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The Female Guide On How To Get Lean And Not Bulky

By Rachael Attard, Updated Aug 13, 2020
how to get lean not bulky

Last Updated on May 30th, 2020 11:05 AM

You want to look lean and fit, but not overly muscular?

You want to exercise and push your limits, but you fear of getting too bulky in the process?

The truth is, you can get a lean body you want without putting too much of unwanted muscle size…if you focus on the right type of exercise.

Before we get into more details, let me just say that there is nothing wrong with women who are muscular and strong- if that is their preference!

This blog post is for the girls (like myself) who ended up with a bulky body when their goal was to get lean and slim down.

And for the girls that were consistently told that they can not get too muscular and their fears are irrational, even when they couldn’t fit in their tops and jeans anymore.

Since this topic seems to be taboo in the fitness world (mostly consisting of ”girls can’t get too big” members), I decided to share with you my guide on how to get lean and toned, but not bulky.

So, if you are wondering how to get slim down your legs without bulking up muscle, or how to tone your arms without making them bigger, you’re in the right place.

So, let’s start!

”WHY AM I BULKING UP INSTEAD OF SLIMMING DOWN?”

OK, so I get this question a LOT.

And, I can relate. I was in the same situation a couple of years ago, so I can speak from my own 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. I actually ended up looking skinny fat.

And when I asked for advice, I was told I should forget about cardio and try heavy 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 my body was too bulky.

I was constantly asking myself, why am I getting bigger instead of slimming down?

And why some girls seem to be getting smaller from lifting heavy and I was just getting bigger?

The more I lifted the bigger I got.

I talked to different personal trainers at my gym, and they all told me the same thing – women can not bulk up, they don’t have enough testosterone.

But that’s simply not true!

WOMEN CAN, IN FACT, GET TOO 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 has a bulky body, then who is anyone to tell her that she is wrong?

The perception of ”bulky body” is much different for men and women.

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

The point is, this should completely up to you and your fitness goals.

And as much I support girls wanting to get stronger and put on a decent muscle, 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. And that should be OK!

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 a bulky body:

I was doing the WRONG type of resistance training.

So, if you are also getting bigger, instead of slimming down, you’re probably making the same mistake.

I’m going to share with you what are the best exercises to do – and which ones you should avoid – to get lean without getting bulky.

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

Not all resistance training will make you get bulky.

How you end up looking lean 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 too 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 throughout 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 completely.

You will just end up looking skinny fat.

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 one of the full-body workouts from my 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program that will give you an idea of how to slim down legs without bulking up muscle and how to get a lean upper body.

Check it out:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UP8Bm0BQ4Ro

In addition, I also posted 3 free resistance-training sessions on my blog, so have a look at these to get a further 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 (especially in your legs), 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 SO YOU CAN ADJUST YOUR WORKOUTS & DIET ACCORDINGLY

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 SLIM DOWN LEGS WITHOUT BULKING UP MUSCLE?

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!

3 STEPS TO LEAN LEGS PROGRAM BEFORE & AFTER

”I trained with a personal trainer 3 times a week and while traveling, I used to do Kayla Itsines’ SWEAT program.

However, my thighs continued to be a problem despite exercising like a machine (in fact, I started measuring them and the more SWEAT I was doing, the bigger they became).

With [Rachael’s] program, I started seeing the results almost immediately. I measured my thighs, butt and muffin top and I lost inches after first week!

Read Jeanne-Mare’s Full Review Of The Program Here

@audprater

Here’s my 6-month transformation <3 I never thought I’d be able to lean out my muscles!! I have never felt happier & more confident with my body! Eternally grateful to you and your program!


@AlexBGamez

This is only my 5-week progress, I was too eager to share the results with you. After years of trying other programs and even when I entered fitness competitions, I have never seen my legs this lean! I can’t wait to see my progress at the end of the 8weeks and again at the end of 16weeks after Round 2! Thank you and your lovely team. I am beyond grateful!

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.

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

    mary says:

    My legs are long and tone fairly fast. But I’m finding it hard to get a long lean upper body. I reduced weights to 5lbs because my shoulders seem to get broader. short waisted as well. Any tips on getting upper body to where I want. I have your programme and I love all the info you are providing.

      Len - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      Rachael wrote this blog post that will help you to lean down your upper body. Feel free to give it a read. You’ll find out which exercises to avoid and which to focus on more! <3

      I hope this helps, please let me know if you have any questions! xx

      Love,
      Len

    Karen Woollard says:

    Hi Rachael, I’m a personal trainer & really interested in trying your program for myself. I came across your website recently as I was looking into how I personally could slim my legs down & not look so bulky. I’m one of those personal trainers that have always included squats, lunges, deadlifts into both mine & my clients workouts. I did your body test & think I’m somewhere in the middle of mesomorph and endomorph. Can you tell me which body type I should follow for your exercise program. Thanks

      Sandra - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hey lovely <3

      If you are not sure about your body type, it would be best you send us pics of your body in sports clothes (e.g. leggings, a top…) to info@rachaelattard.com so we can help you determine your body type and find you a program which suits you best. And we can also answer any additional questions that you may have, it’s more practical via email :)

      Love,
      Sandra

    Pop says:

    Hi Rachel

    Thank you for all the info… I feel heaviest i have ever been but also fittest i have ever been. I have gained alot of muscle and fat and the same time and this gives me body image issues esp when i cant fit clothes etc- esp during this lockdown. I want to lean down but without getting overly stressed and obsessed about the food and exercise.. Any thought

      Sanja - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      thanks for reaching out! <3

      Rachael's 3 Steps To Lean Legs Program would be great for you. It's designed based on body type and it's really more of a lifestyle. It contains resistance training, cardio and meal plans (regular and vegan) with recipe ebooks. Also, you don't have to follow Rachael's meal plan to get results :) You can just eat a healthy diet on a slight calorie deficit. You can read more about Rachael's Program here.

      I hope this helps, please let me know if you have any questions! xx

      Love,
      Sanja

    Amanda Thomas says:

    The endomorph section states that these body types should avoid HIIT and weights. I was doing much more cardio walking/light running (1hr) with less/lighter weights for about a month or two. I’m a former elite athlete (D1) for nine years and have a muscular build (endormorph type). I realized that more cellulite had appeared and I was slightly slimmer but not as strong as I was. I’m used to heavy lifting vs light weights. I’m contemplating on getting a gym membership to reduce the amount of cellulite or fat in my legs and body overall but don’t want to get bulky (as I know I have in the past). I will read your articles and track my progress. As you stated, patience is everything and adjusting workouts/eating/lifestyle is a process!

      Sanja - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      For endomorphs Rachael recommends the following:
      Resistance training 3 times per week.
      At least 20 minutes of power walking after every resistance training session (to burn more fat)
      2-3 days of high-intensity cardio only (preferably running)
      Power walking at least 5 days per week (for at least 45 minutes each)
      One rest (or active) recovery day

      Here is a guideline that Rachael wrote for endomorphs that I think you’ll find super helpful :)

      Also, Rachael has an awesome blog post for cellulate that I think you’ll find useful :) Give these blogs a read and please let us know if you have any questions <3

      Love,
      Sanja

    JHouse says:

    Thank you for acknowledging that women can in fact get bulky. When women bring up this concern we’re made fun of, dismissed and told it just can’t happen that easily. I remember once reading an article–it was from a man of course–condescending to women about this concern and the most ironic part about it is that the women he included in the article were really bulky. I started hiking two weeks ago and I already have calf muscles and it made me concerned about getting bulky because I want a lean ballerina body, not a muscly curvy fit chick body. I’m very thin but its mostly skinny fat and I want a toned look. Still making mistakes as I’m new to this but what do you suggest to engage my glutes and thighs when walking instead of my calves?

      Ana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hey lovely <3

      I suggest that you walk on a flat surface so your calves don't get bulky. :)
      Here is Rachael’s blog post on this subject.

      Also, here is a blog post on some booty workouts! :)

      Hope I helped! xx

      Love,
      Ana

    Angelina says:

    Hello there,

    I’m also a mesomorph who tends to build a lot of muscle around the thighs and legs! I will be starting a new job as a spinning instructor where each class would be about 45 minutes long and will involve both high and moderate intensity spinning and some exercises on the bike (light weight lifting and crunches). Do you have any suggestions as to how to prevent my thigh muscles from getting even bigger? Thanks a lot in advance! :)

      Tijana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely <3

      Unfortunately, cycling is not something that Rachael would recommend: it does shed a lot of calories but since that activity activates the quads heavily and it may give you the bulked-up appearance. As a mesomorph, you would be probably able to get away with cycling/spinning to some extent but in general, it's not the best activity if you want a leaner look to be honest. Since this will be your new job, my recommendation is to monitor your legs for the signs of change and then take it from there :)

      I hope this helps a bit! And good luck with your new job! xx

      Love,
      Tina

    Javi says:

    Hey,
    So I’m confused because I’m in the middle of mesomorph and endomorph. I have been doing 10 mins of running a day for like 2 weeks but can’t see a change. My legs are so bulky no matter what I do and I eat healthy I guess. What should I do.

      Tijana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely <3

      If you are shorter and if you lean a bit more on the endomorph side, it might be that the running can additionally bulk you up. I suggest you substitute the running with more power walking and in general, to walk as much as possible (at least 5 times a week!). Please give this article a read, you will find it informative.

      I hope this helps! xx

      Love,
      Tina

    lena says:

    I have been looking to slim down my thighs as well as tone my whole body overall.
    I am a mesomorph (I think) & my goal is to have that toned but slim supermodel body.
    Will the Lean Legs Program transform my whole body ?
    Or do I need to add other exercises to tone core and upper body ?
    I want my whole body to be toned & thin.
    Thanks!

      Tijana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      Thank you for reaching out! :)
      Rachael’s program is actually a full-body program and will help you slim down your legs and upper body, lose belly fat and tone your whole body without adding any unwanted bulkiness.
      It lasts for 8 weeks and it includes:
      • Cardio plan
      • Resistance training with short demonstration videos
      • 2 meal plans with recipe ebooks (vegan and regular one).
      All the workouts can be done from home so you don’t need gym access :)
      With the program, you can use ankle weights and gliding discs. However, you can do the exercises without the ankle weights and you can use paper plates or towels instead of the gliding discs.
      If you need more info, you can also write to info@rachaelattard.com. xx
      Love,
      Tina

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