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XII. What is Skinny-Fat Syndrome? Or a Skinny-Fat Ectomorph?

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What is Skinny-Fat Syndrome? What is a Skinny-Fat Ectomorph?

The smell of charcoal was in the air, which radiated with the heat that sizzled off the cars. The sun was high and the temperature was close to 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36 degrees Celsius).

Most everyone in the mass of people tailgating for the baseball game was drinking, eating, and having a good time. The crowd was diverse. Some were super obese with hot dogs in holsters waiting for hunger to strike. Others did the same, yet sported a six-pack.

This puzzled me. Although one day isn’t representative of an entire lifestyle, I saw a bunch of different people that were just that: different. Unless you have an identical twin, your genetic makeup is unique to yourself.

But what makes skinny-fat unique? Anything? Let’s define what it means to be skinny-fat, shall we?

The cliche somatotypes

In the strength and fitness world, we’re often told that everyone operates similarly. That certain body types don’t really exist. That everyone responds to the same thing in the same way. This is a shortsighted view. Considering everyone is their own genetic “snowflake,” predicting much of anything from one person to the next is difficult.

In years past, somatotypes were used to classify people into categories that shared similar traits. Although somatotypes were originally created for psychological purposes, they somehow migrated to fitness. There are three.

skinny fat somatotypes

Endomorphs (leftmost) live on one side of the spectrum. They gain weight easily and have a difficult time staying lean. They are usually short. Just think Wario.

Ectomorphs (rightmost) live on the other side. They are usually thin with longer limbs and have difficulty gaining weight. Just think Luigi.

Mesomorphs (center) split the middle and can usually put on muscle fairly well while also staying lean. Just think Mario. Well, the new age cool Mario. Not the old and fat version.

Although these designations were used for behavioral purposes, they categorize three rather different (and distinct) body types. The problem, however: not everyone falls cleanly into one category.

So what is skinny-fat syndrome?

It seems like a rather easy question to answer: what is skinny-fat syndrome? But this isn’t as easy as it seems, as lots of people email me wondering if they are, indeed, skinny-fat.

skinny fat phenotype

Skinny-fat sufferers have a fabled body type. Some even say it doesn’t exist, but it’s real. Very real. I know, of course, because I’m skinny-fat. If you were to stick with the somatotype theme, skinny-fatness would be an ectomorph-endomorph mix. A more user friendly list of characteristics:

  • Apparently thin in clothes, but bare skin reveals otherwise
  • Cheerio sized wrists
  • Weak, non-muscled, string bean arms
  • Love handles, lower stomach, and lower chest are main areas of fat accumulation
  • Dilapidated deltoids
  • Wide waist
  • A sunken upper chest
  • The propensity to sew satchels of fat around the waistline

In other words, we have naturally narrow shoulders and naturally small wrists. This makes for a naturally undermuscled look. Most of our fat goes to our lower chest and love handle region.

Truly, skinny-fat syndrome is the ultimate downer because it takes the negatives from two of the three somatoypes.

  • Endomorphs – gain fat easily.
  • Ectomorphs – find muscle building difficult.
  • Mesomorphs – don’t really get fat and can build muscle without much issue.
  • Skinny-fats – gain fat easily and find muscle building difficult.

So even though endomorphs get fat easily, they can usually build muscle. And even though ectomorphs have trouble gaining muscle, at least they are lean. Skinny-fat? The worst of both worlds. The rich get richer.

Is skinny-fatness genetic?

These somatotype designations aren’t law. They are generalizations that spawned out of psychology, not necessarily physical training. A lot of times, they are overused, and I just added to that problem.

Nevertheless, they are useful and you do tend to characteristic body types that float around. I’m sure you have that token ectomorph in your life that you know will be lean and thin until his or her end of days. (I hate you, Bobby.)

But that brings up an interesting point. Are these somatotypes — no matter how vague — genetic? And if they are genetic, is where anything that can be done about it?

 

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13 comments… add one

  • Is there a difference between a “true” skinny-fat person and an ectomorph that’s gone pudgy? I ask because I’m a short skinny guy (bony arms, skinny wrists and shoulders, etc.) who, through years of mediocre food (too many french fries and donuts) and lack of consistent exercise had developed a potbelly, but after a little over three months of weight training three days a week (squats, deads, bench, overhead and some curls, flyes, rows and supplemental back work) and a better diet (roughly a 200 calorie deficit per day), I’ve lost two and a half inches around my waist and developed visible biceps, pecs, etc. I know a lot of this is “noob gainz” (and the waist measurement is already slowing to half an inch a month instead of one inch) but still, I seem to be making decent progress.

    Reply
    • There’s no such thing as a “true” anything. It’s all a mixture of genetics and environment, unless you have a certain genetic condition. Skinny-fatness itself isn’t a genetic condition. See latest post about this.

      Reply
      • You always seem to be one post away from answering the questions that pop up in my mind! I wasn’t a skinny-fat person in high school (even though I ate a fair amount of crap, I played tennis and mountain-biked around 50 miles a week on the trails) or even in college (even though I ate an even crappier diet, I walked everywhere), so I think my skinny-fatness is due in large part to “middle-aged spread” (in other words, despite regular skinny genes, a mediocre lifestyle has finally caught up with me), but regardless of cause, I am more or less aiming for a thick chest and a thin belly, rather than the other way around, so I will continue to follow your advice. I initially got into the whole weight training thing for health–mental as much as physical–rather than appearance, but if I’m already doing about 75 percent of things right, it’s no great sacrifice to switch from flat bench to incline if it’s going to help me look better in the long run. I’ve got another three inches or so to take off my waistline before I hit a good solid base, but the rest of me is looking good and feeling better, and my lifts continue to progress, so I think I’m on the right track.

        And I don’t think I’ve said it before, but thank you for putting this resource out there.

        Reply
        • Thanks. Sounds like you need some strength training in your life.

          Reply
          • I’ve got it in my life and I absolutely love it. Three times a week, a pretty basic work-out centered mostly on squats, deadlifts, overhead pressing and bench pressing (although I’ll probably be aiming toward inclines instead of flat bench), plus accessory exercises with free weights and a little bit of cable stuff (lat pull downs, face pulls and the like).

            I really had no intention of getting into this stuff, but my other half badgered me into joining a gym. I was like, “Fine, I’ll read books on my phone and pedal the stationary bike while you work out or whatever,” but three months later, I’ll wake up in the morning completely psyched that I get to go train my overhead press after work or whatever. We had our body fat taken and some basic measurements (waist, arms, chest, legs) when we signed up, and seeing those measurements change over time has really kept me motivated, as has seeing my lifts go up from basically nothing to doing 10 reps of my own body-weight on the deadlift in three months.

            Plus, after my first really hard workout, I had this light bulb moment where I was like, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to feel like, mentally and emotionally! This is my baseline. What I THOUGHT was my baseline was actually more like mild depression…good to know, I guess!”

            Anyway, wanting to know more about the whole weight training thing and how diet played a role, plus poking around places like Nerd Fitness and the like, is what eventually led me over here. (And if you do a Google search on something like “skinny fat cut or bulk,” you end up here right away.)

          • Hah, good to know Google knows who I am ;)

            Thanks for the response, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the process.

  • Hello Anthony,

    How can I find out what the 8 Essential Exercises are? I do not see them when I click on the link above. I’ve been doing this program called Stronglifts 5 x 5 for about 6 months and I am ready for something different which targets the skinny-fat areas of concern.

    Reply
  • Anthony Holland January 12, 2014 7:15 am

    A very importnat note: Skinny-fats need to focus on RAW foods and should stay away from gluten and dairy! I’m a skinny fat, in my yought as well in my teens, but I overcame it. I focussed on pretty low carb, moderate fat and high protein meals/foods. Whole eggs, chicken, white fish and all kinds of veggies and lots of fruit. Almonds and coconut oil/butter where/are also a stapple of my diet. For carbs, I eat them once a day, A HUGE carb meal, lots of oats and fruit… or potatoes/rice with lots of veggies. Always after my weight/bodyweight training session r on my off-days I eat all my carbs at lunchtime.

    Now I am at 4-5% bodyfat and have a musculair build. But still the symptoms of the skinny-fat. For me it’s still hard to put on lean muscle and my tiny wrist and ankles show the skinny-fat sundrome even more. When I should back to a normal eating/sleeping regim, I would be at 15-18% bodyfat in no-time.

    However, nice read Anthony. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Thanks. I think keeping wheat/dairy (specifically milk) on check and doing some experimentation with them is a good idea for everyone. Some people are fine with them, others not so much.

      Reply
  • Hello Anthony, you mentioned fat around your chest which I have! I’ve been dieting for a few months now and noticed my body leaning out (trying to get to the solid base) but my chest still seems to be lagging behind! How can I tackle the fat around my chest? Seems to be the most stubborn !

    Reply
    • Keep going. Don’t try to spot reduce. Evidence points to it MAYBE being possible, but more than likely, trying to do it will only slow your progress. Your body will choose where it decides to vaporize the body fat. All you can do is encourage that process to continue.

      Reply

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