If you've been told that lifting weights will automatically make you "look like a man" (for the ladies) or "look like a beast" (for the men), think again: Weight training without bulking up is absolutely possible.
It's not the act of lifting weights that gives you extreme bulk, but how you choose to do it. And, paradoxically, adding just the right amount of muscle can actually make you look more lean.
Building long, lean muscle isn't as impossible as it seems, as long as you focus on flexibility, losing excess body fat and a "just right" strength-training program that promotes strength without adding bulk.
The Importance of Muscle
Have you ever heard of the term "skinny fat"? It generally means someone who is skinny, but still suffers from the same health problems an obese person might have. But you could also interpret it to mean someone who has little body fat — so she's skinny — but looks flabby because she has no muscle definition at all.
Building long, lean muscles in just the right places does more than make you look good — it also packs some very real health benefits. A 2018 study published in The Journals of Gerontology found that those with low muscle strength were more than 50 percent more likely to die early than their peers. So having a little muscle on your body can help prolong your life.
Strength training can also reduce the symptoms of chronic conditions such as depression, arthritis and diabetes; reduce your risk of injury as you get older; build strong bones; and make everyday tasks easier. It even boosts cognitive function as shown in multiple studies, including a 2016 study published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging, which showed that strength training prompted an almost 20 percent increase in cognitive capacity for a group of elderly women.
Building Long, Lean Muscle
So how do you lift weights without accidentally turning yourself into the Hulk? Lifting lighter weights and doing lots of reps isn't necessarily the way. A study published in a 2019 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that low-load resistance training (low weight and high repetitions) was actually more effective for increasing muscle mass than high-load resistance training (high weight and relatively low repetitions) in a group of young women.
That said, the specifics of the study matter. Each group did three sets, with the high-load group using weights that allowed them to do eight to 10 repetitions during the first set, while the low-load group used weights that allowed them to do 30 to 35 repetitions per set.
Interestingly, the high-load group — which showed less gain in muscle mass at the end of the study — was actually fairly close to the amount of strength training that Health.gov's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends all adults get to maintain a healthy body. The guidelines say you should train each muscle group twice a week and that one set of eight to 12 repetitions, done twice weekly, is effective.
Keep Sets Low
The Physical Activity Guidelines also notes that while one set is effective, two or three might be even better for hypertrophy. But if your goal is to avoid muscular hypertrophy, you might want to stick to just one set each time you work out. That's because, as a 2016 systematic review published in the Journal of Sports Sciences showed, there's a clear correlation between higher numbers of sets (per week) and more muscular hypertrophy.
However, each body's reaction to strength training is a little different — depending on your genetics, hormone balance and many lifestyle factors — so don't be afraid to experiment a little and find just the right balance for yourself. You might be able to do two or three sets for each muscle during your workouts without bulking up.
Tips for Muscle Lengthening
As you go through your strength-training workouts, there are some clear dos and don'ts to help you get the longest, leanest look possible:
Limit Rest Between Sets
If you do opt for multiple sets of any given exercise, try to limit the time you spend resting between sets. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that men who rested for three minutes between weight training sets showed greater muscular hypertrophy than men who only rested for one minute between sets.
Use a Full Range of Motion
Don't fall into the trap of working a single muscle through a short range of motion — think bodybuilders frantically heaving barbells around in a half bench press or a half biceps curl. Instead, opt for exercises that work multiple muscle groups through a full range of motion, more closely mimicking the type of real-world movements you might make in everyday life.
Stretch for It
Flexibility is an often-overlooked component of fitness — but taking the time to stretch all your major muscle groups before and after each workout gives you a wide range of benefits, including better exercise form, reduced risk of injury and that long, lean look you're after.
Consider Elongation Exercises
No matter what sort of physique you're aiming for, the key is consistency. Some activities you could choose may be more effective for developing long, lean muscles. Consider incorporating dance, Pilates, yoga or barre-based workouts into your fitness program. These programs tend to focus on smaller, postural muscles, so you're not going to bulk up.
More important, these types of workouts can produce a radical shift in your posture. Something as "simple" as moving out of the constant slouch that's encouraged by everyday habits can give you seemingly magical results, making it look as though you've instantly leaned out when, in fact, all you're doing is maintaining proper posture.
About That Jiggle
A certain amount of body fat isn't just normal — it's necessary to keep your body healthy. And having a couple of rolls when you sit down is no reason for concern; take away the airbrush treatment and even rail-thin supermodels have them. But if you're carrying a few more pounds of body fat than you need to, that might be keeping your beautiful long, lean muscles from shining through.
Whether that excess you're carrying around is a little or a lot, whittling it away doesn't have to mean suffering or depriving yourself. Instead, think of making incremental, healthy changes to your lifestyle that you can enjoy keeping up for a long time.
Creating a Calorie Deficit
Being in a caloric deficit means burning more calories than you take in. This is a major component to losing fat. Crating this deficit has two components:
Adjust Your Diet
You don't necessarily have to become a strict calorie counter, but do consult the Dietary Guidelines for Americans estimated calorie needs, which provide a good starting estimate based on your age, gender and level of physical activity. The average moderately active adult woman, for example, needs about 2,000 calories per day to maintain her weight; to lose weight she may need fewer calories.
Meanwhile, focus on establishing healthy — and delicious! — dietary habits that fill you up with healthy fuel. These include upping your consumption of a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and focusing on high-quality proteins including lean meats, seafood, legumes, nuts and seeds. Limit your consumption of unhealthy saturated fats, and steer clear of added sugar, added salt and processed foods, which are high in calories but low in nutrition.
Up Your Physical Activity
The other component of slimming down is increasing your physical activity. That can mean walking on the treadmill or pedaling the elliptical trainer at the gym, but it doesn't have to. Anything that gets you moving is good, so don't be afraid to try dance classes, rock climbing, kayaking, bicycling, step aerobics, swimming or any other activities that cross your path. The true "best" weight loss exercise is the one that you enjoy so much it's actually a reward, not a punishment.
- Muscle for Life: The Ultimate Guide to Female Muscle Growth
- InBody: How to Tell If You're Skinny Fat
- The Journals of Gerontology: Do Nationally Representative Cutpoints for Clinical Muscle Weakness Predict Mortality?
- Mayo Clinic: Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier
- Clinical Interventions in Aging: The Effects of Strength Training on Cognitive Performance in Elderly Women
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Lower-Load Is More Effective Than Higher-Load Resistance Training in Increasing Muscle Mass in Young Women
- Health.gov: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition: Chapter 4. Active Adults
- Journal of Sports Sciences: Dose-Response Relationship Between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass
- Mayo Clinic Minute: The Benefits of Stretching
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Chapter 1. Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns
- Health.gov: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level