I've heard many a man reminisce with fondness about the carefree years of his early 20s. Tales of good friends, fast times, and a spectacular body to boot – muscular, ripped to shreds, and strong as an ox.
Sadly, whenever I reflect on my early 20s, it's a very different story.
Through a consistent diet of fast food, enough beer to kill a seasoned frat boy, and not lifting anything heavier than a Big Gulp outside of work, my “glory days” left my body looking like a potato on toothpicks.
With skinny arms and legs devoid of muscle tone, a weak back, and a soft, round torso, I was 22 years old and trapped in a classic skinny/fat body.
Obviously that's no longer my life and, after sharing my transformation, I've had numerous requests to write a guide specifically for skinny/fat men.
So here's everything I've learned on tackling the beast that is a stubborn skinny/fat body, starting with the root of the problem.
The source of the Skinny/Fat body
Every text related to somatotypes (body types) describes three main categories: Ectomorph, Mesomorph, and Endomorph.
I used to think this method of classification was complete bullshit as I didn't even come close to fitting into one of the categories.
But there really is quite a bit we can learn about how to train and eat from each of the somatotypes.
So let's start here.
Ectomorphs are, in a word, skinny.
These are the guys who consider themselves hardgainers.
If you're 130 lbs soaking wet, you're an ectomorph. Snoop Dogg is a perfect example.
- Low muscle mass
- Low body fat
- Delicate bone structure
- “Inability” to gain weight
Ectomorphs, without using loads of anabolics, will never be the biggest guys in the room.
On the bright side, their small bone structure helps them create an extremely aesthetic physique when enough muscle is added.
Mesomorphs are the natural athletes.
These are the guys who played three varsity sports in high school (or at least look the part) and have had visible abs since the 5th grade.
- Good baseline muscle mass
- Low bodyfat
- Strong bone structure
- Respond well to strength training
Mesomorphs aren't the biggest dudes in the gym, but their muscles grow fairly readily and they can eat at a surplus of calories without gaining much body fat.
Endomorphs are stocky, thick – built like a brick shit house, if you will.
Think defensive lineman.
- High baseline muscle mass
- Tend to carry extra body fat
- Thick bone structure
- Very strong and build muscle quickly
The truly massive guys in the weight room are usually endomorphs.
They typically have thick limbs and respond well to weight training in both the strength and size departments, but often have stubborn body fat.
So what about Skinny/Fat?
Now, I realize that these are only generalizations and most people are a combination of two body types.
However, unlike these naturally occurring somatotypes, the skinny/fat body only became a common appearance in recent years and seems to be the result of our modern lifestyle.
Decades ago, men were either normal weight, super skinny, or stocky.
Sure, they could become run-of-the-mill fat, but the guy with very low muscle mass, a small bone structure, and 60 lbs of excess body fat was a rarity, not the norm.
So as far as I can work out (no one else seems to be interested in explaining this), the skinny/fat body type is the result of being an ectomorph by nature with the body fat problems of an endomorph as a result of nurture (modern lifestyle).
The pitfalls of transforming a Skinny/Fat body
Part of the issue with overcoming a skinny/fat body is that conventional wisdom and the experiences of the other “normal” guys in the gym just don't work for this body type.
Before incorporating diet and exercise, the skinny/fat body:
- Puts on fat easily and holds on to it
- Struggles to add muscle and loses it easily
- Tends to have limited strength
- Doesn't recover quickly from intense workouts
Though this seems like a grim assessment, this post isn't meant to give you an excuse to give up.
Rather, I want to clarify the problems you're facing and give you the tools necessary to overcome them.
Due to these challenges, if you try to follow the common advice without having a well-laid plan, you're going to face an uphill battle. As a skinny/fat guy, here are the things of which you have to be wary.
Don't eat like an ectomorph
Don't make the mistake of thinking, “my friend is in shape and he gorges on Doritos and beer, so it can work for me too!”
I would occasionally fall into this trap.
It was usually at a time when I was feeling terribly skinny (like 6'2”, 165 lbs) and felt envious watching friends pound bacon double cheeseburgers, french fries, and Cokes.
When my athletically built compatriots would ramble on about how “you gotta eat big to grow big”, I couldn't help but mimic that behavior because I wanted what they had.
But it backfired every time.
When a skinny/fat man tries to eat like the naturally ripped guys, he'll gain weight, but it will be almost exclusively body fat.
You won't recomp like a mesomorph
A body recomp (short for recomposition) simply means to lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time.
When you first start training, this will likely occur to some extent, as anything you do will be a complete shock for your body and it'll scramble to adapt to its new environment.
But in the long run, this is an unrealistic goal for someone who tends to hold body fat and has a very difficult time gaining muscle.
Realistically, if recomping was a common event, why would anyone bother with bulking and cutting?
While I've seen people accomplish this and have done it myself in the past, the other individuals were genetically gifted and I was in my first year of TRT.
I was essentially hitting puberty and getting newbie gains at the same time, and my recomp was still short-lived.
So unless one of the above applies to you, it's best to pursue one goal at a time (muscle gain or weight loss) until you get close to your ideal physique.
You can't lift like an endomorph
At least not at first.
In much the same way that you can't eat like the guys who don't pack on body fat readily, you also can't lift like the sturdy fellas.
Don't make the mistake of thinking you can be in the gym bench pressing seven days per week like your jacked buddy on the football team.
If you're skinny/fat, you likely have the small joint structure of an ectomorph, which can't take the abuse of frequent, heavy training.
You'll also have a less than stellar hormone profile which hinders your recovery abilities.
I definitely have it in me mentally to train like a beast 7 days per week. But if I get too ambitious, my joints and tendons start to accumulate aches and pains.
Working the same muscle group or movement pattern 1-2 times per week is plenty.
The big decision – bulk or cut first?
This is the biggest question for skinny/fat men.
Most people will advise skinny/fat guys to bulk first.
The logic is: “what are you going to cut down to? A ripped 120 lbs?”
And it makes sense for the average, non-skinny/fat guy to kick things off with a bulk in order to build a foundation of muscle.
But the sad truth is that affected guys have very low muscle mass to begin with and don't gain it readily, even with excess calories and protein coupled with hard training.
So what really happens if a typical bulking format is chosen as the first course of action?
The problem often gets worse.
If the skinny/fat guy gets his diet and training in order and has a successful bulk, he may gain 30 lbs or so over his first year of lifting.
But he's going to gain about 10 lbs of muscle at best. The rest will be more annoying body fat.
Then, in a hurried attempt to lose the fat before beach season, more often than not, all of the muscle goes with it.
So my recommendation to you is, unless it would be truly devastating to your self-esteem to reach the skinny end of the spectrum at the beginning of your transformation…
I say this because, in my case (and with most other skinny/fat guys I've talked to), it's the excess body fat that causes the most turmoil.
Dealing with that issue first can at least get you into a physique you're content with, buying you time to work on building muscle.
By losing the fat first, clothes immediately begin to fit better.
For me, looking better in clothes provided a much needed boost of confidence and had a profound effect on my life.
The photo on the left was me near my worst (I actually continued gaining fat for another year after this, I just don't have any shirtless photos to memorialize the state of my body at that point).
The photo on the right is me after six years of consistent dieting and lifting.
Though I have very little muscle mass in the second photo, which body do you think I was happier in?
My Skinny/Fat transformation
I'm a classic ectomorph (under the fat, at least) – tall with low muscle mass and an equally thin bone structure.
But after a mostly sedentary childhood spent eating mixing bowls of cereal, I put on substantial body fat.
Growing tall during adolescence briefly leaned me out a little, but within a few years of finishing high school, I ate, drank, and stressed my body into a dire skinny/fat state.
After returning to college at 23, I renewed my passion for fitness and threw myself into transforming my body.
Though I approached my diet and training with vigor, discipline, and dedication, I found that my body simply would not do what I wanted it to do.
I eventually realized that I was losing and gaining the same 30 lbs over and over, with very little muscle gained.
Undeterred, I spent six years mastering my craft to try and build an aesthetic physique. Looking back now, I'm almost glad my body was such a stubborn bitch.
It meant I had to learn and experiment with every program, diet, and technique out there, which has made me far more knowledgeable than if bench presses and curls had turned me into a beast.
My Low T Connection
Now, I eventually found out that my difficulty in dealing with my skinny/fat issues was a symptom of seriously low testosterone (which seems to be the result of a yet-undiagnosed congenital or chronic condition).
However, I'm an unusual case.
Most of you are in luck. If your testosterone levels are low, they can very likely be corrected by implementing the diet and training necessary to overcome your skinny/fat body.
And I should be clear that my skinny/fat body wasn't the result of having low T; I'm a naturally skinny guy who developed terrible eating habits.
My naturally low testosterone just made correcting my skinny/fat body more of a challenge.
So if I was still able, even with very low T, to build a physique that some of my readers have described as “a body most guys would be happy with”, you can definitely improve yourself with hard work and dedication.
But as a testament to just how important hormones are in building muscle, the above photos show what I was able to accomplish in less than a year on TRT.
The Skinny/Fat Survival Guide
I'm not going to sugarcoat it.
If you're trying to obliterate your skinny/fat body, you have your work cut out for you.
But never fear. There isn't a person on the planet who can't become a better version of themselves through dedicated training and intelligent eating.
The challenge in starting with a skinny/fat body is that you have to make major shifts in body composition and change your proportions to achieve a more athletic build.
You have to be careful not to lose weight too quickly or risk losing any muscle you've built, but you also can't overeat or you'll pack on the wrong kind of pounds.
You need to lift with enough intensity and frequency to kick your body out of its comfort zone, but go too far and your progress will come to a screeching halt.
It's a fine balancing act, but here's how to do it the right way.
Dieting when Skinny/Fat
The modern lifestyle includes a diet rich in processed, nutritionally empty, and fast foods.
Repairing modern eating habits will be a major component to remedying your skinny/fat body.
Unfortunately, habits are hard to break and many of these foods are quite literally addictive. So the first thing you need to do is loosen the hold these foods and habits have on you.
Doing so will curb your cravings for mass quantities of the foods that support a skinny/fat body and set you up for success later when you're following a more regimented eating plan.
Here are my recommendations to clean up your diet and kickstart your skinny/fat transformation.
Stage 1 – Preliminary diet modifications
- Focus on consuming whole foods
- Eat a vegetable with every meal
- Get at least 1 g of protein per lb of lean body mass
- Track macros once the above are accomplished (I use My Fitness pal)
Tracking your macros may seem like a more advanced move, but at this point in the game, it will just be a helpful tool to see what your intake looks like.
Also, by simply focusing on getting enough protein, incorporating more vegetables, and prioritizing whole foods, you'll naturally have less space in your diet for bullshit.
Once your improved eating habits are beginning to feel like second nature, you're ready for a more involved program.
Getting to this point could take weeks or it could take months, but that's okay because you're in this for the long haul, right?!
Stage 2 – If It Fits Your Macros
Now that you have the source of your calories dialed in, it's time to focus on the quantity.
I think If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) is an awesome, flexible eating plan that allows you to enjoy your food while still helping you meet weight loss or muscle gain goals.
Once you've figured out your maintenance calories during Stage 1 (My Fitness Pal will give you a weekly average) and are consistently making good food choices, you can move on to manipulating your intake to accelerate fat loss.
Using My Fitness Pal, you can set your intake to 45% carbs, 30% protein, and 25% fat. This is a good starting point for most guys.
Cutting with IIFYM
Now that you have your maintenance calories and macro percentages set, you can continue your weight loss by deducting about 300 calories from your daily total.
Again, this is all programmable within the My Fitness Pal app.
Continue meeting this new number until the weight stops coming off and then deduct another 200-300 to get things moving again.
However, don't cut calories too fast. Whatever you cut your intake to will eventually become your maintenance level.
The most important thing to remember when cutting is: if you're already losing weight, don't cut any more calories!
Bulking with IIFYM
Whenever you're ready to bulk, take your current daily caloric intake and bump it up by 300 and ride that number as long as the scale continues to move week to week.
Just a few hundred additional calories is plenty for the skinny/fat guy to gain muscle.
However, don't get too caught up in the “eat everything in sight” mentality.
That might work for a pure ectomorph with a tiny appetite, but if you've made it to the point of gaining excess body fat, you don't have a small appetite, and you've proven you can out eat your metabolism.
You won't accelerate muscle gains by consuming an additional 1,000 calories; you'll just pack on more fat.
The most important thing to remember when bulking is: if you're gaining weight, you're eating enough!
How to train when skinny/fat
Transforming a skinny/fat body requires you to be much closer to “perfect” in your approach than any other body type.
You simply don't have the same room for error that some of the other guys may have.
Your training will have two parts – compound lifts to make major changes and isolation exercises to balance proportions.
Go big or go home
With the exception of the most genetically gifted and chemically enhanced athletes, you simply can't make major changes to your physique without the big lifts.
When I say “big lifts” I'm talking about the handful of exercises that allow you to lift the most weight (squat, deadlift, bench press, pull-ups etc.).
Performing big compound lifts is like screaming at your body through a megaphone, “wake the fuck up and adapt! Life is brutal!”
When the extent of your physical activity is sitting in the car, at a desk, and on the couch, it inevitably leads to low muscle mass, high body fat, low bone density, and poor mobility.
On the flip side, it's the lifting of heavy loads over time that will create the most drastic changes in your physique.
If your body isn't in the vicinity of your ideal physique, working heavy compound movements on a consistent basis is the only road in and out of that neighborhood.
Don't be afraid to isolate
Plenty of guys will say that all you need to build bulging biceps is to row heavy weights, and that overhead pressing your bodyweight will produce thick triceps.
But the guys having success with this method aren't generally starting from a proportional deficit (a la the skinny/fat design of a large torso and spaghetti arms).
So while heavy compound exercises are going to “rough out” your body in terms of overall muscle mass and body fat, isolation exercises are going to help distribute that muscle for a more aesthetic physique.
To illustrate the skinny/fat dilemma, back in high school, my two best friends had started lifting to get stronger for the wrestling team.
When they pulled up their sleeves and hit a tricep pose, I nearly shit my pants.
I had also been lifting so I immediately grabbed my arm for inspection. But where my friends were sporting a pronounced muscle, I had only a thin tendon running from shoulder to elbow.
And I weighed 50 lbs more than they did!
It took me years of diligent training on tricep isolation exercises to achieve a mind-muscle connection with the back of my arm, and even longer to create sleeve-stretching girth.
But without isolation exercises, I would've just exaggerated my large torso and spaghetti arm proportions.
Training routine layout
While you're going to have to train your ass off, you also need to avoid overtraining. For that reason, I suggest a max of 3 to 4 days in the gym for the skinny/fat guy.
To incorporate a program that has compound lift and isolation exercise components, choose one of the options below.
Whichever you choose, put about 80% of your effort into the compound movements and the remaining 20% into the isolation exercises.
Perform 3 full body workouts per week, each consisting of a push, pull, and lower body exercise.
After the main lifts are done, you can add a couple sets for calves, arms, and shoulders.
Perform 3 or 4 workouts per week, each built around a different main compound lift.
For example, you may want to have a push day, which would consist of bench press, incline press, overhead press, and tricep extensions.
In this method, you'll work all of your push exercises in one workout, pull exercises in another, and lower body on the third.
A fourth day can be added for detail work.
As far as training and dieting goes, choose either bulking or cutting (though I highly suggest you start with a cut), and put all of your effort into that single goal.
For us skinny/fat guys, slow and steady wins the race.
Don't make things harder for yourself by swinging wildly from dirty bulking to extreme caloric deficits.
You'll certainly make your situation worse if you aren't methodical in your approach.
Also, and this was a big issue for me, don't listen to what others say.
If you're working on decreasing body fat, stick to your guns even when the fellas are razzing you about not being able to rep your bodyweight on the bench.
Keep your goals clear and defined (write them down!), and don't let anything stop you.
You will absolutely get there with consistent hard work.
All the best,