Tips to Get Lean (Not Bulky) Muscles From Exercise

Having a lot of muscle isn't a bad thing. In fact, having muscles in the right places can actually help you achieve the lean look you aspire to, whether you're a woman wanting a sleek body or a man seeking a bulky to lean transformation. So if you're after a lean look, set your sights on decreasing body fat and building a healthy level of strength while avoiding some of the factors that are best known to provoke increases in muscle size.

Building long, lean muscle requires a combination of fat burning, "just right" strength training and a healthy diet. (Image: FatCamera/E+/GettyImages)

Tip

To build long, lean muscles, you need to maneuver several different strategies into place: reducing body fat, striking the right balance of sets and reps for strength-training, and introducing postural exercises that can work near-magical results on your appearance in a short time.

Fitness Is for Life

Before getting too deep into the lean muscle vs. bulky muscle dilemma, consider this: Weightlifting isn't only for the sake of appearance — it can also prolong your life. Sure, the odds of someone putting a gun to your head and threatening to do you in if you can't squat your body weight are pretty low, but a University of Michigan study published in a 2018 issue of The Journals of Gerontology found that people with low muscle strength were more than 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than their stronger peers.

Meanwhile, having a strong body improves your quality of life by making everyday tasks easier, from hefting groceries to swinging your kids overhead. It also builds stronger bones and can reduce the symptoms of chronic diseases including arthritis, depression and diabetes. Pumping a little iron now and then has even been documented to help with cognitive function: A study published in 2017 in Frontiers in Physiology showed that it both decreased inflammation and increased cognition in a study group of older women with cognitive impairment.

All of that goes to say that even if you want to minimize muscle growth, including some strength training in your lifestyle is an important part of staying healthy. The Physical Activity Guidelines appendix of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides an ideal baseline to maintain: Aim to strength-train all your major muscle groups at least twice a week.

Building Long, Lean Muscle

Now that it's clear that strength training should be part of any fitness plan, no matter how lean you want to look, the road map to your lean-body lifting plan should include:

  • A full-body strength-training workout twice a week.
  • Planning your workouts so there's at least one full rest day between strength-training sessions.
  • At least one set of eight to 12 repetitions for each muscle group.
  • Saving time and mimicking real-world movements by doing compound exercises.

While it's true that many bodybuilding experts recommend compound exercises for building muscle, there's a lot to make them appealing in a lean body workout too. They mimic real-world movements more closely than isolation exercises such as biceps curls and hamstring curls, and because they work more muscle groups at once, they get you in and out of the gym more quickly. Compound exercises, such as squats and lunges, also work your core muscles, which are particularly important for avoiding injury.

Tip

Many women worry that strength training will make them "look like a man." While some women do put on muscle more easily than others, your hormonal makeup means you won't actually bulk up "like a man" unless you put in a lot of deliberate, focused work. So lift on without fear, sister! And to those women who do aspire to, and achieve, impressive muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth), congratulations on your hard work.

More Tips for Lean Muscles

One of the key principles for staying lean is minimizing the number of sets you lift. A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that as your volume of strength-training sets goes up during the week, so does your level of muscular hypertrophy. However, weightlifter and fitness expert, Michael Matthews makes a strong case for some muscle actually helping you look leaner and healthier. So if you enjoy lifting, don't be afraid to experiment a little and find a level that helps you look and feel the way you like.

If you do choose to do multiple sets of your favorite strength-training exercises, resting for a relatively short period between sets can help you keep the lean look you're after. A study published in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning evaluated a small group of men who were randomly assigned to rest for either one minute between strength-training sets or to rest for three minutes, with all other variables being held equal. Researchers found that the group who took longer rests had more muscular hypertrophy.

Finally, there's a reason that workouts such as Pilates, yoga and barre are so famous for building long, lean muscle. First, they place a lot of emphasis on working relatively small muscle groups, and developing those muscles can help create a lean, defined look for the rest of your body. Second, these workouts also develop the muscles — and habits — that help you maintain correct posture, which can have a near-magical effect on making you look longer and leaner.

Tip

Here's another tip for getting lean muscles: Work your muscles through the entire range of motion, as opposed to the reduced range of motion that bodybuilders sometimes use to target (and build) a specific part of the muscle.

Lose Body Fat

There's one more important variable to consider in your quest for long, lean muscle: your body composition. Or, to put it another way, how much body fat you're carrying versus how much muscle you have. You could have the longest, leanest muscles in the world and never see them if you're carrying too much body fat.

The good news is that you can fix this by establishing a calorie deficit or, in other words, adjust your habits so that you burn more calories than you take in. There are two components to this. The first is tweaking your diet to focus on nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, nonfat or low-fat dairy, lean proteins and healthy oils in moderation, while limiting added sugars, sodium and saturated fat.

The second is increasing your activity level. Weightlifting is a good start, but you can and should add cardiovascular activity to your workouts. Spoiler alert: There is no single "best" activity for burning calories and thus fat. Instead, focus on activities that you enjoy for their own sake, because you're more likely to keep them up over the long term — and when it comes to losing fat and creating a healthy body, consistency equals results.

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