By Anthony Mychal
If you had to live with one of these characteristics, which would you pick?
- String bean arms
- A sunken upper chest
- Dilapidated deltoids
- The propensity to sew satchels of fat around the waistline
- Cheerio sized wrists
Consider yourself lucky if you sat back and thought about your answer, because there is a breed of people out there—a breed I call skinny-fat ectomorphs—without that luxury. Unfortunately for them, they have all of these characteristics.
Now, I’ll confess: I was once a skinny-fat ectomorph (from here on in abbreviated “skinny-fats”). If it wasn’t for a scarring situation in ninth grade when I was teased for having “girl boobs,” I might not have broken from the curse.
But consider my pain your gain, because I’m here to help you break free too. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that we can’t play by normal rules. True skinny guys have it easy. Somehow, they never seem to get fat. For them, it’s about shoveling sustenance down the chute.
Unfortunately, skinny-fats—being kind of skinny in their own right—are fed the same advice. This is bad news, as skinny-fatness is a purgatory of sorts. Turn one way in an attempt to bulk up and further fat forms. Turn the other way in an attempt to cut down and muscle mysteriously melts.
Saving Skinny-Fat With Signaling
The state of your body is determined by the signals it’s sent from the external environment. Hang outside for a while on a nice summer day and your skin tans—an adaptation to better handle the sun’s radiation.
Being skinny-fat is a consequence of sending signals not strong enough to either queue for the creation of muscle or ship for the slaughter of body fat. Fixing skinny-fat is about fixing signals.
Sadly, it’s not that most skinny-fats don’t try sending the right signals. They do. But they’re usually the wrong ones. Below are seven signaling secrets to start the strike against skinny-fatness.
1. Stop prioritizing cardio.
While cardio is usually recommended for fat loss, the best fat loss results often come from making better nutritional choices. Running on the treadmill might put you 300 calories in the hole. This can otherwise be accomplished by foregoing the Twinkies after dinner.
One of the biggest problems skinny-fats face is, quite simply, skinniness. What is cardio-ing yourself to death in the name of fat loss going to do without a muscular body to uncover underneath of it all? The correct answer to this question: it’s going to transform you into a ghastly, bony, and lanky person with a whole new bag of psychological issues.
2. Start lifting weights.
Instead of hopping on the treadmill, prioritize meaningful weight-training. Don’t seek refuge in machines either. Pumping Iron taught us that the barbell should center any quality training program for someone looking to gain muscle. Remember, this is all about signaling. Take the barbell bench press and the pec deck machine as a comparison.
During a bench press, the bar is stabilized as it wobbles above the throat. This creates a strong signal. If your body could talk it would probably say, “If you lose your focus here, this barbell will crush my larynx.” Compare that to sitting on the pec deck machine, not having to stabilize much of anything, and probably being able to manage yawning once or twice. Which one is going to send a stronger signal? Which one is going to hint at the importance of having more muscle for survival?
3. Don’t bulk.
Hit the weights and build some muscle, but be careful. Don’t eat-eat-eat in an attempt to bulk up. Pounding down the calories means getting even fatter. Get fatter decreases the insulin sensitivity of the muscle cells, which—surprise—makes fat gain even more likely.
Besides, us skinny fats are terrible nutrient partitioners (that is, we store more of our excess calories as fat instead of muscle). Creating more fats cells is just all around bad news as it may take them ten years to completely “die” (1).
Don’t get me wrong—building muscle is a skinny-fat priority. But you don’t have to do a traditional “bulk up” to make it happen. Body fat itself is stored energy. And while body fat won’t magically turn into muscle, it’s broken down and used for energy when needed. Let the body do what it can with that energy in the name of building muscle before resorting to eating the house in an effort to “bulk up.”
Eat a little less than you need every day and hit the iron hard. Good things will happen.
4. Stop Bench Pressing.
Most muscle building programs aren’t fitted to specific skinny-fat needs. For instance, the bench press is often a “go-to” barbell exercise for building muscle. But for skinny-fats, it’s not worth doing.
Now, I know this might seem like blasphemy, but skinny-fats are already terribly self-conscious about their upper chest lacking in proportion when compared to their lower chest. The flat barbell bench press, when done correctly, puts much more emphasis on the lower chest. Therefore, the incline bench press is a better alternative.
Skinny-fat is a unique breed. Not only do we battle our genetics, we battle a lifetime of self-inflicted anguish. There are aspects of our body that we’re just kind of sensitive about. More often than not, it’s better to address concerning areas as long as you’re substituting an equally worth exercise.
Swapping the incline press in favor of the flat press is a good substitution. Swapping leg extensions in favor of squats, however, doesn’t quite cut it.
5. Don’t Neglect Arm Isolation Exercises.
A common recommendation these days is ditching direct arm work in favor of bigger, compound movements. While I can’t fully argue with this, ditching direct arm work for a skinny-fat is a mistake.
Don’t get me wrong. Do your rows, chins, and presses. But it’s OK to throw in a few curls afterwards. Go with thick grip barbell curls, thick grip cheat curls (an Arnold favorite), and thick grip dumbbell hammer curls. These may just turn your little sprout string bean arms into jolly green giants.
6. Stop sabotaging your progress with poor nutrition.
You’re training hard to build muscle and lose fat, don’t let your life outside of the gym sabotage your effort. First and foremost, this means getting your diet in check.
Down a minimum of one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight every day. This will help in the muscle department. Opt for natural foods (meats, fish, vegetables, fruits) over processed foods. Stop eating processed grains and sugars—this includes fruit juice, sweetened protein supplements, sweetened yogurts, and sports drinks. Some skinny-fats might even have to eliminate wheat, flour, and milk to live within the confines of a lower body fat.
Replace processed grains and sugars with fruits and vegetables. Replace sugary drinks with water and the occasional coffee or tea. And here’s a tip on how to shop: Stay primarily around the perimeter of the grocery store. This is usually where the “fresh” stuff is that can’t be housed in boxes that can sit on shelves for centuries.
7. Stop stressing out and go to sleep.
Get your stressors in check. Too much stress and too little sleep aren’t conducive to much of anything in the name of being muscular with little body fat.
If you aren’t getting at least seven hours of sleep, start there. Don’t be afraid to take naps either as long as you aren’t substituting them for a lack of sleep.
Leave most of your work or school baggage at the office or in the classroom. Devote some happy time to yourself every night. It might even be beneficial to de-stress for five minutes before you go to sleep.
Use this breathing protocol outlined in Bill Starr’s classic book, The Strongest Shall Survive.
- Inhale through the nose as close to 100% as possible
- When you think you’re at 100%, take one last inhale (you’ll never be at 100%)
- Hold for 5-10 seconds
- Exhale 100% through pursed lips
- When you think you’re at 100%, take one last exhale
- Hold for 5-10 seconds
This clears your mind and settles your heart rate—an especially useful tactic before sleep.
Skinny-fat Wrap Up
Being skinny-fat sucks, and there’s no reason to pretend it doesn’t. The narrow shoulders, tiny wrists, and longer frame is the exact recipe called for by Emeril Lagasse to create a stunning combination of looking lanky while also sporting a muffin top. But don’t yet condemn yourself to a life sentence of never taking your shirt off in public. There’s hope, as long as you start using these six tips to help you slay skinny-fat syndrome. What are you waiting for?
1) Arner E, Westermark PO, Spalding KL, Britton T, Rydén M, Frisén J, Bernard S, Arner P. Adipocyte turnover: relevance to human adipose tissue morphology. Diabetes. 2010 Jan;59(1):105-9.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony Mychal is a former coached turned writer. He’s been featured in T-Nation, STACK, My Mad Methods, Greatist, Elite FTS, and LIVESTRONG.com. In his spare time, he can be found lifting barbells or flipping around on a bed of grass in the name of martial arts tricking (http://www.tricktraining.net). His personal blog, Beast Mode Fitness Systems (http://anthonymychal.com), is dedicated to sending salutations to skinny-fat syndrome and awakening the athletic animal within.