Perhaps you’ve heard about the “3 body types” on social media? It’s the idea that people are one of three physique types: ectomorph, mesomorph, or endomorph. Influencers, coaches, and trainers sometimes use these types to prescribe particular workouts or nutrition regimens.
Is there any evidence for body-type workout plans? Should you exercise according to body type? This blog post analyzes the science behind somatotypes.
In the scientific community, body types are called somatotypes. For example, Ectomorph is a somatotype.
Somatotype Theory And Application
Ancient cultures were the first to discuss somatotype theory. In the 1940s, scientist William Herbert Sheldon re-popularized the idea by using images of university students to analyze the varieties of the human physique. With just his eyes and the photographs, Sheldon determined three body types: (1)
naturally very thin, with narrow hips and shoulders; very low body fat with thin arms and legs.
able to put on muscle easily; are the ideal body type for bodybuilding. They have very strong legs, broad shoulders, and a narrower waist. Generally, they also have very low body fat.
more round and pear-shaped. They tend to store more body fat throughout the entire body, especially in the legs and arms.
Most people who use the somatotype theory recognize that not everybody is going to fit exactly into one or the other. But, they claim that there is one type that is more predominant.
Sheldon wasn’t using ecto/meso/endo to prescribe workouts. He was using them to predict personality characteristics. (2) His theories on personality and physique were published in the 1940s. Since then, he has been debunked and discredited. (3)
The first issue lay in how Sheldon analyzed the bodies. He did not use any measurement tools. He only looked at images. So, his results suffer from social bias and a lack of replicability. Moreover, he used the images illegally, without the consent of the students or the university. (4)
The second issue is the study’s reductionism. He only looked at one image of each person. (5) He had no idea if that person’s image was momentarily affected by external stimuli. Age, diet, medications, stress, participation in sports, bone density, hormones, and more can all affect the way someone looks on any given day, week, or year.
Finally, Sheldon only looked at images of young white men. His theory has been incorrectly applied to all people.
Aging can also increase the amount of fat tissue and its distribution, seemingly altering body type. (6)
Since Sheldon’s time, other scientists have tested the implications of his theory. According to studies, there is some truth to the “3 different body types” theory.
For example, one Russian study found that Ectormophs are predisposed to be better at basketball due to their limb length (not their skill or training).
Another study by the Nanyang Technical College of Singapore tested subjects’ leg and arm strength. They found that mesomorphs were naturally stronger than endomorphs or ectomorphs.
Such studies analyze two aspects of Sheldon’s theory. First, if there are actually three body types. Second, if those body types were pre-disposed to certain characteristics. They do not test how the body types responded differently to exercise and nutrition.
To date, there is little proof that a certain body type fits into a single category or reacts differently to exercise or nutrition.
Here’s the thing: you probably know someone naturally thin, no matter what they do. Two children raised in the same household can indeed have dramatically different weights.
So, does that mean you’re “stuck with” your body? Or, can you use exercise and food to change it?
Gym Body Types: What Science Says
Science shows us that a healthy body can change its composition through the following mechanisms, regardless of the body type classification:
But the results of these actions vary dramatically between individuals for complex reasons, including (and not limited to) current body type.
For example, a Medical Science Sports Exercise study put 585 untrained male and female subjects on a bicep workout program. Despite following the same program, growth results were dramatically different between participants. While many gained bicep density, some lost muscle, and some experienced no change.
So: all people can use nutrition and exercise to affect their health. But people react to workouts in extremely varied ways. So, is weight loss by body type sensical?
3 Different Body Types Workout Plans
Somatotypes can help you on a fitness journey, but they shouldn’t be the only basis for your plan. Even Sheldon’s assistant, Barbara Honeyman Heath, promoted their adapted application. (7)
You Are Scientifically Unique
Instead of “one size fits all,” consider: “what size fits ME, now?”
Body Type Workouts
The following guide helps you maintain your current body or change its composition. The exact results of these strategies will vary widely. Explore different methods and choose what works best.
For Ectomorph Maintenance
Strength training to transform an Ectomorph toward the other body types:
For Mesomorph Maintenance
Strength training for current Mesomorphs:
Toward Ectomorph or Endomorph
To adjust Mesomorph toward Ectomorph:
To adjust Mesomorph toward Endomorph (often referred to as bulking):
For Endomorph Maintenance
Strength training to move from Endomorph toward the other body types:
How To Train Your Body
The idea that a certain workout is best for a certain body type is too general. Most people are a combination of the three body types, so creating a strict workout plan based on one type is likely to fail. Moreover, many factors affect the outcome of a workout and nutrition plan.
Body composition can be changed, no matter your current body type. Transformation is an individual journey based on health and lifestyle, not how someone else views you.
Body Image Versus Health
One of the biggest issues with Sheldon’s theory is how society uses it to determine beauty.
Fitness influencers often promote certain body types as more desirable. They imply that if you don’t naturally have a “good” body type, then you need to exercise and diet.
Add that’s just not true: all bodies are beautiful and strong. Cultivating a positive body image is the most important aspect of total-body health.
When not teaching fitness, I write for adidas Runtastic. When not writing for them, I write for myself. Read my sports musings here (sometimes you will be re-directed to my posts at Runtastic.com)