Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Skinny Fat!

Raise your hand if you have had this discussion with a “skinny-fat” friend (usually a woman, as it turns out). Skinny-fat women might look nice in a v-neck, but they’d sooner crawl into a hole than expose an upper arm or leg.

Art De Vany says, “Muscle is medicine.”

The descent into the skinny-fat state is the number one problem for most people as they age, according to Art De Vany. They are not aging so much as they are losing their body composition and strength; with that, their metabolism goes south and they suffer the skinny-fat syndrome or what is technically known as sarcopenic obesity.

We have covered in the past why the BMI is bogus for CrossFitters. The common wisdom is that if you are overweight you are unhealthy, and if you are thin, you are healthy.

But new research points to just how dangerous being skinny can be if you are a “skinny fat” person:

The shocking news from a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association[3] is that nearly 1 in 4 skinny people have pre-diabetes and are “metabolically obese.”

What’s worse is that if you are a skinny fat person and get diagnosed with diabetes, you have twice the risk of death than if you are overweight when diagnosed with diabetes. Perhaps having that extra muscle on your body from having to carry around those extra pounds protects you.

Why is this so pertinent to women? Mark’s Daily Apple sums it up well:

Skinny-fatness strikes women a lot more than men. I think this is mainly because men aren’t afraid of lifting weights to lose weight (and, to be fair, men naturally do have so much more muscle and far less fat).

Women, on the other hand, evidently prefer inventing bizarre and complicated diet regimens revolving around arcane preparation rituals, subsistence on one food group or arbitrary calorie limits ….

The less muscle you have, the less work your bones have to do, and they begin to shed that incredibly valuable osseous material: your bones, which are, in fact, living tissues directly related to your blood, immune system, strength, longevity – even your mood.

You know how coral reefs are actually living organisms that provide all sorts of vital and irreplaceable functions to the fish and plants and water surrounding them? Your bones are your body’s coral reef.

You have to feed them, and weight-bearing activity = food for bones.

But lifting weights will make me “bulk up,” right?
Some key misconceptions about how the body works:
  • You cannot “tone” a certain portion of your body. Your body will not lose fat in one spot at a time, it will only lose fat. Thus, you must reduce your overall body fat percentage to see results in the area you want. This is why the “ab-(insert attention-grabbing verb)” you see on TV won’t work to help you get a better midsection.

  • Lean – having little to no surplus fat. Thus, to look “lean,” you need to have low levels of body fat.

  • Toned – seeing muscle definition on a human body. Thus, to look “toned”, you need to have low levels of body fat combined with having enough muscular development that you can see the shape of the muscle under the skin. This is usually accomplished at below 20% body fat on women, and below 10% on men.

  • You will never “bulk up” overnight, except from maybe an ice cream and beer binge (guilty). You will never wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and realize that you just built bulky muscles in your sleep.

So you can have a large amount of muscle without looking bulky. Bulky = fat, and being “skinny fat” (having a large amount of fat while having a very small amount of muscle) is the real problem, both from a health and an aesthetics perspective.

OK, I think I may be skinny fat. How do I fix this?

Build muscle. But you still wonder if more squatting and deadlifting will make your legs and butt bigger and more “bulky,” correct?

Wrong ...

The reason your legs (and shoulders and arms and back) are getting a little bigger is that you have now started to add some muscle to them. Now, that muscle will burn more calories, starting to help whittle away at the amount of fat you have on your body, even while you sleep. You now are able to achieve that “lean” and “toned” look, as your body fat levels have decreased, and your muscle is starting to show, giving the “toned” look.

Imagine your muscle as an apple sitting on a hard surface.

Now cover the apple; what you cover it with is representative of your body fat.

A wet paper towel=very low body fat.

A dish towel = low body fat.

A comforter = high body fat.

As the covering gets thicker, it becomes harder to see the apple, which is exactly what happens as you gain body fat.

Additionally, you cannot have a “toned” look without muscle. This is because that “toned” look that you are going for is the result of seeing muscle that is underneath a layer of fat. If you have too much body fat, it acts as a shielding layer.

This can also happen as we age, as the muscle we built by running, jumping, and playing in our childhood and teens atrophies due to under-use with a more sedentary life, so people in their early twenties are seen as having “high metabolisms,” supposedly not having to work to maintain lean body shapes. This “high metabolism” is because the muscle they built in their teen years is burning excess calories and fat, and with the low body fat levels, you can see their “toned” muscle underneath.

However, as they take day jobs and do not stimulate their bodies, their muscles atrophy, burning less calories and thereby lowering their “high metabolism” and leading to increased body fat as they age.

Usually, people try to do “more cardio” to regain their lean, toned bodies that they had when they were younger. However, since they do nothing to build new muscle or maintain their current muscle, they slowly transition to a thin, but “skinny fat,” look as they age.

I’m almost there… Just reassure me: will I build muscles like a man?


This is the defined truth — a woman’s muscle development is much different than a man’s. Unless a woman has a very different genetic make-up (a very, very small portion of the population), it is almost impossible to build muscle like a man.

(And, as much as you might think it is true, you only have a 1 in a million chance of being the 1 in a million that has the different genetics, so stop saying — and believing — it)

Ready to go lift?