As a personal trainer, I encounter many women who ask how to get toned without bulking up.
They would love some muscle definition, but they’re terrified of getting bulky.
And I was one of them for a long time.
Because there are plenty of women out there who preach the wonders of weight training and have plenty of muscle to show for it. I think those women are incredible – I really do. And I think they look fantastic.
But that’s not my personal aesthetic goal.
The key things I – and many other women – want to avoid are larger thighs, a broad back and shoulders, and a wide waist.
To make things even more confusing, there are people out there guaranteeing that women cannot become bulky if they lift weights because they don’t have a lot of testosterone. This is just plain not true.
Yes, in general it is much harder for women to pack on muscle than men.
But depending on your body type, how much you exercise, and what exercises you’re doing, you can put on muscle much quicker than you think.
Genetics does play a role – so you must understand your body. It will be harder for some women to NOT bulk up.
For example, I’ve always had a smaller frame and struggle to put on muscle, but I’ve encountered plenty of other women whose bodies seem to quickly bulk up.
The good news? There are 2 key principles to understand about muscle gain that can help you prevent bulking, regardless of your body type.
After learning about these 2 concepts, you’ll understand how to tone muscle without bulking up!
Please note: Check with your physician before starting any exercise routine or starting any particular diet. See this Disclaimer for more details. This post may contain affiliate links. For details, please visit my Disclosure page. Thank you!
How to Get Toned Without Bulking Up
How to Get Toned Principle #1) It’s more about a calorie deficit than a calorie increase
When most women envision being toned, they imagine very little body fat and light muscle definition showing through in certain places, like the calves, backs of the thighs/the glutes, abs, and arms.
This means that you need to achieve two things: low body fat AND muscle growth.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, but I thought we just said I don’t want muscle growth.
Well, to have muscle toning and definition, you need to have some muscle growth. But yes, we’re not going for body builder-type growth here.
So let’s talk about these two things a little more.
Low Body Fat
Muscles don’t show through if they’re covered by a layer of fat. So for most people to look toned, they need to have a low body fat percentage.
If you think that you may need to lose a little body fat, the best thing to do is decrease your calories. Even more so than exercise, achieving a calorie deficit with nutrition is the BEST way to get rid of extra body fat.
However, just achieving low body fat is often not enough. If you have very little muscle mass, you still won’t look toned.
In high school, I’d say this was my problem. I ran a lot and ate healthy, but I did little to no strength training. As a result, I looked “skinny fat.” No, I was not overweight. But I had no toning or definition.
While we’ll address the exercise component next, let’s talk about protein.
When most people think about putting on muscle, they think about eating lots of protein.
However, the majority of people don’t need extra protein to achieve their goals. Most people with an average activity level should aim for: 0.8g / kg OR 0.36g / lb.
For example, a woman who weighs 150 lbs would then aim for 54g protein per day.
(Average activity level here means you’re not an endurance athlete or a weight lifter trying to build large amounts of muscle mass.)
If you want to define muscles without bulking, you should avoid crazy high amounts of protein, especially if you’re prone to developing muscle mass easily. After all, upping protein intake is a fundamental technique body builders use to build muscle mass.
Everyone’s different, so you can play with the amount of protein you eat. Try starting with that base amount above and increase from there if you’re not seeing results.
RELATED POST: How to Use Protein Powder – All Your Questions Answered
How to Get Toned Principle #2) Use lighter weights and higher reps
Bulking is more likely with heavy weight lifting.
A fundamental concept we learn as personal trainers is that if a client wants to pack on muscle, you have them lift HEAVY, with less reps and more sets. The goal for these clients is hypertrophy (increasing muscle mass), which is NOT what you want.
So a key part of how to get toned without bulking is to use lighter weights. For best results, incorporate a combination of light weight days and moderate weight days. Perform exercises for a higher amount of reps and less sets. This will help you achieve muscular endurance and toning.
Here’s an example of what to do if trying to BULK:
|Weight Amount||Reps||Sets||Rest B/w Sets|
|Heavy Weights||5||6||2-3 minutes|
Here’s an example of what to do if trying to TONE:
|Weight Amount||Reps||Sets||Rest B/w Sets|
|Light Weights||15-20||2||30 seconds|
|Moderate Weights||10-12||3||30-60 seconds|
Don’t do more than one exercise a day aimed at a specific muscle, as this also contributes to muscle hypertrophy. For example, if you do push-ups in a workout, don’t also do chest presses as these both work the chest muscles. This doesn’t apply to the ab muscles because they’re more resilient and require more work to show through.
Cardio is also important to include for fat loss. While strength training will burn calories and build some muscle – which will in turn help you burn even more calories – cardio is a great way to help create a caloric deficit. So don’t forget to incorporate it as well!
For exact parameters on how much cardio to do for fat loss, read this post: How to Lose Belly Fat: The 5 Secrets You Don’t Know. There’s a table towards the bottom with cardio information.
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