‘Skinny fat’ is a situation where your scale weight may indicate that you are lean, or ‘skinny,’ but your actual body fat percentage might reflect otherwise.
When you find yourself in this situation and your ultimate goal is to look leaner, it’s difficult to know whether or not you should cut or bulk first. To look leaner, you need muscle which is commonly associated with a bulk, but you also want less body fat, which is associated with a cut.
So, should you cut or bulk first if you are skinny fat? You should bulk first if you are skinny fat. A 10% caloric surplus is optimal to build muscle while ensuring you don’t put on a lot of excess body fat. Stay in a surplus for a minimum of 4 months and then begin a slow, gradual cut.
As a nutritionist, I have seen a number of cases where people are skinny fat, wanting to build muscle without gaining body fat in order to achieve a lean physique. Through extensive experience and research, I have figured out what the best approach is to achieve this.
In this article I will explain:
What Is Skinny Fat?
What Causes Skinny Fat?
What Should You Do: Bulk or Cut?
What You Should Not Do
What is skinny fat?
Skinny fat is a phrase used to describe people who appear to be a normal weight, or thin, but are actually carrying a high percentage of body fat, and have a low amount of muscle mass.
This means that if they calculated their body mass index (BMI), which is only based on height and weight, they would fall in a healthy range but their body fat percentage is actually higher than what is deemed healthy for their body.
Because BMI only factors in your height and weight and doesn’t break down your weight according to what is bone, fat, or muscle mass, it doesn’t give an accurate picture of your overall body composition.
The Fitbod App helps you get lean and build muscle by giving you workouts based on your training background and goals.
What causes skinny fat?
In order to understand whether you should cut or bulk first, you need to understand what causes a skinny fat physique.
There are a number of things that can lead to being skinny fat, either independently or all together:
You don’t have enough muscle mass
You don’t strength train enough
You don’t eat enough protein
You’ve been in a caloric deficit for too long
You’ve been very stressed
Related Article: Bulking After A Long Cut: 8 Tips For A Successful Bulk
YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH MUSCLE MASS
Simply put, the more muscle mass you have, the lower your body fat percentage is going to be. As well, the more muscle mass you have, the more energy you expend (and fat you burn) even at rest. So in order to avoid being skinny fat, you’ll want to ensure you prioritize building muscle.
The next points cover a few ways this can be achieved.
Related: read our article on 16 healthy bulking foods
YOU DON’T STRENGTH TRAIN ENOUGH
Typically those who find they are skinny fat have no, or a very short, history of building muscle.
In order to produce muscle growth, we need a stimulus. Resistance training, or applying stress to your muscles, provides the necessary stimulus for growth. The best way to achieve this is through lifting weights and progressively increasing the amount of volume and intensity being used.
Related Article: What Cardio Should You Do When Bulking? (3 Options)
YOU DON’T EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN
Consuming a diet high in protein is necessary to build muscle. This is because protein forms the basis of our muscles, and is required in order to repair and build our muscles after we’ve applied stress to them through weight training.
As well, adequate protein in our diet will ensure that we not only build more muscle, but preserve the muscle that we already have.
YOU’VE BEEN IN A CALORIC DEFICIT TOO LONG
It’s well understood that to lose weight you need to be burning more calories than you are eating. In other words, be in a caloric deficit.
However, if you aren’t cutting in a smart way, you could be using your existing muscle mass as energy to fuel your workouts, which would only further increase your body fat percentage. In other words, you want to avoid burning muscle while in a caloric deficit.
This can happen after you have been in a caloric deficit for too long and your body feels it needs to store any excess energy (food) as fat to have as a fuel reserve, rather than burning it as energy.
Related Article: Cardio vs Weights: Which One Helps You Lose Weight Quicker?
YOU’VE BEEN VERY STRESSED
When we are stressed, a hormone called cortisol is elevated. When we are stressed for a long period of time, this can lead to insulin resistance, which causes fat gain because our body is no longer able to efficiently use the energy we are getting from carbohydrates in our diet.
Related Article: Bulking With A Fast Metabolism: How-To For Hard Gainers
What should you do: Cut or Bulk?
You definitely want to bulk if you are skinny fat.
This is for a few reasons:
It’s much easier to build and preserve muscle in a caloric surplus
If there are any hormonal issues (i.e. high cortisol from stress), cutting would only worsen them
It will be easier to burn fat after a bulk
Related Article: Can You Eat Anything While Bulking?
SO HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT TO EAT FOR A BULK?
If you are taking in more calories than you are burning in a day, you will be in a caloric surplus that will lead to muscle and potentially fat gain.
The purpose of a bulk in this situation is to increase your muscle mass, which ultimately will reduce your body fat percentage. Also, as we recall, the more muscle mass you have, the more energy you expend (and fat you burn) even at rest. So in order to avoid being skinny fat, you’ll want to ensure you prioritize building muscle.
Related: Check out our article on the 7 Best Breakfast Ideas (With Calorie Breakdown).
So in order to do this, a bulk requires eating enough so that your muscles have a strong environment to grow in, but you want your caloric surplus to be controlled so that you aren’t gaining unnecessary fat.
I wrote a full guide on how to eat while bulking, but here are the basics:
You’ll want to start with a caloric surplus 5-10%.
This would mean you would have to calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and increase that number by 5-10%.
To calculate your TDEE, you can simply input your personal stats into an online calculator like this one.
For example, if my calculated TDEE came out to be 2,500 calories, I would want to start my bulk at 2625 – 2,750 calories (2500 calories X 0.05 = 125 calories).
Related Article: How To Bulk Up Fast: 10 Tips For Maximizing Muscle Growth
HOW MUCH PROTEIN SHOULD YOU CONSUME?
In addition to being in a controlled caloric surplus, you want to make sure that you are getting adequate protein, following a high intensity resistance training program and reducing your stress.
Consuming a diet high in protein is necessary to build muscle. But what does ‘high in protein’ really mean, though?
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein intake is 0.8g per kg of body weight, but studies suggest that a protein intake of 2.4g per kg of body weight is optimal to increase lean body mass, when accompanied by an intensive weight training program (Longland et. at., 2016; Helms et. at., 2014.)
For example, if you’re 80kg, you should be eating 192g of protein.
Related Article: 19 Swiss Ball Exercises For Weight Loss (That Actually Work)
HOW SHOULD YOU TRAIN?
As I mentioned previously, in order for our muscles to grow we need to be applying stress through resistance training. The best way to achieve this is through lifting weights and progressively increasing the amount of volume and intensity being used.
In order to be sure you are progressing in your weight training, I recommend tracking your workouts so you are able to see your progressions. A great way to do this is through an app like the Fitbod App.
Fitbod fills in the sets, reps, and weight for each exercise based on strength-training best practices. As you get stronger or master exercises, Fitbod adapts to push you a bit harder in your next workout.
By using an app like Fitbod, you’re able to ensure that your training is optimized to the goals of your bulk.
Sign up for 3 free workouts HERE.
WHAT ABOUT STRESS?
Because high levels of stress can contribute to gaining body fat and hinder muscle growth, it is very important to take any measures you can to reduce your daily stress. Try adding some de-stressing techniques to your daily routine, like meditating or practicing yoga.
What you should NOT do
CUT YOUR CALORIES
The last thing you want to do when you are skinny fat is cut, because this will make it nearly impossible to build muscle and could lead to increased cortisol levels and other health issues.
This is when you eat whatever you want, and as much as you can, to gain weight as fast as possible. Typically this includes a lot of unhealthy junk food. With a dirty bulk, a lot of the weight gained will be from fat, which will not help your situation if you are skinny fat.
A TON OF CARDIO AND NO STRENGTH TRAINING
The best way to bulk is to increase our lean mass (muscle) and limit the amount of body fat we add in the process. The most effective and efficient way to do this is to eat in a controlled caloric surplus. Implementing cardio can help ensure that any unwanted body fat is burned, improve heart function which will allow you to train harder and lay down more muscle, as well as increase your calorie consumption potential.
However, if we are only doing cardio (and a lot of it) without any strength training, we will not be able to build new muscle mass, which defeats the entire purpose of a bulk.
SKIP THE GYM
Even if all you have is one day per week to go to the gym, so long as you focus on the correct protocols, you can still see significant improvements in strength.
We wrote an entire article on whether you can get stronger training once per week.
The main points are:
Regardless of whether you can train once a week or six times a week, you need to ensure that your workouts involve high-intensity, high-volume protocols. Your training program should focus on the whole body and incorporate compounded exercises.
Other Frequently Asked Questions
IF I AM SKINNY FAT AND GOING TO CUT, WILL CUTTING CALORIES BE ENOUGH OR DOES THE SOURCE OF CALORIES MATTER?
The source of the calories should certainly matter, especially when cutting calories because it is less likely you will be consuming adequate protein if you aren’t paying attention. You’ll want to make sure your protein intake is 2.4g per kg of bodyweight, especially if you’re cutting calories and want to build muscle.
You will also want to make sure your diet is made up of clean food for the most part. Include high quality protein sources (chicken, steak, salmon), carbohydrate sources (oats, potato, yams) and fat sources (avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds).
IF I AM OBESE AND WANT TO BUILD MUSCLE AND LOSE FAT, SHOULD I CUT OR BULK?
If you are obese, you will want to put yourself in a caloric deficit but continue to priotitize weight training to build muscle. If you are obese, there will be more stored energy for your body to utilize, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to fuel your body adequately.
Start by calculating your TDEE and start your calories in a 15-20% deficit. Make sure you are following a progressive weight training program to ensure muscle growth.
IF I AM NEW TO WORKING OUT, SHOULD I CUT OR BULK FIRST?
If you are new to working out and are at a healthy body weight, you should bulk first. The younger your training age, the quicker you are able to build muscle and therefore you should take advantage of this with a caloric surplus. This will make it much easier for you to cut body fat after the bulk, as you will have a lot more muscle mass compared to if you started out by cutting.
About The Author
Maggie Morgan is a level 1 PN certified nutritionist who specializes in sport, exercise and performance nutrition, a strength training coach, and an elite level athlete. Maggie has competed in bodybuilding, and is an international-level powerlifter. Currently undertaking her Masters in Counselling Psychology, Maggie is not only able to lead others in strength and aesthetics through her personal experiences and scientific nutritional foundations but additionally by addressing the psychological and behavioral implications of exercise and nutrition. Through her writing and work with clients, Maggie works to provide information that’s responsible, rational and backed up by research, science, and fact within the health and fitness industry.
Helms, Eric R, et al. “Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014, doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-20.
Longland, Thomas M, et al. “Higher Compared with Lower Dietary Protein during an Energy Deficit Combined with Intense Exercise Promotes Greater Lean Mass Gain and Fat Mass Loss: a Randomized Trial.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 103, no. 3, 2016, pp. 738–746., doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.119339.