People are often concerned that they will get “bulky” when starting a workout program. I hear something like this a lot: “I want to get lean and toned, not big and bulky.” Packing on bulky muscle isn’t likely something you have to worry about though. Here’s why you don’t have to stress about bulking (unless you want to!) and how you can adjust your workouts to feel “long and lean.”
Why You Don’t Have to Stress About Getting Bulky
Bulking takes a LOT of effort
I hate to say it but you will probably have a harder time increasing muscle size and strength than having an overabundance of voluminous muscle suddenly added to your frame. A couple months of hitting the gym is not likely to make you truly bulky. Even regular exercise only does so much to build up muscles in a “bulky” manner. This is especially the case for women due to differences in hormones that prevent us from being able to acquire muscle in the same way that men do. Not fair, Mother Nature. Not fair.
The truth is, bodybuilders spend a ton of time hitting the weights (we’re talking potentially hours every day of the week) and follow a very strict diet (much more protein than the average person consumes). So don’t sweat it if you’re trying to avoid your pants feeling too tight or your suit jackets not fitting. Although, in my opinion, if this results from healthy muscle gains then you’ve got a GOOD “problem” on your hands! Your exercise program will probably not be vigorous or specific enough to bulk you up.
Heavy weightlifting does not necessarily result in bulky muscles
Heavy weight training and light weight training aren’t all that different. If you exercise, with any weight range, to the point of fatigue, you will get micro-tears in your muscles which repair and allow you to become stronger and more toned. Building muscle can result from any kind of physical exercise, weight training or endurance activity. This is a good thing, just to be clear! Heavy weightlifting tends to get a bad rep though (among people concerned about bulky muscle), but heavier weights are one of the most efficient ways to spend your time exercising since they give you great results. The more you progressively overload your muscles with heavier resistances, the more muscle you will gain. The more muscle you have, the higher metabolism you create for yourself and the more calories you burn overall throughout the day. Greater calorie burn = greater potential for becoming lean. When coupled with a balanced diet that is…sadly, you still can’t eat cake every night and get away with it.
To sum, building muscle strength through light or heavy weight training (although the latter is generally more efficient) is not synonymous with the specific training for maximal muscle acquisition that comprises the process of bulking.
What ACTUALLY Makes Someone Look “Long and Lean”
We’ve all seen that person walking into the gym with muscles so puffed up that their arms barely look like they will touch their sides. Clearly, this is not a physique that screams long and lean. More often, images of ballerinas and thin Pilates instructors come to mind. In reality, there isn’t a lot these individuals are doing to “lean out” their muscles though. They often look “long and lean” because they are themselves thin and toned. Sometimes this is the result of hard work and sometimes it’s simply genetic.
While it’s true that stretching helps elongate muscles, stretched out muscles don’t aesthetically look a whole lot different than tight muscles. There’s no major discernable visual difference in spite of what many Pilates, Barre and yoga instructors might preach. Yup, the “long and lean results” claims are mostly marketing ploys. I haven’t met a single person who is 5′ 4″ that has done Pilates three times a week and looked “longer.” Have you? Someone doing Pilates, Barre or yoga might look lean (although typically cardio exercise and weight training produce a leaner physique thanks to burning more calories), but they aren’t suddenly looking like some sky-high beanpole. They probably feel longer thanks to muscles that are nicely stretched out throughout these exercise formats. Balancing strength and cardio exercise with stretching is the ideal way to help you feel longer, relax tight muscles, speed recovery and avoid injury.
As an exercise professional, I can tell you that the only way to *potentially* look “longer” is simply by being leaner – and maintaining tall posture. Perhaps less bulk on your frame (from shedding fat, not muscle) will help you look in the mirror and say “aha! I look taller!” If so, wonderful! Whatever helps ya sleep at night and, of course, stay healthy.
Here’s how you get and stay lean:
- Burn calories. Through whatever exercise modality you love and can do regularly, workout to burn energy and shed fat. As you lose a layer of fat your muscles will emerge. Ever seen a young skinny boy with a six pack? He didn’t work for those ripped-looking abs at the ripe age of 10, he just doesn’t have much fat to cover them up! Yes, a six-pack lies within all of us. Literally.
- Do a variety of exercises. That’s right, not just Pilates or yoga. If you continue to stimulate your body through new exercise types and challenges, you will avoid a training plateau and continue to reap calorie-burning and muscle-building results. This will lean you out. As mentioned earlier, don’t forget to stretch!
- Switch up the way you work each muscle. One of the ways that bodybuilders achieve bulk is by repeatedly doing the same exercise over and over again at heavier and heavier weights. There are lots of benefits to this, don’t get me wrong! You can achieve great strength gains, burn fat and boost confidence as you master your technique, but you are also more likely to hypertrophy specific muscle fibers that will get larger over time and *may* result in a little bulk. To avoid this, try rotating what type of equipment and angle you use to work each muscle group. For example, try doing chest fly instead of push-ups to work the chest muscles. After mastering the chest fly, try an incline bench chest press with dumbbells. Keeping the muscles stimulated in this manner will help them stay strong and balanced. It will also help you achieve an overall toned look.
- Eat clean. There is no way to get lean without controlling caloric intake and the best way to do that is to limit junky foods which are laden with calories. Eat clean, get lean. It rhymes!
- Drink lots of water. Our muscles swell or hypertrophy after tough workouts, retaining fluids during the healing process. Help your body out and drink lots of fluids to keep things moving and avoid feeling puffy. Sometimes people quit effective workout routines before they’ve had a chance to see results because this post-workout muscle swelling can feel bulky. But it’s not! It’s a sign of progress!
Get long and lean, or get bulky if that’s what you want! Whatever your fitness aspiratoins, just stay YOU in the process. And have a little fun while you’re at it!
Yours in health and wellness,