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

    Salome says:

    Hi, I’ve got a question on the days that I do high impact cardio (running) are those steps included in my 10000 dialy steps or should I do more

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      It’s not counted. I recommend counting only the steps that you accumulate on your power walks. :)

    Anastasia says:

    Hey rachel
    I started working out in March and i have been doing leg exercises(lunges,leg lifts,squats,inner thigh pulses etc)and some times some Hiit from chloe ting on youtube.I have lost about 20 kg from my total body but my legs still look so bulky.I want to keep working out but could you suggest me to do a workout(running,cycling etc or whatever) that will help me have slim legs and not bulky?
    Thank youuuu

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      If your legs get bulky easily and you want to avoid building more muscle, the best exercises to avoid are those where you can feel your quads burning. This includes squats, deadlifts, lunges, and overdoing it on the HIIT exercises including burpees, jump lunges, jump squats and box jumps.

      Also, you can check out our 3 Steps To Lean Legs Program and our new Glutes, Abs and Legs (GAL) Program which were designed to help you get slim and toned legs without causing any unwanted bulkiness. :)

      Love,
      Len

    Lisa says:

    My results when I take the Body Type Quiz are an endomorph, but I think I am actually a mesomorph. I am pretty balanced all over and when I gain weight I can hide it pretty easily as it is all over, not just in one or two places. I am 122 lbs. and 5’1. I may be an endo-mesomorph. I am just wondering if I should follow the Lean Legs video course for the endomorph or mesomorph. My fingers overlap when I do the wrist check with thumb and middle finger.

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      It would be best if you send us a photo of you in sports/fitness clothes (e.g. leggings, a top, etc) so I can see your waist, legs, figure, and help you determine your body type and which version of the program will give you the best and fastest results. You can email it to info@rachaelattard.com. Don’t worry because the photos won’t leave the thread. :)

      Love,
      Len

    Valentina says:

    Hi team!

    I’ve been working out everyday since February 2020, I’ve lost 11 kg and I’ve reached my ideal weight with a nutritionist. But for some reason I don’t look as skinny as I should for my weight. I do resistance training with a kinesiologist 3 times a week (no weight lifting, just bands and TRX and I avoid HIIT exercises) and I do yoga twice a week. I feel my shoulders and back are too bulky, I was thinking to reduce a day of resistance training and avoid yoga postures that bulk deltoids like downward facing dog. Could you please give me some advice? I’m desperate! I feel guilty to cut down a day of workout, because then I will train only 4 times a week (and that considering yoga as a workout) I work from home and I’m siting on my desk all day.

    Nat says:

    Hey Rachael, thanks for the great article! Question – is there any way to reverse the damage if I already got too bulky due to the wrong type of exercise? I used to be big on kickboxing and boxing before, as a part of my training, I would do 200-300 push ups a day, plus weights. I am an endomorph, and so my shoulders and upper back got so wide! I no longer train the way I used to, but my back is still disproportionately wide – I am short, so it looks kind of funny. Is there anything I can do to undo this? I train very moderately these days (~3 times a week at a regular gym) and avoid pushups, but the wide back is still with me. If the damage is impossible to reverse, is there any way I can do exercises for shoulders and back definition without making them even bulkier? When I stop training the upper body, I lose all definition there. When I resume training, I bulk up even more. Thanks a lot in advance! Nat

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      If your legs get bulky easily and you want to avoid building more muscle, the best exercises to avoid are those where you can feel your quads burning. This includes squats, deadlifts, lunges, and overdoing it on the HIIT exercises including burpees, jump lunges, jump squats, and box jumps.

      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!

      Lastly, feel free to 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 more lean and toned look. :)

      I hope that helps. xx

      Love,
      Len

    Kate says:

    Hi Rachael! Is there anything I can do to stop getting bulky legs from playing tennis? I’ve been playing around 3 times a week recently at quite an advanced level and have really noticed my thighs getting bigger (the same thing happened many years ago when I cycled to work for a few months so I think I am prone to bulking up even though I am a mesomorph). Please let me know if there are any exercises or stretches I can do or if I just have to accept that playing tennis will make my thighs big! Thanks!

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      If your legs get bulky easily and you want to avoid building more muscle, the best exercises to avoid are those where you can feel your quads burning. It would be best to stick to light resistance workouts. From Rachael’s experience, power walking is one of the best types of cardio that could help you slim down your legs so you should also incorporate that into your routine. Try to aim for at least 10,000 steps a day, 5-6x a week, and make sure that you do it on a flat surface. Aside from following the right type of workouts, adjusting your diet for weight loss could also help you lose the bulky muscle. 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. :)

      Love,
      Len

    Sophie says:

    Hi, your tips are really useful, I have lost lots of weight and am a low bmi 17 but i still have fat around my waist and high body fat %. Can you suggest how youd change this program for a small toned waist??? Would be very good. Thank you

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      Getting rid of belly fat is almost 100% related to your diet. The only way to get rid of this fat is to lose overall body fat which is done through consuming less calories than your body uses (eating at a calorie deficit).

      As for the workouts, any type of resistance training helps, but generally HIIT gets the quickest results. High intensity cardio such as running also helps a lot.

      For more helpful tips please have a read of these blog posts:

      The truth about how to lose belly fat

      How to lose lower belly fat

      Favourite ab workout

      Best of luck! xx

      Love,
      Len

    Sel says:

    Hi,do you have any insight on how jumping on a small trampoline would affect one’s body/legs? From what I’ve read it is a good full body exercise,and has a lot of benefits.I’m just curious how different body types would be affected. Also,would jogging slim down your legs,the same way as running? (I just find jogging makes me feel better mentally,and running makes me feel very agitated and anxious) I’m a mesomorph.

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      Rebounding/Trampoline is kind of like skipping – it’s a great cardio exercise but it won’t slim down your legs and the bouncing motion can actually make your calves and thighs bigger. Every once in a while is probably OK. But I don’t think it is the most effective exercise – power walking and running are more effective in terms of cardio :)

      Jogging is almost the same as running. It is great cardio that can burn a lot of calories, but it can also cause unwanted bulkiness to some women because it engages your quads a lot. That’s why Rachael recommends that you do it at a maximum of 20 mins 3x a week.

      I hope that helps. xx

      Love,
      Len

    Lubna says:

    Hi, I am doing EMI wing – 30 min Full Body Fat Burn HIIT (NO JUMPING) – Ab, Core, Arm, Back, Leg, Thigh & Cardio –
    Is this the type of exercise that make me bulky? I am sorry but I have little to no experience in the workout world and it always ends up confusing me more.
    Would appreciate your review as I don’t want to end up getting heavier 😔

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      If your legs get bulky easily and you want to avoid building more muscle, the best exercises to avoid are those where you can feel your quads burning. This includes squats, deadlifts, lunges, and overdoing it on the HIIT exercises including burpees, jump lunges, jump squats, and box jumps.

      Also, you can check out our 3 Steps To Lean Legs Program which is designed to help you get slim and toned legs without causing any unwanted bulkiness. :)

      If you have more questions, you can email us at info@rachaelattard.com

      Love,
      Len

    Viktoria says:

    Hi Rachael,
    I’ve just signed up for the Lean Legs program and really excited to get started. Everything on your blog so far has rung true, my calf muscles are massive and I am an endomorph. All the training I have been getting and doing has just been bulking me up and making me look bigger when weight loss and toning has been the main goal.
    Quick question – would you still recommend the use of a cross trainer as a piece of equipment to use at the gym or avoid ?

    Thank you x

      Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      Thanks for reaching out! :)

      I don’t think this machine will really cause bulkiness, but it won’t slim down your legs like running and walking will. The pushing down motion means you engage your quads more so it will build more muscle here. But it’s not the style of workout that will necessarily cause bulkiness. If you can’t walk or run for some reason, the cross trainer is the next best thing. But I would encourage running and especially walking if you can!

      I hope that helps. xx

      Love,
      Len

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