If you’ve been enticed by the promise of “long and lean" muscles, you’re not alone.
Fitness companies pump millions of dollars into advertising exercise solutions that promise to help you look “long and lean,” while trusted and well-intentioned, but misinformed, fitness instructors across many disciplines further propagate these persistent claims.
Women occasionally contact me seeking advice on how to get strong for everyday life without getting "bulky" in the process—they want to look “long and lean” instead. Many times, these women are doing exercises such as Pilates, yoga, or light weight/high repetition resistance training because they’ve been told that in addition to building strength, these forms of exercise lengthen muscles and don’t make you “bulky.”
I love that more and more women want to learn how to get stronger so they can feel fit and independent, and get things done (carry a 40-pound bag of dog food into the house, lift strollers and car seats, or put a heavy suitcase in the overhead bin without assistance).
What strikes me about these inquiries, however, is how widespread the “long and lean muscles” misconception is. Worse yet, is how widely this notion that there are exercises that will produce those results has become accepted as fact.
Today I want to address both, getting stronger and whether or not it’s possible to create “long, lean muscles,” and hopefully clear up a lot of misinformation and confusion out there standing between so many women and their goals.
First, we need to separate some myths from the current best evidence. (This is something like critically examining information usually referred to as #broscience. Maybe we should call it #chickscience—let’s get that trending!)
Contrary to #chickscience—which we often hear as we climb onto our Pilates reformers, settle onto our yoga mats, or work through hundreds of leg lifts or bicep curls in a group fitness class—we cannot “lengthen” muscles through exercise. I mean that with no disrespect to Pilates, yoga, barre, or any other practice. If you love what you’re doing, and you feel energized, fit, and happy when you’re engaging in these practices, that’s time well spent. But if you’re doing something for the sole purpose of building a “long and lean” physique, this article is for you.
Personally, I love Pilates and yoga so much that I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training years ago, spent over a year becoming a certified Thai yoga therapy practitioner, and completed 300 hours of Pilates teacher training. I use the principles of these disciplines with my clients every day, and I encourage everyone to find a form of exercise that they love. Yet, we have to be clear about why we’re doing that exercise and what benefit we are getting out of it. Yoga, Pilates and Barre classes do offer some benefits, like improved body weight strength, stretch tolerance (“flexibility”), deep breathing and relaxation, and improved balance, but they do not result in longer, leaner muscles.
Our current best evidence shows that despite how it may feel, muscle length actually doesn’t change very much from exercise or stretching.
Muscles have a point of origin (where they start) and a point of insertion (where they attach). At both of these points, tendons connect the muscles to bone. Without undergoing surgery for a limb-lengthening procedure, these are fixed points. (For the curious among you: in an Ilizarov limb lengthening procedure, a surgical fracture is made in the bone, and an external fixator is applied. As the bone begins to heal, the fracture sites are moved apart by one millimeter a day.)1 While I have worked with patients who have had bone-lengthening procedures to correct deformities, this is not the route the average woman is likely to take to achieve a “long and lean” physique! So, barring this type of surgery, muscles are largely the length they are, and you cannot change the origin and insertion any more than sleeping extra hours every night will ever make me taller than 5’2.” Sigh.
Given that muscle length changes very little as a result of stretching, how do we explain the fact that we can move deeper into a yoga pose after a few months of steady practice? Stretching does increase your range of motion, but as growing body of research shows, this has little to do with actual lengthening of the muscles. Instead, the change takes place in your nervous system.
According to studies from PT Journal, the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, the only thing that changes is our perception and tolerance of the stretch sensation.2,3 In other words, stretching decreases our brain and nervous system’s perception of threat by increasing our “stretch-tolerance.” This allows you to get a deeper stretch before triggering the “danger, you’re stretching too far!” message that engages the muscle’s protective mechanisms. In addition, a study from The Journal of Rheumatology concluded that muscle’s capability of being stretched (called extensibility) in subjects with Benign Joint Hypermobility Syndrome, or BJHS (a condition in which the joints are more flexible than what is considered normal, sometimes called 'double-jointed) was also attributed to altered sensation, not longer muscles.4
Another reason we might think we feel a change in muscle length from exercise has to do with muscular imbalances. Oftentimes, what we perceive as “tightness” really isn’t tightness at all, but rather weaknesses in opposing muscle groups. (Learn more about muscle imbalances and resulting “tightness.”) When we continually overstretch an area that feels tight, we may be overlooking the opposing muscle group, which may actually need strengthening.
So, given the evidence cited above, while you can’t make your muscles longer, you can definitely make them stronger—and getting stronger can help you get leaner.
Should you still do yoga, barre, and Pilates? YES! They feel really good! They help you spend time focusing on your body, the way you move, as well as on your mind and breath, which may help to decrease your perception of stress! These practices can also build overall strength to a certain degree, and help you train muscles that you may not regularly train otherwise. (Have you ever taken a really challenging arm-balance class and not been able to wash your hair the next day? That feels so bad, but so good!)
However, I want to be clear about one thing:
The only way to increase your strength is to progressively overload the muscles. Simply put, progressive overload means that you increase the load as you get stronger.
Will lifting progressively heavier weights make you “bulky?” It depends on a number of factors such as your body type, your genetic make-up, how your body responds to strength training, how easily your body builds muscle mass, the amount and type of food you regularly eat, your hormonal profile, your recovery techniques, the type and amount of weight you are lifting, and many more factors. It also depends on what “bulky” means to you. What one person might consider “bulky” is sometimes considered “lean” or “athletic” or “just right” by someone else.
Contrary to what many women have been led to believe about strength training, performing endless repetitions of exercises using very light weight will not yield "long and lean muscles" or strength gains. For the woman who simply wants to be strong enough to move furniture without assistance and healthy enough to live a vibrant, active life—but doesn’t want to see large increases in muscle size—focusing on progressive overload of a few primary movement patterns (push, pull, rotation/anti-rotation, squat, deadlift, carry) will likely do the trick.
Resistance training starting with light/bodyweight to moderate weight, along with keeping your focus on good nutrition (eating nutrient-dense whole foods), using active recovery techniques, and doing intelligent amounts of cardio will likely help you reach those goals. When you master proper form with the basic movement patterns and increase the load progressively, in a pain-free manner, you are on your way to developing great functional strength.
Progressive resistance training can also help you achieve a leaner appearance. It increases your metabolic rate and can help you lose body fat, provided that you consistently eat nutrient-dense foods, achieve a caloric deficit, and get enough quality sleep.
While it is very difficult for most women to put on any significant amount of muscle without some serious effort and dedication toward that specific goal, it’s not entirely unheard of. It depends on the individual woman. If you feel that you are getting “too bulky” for your preference while following this type of training, take a look at whether the “bulk” is due to muscle growth, or increased body fat—or a bit of both. Lifting weights tends to increase your metabolism and make you hungrier, so you may need to tighten up your nutrition and see what happens. If you do that, and find that you’re still a bit more “muscle-y” than you want to be, then continue to decrease your resistance training (either the number of sessions or the load and/or volume in your sessions) and continue to focus on maintaining a caloric deficit through your nutrition.
If you are comfortable with your current weight but want to change your body composition to shed a little body fat or increase lean muscle mass, it’s important to pay closer attention to your nutrition, as well as add in some more resistance training, and do a few cardio sessions choosing activities you enjoy. The progressive overload from resistance training can build lean muscle mass, while paying closer attention to your nutrition can help you reduce your body fat, revealing a little more of your new muscles. Cardio is not only great for your overall health, depending on the type of cardio you do and when you do it, it can help with calorie balance, help you recover from the strength training workouts, and can help manage your blood sugar as well.
There are certain things that no type of exercise can deliver unless your body is built for them (“long, lean muscles” is one of these things based on the current evidence), but the benefits of strength training and the joy of moving your body every day are guaranteed.
Remember, there’s no one ideal body type any more than there is one ideal goal for training. All bodies are good bodies, all goals are valid, and all methods of movement are valuable.
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