When you look at your naked body in the mirror, what do you see? Unless you are some sort of genetic muscle mutant, your body will fall into one of the three typical body shapes.
The idea that human body types are genetically pre-set into one of three camps is nothing new. Plato mentions it in The Republic, which was written around 380 BC, and 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to the idea in The Antichrist years before the American psychologist William Sheldon popularised three broad categories of body in the 1940s.
Since Sheldon’s conclusions were published it has become widely recognised that most people have a body type. These are:
- Ectomorph: Lean and long, with difficulty building muscle
- Endomorph: Big, high body fat, often pear-shaped, with a high tendency to store body fat
- Mesomorph: Muscular and well-built, with a high metabolism and responsive muscle cells
But what do these three terms mean in reality? In short, ectomorphs stay lean despite hours in the gym, endomorphs struggle to shift their gut, and mesomorphs pack on muscle with ease. Learning which body shape you were born with, and understanding what that means for your training and diet plans, will help you train smarter to maximise your potential and get closer to building the body that you’ve always wanted.
Falling between categories
Although there are three clear body types, it’s important to be aware that these aren’t set in stone.
“The three body types exist but probably never in their pure form,” says Professor Lars McNaughton from Edge Hill University.
“We all have some aspects of endomorphy, mesomorphy and ectomorphy.”
There’s even a system for rating what mix of types you are, the Heath-Carter method, where you are given a score between one and seven for each body type (you can go outside this range, but it’s generally within those numbers).
“You are scored in an order with endomorphy first, then mesomorph, then ectomorphy,” says McNaughton.
“So a 1-7-5 would be a mesoectomorph – a tall muscular person with little fat.”
Under the Heath-Carter system, an extreme mesomorph would be rated 1-7-1, an extreme endomorph 7-1-1 and an extreme ectomorph 1-1-7. Almost everyone is a mix, though, so it’s case of identifying your own body type and how it fits into each category.
You could be a mix of mesomorph and endomorph where you gain muscle quickly but also put on weight easily if you relax your diet. Or the dream combo: a muscular mesomorph who can strip fat rapidly from just a couple of HIIT workouts. If that’s you, try not to rub it in everyone’s face.
The chart below shows where athletes from various sports fit in the Heath-Carter system. It’s a good starting point for identifying your own body type.
Whatever your characteristics, you should know that regardless of your body type, anyone can get lean or put on considerable muscle mass – and, equally, get fat if they’re not careful. It might be harder for a skinny guy to follow in Arnie’s Mr Universe footsteps, but it’s not impossible.
Below you’ll find more information on how to identify your own body type – or mixture of types – and learn how to tailor your fitness tactics to it: what you should be doing in the gym and the kitchen, where you might be going wrong, what to eat, what moves make the biggest difference and how supplements can help you improve further. At the very least, you’ll gain a better understanding of why your body is the shape it is and know how to get the best out of your genetic make-up.
The Importance Of Sleep
Whatever your body type, to get the most out of your training you need to focus on your nutrition (more on which below) and recovery – key to the latter is sleep. The positive effects of getting forty winks are huge.
Most of us tend to associate testosterone and growth hormone with pure muscle growth. However, they are equally important in aiding fat loss and recovery from exercise. Sleep has a massive say on your body’s production of said hormones.
A University of Chicago study found that if your levels of sleep fall below eight hours a night over the course of a week, testosterone can be lowered by 10% or more. Your body’s levels of testosterone and growth hormone are also regulated by the amount of sleep you gain within a daily cycle known as a “circadian rhythm”. You should aim to synchronise your circadian rhythm with daylight and night-time.
Your sleep can be negatively affected by unusual or additional light at night. A great step you can take to alleviate any light interaction with sleep is to switch off lights and electronic devices at least one hour before you go to sleep.
Ectomorph Body Type
Ectomorphs are good at processing carbohydrates into energy and your fast metabolism means that you burn off fat easily. The downside is that you struggle to bulk up because your fast-twitch fibres are underdeveloped. To become more muscular, you need to keep cardio sessions to a minimum and focus on intense workouts using compound exercises to maximise growth hormone release. You’ll also need to take on about 3,000 calories a day including plenty of starchy carbs and whey protein, possibly from a supplement.
Are You an Ectomorph?
You’ve got the build of a marathon runner – lean, but short on muscle. It can be hard to pack on size despite hours in the gym.
What’s Going On?
It’s all to do with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition – or, in layman’s terms, the number of cells surrounding your muscle fibres and your ability to add more by training. In one study of 66 people, the top 17 “responders” experienced a 58% gain in muscle cross-sectional area, while the bottom 17 gained nothing. Unfortunately for ectomorphs, they tend to be the worst “responders”.
What Ectomorphs Might Be Doing Wrong
Three days of strength training should be coupled with two days of low-intensity cardio. Effective abs exercises include the captain’s chair, the bicycle crunch and abs crunches while sat on an exercise ball. First, ditch the treadmill. “Ectomorphs often gravitate to long, slow distance work, but it’s the worst thing they can do,” says trainer Will Purdue.
And it may be tempting to pack your routine with classic bodybuilder moves such as the biceps curl, but that’s another mistake, says Purdue. “I often see ectomorphs focusing on isolation moves, whereas big, compound movements such as the squat will involve more muscles and give you the hormonal boost that helps build muscle. I still use isolation moves, but they’re supplementary to the main workout moves – 80% of moves should be working big muscle groups.”
What Ectomorphs Should Be Doing
“Compound movements, sets in the eight-to-12 rep range and quite a lot of volume are what you’re looking for,” says Purdue. “So a system such as German Volume Training is ideal.” Popularised by muscle expert Charles Poliquin, GVT prescribes ten sets of ten reps in key moves such as the bench or squat.
And there’s no need to live in the gym to put on muscle – quite the contrary, in fact. “If you’re working out four, five days a week you’ll be speeding up your metabolism too much,” says trainer Hughes. “I tend to limit my ectomorphs to three workouts a week, keeping the actual training time after a warm-up to 45 minutes or less.”
What to Eat
In terms of nutrition, a diet that is high in calories, carbs, protein and fat will aid you in your quest for muscle gain. This should not be mistaken for eating precisely what you like. Rather, it just means you should eat more of what is healthy. Good news: you don’t have to steer clear of carbs such as oats, wholemeal bread and potatoes. Fats found in nuts, seeds and avocado will also bring about the right results. “Ectomorphs should respond well to carbs, which will spike blood sugar and help to drive protein to their muscles,” says trainer Mark Hughes. “Stick to the complex kind, such as sweet potatoes and brown rice.” Aim for 2g per kilo of bodyweight per day of protein minimum, but be wary of overdoing it.
Ectomorphs who are sub-15% body fat should aim for 8g carbs, 4.3g protein and 1g fat per kg of bodyweight on training days. On rest days reduce the carbs to 7g. A high carb diet will spike blood sugar, helping drive protein to your muscles without elevating insulin resistance.
“It’s important for ectomorphs to use supplements properly,” says Hughes. “I’d advise a carb/protein shake to drink before and during your workout, and either another one or a good meal afterwards.”
The deadlift is your best friend: people with long arms should find it relatively easy, and it uses the entire body so it’ll pack on mass. Although squats and benching will do wonders for your physique, taller ectomorphs might find them difficult. “Your longer levers might give you trouble getting below parallel in the squat,” says Purdue. “That’s when I recommend the leg press.”
The Ectomorph Cheat Sheet
- Train with compound moves
- Get enough protein
- Use isolation moves as finishers
- Overemphasise isolation moves
- Do too much cardio
- Ectomorphs have to work harder on the weights in order to gain a toned physique