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The Female Guide On How To Get Lean And Not Bulky

By Rachael Attard, Updated Apr 15, 2021
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 cannot bulk up, they don’t have enough testosterone.

But that’s simply not true!

heavy lifting can cause bulk

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

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 and not bulky

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.

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

the best exercises to get toned and not 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

exercises to avoid not to get 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.

  • 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

three main body types
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

power walking to get lean not bulky

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 :)

exercises to get toned not bulky

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

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

lean legs program transformation

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!

lean legs program results

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

    Joanne says:

    OMG my upper body has just exploded – so bulky, especially my upper back and shoulders. Help!

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      Thanks for reaching out! :)

      If your goal is to slim down your muscular upper body, I have a blog post that’s going to help you. You’ll find out which exercises to avoid and which to focus on more!

      Also, you can check out our 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program. This plan was made to not only lose fat but also slim down bulky muscle and achieve a more lean and toned look. the workouts are full-body so it will also help slim down your upper body and core. xx

      I hope that helps!

      Love,
      Len

    Eliza says:

    Hi Rachael, I’m currently in the process of refreshing my workout plan and I had a question regarding resistance training and the dreaded rep/weight balance:

    What do you classify as “high” vs “low” reps? You recommend high reps for leanness, but other sources advise to train for strength (1-5 reps with very heavy weights), with 6-12 reps for hypertrophy, and 15 or more for “endurance”. But then wrt weight loss, many sources seem to advise to “train for hypertrophy but eat in deficit” and to “increase the intensity of the workout”. Is this what you would class as high reps? I switched to 4 circuits using bodyweight and pretty light dumbbells (currently doing 8/10/10/12) and cut my calories but I seem to be getting bigger, not smaller (although 2 people have commented that I’ve lost weight, and the scales seem to have remained roughly the same). I can’t tell whether to do fewer reps or more!

    So how many reps is a good number? I’ve noticed a lot of your workouts go by time rather than reps, but I prefer being able to count out the reps to keep my energy going throughout the circuit rather than relying on a timer. I’m an endomorph body type, 170cm/70kg, pretty muscular but I seem to carry a lot of fat, particularly on my thighs (my lower body fat % is twice that of my upper body, according to Boditrax). I can’t tell if my feeling of “bulkyness” is as a result of muscle or fat (maybe both? I don’t mind having muscles but I wish I could SEE them. At the moment they just seem to be padding me out more and making my fat look fatter). I am hoping that if I slim down I might start to see some more definition. I’m working on my diet, which is the most challenging part for me, but it would be nice to feel like I’ve got the exercise part “right” to match my goals.

    I’d really appreciate your take on this nebulous “high”/”low” conundrum and the seemingly conflicting info out there!

    Syd says:

    Hy Rachael. I’ve been doing exercises for almost a year now. I mostly used to do HIIT and cardio workouts. I’ve definitely seen positive results on my weight like my upper body is comparatively small but my legs! Ugh! (They are bulky) I don’t know why I am not seeing any better or visible results in my thighs (like thigh gap and stuff) even after cutting every extra food from my diet plan. I am thinking of doing cardio twice a week and do full body especially leg pilates on the rest days. Will that help me leaning my legs? Thank you.

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      If your goal is to slim down your legs there are 3 steps you should follow – do the right type of cardio, do bodyweight resistance training, and adjust your diet for weight loss.
      I have a very detailed blog post that will help you learn how to slim down your legs so please go give it a read

      It will definitely help! :)

      If you need more help or tips, you can email us at info@rachaelattard.com xx

    Connie says:

    OMG – Finalllllly someone who understands my concern over bulking up!! So glad I found your blog! ♥️ Question: How do you feel about yoga as well? I have a history of neck and shoulder injuries but am almost back to feeling normal. I am really not 5 feet tall and I am an endomorph! (Bad combo).

    Erin says:

    I think you might be an answer to my prayers. How do I get fully enrolled in this program?

      Len - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      Thanks for reaching out! <3

      If your goal is to slim down your legs there are 3 steps you should follow - do the right type of cardio, do bodyweight resistance training, and adjust your diet for weight loss.

      Feel free to check out our 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program. It was designed specifically for girls who are struggling to slim down their legs. :)

      If you have any other questions, feel free to email us at info@rachaelattard.com

    Janell says:

    Hi Rachael, I’m currently doing 3 days of resistance training and 3 days of dance cardio. I’m thinking of incorporating yoga to complement my workout. Should I pair yoga with resistance training or cardio? I’m the Mesomorph body type.

      Ana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hey lovely,

      Thanks for reaching out! :)

      It would be better to practice yoga on the days where you do cardio. :) xx

      Love,
      Ana

    hana says:

    well am about to try it i hope it works

      Sanja - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      thanks for reaching out! <3

      Sounds great! If you have any questions, please feel free to write to us! xx

      Love,
      Sanja

    Prem says:

    Hi. Im a mesomorph who is already kind of skinny and i dont have hips but i would love to have a tigth gap, and thats why i actually found you page, so i wanted to know if i could get a Tight gap. Thanks

      Sandra - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      Rachael doesn’t think that women should strive to have a thigh gap but rather feel comfortable and healthy in their bodies. We can certainly assist you with some exercise tips that can help you establish a healthy workout routine, so feel free to reach out to info@rachaelattard.com

      Lots of love,
      Sandra