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How To Lift Weights Without Getting Bulky

By Rachael Attard, Updated Aug 26, 2020
lift weights without getting bulky

Last Updated May 26th, 2020 02:05 PM

You’re exercising regularly, pushing yourself to your maximum, adding more weight each time for one more round of heavy squats, lunges and/or HIIT.

But, it seems like your legs are just getting bulkier and bigger instead of smaller.

You’re finding it difficult to fit into your skinny jeans and shorts.

What is going on? Why are you getting bigger, instead of slimming down?

First of all – I understand this frustration. A couple of years ago, I was in this exact same situation and struggled with adding too much muscle for my liking.

But, there is a way around it.

This is why I decided to give some advice on how to lift weights without getting bulky – especially in your legs.

WILL I GET BULKY IF I LIFT WEIGHTS?

how to lift weights without bulking up

Most personal trainers will tell you that women cannot really get bulky.

If you have already tried talking to someone about your fears of getting bulky, there’s a good chance that you were told you’re just imagining things, or have a wrong mindset.

Or, that you should stick with lifting heavy because you will get a lot bigger before you get smaller. Well, not really.

While working out with personal trainers, I was a bit conflicted, ’cause every trainer always pushed me to lift heavy (especially more heavy weighted squats and lunges), 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 just didn’t look slim and lean like I used to.

how to lift weights without bulking transformation photo
On the left is a photo of me while I was lifting heavy and on the right is my result after I’ve changed my workout regime (now known as ”3 Steps to Lean Legs”)

And no matter how many times I tried explaining that to my trainer, I just ended up getting frustrated or feeling guilty, because I am not happy with my ”strength gains.”

I couldn’t understand why some of my friends got amazing results from lifting weights, while I almost ended up hating heavy weights because they made me too bulky.

But then I started learning about different body types.

DIFFERENT BODY TYPES RESPOND TO WEIGHT TRAINING DIFFERENTLY

can women bulk up from lifting weights

There are 3 main body types – ectomorph (Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss), mesomorph (Jessica Alba, Gigi Hadid) and endomorph (Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez).

And, actually, 2 out of 3 female body types can get too bulky.

You must understand your body type to know how to build muscle 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. This is your starting point.

ECTOMORPHS

Ectomorphs are naturally very slim (think Victoria’s Secret models) and find it difficult to gain weight (both muscle and fat).

This body type can lift very heavy weights without getting bulky and often get amazing results from heavier weight lifting.

However, a lot of models do not lift very heavy because of the fear of getting too muscular.

Everyone’s body is different, and some models may be a combined ectomorph/mesomorph body type, and 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

Mesomorph girls can be slim or overweight, but they have the ability to lose and gain weight (both muscle and fat) very easily.

I am a mesomorph.

Mesomorphs need to be careful not to do too much weight lifting and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) because this can make them too bulky for their liking.

RELATED: FULL BODY HIIT WORKOUT THAT WILL NOT BULK YOU UP

ENDOMORPHS

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 HIIT and heavy weight lifting because this will just make them bigger and focus instead on doing more cardio with lighter circuit training (that doesn’t focus on building up too much of the leg muscle).

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.

RELATED: FEMALE GUIDE TO GETTING LEAN AND TONED (NOT BULKY)

IF LIFTING WEIGHTS MAKES ME TOO BULKY, WHY DO I STILL NEED TO DO IT?

muscle toning vs bulking up how to do weights

I know you might think that you should just avoid any type of weight and resistance training and only do cardio, right?

Well, I’ve done that before, too!

I only did cardio, and yes, I’ve drastically slimmed down. But, I still always had fat around my hips and belly that I found hard to get rid of.

I ended up being more skinny fat than lean.

It wasn’t until I started lifting weights and building some muscle again that the fat really disappeared and I finally had abs!

1. LIFTING WEIGHTS (I.E. RESISTANCE TRAINING) WILL GIVE YOUR BODY MUSCLE DEFINITION (TONE)

Any type of resistance training will build muscle – even if you’re lifting low weight and high rep, doing bodyweight or endurance-based workouts, Pilates, or even yoga – these will all build muscle.

But the thing is, you need muscle to give your body tone and definition.

There is a certain way of exercising, including lifting weights and building muscle without bulking up, which I will talk about, below.

2. LIFTING WEIGHTS WILL HELP YOU LOSE FAT & PREVENT THE “SKINNY FAT” LOOK 

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 end up looking “skinny fat.”

Skinny fat is a term used to describe people who appear slim or skinny (in their clothes), 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.

3. WEIGHT/STRENGTH TRAINING HAS A LOT OF OTHER BENEFITS

There are SO many other benefits of strength training 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!

HOW TO LIFT WEIGHTS WITHOUT GETTING BULKY

how to do weights without getting too muscular

As you can see, lifting weights does provide a lot of health benefits, and if you know how to do it according to your body type, it can have great results.

The key to being able to lift weights and build muscle without getting bulky is:

1. LEARN WHICH BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES TO DO AND WHICH ONES TO AVOID

Most bodyweight exercises will help you get lean and toned.

But there are some that are known to cause bulkiness, especially in 2 out of 3 female body types (these are discussed, below).

2. LIFT LIGHTER WEIGHTS FOR HIGHER REPETITIONS

By lighter weights, I mean 1-2 kgs dumbbells, a resistance band, ankle weights or just your own body weight.

Lifting lighter weights with higher repetition (15-20) will not bulk you up.

BEST BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES THAT WON’T MAKE YOU BULKY

Below you have my FREE Train Like a Model video course. These are full-length videos that will help you get toned without becoming too muscular.

Also, on my blog, you can find a lot more workouts that are designed especially for women who want to be able to lift weight without bulking up.

Here’s one example, below. :)

OTHER TYPES OF WORKOUTS YOU CAN TRY

1. PILATES

Pilates is exactly what I have been talking about. It’s often done using your own body weight, ankle weights or lighter weights that you can lift without bulking up.

I’ve also been to a few reformer Pilates classes, and these are great for toning up and slimming down!

The reformer machine uses resistance bands and a moving platform – it’s fantastic for your core.

In these classes, you will sometimes also use very light dumbbells for your upper body.

2. SWIMMING

Swimming is great for toning 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.

3. BOXING

Boxing is amazing for toning your arms really quickly, but not making them bigger. It’s also great for your core, too! And I know that a lot of Victoria’s Secret models do boxing.

I always notice a significant difference after just a few weeks of boxing. But just be careful about what type of boxing class you attend.

I’ve been to a few classes that do more of a boxing circuit, which includes a lot of squats, wall sits, burpees, etc. So, try to attend a boxing class that mainly focuses on boxing.

AVOID EXERCISES THAT WILL MAKE YOU BULKY 

how to lift weights exercises that will bulk you up

I know a lot of personal trainers won’t like to hear this.

The following exercises are great for your body (and mind), but they do build a lot of muscle and can make you bulky.

Also, I am mostly recommending this for mesomorphs and endomorphs. Most ectomorphs can lift heavy weights without getting bulky. But for the other two body types, these exercises should be avoided

1. DON’T DO ANY HEAVY WEIGHT LIFTING 

Any time you lift heavy weights to failure, you will most likely build muscle (granted your protein intake is also high to moderate).

If you want to lift weights without getting bulky, avoid “training to failure” strength workouts.

2. SKIP (HEAVY) SQUATS AND CHIN UPS 

I can see all personal trainers cringing here.

Yes, these exercises are great for your body and use LOTS of different muscles. But for me – and most of my clients that want to get lean and toned – squats just made legs bigger and chin-ups made their back broader.

Theses build SO much muscle and really change the shape of the body, in a way that I do not like. These 2 exercises will most likely make you bulky.

Other exercises that will most likely contribute to bulkiness include overhead pressing, deadlifts, lunges and burpees.

3. STAY AWAY FROM CROSSFIT

If CrossFit is your go-to-workout, and you enjoy lifting heavy, by all means, go for it. 

But be aware that this type of training includes LOTS of squats and squat variations, burpees, deadlifts, chin-ups, and overhead pressing exercises. And if you are a mesomorph or an endomorph body type, these workouts will defiinitely make our legs and upper body bigger.

These are all exercises that I suggest you avoid if you don’t want to increase your muscle size (and not to mention that I’ve yet to meet someone doing CrossFit that hasn’t had an injury or badly messed up their spine). 

4. AVOID SPRINTS

Any short bursts of energy using your legs will make them bulkier and bigger, because of the muscle fibers it recruits and the 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, resting for 30-60 seconds and then 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 winded that you need to stop.

This type of running will still get you fit really quickly, and won’t make your legs bulky.

5. AVOID HILL SPRINTS 

Any type of hill sprinting will make you bulky, especially your quadriceps (the muscles at the front of your thighs).

Avoid doing these and always option for a flat surface when doing cardio.

6. DON’T ADD INCLINE ON TREADMILL 

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.

7. PASS ON THE STEP MACHINE

I’m sure you’re getting the theme here – anything uphill will bulk up your legs. The same goes for the step machine.

EXERCISES THAT MAY CAUSE YOU TO BULK UP (PROCEED WITH CAUTION)

how to lift weights exercises that could bulk you up

These are exercises that I am always questioned about. Results from doing workouts, below, vary, depending on the person’s nutrition, body type, genetics and all other factors.

But, I will try to provide some general advice.

1. SPIN CLASSES / CYCLING 

If you are an endomorph, 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, 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).

I would keep spin classes to once per week – maximum.

2. HIGH-INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING (HIIT) 

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 bigger 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.

3. SKIPPING 

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 to slim your calves, it is best to avoid skipping. I personally don’t do any skipping.

4. CROSS TRAINER / ELLIPTICAL 

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, but for slimming your legs, it is not as effective as walking.

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 help reduce thigh fat as effectively as walking.

5. BARRE

I have done a barre class and was surprised at how leg-focused it was.

We did lots of squats, squat 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 cautiou

6. RUNNING

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, but it will still build muscle.

Endomorphs in particular need to be careful with running.

Running is an amazing exercise for slimming all over – especially your legs – but if you build muscle really easily (like an endomorph), 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!

HOW TO GET SMALLER THIGHS 

how to get smaller thighs lift weights without bulking up

Resistance training alone will not make your legs thinner, it will just make them more toned.

If you want to get thinner 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 for more information.

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

SUMMARY: HOW TO LIFT WEIGHTS WITHOUT GETTING TOO MUSCULAR

  • There are 3 main body types, and each has 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 your bodyweight) and higher reps, PLUS you need to choose the correct exercises.
  • Exercises that are great for toning without getting bulky include the workouts in my 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program, 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.

START WITH MY 3 STEPS TO LEAN LEGS PROGRAM NOW

My 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program will help you slim your legs and tone 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 such 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. :)

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
@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!

lean legs program results

@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!

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:

https://www.rachaelattard.com/skinny-legs-ebook/

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

https://www.rachaelattard.com/lean-legs-video-course/

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.

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

    Ashley says:

    I took your body type quiz and it says I am Mesomorph. I knew I was a mesomorph. I want to lose belly fat, love handles, reduce thighs and arm fat. I want slim legs and tone stomach and arms. What exercises should I do and what should I eat to reach my goals? I want a lean and slim figure.

      Sara - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely <3,

      Thanks for reaching out!:)

      Here are some general guidelines for lovely mesomorphs. <3

      Here, you can learn more about your calorie intake and macros. :)

      Apart from resistance workouts and good nutrition, cardio is also important so you can read more about it here.

      Hope this helps and if you have any other questions, feel free to write to info@rachaelattard.com

      Love,
      Sara

    Annie says:

    Hello Ms. Rachel, I read most of your blog and I was fascinated! However I have a question: I might be an endomorph or a mix of endo/meso. Anyways I am pear shaped. I want to lose my bulky thighs, lose some fat from abs and hips, tone my arms too but I’d like to maintain/gain muscle in my pectorals and tone my lats. My upper body is smaller and don’t want to lose bust size. What kind of workout would you recommend?

      Len - Lean Legs Support says:

      Hi lovely,

      If you’re not sure about your body type, feel free to send us photos in fit/sports clothing through email (info@rachaelattard.com) and we will help you determine it. :)

      That way, we can provide you the guidelines when it comes to the right type of exercise and diet for you. <3

      If you need help or tips, feel free to reach out anytime hun. xx

      Love,
      Len