When you are a skinny fat girl (not really overweight, not underweight, barely any muscle definition, kinda soft & pudgy here & there, BUT appear slim in clothes… yeah, you know what I’m talking about here), it’s easy to think to yourself “It’s time to lose some weight and diet!”. Women tend to want to immediately cut calories (most of the time far too dramatically) and do excessive amounts of cardio (usually of the daily steady state variety). All for the sake of being skinny though right? Count me in (says most women)! The scale begins to move in the direction you want it to and you may even go down a size or two in your clothing. Life is beginning to appear pretty darn awesome a few weeks into this new diet!
During the course of this particular weight loss journey, you also discover weight training. You learn that in order to have that “toned” look you are going for (dear God, I will always HATE this term), you need to build some muscle (“toned”= MUSCLE my friends). You give it a try and end up falling deeply in love with it. You love the challenge. You love the feeling strong. You can’t get over feeling powerful. You are hooked. So, in addition to watching what you are eating, cutting those calories, and doing that daily cardio, you also add in a few days of lifting each week. Your body composition gets even BETTER and you are absolutely thrilled with our results. You kick yourself for not weight training sooner in life. Clothes are fitting you so much better, you have more confidence when you walk into a room, and you are feeling stronger every day. Life is even better!
However, as you continue on with this program (calorie deficit, excessive cardio, lifting), you start to notice a few other things 4, 5, 8 months down the road. Your energy levels begin to come down and your workouts begin to lose their intensity. 15 lb dumbbells are starting to feel like 30 lb dumbbells. Your usual easy four sets of 10 have turned into barely being able to get through three sets of 8 on an exercise. On top of all of that, you realize that even though you are working hard to build muscle, you aren’t progressing like you think you should. You want bigger shoulders, bigger biceps, visible abs, and a nice round rump but no matter how hard you train or how heavy you try to lift, those muscles just won’t grow. You may have even gotten down to sub 18% body fat and STILL no abs. You become frustrated, impatient, and lose your focus.
Wanna know what I think is the #1 reason why your muscle growth isn’t optimal despite your lifting & efforts?
You have spent far too much time in a caloric deficit…
As a natural athlete (no steroids), growing muscle is a VERY very slow process. It takes months and years to build quality muscle and there are few instances where you can lose fat AND grown muscle simultaneously. That combined with the fact that you have spent all of your time not even eating at maintenance level calories, it’s a recipe for ZERO growth in your muscle building journey. That pancake ass you had to start out with perked up a bit in the beginning, but that’s about as far as you got. The bicep peaks were looking good, but seem to be leveling out… possibly even appearing smaller as the weeks and months go by. That six pack was finally starting to somewhat show, but regardless of how much weight you had lost or how low you got your body fat, those darn muscles still never came out to play.
This is exactly where I found myself at the end of my last dieting phase. I felt tiny, I felt shrunken up, shrunk in, and all together small. I know without a doubt in my mind that I had changed my body composition, built “some” quality muscle, and leaned out over the course of 1 1/2 years of me being serious about weight training (newbie gains for sure). I was 100% consistent. My form was on point. I lifted heavy. I tracked my macros. And still had very little to show in the one area of my body I was TRULY trying to build and change… my GLUTES! This is the greatest example of a muscle group I was working SO extremely hard to build, but no matter how hard I tried there had always been so little change.
Although I had gone through a couple of rounds of reversing dieting and cutting/dieting, I never spent ENOUGH time in a caloric surplus to BUILD that muscle I was working so hard for. During a 12 month period, I had spent 5-6 months dieting, 1-2 months at maintenance, and then only a handful of months, eating where I needed to for that optimal growth. I was in such a rush to diet and get lean, that I totally neglected to see the bigger picture… that muscle takes HEAVY TRAINING & TIME & FOOD. During my reverse diets, just as I was getting to the point where I could put on some of the size where I wanted to (glutes, abs, shoulders), I would take myself out of the caloric surplus and jump right into a deficit. HUGE mistake that I finally realized a few months ago after looking at some progress pictures I had taken. I compared some of the shots I took last year and realized they were very similar. Way to similar for the amount of work I felt like I was putting into my training. I am totally regretting those decisions to jump into dieting and vowed that this time around it would be different. I would view it all differently. I would have a different plan of action. This reverse diet would be different.
This year as I began to see everyone starting their diets for the Summer, I decided I wasn’t going to jump on that bandwagon again. I would NOT join the masses in search of the elusive shredded six pack. 2015 would be the year where I really spent QUALITY time enjoying the whole reverse dieting process. I made up my mind that I would not have a specific timeline, that I would resist the urge to diet/lean out, that I would continue to increase my calories slowly, gain some weight, and make peace with the fact that the leaner body I had achieved during my last dieting phase would be no more… I made a promise to myself that I would spend the entire year BUILDING, improving, and shaping the parts of my body properly & adequately.
The first few months were hard. I spent more time eating at maintenance or slightly above than I should have because at that point, I hadn’t really decided I was going all in on this building phase. Then roughly 3-4 months ago, I jumped in head first and haven’t looked back. Time to eat, time to lift heavy again, time for some serious muscle abuse, time to GROW. I finally began to see those changes in my body. I finally began to see the growth I was working so hard for. And best of all, I FINALLY started to see real progression in my GLUTES! Praise the LORD. My pancake ass was starting to fade away…
Picture on the left was this past March. Picture on the right was just this past weekend.
3 months difference. Eating well OVER maintenance for at least 4 months. Training lower body /glutes 3 X a week.
Hallelujah. Words can’t even express how happy I am with my decision. It may not be super impressive to some but if I can do this in 3 months, I’m definitely even more driven to continue on this path. I feel so happy and content with where I am at in my journey. However, I’m not going to lie here, reverse dieting is hard. It plays HUGE mind games with you as you add in those extra calories and the numbers on the scale begin to get higher and higher, you can’t help but second guess the process. * Please note that I don’t use the scale as the be all, tell all of progress BUT during a reverse diet you must keep tabs on your weight each week. You want to ensure that you are gaining but NOT gaining too quickly. Too quickly leaves more room for fat gain VS the muscle gain.* As of right now, I’m aiming for about a 1 pound gain per month. Again, most women do NOT want to see themselves gain weight, but keep in mind it is NECESSARY if you are trying to build. Last time I checked, muscle wasn’t weightless right? So I’m happy with the minimal weight gain because I know I’m putting on quality muscle! Again, it’s not an easy journey BUT a necessary one if you truly want to build and reshape your body. Your mind will try to convince you to take a different path and you will second guess yourself almost daily. Then you go to your stupid social media feeds and everyone and their mom (literally), is dieting & shredding for the Summer. Here you are just getting fluffier and fluffier as the weeks and months go by.
And honestly, have you truly looked at some of these fitness accounts (PLEASE NOTE… I use the word “SOME”, not ALL)? These “fitspos” who stay lean ALL year round? They talk about lifting heavy and want to grow, BUT do me a favor and take a look at some of their pictures from 9-12 months ago. In most cases, their body composition and visible muscle are the EXACT same year after year. Why? Again, because most of these girls eat in a deficit year round and the time they don’t spend in a deficit, they are barely eating at maintenance and not for very long. You CANNOT grow if you are not eating!
So all you skinny fat girls like me who want to grow a bigger this, that, or the next thing… do NOT diet all year round. Reverse diet properly. Slowly reduce your cardio. Repair and build your metabolism from the abuse it has taken from dieting. I promise you, if muscle and growth are truly what you seek, take the time to build it!!! It may still be a slow process, but if you are training hard, efficiently, AND eating enough… it will come! I’m absolute proof that you can change whatever body part you want IF you go about it the right way!
Mia @ MakeMeUpMiaJune 3, 2015 at 4:41 pm
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! “not really overweight, not underweight, barely any muscle definition, kinda soft & pudgy here & there, BUT appear slim in clothes…” This WAS me dead on. I spent 3-4 years dieting and restricting carbs. I lost 45 lbs but was still so unhappy with my body! I’d been lifting over a year but still under-eating. I discovered the macro world in Feb and it’s changed mine & my husbands life. Just being aware of what we were doing wrong, what we need to do and breaking the unhealthy relationship with food I’ve had for so long. I just started maintenance for the first time and will start eating over that in a couple months. I can’t wait to see my body make the changes I’ve wanted for so long. I already see a difference in my “pancake ass” since adding carbs back into my diet. I feel free now! Your blog is a big help for me 🙂
GsbyJune 3, 2015 at 7:54 pm
Thank you this is very motivating! However I am wondering if I should try reverse dieting at this point. I am skinny fat I guess…skinny arms & legs and all my fat is in my belly. I have lost about 10-15 lbs but wanted to loose the belly fat before focusing on building muscle since I am worried that weight gain will =even bigger belly. :/ it just seems like I’m stuck and no more weight/fat is coming off. I am 36 yrs old, 4’11, weigh 100 lb and eat about 1400 cals a day. Any advice on when to start a reverse diet?
corinaJune 4, 2015 at 1:17 am
if you have been dieting for longer that 4-6 months, it’s time to take a break. Definitely consider reverse dieting! Muscle helps burn fat so a building phase will help with that!
KateJune 3, 2015 at 8:54 pm
I’m so trying to gain more muscle mass, but I’m clueless on reverse dieting. I tried to research it, but just don’t get it! Can you help me out!!! Thanks
Btw. You look awesome!
DevynJune 4, 2015 at 12:59 am
Love! You say you are eating “well above maintenance”, how many calories/macros approximately above?
corinaJune 4, 2015 at 1:15 am
Everyone’s maintenance calories are different and there are so many factors that will determine them. At only 5′ and 107 pounds, I’m eating around 2100 or so and gaining very little each week.
MImi JayneJune 4, 2015 at 2:46 am
I have also been working on my glutes for 4-5 months. My glutes did grow but so did my quads. I worked myself right out of all my pants! I became super freaked out and dropped my leg workouts to just 1 day a week. Is this something you have struggled with? Not sure how I want to move forward….
corinaJune 8, 2015 at 4:40 pm
I’m entirely quad dominate, always have been!!! I have found that doing more glute isolation exercises (hip thrusts, bridges, etc) and activating the right muscles during warm up helps a lot. I also practice a LOT of mind/muscle connection. Believe me, it can be done and I’m training lower body 3 times a week right now with little growth in my quads, just in my hamstrings and gluteus!
JenniferJune 4, 2015 at 1:19 pm
Corina, I love your honesty and input. I am writing to say thank you so much for your Instagram post. I am so happy that one of my fitness icons (and I do not say that lightly, you are an inspiration) spoke of how it is possible to post progress shots that do not look like porn. I get so sad and mad when I see other for moms I admire posting shots of themselves nearly naked. It is not necessary. Thank you for keeping it real and classy. You are so right, our kids do not want their friends to see their parents naked, no matter how good their bodies look. Keep on bulking girl, you look fabulous!
BrandyJune 10, 2015 at 12:51 pm
Thank you very much for this post! This is the kind of motivation I needed! I suffered from the “skinny fat” syndrome for the majority of my life before finding weightlifting and IIFYM a little over a year ago. I love the feeling and can relate 100% to your post, I have never seen “skinny fat” describe more perfectly!
I am also reverse dieting right now, have been for almost 2 months, and it really does play games with your mind, especially during summer and when friends are in prep for competitions. Thank you for your constant motivation and giving me someone to relate to that is real, down to earth, and transparent. I truly appreciate it. #pancakeassclub no more! 🙂
LaurenJune 11, 2015 at 9:10 am
Hi Corina! I stumbled across your info on the Advocare Challengers group I follow on FB and I am so glad I did! I have been working out about 5-6 days/week, fasted cardio and weights later in the day. I’ve gotten stronger, and built a lot of muscle (I feel skinny fat too) but I’m definitely feeling exhausted every day and hungry. I generally am eating clean 5-6 days at about 1300-1500 calories and a cheat day on the weekend (which has gotten pretty out of control). I’m frustrated b/c I am not leaning out more, and cutting out so much that it’s becoming obsessive and restricting me from a lot of social events as well b/c I don’t want to be tempted to stray from my diet–and then crashing on my cheat day. I’m really going to look into Reverse Dieting and IIFYM using the links you provided. Thanks so much! I’m so glad I’ve found your blog and read all about your experiecnes!
corinaJune 12, 2015 at 4:59 pm
One meal probably won’t set you back too far, BUT if its done multiple times in a week consistently or even an entire day of binge eating, then you definitely run the risk of getting nowhere. This is where flexible dieting might help because you can fit ALL of the foods you love into your diet every day if you wanted. Just gives you more balance so you don’t feel deprived.
LeahJune 11, 2015 at 6:32 pm
Hi Corina! So do you recommend deficit calories until you reach a comfortable weight and then reverse dieting? I want to lose weight/get better definition and I already lift heavy. I think I’m stuck in s cycle similar to what you’re describing. Thanks!
corinaJune 12, 2015 at 4:55 pm
Hi Leah, I think it’s a personal preference and it also comes down to how overweight one is and how long they have already been lifting. Some people will want to shed some fat to see what they already have going on and those new to lifting/training could possibly build and burn at the same time. If a person has been in a deficit for a long period of time, I will ALWAYS suggest reverse dieting to restore your metabolic function and give your body a much needed break.
Danielle HalsallAugust 27, 2015 at 12:50 am
Thank you! It seems i just read this at the best time!
after dieting for a few years, i am reverse deiting and this morning was contemplating starting a cut…. i Need to push that aside!! if i want to compete, I need to growwwww in this phase.. and being newer to lifting that is when gains are optimal!
NitaMarch 14, 2018 at 3:11 pm
Fantastic article and a great motivation for me. I lost 80 lbs last year going from 215 to 135 using keto, but also a lot of fasted cardio and caloric deficit. This article describes my thoughts and actions to a tee and I know it is time for me to undergo a reverse diet. Thank you for the inspiration, I’m hoping to make as many booty gainz as you have 😉