lean muscle vs bulky muscle

Lean Vs Bulk: How To Tone Muscle Without Bulking Up

So many people want to know the secret on how to lift weight without getting bulky…It’s actually easy: you just need an integrative training program! 

I am always the coach to encourage bulking for women, but I also understand and respect the fact that not all women want to be bulky-and that’s okay!

Getting into weightlifting and avoiding bulking is actually not difficult. 

It does require that you address more than your exercise however, because nutrition, rest and mobility play a large part in strength and muscle building.

But honestly, the same is true for any fitness goals…

Integrative Training Programs are fitness programs that give you more to work on such as:

  • Organizing bedtime routines and sleep schedules
  • Addressing nutrition needs and behaviors
  • Correcting posture and improving mobility
  • Workout recovery activities such as soaking
  • Mindset work and stress relief

And much more based on your coaches credentials and scope of practice.

In this blog, I am going to help you get an idea for the type of integrated fitness program you should be on if you are looking to build lean muscle vs bulky.

This is the information I will be providing in this blog to help you reach your goals:

  1. How lean muscle vs bulky muscle differ
  2. Workouts for building lean muscle
  3. How to lift weights without getting bulky
  4. How to eat to tone your muscle
  5. Recovery for lean muscle mass

I will also be linking articles with relevant information throughout, but don’t worry if you don’t want to get sidetracked-I will recap them in a list at the bottom for you!

Lean Muscle vs Bulky Muscle

Lean Muscle Mass

Lean muscle mass can mean one of two things in fitness…

  1. Long, lean muscles that have good extensibility and no surplus of mass in any one area (as is common with the mid-bicep or lower quad).
  2. Muscle mass that has been gained with little to no fat mass gained.

Typically, when someone has a physique with long, lean muscle mass they are considered to be “toned” more than muscular, or “athletic” in build. 

Bulky Muscle

Directly opposite of lean muscle, bulky muscle tends to protrude in one or more places, contributes to a stockier look and often comes with a gain in fat mass that adds to the “bulky” look.

People who do Powerlifting tend to have a bulkier physique due to their workout routine, and also a lot of their diet.

Workouts For Building Lean Muscle

Circuit training and H.I.I.T.

If you’re looking to tone and build strength then circuit training and H.I.I.T. workouts are going to be your best friends!

  • Circuit training can be performed with calisthenic or weighted movements and involves 3-5 exercises performed in a circuit, with a break at the end.

For example:

  • Plank to 30 seconds
  • Ankle reaches to 20 reps
  • Mountain Climbers to 20 reps
  • Jackknife Sit Ups to 10 reps
  • 60 second break

The goal with circuit training is to build endurance and cardiovascular challenge by omitting breaks between resistance training exercises.

  • H.I.I.T. Training is slightly more complicated because it ideally would involve tracking the heart rate, but it basically involves raising and lowering the heart rate to assist with metabolic conditioning and fat burning.

H.I.I.T. has so many benefits (including that they are short workouts) and they are some of my favorite workouts so I wrote a whole article going into more detail about H.I.I.T. which you can read here.

I also have a program full of H.I.I.T. workouts: my at-home Revenge Bod Program.

Both circuit training and H.I.I.T. workouts are going to encourage muscle growth, while also conditioning the metabolism and getting you a cardio workout for a lean and mean physique!

Stabilization Training

Stabilization training is another one of my favorite training styles because it prevents pain and injury by training the joints for stability.

Stability training can include:

  • Balance training
  • Unilateral movements
  • Contralateral movements
  • Isometric holds
  • Complex compound movements

And more!

Stability training is great for lean muscle mass because it often requires you to move slow, in a full range of motion, and with attention to muscle activation.

This is going to help prevent uneven muscle growth, unusually bulky muscle growth (such as the upper bicep being bigger than the lower bicep), and mobility issues that prevent complete extension.

*Stability training may obviate the need for Corrective Exercise to help improve your postural alignment and movement control: learn more about Corrective Exercise here.

Strengthen and Lengthen Movements

These are my all time favorites: strengthen and lengthen movements involve stretching and strengthening at the same time.

This is great for multitasking, and making sure the muscles stay stretched out by adding movement to a stretch.

Some of my favorite examples include:

  • Touch down, Reach up: Stand up and touch the hands down to the floor to stretch the backside of the body. Slightly bend the knees to stand upright, bring the arms overhead and lean back gently to stretch the front side of the body. Do 10 reps and notice how the front and backside of the hips begin to feel muscle activation on both sides.
  • Reverse lunge to side lean: Step back into a deep lunge and raise one arm (the one on the side of the leg that is back) up in the air and lean away from that side. Feel the stretch in the side of the body briefly, engage the core to come upright, engage the leg to step forward again and repeat for 10 reps on each side before breaking.
  • Alternating side leans: Stand with arms at either side, shoulders back and down, chest up and forward. Lean directly to one side as the hand slides down the side of the leg, engage the core to come upright and alternate sides for 20 repetitions.

These are all movements that you can modestly add weight to to build lean muscle all over the body.

How Can I Lift Weights Without Getting Bulky?

Amount of weight lifted

The significance of the amount of weight you lift is going to vary depending on your genetics, your diet and how frequently you are increasing intensity.

Some people can maintain an incredibly small physique while properly lifting 3-4 times their bodyweight, but this is not typical.

In general, the more weight you lift (and the faster you get to heavier weights) the bulkier you will end up being.

So if your goal is to build lean muscle vs bulky muscle, I recommend you start with lighter weights and slowly increase your weight lifted.

Instead of increasing intensity by lifting heavier, increase intensity by implementing stability and circuit training techniques.

Frequency of intensity upgrade

For an aggressive muscle building program it is usually recommended that you increase exercise intensity weekly for 8-12 weeks before reducing intensity (deload).

To tone muscle without bulking up, I advise you to increase weight lifted once every 3-6 weeks depending on what you’re starting with and how frequently you’re weight training.

The goal is to train with the same weight long enough to improve mobility and stability on that one exercise.

For example, here is how I would progress a shoulder press exercise:

  1. Week #1: Unilateral Shoulder Press @ 10lbs for 10 reps x 3 rounds
  2. Week #2: Unilateral Shoulder Press @ 10lbs for 12 reps x 3 rounds
  3. Week #3: Single Leg Bilateral Shoulder Press @ 20lbs for 10 reps x 3 rounds
  4. Week #4: Single Leg Bilateral Shoulder Press @ 20lbs for 12 reps x 3 
  5. Week #5: Bosu Balance w/ Bilateral Shoulder Press @ 20lbs for 10 reps x 3
  6. Week #6: Bosu Balance w/ Bilateral Shoulder Press @ 20lbs for 12 reps x 3
  7.  Week #7: Unilateral Shoulder Press @ 15lbs for 10 reps x 3 rounds

Focus on controlling the weight you’re lifting more than actually lifting more weight.

Deload periods

Deload periods are intentional training breaks for 2-4 weeks so your body can heal and recover.

Deloads also give you the opportunity to feel challenged in your workouts again so that you don’t have to keep increasing the intensity to undesired levels.

During a deload period you can either take time off of working out entirely, perform your typical workouts at a lower intensity, or focus on things like flexibility or joint mobility.

Here’s an example of some things I ask clients to do while on deload:

  • Yoga and Aerial Yoga
  • Swimming or Water Exercise
  • Hiking or Outdoors Walking
  • Get an athletic massage
  • Try an activity for fun

The goal with a deload is to take time off of the stress of a fitness program-both mental and physical.

How To Eat To Tone Your Muscle

Nutrient timing

Nutrient timing is an essential for any fitness program: it is basically an eating schedule which ensures that you are consuming nutrients every 2-4 hours.

Depending on your caloric needs and wake hours, this could mean that you are eating 3-6 small meals or snacks a day.

This is going to help fuel the muscle build and keep the metabolism high to prevent fat loss.

Protein intake

Protein recommendations for any muscle build range from 70-100% of bodyweight (LBS) in grams of protein a day.

So if you were 100lbs, you would look for 70-100 grams of protein a day.

When looking to build lean muscle vs bulky muscle, I recommend getting closer to 100% of your body weight in grams of protein because protein has a higher thermogenic response (you burn more calories by digesting proteins) which contributes to leanness during the muscle build.

Your body composition will change this: if you are heavier in body fat, the protein recommendation may be unrealistic for you. 

For example: if you are 200+LBS (and 50% or more body fat), it may be hard and unnecessary to get 200 grams of protein a day-just get as close as you can.

Carbohydrate sources

Carbs are an essential part of everyone’s diet-especially those looking to build any type of muscle mass.

Your source of carbs, however, needs to be considered when you are looking to stay lean.

My suggestion would be to eat high-fiber carb sources that also supply some protein, vitamins and minerals.

Examples include:

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Brown Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Root Vegetables

Not only will these carb sources contribute to a lean muscle build, it will also provide a steady flow of energy to your body over the course of a couple of hours.

Learn more about various carb sources and the benefits of eating carbs on my Carbs Are Not Your Enemy blog.

Dietary fat intake

It seems intuitive to most that you should reduce fat intake when trying to stay lean, but in fact this is unhelpful to your fitness journey.

Like carbs, fats are an essential part of everyone’s diet, but not all fats are created equal.

Polyunsaturated fats are complex fatty acids that offer a multitude of benefits from reducing inflammation to assisting with hormone balance.

Sources include:

  • Avocado
  • Flax Seed
  • Fatty Fish
  • Olive Oil
  • Nuts

Regularly consuming healthy fats everyday will help your body maintain the balance necessary to support muscle building and metabolic performance.

Total daily calories

The exact number of calories you burn everyday is dependent on your biometrics, activity level, type of foods you eat and more.

Set up an appointment with a nutrition coach for help calculating your daily calorie requirements.

If you already know how many calories you burn everyday (by FitBit maybe) you are simply going to eat at maintenance, or eat what you burn.

So if you’re 150lbs and your FitBit says that you’ve burned 2500 calories for the day, you are going to eat 2500 calories w/ 150 grams of protein (or as close as you can get).

You don’t necessarily want to be in a caloric deficit, but you also don’t want to be in a surplus or you risk gaining unwanted weight.

Recovery For Lean Muscle Mass

SMR and stretching

SMR stands for Self Myofascial Release and is essential self-massage work using rollers, balls and massage guns.

SMR and stretching are essential to returning muscles to normal length-tension relationships.

This is going to contribute to the long and lean appearance of the muscles, and also allow you to maintain the mobility necessary to continue training in a full range of motion.

Stretching should be done before and after every workout (or more) and SMR should be done as needed.

Rest days

Rest days are days you don’t exercise (maybe you are lightly active) and they are important to your ability to recover from your workouts.

Not only are they helpful to recovery but you’ll also notice a reduction in bodily inflammation that will help reduce the appearance of bulk.

Here are some things I recommend my clients do on rest days:

  • Stretch or Foam Roll
  • Soaking in a jacuzzi or bath
  • Take a walk or hike
  • Lay in bed and rest
  • Yoga or Tai Chi
  • Therapeutic Treatment

Therapeutic treatments

Therapeutic treatments are rendered by other wellness professionals for the sake of promoting healing, maintaining joint mobility, reducing pain and more.

Examples of therapeutic treatments include:

  • Massages
  • Chiropractic Care
  • Cupping
  • Acupuncture
  • Scraping

These are great rest day or deload activities to help maintain long, lean muscle mass.

What’s the takeaway?

Building lean muscle mass, and keeping it lean, requires you to address much more than your workouts.

Making sure that your nutrition and recovery practices are promoting your lean and mean physique is essential to achieving your goals!

Next step: reach out to a coach to talk about getting on your perfect fitness plan. 

Here’s some additional information you will need for your journey:

Lean muscle mass is an achievable goal with the right program!

We know the science to help you meet your specific goal!

This article was written by Elexis Smolak CPT, CNC, WFS founder of Adapted Fitness and Integrative Health and Fitness Specialist for Women. Learn more or schedule a virtual coffee at AdaptedToYou.com