My thighs used to be thunderous
September 15, 2014 6:29 AM   Subscribe

I am a woman who, for whatever reason, builds strength and bulky muscle very quickly. My thighs right now are the smallest they have ever been, and part of that reason is that I had taken a year off from the gym. I am starting back up at the gym and I want to be fit again but I also want to do everything I can to keep from building so much muscle bulk again. Can I have fitness and strength without getting back the huge muscles?

After a year long hiatus from the gym I am getting back in to it and loving it. However, the hiatus resulted in my losing a great deal of my muscle mass, and that loss of bulk made my thighs shrink down significantly. SIGNIFICANTLY. Yes, some of the shrinkage has to do with my adopting keto and losing fat that way, but they were shrinking well before I started keto and started losing weight.

I am looking to do both cardio and strength training. What sorts of cardio exercises are less "OMG THIGHS!"?

Exercises that I am assuming are out:
- squats
- lunges
- leg press/extension
- stairclimber
- elliptical (??)
- rowing machine (??)

- 5 foot 2 inches, female, early 30s
- Used to be 335lbs, now down ~100lbs and dropping.
- Prior to my hiatus my workouts usually involved 30-60 high intensity minutes on the elliptical (interval training with high inclines and high resistance) followed by strength training (full body, split between days).
- 2 years ago I was working with an athletic therapist to help hone in my workouts and to help heal some injuries. He was very surprised at my strength and level of fitness despite being significantly overweight. He basically confirmed what I already thought - that I am genetically predisposed to building muscle mass and strength.
- Both my doctor and the Athletic Therapist said that a goal weight of 170-180lbs for me is reasonable. It sounds high for someone my height, but based upon my body type (stocky, naturally quite muscular, etc) that is a reasonable goal. And once I get to goal I am going to pursue surgery to have my excess skin removed (which is already a problem. I dread how much worse it is going to get before I can have the surgery.)
- Currently eating a Ketogenic diet, losing weight easily, feeling awesome. Have been losing fairly steadily despite being only moderately active, which is a first for me.
- Current workout plan is 30 minutes of walk 1:30, jog :30 on the treadmill, followed by strength training focused on my upper body.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, cardio type exercises build much less thigh muscle than squats, leg press etc. I'm also a low-carb-eating muscle-builder who took up weightlifting recently after years of running, and my thighs are the part of me that are still the same volume after dropping a significant amount of body fat. Interestingly, though, they are a different shape. They're narrower and deeper - that is, the distance from the front of my quad to the back of my hamstring is much longer. Additionally, the jiggle is pretty much gone. So they look much more fit, although the size is the same. But if I had built up the muscle without losing the fat, they would be disproportionately large.

In short, based on my experience alone, don't worry about the cardio, but maybe cut back on Leg Day, at least until you've lost as much body fat as you want to lose.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:40 AM on September 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The canonical way of building lean mass is higher numbers of low to medium weights, rather than low-rep, high-weight. I don't think any of the exercises you've listed are "out", but instead of doing (say) three sets of five 100-lb squats, do five sets of eight 60-lb squats.

Those numbers are all made up, obviously, but you get the idea.
posted by mhoye at 6:44 AM on September 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

The guy who runs the Fitness Black Book website has programs he say are aimed at this goal of increasing fitness without building muscle mass. Of course, he's looking to sell his stuff, and I don't have the knowledge to evaluate his programs, but it might be worth taking a look at; there's quite a bit of free content under the "Best of" link.
posted by Kat Allison at 6:51 AM on September 15, 2014

Swimming is cardio and less thigh-intensive. Maybe boxing training, focusing on the upper-body parts? Maybe a yoga or gymnastics type practice that includes lots of hand stands and arm balances?
posted by aka burlap at 7:01 AM on September 15, 2014

If you're good at suppressing a gag reflex... Gwyneth Paltrow and her bff trainer du jour Tracy Anderson. Their m.o. is exercise and tone without bulk.

Goop fitness

Tracy Anderson work out review

but if you've ever had food issues, their websites should come with warning stickers, since these ladies make obsession look like a passing interest.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:12 AM on September 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd advise against high-rep, low weight lifting. It takes twice as long (so boring!) and you do create muscle with it. If you don't want to build huge muscles, focus on activities rather than weights. Running, walking, cycling, climbing, etc. It's more fun, anyway.
posted by domo at 7:27 AM on September 15, 2014

Could you maybe try pilates? I've only done pilates a couple of times to work on mobility issues, but considering that it's the workout of choice for ballet dancers I imagine it could work for you. I totally side eye their claims of 'lengthening' muscles, tho.

I'd also second swimming.
posted by nerdfish at 7:42 AM on September 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have the same body type. Things that help "lean out" my legs:
- running/jogging
- Pilates and yoga
- plyometrics exercises in general

The following exercises build leg bulk for me:
- cycling (although I love it and bike around town, and do it anyway)
- squats
- lunges
- walking (for some reason builds my calves)

Congrats on your weight loss!
posted by troytroy at 8:43 AM on September 15, 2014

Honestly, I hate to be the voice of gloom, but just to chime in with a personal anecdote: I also build muscle mass easily, especially on my thighs (but also in my shoulders and arms). When I was a competitive swimmer, I had huge shoulders and upper arms; when I was a competitive runner, I had huge thighs; etc. My body (including my thighs) are the thinnest they have been since middle school, partly because of my diet for the past few months (intermittent fasting), but also largely because I have stopped going to the gym or doing hard-core exercise (in large measure because I am extremely busy finishing a graduate degree). I have been walking daily, which seems to build my calves more than my thighs, but it is not too noticeable. Obviously everybody's body is different, but in my experience, any sort of rigorous exercise unfortunately builds muscle mass on my body. Up to you, of course, to decide whether the health benefits balance out the aesthetics. If you are specifically concerned with your thighs, might want to concentrate on fitness activities that bulk up other parts of your body exclusively, like your arms.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:06 AM on September 15, 2014

Congratulations on your weight loss, 100lb is pretty impressive! I wouldn't be too worried about bulking up again, it's pretty difficult to build muscle while losing weight (ask a bodybuilder, if was easy they would spend less time on their forums describing their complicated systems for doing just that using only liquidised tuna fish and willpower).

I agree with Don't Fear the Reaper above that there may be an attribution error here: I suspect your legs are the smallest they've been for years because YOU are the smallest you've been for years, not because you've stopped going to the gym.

If you are overweight, your legs are already working overtime just to carry you around (overweight people have much higher muscle mass and metabolic rates than slimmer people because they are carrying so much extra weight in their day to day lives). When you lose that weight you stop doing that extra weight-bearing exercise and your leg muscles reduce in size, regardless of what other sports you may be doing. Cycling 10km is just not as hard work as carrying 335lb around all day long, and it's unlikely your legs will ever get back to the same size as they were when you were heavier. I mean, I do a lot of leg-heavy sport and have muscular thighs, but there's no way I can lift 335lb at all, not even for 5 mins. I certainly couldn't do squats while lifting that, but you used to! I bet you couldn't do it now either. That was some serious weight-training that you were doing before. No wonder your legs were bigger.

Avoid squats if you want to, but a bit of running and cycling won't bulk you up. Look at runners and cyclists who are around your current size (not professionals, just ordinary people in the park or gym) and check out their legs. You might always have proportionally larger thighs if that is how you are built (it's certainly how I am built, and even as a teen with a BMI<18 doing minimal exercise I had muscular thighs) but if you lose weight you will generally get smaller all over. I think people saying you will bulk up are missing the fact that you are still actively losing weight.
posted by tinkletown at 9:17 AM on September 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

You could look up people like Tony Gentilcore, Neghar Fonooni and I am sure there are others in that internet guru circle. They are proper strength trainers - not pink 2lb dumbbell types - who acknowledge that the women they train don't want the big quads men do and program accordingly (ie squats if any are low bar, more focus on deadlifts and swings, etc).

If you're eating at a deficit (per the "and dropping" part of your post) it will probably be harder to gain muscle than you might have found it in the past though, and your legs may get smaller regardless. I'm a woman who strength trains and my thighs/quads/whatever were at their biggest when I had muscle and was squatting heavy but also had some chub over that. Losing weight but continuing to lift reduced their size (and my arms' size and so on) even though I think I didn't lose muscle and hung on to much of my strength.

Of course you don't have to do squats but there is a reason everyone recommends em - they are not just a leg exercise and do more for my body composition than any amount of cardio. But I hate cardio, you may love it, there is no "wrong answer" to working out. If you stick with the cardio + upper body make sure you have the compound lifts - shoulder presses and bench press and rows and so on - in there though. More bang for your buck. Good luck, have fun at the gym!
posted by jamesonandwater at 10:07 AM on September 15, 2014

My body, esp. thighs, loooooves to get those big, blocky, strong muscles. Anyone who says women can't bulk up hasn't seen me when I was training with free weights.

I've re-engineered myself to have longer, leaner, less-massive muscles by doing the following:

long walks
short sprints
bodyweight exercises that emphasize torso and arms

I stay away from weights and pure cardio (and the gym in general -- I like outdoors activity).

I also have been doing the keto thing for about three years, and have noticed that my former mega-muscle tendencies seem to have gone down during that time. I don't know if it is directly related to any keto-driven hormonal shifts or macros (I'll skip the bro-science speculation), but it's a welcome change.

Congrats on your success and ongoing efforts to make your body happy, healthy, and fun-loving!
posted by nacho fries at 2:21 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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