Interview: Athony Mychal on skinny fat syndrome, mental models for fitness, and why barbells are usually better

It’s interview time again!  Today’s guest is Anthony Mychal.  In addition to being one of my favorite fitness people, he’s also one of my favorite writers in the entire world.  I read nearly everything he writes, half for the fitness advice and half as a way to hone my own writing.

Anthony was one of the first people to write about skinny fat syndrome, before it was widely recognized.  Aside from weightlifting, he talks about cool stuff like break dancing, gymnastics, and tricking. (Martial arts tricking.  Not having sex for money.)  He illustrates his concepts with vivid hypothetical scenarios about alien bodybuilders, and best of all (to me), he talks about the mental models he uses to think about fitness.

To give you an idea of Anthony’s style, here’s what he gave me for a bio:

Anthony Mychal is a guy that writes about things. You can read those things at anthonymychal.com.

For this interview, I’m going to copy a gimmick from an interview Anthony did on his own site a few years ago- I’m not going to write down the questions.  Instead, I’ll just write down his answers and let you infer the question.  Yeah it sounds weird, but in my experience this is helpful because it gets the reader to think about the broader implications of what the interviewee is saying, rather than just how it relates to the question he’s responding to.

Without further ado, here’s Anthony, in all his glory.

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I was one of the first people to talk about skinny-fat syndrome because I found some articles written by Kelly Baggett about skinny-fat syndrome, back when I was a total noob. I didn’t even know what “skinny-fat syndrome” was, but I saw the word and was like, “That’s me. I just know it. That’s me.”

When I cracked my body’s code and built an x-physique, I wrote about how to build muscle and lose fat. A lot of the things I said went against the mainstream “bulk” and “cut” stuff, but I fell back on my own perspective as a skinny-fat guy to justify my methods.

Most people that self-identify with being “skinny-fat” need to fix their lifestyle, meaning skinny-fat syndrome isn’t really a medical-genetic thing.

The genetic incarnation of skinny-fat syndrome is Klinefelter syndrome. If you don’t have Klinefelter syndrome (and, as far as I know, if you do, you’d know because either your doctor or parent[s] would have told you – what I’m saying is this: don’t self-diagnose yourself), then your body is just a product of modern culture, and you can fix it by recreating your culture (how you move, how you sleep, who you hang around, how you eat, et cetera).

How to determine if you’re skinny-fat? If you need to lose more than twenty pounds of fat to have six pack abs and gain more than twenty pounds of muscle to look decently muscular, you’re probably skinny-fat. Or maybe it’s ten and ten. I don’t know.

This identification process can get super sticky if you want to make it super sticky, but I usually don’t make it sticky at all because, to me, it’s a much more romantic qualitative thing.

You look decent with a shirt on, but when you take the shirt off, you have love handles. You have moobs. And, despite the protruding sacks of body fat, you also have a visible lack of muscularity. Toothpick arms. Small shoulders.

To me, skinny-fat syndrome is more of a feeling than an actual “thing.” And a feeling only people that are (or have been) skinny-fat understand.

Like, growing up, I felt like I had a chance to hide my fatness. A true fat guy doesn’t have that chance. They’re just fat and everyone knows they’re fat. I felt like I was carrying around a secret.

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Training right. Eating better. Those are trite answers, so I’ll throw you a curveball: the keys, for me, were time, patience, and apathy.

I struggled to gain full control my body composition. I lost a bunch of fat in 2006 and got really good at losing fat, but I couldn’t gain muscle.

I’d do the bulk thing during the Winter months and I’d never gain muscle. I’d gain a bunch of fat. But never a lot of muscle. Then I’d spend the Spring months shredding down.

Something weird would happen every Summer and Fall. I was so burnt out from the bulking and cutting thing, I wouldn’t try to do either. I’d eat a “normal” amount, train hard, and not care about results.

And, almost always, come Winter, I’d be more muscular. Not vastly more muscular. Just a little bit more muscular. And wouldn’t be any fatter.

But I wasn’t satisfied. I thought I wasn’t gaining muscle fast enough, so I’d do the bulk thing come Winter again.

Queue the charade.

This loop went on for a few years until I started thinking long-term and realizing I wasn’t going to gain the ten-fifteen-twenty pounds of muscle I wanted to gain in a three month bulk window.

It just wasn’t going to happen. I have tiny wrists. I can wrap my hand around my wrist and connect pinky finger to thumb. I’m not a mountain of muscle kind of guy.

So I just connected some dots. I knew I wasn’t going to stop training, so even if I only gained three to five pounds of muscle in one year, then, in five years, I’d be happy. So I decided to stop the bulking and the cutting. I just ate well and trained hard.

Fifteen to twenty pounds of lean muscle is a lot of muscle and can completely change how you look.

Also, I knew if I put my head down, trained hard, and ate like I knew how I needed to eat, I wouldn’t lose muscle. It just wouldn’t happen.

The apathy that accompanied these mindsets was a game changer. I stopped program and diet hopping because it didn’t matter. I wasn’t trying to hack the system. I just needed to do my work and let time work its magic.

So instead of being a giant stress ball, worried about results, I focused the process. The only thing that mattered was showing up.

It worked.

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Nothing, really. I am a nerd. (A lot of times, being a nerd is a bad thing because you’re prone to overthinking.) I plan. I research. When I started training and changing what I put in my body, I wasn’t following bad advice.

What other people often do that doesn’t work:

  • Foregoing or neglecting resistance training during fat loss stints.
  • Overthinking to the point of underdoing.
  • Worrying about a future that has yet to materialize.
  • Trying to find motivation.

I could go on, but…

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My thoughts on training frequency have changed alongside (a) my experience and (b) my understanding of stress and adaptation.

Training three or four days per week is a good starting point simply because the opposites aren’t good starting points.

Train once per week? Probably not enough.

Train every single day? That’s a heavy behavioral burden to face.

But I think training every day is Super Effective! and, when used right, can transform a physique in ways less frequent training can’t.

But the key phrase there is “when used right.”

I don’t worry about overtraining because I don’t do dumb things, and I understand adaptation (enough). When you go for a vaccine, they inject a tiny bit of a pathogen into your body. Enough so that you can adapt, but not so much that you die.

Training is similar. Your body is resilient and capable of magical things, as long as you respect your current level of adaptation.

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Making the same mistake(s) over and over and over and over and over again. I’m soooooo guilty of this, but, whatever.

You try Diet X, you fail. Two months later, you try Diet X again, you fail again. Six months later, you try Diet X again, you fail again.

This doesn’t happen with real failure.

Like, if you’re riding a skateboard and you lean forward too much, and you fall and scrape your arm, you’re going to say, “I’m not leaning forward like that again.”

But, with psychological failure, guttural feedback to guide the learning process is gone. You don’t get injured. There’s no pain. 

When you skateboard, the mental process goes like this:

CAUSE = LEAN FORWARD

EFFECT = OUCH

But when you’re trying to make a behavior change, the “cause” isn’t often thrown onto Diet X. It’s thrown onto our own shoulders.

I suck. I’m an idiot. Why can’t I do this Diet X thing? What’s wrong with me?

So the mental process with psychological issues goes like this:

CAUSE = ME

EFFECT = OUCH

Meaning you’re prone to make the same mistake. Especially because, when the burden is on you, you’re going to want to prove to yourself that you aren’t a piece of shit.

I can do this. This time it’ll be different. Yeah. Bring it on.

Which is basically saying, “I’ll lean forward on the skateboard just like last time and not fall.” Which is a stupid assumption to make.

You need to have self-awareness and not take “failures” personally. And then have the guts to use the feedback from the failure to spiral you closer towards something that works for you.

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First, it’s important to understand the impermanence of everything. Permanence implies pressure, and nothing will destroy behavior change quite like pressure.

Second, start smaller. A lot smaller. We like to dive into behavior change. To go from 0 to 60. But it’s better to go 0 to 1. Then 1 to 2…

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I’m pretty cliché. Any (and every) Zelda (including Majora’s Mask). Mega Man. Chrono Trigger. Super Mario RPG.

My friends and I jam to Super Smash Bros. all the time. God. Such a great group game.

Final Fantasy VII holds a special place in my heart because I never had PlayStation. I was a Nintendo kid. It was the one game I always wanted to play, and when I finally did it was a sweet day.

And then there are really bad games that I like just because they are really bad, like Deadly Towers for NES. Monster Party for NES is also a great game. Geez. I need to stop myself or I’ll go on for a while.

If I had to pick one though, I’d pick Super Smash Bros. simply because of the comradery. You aren’t alone in a basement with the lights off playing that game. You’re laughing and having a good time with friends.

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Gravity. Seriously, I’ve been writing a giant essay about this. And I use the word “giant” with accuracy, so I won’t leave my steamy turd here. But if you want to take a whiff, click here.

Machines can be used for a lot of things. I’m not anti-machines. Every piece of equipment tends to have a time and place.

I’d use machines for the exact opposite reasons I’d use barbells. Meaning if you’re trying to substitute a barbell exercise for a machine exercise, you’re doing it wrong.

Barbell exercises are intense and more globally stressful. So if you’re trying to isolate a muscle, then machines can help you do that. They take away from the global demand. They can be used to work through injuries for the same reason. 

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Toning. Spot reducing. Fat loss through pills. Just watch any late-night infomercial and you’ll see a lot of them in action.

What are some of the most useful mental models for thinking about fitness? Yeah this is important. I find it useful to break models into two factions.

Faction one: your models about the body.

Faction two: your models about the world.

Bad models in faction one are all over the place, and for good reason: your body is a wizard. You don’t think about digesting food or beating your heart. Your body just does stuff.

These types of models are more in line with the examples above and need an overhaul because there are two unfavorable buckets right now.

One bucket is the mainstream world that’s nothing but propaganda and lies. One bucket is the scientific world that’s too confusing.

Models are useful because they don’t have to be true. They just have to capture the phenomenon. Like a myth.

You don’t need to know how or why gravity exists, just that it does (and the implications). Things fall to the ground. You might think things fall to the ground because there’s a giant vacuum cleaner at the center of the earth pulling things there. It doesn’t matter.

We need friendly stories to explain complex things, which is why I usually don’t talk about the body in terms of “calories” and “energy” – most people don’t even know what a calorie is.

But everyone knows money. So I talk about the body as if it were a guy managing finances, with savings and expense, etc…

If you dig deeper and go beyond the mainstream space, a biggie (model) for me is preparation and adaptation. So many dive into training without even a toothpick’s width of preparation and without any idea of how the body adapts.

Bad models in faction two are all over the place and in many different domains. Most of them tie into decision making. Here’s a funny one.

Say you want to be a coach. You set your rates through the roof and you only accept dedicated students that can train for three hours every day.

Everyone one of your students gets good results. This creates a good image for you through social proof, the halo effect, etc…

But this success rate comes from the prescreening process because you’re only working with the most dedicated students.

We are biased to neglect the “in between.” There’s before photos, there’s after photos. But what’s the “in between” look like?

If you can only train for thirty minutes every day, is there any use to look at and compare yourself to someone that can train three hours every day?

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When I was in high school, my friends found some videos on KaZaA of dudes doing flips, kicks, and twists. We followed some of the credits on the videos and found a website called Tricks Tutorials (now Acrobolix, a site run by my good friend, Jujimufu).

We fell in love, so we taught ourselves using what was available online. It was a steep learning curve. We had zero acrobatic experience, so we started beyond basic.

It was so new (as an activity) at the time. The ceiling was so low compared to what it is today. The things beginners chuck now without issue were considered the ceiling way back when…

Tricking has always been and will always be like skateboarding to me. I don’t do it for any one single “fitness” reason. It’s just a fun edgy thing that brings me and my friends together. And I don’t do it very often anymore.

I don’t do gymnastics. I do gymnastics-esque stuff. I like training handstands, planches, and levers. But I train them so haphazardly that my progress on them over the years is laughable.

I do stuff on gymnastics rings, too. But, again, pretty haphazard. A real gymnastics coach would fry me.

But I’m not competing in gymnastics or anything, so I don’t care.

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Anthony Mychal is a guy that writes about things. You can read those things at anthonymychal.com

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