How to Build Lean Muscle (for Women) Without Getting Bulky

Lean muscle mass is responsible for the toned, fit look many people desire. But there’s more to lean muscle than looks — it also helps build a stronger core, reduces the risk of injury, and improves posture. And in this guide, we’ll cover how to build lean muscle for women specifically. 

If you’re a woman reading this who is worried about getting “bulky” from resistance training, you’re not alone. It’s a common concern, but the good news is that it’s (mostly) unfounded. We’ll show you what we mean below and go over what you should do to build beautiful lean muscle.

How to Get Toned But Not Bulky 

First things first: It's much harder to get bulky than you might realize. In fact, most women would have to put in serious effort to obtain bulky muscles. Still, it’s an understandable concern, and there are things you can prioritize in your workouts to avoid routines designed for bulk.

Understand Slow-Twitch vs. Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers

When you grow lean muscle, your existing muscles must go through hypertrophy. During hypertrophy, the muscle fibers break down as you challenge them through resistance or weight training. Your body then repairs those broken-down fibers, increasing their size in the process.

When your goal is long, lean muscle, it’s advantageous to activate your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which need more oxygen to function. You develop these muscle fibers through: 

Now, we should note that you’ll want to train both slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers to keep your muscles challenged and healthy. But focusing more on slow-twitch exercises works for those who desire longer, leaner muscles instead of a more muscular look.

That being said, the more “muscular” look is rarely a bulky one in women (as we’ve been saying), and many women will be pleasantly surprised at the result of combining both low- and high-intensity exercise.

Do Circuit Training Workouts

Circuit routines — where you’re performing several exercises in quick succession — are efficient for developing lean muscle. You’re combining high-intensity aerobics with resistance training, which means moving faster with smaller rests in between exercises.

Here’s an example of a full-body strength circuit training routine from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM):

  • Push-ups: 12-15 reps
  • Dumbbell squats: 12-15 reps
  • Bent-over dumbbell rows: 12-15 reps
  • Alternating lateral lunges: 12-15 reps
  • Biceps curls to overhead presses: 12-15 reps
  • Romanian deadlifts: 12-15 reps
  • Ball crunches: 12-15 reps
  • Ball back extensions: 12-15 reps 

Do each movement in order, then repeat the circuit 1-2 times. Rest no more than 15 seconds between each exercise movement.

Strength Train at Least Three Times a Week

You’ll want to target all of your major muscle groups to develop a strong, lean, balanced physique. Those groups are:

  • Chest
  • Back
  • Shoulders
  • Arms
  • Abs
  • Legs
  • Glutes

Experts recommend three to four strength workouts per week if you’re trying to build muscle. And aim to work out all major muscle groups at least twice a week. For example, you might do three full-body resistance training workouts per week. 

Incorporate Tempo Lifting

Time under tension also helps activate those long, lean muscle fibers. One way to increase time under tension is by using tempo lifting — increasing the amount of time you’re holding an exercise. 

For example, you might do squats but take three seconds to lower into the squat, hold the squat three seconds, and take three seconds to push up to standing.

You can incorporate tempo lifting techniques into any strength training exercise to maximize time under tension.

Keep Your Muscles Challenged with Each Workout

You can’t build lean muscle unless you’re challenging those muscles. So, every time you exercise, think about progression. Maybe you work towards doing one more rep. Or, you increase the weight once you can do the full 12 reps for an exercise. 

Never stop challenging yourself, and remember to increase the weight when things get too easy.

Choose a weight or resistance that feels difficult but doable. You should be able to complete all sets but still find them challenging. 

Let Go of Old Beliefs About Cardio vs. Strength Training

Fears of getting bulky from strength training come from outdated beliefs about cardio versus weights. A common myth is that you should stick with more cardio to stay thin. 

But we now know that strength and resistance training are what burn the most calories over time (because they can elevate your metabolism up to 38 hours post-workout) and provide the most benefit.

Strength training is also better at helping you: 

  • Grow lean muscle
  • Burn body fat
  • Maintain a strong posture
  • Develop functional strength that prevents injury 

Basically, pushing or pulling heavy things gives you a more toned body shape than cardio.

That said, the best cardio options for those wanting to build lean muscle are high-intensity bursts. Think circuit training workouts that include HIIT training exercises. You’ll be able to incorporate heart-healthy cardio without spending so much time on it to take away from muscle-building training. 

Embrace Compound Movements

With compound workouts (where you’re working several muscle groups at once), you get the most bang for your buck. Compound movements burn more calories, keep your heart rate up, and improve intermuscular coordination

Instead of training muscle groups in isolation as bodybuilders do (like working just the biceps through bicep curls), you’re increasing your overall strength and building lean muscle in several muscles at once.

Compound exercises also mimic everyday movements, helping you prevent injury and feel stronger in daily life. You’ll notice lean muscle tone and a more sculpted physique without bulky gains.

Use Resistance Bands

If you’re wondering how to build lean muscle as a woman, consider adding resistance bands into your workouts. Band exercises are perfect because:

  • They force you to move through each exercise more slowly, activating both the slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers discussed above.
  • According to a systemic review and meta-analysis, resistance bands get muscle gain results similar to weight training. And band workouts can be even better for those aiming for a lean, toned, yet not massive, physique.
  • Exercises using resistance bands can boost your stabilizer muscles, which your body needs to maintain a healthy posture and reduce the risk of injury.

The Gorilla Bow combines all the strength and resistance training benefits in one portable, total body gym system. You can build lean muscle, lose weight, and sculpt a toned figure from anywhere — from home to vacation. It’s your one-stop shop for lean muscle creation!

Best Workouts for Lean Muscle for Females

Now, let’s talk about specific workouts for building a lean body as a female. Most of these exercises are compound movements that burn more and work more in a shorter period. If you’re worried about bulkiness from lifting, these workouts are ideal for focusing on lean gains.

Squats

The squat exercise is a classic. If you’re spent any time at all exercising, you’re probably familiar with this movement. 

Squats are one of the best exercises for how to get lean (not bulky) legs. They work your glutes, quads, hip flexors, and even your abs, lower back, and calves. At the same time, you’ll strengthen the bones, ligaments, and tendons around your leg muscles.

Deadlifts

As with squats, deadlifts work several major muscle groups at once, perfect for getting lean. Many women want to develop more tone in their glutes and hamstrings, and deadlifts will do just that.

Lunges

Lunges are another exercise that works your legs and glutes. They also support a strong, stable core, strengthening your abs and back without too much strain.

Bench Press

Don’t forgo your upper body, ladies! Upper body strength is just as crucial as building lean muscle in your legs and glutes. And the bench press is a fantastic exercise for doing that.

Benefits of the bench press for females include: 

  • Increasing strength in your chest, shoulders, triceps, biceps, and upper back
  • Building strength in your core
  • Growing lean muscle for more toned arms
  • Promoting weight and fat loss

The bench press is a great exercise to include in your workout circuit.

Chest Flys

Chest flys are the ideal companion to bench presses. While the bench press is more about pushing, the chest fly challenges your muscles with both pulling and pushing movements.

Lat Pulldowns

Pushing exercises are beneficial, but you’ll also want to do pulling exercises for balance. Lat pulldowns work your latissimus dorsi muscles that span your middle back and sides. Keeping these muscles strong will help with good posture, functional strength, and lean, toned back muscles.

Squat to Overhead Press

This compound exercise works both your lower body and most of the major muscles in your upper body. The squat to overhead press is truly a full-body move that helps you grow lean muscle and build a strong core.

Don't Use the Scale as Your Guide

Here’s an important reminder on your journey to gain lean muscle definition: your progress is not measured by the scale.

Muscle can weigh more than fat, so the scale might go up even though you’re getting leaner. If the scale triggers bad feelings for you, such as that you’re bulking up or gaining “too much,” try using other (more accurate) markers of progress. Body measurements and how you feel in your clothes are far better.

Other Factors That Impact Lean Muscle Gain

Besides how you workout, here are some other things that can help you build lean muscle.

Making Time for Recovery Time

Many people neglect recovery in between workouts. Don’t be one of those people — acknowledge the importance of rest. Not giving your body enough time to rest leads to overtraining, which impedes your progress rather than helping you.

You can avoid overtraining by:

  • Waiting one or two days before working specific muscles again
  • Scheduling regular rest days (and taking them)
  • Avoiding workouts that are consistently more than an hour — as this is when your body can shift into making more of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Getting enough sleep and eating well in between workouts

It might be tempting to push harder when you don’t notice results as fast as you’d like. But just remember that going too hard hurts you more than helps. It’s better to rest regularly so that you can push hard during the workout and rest again.

Eat Enough Protein and Calories

Protein intake is crucial for women (and men) when building lean muscle. That’s because proteins are the “building blocks” for muscle. 

You should also ensure you’re eating enough calories, as many people (everyone, but women especially) tend to undereat. If you don’t eat enough calories, your body won’t have what it needs to build new muscle. And you must be in a calorie surplus to gain lean muscle.

How much protein and calories do you need? Here’s a general guide:

  • The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends eating between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day to increase muscle mass along with exercise. That’s about 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight. (For a woman weighing 130 pounds, that would be about 71 to 100 grams of protein per day.)
  • Fitness professionals generally recommend anywhere from 200 to 500 extra calories per day to build muscle. The exact amounts will depend on your weight and your goals. 

Protein is also essential for keeping you satiated, making it easier to eat well and avoid cravings. And eating enough calories each day will keep your metabolism healthy while providing the fuel you need to sculpt lean muscle.

Eat Well (and Enough)

Fitness is key to a healthy life, but the other pillar is diet. You’ve maybe heard the saying, “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.” And it’s true.

Make sure you’re getting high-quality versions of all of the macros:

  • Protein: 10-35% of daily calories — examples include lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans and legumes, and nuts
  • Carbohydrates: 45-65% of daily calories — examples include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and tubers
  • Fats: 20-35% of daily calories — examples include vegetable oils, fish, nuts, seeds, and avocado

The specific percentages will depend on your goals. If you’re doing high-intensity exercise and want to build lean muscle, a higher range for protein is generally recommended.

A Good Nights Sleep 

Your body needs time to repair in between workouts. When you exercise, your muscles break down to rebuild stronger. But it can’t effectively do so without proper rest.

Aim to get at least seven hours of sleep per night. If you struggle to get to sleep or wake up feeling too tired, try starting a bedtime routine that puts you in the right headspace for rest. A good example is avoiding screen time 1-2 hours before bed and reading instead.

Overall, women don’t need to worry about feeling “bulky” from strength and resistance training. Working your muscles encourages lean tissue growth, a more sculpted physique, and muscle tone that many women love. However, if you’re concerned about bulk, the above tips will help you focus on habits that promote beautiful, lean muscles.

If you need help gaining lean muscle, Gorilla Bow can help. Our all-in-one resistance training systems and all-access classes will make each step a breeze — and fun! Start your FREE 30-day trial here.


Sources: 

  • https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319151
  • https://blog.nasm.org/fitness/fast-twitch-vs-slow-twitch
  • https://blog.nasm.org/circuit-training-everything-you-need-to-know
  • https://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/a35845434/how-often-should-you-workout/
  • https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00421-001-0568-y?LI=true
  • https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5811/5-benefits-of-compound-exercises/
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6383082/
  • https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf?sfvrsn=688d8896_2
  • https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16004827/
  • https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5904/how-to-determine-the-best-macronutrient-ratio-for-your-goals/

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