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Should You Bulk or Cut If You Are Skinny Fat?

The question of whether to bulk or cut if you are skinny fat can be a difficult one.

Should you bulk up and lose some muscle definition in order to gain more muscle mass?

Or should you cut down on calories and get rid of all your excess body fat?

The answer is not as simple as it sounds and depends on a number of factors including your:

  • Age
  • Training experience
  • The current level of body fat
  • And more

This article discusses what it means to be skinny fat, why it is particularly troublesome and gives a comprehensive answer on whether you should bulk or cut if you are skinny fat.

Here’s what you will find out:

DISCLAIMER

In this article, I outline my opinion about this fairly subjective topic. Recommendations are based on my personal experience and research.

At the end of the day, nobody knows your body better than you, this means that I cannot tell you what you want or should do with your body. As long as you know what you want to do, you take your time, build your physic in a safe way and most importantly enjoy the process – it’s all that matters.

Should You Bulk or Cut – Quick Answer

If you are skinny fat, the most common answer people would give you is to cut.

Especially if your body fat level is above 20%.

This will help you lose body fat and improve your muscle definition. Thereafter, you could consider going into a lean bulking phase.

However, there are exceptions…

If you are new to resistance training and are just skinny or have a body fat level you are comfortable with (around 15%) you may want to lean bulk instead.

Do you want to hear a more comprehensive answer including:

  • Reasons why you are skinny fat
  • Flowchart you can follow to determine whether you should cut or bulk
  • Tips for building your physic and overcoming the skinny fat look?

Then continue reading this article.

What Is Skinny Fat

Skinny fat is a body type that is common among people who have a high percentage of body fat and very little muscle mass.

This leads to a “soft” appearance, with excess body fat, love handles and no visible definition in the muscles.

For some, it may sound weird – being skinny and fat at the same time, but it’s very common among people who have never done any type of resistance training before.

How You Got Skinny Fat in the First Place?

There are a few different reasons that could lead to having a skinny fat appearance:

  • Not having enough muscle mass
  • Yo-yo dieting
  • Severe caloric restriction
  • Doing too much cardio
  • Insufficient protein intake

Let’s reverse-engineer each of them to better understand what route should you take to overcome the skinny fat look.

Not Having Enough Muscle Mass

One of the most common reasons for being skinny fat is simply not having enough muscle mass. This can be the result of not doing any type of resistance training, not following an optimal workout program or not following one at all.

Thus, the best way you could avoid the skinny fat look is to decrease your level of body fat by increasing the overall amount of muscle mass. As a result, when you have muscle, you will look better at the same body fat percentage as another person but with less muscle mass.

Building muscle mass requires doing resistance-type exercises, including compound exercises in your workout routine and training at a high enough volume. You also need to follow a progressive overload scheme so you can continuously build muscle mass over time.

Yo-Yo Dieting

Another common cause is yo-yo dieting – losing and regaining weight over and over again. This can lead to a loss of muscle mass and an increase in body fat percentage.

Multiple studies have shown that body fat is regained more easily than muscle during the yo-yo dieting weight gain phase (X). This might lead to a body fat percentage increase over several yo-yo dieting cycles.

Severe Caloric Restriction

Severe caloric restriction is another reason why people might end up skinny fat.

This can happen as a result of eating disorders or just following an extremely low-calorie diet that provides too few calories for the body to function properly.

Doing Too Much Cardio

Doing too much cardio can also result in being skinny fat.

If you are following cardio-intensive programs like sprinting, cycling or using the elliptical trainer for hours on end.

On top of that if you are not doing any type of resistance training and have a high level of body fat, to begin with – it’s a recipe for being skinny fat.

Insufficient Protein Intake

Insufficient protein intake could also affect your body composition.

If you’re not eating enough protein, your body will start to break down muscle tissue, leading to a decrease in muscle mass and that skinny fat appearance.

Should You Bulk or Cut – Follow the Flowchart

Here is a flowchart you can follow to decide for yourself, whether you should bulk or cut if you are skinny fat.

Flowchart for making the decision whether to bulk or cut if you are skinny fat

Feel free to download this infographic in PDF format or as an image in PNG format.

Let’s quickly go through some of the most common scenarios.

Severely Overweight

If you are severely overweight then you should probably be cutting.

The only exception would be if you have been severely restrictive in your caloric intake (1000 calorie deficit). Then you would be better off reverse dieting for a few months.

Satisfied With Current Level of Body Fat

In a scenario where you are satisfied with your current body fat level, you should decide whether you want more muscle and strength.

If you want to get stronger and put on more muscle mass then lean bulk would be best for you.

However, you are satisfied with your current muscle and strength level, then you should just maintain your current physic.

Sort of Satisfied With Current Level of Body Fat

In case you are sort of satisfied with the current body fat level, the first step is to calculate your FFMI. You can use this FFMI calculator.

If your FFMI is not over 21 and you are not under 18 years of age or have less than 2 years of training experience – you consider lean bulking.

Otherwise, body recomposition could be a better option for you.

Not Satisfied With Current Level of Body Fat

If you are not satisfied with your current level of body fat and are under the age of 18, then you should seriously consider body recomposition.

On the other hand, if you are over 18 years of age you should ask yourself whether you have more than 2 years of training experience. If the answer to the question is yes, then you would want to go into a cutting phase. Otherwise, body recomposition could be more beneficial for you, because as an untrained athlete/newbie you could build muscle and lose fat simultaneously.

Worth noting that when creating this flowchart, I took inspiration from a video (Should You Bulk Or Cut First | Solving “SKINNY FAT”) on VitruvianPhysique’s YouTube channel by Igor Opeshansky. I made a few changes to the flowchart but the majority of it was replicated from the one, in the video.

I also recommend you to watch it – it’s a great supporting resource for this article.

Notes on Maintaining, Lean Bulking, Body Recomposition, Cutting, and Reverse Dieting

Here are some things to keep in mind for each of the dieting phases mentioned at the end of the flowchart.

Maintaining

Maintaining your current body composition means that you are keeping the same weight, fat percentage and lean muscle mass.

You can achieve that by simply eating at a caloric maintenance level and trying to progress or at least maintain current strength levels in the gym.

Later on, you can decide whether you want to transition into a cutting or lean bulking phase.

Lean Bulking

Lean bulking means eating in a way that allows you to maintain a low body fat percentage while still building muscle. 

To put on lean muscle mass and minimize fat gain on a lean bulk make sure to eat at a small caloric surplus (5-10%). Furthermore, in regards to training – focus on getting stronger on your main compound movements.

Remember that it’s best to lean bulk for at least 6 months to see a noticeable difference in muscle gains.

After which you can consider transitioning into a cutting phase. If you want to learn more about how to approach it best, check out my guide on cutting after bulking.

Recommended Reading: Lean Bulk Diet for Lean Muscle Gains

Recomposition

Body recomposition is a process where one tries to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. It can be a slow process and not everybody responds to it, but if you can do it, it’s worth it in the end!

Here are some things to remember about recomposition:

  • Create a small caloric deficit – 5-10%
  • Focus on getting stronger or at least maintain current strength level in the gym
  • It will only get you so far, thus this phase should be about 6-8 weeks long
  • It is not the fastest way to build muscle or lose fat

Thereafter, you can reverse the diet into a lean bulk or transition into a cutting phase.

Cutting

A cutting phase is a period where you eat below caloric maintenance levels and try to lose body fat without losing muscle.

If you choose to cut, then make sure to create a 20% caloric deficit, have a high protein diet, consisting of low-calorie, high-volume foods.

When it comes to your workouts, try to get stronger or at least maintain current strength levels.

After that, you can consider reverse diet into a lean bulking phase.

Recommended Reading: Ultimate Guide: Cutting Diet for Fat Loss

Reverse Dieting

Reverse dieting is a process in which you gradually raise your daily calorie intake with the goal of boosting metabolism and increasing fat burn during rest periods. A reverse diet is often followed after cutting (calorie deficit) when your bodies need help in returning to a healthy metabolic state.

If you choose to reverse diet – gradually increase your caloric intake by about 50 kcal every 1-2 weeks and focus on getting stronger in the gym.

After that, you can consider transitioning into a cutting phase but now with a higher metabolism.

Do’s and Don’ts When You Are Skinny Fat

This is what you should DO in order to overcome the skinny fat look.

DO Eat Enough Protein

Consuming an appropriate amount of protein should also be your priority.

Aim for 1.6 – 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day or 0.7 – 1 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, spread out over several meals throughout the day.

Recommended Reading: What Is Protein?

DO Resistance Type of Training

The best way to build muscle is by doing resistance training and performing relatively heavy, compound exercises like squat, deadlift and variations of pressing movements.

It’s important that you train with enough intensity and volume for these types of exercises because they’re going to stimulate muscle growth the most.

DO Progressively Overload

Progressive overload is key to continuous progress in the gym.

You can’t just do the same exercises, using the same weight every time. The body will adapt to any exercise very quickly and you won’t see results if your workouts are not providing a stimulus that is progressively challenging enough for your muscles.

Therefore, every workout you must try to do a tiny bit more work than you did in the previous workout.

For example, that could be as simple as doing one more repetition with the same weight. As long as you do it on an ongoing basis, as well as follow other recommendations in this article, muscle growth is inevitable.

DO Eat Minimally Processed Foods

Consume whole, minimally processed foods, as they are higher in volume.

Such kinds of foods are more satiating and less likely to make you gain more body fat.

On the other hand, the following, are things you should NOT DO if you want to fix the skinny fat appearance.

DON’T Do Endless Hours of Cardio

People often think that the key to overcoming their appearance is doing lots of cardio.

This could not be further from the truth – in fact, doing too much cardio can actually make you lose muscle mass. So if you want to overcome your skinny fat appearance, focus on strength training instead, as mentioned previously in the article.

DON’T Eat Too Few Calories

Another mistake people often make is eating too few calories, thinking that this will help them lose fat. However, this can actually have the opposite effect – it can slow down your metabolism and causes you to lose muscle mass.

This is not what you want when trying to get rid of a skinny fat physique!

DON’T Do Cardio With Weights

Do not do endless reps of isolation exercises for each muscle group.

Remember that you want to build more muscle mass. Therefore, you should do heavy compound lifts like squat, deadlift and pressing movements such as bench press and shoulder press.

These types of exercise will help you to build lean mass much faster than anything else!

DON’t Skip Your Workouts

Skipping workouts will only make it harder to get rid of the skinny fat look.

Skipping your workouts will only make it harder to achieve your fitness goals.

Working out is essential if you want to get rid of the skinny fat look. It helps burn calories, build muscle and increase your metabolism so that even at rest. All of which help you lose body fat and build a leaner and more muscular physique.

Frequently Asked Questions About Bulking and Cutting When Skinny Fat

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about bulking and cutting when having a skinny fat appearance.

Should I Cut or Bulk First to Lose Belly Fat?

If you are skinny fat and don’t know whether you should bulk or cut, the most common solution is to cut. This will help reduce body fat and improve muscular definition. There are, however, exceptions if you’re a beginner at resistance training and are simply skinny; for this reason, you might prefer to bulk up instead.

Will Building Muscle Get Rid of Skinny Fat?

Building muscle is one of the best ways to get rid of a skinny fat look. By increasing the overall amount of muscle mass you will decrease the percentage level of body fat. As a result, you can have a much better-looking physic with the same amount of body fat but with more muscle mass.

At What Body Fat Should I Bulk?

You can transition into a bulking phase as long as you are satisfied with the current level of body fat, can dedicate at least 6 months to bulking and are okay with putting on some body fat. In most cases, people start a bulking phase at a body fat level of 10-15%.

Should I Bulk or Cut When I Am 20% Body Fat?

Usually, at 20% body fat most people tend to go into a cutting phase. However, if you are someone with a training experience of fewer than 2 years or are under 18 years of age, you can consider a body recomposition.

How Do I Transition From a Cut to a Lean Bulk?

The best way of transitioning from a cut to a lean bulk is through a reverse diet, where you slowly increase your caloric intake by about 50 kcal every 1-2 weeks until you put yourself in a small caloric surplus.

Final Thoughts

So, you have been struggling with being skinny fat for some time now. It’s not your fault, it takes years to develop the right habits, great physic and you were never taught them in school or by your parents.

But, don’t worry – there is hope!

Build your physic and get rid of skinny fat look slowly but surely through resistance training programs that include progressive overload schemes (meaning more weight over time) and an appropriate caloric intake depending on what is the most optimal for you given where you are starting from. Consume enough protein and eat healthy foods like lean cuts meat, veggies, fruits, whole grains.

Finally, avoid doing hours of cardio in favour of resistance training/weight training routines because it is more effective at building muscle mass which will help increase metabolism so calories burn faster throughout the day.

Follow these simple recommendations, stay consistent and soon you’ll be able to overcome the problem of being skinny fat.

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