by Robert Santana, MS, RD, SSC Starting Strength
When I was 20 years old a friend of mine was concerned about “being fat” because his abs were not visible at a bodyweight of 5’10” 155 lb. My response to him was to gain “mass” (i.e. muscle mass) and he responded, “I have plenty of mass, I just need to lose the fat.” I’ve heard this quite often over the last two decades, and was guilty of saying it myself prior to learning a few things.
“Skinny fat” novices often display signs and symptoms of body dysmorphia, and are hyper-aware of the presence of fat mass on their bodies. They often have a history of weight cycling, crash dieting, and over-exercising accompanied by extreme attention to nutrition, having tried virtually every weight loss diet in existence. They report “getting down so far and not showing abs” or actually achieving visible abs at a low bodyweight (e.g. ~5’10” 140 lb). They are reluctant to eat surplus calories and gain appreciable bodyweight in fear of “getting too fat.” They are undermuscled for different reasons than the undermuscled lean novice.
The undermuscled lean novice is often underweight, or barely “normal weight,” shows visible abs, and struggles to gain bodyweight. This guy may gain 90 lb of bodyweight and squat 405 x 5 while maintaining a waistline under 40” by the end of it. In contrast, the skinny fat novice may have a normal BMI, or is barely “overweight,” and lacks any visible musculature, let alone abs. If this guy gains 90 lb he will likely have a waistline >40” and may only squat 200-300 x 5, which is a lower strength/lean mass ratio than the lean guy. The question becomes: What do we do with a guy who gains weight, does the program, and is still relatively weak?
We cannot address the underlying psychology, so let’s assume this is sorted to a point where training and nutrition consultation is appropriate. The skinny fat male novice understands that fat mass must be lost to achieve visible abs and believes that a body fat percentage of ≤10% is necessary to achieve this. He learned this from a fitness magazine, an internet article, or an Instagram infographic. He has dieted down to 5’10” 140 lb to achieve visible abs, only to realize he doesn’t like weighing 140 lb and it isn’t sustainable. At some point he realizes he needs to gain muscle, get stronger, and increase his macronutrient intake to accomplish the goal of “looking muscular.”
Most experts agree that caloric excess and bodyweight increases are necessary to increase muscle mass. Bodyweight increases typically consist of both fat and muscle mass. Progressive overload is the greatest contributor to gains in muscle mass, with nutrition secondary.
Before anyone starts lighting torches, remember that training is the stimulus and nutrient intake supports muscle growth in response to overload. A sedentary or lightly active guy who gains weight eating a perfect diet will not see measurable changes in muscle mass. Sure, some may be gained from supporting a heavier bodyweight, but not enough to warrant discussion. Attempting to out-eat a poor training program will result in a greater ratio of fat to muscle acquisition. Thus, everyone in this demographic should address their training first (see Part 1).
The macronutrient breakdown for this client is similar to that of most healthy clients: high in complex carbohydrates and fruit, moderate in fats, and high in protein. Carbohydrates are needed to fuel training, protein rebuilds damaged muscles, and fats don’t require conscious manipulation in the early stages of training. These lifters still need to eat more and still need the same nutrients. They have similarities to both obese and lean undermuscled novices. Fat is gained fairly quickly and muscle is gained very slowly. Thus, the variables of concern for these clients are the rate of weight gain and training responses.
A simple approach to minimizing excess fat gain is to match the nutritional intervention to the training demands. In the first 2-4 weeks of training, most novices complete all of their prescribed sets and repetitions due to light loads and neural adaptations. A high protein intake is typically the only recommendation needed at this time. As the lifts slow down and become increasingly difficult, carbohydrate and fat intake will also increase. Although carbohydrates facilitate improvements in performance, increasing them eventually becomes impractical (e.g. 450+ carbohydrate per day) and additional calories will be from fat. Weight gain is slow and steady and continues throughout the duration of the program. At the end of the Novice Linear Progression, our lifter will be heavier than he was at baseline and appear more muscular. He will not have visible abs but his traps, pecs, lats, and arms will be fuller, resulting in the appearance of a trained lifter.
Eventually, the lifter may say “Well I’m bigger and stronger but I need to get rid of this belly.” His concern is valid now, and he may have ended his linear progression with a little more fat in the mid-section than desired (~35-40”). He may have pushed up to 195 lb with a 38-40” waistline. This is an acute event that is easily addressed with calorie restriction and programming manipulation. A “mini-cut” can be prescribed to bring the waist circumference back down a normal level where it no longer “looks like a belly.” Additional weight gain is not indicated since it will add more fat mass, which will need to be lost later. Instead, a ~10-15 lb weight loss takes a few inches off of the waistline, improves his body image perception, and adds a buffer for another weight gaining cycle.
Transitioning to an intermediate training program will allow for recovery and ongoing progress since a caloric deficit is not compatible with the Novice Linear Progression. It is important to understand that this lifter is not a true intermediate. Rather, he may be ending his linear progression prematurely because he gained too much body fat as a function of his tendency to gain fat at a faster rate than he can gain muscle. The intermediate training recommendation serves the purpose of matching the lifter’s training to his ability to recover. Once the period of caloric deficit has ended and calories are increased, our previously skinny fat lifter (who now looks more muscular at 185 lb than he did before) can run another linear progression and squeeze out some more PRs before becoming a true intermediate.
The skinny fat novice is not a special population. Many untrained novices are undermuscled and some are lean, some are overweight or obese, and some are somewhere in between. Some gain muscle faster than others irrespective of baseline fat mass. The approach to novice training is identical in each of those situations. Maximizing upper body muscle acquisition is a function of taking care not to neglect your deadlifts, presses, bench presses, and chin-ups. Matching the lifter’s nutrition to the training demands is the key to skewing the weight gain away from fat mass and towards muscle mass and PRs. The product of this is a stronger lifter with visual evidence of training experience.