"Will Lifting Weights Make Me Look Bulky?"

Resistance training provides a myriad of health & fitness benefits...

Just a few examples:

  • improved muscle strength

  • improved muscle tone

  • increased metabolic rate (useful in combatting unwanted weight/fat gain)

  • improved insulin sensitivity (helps to reduce the risk of pre-diabetes and ultimately diabetes itself)

  • a net reduction in risk of muscle injuries (stronger tissues are harder to break)

  • a net reduction in joint injuries (stronger muscles and other soft tissues increase support & stability around your joints)...

...I could go on.

See: '18 Benefits Of Resistance Training'.

The point is, that everybody can benefit from including weight training (or "resistance training") in their lifestyle.

But the first thing that a lot of people think of, whenever "weight training" is mentioned...

...is a muscular male lifting heavy weights, probably in a stereotypically old-school bodybuilding gym.

(Perhaps followed up with a post-workout meal of steak & eggs for a massive dose of protein?).

For decades, that is what society has taught everybody...

"If you want to get big... lift weights".

And on the flip-side...

"If you want to lose weight... get skinny... look feminine etc etc... do cardio!"

Thankfully, times have moved on and resistance training is rightly seen as a method to achieve a wide variety of positive health outcomes (for both males and females!).

However, misconceptions do still remain and many people are still influenced by these misconceptions when choosing exercise methods...

...often at the cost of achieving the results that they set out to achieve in the first place.

"Will Lifting Weights Make Me Look Bulky?"

The issue with this question, is the fact that it uses one term... "lifting weights"... to describe an almost infinite number of variables that can be modified when designing a training programme.

Let's be more specific.

If muscle gain is your goal... then yes, I can design a resistance training programme that will help you to achieve this.

Is your goal to increase muscle strength? I can design a different programme to achieve this too.

Do you want to increase your metabolic rate as a tool for weight/fat loss? Again, yes we can use weight/resistance training to achieve this outcome.

You would utilise "weight training" in each scenario...

But the programmes could potentially look very different...

  • exercise choice

  • workout format

  • training intensity

  • training frequency

  • training volume

  • sets, reps, tempo, rest etc etc...

...could all vary to produce the desired result.

Nutrition (Massively) Influences Body Composition Too...

Then there's the nutrition side to consider.

Even if you produced identical training programmes and gave them to:

a) an aspiring bodybuilder

b) an individual prioritising fat loss

...the results will look very different for those two individuals due to the requisite differences in their nutrition programmes.

Example: The bodybuilder is more likely to utilise a calorie surplus to support muscle gain (plus likely overall weight gain) and fuel very intense workouts. The 'fat loss' individual will be more likely to use a slight calorie deficit as a strategy - ideal for burning excess fat, not so great for building muscle mass at an optimum rate. Using identical workout plans, the fundamental differences in the two diets would contribute to drastically different outcomes.

In simple terms, if you are not eating a "bulking" diet... then you are not going to "bulk up".

"But it's different for me"...

Hormones & Genetics...

While it's true that genetics play a part in somebody's ability to gain muscle relatively easily, in most cases it's probably not going to be the main factor.

A client with genetics that are not optimal for huge muscle gains can still achieve very significant progress if their programme and diet is optimised for that goal.

And an individual with a 'genetic tendency' to build muscle easily, can easily avoid doing so... even when training with weights.

Hormonal limitations might play a more significant role.

For example, testosterone plays a vital role in muscle growth. While testosterone is present in males and females, levels are significantly higher in males. As a result, females have a natural hurdle to overcome when it comes to muscle gain potential. Once again, this ultimately means that "accidental", rapid, unwanted gains in muscle mass are relatively unlikely.

(Let's be clear - females can, and will, build muscle if they are training, eating and recovering from their workouts appropriately. Lower testosterone levels do NOT "prevent" muscle gain).

A Harsh Truth?

Do remember to consider context when analysing changes.

If you do think you are rapidly gaining muscle (physiologically difficult)... consider other alternatives before making drastic changes to your workout & nutrition programmes.

Has your body fat percentage increased at the same time for example? If so, are you sure that your "bulking" is via rapid muscle gain?

Or could a short-term gain in fat mass be the more likely explanation?

(It's much easier to gain fat than muscle in a short space of time).

(Remember... 'muscle weighs more than fat'. In reality, this means that 1lb of muscle takes up 'less space' than 1lb of fat. This makes rapid, noticeable changes in body shape more likely to be due to changes in body fat and/or water. Also, perhaps ironically, it means that it's perfectly possible to get physically smaller while gaining overall weight. If, hypothetically, you gained 5kg of muscle while simultaneously losing 4kg of body fat, despite a net gain of 1kg, your physique would be physically smaller and appear "more toned". Is "weight loss" really what you are trying to achieve?)


"I just want to lose a bit of weight and tone up".

Common mistake 1: Assuming that stripping away body fat will automatically reveal a "toned" physique

Common mistake 2: Assuming that "toning up" is a specific outcome, distinctly different to gaining/maintaining/strengthening muscle while reducing body fat... and produced via a unique training method. This misconception typically involves lifting very light weights, with a relatively very high number of repetitions.

Physiologically speaking, "muscle tone" refers to the constant, underlying tension of muscle fibres. In this sense, a 'toned' muscle, maintains a higher level of residual tension. This has a number of benefits - muscles play a more effective role in maintaining correct posture, muscles are more resistant to injury, muscles make a greater contribution to your metabolism, and aesthetically... toned muscles feel and look 'firmer'...

...note that this is independent of body fat levels. In other words, you could have a high degree of 'muscle tone', while being overweight or obese. Equally, you could have a low or healthy body fat percentage, but a relatively low level of muscle tone.

In simple terms... muscle tone, and having low/healthy body fat, are two separate things. Having one, doesn't require, or guarantee the other (although muscle tone is a useful tool for increasing metabolic rate, and therefore a useful tool for fat loss).

Which is why simply losing weight alone, through cardio focussed exercise and/or diet, may not produce the aesthetic result that you originally wanted in the long-term (that is not to say that maintaining a healthy body weight isn't a worthy goal of course).

Ideally, to "look toned", you would aim for a combination of physically toning PLUS BUILDING (or at least maintaining) your muscle AND reducing body fat (or maintaining if you are already at your optimum body fat percentage. Remember, losing more weight won't directly cause any changes in your muscle tone).

Side note: for whatever reason, clients often suggest/ask about losing weight/fat first, and then switching their focus to "toning" once they have achieved a certain target. This largely misses the point of utilising weight training as a fat loss strategy. You can, and usually should, be looking at these two seemingly distinct outcomes as a complementary, two-pronged strategy.

It's also worth addressing another common misunderstanding regarding muscle "shape". Some programmes, classes etc claim to "sculpt", "tone" and/or "lengthen" muscles (supposedly achieving a "more feminine" aesthetic). This suggests a unique concept of "shaping" muscles, which is misleading. Your variables in the real world, are muscle tone (residual muscle fibre tension), muscle size (bigger or smaller) and muscle flexibility. The interaction between these factors and your body fat levels determine your body's aesthetic appearance.

Resistance Training For Muscle Tone

Generally, muscle tone (in this 'proper' technical sense, rather than the everyday "I want to look toned" sense), and increased muscle mass (NOT necessarily extreme amounts) is gained or maintained by regular and appropriate stimulation of the relevant muscle fibres (start thinking about those specific areas you want to see results in)...

...aka - "use it or lose it".

What that means, depends on the target muscles and their required role in the body.

Your lower back muscles for example (if they are already healthy), can be stimulated appropriately, simply by maintaining correct posture and avoiding excess laziness (ie. not sitting for extended periods of time - if your chair is doing all of the work for you, your muscles can switch off. If you're not using them, your body will allow them to waste away. Sadly, this becomes even more of a problem with age).

Other muscles, perhaps including your target areas (arms, thighs?), might require a higher intensity to promote positive changes in muscle tone*.

This often (not always - there are multiple ways to vary exercise intensity) refers to the amount of weight that you need to lift (or the difficulty of the exercise). Ultimately, to ensure progress, you need to tick two boxes...

  • challenge yourself sufficiently (ie. 30 reps with 1kg dumbbells probably isn't pushing your limits on most exercises)

  • employ the principle of 'progressive overload' (continue challenging your body, don't just settle for what you consider to be a decent effort and stand still - your body will actually go backwards).

Intentionally restricting yourself to 'light weights and high reps' makes it difficult to achieve those two parameters in the long-term.

Don't be afraid to challenge yourself!

"What doesn't challenge you, doesn't change you"*

Again... lifting "heavy" weights DOES NOT automatically result in muscle gain.

Combined with an appropriate programme and an appropriate diet, challenging your target muscles with sufficient weight (eg. the 6-12 rep range traditionally reserved for muscle strength and muscle gain programmes) will increase muscle tone. You can adjust other variables to ensure that you do not gain unwanted, excess muscle mass.

Simultaneously, that programme and diet might (if your goal requires it to) either reduce or maintain body fat, improving body composition without 'bulking up', eventually producing a "toned" aesthetic.

Long story short..."looking toned" = building and/or maintaining muscle mass PLUS maintaining a body fat level that allows the outline of those muscles to be visible.

*It's also vital to make sure that you are performing exercises correctly to...

a) reduce injury risk

b) ensure that you are fully stimulating the muscles that you should be for each exercise (eg. you obviously want your triceps exercises to stimulate your triceps as much as possible... incorrect technique could shift focus away from those muscles to the shoulders or elsewhere)

Ironically, this may require you to reduce weight on some exercises... don't go heavier just for the sake of it... technique/form comes first!

*(Remember... specific exercises do NOT burn fat from a specific target area. eg., A triceps exercise WILL potentially build/maintain/strengthen the triceps muscle. While the energy used might contribute to overall fat loss (diet depending), they will NOT burn fat specifically from the triceps only).

The Gym Is Full Of People Trying & Struggling To Build Muscle...

Frankly... in reality, building significant muscle mass is not easy (even when that is the primary goal). Many people have experienced significant frustration while hitting muscle gain plateaus.

So firstly, accidentally gaining muscle while training with weights and eating appropriately for a different goal, is unlikely.

Secondly, even in the unlikely event where a client did begin to gain unwanted, excessive muscle mass... that process would be very slow. You will not wake up one morning and suddenly 'look big' in the mirror. As with any programme, results would/should be monitored constantly and programme changes made where necessary, to make sure that you are achieving what you actually want.

The key thing to keep in mind, is that weight/resistance training, can (and very often should) be used as an effective fat loss/weight loss tactic while also adding physical tone/tension to muscles (among other very positive effects)...

Building, rebuilding and maintaining muscle is metabolically expensive (the process burns a lot of calories, and makes a significant difference to your daily metabolic rate - arguably much more desirable than having to continue reducing calories in your diet).

To be absolutely crystal clear... that does NOT mean that you need to be building a visibly noticeable amount of muscle (ie. you do not need to "bulk up" to gain/maintain a very healthy level of muscle mass). In many cases, it might even simply be a case of preventing muscle wastage (which, through inactivity, age or whatever other reason, would reduce your metabolic rate).

Plus... aside from health & performance, as weight training also contributes significantly to "muscle tone"... it is essential (predictably) if you want to "look toned".


It is not impossible for females to gain significant muscle mass. "Bulking" is absolutely possible, if a training programme and nutrition plan is optimised to produce that goal.

So simply dismissing concerns (when that isn't the goal) as an "unrealistic fear" isn't necessarily appropriate.

However, it's important not to avoid weight/resistance training based purely on those concerns:

  1. accidental 'bulking' is very unlikely - designing your programme and diet plan to produce your desired result can be done relatively easily, while still enjoying the wide range of benefits of weight training

  2. in the unlikely event that your programme does produce unwanted muscle gain, it will be very slow and modifying your plan is straightforward

  3. if your primary goal is weight loss, weight training is arguably one of the most effective methods to achieve that result, when combined with a suitable diet

  4. weight/resistance training increases muscle tone. "I don't want to bulk up... I just want to tone up a bit" means you should still ideally be training with weights. Just make sure your overall programme is set up correctly for your goals.

And yes... you can still include cardio too!

It doesn't have to be one or the other!