Editor’s Note: This post was updated on November 21, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on May 10, 2017.
Are you one of those people who exercises regularly, but can’t understand why you don’t look like that person next to you at the gym? Do you get frustrated that your friend seems to be able to eat just about anything and never looks like they gain an ounce? Or how about those lucky individuals who have an outstanding athletic physique without even trying.
We are often quick to attribute these differences to the mysteries of different body shapes or somatotypes but rarely go beyond the basic body classifications to explore how our body types differ. What we should instead focus on are factors we can control instead of our genetics. How about we instead study how each different body types responds to factors like diet and exercise, and how we can work with our body type to effectively change or optimize our body composition.
Let’s examine each different somatotypes, see how you can use an understanding of your genetic predisposition to make better decisions to reach your specific body composition goal.
The Three Somatotypes
A somatotype is defined as a “quantitative overall appraisal of the present shape and composition of the human body.” Classifying different body types based on physique provides three generalized divisions of body types: endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph. As with anything, it’s rare for someone to fall entirely into one somatotype. You might show a combination of qualities from two somatotypes, such as an ectomorph-endomorph hybrid or an endomorph-ectomorph.
There are countless articles about how having a general idea of where you fit on the somatotype scale can help give you the knowledge you need to make informed decisions in your quest to change your body composition. However, before we examine these claims more closely, let’s take a quick look at the general structures of the 3 somatotypes:
That super skinny friend of yours that often gets called a “stick” falls primarily into the somatotype category of an ectomorph. Naturally lean with a tendency towards long limbs, ectomorphs typically possess that slender look no matter what type of diet they consume. A lot of endurance runners and swimmers are ectomorphs. Although ectomorphs may have a decent amount of muscle, due to their long limb-length, they may appear visually to have less muscle development. Similarly, body fat also seems to get hidden by their long, slender figure – meaning ectomorphs seem to get away with a few extra pounds of fat. Because of this, if ectomorphs aren’t taking care of their health, they can become skinny fat.
Mesomorphs are the natural athletes out of the three somatotypes. They are the lucky few, that can achieve a muscular physique without really trying. The physiology of a mesomorph tends to include narrow hips, wide back, and larger frame that contributes to an often muscular appearance. Many professional fighters, wide receivers, and basketball players fall are mesomorphs.
Endomorphs are the larger structured somatotypes with both wide hips and shoulders but shorter arms and legs. This type of body shape is great for activities that require a lot of strength. When you think of endomorphs, think of rugby props, strength athletes, and powerlifters. Endomorph body-types are even considered to be a contributing factor in race performance in Ironman athletes.
Recall the definition of somatotypes as having both a shape and composition component. While your shape may be set from the start, your body composition is not set in stone. So what are the general body compositions for these different somatotypes?
Ectomorphs look lean and often they do tend to get placed into the category of endurance athletes. People with these body types seem to struggle with gaining weight and altering their body composition through lean muscle mass gain. Their efforts in the gym may seem to have little effect visually, even causing frustration when trying to initiate a change.
Mesomorphs, on the other hand, have a larger frame that lends to the appearance of a body composition with a high percentage of lean muscle mass and a lower body fat percentage. The result is a more athletic, muscular look.
Endomorphs tend to have shorter, rounder frames, with the appearance of a large amount of both muscle and fat mass. However, due to their stockier features, body fat stored by these individuals tend to be more readily noticeable compared to the other body structures.
Now that we have a better idea of what these three somatotypes look like, let’s see what this really means for your body composition goals and whether or not you can make a difference despite your genetics.
Nature vs. Nurture
Considering somatotypes and body composition often leads to the question: Is our body type predetermined by our genetics or can you impact the way your body looks with my lifestyle choices? Numerous studies have investigated the hereditary implications of body composition and the effect of genetics versus environmental factors. Let’s take a look at what they’ve found.
We know that we inherit our genes from our parents. Studies do show a genetic connection between parents and children (nature)-– also reflected in similarities amongst siblings– with the maternal genes having a more significant impact in many cases.
So somatotype is hereditary, but external factors have an effect as well.
Lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise, both affect your overall body composition and can contribute to that slender or stocky look. There’s certainly a link between diet and body composition, where a diet (or lack thereof) can either promote or hinder your health goals. Similarly, your appearance will also greatly depend on the type of training you engage in and whether your goal is to build strength, size, or muscular endurance.
What does this tell us?
In a nutshell, while your body shape and size may be somewhat set in stone, your body composition is not.
Breaking Out of the Mold
It’s important to remember that somatotypes describe different body types in order to provide general guidelines for health and fitness. Remember, somatotypes are defined as a “quantitative overall appraisal of the present shape and composition of the human body.” While you may be genetically predisposed to have a certain body structure, your lifestyle can impact your body composition and cause your somatotype to change.
Let’s look at the example of the ectomorph. Ectomorphs have been implicated to be better at aerobic exercises like running or swimming. Intuitively, this makes sense. Having longer limbs helps increase stride length and a lower overall body fat percentage helps reduce resistance caused by excess body fat. Races have actually introduced the concept of “Clydesdale or Athena” runners since lower weight has been attributed to better running performance in marathons. Mesomorphs and endomorphs, on the other hand, may possess shorter limb length that may allow them to engage in more power and strength building activities, contributing to the image of these body types having greater musculature.
Now, let’s say an ectomorph wanted to become a powerlifter and achieve a larger figure, breaking out of his ectomorph shell. Would he be condemned to the life of an ectomorph or can he still achieve one of the other body types?
Think about it this way: If an ectomorph ate cheeseburgers and milkshakes all day and lifted weights like a powerlifter, would he always look like an ectomorph or would his body shape eventually become more of a mesomorph type shape, or even an endomorph type shape?
The point is, just because you fall into a certain somatotype, doesn’t always mean you’re stuck in what your body type ‘should’ excel at. Take volleyball for example: a study looking at somatotype in elite volleyball players found that players in various positions had different somatotypes.
Furthermore, your somatotype doesn’t limit what you can do to change your body. A study conducted on weightlifters found that there were athletes from all body types scattered throughout the participants. So even if your genetics play a large role in predicting your body frame, you can still engage in the types of activities you enjoy to ensure your genetics don’t decide your overall body composition.
How Can This Information Help You Change Your Body Composition?
Genetics can prevent you from changing your body structure, but your shape doesn’t tell you what body composition you have to have. Knowing your somatotype can allow you to work with your body to make adjustments to factors you can control, rather than working against it and being constantly frustrated by your lack of success.
For example, many NBA athletes start their career with an ectomorphic frame due to their long torso and limb lengths in conjunction with their slender figure. With years of full-body strength training and conditioning, they shift their somatotype to a hybrid ectomorph-mesomorphic body type that makes them ideal bodies for the sport of basketball.
So remember, your body shape can change. Which brings up another important point – monitoring those changes in the long run. As a mesomorph, you may be happy to show off your naturally athletic-looking body at the pool, or as an ectomorph, you may enjoy the way dresses drape your long, slender frame.
But beware: like anyone else, you have to maintain a healthy body composition through healthy lifestyle choices. Despite your current body shape or health, you’re still at risk of sarcopenia (age-related muscle degradation) or fat accumulation due to unhealthy lifestyle choices like a poor diet or lack of physical activity.
Relying on the perks of your somatotype isn’t a long-term strategy for health and longevity. Continued resistance training, even simply once or twice a week at moderate intensity, can help prevent muscle loss related to aging and maintain an optimal body composition.
The More You Know
Understanding your somatotype can be helpful if you’re someone who has struggled to find a form of exercise that complements your physiology. You may be able to develop an exercise routine that feels more natural and easier to commit to if you consider your body structure. However, don’t let your current body structure impact your decision to do something you’re interested in, just because it’s not a perfect fit. While certain somatotypes may correlate with athleticism, there’s no specific gene that determines whether or not someone will become an elite athlete.
In conclusion, having a general idea of your somatotype and understanding your body structure can help you make the changes required to alter your body composition, However, the most effective way to achieve your body composition goals is still testing your body composition and tracking your changes.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to body composition. We come in all shapes and sizes, and discovering what works best with your somatotype will help you take the necessary steps to achieve your body composition goals.
Nikita Ross is a Precision Nutrition certified wellness coach and professional fitness writer. She believes that lifting both barbells and books is the key to self-improvement.