Digging Further on the Skinny-Fat Should I Bulk or Cut? Question

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Last year, I wrote an article on my feelings on whether or not someone (especially skinny-fat sufferers) should bulk or cut (read it here). I still get tons of questions on the subject, most of which go something like this: “I read your article, but I was wondering if I should bulk or cut? I’m “x” height and “y” weight. I don’t have a lot of muscle, and if I cut I’m afraid I’d be really underweight.”

Given the latter half of the question — the bit about being underweight — does my answer change? Should you still cut if you’re worried about becoming underweight?

Should you worry about being “underweight?”

Let me start with some tough love: you aren’t a delicate and unique flower. I wrote the original article for you, and I’m writing this for all of the other you’s out there that have their fingers ready to type this question.

The you I’m talking about, I guess, is the person that’s similar to my old skinny-fat self. Part of this whole skinny-fat thing is . . . skinny, so I assume you aren’t naturally muscled like Goku. Yet a commonality among most recent Should I Bulk or Cut? questions is this idea of being underweight.

There’s a worry for being underweight, which is a viable concern. No one wants to end up emaciated and fragile. But the flaw in this thinking is that we’re also talking about losing body fat.

You can’t really be underweight and overfat unless you’re going by BMI, and the BMI is a sham of a tool used by medical professionals on primarily sedentary populations.

You are not underweight.

But you are something else.

You aren’t underweight, you’re…

You probably aren’t underweight unless you look like one of those models. You know, those models. And yes, I’m talking to the men out there. What you are, instead, is undermuscled.

Super_Skinny_Models

The only way you’re going to turn into an emaciated pile of bones is by starving yourself of nutrition and starving yourself of strength training. If you hop on a good strength program and get your nutrition in check, you will build muscle if you’re a newbie to training. Ergo, you can gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously. And there isn’t anything much sweeter or heralded in the training world, so you better soak it up before the tough get goin’.

There still, however, persists a fear.

“What if I don’t gain muscle?”

And if that’s the question, I ask: why won’t you gain muscle? There are many quality programs out there for free, and then there’s The Skinny-Fat Solution.

Chances are you’re telling yourself a story of muscle gain and fat loss. You hear all of the tales told by the experienced, battle wounded guys about muscle wasting away on “cuts” and calorie deficits — something that can very well happen. But the logic isn’t quite there because you probably aren’t experienced enough for that reality.

I’m just one dude, but I gained muscle on a shady training program when I was a newbie while simultaneously losing body fat. I didn’t get hyooge or anything, but you can see a visible difference in the amount of muscle I was carrying.

comparison

So I’m not saying you’re going to blow up as you lose fat, but you can surely add some meat on those bones. If you go at things better than I did — and you will if you browse around my website and get to know good training methods — your results will only be better.

Ah, but there’s another caveat.

“I’m not a beginner, so I won’t be able to build muscle and lose fat.”

To that, my answer: if you aren’t a beginner then you have to already have some muscle on your bones, which means you won’t be emaciated. You might be skinnier than you’d like, but you wouldn’t be underweight. You can’t be underweight and have muscle tone unless your definition of underweight is something that really isn’t underweight.

Capiche?

Now, if you’re worried about being undermuscled, then that’s a worthy concern. I’m not going to pretend like I wasn’t rather skinny in my after picture above, despite adding muscle to my previous frame. But if you start from that base structure, all that’s left is dialing into your training and nutrition.

From there, you can build muscle without getting fat. That’s not to say you can build hundreds of pounds of lean athletic hybrid exotic <insert flashy word here> muscle tissue in ten weeks. But with something like the Chaos Bulk, you might just add that 10-15 pounds of muscle that makes you to feel good about yourself over the span of one year. And then when you throw another year on top, you look like a new person — all while never fattening up like a cow and never doing a devastating calorie deprived hamster treadmill treading cut.

What it comes down to…

I think people have this impression that they’re going to build all of the muscle they want in one short bulking cycle. This bulk will obviously include some fat gain, as all popular “gain as much weight in as little time as possible” bulks seem to end up doing.

But there’s a greater-than-great chance that you won’t build an amount of muscle you’re satisfied with on any “bulk” that lasts less than three-four months. And if you can’t do that, that means you’re looking forward to a life of many bulking and cutting cycles.

If you’re skinny-fat, you’ve lived with the “fat” baggage long enough to grow tired of it — at least, that was the case with me. In that respect, slashing the fat and then building yourself up brick by brick over time is much more mentally calming. You can be confident about yourself body fat wise, even if you aren’t there muscular wise. In contrast, on a bulk, you’ll have neither.

Just from my experience, it’s going to take one or two years to build the muscle you want to build, regardless of going on a “bulk” or not.

That should peel another layer off the Should I Bulk or Cut? onion from my perspective for now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we have to go one more layer deep down the line.

MAYBE YOU’RE A SUCKER


You can’t fool me.

I know this isn’t your first rodeo, trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of.

But you’re not a quitter, which is why you’re here.

You might be a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

36 comments… add one
  • Leanette July 22, 2013, 11:22 pm

    What’s the best way to measure fat percentage? Handheld, scale? Calipers are crap because it’s dependent on how much tissue you grab.

    • Dajve July 23, 2013, 5:14 am

      I used to use a scale which, although inaccurate, were consistent enough to measure change over time. Nowadays I find the best method is to monitor ab visibility in the mirror and how you feel about your figure. It doesn’t matter what the exact number is (unless you’re competing, I guess, but then you can go for fancy DEXA tests etc), so long as you’re happy with what the mirror shows.

      • Anthony July 24, 2013, 1:00 pm

        This is a good point – no matter what you use, if you’re consistent it will track some progress. The thing with BIA (scales, handhelds) is that they fluctuated based on hydration and such. You have to take them under daily identical conditions.

    • Anthony July 24, 2013, 12:57 pm

      Scales suck. Handhelds suck. Both of those suck the most. Calipers from someone that know what they’re doing are the most economic, save for underwater weighing or DEXA.

  • Joel July 23, 2013, 1:50 am

    You look hyooge in that new picture on the top of your new blog. Good post since this topic crossed my mind since I’m a low weight. But I have gained a little bit using chaos.

    • Anthony July 24, 2013, 12:59 pm

      Thanks.

      • Traindom July 24, 2013, 5:33 pm

        I agree with him. I was taken back. Many props to you, Anthony. Fuuuuaaaarrrkkk (Zyzz reference in case you are not familiar with this; it’s a compliment, lol).

        • Anthony July 26, 2013, 11:57 am

          Hah, thanks man.

  • Sam July 23, 2013, 3:26 pm

    Aurgh, wish I had never seen the photos of those models!

    Thanks for the reminder to be patient. We all want to see gains in a month, or 90 days, and it’s disappointing when not much happens. You show what can be done with a year, and then several more years, of consistent effort…

    • Anthony July 24, 2013, 1:09 pm

      Beyond several years.

  • David July 23, 2013, 5:39 pm

    a very good read, like always.
    I think short people with light bones structure (like myself) have a good reason to be afraid to look too thin. we all want to look like men =]

    • Anthony July 24, 2013, 1:10 pm

      The conception of a “man” is so screwed up these days that it doesn’t matter anyway.

  • Yannick Noah July 24, 2013, 2:39 am

    Great post ant. i have several questions though. and ill try to make it as comprehensible as possible. Since a person may worry about being undermuscled, then would it be possible if he just continues to build muscle and not addressing fat loss (getting to the solid base) as the main goal ?A follow up question would be is it optimal for a skinny fat person, not at his solid base,”clean bulk” in accordance with the calorie intake to build mass (ie: bodyweight x 16-20 and carb cycling), and gain muscle without gaining fat? Because it has been said that when we are at our solid base we are able to take food more efficiently.thanks

    • Anthony July 24, 2013, 1:13 pm

      Most people above their solid base WON’T clean bulk. It’s too tough to gauge the change. Going from 15%-17% body fat isn’t all that noticeable. Going from six pack to no six pack is noticeable, and that’s why the solid base exists.

      In order to gain muscle without getting fat, you need that visual feedback to help guide your calorie intake, and in order to have that you need to have some kind of prominent visual marker. You don’t have that at 15% or whatever.

      • Nate July 24, 2013, 7:10 pm

        Hey Ant,

        if we would continue that thought, what if you are at the solid base (solid 4 pack) but then get some fat (more like a 2 pack atm, still solid base though). how do i proceed now? using your weight loss-template until lower bf % then muscle gain template again?

        thanks for your answer a priori.

        • Anthony July 26, 2013, 11:58 am

          I don’t think a two pack is solid base level. Four might be. I’d need a picture.

  • raoul mangoensentono (@m_raoul) July 25, 2013, 11:11 am

    That was a good read. It was good to hear that it will take more than a year to build the body I want to get. Trained now for 4 months (with the idea to get some abs for the beach). I don’t have abs yet but I’m fitter now, can run 5km (what I never thought I could do) and I feel stronger.
    So I will stay commited and see what will happen in the next year.

    • Anthony July 26, 2013, 12:22 pm

      Myelination takes time! Be da Vinci and the old school artists — become an apprentice and learnnnn. Takes a while.

  • Jordan July 28, 2013, 1:43 am

    I think an added benefit of being lean is the simplistic nature of progressing in the future. I think Martin Berkhan wrote a good article about the “secret benefit of being lean”.

    I have been working on getting to my solid base slowly for the past few months. I cannot wait to just stop worrying about the process of getting lean, and just worry about progressing in my lifts.

    • Anthony July 29, 2013, 7:15 pm

      It’s good mental clarity for those that have had that baggage.

  • Marco August 4, 2013, 10:45 am

    Anthony,
    if one is very UNDERMUSCLED and with a little abdominal fat, is there a maximum quantity of workouts (weighttraining) per week he should do in order to maximize results?

    I mean: beyond 3 times a week, does weighttraining become useless or even counterproductive?

    A very big guy some times ago, told me that the whole concept of overtraining is a bit overvalued and that the overtraining concept only applies to professionals that train 6h per day.

    He suggested to me to workout every day, with a split like PUSH/LEGS/PULL and keep my focus on consistency and not on intensity.
    He said: “Train every day, it does not matter if you train hard or not, just train every day…”.

    • Anthony August 6, 2013, 12:13 am

      Who knows?

      The most important part is progress. And my modicum with a beginner: sustain progress as long as possible; don’t progress as much as possible in as little time as possible.

      If your frequency impedes this, then it’s something that needs considered.

  • Luke August 24, 2013, 3:47 pm

    I’m getting leaner, but boney. My clavicle and scapula are easier to see. Will adding more muscle help cover that? I’m 121lbs and 12% bf.

    • Anthony August 26, 2013, 8:28 pm

      Muscle is usually on top of bone, so yes.

  • Tina September 14, 2013, 5:54 pm

    What about for skinny fat females? What should my target bodyfat be before a lean bulk? I’m already under 110 lbs but still fat, (former cardio bunny) how much leaner can I get before I look like a skeleton with a fat belly and hips/thighs?

    • Anthony September 17, 2013, 1:19 am

      You can get as lean as you can before you look like a skeleton. Don’t let numbers dictate this. Let the mirror do that.

      • Julia November 13, 2013, 10:47 pm

        I’m also a skinny fat female. 113 pounds at 5’6. What diet would work for fat loss? I’m lost. Would I technically need to get down to 106 pounds to lose the fat or am I missing something? Can I buy a nutrition guide from you that would help me lean out? Is it all about macros/ calorie intake? I eat chicken egg whites and broccoli/ salads now so I’m confused with why that doesn’t seem to be working… Thanks!!

        • Anthony November 19, 2013, 12:06 am

          Any diet that works for fat loss would work for fat loss. Just kidding. Kind of. What works is . . . what works FOR YOU. You have to see how your body responds to food and such. Depends on your age and hormones and quality of food and calories and macronutrients — you’re like a plant. What you need depends on the type of plant you are, how much sun you get, what kind of soil you’re in, etc…

  • Cristian March 20, 2014, 12:02 am

    I can eat the foods needed depending on whether I workout that day or not, but do they need to be actual meals?

    I’m more of snack person. I eat small portions every so often throughout the day. Having 2-3 meals per day wouldn’t be a problem if Diabetes didn’t run in my family. While I’m not diabetic myself, I do have some of the symptoms. For example, If I’m hungry and don’t get food in my system for a certain amount of time, my blood sugar drops and I get lethargic. But the second I get food into my system, my blood sugar goes back to normal.

    Recently, I replaced starchy carbs for carbs low on the Glycemic Index and introduced a lot more vegetables and fruits. I’m two weeks into my new diet and I feel more energized, but I’ve also noticed that I get hungry even faster. I’m trying so hard not to stress out, but it’s difficult. Been working out for three years and it’s been one hell of a roller coaster ride…

    • Anthony March 24, 2014, 6:01 pm

      you need to do what you need to do, not what someone else does. if you have stuff that makes you run and feel good, why let anyone else tell you to do something that makes you run poor and feel worse?

  • Matt May 9, 2015, 1:45 am

    What if I am an “emaciated pile of bones”? Due to illness I’ve lost pretty much all of my muscle and fat. I’ve always been a thin guy but at the moment I look like I just stepped out of a POW camp.

    Now that I’m finally recovering I’m starting to think about the best way to put weight back on. Would you recommend any modifications to the diet and training principles you lay out for the “skinny fat” guy?

    • Anthony May 19, 2015, 6:27 pm

      If you’re an emaciated pile of bones, then you aren’t skinny-fat. So there’s no need to cut, right? So then what choice does that leave?

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