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Weight Training for Size for Skinny-Fat Guys

Updated on June 28, 2016

Lose fat whilst building basic strength

As a guy fitting the "skinny-fat" mould, you most likely have two problems facing you. They are:

  • You lack upper body strength - notably around the shoulders, arms, abdominals, upper back and the chest area just below the clavicle.
  • You carry nearly all of your fat around your lower chest, lower torso, hips and glutes (butt)

Bodybuilding dogma typically teaches us to focus on one thing at a time, and give it our all. So if we wanted to shed fat, we'd merely try to maintain our muscle. If we wanted to build muscle, we'd have to accept a little bit of fat gain.

However, even as a skinny-fat guy just starting out, you absolutely CAN build strength whilst dieting down for a few months, as your nervous system adjusts to recruiting your existing muscle fibres better, giving you the feeling of increasing strength.

The key is avoiding physical and neural burnout (more on this further down under "How often to train").

Not everyone can attain high ab visibility. However, strong abs and a flat stomach at 10-13% body-fat are attainable all year round.
Not everyone can attain high ab visibility. However, strong abs and a flat stomach at 10-13% body-fat are attainable all year round.

Forget washboard abs and aim for a flat, strong stomach

As a recovering skinny-fat guy myself I know only too well how it feels to go online, see ripped washboard abs everywhere, then go on in search of the perfect workout and diet plan to get me there.

The fact is, a highly muscular yet lean body with washboard abs is a rare sight in gyms in the real world.

That's because it's extremely hard to accomplish, even for those with the ideal body type and optimum muscle building genetics.

Why is it hard to accomplish? Because we're not built to look like that. We're built to carry some padding around on us, at least for a portion of the year. The best compromise is to minimise the amount of padding we need and remain fairly steady, year round.

That ideal and sustainable level of body-fat is usually around 10-15% for males.

Key strength areas to build whilst dieting down to a flat stomach

As skinny-fat guys, the thinking we apply to building our body should have clear focus points.

Simply, we need to work on the following:

  • Overhead pressing or dumbbell shoulder pressing
  • Incline dumbbell bench pressing and/or diamond push-ups
  • Chin-ups (assisted and negatives to begin with if you're unable to do full chin-ups)
  • Arm day (yes! I said that! However, this would come once you've leaned down and are ready to build, as a slight surplus of calories is almost always required to increase arm size)
  • Abdominal, glute (butt) and hamstring strengthening for improved posture

The thinking behind this is quite obvious when you mull it over. Stronger, bigger shoulders, a strengthened upper chest that takes emphasis off the slightly puffier lower chest, a strong upper back and strong arms because our untrained arm size is usually lacking.

However, I've included abdominal, glute and hamstring strengthening exercises as it's well known to us skinny-fat guys that we often have postural issues lower down on our bodies; most commonly an anterior pelvic tilt.

Developing the shoulders, upper chest and arms is essential for guys who suffer from the skinny-fat phenomenon looking to sculpt an excellent physique.
Developing the shoulders, upper chest and arms is essential for guys who suffer from the skinny-fat phenomenon looking to sculpt an excellent physique.

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Pelvic tilt pushes the glutes back and the abs forward, often giving a false impression of body fat.
Pelvic tilt pushes the glutes back and the abs forward, often giving a false impression of body fat. | Source

A word on anterior pelvic tilt

Anterior pelvic tilt often becomes more obvious the more time we spend sitting. It also gives the impression of a person being more overweight than they are by way of an exaggerated protrusion of one's stomach and backside.

However, for us skinny-fat guys there can often be an element of body language involved. We don't necessarily walk tall, brimming with confidence. We do often sit down playing games and browsing online too much, hunched forward with our abdominals completely slack.

I recommend glute bridges, hip thrusters, planks and stiff legged deadlifts to work on strengthening the entire midsection and hamstrings to balance and straighten out your lower body.

Also selecting footwear that is comfortable for a proper distribution of bodyweight on the feet is essential. Uncomfortable footwear goes hand-in-hand with pelvic tilt.

Example skinny-fat workout routine

This is a simple A/B split designed to keep things interesting, prevent burnout (mental or neural) and avoid causing damage to the typically smaller joints, tendons and ligaments that we skinny-fat guys tend to be afflicted with.

All sets/exercises for be performed to one rep shy of form failure, with 2-3 minutes of rest between sets depending on which you prefer.

Here goes:

Workout A

(AMRAP = as many reps as possible until one rep short of failure)

  • Warm up with dynamic stretches
  • 3 x 8-15 one-arm dumbbell rows
  • 3 x 8-15 dumbbell shoulder presses or barbell overhead presses
  • 3 x 12-15 EZ bar or dumbbell curls
  • 3 x (AMRAP to one short of failure) tricep dips
  • 2 x glute bridges followed by 2 x planks (hold for as long as you comfortably can)

Workout B

  • Warm up with a set of push-ups (not to failure) or knee push-ups if you can't do more than 10 push-ups
  • 3 x 8-15 incline bench press
  • 3 x AMRAP (one short of failure) chin-ups or assisted chin-ups
  • 3 x AMRAP (one short of failure) diamond push-ups (keep core as solid as possible — try not to sag in the middle)
  • 2 x glute bridges followed by 2 x planks (hold for as long as you comfortably can)

How often to train?

To know this, you'll need to get a good feel for your recovery. And as a skinny-fat guy, there's a possibility that your recovery abilities might not be as rapid as a naturally athletic guy.

(Don't take my word for it though! Test for yourself. You could well be one of the lucky ones!)

However, I'd recommend starting by doing the above workout plan once each week.

An example might be:

  • Monday: Workout A
  • Thursday: Workout B

If you're recovering more rapidly and this schedule makes you feel as though you're shortchanging yourself, switch it up to three times per week for a fortnight like so:

  • Monday: Workout A
  • Wednesday: Workout B
  • Friday: Workout A
  • Monday 2: Workout B
  • Wednesday 2: Workout A
  • Friday 2: Workout B
  • And then back to A/B/A and so forth...

To facilitate and gauge progress, try to add weight in the tiniest possible increments when you get to the upper end of the rep range. On arm isolations, focus on adding clean reps and squeezing the muscles hard during each rep. The weights are likely too small to need to add weight for a while.

If you're not at the upper end of the rep range, it's better to add reps. But don't force reps. If you can't do another rep with clean smooth form, try an extra day off before your next workout and see if it helps.

Also check your sleeping and hydration. These can play a key role in how you perform in athletic pursuits.

Keep a diary and a log of your lifts, and also try to capture your mood that day.

Note whether you had any successes or incidents that day that you made down, stressed or sad. Likewise, do the same for thoughts or feelings that made you feel successful, joyous, at peace or elated.

Should you train to complete muscular failure?

Lifting weights takes more than muscle. Lifting heavy weights also places a strain on the tendons, joints, ligaments, central nervous system and equally your mind.

Naturally athletic guys have a hard time of training to muscular failure all the time. As a skinny-fat guy with minimal training experience and an underdeveloped recovery capacity, training to muscular failure is going to put a significant strain on your entire system.

Training beyond failure is often mistaken as training "to" failure. This can lead to injury and long layoffs.
Training beyond failure is often mistaken as training "to" failure. This can lead to injury and long layoffs. | Source

What is Muscular Failure?

Muscular failure is when the muscle you're targeting with the lift (i.e. bicep) becomes so fatigued it can no longer do the work without a significant tricep involvement or the use of momentum.

If you train using either of these methods to score more reps, you're training beyond failure and taxing your system more heavily, making recovery harder.

Saving something for the next workout, and making the next workout come around quicker

If you love to train and want to train three or even four times over any given seven days, it stands to reason that if you trash your muscles and overly fatigue your system, it's going to get harder and lead to overtraining.

Training with 1-2 reps shy of real muscular failure (the point where some form of assistance to complete the rep is required) brings about much less risk of overtraining and can enable you to increase your weekly volume.

This obviously doesn't mean take it easy, or at a canter. But get to know your muscles, feel when they're fatiguing and only have 1-2 clean reps left in them, then stop the set and hold a little something back for the next set.

This gives you enough practice of performing clean reps, thus increasing your chances of getting more reps next time, but without frying yourself.

When cutting, stick with whole natural foods and eat until satiated, 2-3 times a day.
When cutting, stick with whole natural foods and eat until satiated, 2-3 times a day.

Diet and the importance of whole, natural foods

People say abs are made in the kitchen. I say a significant part of overall health is made in the kitchen, and healthy organisms grow.

Largely, for skinny-fat guys, the same dieting "rules" apply as they do to any other body type prone to storing fat easily.

So ditch the following:

  • Chocolates/sweets/candies
  • White breads and other simple carbohydrate sources such as sugared cereals
  • Alcohol
  • Fruit juice
  • Non-lean meats

Replace these with a wholesome and nutritious combination of chicken and lean meats, eggs, a mixed of white and oily fish, unsalted nuts, leafy greens, berries, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, oatmeal, rye bread and avocados. A glass or two of semi-skimmed milk every so often won't hurt either. Just watch those calories.

Whilst these foods are typical and cliche, what they do have going for them as a whole is maximal nutritional punch per calorie.

In the latter stages of dieting down, when you only have that last 5 pounds to shift, sleep, hydration and nutrient-dense foods are the three factors most likely to affect your ability to continue recovering between workouts. So do take them seriously!

Should you use a calorie calculator?

In the beginning, I say absolutely yes! The reason being that once a month has passed, you can gauge how rapidly or slowly you're losing weight, then adjust your calculation accordingly.

There are many online calorie calculators but the model I recommend is the Mifflin St. Jeor. So I'd recommend finding a calculator with this model as its algorithm.

Track your weight loss accurately, ideally using a mechanical scale and taking body measurements using a tape measure. Better yet, get a relative or loved one to take the measurements for you.

Take progress pictures. There are some views which a scale can't provide, and as you'll likely lose weight from everywhere but the lower abdominals initially, so once you start losing fat from the lower abdominals you know you're on the home straight (this is even more prevelant for skinny-fat guys).

Supplements are just that: supplements. They're unable to replicate the nutritional wholeness of real food.
Supplements are just that: supplements. They're unable to replicate the nutritional wholeness of real food.


Undoubtedly talked about every bit as much as workout routines, certain supplements do have more to offer than others.

The most consumed of them all are:

  • whey protein
  • creatine monohydrate
  • BCAAs (branched chain amino acids)

Before purchasing any supplements, it's ideal to do a bit of online research, reading good reviews and bad, and trying to identify how beneficial they are to you.

Do not trust a supplement company's own reviews, testimonials or promises.

Also keep in mind that supplements aren't magical, and do need to be factored into daily caloric needs (check the nutritional and calorie information before purchasing).

They should in no way fully replace vegetables, chicken, fish or lean meats altogether, as these whole foods contain numerous other properties, such as zinc and healthy fats not included in whey shakes or bars.

Having said that, whey protein is top notch protein. Ideally, you should go for an unflavoured whey isolate to avoid the numerous artificial flavourings and the calorie bloat these can bring.


Bodybuilding isn't hard, and can be great fun. It does take a long period of consistency (and possibly some time management) to make space in your schedule for workouts, food prep and grocery shopping, and that extra hour of sleep.

Let's recap with the key takeaways:

  • Focus on developing the shoulders, upper chest, upper back, arms, hamstrings and glutes
  • Train at a frequency you can recover from. Stay honest and don't cheat with your reps. If you're doing less than last time, consider building in an extra recovery day and/or ensure you're not training to complete failure
  • No need to lift very heavy weights. Joint, tendon and overall health and recovery is better facilitated with a slightly higher volume or medium weights
  • Protect your central nervous system by stopping short of muscular failure on your sets. Don't kill yourself during your workouts, but don't slack either.
  • Sleep
  • Eat wholesome, real foods, initially calculating your calorie needs via a reputable calorie calculator, then adjusting your caloric after 2-4 weeks according to fat loss or lack of it.
  • Don't just use the scales as a measure of progress in weight loss. Take measurements too, with assistance from a relative, partner or loved one being ideal.
  • Consistency is key. This will take a period of months or maybe longer, so train in this manner to ensure you don't end up dreading them, as you'll be doing a lot of them!
  • If you want to use supplements, do so sparingly. They don't act as replacements for real foods nutritionally, but if you're struggling to get enough protein, unflavoured whey isolate is the best way to go.

I hope you've enjoyed this article.

To your success!


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