From Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and even Galileo’s Square-Cube Law, to the medical classifications by Hippocrates, traditional Chinese medicine, and Ayurveda, the human physique has fascinated scientists and artists alike for millennia. Today, the study of body proportions is called anthropometry.
The human body comes in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, and body compositions. So no classification which tries to summarize this into simple categories will be failproof. But it is a starting point. Where it is particularly helpful is in underscoring the fact that we don’t all have the same needs or face the same challenges.
Knowing your body type can be also be helpful if you have been trying to achieve fitness, strength, health, or weight loss goals less successfully than you’d like to. If you struggle to lose weight or have found it challenging to gain muscle, the answer may lie in understanding your body type. It can allow you to personalize diet and workouts to suit your specific needs, work with your body instead of against it, and achieve better results.
What is Body Type?
In the 1940’s American scientist William H. Sheldon and his colleagues proposed a system of classification of the human physique that comprised of three body types (also known as somatotypes), which he called ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph.1
William Sheldon was not an anatomist, instead he was a behavioural psychologist and thus the core of his theory lay in associating the three somatotypes with temperament types. This relationship has since been dismissed as simplistic and outdated.
While the element of behavioural science in his theory may have been poor, the study of somatotyping itself has merit. Since the introduction of this classification, it has continually evolved and developed. Presently the most commonly used method of somatotyping (or body typing) is the Heath-Carter method.23
Body type is a combination of frame size, and level of body fat and muscle mass relative to height. There are 3 main body types:
Height only matters in relative terms (i.e. how much or how little fat/ muscle compared to height). Therefore, although ectomorphs tend to be thought as tall, any body type can be tall or short.
The Science of Body Types
No one fits perfectly within one body type, but are a combination of all 3 body types. Nevertheless, most people are dominant in one or two body types.
Body types is sometimes used in research, particularly in the study of elite athletes.4567 A precise assessment of body type is done in a lab, where body fat, muscle mass, bone, and other anthropometrical measurements are taken. A rating between 1 and 9 (or above) is given for endomorphy, mesomorphy, and ectomorphy, such as 1-5-1 (this person would be a mesomorph). A score of ½ to 2½ is considered low, 3 to 5 moderate, 5½ to 7 high, and 7½ and above is very high.8
However, fitness trainers for example may simply make a rough assessment by looking at which traits best describe their client in order to design a more individualized weight loss, nutritional, and fitness program.
The 3 Body Types
Body types don’t just help to explain physical differences in physique and body composition, but also metabolism. Each of the three body can gain or lose weight, but the degree and rate at which they do varies. Body types are key to understanding that when it comes to weight loss and weight gain we are not all the same.
Body types can help us understand our struggles, capitalize on our strengths, accept our amazing bodies, and learn what we can healthily and realistically achieve.
Here’s a deeper look at the characteristics of each body type.
- Body composition: Little fat and muscle compared to the other body types.
- Metabolism: Fast metabolism, and are more resistant to weight gain (fat or muscle). Ectomorphs can look slim, but may carry unhealthy levels body fat.
- Sporting strengths: Tend to excel in endurance sports.
- Body shape: Small frame and joints, with long limbs and long, thin muscles. Slender and lanky, with a more linear body shape.
- Body composition: Gain muscle mass with ease and can have low body fat, resulting in high muscle definition.
- Metabolism: Efficient metabolism. Can gain and lose weight easily.
- Sporting strengths: Predominance of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Athletic, strong, agile, and fast. Excel at explosive sports that require power and speed.
- Body shape: Medium frame and joints, thick muscles, and tend to have a more rectangular, compact body shape.
- Metabolism: Slower metabolism than the other body types.
- Body composition: Gain weight more easily and find it more difficult to lose weight. Because of this, endomorphs are more likely to be overweight. Able gain muscle relatively easily.
- Sporting strengths: Excel in sports requiring strength and power, as well as middle-distance or moderate-intensity activities.
- Body shape: Medium-to-large frame and joints, tapered limbs, and tend to be very shapely.
Remember no-one is just purely one body type, but a combination of body types. While we may not fit a body type exactly, generally we will fit into one category better than the next and have a predominant body type.
For example, ectomorphic mesomorphs are mainly like a mesomorph, but have traits of the ectomorph (e.g. muscular with a more slender, narrow shape). While an endomorphic mesomorph is predominantly a mesomorph with qualities of the endomorph (e.g. muscular, but muscles not as well defined, a more shapely physique, and a tendency to gain weight a little more easily).
Body type vs body shape. Body types are distinct from body shape. Where body type is about body composition (fat, muscle, frame size), body shape describes how that mass is distributed or molded.
Body types can combine in different ways to affect body shape. For example, someone may have an upper body that is more ectomorphic with a smaller frame and less body fat, and a lower body that is more endomorphic. People with this combination have a pear body shape. On the other hand, people with a more mesomorphic upper body and ectomorphic lower body are V-shaped (aka inverted triangle).
Body Types – A Starting Point
Diet and lifestyle habits directly affect our level of muscle and body fat. However, no amount of exercise will transform a short-limbed person into a long-limbed one, because characteristics, such as the width of you hips and shoulders or whether you are small or big-boned are unchangeable.
Furthermore, anyone can lose weight and anyone can gain muscle. You’ll see that written everywhere. What people are less apt to talk about, the inconvenient truth if you will, is that the ease and degree to which fat loss and muscle gain can achieved varies between people. 91011 That each of us is unique, and that we don’t all have the same tendency to have a BMI of, say, 22.12131415
You cannot change your body type in the sense that an endomorph will always have a greater tendency to put on weight compared to a mesomorph or ectomorph. However, an endomorph body type doesn’t mean being overweight nor does an ectomorph body type equal being skinny. Think of body types as a describing your natural propensity for weight gain.
An ectomorph can gain much more muscle and become more mesomorphic, but cannot become a mesomorph in the sense that a mesomorph who trains will always make bigger gains. Endomorphs can slim down and become more ectomorphic, but can’t become ectomorphs who naturally have little mass and a small frame. For example, Marilyn Monroe and Jennifer Lopez are endomorphs, while Audrey Hepburn and Taylor Swift are ectomorphs.
Therefore, the different body types are simply a starting point of what your body is and what you can do with it. Although you can’t change the framework, through healthy diet and exercise you have a huge amount control over what your body will become. In other words, body type sets the scene, but lifestyle largely determines the result. It places limits on what you can healthily achieve, but not on being healthy, fit, or strong.
How to Determine Body Type
Perhaps it was immediately obvious which body type fit you. But if it wasn’t, also consider how you react to food and exercise.
While we may not fit a body type exactly, often we will fit into one category better than the next and have a predominant body type, or will be a hybrid of two body types.
Do you gain weight quickly after going on a lazy holiday? If you struggle to lose these extra pounds, then you may be an endomorph. If you don’t put on any weight, you most likely are an ectomorph. If you lose this weight easily after a change in diet or some exercise, you are probably a mesomorph (or a balance of body types, such as ectomorph-endomorph or ectomorph-mesomorph).
2. Eating Habits
If you eat what you like and are still slender, you are probably an ectomorph. If you have to carefully watch your calorie intake in order to maintain your weight you are probably an endomorph. If you keep a rough eye on what you eat and don’t gain weight you are probably a mesomorph (or a balance of body types).
3. Frame Size
Frame size is associated with body type, and may also have an impact on body weight (see how much should I weigh?).16 To determine whether you are small, medium or larger boned/ jointed, encircle your wrist with your thumb and middle finger.
If your middle finger overlaps your thumb, then you are small boned/ jointed. If your middle finger and thumb just touch, you have medium sized bones/ joints and if your finger and thumb do not touch then you are larger boned/ jointed. Alternatively, you can use the body type calculator below.
4. Think Back!
To help determine your body type, think back to your early twenties, a time before age (metabolism slows as you get older, making you more prone to weight gain) and lifestyle transformed your body into what it is today.
Below is side-by-side comparison of the three body types.
|Slender, linear physique||Square, athletic physique||Shapely physique|
|Small frame/ joints||Medium frame/ joints||Medium to large frame/ joints|
|Long limbs||Limbs proportional to torso||Tapered limbs|
|Lightly muscled||Naturally muscular||Can be muscular|
|Lower body fat||Balanced body composition||Higher levels of body fat|
|Fast metabolism||Average metabolism||Slow metabolism|
|Lose weight very easily, can find it difficult to gain weight||Losing fat is easy||Lose weight slowly|
|Difficulty gaining muscle||Gains muscle very easily||Gains muscle easily|
How Does Age Affect Body Type?
This is because maximum skeletal muscle mass and strength is reached between the ages of 20 and 35.19 The loss of muscle starts after the age of 30 and accelerates in your fifties. Muscle is lost at a rate of ½-2% per year.2021 As muscle is metabolically active, the loss of muscle also leads to the slowing of metabolism.
However this shift in body type is not completely inevitable.22232425 Once people hit their mid 30s they start to decrease their level of physical activity.2627 This not only leads to weight gain and the loss of muscle, but with time also adversely affects health, mobility, and fitness.282930 So the good news is, this age-related change in body type can be substantially reduced with regular cardio and strength training.313233
The Science on Body Type & Sports
Research shows that genetics has a substantial influence on body type, particularly on ectomorphy and mesomorphy.343536 This is important, because it helps explain individual differences in both physique and athletic performance that can’t be explained by lifestyle factors such as nutrition and exercise alone.
Having a high degree of mesomorphy is associated with greater strength performance.37 Furthermore, sprinters tend to be very mesomorphic, while endurance athletes become increasingly ectomorphic the longer their distance (e.g. 10K runners versus marathoners).383940 Body type can also influence different playing positions in team sports, while in individual sports it might be a factor an athlete considers when forming a game plan (e.g. tennis).414243
Nevertheless, don’t let your body type affect your choice of sport – unless you intend to become an elite athlete. In fact, even if you want to perform at the highest level, body type needn’t be an insurmountable hurdle. Some of the greatest sportsmen and women didn’t let their body type stop them. Athletes who, according to conventional sporting wisdom, had no business succeeding in their sport plowed right through those barriers.
Be it tall and lanky Usain Bolt in a sea of mesomorphic sprinters, who changed the limits of what we thought was possible and with it reshaped the scientific view of what constitutes the perfect sprinter.4445 Or the improbability that is Stephen Curry. Seemingly missing the most important gift necessary to succeed, his build is entirely at odds with the taller, heavier body type of previous basketball greats that allowed them to physically dominate the game. Instead he bent the game to his will through skill so sublime it revolutionized the sport.
These legends didn’t just succeed. They didn’t just break records. They changed the way we see things and firmly occupy a place in the pantheon of the world’s most revered athletes. So don’t let your body type limit you, but let it guide you in achieving better results.
How to Eat & Train For Your Body Type.
Understanding your body’s natural tendency is helpful. But do you need to eat and train for your body type? The answer is – it depends.
Diet & body type. Following a diet for your body type is not necessary for people who can lose weight or gain muscle when they want to, and generally achieve the results they expect. However, people who have implemented the basics consistently over time, but still struggle to lose weight or are resistant to gaining mass can benefit from tailoring their diet and exercise routine to suit their body type.
The macronutrient ratios below, are just starting points. It’s best to begin with more carbs (a vital source of vitamins and minerals from whole foods) and, depending on your results, reduce it further if necessary.
Exercise & body type. When it comes to exercise, taking body type into consideration can benefit most people. If you’re struggling to find activities you enjoy, it can help you zero in on sports in which you are likely to naturally excel. It can also help you adapt exercises and optimize them to suit your body (e.g. long limbs can make certain moves more challenging).
On the other hand, it can also serve to create more balance in your training. Generally, we are drawn to what we’re good at, such as focusing on cardio and skipping strength training, which means it’s easy to end up with a lop-sided workout routine. Including elements that don’t come as naturally to your body type can create a more balanced workout schedule that addresses your relative weaknesses and doesn’t just build on your strengths – elevating your fitness to higher levels.
Ectomorph Diet & Workout
It can be difficult for ectomorphs to eat healthily, as a poor eating habits don’t lead to substantial weight gain, a key sign for most people to get back on track with a healthier diet. Furthermore, endomorphic ectomorphs can suffer with normal-weight obesity and high levels of hidden, unhealthy belly fat, which is marked by having less muscle mass and higher levels of body fat, but a normal BMI, (also known as skinny fat). This increases the risk of developing cardiometabolic conditions such as insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.4647
Ectomorphs tend to have a higher tolerance to carbs, but may become a little sensitive to carbohydrates with age. Either way, for better health and higher energy levels, shoot for healthy carbs (e.g. fruit, vegetables, legumes, and unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains) and limit highly processed or refined foods.
If your goal is to gain weight eat every 3 hours and stick to healthy, nutrient-dense snacks (e.g. nuts) for extra calories. Endomorphic ectomorphs who want to lose weight can cut back on the proportion of carbs, and increase protein and fat. Use the weight gain calculator to help determine your calorie needs.
Less muscle, long limbs and more slow-twitch muscle fibers mean ectomorphs are great at endurance cardio, but are less strong than the other body types and also more likely to suffer with postural problems.50 While ectomorphs are likely to prefer cardio over weights, strength training is an essential component of any training strategy.
Use some of your cardio workouts to also build strength and power. You can seek out hills if you’re exercising outdoors, ramp up the incline or resistance on the cardio machines, throw in some plyometric exercises, or do a stair climbing workout. Ectomorphs who don’t need to lose weight should still do some regular cardio to maintain cardiovascular fitness and health.
Mesomorph Diet & Workout
Mesomorphs respond quickest to exercise, compared to the other body types, tend to have excellent posture, and are able to easily lose weight.
Mesomorphs generally do well by simply following a healthy, balanced diet (e.g. Mediterranean diet). They lose weight and build muscle easily and often don’t need to follow low-carb or otherwise restrictive diets. Use this calorie calculator to help determine your daily calorie requirements.
If they wish, mesomorphs can tweak things with a diet consisting of moderate levels of carbs, that includes vegetables, fruit and whole grains:
Incorporate both moderate-intensity cardio and HIIT workouts. It can be tempting for mesomorphs to focus on short, high-intensity exercise and plyometrics. However, it’s important to include some moderate-intensity cardio, because it is not as taxing and allows the body to recover, while still improving cardiovascular fitness and burning calories.
Endomorph Diet & Workout
Endomorphs may need to be more diligent than the other body types when it comes to weight loss, but are often able to gain muscle relatively easily. Therefore, for endomorphs the focus is on improving body composition by fine-tuning diet, performing regular cardio and fast-paced strength workouts, as well as increasing general day-to-day activity outside of scheduled training.
Macronutrient ratio – About 40-30% carbs, 30-35% protein, and 30-35% fat.53
Endomorphs should also try to increase NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), which is the calories you burn outside deliberate exercise, in order to boost metabolism. This involves adding a little extra activity here and there, e.g. standing more, taking the stairs, walking short distances instead of driving, or even pacing while talking on the phone.
It doesn’t sound like much, but NEAT is highly variable between people, and vary by a whopping 700 extra calories a day.5455 Higher levels of NEAT may also be associated with a lower risk of death from all causes, cardiovascular events, and metabolic syndrome.565758