I’m Fat. What Do I Do?

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | May 19, 2021

girl squeezing upper stomach fat in her hands

I’m in the weight room with a client. The newbie gains aren’t what they used to be, and my lifter is wondering what’s going on. Inevitably, the age-old conversation arises. “Are you eating enough?” I ask. The response: “I eat loads. Besides, I’m already fat, and I don’t want to get any bigger.”

Okay. So how do we unpack this clusterfuck of a response during a 5-minute rest period? As you might have suspected, I’m not the best at laying out all my thoughts within 5 minutes, but here I have all the time in the world – and I want to explore this topic in the depth it requires. First, I want to get to the heart of the matter.


The media and pop culture have promoted visible abs as uniquely desirable for as long as black has been the new black. And it has had a profound impact on the way we think. I’ve recently been reading a book called The Adonis Complex, which discusses various psychological disorders to do with male body image, such as baldness, nose shape, and even dick size. Studies conducted in places as farflung as the city of Boston and a rural town in Austria all show that men are worried about their physical appearance – and especially their tumtums. It’s very common, no matter what part of the world you’re from.

And it’s not about impressing women. Not really. Generally speaking, men say they want a leaner and more muscular physique than women actually like. In fact, most men idealize a physique that’s 10 to 15lbs lighter (sometimes more) than women say they would prefer. The inverse is true for women: men generally like ladies with curves, not a Sex and the City-style lollipop head on a skinny body. Yet men still want abs and more muscle, and women still want to be skin and bone. One might reasonably conclude that men are actually more worried about other men’s opinions, and that the same is true with women. But that’s a subject for another time.

In any case, I too once had abs and was worried about my physique – for “da laydeez.” I too had these same reservations about “getting fat”. Remember, 9 years ago I was 70 kilos, and at 5’5’’ I haven’t grown any taller since then. When you’re in the fitness industry, there’s a lot of unspoken pressure to look the part. I know it seems hard to believe I was ever skinny, now that I’m upwards of 110 kilos and my primary focus is training for strength. But there’s a distinction to make here: while I’m happy to be heavy, I still don’t want to get “fat”. Even at my biggest, I want to look strong in a powerful and muscular way. I’m not looking to be Homer Simpson. It’s a balancing act: when you eat to get stronger, you need a surplus of calories to recover from the stress of training and lay down new lean muscle mass, and fat is a necessary by-product.

Asking the SSCs

Wondering whether I was the only one dealing with this stuff, I decided to ask my Starting Strength peers to weigh in. Turns out it’s not just me who gets this question on the regular, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the valuable feedback I received. My question was essentially this: how do you deal with clients who complain about a “spare tire” and want to focus on aesthetics if they’re still weak?

Most replies focused on keeping compliance high. Keep them training – that’s the most important thing. This is very true. But some of the answers surprised me. People had some fascinating ways of thinking about this stuff. Here are a few of my favorite responses:

The positive approach

  • Give them some of what they want with a generous dose of what they need. It’s a game of client judo/jujitsu.

  • Building a physique is like carving a statue. The sledgehammer is strength and the chisel and sandpaper are assistance work, conditioning and so on.

  • Add in assistance and conditioning work; use a power-building approach to pacify complaints.

  • Add in some more Olympic lifts to make them feel more powerful and explosive (but be careful not to exhaust them).

  • Make sure they’re not overeating, focusing on protein intake and quality food choices.

  • Introduce them to other clients or people in the weight room who have had similar issues and overcome them. Hearing it from the horse’s mouth – not the coach’s – works wonders, even if it’s the exact same advice.

  • Important little gem: Sometimes they just want you to listen. They want to be heard. Really listen to their pain points: there might be something else behind what they’re saying. Show them you care and try to steer the conversations so that they come round to your way of thinking all by themselves.

The tough love approach

  • Clients need to take better ownership over their nutrition and success. I coach them for a small fraction of time (I’d charge a lot of money to slap doughnuts out of their hands all day), so I can only guarantee what I can see. I can advise them about diet but, inevitably, they control the fork and I control the barbell.

  • Some only start complaining when the training gets hard. Once they’re grinding out reps or even missing lifts, the conversation about eating comes up. Then they turn around and say, “Oh no, I’m fat, what do I do?”

  • As a coach, you can get your own body fat to 10% (or whatever physique they want) – then they’ll take your advice. (Author’s note: Fuck that!)

And the one where you throw up your hands...

Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition! Clients lie about what they eat all the time, so it’s virtually pointless to try and monitor dietary compliance.

Ultimately, this may be a client you need to let go. They may not be willing to do the work required, or they may have different goals. If this is the case, this person might be better off working with someone more aesthetics-focused. As SSCs we have worked hard to get a credential that focuses on getting clients stronger – not getting them visible abs in 6 weeks. Constant goal-hopping inevitably leads to long-term failure.

You don’t have to choose

As a client, what are you supposed to take from this? That all SSCs are secretly scheming to turn you into a tub of lard? No. I think the biggest misconception here is that you have to choose: that you can either be lean and weak or strong and fat. But this is not a zero-sum game. You don’t, in fact, have to choose. Eventually you can be both strong as well as lean – but not immediately. That’s the end game. If you’re less than 6 months into barbell training then you’ve barely started. You’re still building the fundamentals. And these pay off further down the line. When it comes to strength, the fundamentals are the 5 big lifts, done 3 times a week, with 5lbs added each workout and enough food and sleep to recover.  

If it sounds like I’m telling you to just grow a power belly and deal with it, that’s not the case. There will be a point where you can cut if you want to, but it takes time, effort and growth to reach that point. When you’re building a physique, the process of becoming bigger occurs on a systemic level: the whole body has to increase in size. If you want your arms, chest, shoulders, back, legs, butt, calves, neck and forearms to get bigger, then you have to accept that your belly will grow too. But it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. Once you have reached a certain level of strength and muscle mass, you can adjust your calories to lose some fat, revealing the stronger, more powerful and muscular body beneath. Creating this kind of physique cannot happen overnight. You need to be patient.

Lean gains

But why can’t I just put on muscle mass? Why do I have to put on fat as well? What if I only increase my calorie intake a very fractional amount as I train – won’t this ensure that it’s all lean mass? There are many people in the fitness industry who will tell you this is possible. It isn’t.

Focusing on lean gains is like getting distracted by fool’s gold. Yes, if you’re completely detrained and an absolute novice you can lose body fat and gain lean muscle. But this is a very small window and it expires very quickly. Past a certain point, the strategy will stop working – and this is often when clients get disappointed. It’s like trying to dig a ditch with a spoon as opposed to a backhoe. In fact, the lean gains approach is actually counterproductive for novices: this protocol might be better suited to late intermediate or advanced lifters who have manipulated their bodyweight on and off for 5 to 10 years and have exhausted the easy gains – certainly not people who are struggling with baseline strength levels. So what am I classing as baseline level? Well, the Starting Strength Sticker Club is a good frame of reference: Press/Bench/Squat/Deadlift: 200/300/400/500lbs for males and 100/155/225/315lbs for females.

Advanced lifters already have a substantial amount of lean mass, so they don’t have to go through the same phase of muscle-building as novices. The pursuit of strength becomes more of a quest to refine their programming skills.


Clients who are quick to abandon ship and want to focus on cutting before they have even gained baseline strength are often classic goal-hoppers. In the grand scheme of training, 3-4 months of LP is a blink of the eye. Changing your mind at that point is like starting to row a boat across a river and thn wanting to go swimming after 5 minutes. You can get bigger and stronger, and you can focus on cutting and aesthetics, but not at the same time. They’re two different directions. When you cut, you get weaker. That’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place to drop bodyweight. Sure there is. But you need to pay your respects to the iron gods of Valhalla before you change your religion and start praying to the Greek gods instead. Staying in the boat and rowing it is part of the process.

Remember the goal

The goal is to get stronger. This isn’t a bodybuilding program – this is Starting Strength. Substantially increasing your squat, press, deadlift, bench and power clean will have built some quality lean muscle mass. Which is what you wanted – it’s just currently more concealed than it is on the dude on the cover of Muscle and Fitness. Also, just FYI, those dudes only stay 3–5% bodyfat for 2 days out of the year. It’s a marketing ploy designed to make you buy useless “6-week programs” and supplements. You already know this, but at 5% bodyfat your body is at its weakest. Getting that lean is a nutrition program, not a strength program.

There are 168 hours in a full week, but many Starting Strength clients are only with their coach for 2 hours per week. The majority of the time they are unsupervised, and every dietary choice they make tips the scales towards growing as much lean muscle mass as possible or simply getting fatter. We all know that diets – especially strict ones – are the hardest thing to stick to, but even if people do stick to a diet, this can create problems of its own. Rigid adherence to a diet can in some cases develop into disordered eating patterns such as orthorexia (deciding that one food is “bad” and another is “good”, that you have to eat “clean” or obsess about your “protein window”) – and this is not the goal either. It is a distraction from it.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t think about what you eat, of course, but it’s a question of degree. Focusing excessively on weight and aesthetics shouldn’t be priority number one. Family, occupation, physical and mental well-being, finances and retirement plans – those are all things that matter more. Being 10% bodyfat when you have a wife and two kids isn’t really going to change your world. Trust me, your wife doesn’t care. As we already know, nobody cares about your training but you.

If you are going to take the pursuit of strength seriously, you have to focus on getting bigger and stronger for a substantial amount of time. This allows the program to do its work most effectively. Besides, constantly pinching loose skin and worrying what people think is not a fun way to experience daily life. Remind yourself of the ultimate goal. Remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, and that your present situation is not necessarily your future. You always have the power to change and to skew the odds in your favor.

Simple tips

There are a few simple things you can do to tighten up your diet, if you decide that’s what you really want. Since rapid weight loss is inadvisable for most people, it’s best to make small and effective changes without rocking the boat or screaming I need to do a 50lb weight cut like yesterday! Most people will see gradual but significant change if they focus on:

  • consuming fewer liquid calories

  • consuming fewer fast or processed foods

  • consuming less alcohol

  • consuming fewer desserts

  • not binge-eating

Set goals you can meet

Notice that the key word in the above list is fewer. Do not deny yourself all of your favorite things or stick to a strict elimination diet. That’s just cruel – and it won’t last. Most people only need to create a slight calorie deficit to lose weight. Let’s say you eat McDonald's 7 days a week. Going cold turkey probably won’t work for long when the habit is that ingrained, but could you take it down to 4 times a week? Opt for diet soda vs regular? Eat the French fries every other visit? Have the McFlurry only as an occasional treat? Sure. The key is to set yourself realistic goals that you can actually meet.

Eliminating McDonald's completely isn’t sustainable long term. If you want to cut out McDonald's entirely, I would suggest you do so only for a short period of time at the very end of the process: only once you’ve tightened up your entire diet, all other changes have been exhausted, and you want to go one step further. The important thing would be to set a specific span of time, so that you can tell yourself – truthfully – it’s not forever. Taking an all-or-nothing approach, while superficially appealing, is often why people crash and give up. Shoot for something more like 80/20. If you’re eating 80% right, then that’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up about the 20% slop – that’s factored in. You’re not a bad person for loving pizza. It’s delicious. We all need to live a little, and enjoying your food is not a crime.

Physique is like construction

Despite what you might think, cutting weight isn’t the hard bit. Building a physique and getting stronger is. Packing strong, dense muscle mass onto your frame is highly advantageous, and it will make the process of cutting much faster than if you were still a bag of bones. The long-term goal is to make you healthy, which may require a weight cut, yes – but at the appropriate moment. Attaining strength is the first step towards making you healthier. But this is a process, and as with all construction work there will be delays, overspending, mistakes, and the frustration of hindsight.

Clients often tell me that they tried to gain weight in the past, had a bad experience and now want to remain 175lbs at 6 foot indefinitely. But if we always quit building after our first attempt, how many buildings, cars and airplanes would we have? Not many. Try not to be emotional about past training mistakes. Be logical and critical. Learn from the experience: what worked and what didn’t? How can you improve? Consistency conquers all in the weight room – and in the kitchen. If your stick to the plan and don’t miss a workout you will be far closer to your goals than the guy who stops and starts on-and-off for 10 years. By being disciplined and training hard, you could surpass that guy in 3 years or less.

It is possible to strike the longed-for balance of strength and aesthetics, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If it was easy, then everyone would look like Larry Wheels or Stan Efferding. It takes courage and patience. If you can’t hit baseline levels of strength and you hop from program to program, bulking and cutting more frequently than a woman’s menstrual cycle, then you’re selling yourself short – not only on the program but when it comes to revealing the muscle underneath. Cutting before you get strong might seem like the quicker option, but you probably won’t be happy when you look in the mirror to see an emaciated Christian Bale from The Machinist rather than the buff Kickboxer-era Jean-Claude Van Damme you were hoping for.


Maybe part of the problem is that people don’t always understand the difference between bodybuilding and strength training. When you do Starting Strength, the aesthetic result will not be big, foamy, bodybuilder-style muscles. There, I’ve said it! Doing 3 sets of 5, 3 days a week does not produce the same end product as doing blood-and-guts 3x12s, drop sets, supersets and forced reps.

Let’s be honest here: your average bodybuilder at the gym is not a rocket scientist. So how do they do it? Because what they lack in intelligence they make up for in discipline. They can eat dry, yesterday’s-newspaper-textured chicken breast, stinky broccoli, and plain boiled rice till the cows come home. Yes, they lift; but more importantly they stick to their meal plan religiously, carefully mapping it out ahead of time. You will never see them crack into a burger dripping with cheese or a burrito with extra avocado (assuming they can afford the extra £1 charge). Bodybuilders are faithful to their Tupperware life. That’s the real difference – that’s what gets bodybuilders their physiques. Diligent and consistent meal prep day in and day out, with a side order of lifting, not training. As strength trainers, on the other hand, we need to eat enough to fuel our training, because we are focused primarily on performance, not aesthetics.

Other options

If you’re looking for a more drastic approach to diet and lifestyle, you have a couple of options. You can:

  • meticulously count your current macros (MyFitnessPal is helpful here), then slowly drop or add 250–500 Kcal every week (depending on your goal)

  • use a food-prep company to make all your meals for you (using Trifecta or the Vertical Diet, for example) or

  • take steroids.

Take steroids? I’m not saying you should. Taking gear, like most things in life, is a choice. Even if you do take PEDs, you still need to train hard and eat well to look good. Injecting yourself and expecting magic is a recipe for disappointment. I’ve written about this in a previous article, but the unspoken question in many of my discussions with clients is why can’t I look like the fitness influencers I follow on Instagram? They’re asking me for the secret sauce. The special supplement. A lot of men aspire to look like their idols, but many of those idols are on steroids. So if you’re not willing to pin yourself in the butt, don’t keep pining over those physiques. Don’t believe the lie, although I know it’s more alluring than the truth.

And don’t judge your idols for being fakes: laugh at your own gullibility. Those muscle rags sold you a pipe dream – that you could achieve this physique naturally – and you bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Some people can, sure, but most of us aren’t in that select group, just as not every kid who picks up a basketball can make it to the NBA. Think that meal-replacement shake you drink 4 times a day will make you look like Arnold in 6 weeks? Bullshit. They got your punk ass, and Joe Weider has done his job better than us when it comes to telling you what you want to hear.

I care too much

When clients start asking me about weight-loss, my heart sinks. I want to do the best I can to help them reach their goals, but the truth is that I’m almost too invested in making all my clients strong. I want them to get as strong as possible, and gaining weight is part of that process (for some people more than others). Yet clients aren’t always as invested as I am. They get all excited reading the Blue Book, but sometimes, once they’re in the trenches, they get discouraged. They reach a fork in the road, and often bodyweight is the key factor. If this happens, we may have to come to a compromise. I will always advocate for strength, but sometimes you have to get creative about what constitutes a PR. For example, if you could deadlift 400lbs for 5 at a bodyweight of 250lbs and now you pull that same weight for 3 reps at 200lbs, that’s still a PR in my book, because you’re at a lighter bodyweight. So there are still ways to create small wins, even if your all-time best PRs are behind you. Your mindset may have to change.

Cutting will make you weaker, especially if you weren’t that strong to begin with. But being told this isn’t always enough of a reality check. Experiencing it first hand, however, speaks volumes. It’s one thing me telling you that if you cut 50lbs your squat will go down; it’s another thing actually experiencing that reality first-hand. You get the weight on your back, and suddenly something you could previously hit for 5 reps you’re now struggling to make for a set of 3, 2 or even 1. I know that feeling. You look at the bar and say, “Fuck, I usually smash this weight.” Just remember: I warned you.

Obviously, I can’t tell you how to feel or what to do. I can only offer advice and tell you the implications of your choices for your progress. I can advocate for strength and tell you to play the long game, but ultimately the final decision is always yours.

It’s simple math and common sense. If you really want to lose the spare tire, then lift 3 to 4 days a week, eat less overall, eat leaner cuts of meat, strategically plan your carbs around training, eat green veggies, reduce your intake of fast food, desserts and alcohol, and do it all for a sustained period of time. Bear in mind, however, that this process will make you weaker. As with any decision, there is a trade-off. Sadly, we can’t have it all. The answer to the question “I’m fat, what do I do?” is sitting in your fridge. Your food dictates your future. So what does your ice box say about you?

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