Last updated on September 17th, 2019 12:53 PM
It’s unbelievable how many girls are asking how to slim down muscular thighs! If I have to pick the most popular question I am asked on every Instagram Q & A, it would definitely be that!
And I understand why girls ask me this all the time. I also used to ask this question a lot myself, and I spent 3 years figuring out how to exercise to keep my legs slim without gaining too much muscle.
Women (myself included) tend to store most of our body fat on our hips and thighs. We are just genetically designed to store fat here. So it’s no wonder a lot of women feel like no matter what they do, they just can’t seem to lean out their legs and go from muscular thighs to lean thighs.
I’ve already written a detailed guide on how to get lean and toned without adding too much muscle overall, but since I know how many of you are struggling with this, I want to focus specifically on legs in this blog post.
I know most people go to the gym to build muscle, but many women actually have issues with getting overly muscular legs when they exercise.
Some girls have even told me that their legs get bigger in size with running, barre, yoga and other exercises that you wouldn’t expect to bulk up your thighs. So, be careful and track your body’s response to different exercises as it is very individual.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having strong, muscular thighs. But, some women prefer to look more slim and toned and they should not be judged for it or told that that’s not a look to aspire to.
Everyone’s idea of “bulky” is different – I cannot stress this enough. This is something I believe every personal trainer should be aware of.
For some women, having just a little bit of muscle in their thighs might be too much, and for others, it might be too little as their goals are different.
For me personally, when I do weights and HIIT, my arms and stomach tend to slim down but my legs get too muscular for my liking.
I don’t have too many examples of photos of me when I’m like this, but here is one so you can get an idea.
So what you should do if you want to get skinny legs without building muscle?
There are 3 steps you should follow to get lean and toned legs.
Let’s cover each step in more detail.
Knowing your body type is super important as some body types tend to bulk up more easily than others, i.e. ectomorphs versus endomorphs.
There are three main body types and they all lose weight and build muscle differently.
Ectomorphs are usually naturally slim (like Victoria’s Secret models) and they find it difficult to build muscle.
If you are an ectomorph body type, you probably already have naturally thinner legs. So, your goal here is to maintain (or perhaps lose a bit of stubborn lower body fat) while building lean muscle. This way your leg will get tone and definition and you’ll avoid the skinny fat look.
To find out more about the ectomorph body type, read this blog post on how to slim muscular thighs if you are an ectomorph.
Mesomorphs can be quite athletic and respond quickly to exercise, which means they build muscles easily.
They can lose weight very fast, but can also gain weight quickly too. Usually, they are of average size.
If you are a mesomorph, overdoing workouts like squats and lunges can easily result in bulky legs. So, your goal here is to reduce body fat percentage and avoid exercises that will bulk up your legs in the process.
For more detailed info on mesomorphs, I’ve written an article on how to get skinny legs without building muscle for mesomorphs.
Endomorphs naturally have a strong build and larger frame. They can build muscle very quickly and it’s slightly harder for them to lose weight. But, it’s not impossible!
If you are an endomorph body type, your goal is to really focus on reducing overall body fat and to completely avoid any workouts that may cause you to bulk up.
To learn more about the endomorph body type, read this blog post on how to slim muscular thighs for endomorphs.
If you are not sure what is your body type, I have created a free body type quiz which will help you determine your body type in just 2 minutes.
Now that you know your body type and have a general idea on what to do and not to do, let’s go to the next step.
Ever noticed the difference between marathon runner legs and a cyclist or sprinter’s legs? There is a reason why.
Marathon runners have usually skinny legs because they do long duration steady–state cardio, as opposed to high-intensity sprints and cycling.
When you do long-distance running, your body is using slow-twitch muscles (the ones we refer to as long and lean) and is using fat (and glucose / carbs) as a source of energy.
I would run at a medium-fast pace and aim for 5kms for at least 30-45 minutes. But, longer is better if you’re trying to slim down muscle (ideally around an hour).
For speed, I would recommend somewhere between 9-12 km/hr. You should be able to maintain a conversation on your optimal speed.
And always make sure you’re running on a flat surface. Any uphill running will use your quads more and will contribute to bulkiness.
Also, running long distance is much more effective at slimming down your legs than the cross trainer/elliptical.
I should also mention that if you are very short and are the endomorph body type, your legs may actually get bigger with running.
If this is a problem for you, I would focus on walking.
Power walking is the best exercise for slimming down your legs and still burns a surprising number of calories, so don’t feel disheartened if all you can do is walk.
The main reason that power walking is so great is that it actually burns FAT as the primary source of energy. So yes, walking will help you burn more fat.
If you want more details or have more questions about cardio, read my Q&A Cardio Post.
When you do cardio, your body will burn stored glycogen (carbohydrates) first, and then fat, followed by protein (muscle).
If you do cardio before you eat in the morning, you will have less stored glycogen, and your body will, therefore, burn more fat and muscle.
Less fat and less muscle size equals slimmer legs.
But for this to work, you need to eat low carb (try not to eat carbs for dinner the night before so your glycogen levels are already low), and you need to do cardio for a fairly long period of time (over 60-90 minutes).
I have written a much more detailed blog post on fasted cardio, so have a read of this if you’re interested.
Decreasing your calorie intake will help you lose weight overall and also muscle. Muscles are a metabolically active tissue, so they require lots of calories to maintain.
If you reduce your calories, your body will not be able to sustain your muscle size, and they will atrophy (meaning they will decrease in size).
If you eat high fat, moderate to low protein and low carb, while staying at a slight calorie deficit, your body will use fat and protein (muscle) for energy, rather than carbohydrates.
This will help you decrease your muscle size much quicker.
Focus on getting your energy primarily from fat, and do not overdo the protein intake as well.
If you follow these 3 steps, your leg muscles will start to decrease. However, it is also important to know what NOT to do.
As long as you are lifting heavy or doing exercises that put a lot of strain on your quads and hamstrings, you won’t lose the leg muscle. You will still continue to build or maintain leg muscle, even if you are doing cardio and eating at a calorie deficit.
Use it or lose it. It’s really that simple.
Even if you’re doing light weight and high rep, you still won’t lose the muscle. You won’t necessarily build muscle, but you will maintain the muscle that you currently have.
Therefore, I recommend avoiding anything you’re doing that uses your legs heavily, including the traditional squats, deadlifts, burpees, and leg weighted machines. Just avoid “leg days” in general.
I would also stay away from workouts such as CrossFit and HIIT routines that have lots of squats, burpees and lunges.
As I mentioned, some women experience bulky legs when they do running, barre or even yoga.
If you notice your legs increasing in size with a particular exercise, don’t do it! It is very individual, and you need to do what works best for you.
On my blog, I do have some HIIT exercises that won’t cause you to bulk up.
However, if you are an endomorph, if you are very short, or very very sensitive to building muscles in your thighs, these exercises still might cause you to build too much muscle for your liking. So, I would do these with caution.
If they work for you, that’s great! If not, don’t do them.
Cardio is good for slimming down your legs, but not if you’re sprinting.
Again, think of sprinters vs marathon runners legs. Sprinting engages fast-twitch muscles responsible for fast bursts of energy, especially in your quads.
Your muscles will adapt to the size they are needed for an often performed activity. It’s that simple.
So, make sure your cardio is always done steady-state to lose muscle from your legs faster. And again, make sure it’s on a flat surface (no hills or stair runs!).
There are still lots of different types of exercises and resistance training workouts that you can do to tone up, without targeting your quads and hamstrings and making them bigger.
ALL of the workouts on my blog are designed to help you tone up without getting bulky, so I would highly recommend giving them a try! :)
So to summarize, if you want to make your muscular thighs smaller, here’s what you should do:
If you are looking for a long term solution, I’ve created a 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program which focuses on helping you get a lean and toned body (especially legs, as this is a trouble area for a lot of women).
The 3 Steps to Lean Legs Program includes cardio, a complete 8-week meal plan and the style of resistance training that I have 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.
And as always, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask!
Love Rachael xx