Do you struggle to lose weight or gain weight super easily? Or do you struggle to put on muscle, not matter how much time you spend in the gym? The answer may lie in understanding your body type.
Knowing your body type can be very helpful if you have been trying to achieve fitness, strength, health, or weight loss goals less successfully that you’d like to. 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 based on physique that comprised of three body types (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 This relationship has since been dismissed as simplistic and outdated.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.2
Today somatotypology is studied and applied by anthropologists, biologists, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, coaches, personal trainers, coaches, sports scientists and even doctors the world over.
While it is used in research, body types is also used for designing individual, effective and efficient weight loss, nutritional, and fitness programs.
The Science of Body Types
Research shows that genetics has a substantial influence on body type, particularly on ectomorphy and mesomorphy.345 This is important because it helps explain individual differences in both physique and athletic performance, that can’ be explained by lifestyle factors such as nutrition and exercise alone.
For example, having a high degree of mesomorphy is associated with greater strength performance.6 Furthermore, sprinters tend to be very mesomorphic, while endurance athletes become increasingly ectomorphic the longer their distance (e.g. 10K runners versus marathoners).789 Body type can also influence different playing positions in team sports.1011
Who should eat and train for their body type? Body types help to explain differences in metabolism, activity, and nutritional needs. For people who lose weight or gain muscle when they want to and achieve expected results, body types are not necessary. However, people who have tried to lose weight and really struggle (endomorphs) or those resistant to weight gain (ectomorphs), can really benefit from tailoring their diet and exercise routine to suit their body type.
Three Body Types
Each of the three body can gain or lose weight, but the degree and rate at which they do varies.
Endomorphs. This body type has a slower, less forgiving metabolism and have a greater tendency to store fat than the other body types. Endomorphs gain weight more easily and find it more difficult to lose weight compared to the other body types. Because of this, endomorphs are more likely to be overweight. Endomorphs have a medium to large frame and tend to be very shapely.
Mesomorphs. This body type builds muscle mass with ease. Mesomorphs are athletic, strong, powerful, and fast. They tend to have a predominance of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and excel at sports that require power and speed. They can lose weight without much difficulty. Mesomorphs have a medium frame, and a more square body shape.
Ectomorphs. In contrast to the other body types, ectomorphs have little mass (fat and muscle). They have a relatively small frame and long limbs. Ectomorphs are slender, lightly muscled, with a more linear shape. They have fast metabolism, and are more resistant to weight gain (fat or muscle). However, ectomorphs can look slim, but may still carry unhealthy levels of body fat.
Height has little to do with body type, despite the fact that ectomorphs tend to be thought as tall and endomorphs or mesomorphs as short.
Most of us do not fit perfectly within one of the 3 body type groups, but instead have qualities of at least two body types. Experts believe that many people are a combination of body types, such as ecto-mesomorphs or endo-mesomorphs, where they’re mainly like the mesomorph, but with traits of the ectomorph (e.g. small joints or a trim waist) or with qualities of the endomorph (e.g. a tendency to gain fat easily).
Body Types Are 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. 121314
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, endomorph doesn’t equal being overweight or ectomorph being skinny. Think of body types as a describing propensity for weight gain.
Therefore, the different body types are simply 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.
An ectomorph can make huge gains and become more mesomorphic, but cannot become a mesomorph in the sense that a mesomorph who trains will always make bigger gains. Endomorphs can lose weight and become more ectomorphic, but can’t become ectomorphs who naturally have little mass and are very lanky. For example, Marilyn Monroe and Jennifer Lopez are endomorphs, while Audrey Hepburn and Tailor Swift are ectomorphs.
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.
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, we will fit into one category better than the next and have a predominant body type.
Do you gain weight quickly after going on a lazy holiday? If you lose this weight rapidly after a change in diet or some exercise, you are probably a mesomorph. 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.
2. Eating Habits
If you consume a large amount of calories and are still slender, you are probably an ectomorph. If you keep a rough eye on what you eat and don’t gain weight you are probably a mesomorph. If you consume few calories and still gain weight you are probably an endomorph.
3. Frame Size
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 (ectomorph). 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. Frame size also has an impact on weight (see how much should I weigh?)
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.
5. Body Type Calculator
Use this body type calculator to help determine your body type.
Below is side-by-side comparison of all three body types.
|Slender, linear physique||Square, athletic physique||Shapely body|
|Lightly muscled||Naturally muscular||Gains muscle easily, but may be underdeveloped|
|Small joints/ boned||Medium size joints/ bones||Medium to large joints/ bones|
|Low body fat (without exercising or following low calorie diets)||Naturally strong||Higher levels of body fat|
|Small shoulders, chest and buttocks||Broad/ square shoulders||Small shoulders, high waist and large hips creating a pear-shaped physique|
|Long arms and legs||Long torso and short limbs||Lose weight slowly|
|Difficulty increasing body fat||Losing fat is easy||Difficult to keep lost body fat off|
|Difficulty gaining muscle||Gaining muscle easy||Slow metabolic rate|
|Fast & efficient metabolism||Efficient metabolism|
Body types can also combine so that the upper body is ectomorphic with a smaller frame and slender, while the lower body is more endomorphic with larger-framed and greater body fat. These people are pear-shapes. On the other hand, people with a more endomorphic upper body and ectomorphic lower body are apple shape.
Read more: The 5 body shapes
Age & Body Type
This is because maximum skeletal muscle mass and strength is reached between the ages of 20 and 35.17 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.1819 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.20212223 Once people hit their mid 30s they start to decrease their level of physical activity.2425 This not only leads to weight gain and the loss of muscle, but with time also adversely affects health, mobility, and fitness.262728 So the good news is, this age-related change in body type can be substantially reduced with regular cardio and strength training.293031
How to Eat & Train for Your Body Type
All body types can be developed and body composition improved with the right training and diet. However, each body type needs to approach their goals with slightly different strategies.
Diet & Workout for Endomorphs
Endomorphs have the greatest transformational capacity of all the body types.
Endomorph diet: Endomorphs tend to be carb sensitive and get better results with a diet lower in carbs to help control insulin and blood sugar. Focus on nutrient-dense and complex carbs such as vegetables, good quality fats, and protein. Eat regular meals and avoid crash dieting, which can slow metabolism even further.
Read more: The Best Diet for Endomorphs
Endomorph training: Focus on cardiovascular exercise for weight loss and to keep weight off long term. A training plan should incorporate a combination of moderate-intensity exercise (e.g. brisk walking) and high-intensity workouts such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and CrossFit style circuit training, which also help build muscle.
Endomorphs should 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, pacing while talking on the phone. It doesn’t sound like much, but the fast metabolism of ectomorphs may be in part due to very high NEAT, which may be as high as an extra 700 calories a day.3233
Read more: The Best Workout for Endomorphs
Diet & Workout for Mesomorphs
Mesomorphs respond quickest to exercise, compared to the other body types.
Mesomorph diet: Mesomorphs do well on a diet with moderate levels carbs, that includes vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Include good-quality fats (helps increase satiety) and protein (important for muscle repair).
For weight loss aim for a macro ratio of about 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. Mesomorphs lose weight fairly easily and don’t need to follow low-carb or otherwise restrictive diets.
Read more: Calorie calculator
Mesomorph training: For weight loss focus on moderate endurance training and HIIT workouts. To increase strength and build muscle mass lift moderate-to-heavy weights.
To gain strength and stamina without size do super sets or circuit training and use lighter weights (with higher reps) or body-weight exercises. Pilates and yoga can lengthen and strengthen muscles.
Read more: Macronutrient calculator
Diet & Workout for Ectomorphs
It can be difficult for ectomorphs to eat healthily, as poor eating habits don’t lead to weight gain. However, with age ectomorphs are likely to gain body fat and may suffer with high levels of hidden, unhealthy belly fat (known as skinny fat).
Ectomorph diet: Ectomorphs tend to have a higher tolerance to carbs, but may become a little sensitive to carbohydrates with age. Either way, shoot for high-quality, whole-food carbs, and skip the high-sugar fast foods. Eat healthy fats and try to consume protein with every meal. If your goal is to gain weight, eat every 3 hours and stick to healthy, nutrient-dense snacks for extra calories.
Read more: Weight gain calculator
Ectomorph workout: Long limbs and more slow-twitch muscle fibers mean ectomorphs are great at endurance cardio. Use some of your cardio workouts to also build strength and power. Seek out hills if you’re exercising outdoors, ramp up the incline or resistance on the cardio machines, or throw in some plyometric exercises.
Ectomorphs who don’t need to lose weight should still do some regular cardio to maintain cardiovascular fitness and health.