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September 12, 2023

man with lean body from the back

Women often tell me they wanna build lean muscle without getting a bulky body.

They're afraid a few sessions in the gym will transform their feminine frame into the bulky physique of a bodybuilder.

The good news is:

Muscle development doesn't work like that.

As a man who's built a lean body - I assure you, you won't accidentally become huge.

Anyone spending time in the gym knows it takes a lot of hard work to increase muscle mass.

Whether you want a bulky body or a lean body (also referred to as a toned physique) - this article will teach you everything you need to know.

By the end of this article, you'll know:

  • How to build a lean body
  • What a lean body looks like
  • What a bulky body looks like
  • How to build a bulky physique
  • How different body types should train
  • The difference between bulking and toning reps
  • The difference between lean muscle and bulk muscle

The difference between lean muscle and bulk muscle

man with lean body doing bicep curls

First up - let's dispel some myths.

  1. There is no structural difference between 'lean muscle' and 'bulk muscle' - it's all muscle.
  2. The difference in muscle appearance comes down to 3 things:
  • Body fat
  • Muscle size
  • Muscle insertions (genetics)

Studies in the field of sports science and physiology consistently show there's no actual difference between "bulky muscle" and "lean muscle."

According to a research review in PLOS biology, muscle fibers can grow (hypertrophy) or shrink (atrophy), but they do not change their type or structure to become "bulky" or "lean."

Also, a study published in The Official Journal Of The Obesity Society revealed that with consistent strength training, you can increase your muscle mass while decreasing body fat, leading to a leaner physique.

This disproves the common misconception that lifting weights will automatically give you a bulky appearance.

The key takeaway here is that muscle is muscle - it's your training methods, nutrition, and genetics that determine the body type you end up with.

Now you know there's no structural differences between lean muscle and bulky muscle - let's look at what a lean body and bulky body looks like.

After that - I'll reveal exactly how to achieve the body type you're aiming for.

What does a lean body look like?

jay cartere toned physique while topless

This is a picture of me with my lean physique.

Here's another example of a lean body:

man with toned physique in black and white topless photo

A lean or toned physique is an athletic body type with low body fat.

It has:

  • Low body fat
  • Lean muscle

Advantages of a lean body

Lower body fat improves your quality of life and reduces your risk of certain diseases.

It's easier to move around with a lean body. This may lead to an increase in flexibility too.

Everybody looks better with abs. This is subjective, but I don't think many people would disagree with this statement.

Disadvantages of a lean body

Strength limitations: To maintain a lean body - you can't eat like an elephant.

You need to eat at or below your maintenance calories - or you'll increase your body fat percentage.

This calorie limit can limit your strength potential.

Calorie discipline: To achieve a lean body - you need to be in a calorie deficit.

(Unless you're skinny or lean already).

If you're fat, skinny fat or average - you need to cut calories and lose fat to get the toned body you're aiming for.

How to get a lean body - more muscle mass, less body fat

man showing his six pack abs in jumper

Achieving your dream toned body is simple:

Do all the above and you'll lose fat while building lean muscles - getting you your dream lean physique.

What does a bulky body look like?

This is what a bulky body looks like:

Eddie hall strongman bulky body topless

Here's another example of a bulky physique:

the mountain from game of thrones topless showing off his bulky physique

This is NOT a bulky body - this is a lean body with a lot of muscle:

chris bumstead topless showing off lean and muscular bodybuilder physique

The body shown above has a large amount of muscle mass. Bodybuilders go through bulking phases - where they eat in a calorie surplus while strength training to build muscle mass faster.

The downside is - bulking leads to gaining fat.

That's why bodybuilders go through a cutting phase - where they eat in a calorie deficit while strength training to lose fat and make their muscles look more defined (or 'toned').

An actual bulky body has:

  • higher body fat
  • larger frame than a lean body

Advantages of a bulky body

More strength: Holding more body fat and weight increases your overall strength - this can help you build more muscle and lift more weights.

Looks bigger in clothes: While a lean body makes you look small in a top and amazing when shirtless - a bulky body makes you look big in a top and soft when shirtless.

Disadvantages of a bulky body

More body fat puts you at more risk for certain diseases and health issues.

Less maneuverable: the bigger you are - the harder it is to move around.

How to get a bulky body

man eating burger

Getting bulky muscles and raising your body weight is simple:

  • Train close to failure
  • Create a calorie surplus
  • implement progressive overload
  • Follow a good workout plan with both compound and isolation exercises

If you want less muscle definition because you're aiming for a rounder look - cut out the isolation exercises and focus on compound exercises only.

What is the difference between bulking and toning reps?

There is 0 difference between bulking and toning reps.

Whether you want lean muscles or bulky muscles - you need to train close to failure to stimulate muscle growth.

Performing at least 10 sets per exercise per week, while training close to failure, leads to muscle growth.

Wanna use low weights with high reps? Go for it.

Wanna use higher weights with lower reps? Go for it.

However - the issue with using low weights with high reps is that you can build up lactic acid and fatigue before your actual muscles are tired.

This is why I recommend a rep range of 5 - 15 reps for all exercises, with a moderate to heavy weight.

Despite the common myth - training with high reps and low weight will not tone your muscles or aid you in losing fat.

Relationship between body type and muscle building

somatypes and body types - ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph examples

There are three commonly recognized body types:

  • Ectomorph
  • Mesomorph
  • Endomorph

Ectomorphs are typically thin with smaller muscle structure. It's harder for ectomorphs to gain muscle and fat - but easier for them to stay lean.

Mesomorphs possess a medium build with a muscular frame. This is the sweet spot for building muscle and staying lean.

Endomorphs have a larger, rounder physique that stores fat more easily. Endomorphs look at cake and put on weight. It's easier for them to bulk up and gain fat, but they have a hard time losing fat and getting lean.

The concept of these body types is rooted in the 1940s science by psychologist William Sheldon.

However - it's important to understand that modern research suggests these body type categories may be overly simplistic.

The human body is complex - our physical traits are influenced by many factors like:

  • diet
  • lifestyle
  • genetics
  • physical activity

These categories can provide a general guideline - but, many people do not fit neatly into one specific group. They exhibit characteristics of more than one body type - creating a spectrum rather than distinct categories.

So, while the 'three body types' (or somatypes) provide a useful starting point for understanding body variation - it's not a hard-and-fast rule and shouldn't be used to dictate diet or training without considering individual variations.

I advise you to follow this simple advice to achieve your fitness goals:

Too skinny?

Too fat?

  • Eat less calories
  • Lift heavy weights
  • Train close to failure
  • Consume enough protein
  • Implement progressive overload


  • Lift heavy weights
  • Train close to failure
  • Eat less or more calories
  • Consume enough protein
  • Implement progressive overload

If you're skinny fat, click here to learn how to fix being skinny fat.


man with lean physique tying shoe laces

Muscle tissue is muscle tissue.

Bulk muscles are the same as lean muscles.

The only difference is body fat.

Whether you wanna be bulky or lean - you need to:

  • Lift heavy weights
  • Train close to failure
  • Consume enough protein
  • Implement progressive overload

To get leaner - eat less calories.

To get bulky - eat more calories.

More reps don't make you toned - a calorie deficit does.


What is the difference between bulky and toned?

The difference between a bulky or a toned physique is body fat.

Less body fat = lean. More body fat = bulky.

Can a lean person build muscle?

Yes, a lean person can build muscle.

As long as you're over 10% body fat percentage - you can build muscle without bulking.

How to build lean muscle?

This is how to build lean muscle without gaining body fat:

  • Lift heavy weights
  • Train close to failure
  • Consume enough protein
  • Implement progressive overload
  • Keep calorie intake under or at maintenance

You can't get lean or bulky without this:

You need to understand and know your maintenance calories to build a bulky physique or toned body effectively.

There are calculators online that help estimate your maintenance calories - but they're only general starting points.

They're not accurate enough to trust.

The only way to find YOUR real maintenance number is to experiment on yourself like a lab rat.

The perfect experiment for finding your maintenance calories is explained on page 43 of my Getting Lean ebook.

Here's the link:


  1. 'Skeletal Muscle Fiber Type: Influence on Contractile and Metabolic Properties', PLOS biology, Available at: <> (Accessed: September 12, 2023).
  2. 'Resistance training conserves fat-free mass and resting energy expenditure following weight loss', The Official Journal Of The Obesity Society, Available at: <> (Accessed: September 12, 2023).
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