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What is ‘Somatotype’ and what does it mean for the Endomorph, Ectomorph and Mesomorph?

The term originates from the study of Somatoytpes or ‘Somatotypology.’

Somatotyping is therefore a means for describing and assessing the human body on the basis of 3 different body shapes and compositions.

Normally, a 3-digit number or rating is used to express 'Mesomorphy', 'Endomorphy' and 'Ectomorphy', as exemplified further down. 

Now you're probably wondering "what on earth does any of this have to do with health and fitness!?"

Good question. And the answer: just about everything. Read on and you'll realize why this Site would be incomplete without considering somatotypology.

A Brief Background

The methodology of Somatotyping has evolved from attempts to classify the human physique or figure in relation to the 3 main elements of Embryogenesis (based on the three tissue layers 'Endoderm', 'Mesoderm' and 'Ectoderm'). This was proposed by the Constitutional Psychology theories of William Sheldon during the 1940’s, whereby he associated human body types with certain temperaments.

Sheldon's Somatotype conclusions were based mostly on interviews he conducted over an extended period of time – more in the role of Behavioral Psychologist than Anatomist or Physiologist. Hence, the data gathered has been deemed more suggestive than all-conclusive.

Psychological profiling based on anatomical features is today not accepted as valid, however, several aspects of Sheldon's theories have held the interest and following of a string of colleagues and researches, some of whom have made significant propositions and modifications to his work.

Somatotyping methodology has drawn criticism from far and wide as being too subjective and too presumptuous, yet it remains the single most accepted means of determining and classifying body shapes.

The Complexities of Somatotyping

If you're inclined to research this topic a little deeper – and get drawn into the nuts and bolts (as I have), you'll note that there's been extensive research by numerous contributors to the methodology. After Sheldon’s initial works, contributors like Parnell, Heath and Carter, and later Rempel – expanded on former studies.

They attempted to simplify the methods for assessment and render calculations more accurate. But, however interesting the topic of somatotyping is, I don't want to stray too far from the topic of health and fitness

Although research still continues in this field of work, it's clear that the most commonly accepted standard today is the Heath-Carter method.

It makes assessments and determinations by obtaining information from comparative body measurements (anthropometry) or photographic data, or a combination of the two sources.

There's no better resource detailing these principles than Carter and Heath's: Somatotyping:

Development and Applications (Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology)

How do we humans portray physical somatotype tendencies?

Generally, our bodies:

  • Reflect our unique genetic predispositions, and;

  • Show the effects of certain external factors (whose degree of impact is under our individual control).

  • What does this mean in slightly plainer English?

    We are born with a predetermined genetic makeup which dictates our body shape and physiological tendencies.

    In addition, our chosen lifestyle, or more specifically 'what' and 'how' we eat, as well as the extent and type of physical activities we engage in, all have an influence on our natural inclinations and ultimate appearance.

    Based on this 'somatotypology', the different body types are generally classified into 3 categories*, known as:

  • As shown in the chart below, Sheldon viewed each somatotype as possessing elements of the other, to which he assigned a 3-digit number on a continuum ranging from 1 to 7. The first digit corresponded to the degree of roundness or 'endomorphy', the second to the extent of muscularity or 'mesomorphy', and the third to the stringiness or 'ectomorphy.

    'Accordingly, a person with extreme muscular tendencies was classified by the archetypical number 171. Individuals displaying rounder Endomorph tendencies would be classified as 771, while those showing extreme Ectomorph characteristics would be classified by the number 117.

    As mentioned, subsequent research and modifications of the methodology, most notably by Heath and Carter, have allowed it to evolve significantly from Sheldon’s times. In the 2-D 'somatocharts' (shown below), Carter and Heath (1990, pp. 389-406) show the layout of the components resembling those in Sheldon’s 'cluster charts' (however, the numbers can be rounded off to the nearest half-unit).

    Components can range from a rating of ½ to t 7½, or higher; three-digit rating somatoplots are incorporated on a two-dimensional somatochart, using horizontal X and vertical Y coordinates (or axes).

    It should be noted that certain somatotype ratings which are high in endomorphy and/or mesomorphy, cannot also be high in ectomorphy. By the same token, individuals showing high ectomorphy will not possess high endomorphy and/or mesomorphy. Low endomorphy and mesomorphy will naturally be high in ectomorphy.

    Although most of us reflect a dominant somatotype in our anatomy, we each possess qualities of the other 2.

    The average individual is deemed to stand in the 'central' region of the above somatochart, as shown in the simplified triangular version (below), scoring somewhere between 333 and 444.

    In certain cases, 2 somatotypes can be reflected in an individual's anatomy and physiology, with minimal presence of the third type.

    In my case, I'm a male caucasian of average height, relatively large bone structure and reasonable muscle bulk with moderately fast metabolism. I've estimated my rating as 4-2-4, and primarily reflect the tendencies of the 2 somatotypes Endomorph and Ectomorph, with a small presence of 'mesomorphy.'

    I am therefore what you would call an Endo-Ectomorph.

    How are the different somatotypes manifested?

    The different somatotypes are not only distinguishable by the length, shape and density of the bones, muscles and lengths of the tendons – but also by individual metabolic tendencies and physiological constitutions.

    Ectomorphs usually have narrower bones and a linear stature. Endomorphs are normally 'burlier' with larger bone structures, and have higher fat and muscle quantities than Ectomorphs. The Mesomorph is usually seen as the benchmark body, that the other two are compared to.

    When it comes to outwardly attributes, mesomorphs have the advantage. They are the 'genetically-gifted' individuals, having the tendency to carry minimal body fat while sporting a pronounced musculature. Although 'true' mesomorphy by the other two somatotypes can never be easily achieved, muscle can be built through appropriate strength training and fat can be shed and kept off by physical exercise and good eating habits.

    Somatotype-Tendencies For Physical Exercise and Sport

    It's important to bear in mind that the 3 somatotypes have different degrees of potential and response in terms of the 'training effect' of physical exercise – and for their respective areas of specialization in sport. 

    For people like Al, the best approach is not to chase the elusive condition or proportions of a body-type of a different somatotype to yours. Narrow-mindedly pursuing a fitness goal for which you're ill-suited, may only lead to frustration, depression or body satisfaction issues.

    Instead, you should determine your own tendencies – and work with them and their respective advantages (with due consideration to planning exercise and nutrition).

    You can only become a better or 'the best' version of yourself – no one else.

    In terms of sport – although mesomorphs will do better in competitive shorter-distance athletics due to their favorable genetic makeup, it doesn't mean that endomorphs or ectomorphs cannot also be successful in athletic performance and/or competition.

    It does however mean, that you either compete where you're better-suited, or carefully and methodically adapt your exercise techniques and eating plan to afford the required physiological condition.

    ‘Somatotyping’ as a Predictor

    Even if genetic traits are carefully assessed and taken into account, it is not scientifically possible to gauge exactly what the influence of genetic inheritance is on levels of overall fitness.

    Instead, somatotypology should be seen more as a 'guideline' or 'indicator' for considerations and expectations – where exercise programming and nutrition plans are concerned. (There's more information, specific for the 3 main somatotypes, on their respective pages: Mesomorph, Ectomorph and Endomorph.)

    Irrespective though, the best indicators come from your own results and adjustments. People like Al should definitely (and consistently) log these – particularly at the beginning of a fitness journey.

    Only with measured results, can you adjust and revise your programming, in order to reach your fitness objectives realistically.

    So, rather than trying to second-guess things, go with a solid program, but don't neglect tracking and recording your progress.

    There's more about this on the page stressing the importance of having a Fitness Plan. You might also find this article about: planning and recording periodic progress, useful.

    Basic exercise consideration differences for the respective somatotypes

    The different somatotype factors and characteristics play an integral role in response and adaptation to exercise (both aerobic and anaerobic). Working realistically with genetic gifts and/or drawbacks will make you a more efficient trainee in terms of results anticipated and achieved.

    In brief, those of us with longer muscles (and usually a higher ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibers) and faster metabolisms will find it easier to build and shape our bodies due to the more mesomorphic genes we possess. Exercisers with this body type tendency may find it easier than others to lose body fat and gain lean mass.

    On the other hand, Ectomorphs usually find it a little easier to shed the pounds, but need more effort to build muscle, whereas Endomorphs find it a little trickier to lose weight and need to stay true to their cardiovascular exercise and nutrition plans.

    However, you shouldn't find yourself fretting about being an Ectomorph rather than an Endomorph or Mesomorph, as there is no one body-perfect.

    Be wary of one-size-fits-all diets and exercise pundits!

    Television and Web infomercials perpetually exploit their products and services under the guise that they deliver jaw-dropping results – to anyone, regardless.

    These ads propagate workout programs, diets and performance supplements as being able to yield formidable results in record time. They often talk, not only in terms of weeks or days, some flaunt their products claiming that they will bring you "overnight results, while you sleep."

    As I frequently warn my audience, inform yourself about what you're in for when taking up physical exercise and/or adjusting your diet. Ensure that you get yourself checked by a qualified practitioner (if you're a first-time exerciser), and proceed prudently. 

    Do not just try anything that predicts 'immediate' success.

    Can I change my body type?

    I also wish it were that easy!

    But unfortunately it's not possible.

    Your somatotype is a fixed combination of musculature, bone structure and density, as well as thyroid-function. However, a healthy and consistent lifestyle will do wonders to bring out your potential. Any 'body' left to the devices of a careless lifestyle or poor eating habits, regardless of the somatotype, will certainly show the neglect.

    The good news though, is that your body can be altered with physical exercise and responsible eating habits. As Charles Hix puts it in his honest and enlightening book Working Out, "you can’t have any body you want, but you can have a damn good one."

    Somatotype classification has a place in the fitness industry

    As with one of the main principles of the Sensible Fitness Program, remember that it's unrealistic to approach physical exercise and nutrition naïvely – and expect significant fitness gains. Any sample program has to be adapted (or customized) to your specific situation – from the outset.

    It's crucial to understand and appreciate important factors like individual differences in health condition, genetic predisposition and muscle-building potential, to name a few. That's why one-size-fits-all concepts are flawed by definition.

    So again, avoid following cookie-cutter programs blindly!

    Once properly underway with a workout routine like the Sensible Fitness Program, you’ll be in the best position to know how your body is fairing. You'll know what adjustments, if any, you need to consider as you work towards shaping up to 'look' and 'be' your best.

    Although it's useful to take heed of the somatotype methodologies, it shouldn't be seen as the primary consideration before undertaking exercise or devising a training program. Pigeon-holing yourself may offset the very necessary personal conviction you need for successful training and/or fulfilling a body transformation program.

    As mentioned, do visit the pages which elaborate the individual characteristics of each somatotype (or two, if you happen to reflect more than one type). It'll be useful for you to see where your body type places you, and what specific considerations you need to make, other than the general ones discussed on this page.

    In closing

    I hope this page brings the point across of how extremely important your body type (genetic potential) and metabolic function are. Not only in terms of physical training and adaptation, but also for health and fitness in general:

    How quickly your burn calories, or how easy or difficult it is for you to add muscle-mass, or lose weight...All of us individuals do these things differently.

    And all the while, the uninformed or inexperienced around you are pulling their hair out. They're desperately trying to figure out why the latest bodybuilding or bikini contest magazine diets and workouts aren't delivering on their promises.

    I'm so glad I can say: "Been there, done that – know what works. Happy to have advised you."I wish someone gave me all these valuable pointers without the long and frustrating voyage of discovery I had to undertake. Well, at least I speak from first-hand experience now.

    Good luck with your fitness ventures!

    The individual Somatotype pages provide more detail on their respective tendencies and training considerations. However, the information on those pages should not be construed as hard-and-fast fact or fitness advice. Although humans generally show characteristics of one particular Somatotype, the degree to which an individual can be categorized as one Somatotype or another, or a combination of two or three Somatotypes, is not possible in any conclusive or scientific manner.

    Somatotypology is approximative. Every human individual possesses innate physical and physiological predispositions of all 3 Somatotypes.

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