If you’re a skinny fat woman or man and want to change how you look, how you feel, & how healthy you are, this article may help.
In it I lay out a simple skinny fat workout program, diet suggestions, & a mindset plan for women & men that’s easy to understand, along with instructional videos for each of the exercises.
I designed the workout so you can easily do it at home, in an apartment, a gym, wherever.
Follow it consistently and let your before & after pics showcase your skinny fat transformation.
(If you’ve been here before and want to skip ahead to the Skinny Fat Workout Plan, use this Table of Contents widget.)
How to fix a skinny fat physique
The skinny fat body type can be transformed into a healthier, fit & toned body simply by consistently following three lifestyle choices that are easy to understand:
* doing regular strength training like weight lifting;
* eating & drinking a clean diet;
* having a strong enough desire to change so that you don’t quit on yourself.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Later in the article we’ll get into what the schedule & exercises for the skinny fat workouts are, and I’ll also share an opinion or two on food and drink choices & how to keep yourself on track during this body transformation adventure.
Again, we’re keeping everything simple here so that it’s always easy for you to know what to do, along the way to a better you.
Up next I want to briefly get into why you need to do each of those three things I’m suggesting you do: lift weights, eat clean food & drinks, and possess a strong desire to be a better version of you.
What is skinny fat?
A non-medical term, skinny fat is used to describe a body type that doesn’t have much muscle and has a higher percentage of body fat, even though the person doesn’t look overweight.
Usually the person will have excess body fat around their belly area.
If your body is more soft and compressible than hard, tight muscles, you may be suffering from a “skinny fat” problem.
People with this type of body composition are at risk for developing any one of a number of serious health-related complications such as increased cholesterol levels, diabetes, body inflammation, & more.
This is the skinny fat look:
- normal weight;
- no muscle tone;
- excess body fat around your mid-section.
It’s named this way because having a skinny fat body shares the same health risks as being obese.
Many people (most?) are unaware that having a skinny fat body puts you at risk for a number of serious medical problems.
This lack of awareness is understandable because:
1) this medical fact is not common knowledge, and
2) the body type of a skinny fat person doesn’t look really unhealthy (especially when dressed).
I’ll get into this in a bit more detail later, after I go over all of the workout stuff.
What causes skinny fat?
No consistent strength training & a poor diet are considered the two main reasons a person has a skinny fat body.
Skinny fat transformation strategy
So putting those three simple things together I mentioned at the beginning — lifting weights, good food, and an inner fire of desire — is the key to going from skinny fat to fit.
Below is a little overview that shows how they work together for you, and how you can create an environment in your body (& mind) that is built to succeed:
* Strength training will build muscle, and more lean muscle boosts your metabolism.
* Higher metabolism burns more body fat, and less body fat plus more muscle gives your body a toned look.
* Strength training makes you hungry, and the right food gives you the energy you need to work out successfully;
* The right food helps you burn calories, and your lean muscle burns more calories than your excess body fat does.
* You need the right food to gain muscle, and eating the right food is you choosing to be successful.
* A strong desire to be successful is needed so you can train hard and stay on track with your skinny fat workout plan & your diet.
* And a strong enough desire to change will keep you from quitting.
You’re in charge here
The good news is you’re the boss, and you can change your body type if you want to.
Getting rid of a skinny fat look is something you have control over.
There’s nothing complicated about your skinny fat workout routine, and it’s easy to simply eat good food instead of crap.
Being a skinny fat guy or gal — or not — is just a choice.
You choose what you eat & drink, and you choose whatever workout plan you do.
Or don’t do.
A Simple Skinny Fat Workout Plan
First off, just a gentle reminder that all of this workout material is meant for women & men alike.
And lest I forget to mention it later:
Take pics before you start and as you progress.
Use the same bathroom mirror or wherever you take them each time.
Being able to see your body transformation is inspirational & motivational; it’ll keep you inspired to work hard.
It’s all about building muscle
Note: My workout suggestions down below are based on the American College of Sports Medicine position stand on resistance training. (ACSM)
When you start experiencing muscle growth, you will boost your metabolism so you’ll burn more calories even when you’re not working out (6).
So by adding muscle you’ll then start experiencing fat loss, you’ll start looking better, and you’ll get stronger.
And as you get stronger, your workouts will get better and your results will improve.
Then you’ll add more muscle, and you’ll boost your metabolism even more.
This will cause more fat loss, you’ll look even better, and so on.
Rinse & repeat.
Round & round this very simple but very effective process goes, until your skinny fat look is history.
We build muscle with compound exercises
Our goal here in this skinny fat workout routine is to train hard with mostly compound exercises.
Weightlifting exercises are classified as either isolation exercises or compound exercises.
Compound exercises are called that because they involve the use of more than one set of muscles during their movement, and often more than one body joint.
This extra effort means more of your body is involved, which increases your cardiovascular benefits while at the same time as the compound exercise is working more of your muscles (7).
These types of exercises really help kickstart that double combo of muscle growth and losing fat, particularly the visceral fat in your belly area.
A quick word about your equipment
Any of those will work great for the workouts I designed, as there are a handful of strength training options that’ll work just fine to get rid of the skinny fat body.
(I use a fleet of ancient dumbbells, resistance bands, & a weight bench.)
All the instructional videos I rustled up for this article use dumbbells or barbells, except for the ab exercises of course.
All of these exercises work with either barbells or dumbbells, whether there’s a video showing that or not.
And all of the exercises have a version that’s been adapted for resistance bands as well.
Resistance bands work great in apartments and small spaces like dumbbells do, but they take up no space at all like a weight bench or dumbbell rack does.
My 200 lb. resistance band set made by Bodylastics fits in the small bag you see below that I can throw in a suitcase or backpack any time I travel:
People often ask if resistance bands work as well as free weights do.
I used to wonder too, until I researched the topic heavily in sports science’s strength & conditioning studies.
The short answer is that resistance bands are as effective as free weights at building muscle, and you can read my article on that here if you’re interested.
A resistance band version of the squat.
Body weight exercises
If you have no access to any equipment and can’t afford to buy anything at all, you can adapt this workout by performing exercises using just your body instead.
There are effective body-only exercises for all of the same muscles that are being used in this workout, and you can improve your body type just fine with these too.
A good place to start looking at body weight exercises is a book I consider one of my fave strength training books.
It has a lot of great body weight exercises in it; here’a link to check it out if you’d like. It’s called Your Body Is Your Barbell.
A body weight version of the squat.
Training frequency – up to you
I put together a couple of workouts & training schedules; take your pick of which one appeals to you more.
The goal of getting rid of the skinny fat body just needs you to set up a workout schedule you can stick with.
The 3-day full body workout
If you want to start at the very beginning level either because you’ve never lifted weights before or you want to ease back into it again, I recommend you do 3 full-body workouts per week at first.
The 4-day split workout
If you have some lifting experience or you want to get going 110% right off the bat, I recommend a 4-day split workout.
You’ll split the full body workout over 2 days and complete that twice per week, for a total of 4 workout days per week.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, training volume refers to how many sets & reps you do, either per week, per workout, or as in this case, per exercise.
For both workouts, my volume suggestions exclude the warm up set for each exercise – which I encourage you to do.
I’ll talk about warming up & warm up sets in a bit.
For the 3-day full body workout
* The plan is to do a full-body workout 3 times a week, with 4 off days.
* Pick a schedule like Mon-Wed-Fri where there’s always a day or two of recovery in between workouts.
Tue-Thu-Sat, Wed-Fri-Sun, Mon-Wed-Sat, etc. etc. work just as well of course, so choose what’s best for your schedule.
* There’ll be 1 exercise for each of the 7 major groups of muscles:
* I recommend that you start your workouts with your legs and the larger muscles in your upper body — your chest & back — before working your way dwon from your shoulders to your arms to your abs.
* Beginners start with 1 set of 8-12 reps.
* After 4 weeks add a second set to each exercise.
* The 8th rep should always be a lot harder than the 1st one was.
* On strong days you’ll get past 12 reps. Go to failure. Then make a note in your workout log to increase the weight a little next time.
* On weak days you may struggle to get to 8. No worries, that’s how it goes.
* The goal is pick the right weight so that anything from the 8th rep on is tough.
* It takes time to figure out the right weights to use, so don’t sweat it. Just keep track of your weights & reps in your workout diary to help you out with this.
* After a couple of months at the 2-sets per exercise volume, you can either add a 3rd set or bump up your program a notch by switching to the 4-day split workout below.
The approach is to continually but VERY gradually increase the intensity over time, by increasing the weight when it becomes too easy, or by increasing the number of sets.
This is called progressive resistance training, and this is how you create results for yourself.
For the 4-day split workout
* The plan is to do half of your muscles one day, then the other half the day after that.
* Then do the same thing later in the week.
* This means 4 days of working out per week, with 3 off days.
* The most common schedule for this I’ve seen over the decades is Mon-Tue-Thu-Fri, where Mon/Thu work group 1 and Tue/Fri work group 2.
* Adjust this to fit your schedule if need be, just honor the daily pattern of: Group 1, Group 2, OFF, Group 1, Group 2, OFF, OFF.
* Here’s a grouping of muscles that’s been a very popular workout combination forever:
* Note that there’s more recovery time for our muscle groups in this workout split, either 2 or 3 days’ worth of rest at a time.
This is because you’re doing more sets per muscle compared to the 3-day beginner’s schedule.
* Do 1 exercise per muscle for the first 2 months or so.
* Start with 4 sets of each exercise per muscle, with reps in the 6-9 range.
* This means rep #6 should be a lot harder than #1.
* On strong days you’ll get past 9, eventually doing it for all 4 sets.
Go to failure, then make a note in your workout diary to use a slightly heavier weight next time, just for the last set.
See how it goes, and don’t sweat it if you can’t even get to 6 reps.
The following week try it for the last two sets, the third week for the last three sets.
Keeping the first “work” set lighter than the later ones is being kind to your joints & muscles, so always do that.
Again, the increase in load should be very gradual.
* After a couple of months, add 2 more sets to each muscle and consider adding another exercise as well.
You could give the new exercise the 2 extra sets, or split the 6 sets up equally 3-3 between the two exercises.
Or you can bang out all 6 sets with just one exercise, it’s up to you & how you’re feeling that day.
Progressive resistance training principles apply here as well.
Continually look to bump up the intensity very slowly whenever you get stronger and start blowing past your previous weights.
Skinny fat workout exercises
As mentioned earlier, we’ll be focusing the majority of the workout on compound exercises, since those are the ones that can both stimulate muscle mass growth and assist with losing weight that is made up of fat.
Since I don’t know what kind of equipment you’re using, I’ll try & provide a couple of alternatives for each set of muscles.
Basically, consider what I said earlier: know that any exercise that uses a barbell has an acceptable alternative using dumbbells, and that versions of all of these exercises can be done with resistance bands or on an all-in-one home gym too.
The 7 major groups of muscles
These again are the muscles I’ll be assigning the exercises to:
- Triceps (back of your upper arm)
- Legs (including glutes & calves)
- Biceps (front of your upper arm)
(For the Legs, I threw in an add-on exercise you can do if you feel like it. Always do it after you do your squats. It’s a standing calf raise to work your lower leg muscles.)
Incline Dumbbell Press
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Seated Barbell Shoulder Press
Dumbbell Triceps Extension
Close Grip Bench Press
Barbell Full Squat
Standing Calf Raise (optional add-on exercise)
Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
One-Arm Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
If you don’t belong to a gym & don’t have access to a cable machine like this, no sweat.
Here are a couple of substitute options. You can:
- simply double the amount of dumbbell or barbell rowing sets you do;
- do a dumbbell pullover instead, which is taught in the video below.
(You want to follow the instructions for the version that emphasizes your back muscles. 😉)
Pull ups if you have access to a pull up bar
You can also consider doing pull ups, since they’re a fantastic back exercise.
But they’re not an easy exercise to do unassisted unless you already have some strength in your back, shoulders, & hand muscles.
I loop my feet in the band once I can’t do any more reps on my own; it helps a lot!
Standing Dumbbell Curls
A few skinny fat workout tips
(Here are a few suggestions for your workouts to help you get rid of the skinny fat as quickly as possible.)
Strict rest periods of 60 seconds max
To get the most out of your workout, the rest between sets is a strict 60 seconds. Use a stopwatch on your phone or whatever.
This is important.
60 seconds of rest means the clock starts right when you finish a set.
Start getting in position for the next set around the 45 second mark, so that you’re starting the next set on the 61st second at the latest.
Keep a workout diary
Keep track of all your sets, reps, & weights for every workout.
Don’t trust your memory for recalling the right weights to use from workout to workout.
With a workout diary, you always know when you need to increase the weight as you get stronger.
Always breathe properly
Correct breathing while lifting is critical.
Always exhale on exertion, which means during the hard part.
Then inhale gradually as the weight heads in the opposite direction back to the starting position.
Every rep has an inhale before exertion, and then an exhale on exertion.
For example when doing chest or shoulder presses, exhaling on the exertion is when you’re pushing the weight up.
Inhale as the weight returns down.
When squatting, exhaling on exertion is when you’re pushing yourself up to standing. Inhale as you return down to the squatted position.
Always warm up & also do warm up sets
Get your system flowing before lifting by riding a bike or an elliptical machine, going jogging, or doing light calisthenics in place for 10 minutes or so.
Start slowly but by the 6 minute mark or so increase your effort.
Either move faster or add resistance (via the machine or hold 1 lb. dumbbells, etc.) for the last 4-5 minutes.
The goal is to be warm & a little bit winded when you’re done and moving on to your lifting.
Always do a warm up set
Then for every lifting exercise you’re doing that day, do 1 warm up set using a very light weight that you can easily perform 15-20 reps with.
This warms up & lubricates the muscles & joints that will be used when you do your real set(s).
(These warm up sets don’t count towards your workout volume.)
Stick to the same exercise for at least 2 sets
Once you’ve graduated up to where you’re doing 2 or more sets per muscle group, always do at least 2 sets with the same exercise.
You don’t have to use the same weight for both sets, you can try increasing it for the second set & see how it goes.
So if you’re doing the beginner’s 3-day program and you’ve bumped up to 2 sets per muscle group, don’t do one of the exercises for 1 set then a different exercise for the 2nd set.
And if you’re doing the 4-day split with 4 sets per muscle group, during your first month refrain from doing any “3+1s”.
For your results at this stage it’s better to stick with the same exercise for all four of that day’s sets during your first month on the 4-day split.
But you can switch exercises from workout to workout if you want.
And when you bump up to 6 sets in your second month on the 4-day split, feel free to program your two exercises’ sets as 3+3s, 4+2s, or even all six sets with the same exercise.
More exercise options as you advance
After several months you may want more options as far as the exercises you do for each body part.
Here are a couple of articles where I share additional exercises I do, beyond the ones that are in this skinny fat workout:
Skinny fat diet
You’re definitely not going to go hungry with this food & drink program I’m suggesting, since there’s no severe daily calorie deficit** needed.
** – In case you didn’t know, a daily calorie deficit just means that you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in with your food & drinks.
Transforming a skinny fat body isn’t about starving yourself so you can lose weight. It’s more about losing fat while you’re also building muscle.
But you have to make sure that what you’re eating & drinking is the right stuff that your body needs.
You just need to clean up your inputs and also to prioritize feeding your muscles the right way, because eating & drinking the wrong stuff will kill your skinny fat transformation plan, plain & simple.
Skinny fat diet highlights
- No junk food, fast food, fried food
- No sugary or sweetened foods or condiments
- Eat 20-30 grams of protein every 3 hrs. or so
- No processed food – whole foods & whole grains only
- Lean protein only, no high fat meat or high fat dairy
- Eat as much organic vegetables as you can afford
- Eat organic fruit every day
- Drink at least a half gallon of water every day (64 oz. minimum)
- No sweetened or sugary drinks
- No diet soda
- No fruit juice
- No energy drinks
- Keep alcohol light: a few drinks per week max
- Coffee & tea are good
- 1-2 of your daily protein meals can come from a shake or smoothie
Skinny fat diet food & drink strategy
Looking at that list of what to eat & drink versus what not to eat & drink, you’ll notice the dominant theme:
Throw out the garbage & eat clean.
It’s simple: to look better, eat & drink better.
To avoid dealing with those medical problems we looked at earlier, eat & drink better.
And like I said earlier a few times:
The skinny fat workout will not work out for you – meaning no body transformation – unless what you choose to eat & drink is the right stuff.
(If you’d like an extensive list of healthy foods appropriate for your skinny fat diet, this link here will open an article I wrote on weight loss in another tab.
Use its Table of Contents to locate Your Diet Choices.
There I provide several high-quality food choices sorted by macronutrient: protein, carbs, & fats.)
Eating to go from skinny fat to toned
Remember the simple strategy back in the Skinny Fat Transformation section earlier?
Your body transforms both inside & out as you build muscle.
Your body needs the right fuel & muscle-building nutrients in order to give you results from your workouts.
That’s why all crappy food & drinks have to go.
Your body hates those things anyways, and it needs real food to create the change from skinny fat to fit.
Should you count calories & macros?
Bottom line: Counting calories takes time and is a pain in the ass unless you’re in a really focused mindset (which I’m not in all of the time).
But I’ve found it works great when you have a body transformation goal you really want.
Keeping track of how many calories everything you swallow has is up to you, since this activity certainly has its pros & cons for each of us to think about.
I’ve counted calories for months on end several times in my life when I had specific goals to achieve:
- a certain body fat percentage;
- body weight gain or lose;
- muscle gain.
All of those things need you to really have a handle on what you’re consuming all day long — not just for calories, but for macros too (protein, fat, carbs).
- For losing weight I need a calorie deficit every day;
- For weight gain without the fat gain, I (personally) need to limit my daily carbs;
- For gaining weight that’s mostly muscle, I better hit my protein number every day.
Trying to keep track of all my food & drink calories & macros up in my head makes for a lot of guesswork, and isn’t real accurate.
So for example — during a certain training phase that’s X months long, I’d take the time to enter all that into a spreadsheet (I started doing this before apps or cellphones existed).
It makes it super easy to see if you’re (for example) hitting your calorie deficit numbers when trying to lose weight, or if you’re hitting that slight calorie surplus if you’re on a lean bulk/muscle growth program.
But it does take time to do.
Understand that health experts in medicine & weight loss, as well those involved in athletic performance, recommend that you “self-monitor” your fitness progress (like counting calories, etc).
Some may ask, why hassle with these numbers every day?
1) It is a highly recommended strategy by medical professionals, dieticians, weight loss management specialists, nutritionists, & fitness experts (12).
2) Studies have shown many times over that people who take the time to keep track of their diet & fitness program achieve greater success with their body transformation than those who don’t, plain & simple (13).
Whether that be by:
- counting macros & calories
- keeping a workout diary
- doing body measurements
- taking progress pics
- weighing themselves
Speaking of weighing ourselves…
Weighing yourself may not be necessary
Weight loss programs want you on the scale every day, so you can stay on top of your progress.
But a skinny fat transformation is not the same as a weight loss program, in one pretty big way.
Transforming from skinny fat to body with lean muscle tone, you will both lose weight and simultaneously gain weight.
As your workouts pile up you will definitely lose fat weight, but you will also gain weight in the form of muscle at the same time.
So your actual weight might not even change over time, even as you notice in the mirror how much better & better you’re looking as the weeks go by.
And your weight might even go up a little, depending on your starting point and how quickly your body responds to weightlifting and good food.
How much protein do you need when you’re lifting weights?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), those engaged in strength training need nearly double the meager protein intake recommended by the government’s Health Dept.
0.7 – 1 gram of protein per lb. of bodyweight is the daily protein recommended for weightlifting people. (11)
Again, the government’s numbers for regular inactive people is about half this amount!
If you haven’t lifted weights before, you may not understand the importance of eating protein, or the reasons for having to eat more of it than people who aren’t into working out.
I’ve been weightlifting for almost 40 years, and I can tell you for certain that when you lift weights you will be hungrier than normal and that your muscles will be telling you they want a lot of protein.
I can’t consume all the daily protein I need just by only eating real food; I just don’t have the room (or appetite) for it anymore.
So I drink a couple of shakes &/or smoothies every day with protein powder in them.
I take two different powders daily, and both of them are free of artificial sweeteners. One is whey-based, one is plant-based — and they’re listed in this article:
Skinny fat FAQs
Here are answers to a few more of the common questions asked about skinny fat, how to get rid of it, etc.
Is skinny fat bad?
Being skinny fat can put someone at risk for a number of health problems, the same problems that obese people face:
- metabolic issues;
- heart disease;
- abnormal cholesterol;
- high blood pressure.
That all sounds pretty bad to me.
Higher mortality rate for a skinny fat person
In fact, medical research has shown that skinny fat’s normal weight obesity actually leads to a higher rate of death than regular overweight obesity (3).
This unpleasant information was discovered during a massive study of over 15,000 patients involving several physicians and medical institutions, including the Mayo Clinic.
It was sponsored by two of our nation’s top health organizations, the American Heart Assn. & the National Institute of Health (NIH).
One of their other findings was that BMI (Body Mass Index) is not a reliable indicator of obesity-related death.
This is obviously because the research doctors found that normal weight + central obesity (what they call skinny fat people with belly fat around their middle) have that higher death rate I mentioned.
In the Results section of their research study, the physicians wrote these sobering words about the skinny fat population:
“Expected survival estimates were consistently lower for those with central obesity…”
Skinny fat, brain decline, & dementia
Not that anyone needs any more bad news, but skinny fat has been linked to deteriorating brain function too.
Researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Brain Health showed that a lack of muscle mass and cognitive impairment* are connected as we age (4).
*Cognitive impairment – trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions (5)
Alzheimer’s disease & dementia are severe forms of cognitive impairment.
That scientific study called skinny fat sarcopenic obesity, meaning that the person is experiencing age-related muscle loss while also having excess visceral fat** & the metabolic problems that go with it.
** – Visceral fat is stored around your middle, near some of your important organs, and is a source of health issues as a result. (14)
The medical researchers in that study I mentioned said that these skinny fat symptoms
“can be used in clinical practice as indicators of probable cognitive impairment”.
Skinny fat physique health summary
The health risks associated with being skinny fat are powerful reasons for change that don’t have a thing to do with your looks.
The medical evidence is pretty clear: there’s nothing good health-wise that comes from being skinny fat.
How to lose the skinny fat belly?
The best way to get rid of the skinny fat look is by focusing on building muscle throughout your entire body.
This will promote an overall increase in your metabolism, which will fire up your calorie-burning machine that’ll help you lose body fat as you gain muscle (17).
You see, you can’t target your fat covering your ab muscles by doing lots of crunches or other ab exercises; a well-known study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research clearly showed that (18).
Another study had overweight women do ab exercises for 4 weeks along with dieting, and compared them to overweight women who only dieted.
The ab exercises didn’t make them lose fat around their belly more than the diet-only group (19).
The Legend of Body Fat Targeting
The concept of specifically targeting belly fat is a myth created by people selling you something, whether it be the latest piece of ab equipment, a supplement, or a workout program they say is “guaranteed to burn belly fat”.
On the other hand, weight training has proven many times over to help you lose fat wherever it is on your body (20).
So if fat’s in your belly your training program will go after it, even though most of your workout is not focused on the muscles under your tummy fat.
To lose the skinny fat belly, you need to be:
- lifting weights regularly, or doing a similar kind of strength training;
- a lot more physically active in general;
- eating a clean diet.
Will cardio get rid of skinny fat?
Cardio workouts will not get rid of a skinny fat body. Although cardio is an excellent alternative to sitting around and can help you lose weight, it will not build muscle.
And a lack of muscle mass is one of the main causes of health problems that come from having a skinny fat physique.
When you gain muscle it boosts your metabolism which helps your body burn the “fat” part of your skinny fat.
Strength training is a fitness activity that builds muscle and burns body fat calories while it’s doing it.
Cardio workouts can burn body fat as well, but too much cardio &/or the wrong kind can interfere & limit your ability to grow muscle, as shown in this analysis of over 20 research studies (21).
That’s the exact opposite of what you want to happen if you want to get rid of skinny fat.
I hope this article providing a skinny fat workout program for you to consider is useful, and that the skinny fat diet guide is helpful too.
I wish you well on your fitness journey; let’s go.