How To Build Lean Muscle, Bulky Muscle, And Toned Muscle

So, what “type” of muscle do you want to build? Lean muscle? Bulky muscle? Toned muscle?

Those are usually the 3 most common “types” of muscle that a person wants to have. The question is, which “type” do you want, and how the hell do you get it?

This is a subject that brings a smile to my face every time I get asked about it or see it come up in some article or forum. It used to make me want to bang my head into a wall, but I figure it’s better for my brain function if I just smile in amusement instead.

Why the apparent hatred for this silly little subject, you ask? Allow me to answer…

Lean Muscle vs Bulky Muscle vs Toned Muscle

You see, one of the most common fitness related goals a person can have is to build muscle. Simple enough, right? Hell, I even wrote a super comprehensive guide to creating the workout routine that will best allow you to build that muscle (and included a fully detailed sample muscle building routine).

The thing is, some people like to go even further than just wanting to “build muscle” by specifying the exact “type” of muscle they want to build (or in some cases, the “type” they want to avoid building).

I’m of course referring to lean muscle, bulky muscle and toned muscle.

And why wouldn’t they? After all, there are countless magazines, books, websites, articles, forums and workouts out there that seem to be geared specifically towards building one of those 3 different “types” of muscle.

You know, here’s a workout routine for building lean muscle, and here’s one for building big bulky muscles, and here’s a program for building sexy toned muscles (the exact opposite of bulky muscle).

I’m sure you’ve seen it before. Different “types” of muscle are constantly referenced as though they have numerous physiological differences that require different types of diets and workouts in order to build.

This sounds all well and good, except for one tiny little fact.

It’s all complete and utter bullshit.

Muscle Is Muscle!!!

In reality, there is no such thing as lean muscle, bulky muscle or toned muscle. Muscle is muscle. There are no different types of muscle densities or textures. It’s all the exact same thing.

There is no muscle that is lean and another that is bulky and another that is toned. There’s just muscle, period. That’s all it can ever be.

Got that? Good. Here’s what you’re probably thinking now…

But I Swear I’ve Seen People With Different “Types” Of Muscle?!?!

I know, I know. Muscle sometimes appears “lean” on some people, “bulky” on other people and “toned” on others. If all muscle is the same, then why does it sometimes look like there’s different types of it?

Well, first of all, it’s not your imagination. What it is however is an illusion created by other factors that have nothing at all to do with one muscle tissue truly being a different “type” than another.

Instead, it has everything to do with the AMOUNT of muscle a person has built along with the amount of FAT they do or do not have covering it.

That’s the “smoke and mirrors” of this muscle illusion.

Confused? It’s cool. Here’s some common examples of what I mean…

Example #1

Take 2 people of the same age and gender, and magically give them the exact same genetics and body fat percentage. Then, have one build 10lbs of muscle, and have the other build 30lbs of muscle.

To the eye of the people who don’t understand that there is no such thing as different “types” of muscle, it may look like the first person built “lean” muscle, while the second person built “bulky” muscle.

In reality, one person just built more muscle than the other, and it just looks “bulkier” in comparison.

The physiological makeup of the muscle tissue on both people is still exactly the same. It’s the amount of muscle they built that creates the illusion that it’s somehow different. It’s not.

Example #2

Now take 2 people of the same age and gender, and magically give them the exact same genetics BUT different body fat percentages. Instead, give one person less body fat (making them leaner looking) and give the other more body fat (making them fatter looking).

Now have them both build 10lbs of muscle and then stand them side by side right next to each other.

Did that first person build “toned” muscle while the second person built “bulky” muscle? Nope.

It’s just that person #1 has a lower body fat percentage which therefore allows their new 10lbs of muscle to be more visible and appealing in that “toned, slim, sexy” sort of way people like.

Person #2 on the other hand has a higher body fat percentage which therefore causes their new 10lbs of muscle to be covered by a layer (or many layers) of fat. This in turn causes them to look bulkier and generally less appealing overall.

It’s not that different “types” of muscle were built or even different amounts of muscle in this case. It’s just a matter of one person having a higher body fat percentage than the other.

If that person just lost some fat, it would reveal the exact same “toned” looking muscle the first person has. And no, it’s not because it suddenly changed from “bulky” to “toned.” It was there just the same all along… only hidden under some fat.

Like I said, it’s never the muscle itself or the “type” it supposedly is or isn’t that makes a person look lean or bulky or toned. It’s just the amount of muscle you build, and the amount of fat that is or is not covering it that creates that illusion.

Which means…

All Muscle Gets Built The EXACT Same Way

And here’s the final big point that needs to be made on this subject.

Since muscle is muscle (meaning there is no such thing as lean muscle, bulky muscle or toned muscle… it’s all the same exact muscle), that means you can take every single thing you’ve heard or will ever hear about building specific types of muscle and ignore it completely.

It’s all useless nonsense that, if anything, is usually counterproductive to what actually needs to be done to build muscle as effectively as possible.

So you know all of those supposed “toning workouts” with high reps and less weight and magical “toning exercises” that claim to build only “lean” or “toned” muscle? It’s bullshit. (More about that here: Muscle Tone)

Will light weights make me toned?

And the idea that heavy weights and low reps and big compound exercises only build big “bulky” muscles? Yup… complete bullshit as well.

And so on and so on.

Muscle is muscle, and it all gets built the exact same way (details here: How To Build Muscle). No matter what you do, the muscle you build will always end up being the same “type” of muscle. There aren’t different ways and methods that build different types… because THERE ARE NO DIFFERENT TYPES.

In terms of building muscle… there’s just what works well, what works less well, and what doesn’t work at all. That’s it.

No matter how you want your muscle to look in the end (lean, bulky or toned), the things you need to do to actually build that muscle remain the same in every case.

And no matter how much muscle you want to build (5lbs or 50lbs), the requirements for making it happen as optimally as possible remain the same as well.

It’s the amount of it you build and the amount of fat that is (or is not) covering it that will affect whether or not it looks lean, bulky or toned on your body.

Choose Your Muscle Building Routine

Now that you know the facts, the only thing that’s left for you to do is find an effective muscle building program to use. In that case, I fully recommend The Muscle Building Workout Routine or any of the HIGHLY successful workouts I’ve included in my brand new program, Superior Muscle Growth.

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About Jay
Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers, and diet professionals at every level.

42 thoughts on “How To Build Lean Muscle, Bulky Muscle, And Toned Muscle”


  1. Hey dude, where do bodyweight exercises sit in the rep equation? Will 70 reps of press ups give me a spongy soft puffy look like low weight high rep training would? Thanks

    • The same rep guidelines (explained here: apply whether the exercise is done with free weights, a machine or your own body weight.

      And regarding a “spongy soft puffy look,” exercises train muscles. Muscles can only be made bigger or smaller. Their shape, length and texture can not change.

      What can change however is the amount of fat that is or is not covering that muscle, and this (along with water retention) is what tends to make people think their muscles are “soft” or “puffy.”

      • Thank you for laying this out for personal trainers like me to better express the idea to clients. One question: Who are you? I tried to find out by searching on the sites of shows you have done, etc. Do you have a full name, or do you like to be anonymous?

  2. Why is it that professional athletes gain strength but not large muscles they in fact work harder on their body’s than most body builders, but are stronger yet smaller in size is that not a different muscle in some way?

    • A couple of things. First, it’s possible to gain strength without gaining muscle. It’s not that a different type of muscle is being built, it’s just that strength gains are happening at a neural level rather than muscular.

      Second, which professional athletes are you referring to? Most of the athletes I see are pretty muscular. Obviously no where near as big as pro bodybuilders… but that’s not because they are building different types of muscle. It’s the same muscle… it’s just that the body builders have much more of it (thanks to using every steroid and drug known to man).

      • What you replied here got me thinking and actually kinda worried. I have been on the beginners workout and have lost 3 lbs so far being in the caloric deficit. However, you mentioned that when someone is trying to build muscle, sometimes the results are neural rather than muscular.

        I seriously hope that that is not the case for me.

        • As a fat beginner (being in a deficit, I’m assuming the “fat” part of that), you will be capable of building muscle in a deficit.

          But at the same time, one of the things that makes beginners able to gain strength so quickly is the fact that a lot of it is going to be neural (especially early on).

  3. I love your articles, but in this one you mention that there aren’t different types of muscles. For all intents and purposes of what was referred as to a type of muscle in this article, no you are completely dead on about lean, bulky, and toned muscle BS, but in might be a good idea to write an article at some point for those of us interested in a small fraction of the biology behind everything about type I, type IIa, type IIb, and neonatal muscle (due to muscular hyperplasia). From what I understand Type I muscle mass is mostly due to endurance related workouts, and is the kind you see on marathon runners. Just as well because of the existance sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy, muscles can differ in size, shape, and lastly functionality. Again I really love your website and keep the great work up.

  4. I think that by saying that muscle is just muscle really oversimplifies this a bit too much.

    Lets say a lady wants to build her strength but doesn’t want to build too much bulky muscle, you would not put her on a routine of lifting too heavy weights. Her workout routine would be more endurance and agility + weights,instead of focusing on the weights. Yoga and pilates gives lean muscle, because a muscle that is able to stretch properly looks more lean instead of a muscle that has been overused so it might look a bit more “cramped up” and therefore more bulky.
    And also as you said, lots of extra bodyfat makes the muscles underneath look more bulky.
    So if someone who is a little overweight says that he wants to build toned muscle, you would at first tell him to loose weight by diet and exercise, of course building muscle helps in burning fat but if he really wants to build toned muscles he needs to do exercise that is more varied than lifting weights and changing his diet. I don’t think that the terms “bulky”, “lean” and “toned” are terms that should not be used.

    I would also say that loading the diet with extra protein might build bulkier muscles, because they would of course get bigger. Lean muscle is smaller, but as you said it doesn’t have to mean it is less strong. I’m no expert, but I would guess that just a normal healthy diet with no added extra protein, lots of endurance exercise with stretching and some weight lifting might just build that sexy toned muscle so many want today.

    I think most people understand that leaner muscles are smaller muscles vs. big and bulky muscles. But not everyone understands how to achieve the body they would like to strive for, that is why I think we can talk about different types of muscles in these terms.

    • Lara, I think the main issue with this toned, bulky lean terminology is that we have substituted the term toned to mean just a bit of muscle! Most people that want to be ‘toned’ understand that they need to reduce the fat layers on them if they have and then build just a small or just a Hollywood amount of muscle, this muscle type is what people see as toned! To build any type of muscle they would need to workout with weights that are challenging to them in the required rep ranges to build enough muscle, and then once they are happy with the size they need to then maintain that range and keep eating in a way that will maintain low body fat
      For those who already have a bit of muscle which is covered in fat, they don’t need to seek any toning rep range magic! They need to either maintain that muscle they have and lose fat to reveal the Hollywood tone they desire! Or if they really have big muscle size which they want to reduce then that will need to deliberately lose muscle by reducing intensity, volume, protein while losing weight
      Thanks JAY for all your help

      • ^ This.

        We’ve been brainwashed by the fitness industry into thinking that:
        – ‘toned’ = having lean muscle and creating that fit and athletic look, in reality the attributes of the body could be 13% bf with minor to moderate muscle development.
        – ‘bulky’ = having big muscles and creating that big hulking look, in reality the attributes of the body could be 20% bf with the same amount of muscle development in the previous example.

        If we were to look at the two body types as displayed, the fitness industry leads us to believe that is what toned vs bulky will look like, when in reality they are both the same with the exception of the level of body fat.

  5. I’m so happy that I came across your article…. But I also have a question that I always wanted to know the answer. Let’s say we have 2 guys with the same age same amount of muscleas same amount of fat same height. I mean everything is the same. Now however pound for pound one guy is stronger than the other. For example one guys can do more pull ups than the other though they both have the same amount of muscle in every part of the body. so ain’t it a little different when it comes to strength muscle and just muscle by itself? I mean I don’t know so that’s why I’m asking… Our answer will be greatly appreciated… And thank you for taking your time to write about this subject…

    • Muscle does not equal strength. It’s possible for someone with more, less or an exactly equal amount of muscle to be some degree stronger or weaker than someone else on certain exercises just because they happen to be better/worse, stronger/weaker at that exercise than the other person is.

      • You’re saying then, that if someone has the same amount of muscle but is stronger, there wouldn’t be physical differences? Wouldn’t the stronger person carry themselves better and look more capable?

        • If they have the same amount of muscle? And assuming all else is equal (body fat percentage, height, genetics, etc.)? They’d look the same.

          It’s amount of fat, amount of muscle, and genetic factors (e.g. bone structure) that change the way people’s bodies look.

  6. How come dancers look so “lean” then? Is it just that they have really low body fat, and not related to the specific type of exercise they’re doing with a combination of stretching? If you take two people with the same genetic build, same body fat, and have one build 10% dancing and one 10% from lifting weights, would they look exactly the same?

    • Dancers look lean because they are lean. It has nothing to do with the type of muscle they have… it has to do with the amount of muscle they have and how much body fat they have covering it (and dancers typically have very low levels of body fat).

  7. Jay, we now understand that muscle is muscle, but is there a real difference in the way the muscle looks based on training reps and sets and sarcoplasm and myofibrillated hypertrophy
    I have been training with 5 heavy reps for 5 to 10 sets and I can feel harder and not the soft fluid filled muscle I get from doing 10 to 15 forced reps with burns
    Thanks dude

  8. I came across this website because I was searching the difference in muscles based on body build. I would think a person’s height and length of arms/legs would have an effect on the muscles. But maybe not?

    • Yup, it will have an effect on how the muscle looks on that person’s body (someone short looks “thicker” and someone tall looks “longer”) but it’s all still the same exact muscle.

      • So just a question to summarize the information from this article and the comments + a bit other stuff:
        If I want that nice “toned” muscle and strength or say being the runner/dancer/martial artist (yes martial artist is what this is about ^^ ) type (less looking bulky and needing a D bra as a man, but having still a good amount of strength), u should have low body fat, shouldn’t build up too much muscles and train that fancy neuronal motor neuron stuff?

  9. Hey man what about explosive muscles??? I have heard people saying explosive muscles require a different approach to regular strength muscles??????

  10. So I am worried about this neural level gains in strength rather than muscular gains.

    So are some people simply going to develop strength at the neural level rather than muscular? That kinda sucks.

  11. Thank you!!! I studied biology, work as a personal trainer and muscle is muscle!!!! It drives me nuts people are thinking there is the ever elusive lean muscle. It is like having a lean eye, its just an eye!!! Rant over, brilliant article!!!

  12. Hey,
    I have a scenario where two people who have exactly the same genetics, exactly the same build body fat etc. and even have the same amount of muscle. However, one of them has been doing Strength weight training, and one has been doing high rep hypertrophy training. as a consequence, the person doing Strength training is much stronger, and the person doing high rep can do many more reps, even though they have exactly the same amount of muscle.

    how are these not defined as different types of muscle? and why is this possible?

    • Nope, those are not two different types of muscle. That is just one person who is technically, neurologically and physiologically better trained for the specific purpose of strength, while the other is better trained for the specific purpose of growth. Just like how two people can do a lot of running, and one can do so in a way that makes them better at sprinting, while the other might be better at long distance endurance.

  13. Thank you for this! I’m a woman and know-it-all gym trainers keep telling me to do 3 pathetic pounds of 30+ reps. No. Freakin’. Way! I quit the gym and invested in my own equipment to lift heavy weights at home.

  14. Hey,

    I’ve been lifting for about a year. I’m definitely aiming for more of a lean/soccer player look. I don’t do horribly intense workouts, but I definitely get a pump and some mild soreness afterwards. Currently I do a 4 day split (1-back/upper shoulders…2-chest/shoulders…3-arms…4-legs). I usually do these 4 days in a row. But here is where I get confused. People say muscles need about 48-72 hours rest. So if I train back and upper shoulder on a Monday, and then proceed to do the rest of my split Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, that leaves 72 hours of rest for me to workout my back and upper shoulders again on Friday.
    So my question is, if I’m giving each muscle group about 72 hours of rest because I am working out other muscle groups in between, do I still need rest days?

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