As long as your training program, exercise technique, diet and sleep are dialed in, your results from training and diet are largely determined by your unique genetic response to training and dieting.
Your unique genetic response to training and dieting will depend on factors such as:
- Bone-structure: In general, the smaller your skeletal structure, the harder you will find it to pack on strength and muscle mass.
- Hormonal factors: Guys with a fast metabolism and high testosterone will find it much easier to recover between training sessions, get lean and stay lean and pack on lean mass.
- Fat cells from puberty: If you had a lot of body-fat throughout puberty, you’ll have a lot of fat cells that are always ready to be filled up when you overeat. As a result, guys with lots of fat cells need to be much stricter about exercise, diet and sleep to get lean and stay lean.
- Fast twitch muscle fibers: Those with a high amount of fast twitch muscle fibers (think sprinters and explosive athletes) pack on muscle mass much faster and their muscles typically have that full and round shape that looks aesthetic.
- Starting point: Guys at both extreme ends of the spectrum (either completely inactive skinny-fat guys who have never exercised and have the strength of a girl their age or those who have trained hard for years and built lots of strength and mass already) will find it the hardest to see visual change. Those in the middle with a bit of a base or intermediate levels strength will see the fastest visual changes.
There are a lot more factors than these (probably some we don’t even know about yet since even the best health experts understand less than 5% of the body), however this is a good starting overview.
To give you some perspective, even within the skinny-fat body-type I’ve seen clients with almost identical starting points and training programs make progress at very different rates.
The guy who responded better to training and dieting would progress 3 times faster in terms of strength and muscle mass while losing fat.
And if you compare a skinny-fat guy with very bad genetics to a high level athlete, the difference is absolutely insane.
The high level athlete will often start training with fitness levels and a physique that’s better than the skinny-fat guy can get throughout a lifetime of training.
And once they start training they will respond rapidly to any kind of stimulus.
That’s just how important genetics are.
Therefore, it’s important that you don’t compare yourself to other guys (even those that have a similar body-type).
Comparing yourself will only set you up for disappointment and failure since there will always be guys who progress faster than you.
With that said, I believe that anyone can build an aesthetic physique with a V-taper, big arms and big shoulders regardless of genetics.
I consider myself and many of my clients to have the worst starting points to get an aesthetic physique, however over time we still made it happen.
Therefore, you need to keep a positive mindset and absolutely believe that you CAN get in great shape. It just will take longer than you want it to!
It will take anywhere from 3-12 months to look lean and several years to pack on enough muscle to look jacked!
Transforming your physique is generally a non-linear process
This means that your fat loss and muscle building process will come in chunks.
You may go for several weeks without seeing much progress and then suddenly you see a slight increase in strength, muscle mass or loss of fat after 2-3 weeks of consistent training/diet effort.
Therefore, don’t assume that because you don’t get results each day or each week that you aren’t making progress.
In general, here are some good monthly numbers to aim for fat loss.
If you don’t have a lot of fat to lose (think 20-30 pounds):
- Lose around 4 pounds per month.
- See a 1-2 inch decrease in waist and/or hips each month.
- See a slight visual difference in photos every 4-5 weeks.
If you have a lot of fat to lose (think over 20-30 pounds):
- Lose 6-8 pounds per month.
- See a 2-3 inch decrease in waist and/or hips each month.
- See a slight visual difference in photos every 2-3 weeks.
In general, the leaner you are, the harder it is for your body to lose fat because your body fights back to get back to it’s genetic body-fat set point.
Also, keep in mind that:
- It’s possible that you gain muscle mass while losing fat, therefore it’s possible that your body-composition changes for the better without your weight changing.
- When you begin a fat loss diet you may see an increase in water retention due to your body being in a state of stress. The water retention can mask fat loss by adding an extra 1-2 inches to your waist and hip measurements and 3-5 pounds of bodyweight.
- If your sodium intake fluctuates (e.g. around cheat meals) you can see a major increase or decrease in water retention. Again, many people confuse water retention with fat loss or fat gain!
- You cannot spot reduce fat through exercises. Your body loses fat where it’s want to. Typically, the places where your body packs on fat first are the last to go.
This is why we look for trends over several months and take a comprehensive look at measurements, biofeedback, weight and photos and always look out for water retention.
It’s impossible to evaluate fat loss based on short term fluctuations in weight alone.
The best indicators that you are losing fat are:
- Waist and hip measurements are consistently going down each month (even if it’s just 1 inch).
- You feel firmer around your body.
- You feel a slight but tolerable hunger or burn on the stomach most of the day.
- You see a slight difference in fat loss photos.
Keep in mind that when we lose fat, the goal is to walk around 10-12% body-fat at the leanest.
This typically means a slightly visible ab outline and no love handles or at the very most a visible 4 pack in good lighting.
Walking around with a ripped 6-pack is not sustainable for the majority of skinny-fat guys because our genetic body-fat set point is very high.
When you go way below your genetic body-fat set point your body will compensate by decreasing your lean mass, natural testosterone production, fertility, metabolism and increase the hunger hormones.
I’ve had clients who go below 10% body-fat do blood tests and the result is always an incredibly low testosterone production.
This is why going for moderate leanness is almost always the best choice for your long-term health, vitality and energy levels.
With moderate body-fat levels you can feel your best while also packing on all the muscle you need to look your best!
Next, here are some good guidelines for muscle mass and strength:
The rate of muscle gain depends a lot on your skeletal frame, amount of fast twitch muscle fibers and testosterone production.
The overall guide lines state that you can gain around 1-2 pounds of muscle mass per month in the first year of training as a completely untrained beginner and after that the rate of muscle gains diminishes to less than 1 pound per month.
Skinny-fat guys are natural non-responders to training therefore they’re typically on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of how much they can gain per month so I like to say 0.5-1 pound of lean mass per month.
In addition, keep in mind that the majority of muscle gain consists of muscle glycogen and intramuscular fat.
Therefore when you gain 1 pound of lean muscle mass, your weight gain will typically be something like 3 pounds with most of it being water and intramuscular fat.
As a result, I recommend that on a bulking diet you gain around 2-6 pounds per month to support muscle gains. Anything about that would be excess fat gain.
This will factor in for the lean muscle, intramuscular fat, muscle glycogen and some extra food contents in the stomach.
Here are some things to consider about muscle gains:
- Each pound of muscle mass is much denser than each pound of fat fat. Therefore someone who is 200 pounds of muscle mass may look visually smaller to someone who is 200 pounds of mostly fat. It takes a lot of muscle mass to stand out. Typically guys that appear jacked in a real life setting with other people (not just in instagram photos in good lighting) are much heavier than they look. E.g. I weigh almost 250 pounds however when people see me I look like someone who weighs 210-220. When I tell them what my weight is they’re shocked that I’m not obese or something like that. It’s because of all the lean mass I built up over the years.
- A 1 pound muscle gain is barely visible when it’s covered by body-fat and spread all over your body. Especially for tall guys, muscle gains take a longer time to become visible since we have longer frames to fill out.
- When you’re losing fat while gaining muscle mass, you may even start looking smaller on the upper body (if you’re someone who carries a lot of fat around the arms, shoulders, chest and back) because you gain muscle at a much slower rate than gaining fat. I have seen this happen especially in a lot of Indian clients who have very low lean mass and lots of fat on the upper body. When they diet down, their family members start telling them they look too skinny.
Therefore, in the beginning when you’re losing fat while gaining a bit of muscle, the best indicator of progress is that you’re becoming firmer all over. You most likely won’t see rapid changes in overall muscle size while dieting off the fat.
In order to truly evaluate muscle gains it’s best to first lean out to 10-12% body-fat to see what you have to work with.
Once that is done, you can pack on muscle mass in the right places while keeping fat gain to a minimum and you should see a slight visible change in muscularity in photos once every 3 months or so.
This is why, focusing on workout performance and strength gains makes more sense for most skinny-fat guys.
You can see increases in workout performance much faster than you can see muscle gains.
It’s mentally more motivating to see a steady increase in strength every 1-3 weeks compared to waiting 3 months to see a slight difference in photos.
And as long as you’re seeing your workout performance improving while gaining weight at the right rate of 2-6 pounds per month, you will inevitably gain as much muscle mass as your body is genetically capable of.
As long as the workout trend is positive and you see even slight performance gains once every 3 weeks at least, you’re doing OK.
When it comes to improving workout performance, don’t get greedy and take your time.
Taking your time to lock in strength gains or a higher volume of training is not a bad thing.
By doing it slower, you are more likely to execute each rep with perfect form (and thereby do more work on each rep), have a lower risk of injury and you lock in those strength and volume gains so you’re less likely to lose them.
Keep in mind that it’s normal that workout performance fluctuates up and down depending on your recovery and energy levels that day.
We’re always looking at overall trends in performance, fat loss and muscle gains. Not daily fluctuations.
Also, in the beginning while perfecting your form it’s OK if you’re doing less reps as you user stricter technique and a higher time under tension.
In general, it’s always best to milk a training program for all it’s worth.
Therefore, as long as you’re seeing performance gains and not burning out, it’s best to stay on the same workout and wait with changing until results plateau out.
A lot of people make the mistake to jump from program to program, never giving the program they’re on the chance to produce results.
With body-transformations, it’s equally important to know when NOT to change stuff as it is to change stuff. I believe this is one of the biggest values of having an experienced coach that oversees your training progress and can make the right decision on when to change up training/diet and when not to. When we look at our own progress we tend to get frustrated and greedy when progress isn’t as fast as we want it to be. Then we switch up the training, see results for a few weeks, then plateau.
In other words, changing from a program that steadily produces good results almost always backfires. Milk it for all it’s worth.
Be proud but stay hungry!
Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Personal Trainer