Slim, but fat at the same time?
October 20, 2009 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Slim, but fat at the same time? I have a slim appearance, but I realize I am lacking the body mass that it matters the most, bone and muscle. I have very thin arms and somewhat weak upper-body. I am 35, male, 5'10" , 152lbs. As an adult, I know it is not possible to gain bone mass. How can I improve my physique so I can maintain decent fitness level when I get older?

Here is a bit of history:

When I was in my teens I was very slim/weak and in my early 20s due to unhealthy diet in college, I put on some weight up to 180lbs and it was mostly fat (although not too fat, looked kind of flabby) .

In my late 20s I learned about nutrition (yes that late...) managed to get myself into reasonable shape. I have been eating well and exercised in moderation since then (I can bench press 120lbs).

But I see some people similar to my frame, but they weight at least 20lbs more and look more solid, stronger upperbody and healthier.

As a late starter of exercise and eating well, I feel my body has not picked up to a decent level yet. Maybe it is because I have thin arms and cannot build enough muscle on that. Could this be possible?

How can I develop more solid physique, stronger upper body? I am not in rush but I really want to build enough foundation so I maintain a decent fitness level as I get older.

I just don't want to be slim but fat any more.
posted by neworder7 to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You are skinnyfat. This is not uncommon. You need to learn how to lift weights correctly, you need to lift heavy and regularly, and you probably need to eat more protein. Focusing only on your upper body is not going to give you the best results -- you should be working your entire body. You can put on significant muscle in a couple of months if you do it right.

This question comes up all the time, so I'll refer you to two comments I made just yesterday on the same topic, as well as this excellent comment from crunch buttsteak.

And of course, Starting Strength is your best resource for learning how to lift.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:12 PM on October 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

You can certainly gain bone density, and it's important. There have been lots of threads on strength and cardio training.
posted by theora55 at 6:21 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of quack remedies out there, but the answer is just like the one for losing weight. To lose weight, eat less. To keep yourself healthy, exercise. Neither is easy, but they're the only way that works.
posted by KRS at 6:28 PM on October 20, 2009

How did I know that ludwig would have already posted pretty much what I would have said... so second that post.
posted by teishu at 6:29 PM on October 20, 2009

This has worked wonders for me. Eight months ago I couldn't do more than 2 pushups at a time. Now I do 75 pushups a day. I had to slow down the program at times because I couldn't proceed quite at the rate that they recommended, but that's fine -- you just repeat a week of what you're already doing until you're a bit stronger.

I have NEVER been able to do pushups. It was really astonishing to me how quickly I was able to do more and more.
posted by hermitosis at 7:18 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe it is because I have thin arms and cannot build enough muscle on that. Could this be possible?

It's possible, but not likely.

The usual approach to gaining muscle is weight training. The usual approach in weight training, as per ludwig_van and co, is start with big basic lifts -- squat, deadlift, benchpress, military press, pull ups and rows. All of those except squats will work your arms to a significant degree, and should produce in an increase in arm size, just as they do in other muscles.

If you don't have a history of heavy weight training already, it is very unlikely that you are stuck because of your arms. I am going to guess that you have not, or you would not be benching 120 lbs. (For example, the chart here suggests even a novice lifter of your size should be pushing 140lb.)

Gaining weight requires not just weight training but eating more. ludwig_van observes that you need to eat more protein -- I'd suggest that if your diet is reasonably healthy now, you should eat more of everything.

If you don't want to join a gym or buy weights, I would recommend picking an active martial art and taking regular classes -- most styles do conditioning and strength exercises as part of training.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:41 PM on October 20, 2009

I like crossfit, it will certainly get you really fit, but you have to start slowly and learn the exercises well. Check this page out for scaled versions of the front-page workouts if it seems like something that interests you. One of the things that is great about crossfit is that there are a lot of exercises that focus on core strength, and full-body heavy lifts. These will help you get "toned" (b.s. term, I know, but...) overall, not just in your upper body.
posted by dubitable at 5:45 AM on October 21, 2009

Best answer: There is an important difference between the total body weight and the amount of body fat relative to the body weight that many people seem not to realize. There are a lot of people who are very light, yet still carry around a big amount of body fat - this might happen very easily if you diet incorrectly, because then the muscle mass will get burned much faster then the fat tissue. In fact, people who are literally starving have relatively high amount of fat in relation to total body weight. This is generally an issue of "body composition" and the way out would be alternating periods of gaining muscle mass (the "Starting strength" recommendation is great for this, just do not follow it's diet guidelines of drinking of gallon a milk a day which is meant for young folks getting into powerlifting or other strength-based sports) then followed by a period of dieting while trying to maintain muscle mass (by minimalizing calories while keeping protein usage high). For additional reading I would recommend and the more general, science-based books about nutrition (not "diet books").

Also, in repsonse to one of the other comments, the 100 pushups workout seems to me a bit more popular then it deserves to be. Of course, any structured workout routine is better then no routine, but just making a lot of pushups will make you better at, well, making push-ups and will not make much in terms of general fitness, strength, body composition etc., in fact it might cause a muscle imbalance if you follow it for too long. For people who do not want to join a gym, I would recommend more balanced and varied body-weight workouts, like the one in Never Gymless or on Scapper's page, perhaps also getting a set of heavy, adjustable dumbbells, as it is hard to gain any muscle just by using body-weight exercises, no matter what some "fitness gurus" might tell you. The Naked Warrior is also a good book about strength training with little or no equipment, with some periodization strategies and stuff like that, even through it has a lot of ads and may be a bit cheesy sometimes.
posted by jarekr at 6:26 AM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

ludwig nailed it. You can be fat and skinny at the same time--this just means you have little muscle mass. Get to lifting!
posted by achompas at 7:41 AM on October 21, 2009

First, read this article on why working out on machines is a waste of time. Learn to workout from your feet so that your entire body is involved, rather than isolating individual body parts. Because if you have strong arms but a weak back, what can you do with them?

Nthing Naked Warrior. In fact, Pavel is an EXCELLENT source on strength training. If you want to build muscle density and strength, from personal experience let me recommend you get a kettlebell and a copy of Pavel's Enter The Kettlebell book & DVD.

I recommend both the book & DVD because while the book is an excellent reference, seeing the kettlebell motions performed properly is invaluable, especially as the motions are somewhat eccentric and not what a lot of us are used to.

But yeah, I turned 40 this year, and after ~38 years of being overweight and understrong (and a clavicle-snapping bike crash), Pavel & his Russian iron are a huge part of why I'm down 30+ lbs and training for a marathon. Kettlebells cut weight off the heavy and help the underweight put on mass while being one of the best full-body exercises I've ever done.

I've been in and out of gyms for decades, and now I know why: Machines suck and are counter-productive.

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:00 AM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

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