How to cut as an ectomorph and still maintain muscle mass is a tricky concept as there is a certain difficulty of holding mass even when on a bulk
Disclaimer – I don’t necessarily believe in somatotypes, an ectomorph does however have certain characteristics that a lot of people can relate to (long limbs, difficulty putting on weight, small bone structure) so for the purpose of this article I’m aiming it at those that can relate and want to classify as an ectomorph or hardgainer.
Being an ectomorph gives you a tough decision to make when it comes to cutting. It would have been hard work building muscle and putting on size in the first place so it’s a very tentative subject when it comes to cutting and making the decision to lose some size. I refer to size more than weight because this is one of the trigger points that make ectomorphs want to workout in the first place.
To cut as an ectomorph you need to be of the psychological understanding that you’ll need to get to a low body fat percentage and the actual weight you need to be at is often massively underestimated. If you think you need to be 80kg to be lean on a bulk then I’d probably reduce that figure to somewhere around the 74kg mark.
Therefore if you are going into this knowing that you will lose size and will need to get to a low body weight relative to your body structure then the number one thing that you want to be focusing on is maintaining as much muscle mass as possible whilst on a cut.
This may sound obvious but it’s hard work building lean muscle mass for the majority of the population, if you classify yourself as an ectomorph or hardgainer then this would have been even more difficult. Therefore instead of focusing purely on fat loss on a cut your focus should be on maintaining as much muscle as you possibly can.
This will extend the length of time required for your cut however if you want optimal progress then it’s something that you will need to accept from the start.
Keep the Calorie Deficit Low
To start with your first port of call should be looking at what your calorie intake should be on a cut and then plan to keep the calorie deficit as low as possible.
There are two ways to burn body fat, increase energy expenditure or decrease calorie intake. Either strategy will work but only for so long and you therefore want to prolong the effects of each for as long as possible.
What I mean by that is that if you usually consume 2,500kcal (kcal – calories) per day as your usual average and then suddenly go on a cut and slash this to 1,500kcal per day then it’s safe to say you will likely see some good progress over a few weeks in terms of fat loss but you will encounter two problems.
When calories are so low your body needs to go into survival mode and prioritise your calorie distribution a lot more (mainly to keep your vital organs and bodily functions operating) and unfortunately for you maintaining muscle mass will not be a priority.
Therefore when you need energy to continue working out and doing cardio on top of your general everyday requirements like working then some of this will come from burning excess body fat however you will also become catabolic and will break down muscle tissue for energy.
The second issue is that once you stop losing weight at this arbitrary number you will be left with the decision to either drop your calorie intake further or increase energy expenditure. As we are focusing on calorie consumption for this section we’ll say that your next step is to then drop your calories by another chunk.
Based on this process you will only have a few periods in which you can drop calories before you then run out of having this as an option. It’d be easy to think that by the time you get to this point that you’ll have hit your target weight and will be nicely ripped but in actuality you’d catabolise a lot of muscle mass following this method.
If you are not at your ideal weight from this method you will have also eliminated calorie deficits as a tool that you can use to burn body fat.
Therefore it’s preferred that you keep the calorie deficit on a cut to the minimum viable amount. If you can trigger fat loss on a 100kcal deficit then you should absolutely pursue that method however for most it’s more reasonable to work within a 200kcal – 300kcal deficit.
You want to have as many tools available to you as possible on a cut so should therefore milk the most out of every process as possible before taking the next step, rushing this will only result in sub-par results.
Have a Protein Target
Following on from the previous section regarding calorie deficits I mentioned you want to preserve muscle mass as much as possible whilst preventing catabolism (muscle breakdown) as much as possible.
It’s shown that for body composition with the aim of losing unwanted body fat whilst maintaining lean muscle that you want to keep protein intake above the recommended dietary allowance of 0.8g protein per kilogram of body weight per day and instead need to be looking as high as 1.6g-2.4g per kg body weight per day.
These recommendations will of course depend on the severity of the calorie deficit which is why it’s best to keep the deficit as low as you possibly can. The more severe the calorie deficit the more protein you will require which will then leave you with less calories left over for other important macronutrients like carbohydrates and fats.
When you start your cut you should therefore start at the lower end of the spectrum at 1.6kg per kg body weight per day and as you reduce calories in other areas you can slowly and gradually increase you protein intake the more important it becomes to be muscle sparing.
The running theme for an Ectomorph on a cut is to try and get progress will fat loss from the minimal amount of change necessary. It’s a balancing act and you should therefore be looking for the minimum viable amount of change required for the maximum benefit to body composition.
This sounds simple in theory but Is very difficult in practice as the need/want to accelerate progress takes over.
Maintain Strength Through Progressive Overload
As an ectomorph one of you key strategies you would have incorporated to build muscle mass and put on size in the first place would have been through a consistent weight training phase with a focus on progressive overload (getting stronger over time).
It therefore stands to reason that doing the same thing that built muscle in the first place would be a good go to move when it comes to maintaining muscle mass on a cut?
One of the biggest detriments you find when it comes to physique development on a cut is advice that says you should stop doing heavy lifting on a cut and instead focus on pump work. This is basically lighter weight for more reps to get a pump in the muscle and get ‘shredded’.
In actuality this advice can only truly be relevant for those on a cut that have the help of a performance enhancing aid. This is because you would still be in a state of protein synthesis (this is a chemical trigger to promote muscle growth) from most training stimulus, your basically hyper sensitive to lifting weights.
If however you are doing this ‘naturally’, then the rules are very much different. To create a response for protein synthesis you will need to be training with heavy weights relative to your strength level and will need to keep workout length to a minimum.
Your aim should be to train heavy, hard and often to ensure you can still recover while maximally stimulating protein synthesis.
Your mentality should therefore still be on getting stronger, I’m not saying this is necessarily possible as calories get lower however you should be fighting a loss of strength as a priority.
I cover why you should aim from progressive overload on a cut much more extensively here but the basis is to make sure you don’t lose muscle mass.
Introduce Cardio Slowly and Utilise Steps
Finally we come to the last main tool that you can utilise when it comes to cutting as an Ectomorph and that is cardio.
This is often the first thing people turn to on a cut but I’ve put it last on this list as it should be your last consideration and not your first focus. This is because it’s very easy to get carried away on extensive cardio sessions, either in the form of HIIT or LISS sessions and as a result you can burn more calories than you require.
The running theme for cutting as and ectomorph is to get the most benefit out of the least amount of change and this is true for cardio. If you go straight in with hour long cardio sessions 6 days per week then this won’t leave you much wiggle room when you get to the backend of a cut.
Instead my preferred option is to have a daily step target. This is because NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) which is everything you do outside of eating, sleeping and sportlike exercise is a big contributor to your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
The reason I like a step target so much is because it’s an easily quantifiable metric, if you do 5,000 steps a day and maintain weight, increase this to 6,000 steps a day whilst keeping everything else the same and you lose body fat then this is a directly accountable metric.
If by comparison you did a cardio session but increased your effort level, then this could contribute to more energy expended however you can’t quantify effort. Instead of saying next session I will work harder instead you can easily say this week I will increase my step count and it’s something that you can easily track.
This is also something else that you can build up to the more you go into a calorie deficit and as a result it can be a very useful, muscle sparing tool available to you. My recommendation would therefore be to select a form of cardio and number of sessions that you can easily commit to and stick with this for the duration of your cut.
When you want to change a variable you can then use your daily step target as a way to increase energy expenditure whilst keeping it under control.
The prevalent theme of this article has been that in order to maintain lean muscle mass while on a cut, especially as an ectomorph, you need to take a slower approach and manage all variables with as small of an incremental change as you possibly can whilst still seeing progress.
This may be hard to commit to when you first start but your focus should be on maintaining muscle mass for a better physique and not just chasing scale weight which will certainly impact on your end result.
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