The dreaded 'skinny fat' style physique is the starting point for many men in the bodybuilding world.
But what actually is skinny fat? How come someone look skinny in clothes, yet have a physique that looks 'fat' underneath?
The classic guy with a skinny fat physique has a very low amount of muscle mass while also holding an above average amount of body fat (generally upwards from around 16% body fat).
I used to be skinny fat, almost every fitness model or bodybuilder that started out with an ectomorph body type started with a skinny fat base, yet many don't even bother trying to transform their physique and curse their genetics.
At higher body fat a guy with stacks of muscle will look FAR leaner than a guy holding a minimal amount of muscle at the same (or higher!) body fat level. Why? Muscle tone.
How do people become skinny fat?
A lack of exercise, too much exercise and ridiculous dieting protocol can all contribute forming a skinny fat physique. The main 2 causes behind the skinny fat physique include:
Too much cardio
Cardio is a fantastic tool for burning calories, but hours upon hours of cardio each week will do your physique no favors.
Short bursts of cardio (high intensity interval training) works wonders, while steady state cardio is muscle wasting - when you've got a minimal amount of lean muscle mass and an above average level of body fat this is where one of the most common mistakes is made - the decision to focus on cardio instead of lifting.
Severe caloric restriction
Ridiculous dieting protocols that have you eating 1,000 calories or less per day can do far more harm than you know - your metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories) adapts to your caloric intake - when you're eating next to nothing your body deems food to be scarce and enters a form of 'survival mode' slowing down your metabolism to ensure calories are burnt at a slower rate.
There's a couple of issues with this...
Consuming such a minuscule amount of calories works until it doesn't work - your metabolism will be quick to adapt and fat loss will go from great to average to non-existent. Restoring your metabolism back to normal function takes time and if done incorrectly will have you gaining even more fat (read: avoid metabolic damage at all costs!).
Secondly, from my personal experience and research I've found that placing your body in greater than 20% of a caloric deficit the more muscle mass you'll lose, once again - when you don't have a lot to begin with you can't afford to lose it.
The biggest problem the skinny fat guy encounters is the 'should I bulk or cut?' dilemma... leaving him in a state of analysis by paralysis...
If you're starting off with a skinny fat style physique there's hope.
Here's are the steps I took to build mass and shred down to single digit body fat...
Get started with a basic routine focusing on heavy compound movements, and don't allow yourself to fall victim to all the arguements over isolation exercises, rep ranges and protein shakes that litter the internet and your local gym - focus on the basics... as you start to pack on slabs of lean muscle mass your body fat level will begin to appear lower to the eye (even if it's the same!) as I mentioned earlier this is due to the definition from your newly acquired muscle mass.
Do cardio, but not too much
Performing cardio for longer than 20 minutes per session or 3 times per week is unnecessary and can actually be detrimental to your skinny fat physique.
I recommend 2 or 3 high intensity interval training sessions per week utilizing a 20 second on (all out effort) interval followed by a 40 second off (recovery) interval.
In terms of which exercise you should perform for your cardio I recommend doing whatever you find most enjoyable... I personally alternate between hill sprints and jump rope each week.
Understand the energy in vs. energy out concept
This one isn't only for those that're skinny fat - if you're looking to build muscle, lose fat or make any noticeable change to your physique it's paramount you understand dieting and nutrition.
Learning how to calculate your caloric intake and macronutrients before finding foods that fit your macros is easy, yet many people disregard it and continue on with the 'clean eating' fad.
For a skinny fat individual I recommend consuming a maintenance amount of calories while lifting heavy and performing HIIT. No need for a surplus (as always, with weight gain you're going to be gaining a portion of fat too which we want to avoid so a caloric surplus is not your friend here).
It takes more than 10 weeks to change the physique you've had for the past 10 years, understand that.
Apply these principles consistently and you'll see results, week by week, month by month you'll get stronger, your lean muscle mass will increase making you look far leaner.