One of the main complaints I hear from women is that they have been lifting weights or doing a lot of high intensity interval training (HIIT) which has made their legs bigger. Jeans and shorts become too tight, inner thighs start rubbing together and your legs just generally look thicker and bulkier.
I’ve been in this exact same situation! I hated it, and I hated having big legs. Being a personal trainer myself I was a bit conflicted because every other trainer always pushed heavy weight lifting (especially squats!), and that’s what I was expected to do. But it didn’t like what it was doing to my body.
It wasn’t just my legs that were getting bigger either. My upper back was really broad and my crop tops and gym singlets didn’t fit anymore. Overall I felt like a bigger, bulkier version of myself. I didn’t look slim and petite like I used to. BUT one big bonus that comes with a lot of HIIT and weight lifting, is that I had really well defined abs. All the photos of women on social media who lift heavy, always have solid abs.
I wanted to be able to know how to lift weights so that I could be toned with nice abs, but without getting big legs and becoming too muscular all over. I now know how to exercise to get these results, and I want to share this with you.
I know you might thinking that you should just avoid weight lifting altogether and only do cardio right? Well I’ve done that before too! I only did cardio and yes I was very slim. But I still always had fat around my hips and belly that I found hard to get rid of. It wasn’t until I started lifting weights that the fat really started to disappear and I finally had abs!
Here are some reasons why it is still important to lift weights.
Any type of resistance training will build muscle – even if you’re lifting low weight and high rep, doing endurance based workouts, pilates, or even yoga – they will all build muscle. But the thing is, you need muscle to give your body tone and definition. There is a certain way of lifting weights that will help you get toned without getting bulky, which I will talk about further down.
Having muscle also helps with keeping your body fat levels down. A lot of women (and men) who only do cardio and avoid lifting weights will look “skinny fat.” Skinny fat is a term used to describe people who appear slim or skinny, but actually have quite a high percentage of body fat. I used to be skinny fat, and whenever I avoid resistance training, I go back to being skinny fat.
There are SO many other benefits of lifting weights such as improved sleep, reduced stress and anxiety, improved mood, lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis, plus lots more. It really does benefit you both on the inside and out!
As you can see, lifting weights does provide you with a lot of health benefits, and can change your body. The way you lift weights will determine whether or not these changes result in you becoming bulky or slim and toned.
The key to being able to lift weights without getting bulky is:
Using lighter weights with higher reps and doing different types of exercises, will not make you bulky. It will build muscle in a way that will tone you up, without making you look bigger. I use these ankle weights for almost all of my workouts. They’re quite affordable on Amazon and are great for travel!
This is an example of some of the workouts that you can do to tone up without getting bulky. These are all the type of exercises in my Skinny Legs eBook.
Pilates exercises are exactly what I have been talking about – lighter weight (often just using body weight or ankle weights) and focuses more on exercises to tone up your core and butt, rather than heavier exercises such as squats and lunges.
I’ve also been to a few reformer pilates classes and these are great for toning up without getting bulky! The reformer machine uses resistance bands and a moving platform – it’s fantastic for your core. Sometimes you will also use very light dumbbells in these type of classes for upper body work.
Swimming is great for toning up your arms, and doubles as cardio! When I used to do cardio only, I also did some swimming. My arms were really toned and I didn’t do any weights or boxing.
Yes, professional swimmers have bigger arms and shoulders, but they train twice a day, 6 days per week, and that is why this happens. Swimming 1-2 times per week won’t cause you to become bulky.
Boxing is amazing for toning up your arms really quickly, but not making them bigger. And it’s also great for your core too! I notice a significant difference after just a few weeks of boxing. But just be careful about what type of boxing class you do. I’ve been to a few classes that do more of a boxing circuit so it still includes a lot of squats, wall sits, burpees, etc. Try to attend a boxing class that’s main focus is boxing.
I know a lot of other personal trainers won’t like to hear this. The following exercises are great for your body, but they do build a lot of muscle and can make you bulky. If you want a leaner look, these exercises should be avoided.
Also, I am mostly talking about exercises for mesomorphs and endomorphs. Most ectomorphs can lift weights without getting bulky. But for the other two body types, these exercises should be avoided.
Any heavy weight lifting
Any time you lift heavy, low rep (i.e. less than 6 reps), or to failure, you will build muscle in a way that will contribute to bulkiness. Avoid any maximum strength type exercise.
Squats and chin ups
I can see the personal trainers cringing. Yes, these exercises are great for your body and use LOTS of different muscles. But for me, squats just make my legs bigger and chin ups make my back broader. They build SO much muscle and really change the shape of my body, in a way that I do not like. These 2 exercises will make you bulky. Other exercises that will most likely contribute to bulkiness include overhead pressing, deadlifts and lunges.
CrossFit includes LOTS of squats and squat variations, burpees, deadlifts, chin ups and overhead pressing exercises, exercises that I suggest you avoid if you don’t want to increase your muscle size. Crossfit can make your legs bigger and bulkier.
Any short bursts of energy using your legs will make them bigger because of the muscle fibers it recruits and energy system your body uses.
By short bursts I mean around 30 seconds. A lot of people do their sprints by running as hard as they can for 30 seconds and then resting for 30-60 seconds, and repeating. Unfortunately, this type of sprinting will make you bulky.
I do some sprinting (but only when I am already very fit). I prefer to do my sprinting as more of a fast paced run. I run faster than normal (but not at my maximum) for 2 minutes, and then rest for 1 minute. By the end of the 2 minutes, you should be so puffed that you need to stop. This type of running will still get you fit really quickly, and won’t make your legs bulky.
Any type of hill sprinting will make you bulky, especially your quadriceps (the muscles at the front of your thighs). Avoid doing these.
Walking on an incline on the treadmill will use your quadriceps and may make your legs bigger. Walking is amazing for slimming down your legs, but it’s best done on a flat surface.
I’m sure you’re getting the theme here – anything uphill will bulk up your legs. The same goes for the step machine.
These are exercises that I am always questioned about. A lot of them really depend on the person and their body type. But I will try to provide some general advice.
Spin class / cycling
If you are an endomorph body type, I would avoid spinning / cycling because it will make your legs bigger and more muscular. You probably already have shorter and muscular legs so there’s no need to increase the muscle size.
Mesomorphs can do it, but just monitor the changes in your legs and see if it makes them bigger. For me personally, I can do a spin class once per week without getting bulky. But a lot of mesomorphs can’t (especially if you are a combined mesomorph / endomorph body type). I would keep spin classes to once per week maximum.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
This is a tough one because it’s such a great workout, but if you overdo it on leg exercises (jump squats, jump lunges, burpees, box jumps, etc), you will get big legs. You can still do HIIT, but it’s all about the exercise selection. I still enjoy doing HIIT workouts but the exercises I do are different.
I have written a blog series of HIIT workouts that won’t make you bulky, so you can use this for some ideas.
This is another tough one, because it is great cardio, especially if you can’t go outside. Skipping will help you lose weight overall, but won’t necessarily slim down your legs. Skipping will also probably make your calves bigger as skipping really focuses on your calf muscles. If you want small calves, it is best to avoid skipping. I personally don’t do any skipping.
Cross trainer / Elliptical
I know a lot of women use the cross trainer in place of the treadmill, especially if they have knee injuries. The cross trainer is a good alternative if you can’t walk for some reason, but is not as effective as walking for slimming down your legs. The cross trainer will build muscle in your quads because of the pushing down motion, but it will not build as much muscle as cycling or weight lifting. Also it won’t strip the fat from your legs as effectively as walking.
I have done a barre class before and was surprised at how leg focused it was. We did lots of squats, squats jumps, squat holds, etc. It wasn’t really what I was expecting. I’m sure different teachers have their own different barre routines, but the class I went to would definitely make my legs bigger. Many women have also told me that they have developed big legs since doing barre.
I don’t think this is the case for all barre classes or all body types, but just be cautious.
A lot of models don’t do any running because running actually builds muscle. It doesn’t build the same amount of muscle as cycling or weight lifting will, but it will still build muscle.
Endomorphs in particular need to be careful with running. Running is an amazing exercise for slimming down all over and for slimming down your legs, but if you build muscle really easily (like an endomorph will), I would run with caution. When you are running, monitor the changes in your legs and see if it makes them bigger. If it does, I would avoid running. But if not, keep doing it!
There are 3 main body types – ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph. You must understand your body type to know how much weight lifting you can do without getting bulky.
Ectomorphs are naturally very skinny (think Victoria Secret models) and find it difficult to gain weight (both muscle and fat). This body type can lift very heavy without getting bulky and often get amazing results with weight lifting.
However, a lot of models do not lift very heavy because of the potential to get bulky. Everyone’s bodies are different and some models may be a combined ectomorph / mesomorph body type, and they do have the ability to get too muscular. Having big legs is something that no model wants so they are very careful about this.
If you are a true ectomorph, heavy weight lifting will make you toned and it’s very unlikely that it will make you bulky. If you are a combined ectomorph / mesomorph body type, you still have the ability to get bulky if you do the wrong type of exercise.
Mesomorphs can be slim or overweight, but they have the ability lose and gain weight (both muscle and fat) very easily. I am the mesomorph body type.
Mesomorphs need to be careful not to do too much weight lifting and high intensity interval training (HIIT) because this can make them bulky.
Endomorphs have a curvier body type, with shorter arms and legs. This body type has a much harder time trying lose weight and they find it very easy to gain muscle, especially in their legs.
I would suggest that endomorphs avoid any heavy weight lifting and HIIT, because this will just make them bigger. I know a lot of personal trainers say that lifting heavy weights is the key to slimming down, but for endomorphs, this isn’t really true. Their focus should be more on cardio with lighter circuits (that don’t focus on legs).
Resistance training alone will not make your legs smaller, it will just make them more toned. If you want to get smaller thighs, you need to do cardio! I have written a really detailed blog post on how to do the right type of cardio to get skinny legs, so have a read of this for more information.
I created my Skinny Legs eBooks to help women understand how to lift weights without getting bulky, and how to get skinny legs with the right type of cardio.
My eBooks include a full workout and nutrition program which will help you get a lean and toned body, and amazing legs!
Because all of us are different, I have created separate eBooks for each of the 3 main body types.