You spend all this time working out, eating a lot, and lifting heavy. You put on a bunch of size. A special event is coming up, so you endure a grueling cut to strip off all the body fat. You’re finally left with a lean, muscular, and aesthetic physique for all your efforts. Because you finally look good in the mirror, you back off the intensity and get less strict. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you look in the mirror one day only to find that you’ve become “skinny fat”. What went wrong?
What happens with too many trainees after they finally achieve the condition they want is that they literally let themselves go. They’ve likely been lifting heavy for years and dieting hard for at least several weeks, if not months on end. They’re worn out mentally and just ready to enjoy the body they’ve put so much time and effort into.
The problem is that they let their foot off the proverbial gas completely, letting themselves eat almost whatever they want. To make it even worse, they back off on the gym – sometimes ceasing to train altogether. This creates a sort of perfect storm that can ruin your physique and ultimately lead to you being skinny fat.
The layperson would say this is because your “muscle turned into fat”. This isn’t the case as muscle can’t “turn into” fat or vice versa – it’s a physiological impossibility. Muscle and fat are different substances. Therefore one can’t turn into the other just as bone can’t turn into tendon and skin can’t turn into hair.
However, easing off on a strict diet almost always leads to a significant increase in caloric intake. Given that you’ve been on a cut for a while, it won’t take much to go way over your current caloric maintenance level.
At the same time, your cut has likely had your metabolism fluctuating and going into a sort of “survival” mode, taking advantage of every single calorie as it’s not getting nearly as many as it’s used to. When you suddenly start consuming way more calories, your metabolism over-compensates by storing as many of those calories as possible as fat.
Meanwhile, you’re not working out as hard at the gym. Any reduction in workout intensity is going to lead to at least some immediate semblance of a loss in muscle as again, you’re out of that “dialed in” homeostasis of a good diet combined with a hardcore workout. But now that you’re training less, your body has even less of a reason to maintain muscle mass. Keep this up for long enough, and you’ll lose so much muscle that you end up appearing skinny fat.
You obviously can’t keep on a strict diet and a hardcore workout all the time. However, that doesn’t mean you have to end up skinny fat, either. After you’ve hit your peak condition, the key is to not throw everything to the wind. Instead, just ease up (not give up) across the board.
Feel free to start adding in more calories to your diet – maybe 500 more per day. Let yourself eat “junk” that you’ve been restricting yourself from to alleviate your cravings. Putting a cheat meal (or even a whole cheat day) back into your regimen can do wonders for your long-term sustainability. In fact, it very well could be that you could continue to stick to your fairly strict diet for the foreseeable long-term if you simply just added in a cheat meal or two per week.
At the same time, ratchet down the workout intensity, but still keep hitting the gym. Maybe you can back off on all the extra cardio you’ve been doing. This would also be a good time to insert a deload week where your weights and / or volume are cut in half. After that, come back to your workout program, but go for a long, slow build where you ramp the intensity back up over time.
In the end, you avoid becoming skinny fat after a cut by not doing a complete 180 in your approach. If working out hard and dieting strict got you ripped, stopping training and eating everything in sight will prime you to quickly lose muscle and rapidly pack on the fat. You can – and should – definitely chill out on the exacting approach you’ve been on. Just make sure that you’re only dialing the intensity down a little – not eradicating it completely.