XIII. Is Skinny-Fat Genetic? Is There Hope For Change?

is skinny fat genetic

After running down common skinny-fat symptoms, you probably know whether or not you’re skinny-fat, which is a good start. But can it be fixed? Or is it some kind of genetic destiny? Is there hope?

The skinny-fat gene?

There is no “skinny-fat” gene. Skinny-fatness isn’t a “disease.” A skinny-fat body is merely a phenotype, which is to say that its how your genes have decided to express themselves based upon the environment you’ve been living in. So while there may be some genetic backing, it’s not totally genetic.

This isn’t the entire story though, as there are some genetic issues out there that not only plague skinny-fat guys, but also resemble skinny-fat syndrome. These issues aren’t as forgiving as merely having a whacky phenotype.

Klinefelter Syndrome

There is something called Klinefelter Syndrome, which is when males have extra X chromosome material. After puberty, a skinny-fat appearance seems to blossom.

klinefelter syndrome skinny fat

Only a professional can diagnose Klinefelter Syndrome, and from my random musings on the internet, most parents are recommended to talk to their children about the problem. If you haven’t had said talk, I’m in the dark here otherwise. If you think you might have it, talk to your parents and talk to your doctor.

Common symptoms of Klinefelter Syndrome:

  • Tall stature
  • Feminized physique
  • More breast tissue than normal
  • Wide hips
  • Poor beard growth

So as you can see, there are skinny-fat characteristics woven throughout. An image search of Klinefelter shows a lot of thin limbs and common skinny-fat areas of fat deposition.

Skinny-fat, puffy nipples, and gynecomastia

Gynecomastia is another problem most skinny-fat guys face (and it’s also a problem in those with Klinefelter Syndrome). Gynecomastia is typically just called “gyno,” and that’s what I’ll call it from here on out (especially because I seem to always misspell the full word).

gynecomastia skinny-fat

Lots of guys think they have gyno, but most don’t. Having a bit of fat underneath the nipple area isn’t exactly gyno — it’s typically more severe than that. For instance, below is a picture I took from very early on in my own transformation alongside a picture of Georges St-Pierre.

skinny fat puffy nipples

I show these pictures for two reasons. First, on Georges you can see “puffy nipples” despite an absurdly low body fat. (Some might attribute this to some nifty performance enhancing drugs, of which puffy nipples are  side effect. I pass no judgement.) Second, on me, you can see how body fat kind of funnels to the lower chest.

Puffy nipples aren’t gyno, and neither is storing some body fat in the lower chest. Lots of kids get puffier nipples during puberty, but the problem resolves with age and growth. True gyno can only be removed with surgery, sad to say. Once again, this is something you’re better off taking up with a trusted doctor.

If skinny-fat isn’t genetic, then what’s the deal?

If skinny-fat syndrome isn’t exactly genetic, then why is it such a unique and identifiable body type? Here’s something that most find surprising: growing up, I was a twig without a touch of fat on me. How then did I end up skinny-fat, you might ask?

Well, I created the whole fat part myself by eating like a slob during a critical growth period. (Critical periods are times of extreme growth and change.) I overrode any genetic propensity for skinny that I had by feeding my body the wrong foods. It responded by adding globules of fat to my genetic skinny. (It probably didn’t help that I spent my time watching Dragon Ball Z and playing Zelda rather than getting involved with high school sports. Oops.)

This is the essence of the phenotype. Genes aren’t always absolute controllers, as there’s no such thing as an environment-free gene. You can only really say that a certain gene expresses itself a certain way within a certain environment.

So skinny-fat? It’s a combination of genes and environment. This is good news, as we can change our environment, which means we can change our skinny-fat phenotype.

You can change your genes

Back when DNA was discovered, it was thought to be the end—that these tiny molecular bundles coded for every process, adaptation, and output inside of your body. Your quirks, your abilities, your weaknesses—all of it came back to your DNA.

If DNA was everything, your fate would be “finished” based on whatever conglomeration of momma DNA and poppa DNA spat into you. It’d be impossible to get better at anything you weren’t already good at. You’d either play the piano like Mozart, or play the piano like you had pickles for fingers. And if you were in the latter group, you might as well give up. Don’t practice. You can’t get better. Your DNA won’t let you. You weren’t born with the stuff needed to be good; get over it. And suddenly all of the lessons learned from Dragon Ball Z about training and working hard crumble down curmudgeonly.

dragon ball z hard work beat genetics

Lucky for us, this isn’t true. You are not the same creature that spat out of the womb, nor was your life pre-determined at that moment. What you’ve experienced to this point has had a hand in creating who you are, even to the point of activating and deactivating genes. Yes, what you’ve experienced in life has determined your genetic expression to some degree.

Nature, nurture, and the nebula of unknown

Most of what epigeneticists have found confirms the intertwining of both genetics and environment. So it’s not nature versus nurture, it’s nature and nurture. (According to Dr. Robert Sapolsky, we can add a third leg here in that we are also part chaos, but that’s beyond where we’re headed right now.)

  • Nature: genetics
  • Nurture: environment, culture

There’s actually evidence showing that environment (nurture) can activate and deactivate genes. (And if I wanted to plagiarize Dr. Sapolsky Standford lectures even more, I’d mention that you can’t even say that “x” gene is responsible for “y”; you have to say that “x” gene is responsible for “y” in “z” environment.)

And this, in some roundabout way, is why you’re here. You’re here to change how your body functions.

You are not forever bound by genetic handcuffs. They are no longer an excuse. You have the power to change.

Use other “genetics” to your advantage

Although some people are better endowed physically, you might be better endowed in another area that can help more in the long run.

When I started, I couldn’t do one single chin-up or five decent push-ups. Like you probably are, I was a rather self conscious kid. I knew I had to train in privacy in order to feel comfortable, and that’s why I pieced together my own garage gym and trained at odd hours—no one could interrupt. Not even my parents. Perhaps my smarts to do this (work in a way that best suited my own psyche) was “genetic.”

Maybe you’re determined? Maybe you don’t give up? Maybe you have something inside of you that you can use that will eventually trump a better physical starting point?

So be aware of genetics, but don’t blame them. You have the power to change. You’ve used (abused) this power of blame to create a physiology that carries stubborn body fat and avoids muscle mass. We’ll soon turn these physiological tables upside down.

But despite this good news, there’s something you need to know.

Fat cells are forever friends

It seems that fat cells don’t readily disappear. All signs of research point towards fat cells either (a) reducing their contents or (b) shrinking in size themselves. The big picture is that fat cells, once created, are hungry and ready to refill, even after they are emptied.

Ever wonder why your troublesome fat areas (commonly known as stubborn body fat) always seem to respond to fat gain the fastest? Like, as soon as you eat the cookie, you have love handles again—that kind of fast? (Alright, maybe not that fast . . .) The reason is because the fat cells always stick around, and they’re just salivating at the chance to fill back up. Especially after times of fat loss. (This is negative feedback looping 101, which is one of the most important topics of this physical training world no one talks about.)

This is why it’s important for skinny-fat sufferers to do everything in our power to stop the creation of more fat cells. In other words: don’t bulk. And if you didn’t believe me the first time, I wrote a follow up.

The message here has nothing to do with fat cells though. We’ll dive into that more later, but I brought it up to show that although you can change, some things don’t come undone easily. Sometimes we live with lingering baggage, and skinny-fat sufferers have a unique suitcase of issues.

Skinny-fat specific rules

Skinny-fat sufferers do indeed have their own rule, in my opinion. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, as we’ll dissect all of this a little later. The take home message is that it’s totally possible to “override” genetics.

We aren’t a one way road.

Skinny-fat syndrome isn’t a genetic phenomenon.

Skinny-fat syndrome is an epigenetic phenomenon.

This makes all the difference, and you’ll soon understand why.


photo credit: DNAgyno

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.

  • mj January 11, 2014, 4:56 pm

    From my own experience, it’s also an age thing.

    Growing up, I was skinny-skinny and stayed that way no matter what or how much I ate. As I grew older, my arms/legs still stayed skinny, but now I get belly fat and love handles If I don’t pay attention to my nutrition. I’d guess a lot of regular skinny guys will become skinny-fat with 30+.

    • Anthony January 14, 2014, 12:47 am

      Being sedentary doesn’t help the cause, no.

    • Matthew January 14, 2014, 8:33 pm

      This is exactly what happened to me.

  • Vegeta January 11, 2014, 7:26 pm

    Can a person with narrow hips and wide clavicles have klinefelter syndrome, if he expresses the rest of the symptoms?
    If not, can said person be skinny fat?

    • Anthony January 14, 2014, 12:47 am

      As I said: doctor for this issue.

    • rufian January 16, 2014, 5:58 pm

      very unlikely that they have klinefelter lol there are many people on the internet who think they may have it, when in reality they simply just have bad genetics for bodybuilding, in other words, the shape of their bones is not ideal for bodybuilding, where the inverted V is the ideal

      You can have normal testosterone, without having any hormonal problems, and still have a bone structure that is not ideal for bodybuilding, also hips can mean different things

      Hips, are actually the area around your buttocks, your hips measurements is caused by fat accumulation, and how flared out your femur is, this is why women have wider hips, not only are their femurs flared out, but they also have fat accumulation there, way more than man, the bone around your lower abdomen, is called the iliac crest

      an average man, has pretty much very little fat accumulation on the buttocks and hips, and his femur are not flared out, this is why many men can wear 32 inch jeans despite having love handles and a gut, because their hips are narrow

      My hips are 35.5 inches around the buttocks, which is considered narrow for most men, but the lower my abdomen (slightly above belly button) can go, is 32 inches, I cannot go lower than that, because my iliac crest is not narrow, but is ok for my height

      Usually men who are shorter tend to have narrower iliac crest, thus their abdominal measurement is less, some even have 28 inch abdomens

      In my opinion, if you can get down to 32-33 inches abdomen, you are normal, sure many guys have like 28-30, and it gives more of a v-shape, but is genetics, due to the iliac crest

      Unfortunatly, the shoulder bone, the clavicle is also genetic, so if you have an average or wider than average iliac crest, and narrow clavicle, you are doomed, sure you can improve, but it will never look like those natural v-shape dude who just have gthe right bone structure, such is life

      • Anthony January 16, 2014, 8:35 pm

        1) You said “bad genetics.” Klinefelter is genetic. What you describe, more often than not, is epigenetic.
        2) Bone structure isn’t under your control, but the muscles and fat around them are. You can alter the shape of your body by altering the muscle growth and whatnot.
        3) Hip width is more of a PELVIS thing.

        You can build yourself into a “V” shape by emphasizing muscles at the shoulder girdle, and keeping your body fat in check.

        • rufian January 19, 2014, 7:54 pm

          sure you can, but the shoulders and lats can only increase so much, especially the lats, in most people, do not respond well to training, you make your physique looks more v-shape, but is never gonna look as good as those guys who have the perfect bone structure for it, that was my point

          but at least, you look better than the average person

          • Anthony January 22, 2014, 12:06 am

            Actually, your lats have lots of room for growth. And yes, people DO respond to training. Not everyone as favorable as the rest, but work does reveal itself in the long run.

  • Leanette January 12, 2014, 12:47 am

    Can’t wait to find out!

  • Vegeta January 12, 2014, 3:18 am

    Why is my comment still awaiting moderation while the comment after it is visible? I was the first to comment.

    • Anthony January 14, 2014, 2:21 am

      Sometimes people that are frequent commenters get their comment passed through immediately.

  • rufian January 12, 2014, 3:15 pm

    You don’t create new fat cells with bulks, this is retarded, it seems this guy has been reading too much t-nation crap from thibadeau lol, if simple bulks, in other words, gaining a few pounds, created more fat cells, then all bodybuilders, included amateurs, would have billions and billions of more fat cells with every bulk, and it would be come harder and harder for them to lose fat, which is not the case

    The number of fat cells is set for life in adolescence, simply gaining a few pounds of fat, will not increase their number, why? because you have plenty of fat cells, who can grow bigger in size, the body doesn’t need to create more

    It would only create more fat cells, if you become morbidly obese, which means you’re fat cells are so enlarged with energy, they cannot longer hold more, the body has to create more

    The reason why some skinny fats, have a higher propensity to store energy on the love handles, boobs, abdomen, while other men not so much, is because they have a higher number of fat cells in those areas, the more fat cells you have in area, the more prone this area will be to energy accumulation, simply losing weight will not fix this, all you have done is emptied the fat cells, you may have shrunk your trouble area

    but since, your genetics are still same, you still have the same high # of fat cells in those problem area, as soon as you start increasing your calories to gain some muscle, all the extra will go directly to whatever your problem area is, such as love handles for example, is a vicious cycle of bad genetics

    The permanent solution?

    Liposuction, because it actually destroys the fat cells, for never to return, people may be against it, and consider it too extreme, but is the most superior way to actually change your body shape forever.

    I had really bad love handles, lower back fat all my life, ever since I was a little kid, I tried everything to get rid of them, I would lift weights hard so I would lose muscle, never did cardio, and only dieted. I would end up skinnier, but still had love handles, I was never able to totally deflate, my abdomen would get flat, but the love handles were still, one time even became almost anorexic, and love handles were still there, smaller but still

    I got sick of it, fuck that shit, decided to play god and take matters in my own hand, got liposuction, love handles gone, i had a narrow waist at 16% bf, got leaner looks even better, it has been 3 years since the procedure, even though my weight has fluctuated, gained a few lbs of muscle and fat, i still don’t have love handles, they are gone forever

    • Anthony January 14, 2014, 12:52 am

      “It would only create more fat cells, if you become morbidly obese, which means you’re fat cells are so enlarged with energy, they cannot longer hold more, the body has to create more”

      Actually, this doesn’t seem to happen. Instead, you get diabetes.

      I agree with most of your post, actually, so I’m not sure why you’re so angry. Wanna talk about it?

      The fat cells stick around, and yeah — they fill back up.

      I never remember saying bulks create new fat cells and I distinctly remember saying that fat cells stop being produced after around your adolescent age.

      And about “filling the cells back up” that’s why I recommend NOT doing this — doing a “clean bulk.”

    • Anthony January 14, 2014, 12:53 am

      And not to be a douche, but lipo isn’t necessary. Sounds to me like you simply didn’t know the right path — the path that I’m helping some people understand. I had the same fat deposits. No lipo, and I keep the fat off. So do others.

      • rufian January 14, 2014, 4:58 am

        maybe your case wasn’t as extreme as mine, I had pretty bad love handles, I have seen your before picture, and they don’t come close to what I had, I simply decided to go for the more permanent solution, sure is not for everyone, and is frowned upon by society, because is considered cheating just like steroids

        anyway, liposuction is not for losing weight, but for reshaping your body, in a more permanent way, because now that area, has less fat cells, thus is ability to store energy is lower, so now I can concentrate on other things, than being obsessed about my love handles, and why they won’t go away

        why did I choose to get lipo ?

        because my love handles were pretty bad for my frame, the way I saw it could, either get really skinny, until they disappear, but I always knew that as soon as I introduce more calories, they return, because it happened, or I could try to gain some muscle (which would make my love handles larger for obvious reasons) then, lose fat, and hopefully end up lean, with no love handles, and some muscle mass lol

        did not happen that way, it seems my body is not geared to hold on to muscle, or being very efficient at lose body fat

        I always hated the love handles, at least with the belly, you can suck in, and kinda hide it, but you cannot suck in love handles, lower back fat, is visible no matter what clothes you wear, i couldn’t wear medium tees because my love handles would be so obvious, even though I was skinny

        im not ripped now, probably 13% bf, but i dont even mind having some belly, what embarrassed me the most was the love handles, because to me, it was the biggest proof of shitty genetics, especially if you are skinny and 6 feet, is like everyone knows there is something fucked up with your genes, all men have beer bellies, but very few have that skinny physique with prominent love handles that dont belong to that body, is really embarrasing, i got sick of it, so i got the liposuction, best thing i did in my life in term of physical appearance, i no longer worry about love handles, they are gone forever, if i hadnt done, i would probably be in circles, trying to get rid of them, and failing, like millions of poeple do

        if it was easy to get rid of them forever, then why is everyone on the internet complaining about them, just search love handles, and there are billions of results, if anything, the love handles are more of a genetic thing, than the belly, the fat in that area is more of a survival type, and more difficult to get rid of, i read that they are actually pockets of fat, with different receptors

        • Anthony January 15, 2014, 2:21 am

          You could have been more severe, not doubting that. But as you say, the cells are cells.

          As for your decision, I pass no judgement, personally. But I still think there’s a way to add muscle without fat (I do it). Like I said, perhaps you just didn’t have the right method. And your decision might have done you personally best, who knows, just saying that dismissing your body to NOT be able to do something isn’t my cup of tea.

          As for your analogy, it’s not really all that good. You take a bunch of people that aren’t taught anything about the body, throw them into a culture that accepts eating junk, and of course something bad is going to pop out.

          No one said this is EASY. Thinking it is is the first mistake (see suckness and stuckness). Most things in life AREN’T genetic. In fact, most genes (what separates us from chimps) are those that are more dependent upon environment.

  • Leanette January 14, 2014, 5:27 am

    Rufian, I’ve never understood how this liposuction works. If you have liposuction and then either through overeating or underactivity, you gain some fat, where does it go, some other part of your body?

    • rufian January 14, 2014, 9:29 pm

      ok, first of all, regardless if you have gotten lipo or not, whenever you overeat, this extra energy doesn’t go to only one place, it spreads everywhere all over your body, sure it accumulates more in some areas than others, due to genetics, but it doesn’t only go to one place

      In order to understand why liposuction works, first you need to understand why we get fat, you see, unlike common belief, our fat cells are constantly storing and releasing energy all the time, if you eat enough to maintain your weight, the amount of energy stored and released is the same, it cancels out, so you don’t gain weight

      What happens when you start eating more calories that you need? well, the amount of energy being stored is now higher the amount being release, is like having 3 oranges, removing 2, and adding 3, removing 3 and adding 4, even though you are removing oranges, the amount is increasing

      The reasons, why we have problem areas, is because these areas have a higher number of fat cells, so it makes sense for the body to store this extra energy, in the places where there are more fat cells, liposuction reduces the number of fat cells from an area, by the billions, thus making this area less prone to energy accumulation, that doesn’t mean that this area will never get fat, you still have some fat cells left, is impossible to remove them all, but you would need to get really fat, for this area to accumulate enough energy, and even then, it won’t be as bad as before the lipo

      For one, because not only the procedures removes billions of fat cells, but the surgery itself, the movement of the canula, is very traumatic for the remaining fat cells, and the tissue surrounding them, in other words, the fat cells that were left out, have been traumatized, they not longer store energy as good as before, so is very unlikely for this area to ever get fat again

      if you gain weight, your body will accumulate energy, in other areas, your second problem areas, is not different from someone who never had the surgery, we all store fat in pattern predetermined by genetics, liposuction simply altered this pattern

      anyway, this surgery is for someone who is not fat, is for someone who is 15% bf or 20 at the most, and has pockets of fat that are not in symmetry with the rest of his body