So I have this friend. His name is Tom. What I know about Tom is this: his beverage consumption includes Mountain Dew, his food intake includes fast food, and some of his indulgences include alcohol, chewing tobacco, and psychedelic substances.
Tom is a physical specimen. He’s got one of those apathetic six packs that make even guys envious. He’s fast and athletic, which compliments his general insanity and fearlessness. I’ve seen him climb a ten foot fence in just a few seconds. No warm-up. Just full sprint to a monkey leap, grab, and toss. He lands as if nothing happened. Tom can do these things.
You probably have a Tom in your life. Tom makes you lose all hope in humanity. Tom crushes your soul. Tom makes it look so easy when it’s so tough for you.
But guess what?
You're not Tom.
And the sooner you understand this, the better off you are.
Expecting individual differences
Being epigenetic and all, there's hope for change for skinny-fat dudes. But capacity for change doesn’t mean everyone starts tabula rasa. Sure, we’re all humans, and in that regard we’re all remarkably similar. But at the same time, we’re all remarkably different. Your fingerprint, out of the seven-or-so billion people in the word, is yours and yours alone.
Some things inside of you work differently than the person standing next to you not only because of genetics, but also because everyone is raised in a different environment and culture. Look past the two eyes, two arms and two legs, and see that change is more than external. Change is also internal.
Most people that are skinny-fat have a certain physiology: one that stores fat in a unique (and super likely) way, and one that makes it so dang tough to build muscle. And this is a huge crux of skinny-fat syndrome.
You’re part skinny.
What do you do? What do you attack first? Should you lose fat? Should you, perhaps, build muscle? And is it really that easy to do either?
More importantly, does anything change with someone that’s skinny-fat?
Skinny-fat and building muscle
I often say skinny-fat sufferers are dealt with a bad genetic hand for muscle building. While I think that’s true, I think a lot of people are dealt the same hand. Building muscle isn’t as easy as people think.
One of the more underrated aspects of muscle building is your skeleton. As David Epistein writes in The Sports Gene:
“Holway compares the skeleton to an empty bookcase. One bookcase that is four inches wider than another will weigh only slightly more. But fill both cases with books and suddenly the little bit of extra width on the broader bookcase translates to a considerable amount of weight.”
In terms of muscle, the body is smart. It rarely does something that will deliberately injure itself. So it’s rare that a body will grow a muscle beyond a strength in which the bones are able to “hold onto” the muscle as it pulls and tugs on the bone. Wrote about this more here.
And then there's the problem of levers. If you have longer limbs, you have longer levers. Longer levers make for more torque, which then makes any given lift tougher from an absolute strength standpoint. As I said before, my pinky finger can touch my thumb when I wrap my hand around my wrist. I’m sure many other skinny-fat dudes are in the same spot. I’m also 6’4”, which isn't exactly encouraging.
Side note: this could be encouraging for using something like gymnastics rings though. Longer limbs, more torque = more tension.
I could rant here for many moons about how my pressing strength is so pathetic that it makes me tear (rare was the day that you saw me incline benching any more than 225 pound), but I'll save your eyeballs the stress. We’ll come back to what all of this means soon.
Skinny-fat and belly fat
Once you go fat, you never go back. Oh, sorry. Wrong slogan.
Or is it?
As I hinted to in the last essay: when you lose fat, you simply squeeze the fat cells for all they are worth. Problem being that the cells themselves don’t seem to disappear. They hang around, wanting to be refilled.
This wanting is an important part of SOLDIER, as most people don’t realize that once you lose fat, the body’s natural inclination is to refill them—and likely beyond the level they were previously filled. We’ll get into why this is the case down the road, but you can see why it complicates things.
You spend a bunch of time losing fat and then you want to build muscle, so you decide to shove a bunch of calories haphazardly down your throat. I’ll let you guess what happens, as this is all coming in essays down the road.
So even if you’ve since lost fat, you still have lingering effects of the fat cells. What this all means is that things change in comparison to someone that’s never been fat. For them, some good training habits gets the muscle cells nice and hungry, and provided good food (and enough of it) is layered on top, they’ll build muscle. But if you add hungry fat cells to the mix, you have competition between muscle and fat. What decides what cells get the extra nourishment?
Let’s wallow in our sorrow
I don’t tell you these things so that you have a scapegoat for you lack of results. Quite the opposite, actually. In order to make it anywhere, you need to know what to expect. If you think you're going to beat A Link to the Past in three hours, any hour after those three will be miserable and unsatisfying. There's going to be enemies, trap doors, and all sorts of mayhem out there.
You might not have the same bone strength as a lucky kid that’s been doing gymnastics since he was five (and loading his arms as if they were legs, building up mad bone strength). That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, it just means you should start a low-entry bone loading program (barbell and free weight training is the answer here), rather than fooling around on machines.
You might not be able to reach the same maximal strength levels as a short and stocky competitive powerlifter. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, it just means you have to continually up the muscle tension and compare your results to you.
You might not be able to drink a gallon of milk per day and eat twenty-five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and stay lean. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, it just means you might have to have a stalk of broccoli or two (or fifty, really).
You can't play the comparison game.
You are not Tom.
What you are though?
Why you're lucky to be skinny-fat
It’s easy to feel unlucky. Just my luck. That’s one way to deal with your situation, but it’s the failure’s way to deal.
The people that make it see themselves as lucky. It might seem like everything is working against you, but you’re lucky. You’re going to work hard. You’re going to appreciate your gains and your Journey. You won’t take it for granted like so many others. You’ll understand your body more than 97.4% of the people in the world.
Your body is one of the few things that you’re stuck with for the rest of your life. You’re going to be one the special few that understands how your body works and how to change it. Your body will matter.
So, yeah, your genetics may suck. Your environment didn’t help the cause. Yet here you are. You’re scratching your way to the other side. It’s going to be tougher for you to reach a finished product. You’re going to have to work harder. You’re going to have to love creating in order to make it to the other side.
If you see this as an unlucky thing, you might stop reading this and probably never think about it again. If you see this as a lucky thing, you might actually win. You might use this process of bodily transformation as a vehicle for Quality. You'll build your body for you and in spite of what others thing. You'll build because it gives you an inner sense of control and capability.
Stop the comparison
You can’t compare yourself to Tom. We are all artists. We are all learning how to create ourselves. Some people have more skill. Your progress is yours and yours alone. It will take some of us longer to get good at creating, and that’s just a fact.
Some people have never picked up a pencil. Some know how to write with a pencil. Other have doodled with a pencil. Then there are those that have been sketching for a long time.
Your job isn't to compare current status or even rate of progress. Your job is to get better than you were yesterday.
You aren't anyone but you. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a beautiful thing. The human body is such a wonderful contraption. We are all unique, and we all have our own road.
This is something to be embraced, not encased.