In my experience training over 100 skinny-fat men in my online coaching program, the skinny-fat body-type is BY FAR the hardest to transform and there’s a huge lack of quality training programs for our unique body-type.
Being skinny-fat means that you lack muscle tone while being soft around your lower waist.
In clothes, a skinny-fat guy looks like a regular guy, but once the clothes come off all the flab and softness is revealed.
Skinny-fat guys find it difficult to gain even small amounts of muscle tone and we gain fat “just by looking at food”.
Most of us also find it extremely difficult to gain muscle mass on our upper body, especially around the shoulders, upper chest, upper back and arms.
This is especially the case if you subscribe to the notion that lifting heavy weights will help you sculpt your physique.
In the beginning of this blog, I wrote a post about one of the most popular strength training routines: Starting Strength created by the fitness trainer Mark Rippetoe.
The post was titled “Why You Shouldn’t Do Starting Strength As A Beginner” and it created a huge discussion within the fitness community with over 200,000 views.
On the one hand, we had the “Rippetistas” – Mark Rippetoe fanatics who follow and preach his advice as the only truth out there.
They believe that lifting heavy and getting as strong as possible on the compound lifts is the only “real” way for a natural lifter to build a muscular physique.
If you aren’t squatting 400 pounds and weighing over 200 pounds you are considered skinny, weak and under muscled.
On the other hand, we have me and other guys who actually managed to build impressive physiques despite having lifts that are nothing impressive.
Now, the big question is: Should YOU do strength training if you want to build an aesthetic physique?
The short answer is: Yes, you should always do some heavy resistance training, but the capacity in which you do it, should change over time.
After you build a foundational level of strength, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and additional strength gains will do little in regards to muscle gains:
Once you reach this foundational level of strength you want to change up most of your training so it becomes similar to that of a bodybuilder: Higher reps, more sets, lower rest time between sets and higher time-under-tension.
In this article, I will show you my results in my first year of strength training and explain why strength doesn’t necessarily equal muscle gains.
Based on this, I will explain when you should do strength training, what routine you should follow and how it all fits into the big picture of your Skinny-Fat Transformation.
Once you’ve read the article, you will know exactly what I would do to transform my physique in the fastest time possible if I could go back to February 2010 where I was a skinny-fat beginner.
Gaining 704 Pounds On My 5 Key Lifts In 1 Year
The first training routine I ever followed was Kethnaab’s Modified Starting Strength Routine for bodybuilders. It looked like this:
- Barbell Squat 3 x 5
- Barbell Bench Press 3 x 5
- Barbell Deadlift 1 x 5
- Barbell Squat 3 x 5
- Barbell Military Press 3 x 5
- Barbell Row 3 x 5 (the original Starting Strength program would replace barbell row with power clean 5 x 3)
The workout was performed 3 times a week on non-consecutive days to allow for recovery and the purpose was to add weight to the bar each workout while gaining muscular bodyweight.
I followed Starting Strength for the majority of a year. (About 8 months into training I made the switch to the intermediate lifting routine called MadCow 5×5 which is very similar to Starting Strength. I also added assistance exercises for arms and abs which were done at the end of each workout.)
During my first year of training, I made the following gains on my 5 key exercises:
Note: The starting numbers are all precise, but the after numbers may be off by 5-10 pounds. Also, all lift numbers are my 5 rep max.
I did everything “according to the textbook”.
I lifted heavy and I increased my weight as often as possible.
I ate a high protein-high carb-low fat bodybuilding diet and supplemented with creatine, multivitamin, post-workout protein, vitamin D, calcium and fish oil.
All of this hard work resulted in me gaining 704 pounds on my 5 key lifts in my first year of training while gaining 35 pounds of bodyweight at a height of 6’2″.
According to Lyle McDonald’s Muscle Gains Formula, a beginner should be able to gain 20-25 pounds of muscle mass in his first year of proper training, therefore one would assume that I gained 20-25 pounds of muscle mass and the remaining 10-15 pounds would be fat, right?
Unfortunately, that was not the case as you can see in my before-after picture:
The first picture was taken 7 months into strength training and the second picture was taken 12 months into strength training. (I lost my shirtless before-pictures a few years ago, but I looked pretty much the same as I did 7 months into training.)
I’m not sure about how much muscle mass I gained in my first year of training, since it was hidden under my fat, but I’m confident that it was much less than the 20-25 pounds one can expect.
A guess would be that I gained 10 pounds of muscle mass and 25 pounds of fat. And most importantly, the little muscle mass that I gained, went to my thighs, glutes, lower chest, abs, traps and lower back.
My arms, shoulders, upper chest and lats barely gained any size. In other words, I gained strength and size, but I just became a bigger version of my former self. I didn’t improve my aesthetics at all.
The reasoning is that an increase in strength does not necessarily lead to improved aesthetics.
Strength Does Not Equal Aesthetics
A lot of people believe that progressive overload will magically lead to a better physique. It doesn’t.
There’s not a single impressive skinny-fat transformation out there that was solely a result of a strength based training routine. I’ve googled for years, and I’ve asked several strength-training advocates to post just ONE impressive skinny-fat transformation that was a result of lifting heavy. So far, I’ve received just 1 transformation in an entire year, and it’s mediocre to say the least.
In contrast, I’ve encountered plenty of people who used big words to convince me otherwise.
Here’s your typical Starting Strength before-after picture:
And, here’s one of many comments/emails I’ve received from many SFT-readers about Starting Strength:
And here’s a comment from my topic at bodybuilding.com:
Those are just 2 out of dozens of comments/messages that I received about strength training leading to lackluster results. Need I say more?
WHY Strength Does Not Equal Aesthetics: The CNS
Let’s go back to my first year of training.
I gained a ton of strength, but I didn’t acquire aesthetics.
In contrast, during the past years, I haven’t improved my compound lifts much (maybe added 5-10 pounds here or there), yet I’ve made much better muscle gains.
And most importantly, I’ve gained my muscle mass in the right places.
Now, I’ll tell you why that was the case.
First, when you lift heavy, you stress the central-nervous-system (CNS) to a much higher degree compared to using higher reps and light-moderate weights.
When you stress the CNS a lot, you aren’t able to train often, since your body will need to recover for a longer period of time compared to when you just break down muscle. This is why most strength routines are only performed 3 times a week.
However, if you look at most bodybuilding routines, they are performed 4-6 days a week. There’s a reason to why bodybuilders, the people on earth with the most muscle mass train more often: IT WORKS. Unfortunately, most people are unable to lift heavy 4-6 days a week!
Furthermore, many of the strength gains you experience are a result of your CNS adapting to higher loads and improvements in lifting technique, rather than your muscles growing bigger! A good way to think about this is to think of it as you “learning” how to lift more weight, rather than tearing down muscles.
Second, when you lift heavy in the 1-5 rep range with compound movements, you don’t focus on using your target muscle to lift the weight. Instead, you use momentum, swing and your strongest muscle groups to perform the reps.
This may impress other guys at the gym, but it won’t build much muscle mass in your weak muscle groups. For example, if you do heavy bench presses and your chest is lagging, but your shoulders and triceps are strong, you will use your shoulders and triceps to push the weight rather than your lagging chest! This will lead to heavier weights being lifted, but your chest will stay small.
Therefore, heavy weights make it difficult to build muscle in the right places, since you will always be using your strongest muscle groups to lift the weight.
Third, even if you introduce assistance exercises like I did in my first year of training, you won’t benefit much from them, since you will be doing them at the end of your workouts when you’re tired from the heavy lifting.
It’s difficult to progress on chin ups and dips when you have trashed your entire upper body with deadlifts, military presses and bench presses.
Does This Mean Strength Training Is Useless?
Not at all.
Strength training has its place in every persons’ training career.
Think of strength training as a foundation for a house.
If you build a solid foundation, everything else will fall into place.
If your foundation is crap, the house will be crap too.
The key to implement strength training is to introduce it at the right time, have the right expectations in mind and to know when to switch to specialised training.
In the next section, I will explain when exactly you should do strength training.
5 Phases of The Ideal Skinny-Fat Transformation
Note: Regular fat guys (endomorphs), athletic guys (mesomorphs) and skinny guys (ectomorphs) can use the strategy presented below, but skip step 1.
If I was skinny-fat today, and I had to do it all over again, I would do my transformation as follows below:
Phase 1: Get Lean and Master Bodyweight Exercises
Reason: When you carry excess body-fat your hormones are not optimised for muscle gains so you won’t gain much muscle mass from ANY kind of training you do. Diet is key to lose the excess body-fat. In the meanwhile, you want to master the basic bodyweight exercises to prepare yourself for “harder” training.
Phase 2: Build The Strength Foundation
Do variations of GreySkull LP with arm plug-in to build strength and muscle while eating around maintenance for as long as strength gains occur. When strength gains stop, you increase calories with about 300 above maintenance to keep them going. The goal would be to reach a 2 x bodyweight deadlift, 1.5 x bodyweight squat and 1 x bodyweight bench press while keeping weight gains to a minimum. You want to stay at 10-15% body-fat at all times. The short bulking and cutting cycles would be ideal here.
Reason: You need a solid strength base. GreySkull LP is in my opinion the best way to reach that strength base. I haven’t tried the routine myself, but I know from experience that the principles work, and I cannot see any other beginner routine out there that matches it.
Phase 3: Lose The Excess Chub While Maintaining Strength
Lose the excess fat you gained while bulking up to get to 10-12% body-fat again while maintaining your strength. The key here is to avoid making these 7 fat loss mistakes.
Reason: You want to prepare your body for the next phase: hypertrophy training where you focus on gaining muscle in the right places. You prepare it by losing fat. Never go above 15% body-fat.
Phase 4: Becoming “Muscular” By Training and Eating Like a Bodybuilder
Reason: After you got a 2 x bodyweight deadlift, 1.5 x bodyweight squat and 1 x bodyweight bench press, the law of diminishing returns kicks in – you don’t benefit much from further strength gains if muscle mass is your goal. Instead, you should focus on higher rep training, shorter rest time between sets and do short bulking and cutting cycles to stay lean year-around.
Phase 5: Getting Jacked Through Instinctive Training and Eating
Train and eat instinctively. At this point, you should know your body better than anyone else. You will know when to eat, what to eat and how to train on a given day.
Reason: You don’t want to follow a routine on a piece of paper for the rest of your life. Get in tune with your body to maximise your results!
The Ideal Skinny-Fat Transformation: Expectations and Time-Frame
Phase 1: Get Lean and Master Bodyweight Exercises
Phase 1 should take you about 6 months to accomplish if you’re the average skinny-fat guy at 25-30% body-fat who can’t do a single chin up. (Add or subtract 1-3 months depending on your situation and work ethic.) During this time, you can expect to lose weight, gain reps on the basic bodyweight exercises and go from skinny-fat to skinny. Most skinny-fat guys will feel like they start looking like “skeletons” during this phase, but that’s fine. It’s only a preparation phase. It’s similar to learning stuff in school. You may dread learning the basics, and it may be boring, but once you learn them the more advanced classes become A LOT easier and more fun to attend. Here’s how SFT reader, Daniel Habtegebreal from Canada who lost got lean while going from 4 to 14 pull ups in just 3 months:
And here’s a picture of SFT-reader Tommy Nguyen who lost almost 40 pounds and got to 15 chin ups:
Phase 2: Build The Strength Foundation
Phase 2 is a tricky one. I put 2 x BW deadlift, 1.5 x BW squat and 1 x BW bench press as benchmarks to aim for, but the truth is that the benchmarks will differ. My benchmarks are based on the tall guy who has long arms, long legs and is a natural weak squatter and bench presser.
Therefore, guys that are shorter, and on the lighter side may have to aim for a 1.25-1.5 x BW bench press and 2 x BW squat and 2 x BW deadlift.
Phase 2 should take around 6-12 months to complete depending on your situation. This will be one of the hardest phases, since you will have to learn the compound lifts, address flexibility issues and consistently add weight to the bar.
Phase 3a: Lose The Excess Chub While Maintaining Strength
Phase 3 will be the easiest provided that you followed step 2 correctly. Here, you just have to lose the excess fat you gained during your strength training phase, while following the same routine you used to build the strength.
If you stayed at 10-15% body-fat while building your foundation, step 3 should take no more than 2 months to complete.
It’s crucial to keep in mind that you want to cut the excess weight slowly and train your ass off as if you were still bulking. If you do this, you may find that you gain additional strength during your cut!
Here’s how such a cut could look, again using Rody as an example:
Ideally, you will lose inches around your waist while increasing your strength here. To do that, you absolutely must cut slowly and train like a machine when you do your strength workouts. If you’re into counting calories, simply have your caloric deficit at 300 per day, and have 2 days where you eat 300 calories ABOVE maintenance to refeed your body. Preferably, those days will be on your training days and you will train in the evening for maximum energy (you will have more food in your system in the evening, thus more energy).
Here are 2 links to guides that will help you cut slowly:
- 7 Fat Loss Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
- The 5 Most Important Weight Loss Lessons To Get Lean and Stay Lean
Phase 3b (optional): Depleting Your Body To Prepare For Massive Gains
If you want to benefit the most from step 4, you want to do intense cardio 3 days a week for about 2 weeks at the end of step 3, while following a low-carb diet in a caloric deficit of about 300 calories. This will completely deplete your body and you will get lean and lose some size, but once you jump on the Beginner Pump Routine and start eating a lot of carbs again, you will EXPLODE in size.
Now, I would usually never recommend a low-carb diet and I never do them myself anymore, but there’s a time and place for everything, and in this case, the low-carb diet can be used strategically for “the greater good”.
Here’s how I looked at the end of a depletion phase where I had lost 60 pounds in total over 18 months:
In the picture above I was about 177 pounds at I would guess around 8% body-fat and I could deadlift 400 pounds. This is what I believe a guy can look like after a proper cut in step 3. Keep in mind that while I had some good stats and looked great in this particular picture (perfect lighting, angle, pump etc.), I looked skinny and starved in real life which brings me to the next point…
Phase 4: Become “Muscular” By Training and Eating Like a Bodybuilder
You will feel like shit for 2 weeks doing low-carbs and intense cardio, but after those 2 weeks are done and you introduce a proper bodybuilding routine and carbs, you can gain anything between 15-20 pounds in the FIRST month of following step 4.
This is what happened for me back in late 2012 where I went from around 177 pounds to 194 pounds in 1 month (the first picture is me at the end of my depletion phase, this time you can see how skinny I was):
When you’re lean, depleted and you have a solid strength base, you will see some of the best muscle gains of your whole training career once you reintroduce carbs and jump on a proper bodybuilding routine.
This is about the point where I remember people started calling me “big” on a consistent basis and this is also the time where you want to push yourself to the limit. You disregard the whole notion of “overtraining” and start looking for ways to gradually make your workouts harder, longer and more frequent.
When you make your workouts harder, longer and more frequent and you combine that with a caloric surplus, you will keep gaining muscle. Here’s how I looked after about 5 months of doing the beginner pump routine, cheerleading partner stunts and calisthenics:
Ideally, you will follow 2-3 different bodybuilding routines over 6 months during step 4 to learn what works best for you.
Phase 5: Getting Jacked Through Instinctive Training and Eating
As you gain more experience, you will start training and eating instinctively and that can lead to some amazing gains again, similar to those you had after your depletion phase (step 5). In my case, I learned that my body responds best to what most people would call “overtraining”: high volume, high intensity, moderate frequency.
I would (and still do) trash the muscle groups I want to grow 2-3 days a week with high volume training (+20 sets), moderate-high reps (8-20 reps) and use high intensity techniques such as dropsets on a large number of my sets.
Furthermore, during this phase, I’ve learned that eating correctly can lead to much higher testosterone levels, and when you combine that with a solid strength base, good sleep and instinctive training, you are in for some amazing gains. During my last 2 month bulk, I’ve lost half an inch around my waist, while gaining over 4 inches on my chest circumference! (Article about that will be up soon!)
The gains I’ve experienced have been similar to what most people call “beginner gains” – something that I never had, but that I finally experience now that I have my training and eating dialled in.
Here’s how I looked in April 2014 after training and eating instinctively for about 1 year (around 190 pounds at around 8-10% body-fat):
And, here’s a pic from December 2014 where I’m almost 200 pounds at 11.9% body-fat:
Disclaimer: Calves are a bit smaller than my arms but they have actually grown during this bulk which I’m happy about! Training them hard 4-6 days a week helped!
The interesting part is that my lifts are probably about the same or a bit weaker than they were in my pic after my 1st year of training where I was a fat slob with no shoulders, upper pecs, arms or lats, but I look like a different person.
This is additional proof that while strength training is a great tool to build a solid foundation, it is not the main tool to build a jacked, aesthetic physique.
To sum it up, the ideal skinny-fat transformation has the following time-frames and expected “looks” at the end of each phase:
- Phase 1: 6 months (after phase 1 you will be “skinny”)
- Phase 2: 6-12 months (after phase2 2 you will be “average/slightly built and strong”)
- Phase 3: 2 months (after phase 3 you will look “lean”)
- Phase 4: 6 months (after phase 4 you will look “muscular”)
- Phase 5: Forever (after following phase 5 for a year or so you will look “jacked”)
In other words, it will take you around 14-20 months to have that lean “beach look“, 20-26 months to look “muscular” and 32-38 months to look “jacked” provided that you follow the strategy above consistently. (Those are conservative numbers though!)
For convenience’s sake let’s just say it takes 1.5 years to get beach ready, 2 years to look “muscular” and 3 years to look jacked. Those are in my experience realistic numbers to aim for, for the drug-free skinny-fat guy who trains and eats properly.
To give you some perspective, it took me over 4 years to look what I consider “jacked” which is over 1 year longer than the conservative numbers I put above. The main reason to why it took me so long to get to the “finish line” was that I bulked before I cut and the secondary reason is that I believed in overtraining. Therefore, avoid making these 2 crucial mistakes if time is valuable to you!
If You Don’t Believe In Yourself, You’ve Already Lost!
Even though this website can help you reduce the time you spend on your skinny-fat transformation, it cannot reduce it to weeks or just a few months. The truth is that transforming will take a long time, and that’s why it’s crucial that you surround yourself with positivity.
Ideally, you will surround yourself with positive people that believe in you and you will watch motivational videos that pump you up. If you don’t have the option to be with people that support you, it’s better to do this ALONE – I did most of my transformation without any training partner or person encouraging me and telling me it can be done. The worst thing you can do is to be around negative people!
Don’t hang out on forums where people constantly talk about the dangers of overtraining and how everybody who has a great physique has great genetics and/or does steroids. I did that in the past, and whether those people are right or not, doesn’t actually matter. What matters is if you believe in yourself or not. If you don’t believe you can build a great physique, you have already lost!
I take those comments as a compliment though and I can’t blame people, because it’s hard to admit that someone has worked harder and been more persistent with their goals than you. However, for people reading this, they may take it as the truth and start thinking “it cannot be done”. That’s why you wanna ignore most internet forums and focus on your own training and eating instead!
For some inspiration for your transformation, be sure to check out my popular YouTube video below: