When it comes to building a physique as an Ectomorph there’s a fine balancing act between putting on enough size to be considered big and muscular whilst not going too far into the extreme range of just gaining excess body fat to fill out a t shirt.
The biggest challenge comes when you decide to diet down to a low body fat percentage because you need to hold on to as much muscle mass as possible during this transition. It’s hard work building muscle in the first place so you want to maintain as much as possible at any body fat percentage.
How to prevent muscle loss as an Ectomorph when dieting? To prevent muscle loss when dieting you need to make sure you’re maintaining strength in the gym, not overdoing the cardio and most importantly not rushing your calorie deficit.
The following article will go through all the strategies that you can implement to maintain muscle mass even when dieting.
Why Do You Lose Muscle When Dieting
The human body is very good at functioning to level that it’s comfortable with (and that we’ve evolved to) and no more, this is a survival mechanism to make sure preserve energy in case of a food scarcity. Now this couldn’t be more irrelevant for most of the people reading this, in today’s development societies food is abundantly available.
It’s still true however that the more muscle you carry on your frame the more calories are required in your diet to support this and the energy expenditure is also higher. This reluctance by the body to hold unnecessary size means that it’s very difficult to build size in the first place. Of course this isn’t true for the genetically gifted but as an Ectomorph reading this you’ll know all too well that it takes hard work in terms of training and eating to put on any semblance of muscle.
The exception to this of course is if you have high levels of body fat, this is because the body is happy to keep this stored for energy. Chances are if you are heavily overweight then energy expenditure is low so your body is fine maintaining that, this is where the obesity issues are most prevalent today but that’s a discussion for another time!
When you diet your body won’t selectively decide where to lose weight from and target fat stores, it can come from any unused sources (though fat stores are of course a high priority) which include muscle mass. It should therefore be a strategy to lose body fat whilst doing the same things that built your muscle mass in the first place.
Why It’s Essential to Minimise Muscle Loss as an Ectomorph
This seems like an obvious statement to say you should aim to minimise muscle lose but it’s more to do with your psychological aims more then the practical aspect.
That’s because on a diet people prioritise fat loss and pay particular attention to scale weight, if your focus is on losing scale weight then this can ultimately result in a loss of muscle. Fat loss should be at a consistent and manageable rate, if you go in to too deep of a calorie deficit and keep energy expenditure high then this will likely lead to muscle loss alongside the required fat loss.
For this reason you should approach a diet with the mentality of maintaining as much muscle as possible rather than losing as much fat as possible. If you have systems in place for your diet and training then you should be able to lose body fat at a steady pace and your physique will look all the better for it.
This means that your goal shouldn’t be an 8 week fat loss blitz but rather an extended diet period up to 6 months that also factors in re-feeds and mini diet breaks for optimal results.
The following strategies are ways that you can shift your mentality and focus to maintaining muscle rather than purely losing body fat, whilst some are easy to implement in theory they will take some hard work in reality.
Maintain Strength as a Priority (Not Fat Loss)
There are countless ways to build muscle however one guaranteed way is by getting stronger. It’s not necessarily as simple as that but if in year one if training you can squat 80kg and deadlift 80kg but in year three you can squat 180kg and deadlift 220kg then you will have added some serious muscle mass over this period.
I know other factors come into play when building muscle but one of the easiest to keep as a constant is to maintain strength. I mentioned before about your body being reluctant to adapt when it comes to carrying more muscle mass and if you don’t provide it with the same stimulus over time then it’s guaranteed that 99% of the population will start to lose it. It’s why retired bodybuilders can’t maintain peak condition from their prime, sure some performance enhancing drugs play a part but so too does the fact that they went from benching 4 plates to looking after their joints more and no longer do this.
Maintaining the level of strength that built your physique in the first place is the single most important thing you can do (especially as an Ectomorph) when dieting. You’ll see workout plans from years ago when they mention switching from heavy lifting on a bulk to lighter pump work when dieting to really get shredded. With the advancements in training methods and exercise science theory we now know that this is just not the case.
The reason people switched to a lighter load for more reps is because they lost strength whilst in a calorie deficit and didn’t have sufficient energy to train like they did during a bulk, the practical aspect of training with lighter weights for more reps to get shredded is just a false idea.
Therefore the focus should be on maintaining strength for as long as physically possible whilst in a dieting stage. It needs to be noted that you’re unlikely to fully maintain the same level of strength as you had when starting a diet and coming from a growing/bulking phase but use the following techniques to maintain as much strength as possible.
Pick a compound movement for each body part and make a note of your top working weight and set (120kg squat for 6 reps for example). Once you have this noted for each key lift in your routine then your main focus for every session should be still trying to beat this but at a minimum maintain this top set for the duration of your diet.
This will get progressively more difficult the deeper you get into a diet phase but it’s also the best indicator of your base strength levels, if you can maintain your key lifts then you should be able to maintain your level of muscle mass.
Minimise Excessive Metabolic Stress
During a growing phase when calories are in a surplus and you have high energy levels then it’s always a good time to really push the boat with some advanced techniques to create extra metabolic stress such as drop sets and forced negatives.
These advanced techniques are great for creating an extra stimulus for the muscles to respond to and create a great deal of muscle tissue damage (the good kind that you recover and grow from) however this is only facilitated by a surplus of calories allowing for recovery from these exercises.
The real secret to muscle growth is not how well you can workout but how well you can recover from a workout!
If you apply these advanced techniques during a calorie deficit then you will cause too much metabolic stress than your body can recover from. This means that future training sessions will not only be negatively affected but also your body will be breaking down muscle tissue at a faster rate than it can build it. The bottom line is therefore muscle depredation.
This can be seen as a bit of an extreme example but when the goal is to maintain muscle mass you need to be aware of the negative effects that training can have when dieting.
Reduce Volume or Frequency but Not Weight
This follows on from my previous point regarding maintaining your level of strength to maintain muscle mass. When you get into a high calorie deficit in the later stages of a diet your energy levels will be no where near what they were at the start and therefore the intensity of your training sessions will take a hit.
To combat this you should focus on reducing training volume or frequency but not the weight. The reason for this is that you have a minimum level of intensity that you need in order to stimulate the muscle, a beginner for example might only require 3 sets of 10 reps at 20kg on the bench press whereas an experienced lifter will receive no stimulus for this whatsoever, it’d still be a warm up for them.
You therefore need to train at the minimum weight required to stimulate protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy which is where the reductions in volume or frequency come in. As long as you can hit a muscle group with the minimum amount of work needed to create a stimulus then this will be enough to trigger signals to your body that you need to keep hold of this muscle mass. It’s only once you start to use lighter weights that your body will feel the excess muscle mass is surplus to requirements.
It’s not as black and white as this in reality and many other factors come into the equation but as a general rule of thumb you want to lift as heavy as possible for as long as possible.
Coming back to my minimum intensity needed to create a stimulus point, you should be basing your volume, frequency and recovery around this so you need to adjust your sessions accordingly the deeper you get into a diet.
You don’t need to do anything drastic like dropping a session or halving the amount of sets/exercises in your routine but you should definitely start to remove any exercises that can be considered ‘fluff’. This will often be an excessive number of sets for biceps or doing 20 sets for your chest, these are they show muscles and most likely the ones that people put too much volume into.
Maintain your weights and reduce volume and unnecessary exercises where possible and this is enough to maintain muscle from a training perspective.
Keep Your Calorie Deficit as Low as Possible
Now we move onto the actual nutrition and diet part of maintaining muscle mass while on a cut.
When losing body fat two things need to happen, you either need to increase energy expenditure or decrease calorie intake below maintenance levels (see this article for working out your maintenance calorie amounts) and more often than not you will eventually have to do both of these at the same time.
In most cases you will see people take the calorie deficit route and often follow an unnecessary and unsustainable approach to dieting which is basically a crash diet. If you take this approach then you are going to lose muscle mass, it’s an inevitability rather than a possibility!
Crash diets basically limit your daily calorie intake to 1,500kcal and under with carbohydrate intake being vary low ranging from 0-100g per day (this is a very low carb intake for reference). These diets work when it comes to losing fat simply because the calorie deficit is so low that you lose overall body weight from a variety of sources from fat, water and muscle mass.
Not to be too stereotypical but it’s often overweight houses wives that are targeted with these diets, if you’re reading this then you have likely built some muscle mass and at least understand the basics of macronutrient requirements and the impact that calories have on your physique and performance.
The reason I’m using crash diets as an example is because you could easily adopt an approach like this is order to rush fat loss (especially if you become frustrated and look for a quick fix) and this is where you will see deteriorating muscle alongside the inevitable fat loss.
To maintain muscle mass whilst on a diet your calorie deficit should never be more than 200-300kcals. This means if your maintenance calorie requirements are 2,500kcals per day to maintain weight then your deficit requirements should be 2,200kcals at the most. You want to keep this deficit within this range for a few reasons:
- This is all that is required to optimally burn body fat. It’s really that simple, why should you do more than what’s required to get the same outcome.
- If you drop calories too quickly then you’ll be stuck later in your diet when you hit a plateau and can’t realistically lower calories any more. Your only option then will be to increase energy expenditure and that will not be enjoyable whilst on low calories.
- It makes dieting easier and you can monitor fat loss more accurately. If you have a calorie deficit of 100kcals, everything else in your life remains constant and you lose 1lb of fat then you can track this. If you don’t lose anything then decrease it by another 100kcals.
This process will of course take longer to lose body fat but it will lead to optimal results and will minimise muscle loss. The end result of this process will therefore lead to a better physique meaning all the hard work will be worth it.
Keep Protein High and Stay in Protein Synthesis
You may have heard the phrase that protein is the chemical/biological building block for protein and this is very much true. What you may not be aware of however is the importance of protein balance in terms of protein synthesis and protein breakdown.
Think of protein synthesis and protein breakdown as the on/off switch for building muscle, you want to spend more time with the switch on then off to successfully build muscle so the aim is to spend more time in a state or protein synthesis then you do in a state of protein degradation.
This isn’t as simple as doing one or two things daily and keeping the switch permanently on and as a result you need to make decisions that over time will keep you in protein synthesis more frequently. The reason this is crucial when it comes to the topic of this article is because a calorie deficit by nature will put you in a state of protein degradation.
Things that benefit protein synthesis are weight training, having nutrients readily available for absorption like you would when bulking on a calorie surplus and finally meeting your protein requirements in your diet. To look at these points individually you’ll see the importance of the balance.
Weight training by nature is the process of breaking down muscle tissue and protein through muscular contractions however it does trigger a muscle growth response. Heavy weight training is a requirement for protein synthesis and can switch it on from anywhere from 24 hours to 3 days depending on the individual’s training experience.
The more accustomed you are to weight training the quicker you can recover from a session and therefore the shorter the period that you stay in protein synthesis. A beginner will require longer to recover from training sessions and will therefore require protein synthesis to be active for a longer period of time. This is one of the reasons you will see such a steep progress curve for beginners, they are simply in a muscle building state for a longer period of time.
This brings me on to the next point of having nutrients readily available for absorption in the form of calories that you consume. Weight training is required to build muscle but also takes a great deal in terms of energy expenditure and therefore requires sufficient calories to facilitate this.
When on a calorie deficit your body will prioritise vital functions and organs, building muscle is not only energy consuming but is also not a priority for survival so is not high up on the priority list. For this reason it’s very difficult to stay in a muscle building state when on a diet and is something to be wary of when looking to maintain as much muscle as possible.
The key to combating this when on a diet is therefore to ensure that your protein requirements are met, especially after training when your body shifts into a catabolic state. A baseline quantity to follow when dieting is to consume roughly 1g of protein per 1lb of body weight. For someone weighing 200lbs as an example you would look to consume a minimum of 200g of protein per day.
There are other tactics that you can use such as consuming BCAA’s (branched chain amino acids) or EAA’s (essential amino acids) to ensure you’re in a positive protein balance. This is however something that accounts for the 1% of your progress and should not be prioritised but rather thought of as an optional addition.
Your focus should be on hitting your daily protein requirements to ensure as minimal muscle loss as possible during a diet.
Don’t Overdo Cardio
This final point is crucial when it comes to maintaining muscle mass when on a diet, it’s also especially true for ectomorphs and that is to not overdo the cardio regime. Cardio will at some point be required to lose body fat because you can only drop your calories so low, energy expenditure is the other part of the equation but that doesn’t mean you need to do endless hours of cardio everyday in an effort to burn calories.
It should first be mentioned that the most sustainable and easily adhered way to incorporate cardio is in the form of a daily step target. This doesn’t require any varying levels of fitness, a program to follow or even any mental requirements, you simply have a daily step target and get walking.
For this to be truly effective you will of course incorporate some cardio specific routines alongside this but this can be a set amount each week and then the only thing that you adjust is your daily step target. The benefit of this is the ease of fitting it into your daily routine, you can walk to work or transport, walk on your break or just doing the steps in your free time but the bottom line is it’s a tangible daily target that you can check off.
The added benefit is then keeping your cardio in check and not overdoing it. If your main focus is on a certain step target each day then cardio sessions become secondary and you won’t feel the need to constantly add more. Alongside daily steps I’d recommend 2-3 high intensity interval sessions lasting 15-30 minutes (full body circuit, Tabata method) or 3-5 steady state low intensity sessions (stairmaster or incline walk on a treadmill).
This is a manageable amount of cardio and will go a long way to preserving muscle mass, the issue comes when you start to add in more and more cardio sessions in an effort to burn more fat. If calories are too low and energy expenditure too high then you will see this negatively impact your physique, it’s a careful balance between steadily losing body fat over time or getting frustrated, overdoing the equation and then eating into your muscle tissue to supply energy for the demand placed on your body.
The above is nothing radical and they are not original suggestions by any stretch, the main take away from this article if nothing else should be to shift your mentality away from losing weight on a diet to maintaining muscle mass while losing body fat. Losing weight is not a specific goal and chasing scale weight will see a loss of muscle mass if you don’t have this in the front of your mind for the duration of your diet.
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Also check out:
How to cut as an ectomorph