Getting Lean Without Getting Bulky
If you’re looking to lean out, tone up, or even build serious strength, but don’t want big, bulging muscles to go with it… read on.
First things first: there’s nothing wrong with getting big and jacked — men and women alike.
Just know, if you’re looking to be the next Mr. or Ms. Olympia, this particular blog isn’t for you, and that’s ok.
There’s no shame in any type of body composition goal.
I just thought an article titled, “How to Achieve Every Single Physical Goal You Could Possibly Ever Think Of” sounded a bit cumbersome, and was maybe more than I wanted to tackle all at once.
So if the question that plagues you is whether it’s possible to be lean and strong without being bulky, rest assured, the answer is yes.
Let’s get to it.
There’s a difference between getting lean and getting skinny.
Skinny does not equal healthy. It’s also not what most people picture when they say they want to get lean.
Lean typically means having just enough muscle to see some definition, but staying generally thin. This also 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. (All of this is best accomplished through strength training. Learn why in The Top 3 Factors for Sustainable Fat Loss).
For the majority of people, gaining muscle is surprisingly difficult (if you feel like the exception, I’ll address that soon). It’s such hard work that the odds of you ever accidentally getting the physique of a bodybuilder are slim to none.
That’s right. The idea of getting “bulky” probably isn’t something you should even 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 — as opposed to being either skinny or bulky.
I realize this might not ease your fears. Possibly for good reason.
After all, genetics play a role — some people gain muscle more easily than others. And besides, your idea of what “bulky” looks like might be more conservative and therefore easier to attain than someone else’s.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to limit muscle growth, and they fall under our areas of expertise: diet and exercise.
The goal of being lean requires cutting body fat, and limiting (but not inhibiting) muscle growth — both of which require you to avoid eating in excess.
Being in a calorie deficit doesn’t guarantee you won’t gain muscle, but it’ll keep it in check.
The deficit shouldn’t be extreme. That’ll only hurt your efforts in the long run.
In fact, rather than focusing on a calorie goal, I recommend working on better eating habits in general. It has the benefit of improving your health, while making it more difficult to overeat.
(You can start by reading both parts of our blog series, “What Should You Eat and How Much?”)
The key to working out in a way that develops muscle definition, but not muscle bulk, can be boiled down to two guidelines:
1. Lift heavy.
Using heavy enough weights to keep you around 1-5 reps is one of the least muscle-building-friendly rep ranges. It’s also the range that increases strength the most, which is why you can be lean AND strong.
Make sure you warm up properly. Focus on compound movements (e.g. bench press not chest flyes, squats not leg extensions). And don't lift until your muscles give out. If you do 5 reps, it should feel like you could have done 7 or 8. If you do 1 rep, it should feel like you could have done 3-5.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever do more than 5 reps. Some exercises aren’t great for that anyway. But, in general, lifting heavier is the focus.
For sure don’t make the mistake of staying in the 20+ rep range to avoid muscle growth. That turns your lifting into cardio, which isn’t great for getting lean OR strong.
2. Don’t overdo it.
What really causes growth is an increase in the total number of exercises and sets a muscle group performs each week.
In other words, one workout shouldn’t go from barbell bench press, to dumbbell bench press, to the chest fly machine, to triceps extensions, all done for 4 sets of 10 reps.
Your chest and triceps will be lit up.
This doesn’t mean you can’t ever do more sets and reps of any exercise. Remember, you still want your muscles to grow enough to get some definition.
But you can keep it down to just a few sets per muscle group per week (10 at the most, or as low as 2-3 for areas more sensitive to growth). That’ll help you get that lean look you’re going for.
No matter who you are, these guidelines can help limit muscle growth. But they can’t change your bone structure, or your genetics.
It’s possible you’ll always be the type of person who carries extra muscle. That’s not a bad thing. (It also doesn’t mean you’re destined to carry excess fat.)
Maybe it’s time to embrace your size.
You don’t have to get huge to be strong — even impressively so — but having more muscle does increase the potential for exactly how strong you can get. If strength comes naturally to you, that’s something to be proud of!
However, if you’d still prefer to be on the leaner side, remember the guidelines I laid out. There are a million ways to put them together, practically speaking, but I would summarize it like this:
The main focus is lifting heavy (as long as it's appropriate for a given lift).
You can do more beyond that, but don't just turn it all into cardio (because you do need some muscle).
Have a weekly limit for the total number of sets per muscle group.
Of course, this knowledge isn’t everything.
Having someone to hold you accountable, keep you from losing motivation, and coach you through it so you don’t question yourself can be helpful, too.
That’s what we do.