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How to train to go from skinny fat to fit?

Ever since I started my coaching career I have been approached by a lot of people that are struggling to gain weight, more specifically lean mass, instead of fat loss.

Most think obesity is the problem a lot of people struggle with, however the real truth is that losing fat is super easy compared to muscle growth.

To give you an idea, for an individual of 95 kg, with a 25% body fat, fat loss rate can easily be 1.4 kg per week, or close to 6 kg per month.

On the other side, if the same person is looking to gain lean tissue, anything more than 400 grams of weight gain per week is likely to result in a substantial fat gain as well.

Even with 400 grams of weight gain on a super optimized program, not all of it will be muscle. Ratios depend on your genetics, and it is highly individual.

As a result, a lot of people that even succeed with weight loss are still not happy with the way they look simply because there is no shape without muscles. They still look a bit fat even with low body fat percentages, which is why we call this look ''skinny fat''.

So how do you go from a skinny fat to fit and what is the secret?

Well, there is no magical formula, but there are certain steps you can do with your workout to boost your muscle growth and go from skinny fat to fit and ripped. Lets dive into it.

Step 1: Ditch the cardio

The first thing that people think of when it comes to fat loss is cardio. Even today, people still believe that cardio is required for fat loss, especially if you are in the fat burning zone.

Well, lets analyse this and see why you actually do not need cardio for fat loss.

We will start with the ''fat burning'' zone, where the theory is that if you do a low intensity cardio, your body will oxidize more fat.

Your body uses fat as fuel for every day tasks, mainly fatty acids that are floating in your blood. As long as you do not cross the anaerobic threshold your body will not use carbs for fuel. As soon as you switch to a high intensity exercise or activity, your body is switching to glucose and glycogen (think carbs) as a primary fuel source.

This is exactly how some people thought that doing cardio in the fat burning zone will help you burn more fat. Unfortunately it does not work that way because the total balance of energy in and energy out at the end of the day is what determined if you gain or lose fat. So you might burn fat on a treadmill for 40 minutes, but once you go back home and have a meal your body will be storing fat again.

The process of storing and using fat in your body is in a constant turnover, and only the total balance at the end of the day will determine your body composition outcome.

Second myth around cardio is the fasted cardio in the morning. It is believed that if you perform cardio in a fasted state, your body will have no choice but to burn fat. Again, we run into the same problem like in the example above. Whether you do your cardio fasted or not, your total energy balance is what matters.

How many calories can cardio burn?

First of all let me say that calories that you see on most of the indoor equipment widely overestimate your expenditure. Fortunately, scientists did a research in the lab and compared different types of cardio.

1. Cycling 0.07 kcal/kg/minute

2. Walking 0.05 kcal/kg/minute

3. Jogging 0.12 kcal/kg/minute

4. Treadmill running (low intensity) 0.19 / kg / minute

So to give you an example, one hour of walking for a 80 kg individual can burn 240 kcal. That is one snickers bar! You will often hear an advice to park your car a bit further away from your work that way you can walk, or use the steps instead of an elevator. Unfortunately the amount of calories you will burn this way can easily be compensated by a few extra bites during your meal.

On top of that there is another concern which is reduced activity compensation.

Problems with cardio

Reduced activity compensation

When you put your body in caloric deficit, it causes stress and activates the survival mechanism. Getting ripped and losing all that body fat is not what your body wants.

If you put cardio on top of that, it finds a way to compensate by reducing your non - exercise activity level (NEAT). You will move less throughout the day, and subconsciously, your body will find a way to be more efficient with every movement.

The more active you are during the day, the higher the effect will be. For sedentary people that do not move at all during the day, it might not cause a huge difference. 

On the other side, resistance training has no NEAT effect, making it very effective for fat loss. 

The interference effect

Doing cardio promotes endurance, while doing resistance training promotes strength. Endurance and strength are at the opposite sides of the spectrum and if you are doing both you are pulling your body in the two opposite directions at the same time when it comes to adaptations to stress. It is like wanting to build a formula 1 car that uses only a small amount of gas. 

Because of this effect, doing cardio and resistance training in the same session can impair your strength and muscle progress. A meta-analysis was conducted on this and found that a combined training group power development was only 60% of the power that pure strength training group did. For strength development it was 82% and for muscle growth only 62%!

Step 2: Use progressive overload

To understand muscle growth you need to understand the process called General Adaptation Syndrome illustrated below.

To achieve muscle growth, you need to cause enough muscular tension to damage the muscle. The stress can be imposed via damage of muscular fibers, or via metabolic waste resulting from a rapid energy production. Usually it is both when it comes to resistance training for hypertrophy.

After you put your body through this stress, there is an alarm stage, with high cortisol (stress hormone) release. After this, there is a compensation and resistance phase characterized by anabolic processes to prepare again this type of stress.

This means that if you impose same type of stress, your body will eventually adapt to it, and there will be no need for more super compensation. As a result, muscle growth stops.

To counter this, we need to use progressive overload. What that means is, strategically increasing difficulty of a specific exercise. This can be achieved via weight, reps, repetition tempo, rest periods, or form.

One of the reasons why compound exercises are great for overall muscle development is because of micro load-ability. For example you can keep increasing weight on your squats for years until you reach your true maximal potential, sometimes even decades. As you keep increasing the weight on the bar, you are most likely achieving muscle hypertrophy simply because you are doing more volume.

So how to implement progressive overload?

The first thing that I want you to do is to log your workouts from now on. You can download an app that makes this super easy. What this will do is tell you the rate of your progress. For the first time, you will be able to actually measure your progression. You will also know when you reach a plateau, and this is super valuable because now you can do something about it. If you do not know that you are stuck you cannot do anything about it! It is exactly because of this that I see people being stuck with the same physique for years.

Second thing to do is to understand what a good progression looks like. If you are a beginner or intermediate trainee, your workout to workout strength progression should be around 2.5%. So for some exercises it will not be realistic to simply increase the weight every single workout. If you are benching or squatting more than 90 kg, you can just increase the weight by the smallest increment which is 2.5 kg. However, for many isolation exercises rep range progression is the best way to go.

You pick your rep target, and you try to do the same amount of reps. Once you reach the rep target, you can simply increase the weight by the smallest increment available and repeat the whole process. This is ideal for isolation exercises like biceps curls, or lateral rises. The whole point of a progression scheme is to make sure you are putting your body through new stress every single workout. If you do this, your muscle will have no choice but to grow.

Step 3: Stick to the same exercises and master them

Every single exercise you perform is a skill. Your nervous system plays a big role in this. The more you perform a certain exercise, the more efficient your nervous system becomes at activating all your muscle fibers to produce greater force. 

This is why sticking with the same exercises can benefit your strength greatly over a longer period of time. Since getting stronger is required for muscle growth, we need to maximize this by performing same exercises for at least 2-3 months, and possibly even more. 

This is when exercise selection becomes very important. You should generally pick exercises with best microloadability, that way you can always keep increasing the load. Most compound exercises are very suitable for this, which is why they are often recommended by many fitness trainers in the first place. 

So instead of searching the internet for the best pec or glute exercise, just pick one and stick with it for a longer period and progressively overload. If you do this, I promise, your muscles will grow.

Step 4: Select optimal volume, intensity and frequency

The way we can stimulate our muscles in the gym is by manipulating 3 main factors: intensity, volume, and frequency. Intensity is the weight on the bar that you are using, volume is the amount of sets and repetitions that you are doing, and frequency is the amount of workouts you have in a week.

For optimal results it is recommended to have an intensity between 60 and 75% of 1RM (your maximum weight that you can lift for one rep) for beginners and intermediate lifters, and 70 - 90% 1RM for advanced lifters. You can generally aim for higher intensity for compound lifts and lower intensity for isolation exercises to have a mix of both.

How to know exactly if you are using a good intensity?

Work capacity

You can determine your optimal intensity for each muscle group simply by looking at your work capacity across sets. An example of a good work capacity for squats is this: first set 12 repetitions, seconds set 12, third set 11, fourth set 10. An example of poor work capacity would be this: first set 12, second set, 8, third set 5, fourth set 3. Work capacity can help you determine optimal intensity for each muscle group. You generally want to some drop off across sets, as research shows that training up to 40% loss across sets is better than only 20%. So if you see that your capacity is great, do not be afraid to increase the intensity and weight. On the other side if you see that your work capacity is very poor, you are probably better off dropping the intensity by decreasing the weight on the bar and going for higher rep range.

Volume is generally affected by your energy balance. As a rule of thumb, volume generally needs to be reduced by 20-30% while on a cut for optimal progression. When you are in a caloric deficit, your tolerance for volume decreases. For beginners and intermediate lifters, 12-14 sets per muscle group per week should be enough to maintain or even build more muscle during a cut, while for advanced this number is often above 18 sets.

By now we have a lot of research showing that frequency of 2 per muscle group per week is better than 1. This means that classical bro splits where you train each body part separately each day is not optimal for muscle growth. This is mainly because higher frequencies offer you better quality sets. For example if you do chest on only one day where you do 16 sets with 4 exercises in total, your pecs will probably be too fatigued after the first 2 sets. Fatigue directly reduces your volume as you can no longer do the same amount of repetitions with the same weight. Instead, increasing it to 2 or even more is better for hypertrophy as it automatically increases the volume. You can tweak your split to push, pull, legs or upper, lower, or even full body workouts to increase your frequency for more muscle growth.


Getting rid of that skinny fat look will require fat loss and muscle growth at the same time, which is quite possible. By following all the steps above you will stop spinning your wheels in one place and start growing some serious muscles. Just remember that all of these factors play in together as muscle growth depends on more than one factor. Once you nail this down you just need hard work and consistency as hypertrophy simply takes time. On average it takes at least 3 months to see a considerable muscle growth, and for a lot of people 6 months to see a big change in their physique. By setting your expectations this way, you will mentally prepare yourself for the battle.

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