We've all heard the line before: "Do [insert specific exercise method here] in order to build long, lean muscles instead of short, bulky ones." In fact, we've heard it so many times that we consider it to be true. But, guess what? It's not. Yep, we've all been sold a bill of goods. This is one of those popular exercise myths that needs to be debunked before you are taken advantage of any further.
This myth is something that probably started as a ploy to make money off of women in the fitness industry. Maybe it started innocently with good intentions to coax women to workout with attractive language like "toning" and "sculpting," but in the end it has created an unnecessary fear of certain exercise modalities despite the known benefits behind them. If you are told that one particular type of exercise builds "long, lean muscles," and another type builds "short, bulky muscles," chances are, as a dancer, you are going to think the second type is pure evil. When in reality, the second type of training could be the most efficient, effective way to get you to your next level and see real improvements in your physique, but you'll never try it for fear of bulking up like a She-Hulk. It's time to clear some things up, shall we?
First of all, building muscle is building muscle. You can't build "short" or "long" muscles. You either build muscle and get stronger, or you don't. Muscles don’t lengthen in terms of their structure, unless it is part of the normal growth process (as your bones get longer, your muscles do too so as to maintain their fixed attachment points). They shorten and lengthen as part of the contractile process, as in when they are flexing and extending to move a joint. But, you can’t make the actual physical nature of a muscle noticeably longer or shorter by exercising a certain way. Exercise may have infinitesimal effects on muscle length, but it certainly isn't close to all the hype we are being sold with marketing schemes.
A huge portion of how your muscles look on your body is predetermined by genetics. Factors you were born with such as muscle belly length, attachment points, tendon length, and the amount of slow-twitch versus fast-twitch fibers all play a significant role in how your muscles shape your body. Your unique look is also influenced by your hormonal profile, your diet, stress levels, sleep and recovery time, and other behavioral and environmental factors. That being said, you can influence the way your body looks with your training regimen, which brings us to the next point.
Now, muscle can be built in two ways, either by increasing density or volume. This is where your training routine can make a difference. However, contrary to popular myths, it doesn't necessarily have to do with whether you do this method or that one but rather with your overall workout design. For example, lifting weights doesn't guarantee a toned look, but the way in which you lift those weights can get you those results. You can minimize bulk and create a more sculpted look with a program design that emphasizes muscle density versus volume.
Another factor that may cause muscles to look "bulky" could be body fat. Your muscles will look more toned (and most likely “longer and leaner”) with reduced subcutaneous body fat. This is mainly influenced by what you eat. So, by following a diet that is conducive to reducing body fat, you can affect the shape of your body and avoid a “bulky” look. Through nutrition, you can transform your body from a fat storing vehicle into a fat burning furnace, allowing your muscles to be more visible through your skin.
The bottom line is that you don't have to fear your muscles shortening and losing flexibility due to any specific exercise method. But, this is not to say that all exercise methods are created equal and will get you equivalent result either. You just don't have to fear instant bulk should you try one of those forbidden exercise modalities (**cough cough...weight lifting...cough**). What you do have to fear is never challenging yourself enough to create a real change in your body so you can get to your next level and experience what it's like to be Bulletproof.