How to Work Out Without Getting Bulky

Are you secretly worried that if you do certain workouts you’ll end up looking more like a female wrestler than with the sleek and lean body you want? The issue of bulky v toned is all over the internet and so I’m giving my take on the issue. I’ve talked about it a bit in my post here but today I’m giving you a little insight into the myths and whether you should be doing cardio or weights to get the look you want.

In my experience, when women say they want to tone up, what they actually mean is they want to lean out, and they want to lose body fat. They don’t want to jiggle anymore. Who does?

Essentially, they’d like to be a smaller size with less soft bits.

What they are scared of, is becoming a BIGGER size with lots of soft bits, or becoming a bigger size with too many rock hard muscles.

A common misconception that makes people believe weight training can make you bigger and softer is that when you build muscles and then you stop working out the muscles turn to fat.

I am embarrassed to say that when I was in my teens I thought that was how it worked! Thankfully, that’s not what happens AT ALL!

Muscles and fat are two separate things. Muscles are attached to your bones and they sit underneath a layer of fat.

If you want to see muscle tone, the easiest way to do that is to build and firm up the muscle underneath and then reduce body fat so you can see the definition in your muscles.

That’s when you get that toned look that women love.

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The shape and length of your muscles can’t be changed, except within your genetic capabilities.

Models look lean and long because they’re tall and have long thin bones. Long bones = long muscles. Most of them have a genetic makeup that makes it very hard for them to put on muscle.

(You can cheat looking taller and longer by improving your posture and I love ballet inspired movements for this. I’m often mistaken for being taller than I actually am. It’s all about how you stand!)

Should you be lifting lighter weights to avoid the bulky look?

No. If you want to build toned muscle and show it off then you need to make sure you’re increasing the use of those muscles and challenging yourself.

If you’re short on time which would you choose?

  • Using a light dumbbell weight and doing squats for half an hour until you physically cannot do them anymore - feels more feminine, takes ages, is boring as heck,  gets exactly the same results in the end as;
  • Using a heavier weight, do 2 minutes of squats (which has the added bonus that you get out of breath trying to do it and get a cardio workout at the same time with more metabolic boost).

Bottom line: A heavier weight makes the workout more challenging; the effect is the same but it takes less time to achieve.

Heavier weights have the added benefit of improving bone density, causing the release of Human Growth Hormone (which keep you looking young and gorgeous!) and creating a metabolic effect that I swear is the fountain of eternal youth.

How to create a workout plan you love

There’s a time and place for both lighter and heavy resistance training in your workout plan, the key is to learn how to do both so you feel confident. When you feel confident you can push yourself more.

(I teach women how to do effective weighted exercises using dumbbells in my Lean and Lithe program, which they can learn in private if they hate walking into the weight section in the gym.  Most clients find that when they know they’re doing it ‘right’, they feel happier working out with weights in public too.)

Cardio vs weights?

Cardio exercise is simply exercise where your heart rate is elevated.  Dance, running, boxing, swimming. All great cardio.

But here’s the thing. When I lift up heavy things I get really out of breath and my heart rate gets up too. It’s cardio!

We can create workouts that mix cardio and resistance training together to keep them time-efficient so that you are burning calories and body fat and you’re sculpting lean toned muscles underneath.

How much cardio v weights should I do?

BOTH are important if you have a goal to reduce body fat, ideally you want to be doing 3 resistance training workouts a week and cardio is the cherry on top.

If you think you’re getting bulky, ask yourself why you feel bigger?

Is it because you’re not losing body fat? In which case, look at your diet. Is it because you’ve lost too much body fat and have a lot of muscle? Then I’d and eat a few more calories to create a softer look and change up my exercise program.

At the end of the day, if you’re starting from a point where you’re unhappy with your body, I can guarantee that any exercise and nutrition program will make you feel a thousand times better about yourself than doing nothing at all.

The fear of bulking up is just a fear. The only way to know how amazing your body can look is to pick a plan and put it into action!


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The Corio Method is a unique, fearlessly fun and effective fitness method and training system that creates a stronger, fitter, leaner and more agile, beautifully balanced physique. Apply now for a complimentary Corio Kickstart Session with our coaches, available globally (value $250) and take the first step towards a new you.