What Exercises Really Work for Building Lean Muscle?


lean muscle building

Wanting to know what exercises will make you look long and tight without adding bulk? Trying to figure out what is most effective for creating lean muscle? Were getting real about what exercises actually work to achieve long, lean muscles.

We’ve heard it all and been pulled in every direction by fitness companies promising results with exercise solutions.

Some experts say “cardio cardio cardio!” Or “high weight, low rep!” Others say “All you need is heavy weights and strength training you won’t get bulky!”

Before we get into what exercises are best for achieving lean and long body goals, we need to clear up some claims and set realistic expectations for changing your body composition.

First, if your goals are to avoid a bulky, muscular look it is important to understand that women do not contain the testosterone levels needed to build a ton of muscle. It takes a lot of strategy and discipline to significantly build bigger muscle which is why even men struggle “gains”. Women should still strength train without being concerned.

Second, It is impossible to change the length of your muscles. Muscle length is specifically determined by where the muscle attaches to the bone. Tall people have long femurs and short people have short femurs. So it makes sense that the muscle proportions differently based on the length of your bones. Your physical muscles growing in length or getting leaner is impossible.

All muscle is lean.

When people talk about building long, lean muscles what they actually mean is- losing fat and building some muscle… and it is definitely possible to do both at once.

Yes, Both.

Strength training is an important benefactor to this goal but unless you burn the fat with cardio you won’t see the results you’re looking for. Pairing cardio with strength training is actually a perfect formula that is super effective and also makes time go by faster than doing one and the other.

It is important to note that there are other factors that may make it more difficult for some individuals to see a change in their bodies. Factors like medical conditions, stress levels, genetics, hormones, sleep schedule, and fitness expertise can all affect how easy or difficult losing fat and gaining muscle can be. Every single person is different so it is necessary to listen to your body and make changes for what specifically works best for you. Changing your body composition requires the right workout routine AND nutrition plan.

So, what works?

What exercises are effective?

How can you lose fat and build muscle to achieve that lean physique?

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that the best workout is the one that works for your body and that you will actually enjoy and consistently do.

Okay, let’s dive into this equation:

Lose Fat + Build Muscle= Lean Body Composition


You can strength train all day, but unless you are losing fat you won’t see the results you’re hoping for.

Lets put this into perspective and get a little nerdy. It takes burning 3,500 calories to lose one pound. If you cut 500 calories every day of the week from your diet you will lose one pound a week. Boom. Science. It is estimated that you should strive for 30 minutes of exercise each day. Alternating between cardio and weight training each day or doing a little of both during your workout can be effective.


You have to do it. Cardio can be completed in multiple ways and by changing your cardio outlet you can make your workout more fun and effective. Running, jogging, or walking at an incline are all forms of cardio using a treadmill. Using a rower, stair-master, elliptical, jump rope, or stationary bike are also very good forms of cardio.

But what is the best?


Running sprints will literally train the body to burn fat for fuel by prolonging work capacity and preserving glycogen in the muscle. Not only is it the most effective, but it is also known for being a really quick workout, for those of us who hate cardio. By just doing 15 sprints for 30 seconds each you will burn more fat than if you did a steady run for 60 minutes.

Your waistline will shrink and your fat oxidation will increase dramatically if you keep the training consistent for a few months. Sprints boost your metabolism which allows you to burn more calories even when the workout is over. It also promotes muscle building by using dozens of muscles at once which allows your body to become stronger and leaner.

We highly recommend adding sprints to your workout plan, and it’s pretty clear why!


High-intensity interval training is extremely similar to sprinting for it burns a lot of calories in a short period of time.

The difference is that this style of exercising alternates cardio and strength movements between periods of really high and really low-intensity efforts. It also keeps your metabolic rate high for hours after your workout is complete. These workouts are proven to burn more calories than traditional workouts and more body fat in half the time. Hiit workouts prove to burn between 5-17 percent more calories than other workouts. It also improves insulin sensitivity in the muscle and spiked growth hormone levels which aid in fat loss.


Strength Training

To build muscle it is important to use strength training in your workouts by lifting weights or doing resistance band exercises. By building muscle, your body will naturally burn more calories even when you are not exercising.

Free Weights

Dumbbells and barbells are weights whose motion is not attached to any other structures. Lifting free weights will define your body and improve your posture making you look taller and longer. These weights mimic natural movements and help with overall strength. Another benefit to lifting weights its enhanced mood and reduced stress.

Here are some of the best free weight exercises for women

Resistance Bands

Resistance bands are made of strong rubber and come in a variety of resistances based on your strength level.

You can do squats, glute exercises, chest presses, rows, bicep curls, etc. without having to haul around heavyweights. These bands are also good for helping with flexibility and range of motion. Resistance bands benefit linear variable resistance which means that as the range of motion of the exercise increases the resistance provided by the elastic equipment increases. When the muscle is receiving greater resistance it is receiving adequate resistance to better stimulate strength adaptations. This benefit is not achieved with weight training.

Many people notice more of a burn in the muscles and greater fatigue when compared with using free weights. This is because the elastic bands allow a greater number of muscle fibers to be used. Research performed at Truman State University found that athletes who included elastic resistance bench press training in their regimens had a significantly greater increase in bench press strength and power as compared to those who only utilized free-weight resistance training.

High repetition with lower weights will help build muscle endurance and allow you to really focus on the movement. Some of the best workouts for this type of body goal* are HIIT

Barre And Pilates

Barre and Pilates fitness classes have become very popular over the past few years because they are known for being hard on muscles, but kind on joints.

Barre classes are also known for achieving the tiny and toned dancer body while leaving you with a positive and connected mind. These isometric exercises build muscles that are key for endurance and balance. Many models use this strength format because it works their muscles much less than that of a lifting class which allows them to stay toned without building any mass. These concentrated movements consist of high reps, with tiny motions that will fatigue your muscles to failure.

Pilates classes focus more on strengthening the core and toning the tiny muscles all over your body. Pilates will also help improve your posture and make you stand taller, which can help you appear to be leaner.


I have not personally written off the claims that workouts like Barre, Pilates, Yoga or low weight high rep exercises are fake claims pushed by marketers for achieving that long lean look, but I also haven’t completely bought into the claim that strength training is more effective, or won’t make you bulky, or is the only thing that will show results. I think it is important to remember what you’re trying to accomplish- lose fat & build muscle.

Everyone defines “bulky” different and everyone’s genetic makeup is different. Depending on your body type- what workout plan is right for you may be different. If you are starting this process already super strong and conditioned and you have lots of muscle- maybe you should work on the losing fat side of the equation. If you are the cardio queen but don’t have any weight training involved in your workout plan – maybe you should work on the muscle building side of the equation.

If you have never worked out a day in your life- cardio + strength training are equally your new best friends. NO matter what level you are at- working both sides of the equation is important but emphasizing one over the other may help you see the results you are wanting faster.

By Megan Heaton

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Terry Asher

Owner & Founder at Gym Junkies LLC
After changing his best friend’s life by helping him lose over 70lbs, dropping him down to an amazing 7% body fat, Terry was inspired to be a full-time internet trainer knowing he could do the same for many more. In 2010, Terry published his own diet and fitness e-book that can be purchased on this website. Let Terry help you change your body for the better!
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