Body Type: Ectomorph, Endomorph and Mesomorph
One of the truest expressions in sport is if you want to be successful, you better pick the right parent. Genetics plays a huge role in pretty much any physiological variable you can think of when it comes to being sporting success. Whether that be our overall structure, how we respond to exercise and nutrition, our risk of injury, rates of recovery and muscle growth and of course our predisposition to injury.
BODY TYPE PROFILING
‘Somatotyping’ or body type profiling was developed by the US psychologist Sheldon in the 1930’s. It was originally created to determine all kinds of psychological traits in relation to body type, which have now been shown to be unequivocally untrue. In more recent, times this body type profiling has stepped away from its psychology roots and is now used as a way of classifying a person’s physical characteristics.
To identify an individual’s body type, the most widely used classification is The Heath-Carter Anthropometric Somatotype. There are a couple of ways in which body type can be judged – most simply from a visual assessment or in a more detailed form using measurements of height, weight, body fat, the width of certain joints and girths of muscles. These measurements are then plotted on a special type of graph and this determines how much of an endomorph, ectomorph or mesomorph we are and how dominant each characteristic is.
- Endomorphs are typically stocky/thick set and carry higher levels of body fat.
- Ectomorphs are typically narrow, thin and have low levels of body fat.
- Mesomorphs are typically broad shouldered, well-muscled and have a lean athletic physique.
On face value I’m sure many of us can identify with those ‘types’ of body, but most people in fact fall somewhere between these types. The real question is, does a specific body type influence how you should train, eat and the types of sports you might excel at?
BODY TYPE IN SPORT
It is undeniable that our structure will lend us to having ability in certain sports or positions. For example, it’s very rare you find short basketball players or tall props in rugby. The most notable exception to the typical body type rule in recent times is Usain Bolt. His body type isn’t even close to being in line with a majority of the more compact and muscular 100m sprinters and yet despite not being ‘built to sprint’, his performances are head and shoulders above anything that has ever been achieved in the sport.
NUTRITION, TRAINING & BODY TYPE
Aside from being a way to classify structure, some people also believe we should eat or exercise a certain way that is suited to our body type, but there are a few problems with this assumption.
Firstly, although our genetics may determine our rate of muscle growth, improvements in performance and our overall ‘look’, there is no evidence to suggest that different body types should train in different ways to reach the same goal. For example, if you want to get stronger then you still need to do strength training at the appropriate loads. In this regard body type really doesn’t matter if you have a specific performance goal in mind, although our structure might determine how successful we are.
Secondly, and most importantly, the assumption that people have increased or lower levels of body fat are purely due to their body type. This in some regard is putting the cart before the horse. Our nutrition and exercise have a bigger impact on our apparent body type, than our body type will have on influencing how we eat or exercise to regulate body weight.
It’s often assumed endomorphs have slower metabolism and gain fat easier. This comes with specific nutrition recommendations, like requiring less carbohydrate in their diet. But there is absolutely no substantiated evidence to suggest that this is true.
This also means the idea that nutrition should be individualised to our body type is only true in the sense our nutrition should be tailored to our specific physical goals. If someone is apparently an ectomorph, who perhaps struggles to gain weight, then our approach is still fundamentally the same – to gain weight/muscle they still need to be in a calorie surplus and exercising in the right way.
The same applies to those wanting to lose weight – they absolutely need to be in a calorie deficit and the way we achieve this nutritionally or through exercise has no evidence to suggest this is based specifically on our body type. Many of those who we might identify as endomorphs largely fall into that class because they have gained unwanted body fat, not due to their inherent ‘somatotype’ but because of poor food choices and lack of activity.
SHIFT BETWEEN APPARENT BODY TYPE
Given an appropriate diet, training programme and enough time, it is entirely possible to make people shift significantly between apparent body type classifications by altering body composition.
Body typing is a systematic way to classify structure that might be of interest to researchers or coaches who are trying to quantify if certain body types have advantages in specific sports or roles within a team. Outside of the realm of sports performance, when it comes to developing nutrition and exercise programmes that will work best for you and your goals, there are far more important issues that you likely need to worry about than exactly what body type you are and to be artificially disheartened that this is your ultimate genetic fate no matter how hard you try.
The truth is we don’t (yet) fully understand our genetics in a way that we can use genetic information to optimise exercise and nutrition. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take an individual approach to your exercise and nutrition, but this is more to do with finding exercise and nutrition habits that will help you reach your goals in a way that fits with your current lifestyle habits and you can sustain in the long run.