The Former Fat Boy Syndrome

By JC Deen



I must admit I am a FFB (Former Fat Boy).  I am willing to bet many of the guys reading this were FFB’s.  As a FFB I know we tend to think our metabolisms are subpar or we can’t build muscle efficiently due to our endomorphic proportions.  This is what’s known as the FFBS (former fat boy syndrome).  I say this is bullhonkey (nice attempt at swearing I know).  The sad truth is being a former fat boy may even be worse on the psyche than starting out as a skinny bastard (as Joe DeFranco would say).  My goal today is to reach out to all the FFB’s and offer some encouragement, hope and a swift kick in the ass.

What is a Former Fat Boy?

A FFB is what the name implies: someone who used to be fat or they could still be slightly on the chubby side (think of the big powerlifter who eats a bit too much).  This is not a blanket statement as there are always exceptions but in my experience many of the bigger, younger guys in the gym have a history of being a part of the FFB club.  Then again I see guys that are still chubby and lack any muscular development whatsoever.

I grew up eating bologna and cheese sammiches (I meant to do that) and this is what turned me into a fat boy.  Once I got into athletics I turned into a husky boy and eventually graduated to a FFB.  It was an interesting experience to say the least and I learned a lot from being the fat kid growing up.

Now that we know what a FFB is, let’s get into the darker corners of the minds of these unique souls.

A Mess of Mental Hang-ups

Since you are here, I would argue that you are likely interested in changing your body composition for the better (or maybe you’re here for some lame humor?).  You are likely interested in looking great naked and thus being proud of what you have accomplished aesthetically.  One of the biggest issues I face when dealing with clients or when helping out on the forums are FFB’s who long for a bigger, stronger, leaner physique who are not willing to do what it takes to achieve it.  Now this is not because they are uneducated, stupid or unwilling.  It’s because they have this innate fear of returning to their former fatty self.

These are usually the guys who have worked really hard on a fat loss diet with lots of cardio for many months to drop a ton of weight.  They are so excited about losing the extra fluff and now want to build their physique but their own fear sabotages them from taking the necessary steps to achieve their lofty goals.  They first learn they must EAT MORE and GAIN WEIGHT to build muscle.  They are so scared of ballooning up that they end up spinning their wheels for months and years before seeing the light or just giving up altogether.

The Dreadful Origins

A FFB gets on a popular bodybuilding forum, spends lot of time lurking and learning the fundamentals of building a killer physique.  He is equipped with more than enough knowledge to propel him for the time being.  He knows he must train sensibly; he even picked up a copy of Starting Strength.  He has taken his time to learn about how important adequate protein intake is and ensures he is eating a healthy dose of fruits and veggies daily.  He has mapped out his plan and proceeds to track his progress along the way.  His plan is bulletproof and he cannot wait to start.

The first few weeks are underway and he’s getting a feel for the movements.  He starts to develop a love/hate relationship with DOMS and is enjoying the consistent strength gains.  He is reluctant to meet his caloric goals daily because he knows eating over maintenance will cause weight gain but he is committed to remain faithful to his goals.

After the fourth week has passed he is up about 5-6lbs and he is bloated from an outing with friends the night before.  He decided to drink a few beers and have some bar food high in sodium(responsible for the bloat).  He hates what he sees in the mirror that morning and he starts to really second guess his previous weeks efforts.  He has this dreaded fear of becoming who he used to be.  Later that day, a decision is made to go on a short diet consisting of only two weeks max and then he will go back to his regular training and over feeding.

The Cycle Begins

So now that he’s been on a diet for the last two weeks, the water has dropped and the end result is only about a net gain of 1-2lbs.  He actually kind of likes what he sees in the mirror again and decides to immediately go back to his previous muscle building plan.  However this time, he decides to cut his surplus calories in half and utilize a slower approach this time around.  Subconsciously, he doesn’t want to repeat his last mistake of gaining too quickly so he starts to increase his activity outside of training.  He now walks to the store instead of driving.  He parks further away from campus to get some extra walking in.  Guess what happens; his supposed caloric surplus has now become his maintenance intake.

Eight more weeks go by and progress is slowing down. He is worn out, depressed and experiencing the general shitty feelings that come along as a result of not eating enough coupled with too much activity.  In the name of progress he decides to increase his calories again but reverts back to a fat loss diet after another water retention mishap.  He woke up bloated from eating too much birthday cake and decided he hates life.  Time to diet.

As you might imagine this cycle goes on and on and on.  It seems that it will never end.  I have concluded this is likely one of the number one reasons most guys quit and give up.  They just decide their goals are impossible to reach; therefore it’s easier to just pick another hobby.

Is There A Solution?

Sure there is.  There’s always a solution; however that solution may not always be the one you want.

The solution is time + consistent effort towards one goal = success.

There’s really not much more to it.  The only reason my previous FFB example did not succeed is because he wasn’t objective enough to set a goal and work towards it with 100% focus and effort.  He kept swaying back and forth because his emotions about how he viewed himself were stronger than what he wanted for the long term.

The truth is when you want to build your ideal physique you must have clear goals and be willing to do what it takes to achieve them.  You must realize you can’t stay super lean all the time and build serious mass at the same time.  Either you accept some fat gain and get to work or you keep going back and forth between bulking and dieting cycles only to spin your wheels for years.

Something you must realize is when you constantly switch between hypercaloric and hypocaloric states your body is never really primed to gain much mass.  The hormonal environment is never stable enough to make any appreciable gains.  This is why so many guys remain skinny-fat because they never make a decision to train and gain weight consistently (for at least 12 weeks at a time).  Instead they spin their wheels into oblivion.

Now before any assumptions are made, I am not suggesting you make a whale out of yourself in the name of building the most mass.  It’s not fun to be super fat and dieting it all off takes a long time.  Don’t let your body fat get out of hand but don’t let a little water retention and temporary loss of your abs deter you from working toward your ultimate goals.

A Few Tips for all the FFB’s

If you follow this criteria, remain objective and work aggressively toward your goals you are sure to succeed.

  • Decide you are going to gain weight and strength consistently – no excuses.
  • Give yourself a time frame (12+ weeks) to make specific gains in strength and performance.
  • Forget about maintaining a full row of abs.  Fat can always be lost and you will always look much better with more muscle anyway.
  • Girls aren’t as interested as we are about being lean.  They really don’t care that much as long as you don’t become a slob.  Charm is more important in this regard.
  • Hire a coach if you cannot be objective and hold yourself accountable to your goals.

There you go, now you know my no-BS approach when it comes to all the mental hang-ups us FFB’s deal with.

72 thoughts on “The Former Fat Boy Syndrome”

  1. Awesome post JC! I really appreciate what you’re doing here. I listened to your discussion with Scott Tousignant and Shawn Phillips yesterday, which led me here in a roundabout way.
    I’m a former fatty (280 to 190) who has been running into the problems with my diet that this article addresses for at least 6 months, spending hours in the gym and noticing little to no noticeable changed in my physique. You’ve inspired me to stop messing around and try eating at 15*bodyweight for a while, instead of my usual 500 calorie deficit.
    Thanks again, and good luck with your website and goals. I’ll send a few recommendations out to friends if it helps.

  2. Hi JC, loving your articles lately. I am posting to ask you a question.
    I am not a foremer fat boy, as I have never been really big all my life, I have been skinny-fat the majority of my life. At 5’11-6’0 and 154lbs, I think its fair to say I need to gain a considerable amount of muscle and strength. It’s not like i’m not on the right track though. Deadlifted 110kg yesterday for 5. I dont fuck around at all with machines etc…
    My question is how can I gain muscle while sprinting 2x a week. I am at school, and with this and sprinting I am only able to lift 2x a week or end up doing more harm than good, so have made these full body days. I sprint for sport, I want my performance to improve, but you have said in a previous comment I think that chasing two goals at once will lead nowhere. I kinda have no choice whether to sprint train though, because for my PE course part on my grade is judged on my performance. Help me out, please man.

  3. I have these FFB problems very frequently, because I used to weigh 250 lbs. Thankfully, to force me to let go of the fears, I started a fitness log on Something Awful, in which I forced myself to eat at least a certain amount of calories on workout/rest days, and I said that I would post a video of me eating some food that I found disgusting if I didn’t eat this amount. That has kept me eating enough!

  4. This was a much needed article. I really let go of my eating recently and as a result saw massive strength gains as well as got positive comments about how muscular I’m getting (granted I can’t see it in the mirror). Despite all this I was getting ready to cut hard and lose as much weight as possible as I was feeling clothes start to fit tight. This article has helped me come to terms with my hang ups about eating.

  5. Hey, good post.

    I’m 5’11, used to be ~250 lbs, and I’m down to a lean 155 lbs. I found it funny for a while, getting called “skinny” by girls, but I’m past the humor. (For an ex fat guy, it takes quite a while to stop finding it funny…actually, no…its still funny, lol.) I’m supposedly around 8% body fat.

    Anyway, I’m wanting to ‘get big’ now, so I’m aiming to put on 40 lbs in the next year. That means, hit 195 lbs. But the other thing is, I want to spend a lot of time on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and hit purple belt.

    I know I could just pick one goal and put all my energy into that, which I suspect I should do (though THAT thought is a bit worrisome to me heh…odd…).

    What do you think? Getting big while also expending lots of energy with my other sport? Maybe its rationalizing but is it possible the extra energy expenditure from the BJJ will be a good countermeasure to make sure I don’t gain quite as much fat?

    Thanks for any thoughts

    • What do you think? Getting big while also expending lots of energy with my other sport? Maybe its rationalizing but is it possible the extra energy expenditure from the BJJ will be a good countermeasure to make sure I don’t gain quite as much fat?

      I think this is a bad idea. Most MMA training is intense and requires a lot of energy and will zap your recovery. If you want to get bigger and stronger, then build your schedule around that. Chasing both of these goals simultaneously is likely to leave you the same size and more frustrated at the end of an unproductive year.

  6. Wow. I’m not the only one who has this problem??? This is actually very eye-opening to me. My story: I am a FFB. In college, a little more than a year and a half ago, I weighed 225 pounds at 5’9-10″. I took time off from school to look for work, and in that time, I got away from the dorm food, the bane of my existence, meticulously recorded everything I ate, and ran everyday I could. In those efforts up to this day, I have lost over 80 pounds. Now I sit at 142 pounds. Lots of people now tell me how amazing I look these days. I’m very cardio-conditioned; my resting pulse is only about 55! I’m skinny-fat though. And sadly, I suffer from this syndrome. I’ve been trying to incorporate weight lifting into my routine, but every time I see numbers go up on the scale, I panic and try to atone for my “egregious sins” of consuming too many calories or, heaven forbid, too many carbs. I know that food energy and protein is essential for building muscle, and that the excessive cardio is interfering with the muscle building efforts. I want to gain muscle and strength, yes, but I also want a nice toned appearance. I’m nervous to start bulking because I still have what I feel like is a decent amount of body fat, if i had to guess, probably around 18 to 20%. I have a belly still, so still very far off from having visible abs. To pile any more fat on top of that already I feel like would be detrimental to my progress. But you seem to know what you’re doing. I need to let go and just give myself 12 weeks of lean mass building. I’m gonna keep reading.

    • Alright Scott, at that height and weight, I doubt you have any appreciable amounts of fat on you – you simply have no muscle. I think some muscle building is definitely in order.

      And I understand your fear – I remember about 2-3 years ago when I was sick (read my story), I was about 150lbs, weak, and felt awful about my appearance. However, I had to do what I knew I was supposed to, take responsibility and do what it took to built my physique back up to what it is now.

      I too had those fears and worries, but you know what? I’m pumped I did what it took.

  7. I would like to add a piece of experiential info. Keep in mind this has been based on a sample size of 1 (me!). Say you do feel bloated one morning and are second guessing the bulk. Do this:
    – Drink a coffee/tea (anything with caffeine)
    – Take a sugar-free electrolyte powder (Powerade zero works great)

    Then go for a relaxing walk until you gotta pee. It takes me about an hour to ‘clear the bloat’

    • hmm, thanks for the info. I’ve never heard of doing such a thing but I’ll definitely try it out sometime.

  8. JC,

    I sure am glad that I stumbled across your website. And especially this article. I’ve been a FFB for about 8 years now and have hovered around “skinny fat” for a good deal of time. Having lifted weight out for the last two years I figured I must be doing something fundamentally wrong since I hadn’t noticed much of a change. But I still didn’t know what it could be. I figured my rep/set combo was holding me back. Boy was I wrong.

    About two months ago I noticed myself gaining some serious muscle on my chest and arms after deciding to eat a little more. Then one morning I felt a little ‘extra chub’ and decided I should cut back on my diet so that I would feel good and lose the fat. Obviously I hadn’t realized that the only change responsible for my recent muscle growth was my increase in calories.

    Anyway, long story short, I have decided to accept some fat gain on my current workout block. Calories are up from 3000 to 3500 and I’m already feeling different!

    Thanks again JC!

    • Good deal. Just remember that a modest amount of fat gain is acceptable. Of course, you don’t want to lose control but you can always lose fat later.

      Glad I could be of some help, sir.

  9. Great Read JC!

    I am definitely a former fat boy, and go through exactly what you’re talking about! I used to weigh 270 but after a year of serious dieting I got down to 198. Since then, I have hovered around 210 (6’3″ so not horrible) but seriously want to build up muscle. Unfortunately, I am always worried that I am prone to rapid weight gain because I was always overweight. Is there validity behind this? I feel that I was proned to being overweight(the men on my mom’s side are rather large) but it was also do to terrible eating habits. I have a pretty good grasp on nutrition but should FBB’s be more self-aware during bulking because of a set predisposition to extra fat?

      • the only concern I see is simply returning to your old habits.

        as long as your diet is kept in check, you train and sleep well, you won’t have to ever worry about returning to your old self.

        The only time I’d be worried about gaining back an abnormal amount of fat is if you dieted to a really low body fat way below your setpoint.

  10. Hey man, great article. This describes me to a T. for about 2 years I’ve been hovering between 185 and 195 because I panic every time i get to 195, and decide to diet back down. then i decide it’s ok to gain again, and the cycle repeats. glad i am not the only one

    good advice

    • Now, it’s time to make up your mind about what you’re going to do and then do it. ;)

      glad it hit home with ya, Chas.

  11. “Girls aren’t as interested as we are about being lean. They really don’t care that much as long as you don’t become a slob. Charm is more important in this regard.”

    Yes indeedy!

  12. Hey JC
    Great post and I love your use of sammiches. You used i on a forum on Lyle’s website. Anyway, I have been through those cycles myself. This summer I put myself on a cycle, gained strength and a bit of fat. Dieting sucks but this time it’ll go away. Rusty from Fitness Black Book has a good approach: don’t bulk, just build up strength without overfeeding and your body will alte in positive ways and you will look good year-round. You won’t have 20-inch guns, but you’ll look good at the beach most likely.
    One thing with me is that I have sort of small arms but realize that eating at maintenance and lifting hard will make them grow just enough.

    • One thing with me is that I have sort of small arms but realize that eating at maintenance and lifting hard will make them grow just enough

      How do you figure that?

  13. Wow, great post. I feel like it was written specifically about me. I am currently going through this exact situation. Thanks for the great post, keep them coming!

    • I figured it would hit home for many. Just remember to remain objective and push through the mental BS you may encounter along the way. I know, it’s easier said than done but it is possible.

  14. @Blank: (I had to start anew comment because that one threaded out) I would give you a link but all I have seen is random stuff on forums. Just search around bodybuilding . com etc.

    • Thanks for the direction.

      I am a bit picky however, on where I go to look for information. Although it might not be fair to lump it all together, but I’d rather stay away from forums.

      Thanks again.

      • I completely understand, Blank. I don’t go there for information either but there are few threads of value over there. You are probably better off on Lyle’s forums.

  15. Awesome article JC. I’ve always been fond of your no bullshit approach, and why you have been one of the most influential people I’ve come across in my training — including Lyle, Layne, and the other “gurus”.

    You are one of the few that can effectively pair knowledge of human physiology with the somewhat abnormal psychology of those in the fitness community. Great outlook, great trainer.

    Thanks for the article!

  16. I enjoyed the article, but I have a few questions.

    Do you have any studies or hard data to support the idea that a person must “bulk” for at least 12 weeks at a time for it to be most effective?

    You mention that switching between hypercaloric and hypocaloric states frequently is hormonally problematic and interferes with this, but what of the cases when someone utilizes Lyle McDonald’s UD2? Or UD2 Mass variant? If I remember properly, simply dieting for 3.5 days and the refeed shortly thereafter is meant to reverse several of the hormonal problems you mentioned. So wouldn’t it be plausible to use UD2 to a person’s advantage (mass or cutting) to keep body fat in check periodically?

    By periodically, I do agree at a very basic level I find it heuristically sensible that a hypercaloric diet should be sustained for some amount of time (a few weeks at least), but I just find the 12-week mark somewhat arbitrary.

    • Do you have any studies or hard data to support the idea that a person must “bulk” for at least 12 weeks at a time for it to be most effective?

      nope. I doubt there are any to be honest. I am just going from personal experience with weight gain/loss. The 12 weeks is an arbitrary number, I admit that. The main reason I chose 12 weeks is because it’s a good way to track progress. Depending on your training level you aren’t going to see much progress in only 3-4 weeks(unless you are a newbie) and what you do see is likely neural gains etc. Again this is all dependent the level of trainee.

      The main point I was making here is that it’s just a waste of time to bulk for 4 weeks, wake up and say “shit, I am fat,” then go back on a diet immediately, get pissed about giving up and jumpback to a hypercaloric state after 2-3 weeks of hard dieting(most FFB’s will diet really hard after their mishap of supposed weight gain). This cycle repeats over and over and the person does not make much progress.

      They spend too much time dieting(usually pretty hard), thus creating a less than optimal environment for anabolism and then piss and moan why they don’t get stronger or bigger.

      You mention that switching between hypercaloric and hypocaloric states frequently is hormonally problematic and interferes with this, but what of the cases when someone utilizes Lyle McDonald’s UD2? Or UD2 Mass variant? If I remember properly, simply dieting for 3.5 days and the refeed shortly thereafter is meant to reverse several of the hormonal problems you mentioned. So wouldn’t it be plausible to use UD2 to a person’s advantage (mass or cutting) to keep body fat in check periodically?

      Yes, many people use UD2 for cutting and it works very well. The way Lyle has the diet set up, you diet just long enough to burn some fat, deplete glycogen stores, then have a monster refeed where most of the carbs go to glycogen replenishment(if you do it per the book) and tissue repair as opposed to fat gain. Again this is based around a very specific process. The refeed is there to bump leptin and other hormones as well as give you stored energy for the next weeks workouts.

      As far as UD2 Mass is concerned, it’s been a while since I’ve cracked the book but I don’t believe the deficit is that large. it may even be at maintenance on some days. I would have to check. If there’s a deficit I am betting it’s not that large(5-10%)

      edit: I checked. the recommendation is maintenance or 10-25% deficit.
      while I don’t do the full-on eat everything in sight every day bulks, I eat over maintenance on training days and maintenance or slightly above on off days.
      I have tried many times doing the over/under thing and it just wears me out. I find it’s much better to pick a goal (gain mass or get ripped) and do only on at a time.

      • Well, I brought this up to introduce a new possibility, where a person can maintain some safe range of bf% for bulking (10%-15%), such as 11%, give or take 1-2%. What if a person was to remain hypercaloric for 4-6 weeks, followed by a simple week of UD2 cutting, then a continuation of the bulk?

        Simply 1 week of a cutting diet/plan that can bring on average 1.5 lbs of fat loss (esp. after being hypercaloric that long, your hormones are fine) seems somewhat viable to me. And I think it would settle somewhat well with FFB’s. As long as by the end of the 4-7 weeks you’re at an intelligently distributed sufficient net caloric surplus for the potential muscle to grow(after 4-6 bulking weeks – 1 UD2 cutting week), I’ve always assumed that muscle gains would still generally happen.

        Just a theory of mine I wanted to hear some input on…

        • Ever heard of that thing Layne Norton does? I think he goes like 4-6 week’s bulking followed by a couple weeks with a cut.

          It’s a good theory, really. Some people make it work but in my experience, the ones who are most afraid of a little fat gain tend to go with these kinds of setups and completely eff themselves over.

          It’s where objectivity comes into play and most have none.

          • I agree completely with you here. You need to have an objective, calculated setup where your mental stability will remain solid despite water retention flux. I’ll look into Layne Norton’s stuff since it seems similar…

            Thanks for the reference.

  17. Get OUT! I didn’t realize you were FFB.

    Anyhoo, I used to reminisce over my FSG (Former Slender Girl) days back in high school. But oh, just yesterday someone posted a Facebook pic of me on graduation day. My clavical bones were sticking through my skin to the tune of “ewww”. I like me better now.

    I also saw Timbaland on a reality TV show this weekend. He’s doing the lifting thing without exercise. Was also stuffing his face on camera. You could see the muscle, but he’s like fat-muscular. Ewww again. Go Google the guy.

    • yup, I sure was a FFB.

      Dang, I just googled him. I think he looks pretty awesome IMO. he is jacked, looks like hes been putting the food away and lifting heavy things for a while. Now all he needs to do is restrict a few sammiches, move more and get down to about 10-12% body fat and he will look ultra jacked.

  18. Very good post. I find a lot of people suffer from this exact problem, including myself in the past. As mentioned, the same can be said for dieting as well. While dieting I constantly look in the mirror and think to myself it looks like I’m just losing muscle mass. I’ve learned to just ignore it, as if I don’t I’ll end up just eating more and spinning my wheels.

  19. Hi JC, I can’t help but say that the idea is the same if a person is going for fat loss. Most of us lose sight of our end goal when things start to not look how we imagined them in our heads. You also made a good point regarding consistency over time – that’s very important no matter what your goals are.

    Nice post!


  20. Wow, you really nailed me on the head with this one. Great article.

    I’ve just lately been coming to the realization that all I ever do is cycle back and forth between overtraining/undereating and a few days of drinking and eating shitty food. My body has really gone nowhere in nearly a year.

    • word. That’s the reason I wrote it. It was 2 AM, I was driving home from work thinking about what my next article would be about and EUREKA! I decided to write about the FFB’s.

  21. This is an awesome article as i am also a FFB! I’ve done exactly what you have stated when it comes to bulking. I used to freak out and mistaken water-retention for fat-gain and ended up spinning my wheels for a while. This is a good article for most people to read. Thanks JC!

    • yea, water retention plays terrible mind tricks on a person. Thankfully I have learned to ignore them and continue inserting food into my pie hole.

      • hell yeah! its monday for me man and its CHO all day! for some reason thought i don’t look or feel that bloated, and i’m using maltodextrin & dextrose a lot. hmm i guess it might have to be due ot the fact i don’t stress that much anymore with refeeds and how i look. (and stress = water retention to the MAX)

  22. Good post JC. As a FFB I find myself in a constant battle with many of the things you pointed out in the middle of this post. It really is about focus.

    I’m dealing with the “afraid to boost my calories” thing right now. I recently gained a bunch of weight in short order. After 4 weeks of aggressive dieting the last two being low-cal & low-carb I’ve got it back off and more.

    The goal set for myself ends in 8 weeks. It’s time to increase calories back up and I’m really nervous about doing it. I’m going to, but I’ll tell you right now it scares the shit out of me! I’ve been re-invented for a year now. I’m sick of working on my old fat.

    Bottom line thing that keeps me motivated… I did all the wrong things for decades! 2 years to get healthy and start on the road to awesome is not that long. Just suck it up and do it.

  23. :) As a former fat girl i must say that one of the benefits of all the knowledge and all the hard work (if you put your mind to it) will ensure that in the future there will be no ops i got fat moments as people that can eat everything in the teens often experience and you will stay ontop of your shape and appreciate the body you have worked hard for!
    However as you state consistency is the key and never giving up in the first place.

    • no doubt, having the knowledge and experience definitely serves a person but the dreadful thoughts are still in the back of our minds…

      thanks for chiming in.

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JC Deen is a nationally published fitness coach and writer from Nashville, TN. Currently living in the blistering Northeast. Follow me on X/Twitter