how to lift the weights without getting bulky

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. This is why I decided to give some advice on how to lift weights without getting bulky.

So, if you’ve been lifting weights and noticed that your jeans and shorts became too tight, inner thighs started to rub together and your legs just generally look thicker and bulkier, this is the blog post you should definitely read.

I understand the struggle.

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.

how to lift weights without getting bulky

But I 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 think 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:

  1. The right exercise selection. Doing certain exercises that work your upper body, core, hips, butt and thighs, and avoiding certain exercises that make you bulky (these are discussed below).
  2. Lifting lighter weights. By lighter weights, I mean 1-2 kgs dumbbells, a resistance band, ankle weights or just your own body weight. Because the weight is lower, you will be doing much higher repetitions.
how to lift weights without getting bulky

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 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program.


I created my 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program to help women understand how to lift weights without getting bulky, and how to get skinny legs with the right type of cardio.

My program include a full workout and nutrition program which will help you get a lean and toned body, and amazing legs!



Pilates exercises are exactly what I have been talking about. It’s 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.

how to lift weights without getting bulky


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.

how to lift weights without getting bulky


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 more lean 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.

If you’re not sure about your body type, you can take my free body type survey.


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.


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.

how to lift weights without getting bulky


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.

If you don’t know which body type you are, you can take my free Body Type Quiz. It will help you learn your body type in just 2 minutes and you will get tips on how to eat and exercise to get the best possible results.


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.


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.

how to lift weights without getting bulky


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.


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 weightlifting.

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.

If you are not sure about your body type, I have created a special Body Type Quiz that is completely free. It will help you determine your body type in just 2 minutes :)


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 to 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 to 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.

Also, you’ll find it very useful to read my blog post on how to slim down muscular thighs.

how to lift weights without getting bulky


  • There are 3 main body types and each of them have different exercise requirements. Your body type will determine how bulky you get and what type of exercise you can and can’t do.
  • To lift weights without getting bulky, you need to lift lighter weights (i.e. 1-2 kgs dumbbells, a resistance band or just body weight) and higher rep, PLUS you need to choose the correct exercises.
  • Exercises that are great for toning up without getting bulky include the workouts in my Skinny Legs eBook, pilates, reformer pilates, boxing, and swimming.
  • Certain exercises will cause bulkiness, including squats, lunges, deadlifts, chin-ups, and overhead pressing. Other exercises that make you bulky include heavy weight lifting, CrossFit, sprints, hill sprints, and the step machine.
  • Exercises that may make you bulky and should be done with caution include cycling, HIIT, skipping, cross trainer, barre and running.


My 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program will help you slim down your legs and tone up your body, without getting bulky in the process. I know from my own experience how frustrating it is to train hard and end up with results that you didn’t want. I used to work with a PT who trained me in a way that caused my body to become too bulky for my own liking.

That’s why I created this program, to help women who prefer a more lean and slim look to get toned without having to worry about getting unwanted muscles :)

My program includes cardio, a complete 8-week meal plan and the style of resistance training that I mentioned in this blog post. 

Also, the resistance training part of my program now has FULL-LENGTH videos that you can follow from warm up to cool down.

To find out more about my 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program click the link below:


To find out more about my FULL-LENGTH VIDEOS, follow this link: 


And as always, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask! 

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.

173 comments on “How To Lift Weights Without Getting Bulky”

  • McKenna Beckstead says:

    What is your recommendation for how many days a week to do leg resistance training or Pilates type resistance training? And how many days of cardio would you recommend as well?

    • Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      We recommend doing resistance workouts 3 days per week and light intensity cardio as often as you can! :) xx


  • Jill says:

    Sometimes the “bulky” look is because of tight muscle groups, usually the lats/ chest and the hip flexors. Stretching these muscle groups properly will give your body a slimmer appearance because your shoulders will be back in place and your lower back will not be rounded.

    • Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      We always recommend stretching after each workout as it’s great for flexibility! However, stretching won’t change the size of your muscles, it will only slightly relax them.


  • Louise says:

    I’m an endomorph (bulky basketball forward kind of build) who, for the endorphins, would always rather jump into a tough long endurance or HIIT workout (like swimming or running) than hit on the floor for some Pilates, but I know this needs to change. I started OrangeTheory a few months ago, and now my legs and ass and arms are HUGE. I love the workouts but not how bulky I look. Also not a fan of being so sore all the time. Should I quit OrangeThoery and get back to my own varied training: kickboarding (my arms are so big I don’t want to swim full stroke much), walking/jogging, yoga and core workout videos? Diet advice would also be appreciated. I worry I’m eating too much protein and too much nut-based fat. Also do you eat dairy like Greek yogurt and cheese? What about fruit? Thanks so much for your guidance!

    • 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.

      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

      I suggest downloading our free 7 Day Slim Legs Diet to get a better idea of what the meal plan is like and what our recommendations are. The meal plan in the program is gluten, dairy and processed sugar free, but feel free to modify it to suit you! xx


  • Neha says:

    Hi! I am new to the fitness world. I was wondering, what if you maintain a calorie deficit and to squats (without any heavy weights) will they still make the thighs bigger?

    • Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      Changing your diet will help you with reducing fat on your body which is great! And it will also help you reduce fat on your legs (although not as much as cardio).

      If you diet and eat better, but continue to squat, your legs won’t go down in size. You can still build muscle at a calorie deficit.
      So this might help you lose weight but won’t change the size of your thighs! xx


  • Dennis says:

    Sorry, but I dont agree at all. Your muscles can only grow in one way. The only difference is that low rep training activates the bigger muscle fibers wich results in faster muscle gain, but it looks the same.

    Wether or not you will look bulky is all about proportions. For example a huge upper chest and very wide lats may look bulky. Thats why I can agree with you on the chins.

  • Naomi says:

    What about cheerleading I used to be so much smaller now I do more cheerleading I can see everything bulk its really upsetting for me we do squats lifting team mates, squat walk and lots of conditioning is this why I am getting bulkier ?

    • Diana - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,
      Yes, it’s possible that you’re getting bulky by doing too many high intensity exercises, heavy lifting and squats.
      If you’d like to slim down you would have to quit that training and start doing more cardio with resistance exercises that will help you get lean and toned :) xx


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