Article last updated: February 2018 by Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Trainer
He start with a shoulder press of 70 lbs for 5 reps. This guy is the kind of guy who is naturally athletic.
Another guy has narrow shoulders and is a hardgainer when it comes to gaining strength and muscle, but an easygainer when it comes to gaining fat from eating.
He starts with a shoulder press of 45 lbs for 5 reps. This is the skinny-fat hardgainer.
The 2 guys train together and follow a regular strength training routine with 5 reps on the compound lifts, and an emphasis on increasing weights as often as possible.
The athletic guy eats whatever he wants, when he wants and he keeps adding weight to his lifts everytime he trains.
In contrast, the skinny-fat guy eats a strict, high protein diet, and tries to increase his lifts as often as possible to keep up with his buddy.
The skinny-fat guy get’s to a 70 lbs press, then stalls (for 3 training sessions in a row he cannot add weight or reps to his press).
In the meanwhile, his athletic friend has built his shoulder press up to 130 lbs for 5 reps, and keeps gaining muscle while staying lean.
The skinny-fat guy thinks he has to eat more to keep up with his friend, so he does that… BUT he get’s fat instead of skinny-fat.
Then he does a low-carb diet to lose the fat he gained, but he notices that he can’t progress at the gym because of the lack of overall calories and carbs.
After a month he goes from fat, back to skinny-fatness, while his shoulder press stays at the same weight.
He looks at his training log, and he can see that 3 months have gone by and he has increased his shoulder press with 25 lbs, but he looks no different than when he started.
What if the skinny-fat guy worked harder and had a better diet and training program? Wouldn’t he then be able to get much better results?
Perhaps, but he would most likely still get worse results than his friend with good genetics. Just take a look at the case study below, and you’ll see why.
Case Study of 2 Athletes: Naturally Gifted vs. Hard Worker
Last Christmas, I read a great book called The Sports Gene which tries to answer the question of what’s most important in sports:
- Nurture (personal experiences, work ethic, training, diet) or
- Nature (innate traits, genetics)?
In this book, David Epstein, provided an example of 2 competitive highjumpers: Stefan Holm and Donald Thomas.
Holm trained high jump, since he was a kid. He spent 20 years focusing on high jump, often training 2 times a day, having limited time for girlfriends and a social life. In other words, he was a hard worker with the right environment to succeed.
In contrast, Donald Thomas became a high jumper by accident.
While he was in university, the best high jumper of the university dared him to clear a 6”6 high jump, because Thomas had been bragging about his slam-dunking abilities.
Thomas accepted the bet and easily cleared that. Two days later, he cleared over 6”8, and qualified for the national championship where he broke the university’s record.
Was that because Thomas trained hard or had a “better routine”? Definitely not.
His coach stated that Thomas often left during practice to get a drink, and then he would go play basketball for 40 minutes, because he thought that high jumps are ”boring”.
Thomas had limited practice and lacking interest in high jumps, but he made up for it by having the right genetics.
This case study is an extreme of what happens in reality (most people are average at things), but it provides some perspective for the skinny-fat guy.
The Hard-Working Skinny-Fat Guy
The case study provides perspective in the sense that there are very few real skinny-fat transformations out there, because it takes so much time and effort to go from skinny-fat to fit.
Usually, you see a “fat-to-fit” transformation where a guy carries a lot of fat, but has some muscle underneath, so once he loses the fat, he already looks decent.
Or, you see the “skinny-to-muscular” transformations where a skinny guy eats tons of food while lifting weights, and gains 30-50 lbs in a year or two while staying lean.
Once you see those kinds of transformations, you may be tempted to compare your own progress to them, but the sad reality is that it takes more time and effort to transform a skinny-fat body type than any other.
To go from the first picture, to the fourth I spent over 2.5 years training hard, and before that I had already spent 9 months at the gym lifting heavy (yes that’s right, I had been lifting for 9 months before the first picture).
I know guys in real life who are more muscular than I was after years of training, despite the fact that they rarely lift weights.
And that’s the reality of the whole “nature vs. nurture” debate; progress is painfully slow with crappy genetics.
Relating back to the example of the 2 lifting buddies, the skinny-fat guy is at a disadvantage before he even starts lifting weights:
- He needs to get lean
- His starting strength is much lower than average
- He is a hardgainer when it comes to building muscle, but easygainer when it comes to gaining fat
Once you start training as a skinny-fat guy, you need to spend time on fat loss (something the skinny guy doesn’t have to).
When you lean down, you will have to build a decent base of muscle to look good (something that most naturally fat guys already have).
And finally, when you are lean and have a good base of muscle, you will have to cycle bulking and cutting to stay lean.
At this point, gaining 5-10 lbs muscle a year is all you can ask for.
In other words, as a skinny-fat guy, you have to put in a lot of time and effort to become succesful, just like the high jumper Stefan Holm did.
Nature vs. Nurture – Can You “Make” It?
I have skinny-fat genetics, and I’ve been training for a year with no results… Can I make it?
Yes, you can, just look at my first and second picture. Those are 9 and 12 months into training respectively.
The whole “nature vs. nurture” debate in The Sports Gene tried to show that if you want to be the BEST at a sport, you most likely need the right genetics, the right environment and great work ethic.
But this doesn’t apply to building a good body.
The good news is that once you have built a good amount of muscle and have a lean body, it’s easy to maintain.
In the pic on the right I have been eating a bag of chips everyday for 10 days straight and a lot of junkfood, but I didn’t gain any fat, because my body works in a completely different way compared to when I was skinny-fat.
But, to get to that point, you need the right mindset.
The Right Mindset to Transform
After reading that case study and relating it to my own 4 years at the gym, I can safely say that it’s a complete waste of time to compare your progress with the progress of other people.
Stefan Holm had to practice much longer than Donald Thomas to achieve greatness, but in the end he made it.
The year after the World Championship where he lost to Thomas and got silver, he won gold at the Olympics.
Just like Stefan Holm achieved greatness, you can transform yourself, as long as you focus on what YOU can change:
- Get good sleep
- Eat well
- Reduce stress
- Stay consistent with your training
- Surround yourself with supportive people
When you don’t see results as quickly as other people on fitness forums or your friends at the gym, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing everything wrong.
It may just mean that you have crappy genetics, and your best weapon against crappy genetics is focusing on the things YOU can change and put in the time:
- Instead of thinking about why you “can’t” gain muscle or lose fat, start thinking about how you can make new habits that will help you get lean and/or gain muscle.
- Instead of thinking about getting ripped for the summer, start thinking about how cool it could be to be that “old guy” at the gym who is in better shape than everyone else.
You need to think about fitness as a marathon rather than a sprint.
While most guys will quit training within a year or two, you want to be the guy who keeps training while squeezing out any gains possible.
Who cares if you have to put in 3 or 5 years of hard work to build a body you’re proud of as long as you make it in the end?
Image Credit (Donald Thomas): EO Kenny
Image Credit (Stefan Holm): Henrik Ismarker