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

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?



Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re 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.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Matthew January 10, 2014, 7:46 pm

    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.

    • Anthony January 11, 2014, 4:26 pm

      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.

      • Matthew January 11, 2014, 6:39 pm

        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.

        • Anthony January 14, 2014, 12:47 am

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

          • Matthew January 14, 2014, 8:41 pm

            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.)

          • Anthony January 15, 2014, 2:31 am

            Hah, good to know Google knows who I am 😉

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

  • Leanette January 11, 2014, 12:09 am

    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.

    • Adam January 11, 2014, 2:33 am
      • Leanette January 11, 2014, 4:31 am

        Thanks, I am getting back int0 the barbell curl especially. This skinnyfat gal can bench and row til the cows come home but the bicep remains puny without the curl.

      • Suraj December 13, 2014, 4:59 pm

        Thanks for the PDF share. Your analogy of clay and sculpting had been very effective to me.Generally I do perceive myself as a skinny fat person. Strongly agree that it’s just a challenge for people like us to develop ourselves to our ideal vision based on our values and not a permanent thing. I’m rather active in endurance activities (hiking, swimming, running and etc) but never was able to loose my belly fat. Throughout my adolescent years I was rather skinny with 55kg180cm physique. During that time, the abs was visible. In early adulthood I undertook a weight gain program by high consumptionn of carbs, meat and egg. Program as in a self-made program. I did include daily bodyweight exercises such as inclined push-ups and others to ensure muscle growth. The result was mass gain by 15kg and I was still able to perform chin-ups from a total dead-hang position. I guess I was rather ignorant at that time and did not equip myself with proper research to ensure the right program. Based on my current observation I have a rather high body fat percentage (est. >22%) probably from the program I underwent earlier. Currently I’m very particular about my carb intake. I guess have to do things differently to lower my body fat percentage. The challenge at present is I’m training to enable myself to complete strong in a triathlon since I’ve always perceive this to be a sports of strength and endurance. Hence, I need to develop a program in a such a way that develops endurace without losing muscle mass and at the same time handles the challenges of a skinny-fat. Hope I can come up with something effective and maintain a discipline to commit.

        • Anthony January 6, 2015, 2:13 am

          Just think skills. Then maintain skills. Acquire one skill, put everything else on maintain. As if you were trying to learn how to play the piano and tuba. Rock the piano, play just enough tuba to not get worse.

  • 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.

    • Anthony January 14, 2014, 2:22 am

      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.

  • Pete January 12, 2014, 1:07 pm

    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 !

    • Anthony January 14, 2014, 12:49 am

      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.

  • Aniket Patel December 12, 2014, 11:36 pm
    • Anthony January 6, 2015, 2:13 am

      Don’t know. Nothing there.

  • Michael March 19, 2015, 8:16 pm

    Hi Anthony, good read thanks for sharing.

    I only learnt about the whole skinny fat thing tonight for the first time and came upon your website via google. Have you ever seen men with real skinny legs and arms but a massive belly hanging over the belt and no ass? I had a motorcycle accident and found myself in bed for six months and afterwards let myself go for another few months and started noticing muscle atrophy and a steadily building belly, it’s like any excess calories just went straight to the belly but NOWHERE ELSE at all. Two or so weeks ago I took up excercise again, mostly targeting the belly by doing one set of 70 situps and one set of 70 leg raises each morning on an empty stomach (Not exactly empty, but after consuming half a teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper with a bit of water to take advantage of the thermogenic properties; give it a try) and this seems to help; but I can’t tell for sure after two weeks. The muscles have started showing through but the bulk of the stomach remains evident especially after consuming a meal. I have also started cycling, not long distance but short sprints uphill around where I live, I did this in the past and it did wonders for my legs. Also Pushups in the morning and evening and free weight lifting. Do you have any advice for young ( or older ) men who just have that stubborn belly problem and no ass. If only some of the fat from the stomach could shift down to fill out the but area. How would one go about getting rid of that stubborn stomach and also how would one go about gaining some “flesh” in the but area? Your advice would be appreciated

    Regards and greetings from Southern Africa

    • Anthony April 25, 2015, 2:26 pm

      Doing sit-ups won’t burn fat around the stomach. Sounds like you’re out in left field with how the body works. Here’s what you need to do: change your eating habits, start doing some strength training, and then move as much as possible otherwise.

      • kiwi April 25, 2015, 9:06 pm

        Can you please clarify this advice. You say move as much as possible. Are you saying create a deficit? If you are in a deficit, how do you build muscle? Also, what is meant by change your eating habits?

        • Anthony May 19, 2015, 6:37 pm

          See The Skinny-Fat Solution.