Tone Up vs. Get Bulky: 9 Weight Lifting Strategies That Work

Written By

Rhea Dali

Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Weight Lifting Strategies - Sporty Woman Is Working Out In Gym, Pushing Big Tire

“I don’t want to get bulky, and I need the best the weight lifting strategies to achieve it” #saidMostWomen. The good ol’ “get toned” vs. “get bulky” debate has troubled many females in the weight room for years.

While many fitness professionals and our male counterparts promise that “getting bulky” is practically impossible from weight training alone—telling us that testosterone, diet and steroids have something to do with it…for some women, it’s hard to believe. This has not been their experience, finding that, for their body type, they actually do put on muscle more easily when they add weight to the bar.

Other women simply avoid this dilemma all together — staying out of the weight room, and turning more to cardio — spin, running, spin, running, stair master, spin, running—or “little muscle” based exercise—like pilates, barre, bootcamps and pink dumbbells.

One client recently stated, “I love lifting weights and I feel stronger BUT…it feels like when I do incorporate heavy lifts – like heavy squats, deadlifts, etc, my legs and butt just get bigger. How do you lift weights, or even more and not gain weight or bulk?!”

Let’s unpack it, including 9 weight lifting strategies for toned lean muscles and how to break up with chronic cardio without gaining weight. Freedom.

And of course: if you’re looking for personal support, let’s optimize your metabolism, body confidence and help you take your health back into your own hands! Book a complimentary 20-minute Health Strategy Call today.


Weight Lifting Strategies - Young Woman Doing Exercises With Barbell On Bench In The Gym

Without vision, the people parish.

Translation: In order to “see results” and “success” in the gym, you need to know where you are going—what are your fitness goals, your plans, and your weight lifting strategies?

Yes, we assume your goals are to “not get bulky”—but the human brain doesn’t process “negatives” well. It hates the word: “Not.”

When you say, “I do NOT want to get bulky,” uour subconscious mind actually hears, “I do WANT to GET BULKY.” It deletes the word “NOT.” Basically where our focus goes, our energy and direction goes. Your focus is on NOT GETTING BULKY—so your subconscious mind hones in on that word BULKY.

So, I’ll ask it again: What are your fitness goals—beyond what you DON’T want? Will you consider some weight lifting strategies?

“I want to feel confident.”
“I want to get faster.”
“I want to keep up with my kids—or grandkids one day.”
“I want to FEEL toned, lean, light, vibrant.”
“I want a better thought life.”
“I want vibrancy and energy.”

Where your focus goes, your energy will flow, and simply by focusing more on what you do want and making your workouts a positive, high vibration experience (versus a fear-based, scarcity-minded experience—running from bulk), you are already going in the “right direction.”


Disclaimer: Hi, my name is Dr. Lauryn. I lift heavier weights—almost daily—and I’ve never “bulked up” in my life.

In fact, I’ve always tended towards “toning up” or building “leaner” muscles without trying to tone up! I don’t do “baby weights” or excess crunches.

  • I don’t completely eliminate carbs.
  • I don’t run like a hamster on a wheel on a treadmill or run for miles on the trail or spin hours away in a dark room.
  • I don’t spot train.
  • I do full-body style workouts and lift (relatively) heavy for my body type.
  • And ultimately, I don’t hate on my body when I train.
  • I speak loving thoughts and focus on the energy, life and vibrancy that training brings me.
  • And I have a body that I love and feel confident in because of it.

If you don’t believe me, here are a few myths and truths about toning up vs. getting bulky to help you think outside the box…

Common Myths & Truths: Toning Up vs. “Getting Bulky”

Myth: Toning requires high repetitions with light weights.

Truth: While high repetitions can contribute to muscular endurance, true toning involves a balance of strength training and fat loss. Incorporating heavier weights with lower repetitions can help build muscle mass and increase metabolism, leading to fat loss and a toned appearance.

Myth: Toning only targets specific muscles.

Truth: Toning involves full-body workouts that engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, push-ups and all core engaging exercises are effective for toning as they work multiple muscles at once, leading to a balanced physique.

Myth: Some people just can’t tone up.

Truth: Anyone can “tone up.” Toning up is simply the process of increasing muscle definition and decreasing body fat to achieve a leaner, more sculpted appearance. The result of toning up is a well-defined, athletic physique with visible muscle definition and reduced body fat percentage.. This goal can be achieved by anyone through a combination of strength training exercises, such as lifting weights or bodyweight exercises, strategic cardio activities to burn excess fat (like HIIT), an active happy lifestyle (walking), a nutrient-dense balanced diet, a healthy gut and hormones and self-love.

Myth: Some people just get bulky—there’s no way around it

Truth: Getting bulky involves increasing muscle mass and overall body size. This goal typically requires a focus on high-intensity strength training, with an emphasis on lifting heavy weights and consuming a caloric surplus to support muscle growth. However, for those who are “unintentionally” pre-dispositioned to “get bulky,” we must also consider: gut health, hormones and thyroid, mitochondria, detoxification (excess toxins in the body/fat), cardio (especially excess cardio) and macronutrient balance (ie. Some people feel better with less starch, higher protein; others are missing carbs completely and would see better results by adding some carbs back in).

Myth: Getting bulky happens easily if you lift heavy weights

Truth: Lifting weights actually boosts metabolism because more muscle requires more fuel and metabolizes nutrients much more efficiently. Basically: you can lift heavy and not bulk up—especially if you support your body outside the gym with other factors that build a lean, toned body, including: balanced nutrition (ie. Eating enough), cutting the chronic cardio (which makes you hold onto weight more easily), proper rest, balanced fitness (walking, yoga/mobility, HIIT and lighter weight days too), good gut health and balanced hormones (which both play a role in how your body puts on muscle).

Myth: “Bulking up” happens if you eat carbs and/or lots of protein.

Truth: Balance. Balance. Balance. Protein, fat and fiber (carbs) actually all work synergistically and are essentials in any nutrition plan without needing to avoid or over-consume one macro in particular. The big idea: You can eat carbs and meat/protein without bulking up. Additionally, you need to eat enough fuel. Under-eating is a sneaky, under-talked about “root cause” that prevents “leaning out” when you weight train due to higher cortisol levels and hormone imbalances—your body has a harder time putting on or chiseling “lean muscle” in this state.

Myth: Heavy lifting always leads to a “muscle-bound” appearance.

Truth: With proper balanced training—heavy weight lifting days, combined with lighter higher rep or “hypertrophy” weight lifting days, core work, HIIT training, walking, yoga/mobility—and, of course, nutrition, lean muscle mass can be gained (without sacrificing aesthetics).


Alright, the moment you’ve all been waiting for—8 weight lifting strategies to tone up vs. get bulky.


Weight Lifting Strategies - Girl Making Fresh Organic Smoothie Using Blender In The Kitchen

Simply put, under-eating fuel slows your metabolism, which in turn leads your body to hold on to whatever it’s got. Add a stressor—like weight lifting strategies—to the mix in this state, and your body would rather “hold on” vs. lean out.

For example: When I personally bumped up my own macronutrient and caloric intake—adding in about 30 more grams of protein and 500 calories (from 70-80 grams protein daily to 100-110 grams of protein per day and from 1300-1500 calories to 1800-2000 calories per day), my lean muscles popped more!

Additionally my appetite increased. My energy went off the charts. My gut health, digestion and motility sped up. And my body said “thank you!” I was fueling it more to support my love for movement, activity and living life to the fullest.

So…eat enough fuel.


The good ol’ saying, “results are 80% in the kitchen and 20% in the gym” need apply here (although that 80% of results also entails your mindset). Like a plant that needs water, sun and rich soil, your body need all three macronutrients.

But…can certain protein, carb and fat ratios make a difference? And should you legit count macros or do “carb cycling” or try ketosis or intermittent fasting?

Honestly, since my recovery from disordered eating I’ve never really been caught up in any of those weight lifting strategies that diet culture promotes—instead preferring to keep it simple. Every BODY is different, and, given that, different nutrition tweaks will work differently for every BODY.

That said, what I’ve found for those who are desiring to “tone up” vs. “bulk up”, along with eating enough calorically, the following few notables can support your weight lifting strategies:

  • Add breakfast back in—if you cut it to to “fast”
  • Keep intermittent fasting to a 12-14 hour window
  • At meal times, eat in a blood sugar supportive way:
  • Protein and greens first, starch near the end.
  • Add a little bit of healthy fat to cook with and/or topically (such as drizzling olive oil on a winter squash, or adding some avocado to your burger patty).
  • Swig 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar in 4 oz of water before or after meals to boost digestion and mitigate blood sugar spikes.
  • Add sea salt to meals to taste.
  • Consume quality fuel—local, seasonal, organic, grass-fed, pasture raised, nutrient dense foods. (I am not talking about 100 calorie snack packs here)
  • Focus on getting enough protein: 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of healthy bodyweight daily
  • Add in cooked greens—1-2 times per day
  • Add in/stick to 1-2 soluble and resistant starches daily: cooked and cooled potatoes, winter squashes, roasted carrots/beets, sweet potatoes, white jasmine rice, plantains. Best times to consume starch: in your next meal after a workout time and/or in your evening meal as you wind down for the day.
  • Snack on a protein based snack or protein shake/bone broth if you get hungry between meals (and try to eat enough at meals to not ‘need’ to snack)
  • Avoid alcohol, coffee, sugar, seed oils, gluten, conventional dairy—if you want to really feel amazing
  • Stick to 1-2 servings of fruit per day
  • Enjoy “medicinal foods”: bone broths, fermented foods, sea moss, celery/beet juice
  • Avoid chemicals, fillers, fake processed “health” foods as much as possible—build the majority of intake on the real foods you’d find at the farmer’s market or outer perimeter of the grocery store…then “let life happen” (dark chocolate is encouraged).

Again: Every BODY is different, and, given that, different nutrition tweaks will work differently for every BODY…so consider these as little tips and tweaks you can try on for size, all under the over-arching theme that you are eating enough fuel.


Weight Lifting Strategies - Powerlifting And People Concept - Sporty Woman Exercising With Barbell In Gym

I love “body building” style weight lifting strategies — the 8-12 rep range with moderately challenging, but do-able weights, and working full-body throughout the week. You can do lower body and upper body splits; or you could do all push muscles (ie. Quads and chest/shoulders/triceps), and then pull muscle days (hamstrings, glutes, back, biceps).

And the secret sauce: SUPERSET!

Do 10 squats, then 10 bench press. Then back to 10 squats, and 10 bench press.

I maximize my workouts with supersets and rest very little during a workout to be efficient.

I also love to top each workout with some type of core work—a 3 minute weighted plank, or 3 sets of bicycle crunches superset with plank walks, etc.

You get the picture:

  • Hypertrophy training—3-6 days per week
  • Supersets
  • Core work to finish


Don’t do the same things—the same workouts, same weight lifting strategies or same exercises, every single day or every single week. Mix it up!

One day, integrate higher reps—like 20-30 rep range; another day do a heavier 5-8 rep range. One day do a full body workout or circuit, the next do a leg and chest focus, the next day do a CrossFit inspired workout—a heavy lift followed by a metcon or “WOD” with weights incorporated—like 20 minutes of kettlebell swings, deadlifts and box jumps. Leg day? One workout incorporate suitcase deadlifts, another—sumo deadlifts or Romanian deadlifts; back squats, the sumo squats, front squats or goblet squats. On an upper body day, try regular dumbbell bench press, incline bench press or hammer grip bench press.

I am constantly mixing it up and having fun with my weight lifting strategies to keep my body guessing and constantly adapting.

Here’s a sample 3 day training schedule for me in the gym:

Weight Lifting Strategies - Woman Exercising Push-Ups On Wooden Floor

DAY 1: Push (Strength)

Warm Up: 3 Rounds

  • Back Squats x 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Step Ups x 5/5 each leg
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Presses x 10 reps

5 Rounds

  • Back Squats x 5 reps
  • Military Press (Barbell) x 3-5 reps
  • Broad Jumps x 3

5 Rounds

  • Bench Press x 5
  • Sumo Goblet Squats x 10-15
  • Explosive Squat Jumps x 5

Accessory Work

  • 3 Rounds
  • Leg Extensions x 15 (or banded leg extensions)
  • Reverse Dumbbell Lunges x 10/10 each leg

3 Rounds

  • Lateral Raises x 10 reps
  • Upright Rows x 10 reps
  • Dips x 10 reps

Abs: 3 Rounds

  • Bench Situps x 15
  • Plank Up Downs x 10
  • Plank Toe Touch x 5/5 each side

DAY 2: Pull (Strength)

Warm Up: 3 Rounds

  • Barbell or Light Dumbbell Deadlifts x 10 reps
  • Barbell Lat Pull Downs x 10 reps
  • Bodyweight Lunges x 10/10 each leg
  • Band Pull Aparts x 10 Reps

5 Rounds

  • Sumo Deadlifts x 10-12 reps
  • Leg Press x 10-12 reps
  • Skater Jumps x 10/10 each side

5 Rounds

  • Assisted Pullups or Lat Pull Downs x 8-10 reps
  • Dumbbell Bent Over Rows, 10 each arm
  • Cable or TBar Rows, 10-12 pulls to chest

Accessory Work

  • 3 Rounds
  • Hamstring Curl Machine x 15 (Sub: Hamstring Curl on Ball or Rowing Machine)
  • Reverse Back Extensions x 10-15
  • Glute Bridges x 20 reps (with heavy dumbbell)

3 Rounds

  • Alternating Bicep Curls x 10 reps
  • Cable or Hammer Bicep Curls x 10 reps
  • Pushups x 10 reps

Abs: 3 Rounds

  • Bicycle Crunches x 15 each side
  • Toe Touches x 20
  • Scissor Kicks x 30

DAY 3: Full Body

Warm Up:

  • Dynamic stretches and mobility drills for 10 minutes.

Strength-Based EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute) – 16 minutes:

  • Even minutes: 5 Front Squats (barbell or dumbbells)
  • Odd minutes: 5 Pull-Ups (scaled as necessary)

Metcon (Metabolic Conditioning) – 20 minutes:

Complete as many rounds as possible (AMRAP) in 20 minutes of:

  • 10 Thrusters (barbell or dumbbells)
  • 15 Box Jumps or Step-Ups
  • 20 Double-Unders (or 40 Single-Unders or Jumping Jacks)

Quick Finisher- 7 minute cap

  • For time:21-15-9
  • Kettlebell Swings
  • Burpees

Ab Workout

3 Rounds:

  • 15 Toes-to-Bar or Hanging Knee Raises
  • 20 Russian Twists (with a kettlebell or dumbbell)
  • 30-second Plank Hold


Speaking of mixing it up, also mix it up OUTSIDE of your regular gym.

The body LOVES variety and this variety allows for more balance and lean muscle development—versus just grinding and follow any weight lifting strategies and going hard and heavy every single day with barbells in the gym.

Compliment your “foundation” (3 to 6 days of lifting) with 10-30 minutes of HIIT/sprint training, a yoga or pilates-style bodyweight practice, plenty of walking and “lifestyle” activities (sports, dance, play), and an active-rest bodyweight, yoga, mobility or rest and recovery day.

Your body was made to move, not exercise and incorporating a variety of movement is a gift to your health.

An example run down of my weekly movement looks like

Weight lifting, with a HIIT/CrossFit-style metcon “finisher”, 5-6 days per week
Power vinyasa yoga and walks, daily
Hip hop dance, 3-4 times per week
“Flow” day, 1 day per week (sauna, mobility, yoga, play)

I have more energy than anyone I know and love how strong and capable my body is. Listen to your body. Everyone’s “threshold” of movement and training will depend on how well they are recovering, how healthy their gut and detox pathways are, and how well they are re-fueling themselves (ie. If you are under-eating, the above schedule would probably be a little too much for you).

The bottom line: mix it up—don’t do the same things every day or for every workout.


Believing IS seeing. If you see yourself as lean and feel lean (in your mind’s eye), it will come to pass. If you see yourself as bulky, pudgy, frumpy and feel bulky, insecure, self conscious, etc., where your focus goes, your energy (and 3D world) will flow.

I’ve worked with thousands of clients over the past decade and the #1 “separator” between those that lean out, lose weight, feel good in their own skin—and those that do not—starts in the mind—seeing themselves as a healthier, more confident, lean, capable version of themselves.

So as within, so as without.


Evidence suggests (1, 2, 3) that gut bacteria and microbial diversity are determinants of muscle and metabolism. Basically, the healthier your gut, the easier it will be to put on lean muscle and tweak your body composition overall.

For one your gut bugs regulate your insulin (blood sugar levels), digest the fuel that feed your muscles and govern metabolism (hormones, mitochondria). This is why patients with cancer or anorexia tend to be catabolic or experience sarcopenia (body and muscle breakdown), whereas athletes tend to put on muscle and appear healthier (toned, lean, defined muscles).

This is also, generally, why the classic power lifter or football player, on a “bulk”, who regularly eats microbiome altering foods (like gummy bears, pizza and GOMAD—gallon of—conventional processed inflammatory—milk/dairy a day), often have bigger guts, skin breakouts, gas and indigestion. Whereas, athletes who mind their nutrition to fuel performance—high protein, starch, lower fat—have the six pack abs, striated muscles and definition all around.

Your gut—and what you feed it—influences your muscle leanness or bulk.

Beyond diversifying your microbiome with probiotics, prebiotics and a variety of gut-loving foods, “cleansing” SIBO, candida and dysbiosis; healing leaky gut (with minerals, bone broths, sea moss, colostrum/immunoglobulines), along with boosting digestion (with enzymes, stomach acid, ox bile) rounds out the “gut balancing” puzzle.

Personally, my metabolism and lean muscle development sky rockets with these daily practices:

  • Quality probiotic
  • Prebiotic foods (consuming 1-2 servings of soluble rich fiber and sea moss gel)
  • Humic fulvic minerals
  • Bone broth, daily
  • High protein diet (amino acids for a healthy leaky gut)
  • Digestive enzymes and apple cider vinegar shots—often
  • Hydration

Once your gut health is dialed in, balancing hormones and boosting mitochondria also can make a huge difference in building lean vs. bulky muscles. “Bulky” muscles store glycogen and simply may not break down carbs (starch) as efficiently as a gut microbiome and mitochondrial Krebs cycle that can actually utilize those carbs you are eating.

And we all know how stress works in the body—it’s either anabolic (bulking) or if it goes on for far too long, it can become catabolic (break down). In either state, you cannot put on lean muscle! Your cortisol and inflammation needs to be under control to lean out.

To balance hormones and mitochondria, I start here:

  • Mitochondria support nutrients; possibly cortisol balancing adaptogens (like cordyceps or rhodiola)
  • Daily mind-body practice (nervous-system regulation)—yoga, nature walks, sauna, hip hop dance, creative writing (all my “flow states”)
  • Morning routine – prayer and time in the Word to get my mind right, working out, hydration
  • Quitting chronic cardio, overtraining and “over exerting” my nervous system
  • Mitigating blue lights and artificial lights with blue blocker filters, glasses and natural light (as much as possible)
  • Investing time and energy in people—humans are nutrients and make my heart happy (we are wired for love and connection)
  • Detoxing toxins daily (our last strategy #7)


Weight Lifting Strategies - Woman Making Vegetable Smoothies With Blender Home In Kitchen

Toxins are the elephant in the room for your metabolism and lean muscle development: the 100,000 unregulated toxins in circulation. We are inundated. Body fat and bulk loves storing toxins—fat and excess body composition is a perfect “house” for toxins.

Endocrine disruptors in particular inhibit your ability to build lean muscle, and contribute to “bulk” and excess body fat/weight.

The “obesogen hypothesis” states that exposure to endocrine disruptors and other chemicals can alter the development and function of fat tissue, the liver, pancreas, digestive tract, and brain, thus changing the set point for control of metabolism. Endocrine disruptors can determine how much food (calorically) is needed to maintain homeostasis, as well as how food and exercise is metabolized, thereby increasing the susceptibility to bulking or body fat storage.

Endocrine disruptors are everywhere! They are components of adhesives (glues, tapes), brake fluids, and flame retardants (furniture, upholstery, bedding); they are used in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plastic food containers, pacifiers, birth control pills, medicines, cosmetics (makeup, deodorant, perfume), and skin/hair care (bisphenol A, phthalates), plastic surgery, botox, printing inks (polychlorinated biphenyls – PCBs), receipts (bisphenol A, BSA), yoga pants and rain jackets (phthalates); they are also a component of polyvinyl products (e.g. toys) (phthalates), canned foods, air fresheners and cleaning agents (phthalates); moreover, they can be found in the smoke from burning wood (dioxins), and in soil or plants (pesticides). Endocrine disruptors are also part of our diet and can be found in conventional non-organic fruits and veggies, soy products (soy milk, soy yogurt, soy nuts), conventional meats, canned foods, conventional dairy, farmed fish and artificial sweeteners.

Detox toxins by ditching them daily in your environment and making mindful eating, environmental, drinking and product choices; along with making sure your detox channels are “open” to kick them out. Integrate a non-toxic lifestyle with some of these hacks:


  • Purify your air
  • Replace toxic makeup and cleaning/hygiene products with non-toxic alternatives
  • Shop local, organic produce
  • Buy pasture-raised, re-generative, local, wild caught and grassfed grass finished sources of meat
  • Quit birth control pills and talk to your doctor about SSRI alternatives (like movement, probiotics, sunshine and good food/gut healing)
  • Toxic beauty (breast implants, toxic facial and skincare creams, formaldehyde-based hair dye, fillers/injectables, etc.)


  • Sauna often or hot epsom salt (detox) baths
  • Dry brushing daily
  • Lymphatic massage, legs up the wall, yoga, movement, rebounding
  • Coffee enemas once a week
  • Castor oil pack
  • Celery and beet juice
  • Gentle binders like chlorella and Biotoxin Binder (use code PJ03HABY)
  • Cistus Tea
  • Supplements: Magnesium, Liposomal Glutathione, Liposomal Vitamin C, liver gallbladder support formula
  • Bone broth and eat quality proteins (amino acids aid in liver detox)

It is all about the little things that help any weight lifting strategies work. These little “off loads” could be the “unlock” that allows your body to stop bulking and start leaning out much more easily.


Your body type DOES play a role in your tendency to store fat, build muscle, lose weight, carry more weight in your legs or abdomen or chest, etc. You have to consider these factors to formulate the most effective weight lifting strategies for you.

For example: I love CrossFit! And when I first discovered CrossFit, I wanted to be an athlete and go to the CrossFit Games! However, I quickly learned that my body type is not built to deadlift or squat 300 pounds or snatch 200 pound barbells overhead. I am naturally leaner and feel best in my own skin when I am not overpushing my body in the gym.

A person with Scandinavian ancestors (vikings) is often built differently than a person from a West African tribal descent than a person from Central Europe Germany-Holocaust survivor (thinner)

And then of course, your DOSHA — your Aryuvedic Body Type—plays a unique role in your leanness vs. bulkiness.

To achieve a “balanced body composition,” ayurvedic philosophies believe our bodies are composed up of a balance three Doshas—the energies that make up every individual, which perform different physiological functions in the body.

The three Dosha body types include:

Vata: Usually has a thin, light frame and excellent agility. Vata energy comes in bursts and they are likely to experience sudden bouts of fatigue. Vatas typically have dry skin and hair and cold hands and feet. They sleep lightly and their digestion can be sensitive.

Pitta: Pittas are usually of medium size and weight. They sometimes have bright red hair, but baldness or thinning hair is also common in a Pitta. They have excellent digestion, which sometimes leads them to believe they can eat anything. They have a warm body temperature. They sleep soundly for short periods of time and have a strong sex drive. When in balance, Pittas have a lustrous complexion, perfect digestion, abundant energy, and a strong appetite.

Kapa: Kapha types have a strong build and excellent stamina. Large, soft eyes; smooth, radiant skin; and thick hair are also important Kapha characteristics. Those who are predominantly Kapha sleep soundly and have regular digestion. But when Kapha builds to excess, weight gain, fluid retention, and allergies manifest in the body.

Each person has all three Doshas, but usually one or two dominate. Take a quiz to figure out yours.

Join Waitlist We will inform you when the product arrives in stock. Please leave your valid email address below.

No fields found, please go to settings & save/reset fields