they’re a bit more energy-dense.)
- Whole, unprocessed foods that you cook yourself at home. This solves many issues, such as avoiding low quality and industrially produced ingredients more likely to be stored as stubborn belly fat. Real food has more fibre, water, vitamins, and minerals—allowing your body to operate it’s best.
- What should skinny-fat women avoid eating?
- Limit high energy-to-protein ratio foods. Like cooking oils, refined sugar and refined flour, juice, etc.
- Limit (delicious) fat and carb combos. Like muffins, croissants, cookies, etc. as they’re incredibly easy to overeat as they taste great and don’t affect fullness.
- Limit liquid calories. Like smoothies, beer and wine, and cream/sugar to the coffee. Calories that we drink don’t affect our appetite the same way that chewing them would.
- Avoid industrially processed foods. These foods are not just low quality (empty in terms of nutritiousness), but many of them contribute to stubborn belly-fat (modified vegetable oils, industrial trans-fats, etc.)
- When should a skinny-fat woman eat?
- Eat your biggest meals before and after resistance training. This will help with nutrient partitioning—making it more likely your calories are put to work instead of stored as fat. (Working out more often will also help with this.)
- Try having lots of protein before and after a workout to minimize muscle-protein breakdown during a workout, and maximize recovery afterwards. Using protein powder can help with this.
- Try eating more of your food earlier in the day and limiting food after sundown. This would help coordinate your food intake to your body’s circadian rhythm—making fat storage less likely and fat-burning more likely.
- Try experimenting with time-restricted eating for a simple way of getting into a calorie deficit. The most popular way is 16:8 intermittent fasting, where you eat for an 8-hour window each day. (May also subtle improve nutrient partitioning by not eating when you’re inactive improving fat-burning, and eating before and after a workout for best workout performance and recovery.) Not all women like intermittent fasting, as it can make some shaky or irritable, so be sure to pay attention to how you’re feeling.
If you’d like help with this, I can’t recommend the Bony to Bombshell program highly enough (disclosure, I’m a co-founder.)
If you want to learn more about the skinny-fat body, you can sign up for this free newsletter series below. It’s written for men (and you’ll get a pitch for a men’s program), but many of the same lessons apply. You might enjoy learning more about the science of stubborn belly-fat (I haven’t seen a single fitness website covering it, I stumbled upon it by accident while researching how to fix it myself.)