top of page

Getting Lean Without Getting Bulky

Getting Lean Without Getting Bulky

Ways to View This Blog:

1. Video 2. TL;DR 3. Read On...

Losing weight WITHOUT strength-based exercise should be called what it really is…

Muscle and bone loss.

There will be fat lost, too, but your metabolism, hormones, and future self won’t care about that — they’ll all be more concerned with the fact that your body now gains weight more easily and (eventually) needs help getting up off the toilet.

Building strength and lifting weights is clearly an important part of healthy, sustainable weight loss. But what if you don’t want big, bulging muscles to go with it? Should you still lift weights? And if so, is there a certain way you should do it?

We have the answers.

The Goal We’re Going For

First things first: There’s nothing wrong with getting big and jacked, it’s just not what we’re personally interested in, and it’s not what our clients want.

We’re happy just to be at a healthy weight and to have built habits that help us maintain our weight so it’s not something we have to think about all the time.

We don’t need to break any records or be on the cover of a fitness magazine. We’re satisfied just having the strength and energy to get through the day — whether that means keeping up with the kids, doing long hikes on a mountain vacation, or helping a friend on moving day.

And we want to be able to do it all without pain or discomfort as we continue into our 40’s and beyond.

It’s just icing on the cake that we’ve also gained extra confidence when we change clothes and happen to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror.

We’re not here to body-shame anyone. I just want you to know what it is we do around here so you can know you came to the right place (or so you can look somewhere else if that doesn’t sound like what you want).

Now, getting to the question at hand: Is it possible to be lean and strong without getting bulky?

Rest assured, the answer is yes.

This Might Be All You Need to Know

There’s a difference between getting lean and getting skinny.

There are lots of unhealthy ways to get “skinny.” But the end result isn’t what most people picture when they say they want to get lean anyway.

“Lean” typically means having just enough muscle so that when you lose weight, you look a little more “toned” rather than just being a smaller version of yourself with the same percentage of body fat. This happens to be healthier than simply being skinny.

What this means for you is, in order to get lean, even if you have a significant amount of fat to lose, you also need to build a little muscle. (This is just 1 of 10 Reasons Everyone Should Do Strength Workouts).

For the majority of people, gaining muscle is surprisingly difficult (you may be the exception — I’ll address that in a second). It’s such hard work that the odds of you ever accidentally getting the physique of a bodybuilder are slim to none.

In other words, the idea of getting “bulky” might not even be something to worry about.

The amount of muscle you’ll gain through normal strength training will likely get you just enough muscle to achieve the healthy, lean look you want — NOT big and bulky, but also not unhealthily skinny.

If this doesn’t ease your fears, I get it.

After all, genetics play a role — you might just be more prone to gaining muscle. Or your idea of what “bulky” looks like might be less “bodybuilder-y” than mine and easier to attain by accident.

But even if you’ve lifted weights in the past and know that you gain muscle faster than you’d like, there are things you can do with diet and exercise to diminish that effect.


1. Be In a Calorie Deficit

Being in a calorie deficit doesn’t guarantee you won’t gain muscle, but it will significantly reduce the effect.

If you start to see some muscle growth, don’t freak out. As long as you eat the right amount so you’re either losing weight or inches (see “What Should I Track to Lose Weight”) you won’t continue to just get bigger and bigger forever.

Any growth that does happen will plateau quickly, even if you don’t follow any of my other advice.

The calorie deficit doesn’t have to be extreme. In fact, make sure it’s not — that’ll only hurt your efforts in the long run. But as long as you’re losing weight at a healthy pace (see How Fast Should You Lose Weight), that’s enough to know that the muscle growth will be minimal.

2. Just Don’t Overeat

You can’t be in a calorie deficit forever. And yet, doing strength-based exercise is something you’ll need to commit to, even just once a week, for the rest of your life. (Unless you want your kids to start taking care of you — or at least accommodating you — decades sooner than necessary, then you can ignore this).

The good news is, as long as you aren’t eating enough to gain weight, your body will still have a difficult time building any meaningful amount of muscle mass, but your overall body composition can still change drastically (i.e. less total fat).

So if you want to STAY lean and not bulky, all you have to do is not overeat — especially with the nutrients appropriately portioned.

(To do that right, in the beginning, it can be just as difficult as being in a calorie deficit. But it’ll be easier if you start with the right weight loss strategies, like the ones in our free guide, “5 Myths You Have to Stop Believing to Lose Weight — And What to Do Instead.”)

A calorie deficit is a more guaranteed way to minimize muscle growth, but it’s good to know that, even when you hit your goal weight, as long as you don’t revert back to old bad habits, you still won’t get too bulky.

But it’ll be even more important that you ALSO follow the right strategies with your workouts…


There’s a lot that goes into a good workout program, but there are 2 key guidelines I recommend to avoid becoming a muscle-bound hulk or she-hulk:

1. Lift heavy.

It’s a common misconception that “lifting heavy will make you bulky.” It doesn’t. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.

The heavier you lift, the less likely it is to cause significant muscle growth.

One reason for this is because heavier weight means less work (e.g. only 5 reps of an exercise because it’s heavy vs. 20 reps of an exercise with lighter weight). And less work means less stimulus for the muscle to grow.

That’s an, admittedly, over-simplified explanation, but it’s good enough for the purposes of this blog without boring you with the science-y stuff you don’t care about.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever do more than 5 reps. Some exercises aren’t great for that anyway. Just don’t make the mistake of staying in the 20+ rep range to avoid muscle growth. That tends to turn lifting into cardio, which isn’t great for getting lean. (Read more details on this in “How to Exercise to Tone Up.”)

2. Don’t overdo it.

Since we’re trying to limit the amount of muscle-building signals your workouts stimulate, this guideline comes down to making sure you don’t exercise too frequently, or hit any one muscle group too hard.

The more strength workouts you do each week, the more likely you are to start packing on muscle. That or you’ll just get hurt because your body isn’t ready for it. Either way, most of our clients do 2-3 workouts per week and that’s plenty.

Also, stick with exercises that work more than one muscle at a time, and then only do 1-3 sets total for each exercise. For example…

If your concern is that your arms get too big, don’t do any exercises that are ONLY arm exercises (like bicep curls). Instead, do some type of rowing exercise (like a one arm row) where the load is shared between your arms and back (in this case, more by your back).

That way your entire body gets some work so you don’t LOSE muscle, but nothing gets hit so hard that your body grows more as a response.

There’s more I could say in this section, but the main takeaway is to be sure not to neglect any specific body parts, but also don’t hammer any one muscle group over and over in a single workout or cumulatively throughout the week.

If you want to put a number to it, anywhere from 3-10 total sets per week is a good guideline.

Not that you have to literally count sets (although you can), but that will at least be an easy way to recognize if your program does a separate leg day, or arm day, or anything like that, it’s probably not a good fit for you.

Realistic Expectations

No matter who you are or how easily you “bulk up,” these guidelines will help limit muscle growth to the extent that’s possible for you.

But they can’t change your bone structure or completely override genetics.

You may always be the type of person who carries extra muscle. That’s not a bad thing. You’ll only appreciate it more as you continue to age.

However, if you’re still concerned about getting too bulky, whatever you do, don’t take the idea of lifting weights (or any other type of strength-based exercise) and throw it out the window.

Even if you’d prefer to lose muscle rather than gain any bulk at all, as much you might be ok with it aesthetically, it’ll only make you more likely to gain weight back (in the form of fat) and have health issues like arthritis and osteoporosis as you get older — among other things.

That’s why strength exercise is important, at the very least, for maintaining muscle and bone density as you age (it also has added metabolic and hormonal benefits for women as you go through menopause).

You may just need extra help so you can find a realistic balance of getting as lean as you’d like and staying strong without putting on more muscle mass than necessary for your health.

If you need someone to put the program together for you, hold you accountable, and coach you through it so you don’t question yourself… that’s what we do.

If you want to lose weight and lean out, but you want it to be truly healthy and sustainable so it doesn’t cause problems later (e.g. slower metabolism, hormone issues, weight re-gain, osteoporosis, etc.), some form of strength-based exercise is necessary.

Eating the right amount (with the nutrients portioned appropriately) will do a lot to prevent excess bulk. But following the right workout program is essential, too…

Don’t be afraid to lift heavy, and don’t hammer any one muscle group over and over in a single workout or cumulatively throughout the week (3-10 sets per week per muscle group is a good guideline).

If you need someone to put the program together for you, hold you accountable, and coach you through it so you don’t question yourself… that’s what we do. Apply for our online coaching here.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Category
Follow Us
  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle
bottom of page