How to lift without “Getting Bulky”



My personal goals involve increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat, and performing heavy barbell lifts.

However, the majority of my clients do not share these goals. Most of my clients want to lose weight, regain function, improve posture, and reverse disease.

In fact, one of the most frequent concerns I hear from those trying to get in shape is that they “don’t want to get big muscles”.

For that reason, I’m going to discuss what causes muscle growth, and how you can avoid getting bulky muscles while still leaning out and improving performance.

The technical term for developing muscle size is “muscular hypertrophy”. Hypertrophy is merely the process of tissues increasing in volume. And the form of muscular hypertrophy that results in the largest muscular gains is “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy”.

Strictly speaking, 8 to 12 repetitions with a moderate weight is the protocol for hypertrophy training. However, intensity and volume are the real deciding factors.

Intensity is accomplished by working until the muscles can no longer perform the exercise properly, known as “failure”, and moving quickly between sets.

Volume is an equation of sets, reps, and weight. This means that 2 sets of 20 repetitions


Female Olympian in the 165 lb. weight class. Does SHE look bulky?

with 5 pounds will result in more growth stimulus than 3 sets of 1 repetition with 50 pounds.

I personally perform an exercise for 4 sets of 15 repetitions if I am trying to increase muscle size. Almost any load can cause significant growth when performed for 15 slow and focused repetitions.

I bring up the topic of intensity to address those that avoid lifting heavy weights because they don’t want to bulk up. The classic bodybuilder approach of 8 to 12 repetitions means that “heavy weights” (relative to the individuals strength) cannot be used.

BulkyThe weights that bodybuilders handle may look heavy but this is merely because they are very strong and have been lifting, with regular improvement, for a long time. It may look like a bench press with two 75-pound dumbbells looks heavy, but if the individual is doing it for 8 or more reps, they could handle over 100-pound dumbbells for fewer reps.

Contrarily, lifting a massively heavy weight for fewer than 5 repetitions will actually train the mind more than the muscles. Yes, the body is getting a great workout, but lifting a maximum load for 1, 2, or 3 repetitions results in more neurological adaptations than muscular growth.

So, if any rep range can stimulate muscle growth, and 8 to 12 reps with a moderately-heavy weight is the most promising to grow muscles, what can you do to avoid “bulking up”?

  • Always feel like you could do 2 to 5 more repetitions with perfect form. The moment you go to failure, and technique breaks down, you are causing muscular damage that will result in the muscle growing larger during recovery.
  • Also, take the time you need to rest between sets. Many bodybuilder programs recommend timed recoveries under 60 seconds, sometimes as low as 15 seconds. Starting your next set before the muscles are ready is a surefire way to stimulate muscle growth.
  • Finally, don’t consume excess calories! One of the main goals of exercising is to increase lean body mass, but, if you don’t want your muscles to grow considerably larger, eat at, or even below, maintenance so your body replaces fat with lean mass.

One last point worth making is regarding “toning”. The same people that say they don’t want to “grow muscles” say that they “only want to tone”. Believe it or not, tone means muscle! There is no way to make fat or skin look “toned”. The definition or tone visible on a fit persons arms, legs, or torso, is actually their muscle.

This doesn’t mean that you have to train like a bodybuilder and put on 50 pounds of muscle to looked toned… but replacing body fat with lean body mass (also known as muscle) is necessary to achieve a fit physique.

The world of fitness, nutrition, and health is filled with mixed messages, preconceived notions, and bogus ideas. But please don’t give any mind to the false claims that lifting weights and increasing strength will make you bulky!

If you work within your limits, have a program structured to your goals, and don’t eat to excess, you will achieve a healthy and proportionate figure.

And as always, if you would like professional guidance, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at !




Enjoy Your Exercise!

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the importance of picking exercise that is enjoyable and not boring.

A new study showed that individuals ended up feeling unhappy and over consuming calories after activity that was defined as “exercise”. Study participants that were told they were walking for “pleasure” ended up feeling more positive about their time spent active, and made healthier nutritional choices for the remainder of the day.

For the complete article that discusses this study, please visit this link to The New York Times.

One interesting aspect that the study did not discuss was the role of cortisol, or stress levels, in the body. Sure, telling someone to “go out and exercise” may make their experience less enjoyable than telling them to “listen to music, stroll around, and sight-see”, but ultimately, we need to examine the mechanisms behind the difference.

As one of the last paragraphs of the article states:

“Just how, physiologically, our feelings about physical activity influence our food intake is not yet known, she said, and likely to be bogglingly complex, involving hormones, genetics, and the neurological circuitry of appetite and reward processing. But in the simplest terms, Dr. Werle said, this new data shows that most of us require recompense of some kind for working out. That reward can take the form of subjective enjoyment. If exercise is fun, no additional gratification is needed. If not, there’s chocolate pudding.”

I don’t know if it’s necessarily a compensation that’s required, but rather, more about finding the activity that is right for you.

I have clients that perform bodyweight exercises for 15 minutes a day in their office. I have clients that walk leisurely outdoors then perform a few movements with elastic bands. I have clients that prefer loading up a barbell and pushing their strength limits. I have clients that go through a one-hour session, spending the first 3rd on an aerobic machine, the second 3rd on exercises to improve strength and balance, and the last 3rd on flexibility and recovery work.

All these people experience incremental progress on a daily basis, and major improvements month-to-month. But, more importantly, they leave each session feeling like they accomplished something important that day, and not that they were simply “forced to exercise”.

To go back to my point about cortisol – if an activity is not enjoyable, it’s going to feel like a chore or a stressor. When our stress levels increase, our body does a few things.

First, it will hold onto body fat because the body wants to prepare itself for enduring “hard times” and sustaining life. Second, the body’s hunger-signaling will be altered to allow for additional calories to come in, to once again be stored as fat to ensure our survival through the stressful period.

Cortisol has many other functions but is better saved for a later post.

One last thing I can’t keep myself from drawing attention to, are the studies parameters for healthy and unhealthy food. They list a “chocolate bar and pudding” as unhealthy and a “cereal bar and applesauce” as healthy.

Certainly a cereal bar and applesauce can be healthier than a chocolate bar and pudding, but this is like saying that driving 75 MPH on a small side-road is safer than driving 100 MPH on the same road. Sure, one is marginally safer, but they both have very high likelihoods of a tragic outcome.

These are all refined, processed, and packaged foods that are not found in nature. Also, they are all sources of carbohydrates with next to no essential proteins or fats. All carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and will turn to sugar in the blood. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at applesauce or pudding…we’re still focusing on non-essential, man-made products.

If the two groups had truly healthy options, such as a large salad with salmon and avocado, topped with olive oil and red wine vinegar, it would be almost impossible for either group to overeat. The body needs proteins and fats, and while carbs are useful to boost athletic performance, they result in insulin spikes that interfere with leptin, causing abnormal hunger-signaling.

Ok, sorry, got a little side-tracked there!

The final takeaway from this post is: find an enjoyable and sustainable activity to improve your health!

Weak Glutes!

Have you ever noticed how we start shuffling along as we age? Our steps shorten, we don’t raise our feet up, and we lose balance and stability. At the same time, we develop lower back and knee pain or injuries.

Well, all this is completely reversible and avoidable!

The imbalance and limited range of motion is almost always attributed to weakness in the trunk, legs, and hips – and particularly the glutes!

The glutes contain three muscles, the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The glutes are one of the largest and potentially most powerful muscles in the body.


Imagine trying to lift a heavy object off the floor using just the lower back, the bottom part of the spine and the limited amount of muscles around it.

Imagine spending most of your day on your feet, with just the knee joint and the few muscles around it, supporting all your weight.

Now imagine using all the muscles from the thighs to the back of the hips assisting with these activities.

Our daily lives, consisting frequently of sitting at a desk, sitting in a car, and sitting once more when we get home, have rendered our glutes unnaturally weak. Worse than that, we have lost our mind-body connection with the glutes!

In addition to reduced activity, we do very little lateral movement – stepping side-to-side.
This type of movement, as the legs move out from the midline of the body, is referred to as abduction. The glutes are the major muscle group responsible for leg abduction.

So, now that we know the problem, the symptoms, the most common cause, and the important terms, all that’s left is the resolution.

My first recommendation would be to find any and every excuse to stand and walk. Luckily, as a trainer, I am on my feet for a good part of the day, but some common tactics for others would be:

• When you get home at the end of the day, walk outside for 15 minutes before going into your house.

• Drink more water, resulting in more walking to and from the bathroom. (This is a win-win because most of us don’t drink enough water either!)

• If you happen to be going somewhere less than a mile away, walk rather than drive.

• Get a FitBit or other step-tracking program. Some contain a social element that may also be motivating and fun.

My second recommendation involves doing direct work for the glutes and hips during training.

• The easiest movement to start with is commonly known as “clamshells”. Lay on one side, with your hips back and your knees bent. Place one foot on top of another and, while keeping the inside of the feet touching, separate the knees as far as is comfortable and slowly return. Imagine a clam opening its shell – this should be similar to the motion of your knees.

• Another easy exercise to do is “side-steps”. Assume a similar position, knees bent, hips back, feet close together, but this time, standing. Step the right leg a foot or two to the right, and slowly follow with the left leg. Count each step by both feet as one repetition, and do the same number to return to where you started.

• Finally, there are more complicated movements such as squatting with a wide stance and an elastic band around the knees, or attaching cables from pulley machines to straps around the ankles.

• I would recommend avoiding the “abduction machine” however. It puts undue stress on the joint, in an unnatural position for the abductors to engage, and allows too much weight to be used, too quickly, leading to faulty technique.

If you are a visual or auditory learner like me, you can also go on YouTube or Google and search the name of these various movements. Just remember, keep the hips back and the knees bent so they don’t pass beyond the toes.

These exercises will also have excellent transference to any sport that requires sideways motion, such as skiing and skating.

And, with that, you now know what you can do to improve your posture, gait, balance, and the health of your lower back and knees. Give it a try and see how you feel after a month or so!

Prehab – Scapula & Rotator Cuff

Hello everyone! I hope you all enjoyed the recipe last week and were able to indulge in a pizza night without the negative health consequences.

This week, I wanted to discuss one topic that I am beginning to find more and more important during my fitness endeavors – prehab movements.

We probably all know that rehab, or rehabilitation, is necessary after certain injuries or imbalances are discovered. Physical therapists are some of the best trained individuals to help with these issues. However, why wait until an issue occurs to correct a problem in the body?

A few months ago, as the weight on my presses increased, I started to have some discomfort in my rear shoulder. After some consideration, I added in more shoulder and scapular stability work using simple bodyweight or elastic band movements. My scapular stability, and rotator cuff strength, has definitely improved, and there’s no way I’m skipping these movements in the future.

Just to review, the scapula is the shoulder blade, and the strength of the upper back muscles, particularly between the scapulae, will dictate not only shoulder and back health, but also posture.

I cycle regular scapular stability and rotator cuff exercises into my client’s routines but, a useful way to determine your own scapular stability is as follows. Stand straight and hold a pencil in each hand. Let your arms rest naturally at your sides. Now look down.

If the pencil tips are pointed in, focus on strengthening the muscles between the shoulder blades, using motions that involve pinching the shoulder blades back and down, known as scapular retraction and depression.

If the pencils are pointed out, work on flexibility and mobility of the upper back, specifically the thoracic spine. Foam rolling, or rolling on a lacrosse ball, can be very effective, yet slightly painful in the beginning. Just stick with it!

Finally, if the tips are straight, you are either one of the lucky ones that have perfect posture, or you’ve kept up with your scapular stability work!

As people age, we tend to develop a rounded upper back with our shoulder blades spreading apart. This is referred to as kyphosis. The main causes of this condition are: lack of upper back strength, forcing individuals to rely upon their upper shoulder and neck muscles (that have far less strength potential); as well as improper posture and muscle tightness, particularly common when seated at a desk or doing chores.

Some of the best exercises for shoulder health and scapular stability would be internal and external rotations with elastic bands, or light dumbbell’s, as well as rowing movements and face-pulls. Some slightly more difficult options would be ITYW’s, lat-shrugs, and scap-pushups. (Feel free to click any of these individual exercises to navigate to a page that describes the movement and has a helpful image.)

I will continue this theme of prehab movements in future posts, focusing on other common areas of injury or imbalance in the human body. Please feel free to post questions in the comment section, or contact me directly, if you’d like any more information for your specific situations!