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how to get lean not bulky

Last Updated on November 13, 2019 11:05 AM

Since this topic seems to be taboo in the fitness world, I decided to give you my guide on how to get lean and not bulky.

So, if you are wondering how to get lean legs without gaining muscle, or how to tone your arms without making them bigger and bulkier, read this blog post.

WHY AM I BULKING UP INSTEAD OF SLIMMING DOWN?

OK, so I get this question a LOT. I was in the same situation a couple of years ago, so I can speak from my own personal experience.

When I started going to the gym, my goal was simple – reduce body fat and get toned.

So, in the beginning, I was mainly focusing on cardio, and I skipped resistance training. Cardio helped me slim down and reduce body fat but it didn’t help me get toned.

And when I asked for advice, I was told I should forget about cardio and try weights. I saw a lot of girls doing it, and everybody kept telling me it’s the right way to go, so I kind of went for it.

And at first, I was really happy and excited about my progress! I was getting stronger and toned, and I even had proper abs. But after a certain point, my back became too broad, and I felt like my thighs were HUGE. I just started feeling like I was too bulky.

I was constantly asking myself, why am I getting bigger instead of slimming down? I talked to different personal trainers at my gym, and they all told me the same thing – women cannot bulk up, they don’t have enough testosterone.

But that’s simply not true!

WOMEN CAN, IN FACT, GET BULKY (FOR THEIR OWN LIKING)

women can get bulky

To be honest, I’m so tired of hearing that women can’t get bulky. If a woman thinks that she has too much muscle and looks bulky, then who is anyone to tell her that she is wrong?

It may be nothing compared to the 6-pack bodybuilder next to you in the gym, but it can be too much for your own liking.

This is completely up to you. For myself, I prefer a lean look with some muscle but still a slim frame. And I don’t like much muscle on my legs. This is my own personal preference.

So, when I realized that my body had changed in a way that I didn’t like, I decided to do something about it. I did a lot of research; I tried different styles of training and finally figured out what was causing me to get bigger:

I was doing the WRONG type of resistance training. So, if you are also bulking up, instead of slimming down, you’re probably making the same mistake. But I’m going to tell you what are the best exercises to do – and which ones you should avoid – to get lean without getting bulk.

HOW TO GET LEAN AND NOT BULKY IN 4 STEPS 

how to get lean in 4 steps

There are 4 simple steps you should follow if you want to get toned without getting too muscular. This is what I have learned over the years in terms of the type of exercises to do and which ones to avoid to achieve this look.

1. DON’T SKIP RESISTANCE TRAINING

How you look toned is actually by gaining muscle, which might sound contradictory, but you need muscle to look toned. I know some of you may be tempted to just skip resistance training in fear of getting muscular (been there, done that), but I promise you, there’s a way to do it without bulking up.

Let me explain :)

This is what I looked like before I started doing any resistance training, compared to what I looked like after a few months.

get lean not bulky transformation photo

As you can see, I was not toned, and I had more body fat – gaining muscle will help you lose body fat quicker.

Muscles are more metabolically active than fat, which means they burn more calories through out the day. So, if you have more muscle, you’ll burn more calories than someone who has a high percentage of body fat.

Also, you cannot look toned if you don’t have muscle. So, even if you do tons of cardio and manage to slim down, you won’t get nice muscle definition if you skip resistance training.

THE BEST EXERCISES TO GET TONED WITHOUT GAINING TOO MUCH MUSCLE

how to get lean without getting bulky

There are some exercises that build muscle in a way that makes you look more muscular and others which don’t. The type of exercises that will get you toned without looking overly muscular include:

  • Pilates style workouts – This includes things like regular pilates, reformer and megaformer pilates and slower and lighter resistance type of workouts (including barre – but don’t overdo it)
  • Boxing – Amazing for toning up your arms without increasing their size, and also a great cardio workout
  • Swimming – Also great for toning up your arms. I know professional swimmers have very broad shoulders, but they train ridiculously hard (i.e. 6 hours per day) and this is why they look like this. Swimming a couple of times per week will not have this effect
  • Resistance training – You can do resistance training without getting bulky. You just need to do certain types of exercises and use lighter weights and high reps These are the types of exercises in my 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program and in my Lean Legs Video Course.

I posted 3 free resistance-training sessions on my blog, so have a look at these to get an idea of the type of exercises I’m talking about:

RELATED POST: WHY WOMEN SHOULD NOT TRAIN LIKE MEN

2. AVOID CERTAIN TYPES OF EXERCISES IF YOU WANT TO GET LEAN AND NOT BULKY

In my experience, these are the types of exercises that contribute to the bulky look. Don’t get me wrong – they are great exercises for your body. But if you want a leaner look, avoid them.

avoid exercises that make you bulky
  • Heavy weight lifting – For me, chin-ups made my back very broad, and squats and deadlifts made my legs too muscular. I would avoid these and any really heavy lifting
  • HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) – Overdoing it on the lower body can make your legs too muscular (depending on your body type), and lots of women have complained to me about this happening to them. I have some HIIT workouts on my blog that won’t make you bulky. Have a look at these for some ways to incorporate HIIT into your workouts:
  • CrossFit – While I actually love CrossFit (especially the AMRAP parts), I just ended up looking too muscular. If you are an ectomorph (the naturally thin body type), you can most likely do CrossFit, and any of these exercises, without getting too bulky, but the other body types might not
  • Step machine – This will build muscle in your quads at the front of your legs, which most women don’t like
  • Hill sprints – Sprinting is great but avoid doing it uphill as this will contribute to bulky legs. This is how I like to do my sprinting to avoid bulking up

I have another blog post in my “how to get skinny legs series” and it’s on how to do weights without getting bulky. Have a look at that if you want some extra info :)

RELATED POST: HOW TO SLIM MUSCULAR THIGHS

3. LEARN YOUR BODY TYPE 

get lean without getting bulky body type matters
Jennifer Lopez (endomorph), Jessica Biel (mesomorph), Karlie Kloss (ectomorph)

I mentioned body type twice in the previous sections, and I talk about body types a lot on my blog. Knowing your body type is VERY important when you’re deciding on your fitness goals. And it’s even more important when you’re planning how to achieve your goals.

There are three main body types, and two of those can become bulky very easily! They all lose weight and build muscle differently, so it’s super important to know how to train for your body type.

ECTOMORPHS

If you are an ectomorph body type, like Karlie Kloss, you are most likely naturally very slim, and you don’t build muscle very easily. So, workouts – like squats and HIIT – are not very likely to bulk you up.

You should do cardio to stay lean and incorporate resistance training in order to get toned and avoid the skinny fat look.

MESOMORPHS

Mesomorphs, like Jessica Biel, are usually of average size, and they lose and gain weight quite quickly. Also, they are athletic by nature, which means they can build muscle easily.

So, if you are a mesomorph, and you want to get toned without becoming too muscular, you should do cardio to reduce body fat and skip certain types of resistance training. I’m also a mesomorph body type, and as I mentioned, I tend to bulk up when I do CrossFit and heavy lifting.

ENDOMORPHS

Endomorphs, like Jennifer Lopez, have a naturally bigger frame, and they can bulk up easily if they do the wrong type of resistance training.

For example, most endomorphs should do plenty of cardio and avoid HIIT and weights if they want to get a leaner look.

4. DON’T FORGET ABOUT CARDIO

do more cardio to get lean

To keep a smaller frame, you should be incorporating cardio into your workout program. I love running and walking and am always slimmer when I do cardio.

Plus, they’re both great for leaning out your legs and losing weight. I would try to do cardio around 3 times per week.

RELATED POST: HOW TO GET SKINNY LEGS – WHY YOU NEED CARDIO FOR FAT LOSS

FAQ: HOW TO GET LEAN LEGS?

A lot of women have asked me how to get skinny legs without getting gaining muscle and whether certain types of workouts cause bulkiness. So, I will answer these here :)

how to get lean legs without bulking up

WILL MY LEGS GET BIGGER FROM CYCLING?

With cycling, it depends on your body type and how often you do it. If you’re not sure about your body type, you can take my free body type survey and find out quickly.

Ectomorphs and mesomorphs are probably fine with cycling, but endomorphs might try to avoid it. I am a mesomorph and used to do a spin class a couple of times per week, and I was fine (but I did a lot of running, also).

I would just make sure you don’t overdo it on the cycling and monitor it to see how you go. If you notice your legs starting to bulk up, I would stop and focus on the walking/running.

WILL PUMP CLASSES BULK UP MY THIGHS?

Pump classes are also fine, and I don’t think you will bulk up doing pump class as it is VERY high rep and usually pretty light-weight.

But again, I wouldn’t overdo it. I used to do Pump and was fine. I just prefer to do other exercises now, as I find them more effective and also don’t take as much time.

IS DANCING GOING TO HELP ME GET LEAN LEGS?

Dancing is quite variable, so it depends on the type of dancing you’re doing.

I think most dancing should be fine. But again, I would just monitor it and see how your body responds. I love dancing, and if you love it, I would definitely do it!

If you have any more questions, feel free to ask in the comments section! :)

3 STEPS TO LEAN LEGS PROGRAM

If you need help with getting lean because you bulk up from weights, or you don’t know where to start with resistance training, then my 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program is perfect for you!

My program includes a full workout and nutrition program which will help you get a lean and toned body without adding unwanted muscles. And because all of us are different, I have created separate programs for each of the 3 main body types. This way, you can be sure you are going to get the best possible results!

And from now on, the resistance training part of my program will also have FULL-LENGTH VIDEOS you can follow from warm-up to cool down.

Love,

Rachael xx

Picture of Rachael

Rachael is an Australian born certified personal trainer and nutritionist who holds a Bachelor degree in Science.

After struggling for years to find an exercise and diet program that is tailored to women striving for lean and toned body with no bulk she designed her Lean Legs Program. This program is tailored to each body type and focused on helping women get toned but feminine bodies, without getting bulky.

Her mission is to empower women and help them stay in shape in a healthy and balanced way.

125 comments on “The Female Guide On How To Get Lean And Not Bulky”

    Grace says:

    Hello! how can I do boxing for arm tone? I don’t have access to a boxing class/equipment – can I “air box”?

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      Yes, feel free to do boxing as well! It’s a great cardio workout (especially for your arms and core) that won’t make you bulky.
      Here’s a great workout idea for leaner and toned arms. I hope you like it! :) xx

      Love,
      Diana

    Rhonda says:

    Dear Rachael,

    You have several videos of Victoria Secret workouts. I am a Mesomorph who seem to build leg muscle pretty quick. I know that most of these models are naturally slim. Should I be doing these particular workouts or not. I’m asking about all of them (legs, abs, butt).

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      If you gain muscle easily I would avoid doing any squats and lunges from these workouts. The rest should be fine for you to do! :) xx

      Love,
      Diana

    Donna says:

    This programme sounds like it’s just what i‘m looking for. I do a mixture of HIIT and pilates and whilst my legs are not flabby, they are getting bigger and i don’t want to waste all my energy to get bigger! Can you tell me how often are the workouts and for how long?

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      The Lean Legs Program has been designed to include the perfect type of resistance training and cardio to give you a lean and toned look, without making you bulky.

      It’s an 8 week workout and nutrition plan that will help you slim down your legs, but will also help you slim and tone your upper body and core too (the workouts are full body). The workouts are 5-6 days per week and take about 20-40 minutes, plus walking.

      The program also includes a full meal plan, a separate recipe ebook and demonstration videos.

      If this is what you’re looking for, I would definitely recommend giving our program a go. :) You can find out more about it here:

      Lean Legs Program

      Love,
      Diana
      xx

    Ella says:

    Hello! Would the Lean Legs Program be good for me? I am very thin but have no strength or muscle tone to my body (skinny fat lol…). I am interested in getting toned and stronger but I don’t want to bulk up, which has happened to me in the past! I also don’t necessarily want to loose weight or get smaller since I am already thin, I just want to look strong and healthy. Thank you!

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      The Lean Legs Program has been designed to include the perfect type of resistance training and cardio to give you a lean and toned look, without making you bulky.

      It’s an 8 week workout and nutrition plan that will help you slim down your legs, but will also help you slim and tone your upper body and core too (the workouts are full body).
      It also includes a full meal plan, a separate recipe ebook and demonstration videos.

      If this is what you’re looking for, I would definitely recommend giving our program a go. :) You can find out more about it here:

      Lean Legs Program

      Our program is completely tailored to your body type, so it will be suitable for you even if you’re skinny fat.
      You will be able to maintain your weight if you eat as many calories as you burn (a bit more than what the meal plan in the program suggests).
      Another option would be to cut out the running and just do the walking and circuits. That way you won’t lose weight! xx

      Love,
      Diana

    Taylor says:

    Hello,
    Thank you so much for posting this! I too am tired of hearing that women “can’t get bulky” because well im a women and I was very bulky from CrossFit style workouts. So bulky in fact that I almost weighed more than my boyfriend…not cool! I’m definitely a mesomorph and I have a huge problem with my upper body…it bulks EXTREMELY quickly. I’ve recently gotten into surfing and while I love it, my upper body really doesn’t. Surfing is the only thing I do for my upper body at the moment and I recently got told that my arms are “big for a girl” and that “they’re almost as big as my boyfriend’s.” I’m not a particularly big girl so again this was mortifying for me. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for how to keep the bulk down on my upper body without giving up surfing? Or just in general what to suggest for maintaining lean arms?

    Thanks again for sharing!

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      I know that reaching your fitness goals can be hard and that you probably have lots of questions on how to get that lean and toned body.
      We would love to help you as much as we can :) So that’s why we have created the Lean Legs Program!

      Our Lean Legs Program is an 8 week workout and nutrition plan designed to help you get lean and toned without bulking.
      It will help you slim down your legs, but will also help you slim and tone your upper body and core too (the workouts are full body).

      It also includes a full meal plan, a separate recipe eBook and demonstration videos.

      You can find out more about the program here:

      Lean Legs Program

      For more helpful info on how to slim down your arms please have a read of these blog posts:

      https://www.rachaelattard.com/slim-muscular-upper-body/

      https://www.rachaelattard.com/217-lean-arms-workout/

      Love,
      Diana
      xx

    kelly says:

    Reading this was so liberating. I’ve thought I was getting too bulky, and my trainers response has been less than helpful. She full-heartedly believes in lifting, and lifting heavy. I’ve been lifting for a year and a half now and just not getting the results I want. My legs keep growing, and I’ve outgrown all my clothes. It is so discouraging. It felt good to read this and feel validated that I am not alone in feeling this way.

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      I know that reaching your fitness goals can be hard. We would love to help you as much as we can :) So that’s why we have created the Lean Legs Program.

      Our Lean Legs Program has been designed to include the perfect type of resistance training and cardio to give you a lean and toned look, without making you bulky.

      It’s an 8 week workout and nutrition plan that will help you slim down your entire legs, but will also help you slim and tone your upper body and core too (the workouts are full body).
      It also includes a full meal plan, a separate recipe ebook and demonstration videos.

      If this is what you’re looking for I would definitely recommend giving our program a go. :) You can find out more about it here:

      Lean Legs Program

      Hopefully you’ll be able to achieve your goals in no time. All the best! :) xx

      Love,
      Diana

    Kaia says:

    Hi!

    I love working out and can’t seem to stop (I am a mesomorph, by the way). My upper body looks great, but, as a result of all the training, my legs have become very bulky. Over the past few months, I have completely stopped doing leg workouts, but my legs are still bulky so I have come to the conclusion that it must be all the HIIT I’m doing (and the fact that I need to lower my body fat percentage a bit). I love HIIT as it burns fat extremely fast, so I don’t want to stop, but I really need to slim down my legs. Can you help me as to what step to take towards slimming down my legs?

    BTW I love all you’re doing! This website has helped me so much (I got taken in with all the junk that to get lean legs do loads of squats):)

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      We would love to help you as much as we can :) So that’s why we have created the Lean Legs Program!

      The program has been designed to include the perfect type of resistance training and cardio to give you a lean and toned look, without making you bulky.
      It’s an 8 week workout and nutrition plan that will help you slim down your legs, but will also help you slim and tone your upper body and core too (the workouts are full body).

      It also includes a full meal plan, a separate recipe ebook and demonstration videos.

      If this is what you’re looking for I would definitely recommend giving our program a go. :) You can find out more about it here:

      Lean Legs Program

      Here’s an example of a great HIIT workout that won’t make you bulky! xx

      Love,
      Diana

    Jen says:

    Hi Rachael, when I was younger I was always very athletic, and my main sport was soccer. I stopped playing soccer many years ago, but continued to exercise, mostly running. My legs are still bulkier than my liking from soccer, and I can’t seem to slim them down. Any tips?? Thank you!

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      I know that reaching your fitness goals can be hard, and that you probably have lots of questions about how to adjust your fitness routine to get that lean and toned body.

      We would love to help you as much as we can :) So that’s why we have created the Lean Legs Program!

      The Lean Legs Program is an 8 week workout and nutrition plan designed to help you get lean and toned without bulking.
      It will help you slim down your legs, but will also help you slim and tone your upper body and core too (the workouts are full body).

      It also includes a full meal plan, a separate recipe eBook and demonstration videos.

      You can find out more about the program here:

      Lean Legs Program

      Love,
      Diana
      xx

    Blair says:

    Hi!
    I just started getting back to the gym and I have been doing spin, anywhere from 20-45 minute classes. I don’t want to get bulky – will riding the bike, whether it be a Soul Cycle Class or a Peloton make me bulky? Also, I don’t want my body to get used to spinning and it no longer become a good workout – is this a possibility?

      Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      If you are an endomorph, then yes cycling will most likely make your legs bigger so I would avoid it completely.

      If you are a mesomorph, you may or may not be able to get away with cycling. Some mesomorphs are OK with it, while others aren’t. Either way, I would still only do it 1-2 times per week maximum because overdoing it with cycling will most likely make your legs bigger.

      If you don’t know your body type, please take our free body type quiz to find out! :) xx

      Love,
      Diana

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