An Introduction to Understanding Body Types

Body Types or Somatotypes are Bullshit

The three body types pop up often in fitness discussions – but do they really matter?

If you’ve been wanting to get fit for any amount of time you’ve probably run across the idea of the three body types – Endomorph, Ectomorph, and Mesomorph.

Usually this seems to come up in one of two types of discussions, the first being ones about whether or not ‘X diet’ or ‘Y fitness program’ is right for your particular body type and the second tends to be focused on blame shifting (things like, “Well of course he got fit, he’s a mesomorph. I’m an Endomorph so it’s basically impossible for me to get in shape.”) or on telling people why they’ll never make it.

What really is the deal with these body type categories though? Do they actually matter at all, or is it just a bunch of bullshit?

Let’s take a look.

The Origins of Somatotypes

The three body types (endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph) are technically named ‘somatotypes’. The word was coined in the 1940s by the creator of the designations William Herbert Sheldon combining ‘somato-‘, a Greek root that means ‘body’, with the word ‘types’. Since it just means ‘body types’, I’ll continue to use that instead of the needlessly scientific sounding alternative.

There are a lot about these body types and their creation by Sheldon that we’re not going to go into much because we’re going to focus on the bits that will matter for you from a fitness standpoint. That being said, some of the history is nice to know when considering how to think about these categories – so here are some quick bullet points to keep in mind.

  • Sheldon firmly believed and proposed that the body types he was describing were also linked to a person’s psychology and behaviors. He proposed that a person’s body type indicated personality, morality, and future potential or lack thereof. This is obviously false.

  • The research and the ideas Sheldon was putting forward were based heavily in the ideas of eugenics, which is generally just racism and xenophobia with the word ‘science’ scrawled across it in spray paint.

  • Sheldon developed these body types by obtaining copies of thousands of nude photos taken for a different, previous medical study of Ivy League students without getting anyone’s consent or approval.

  • Even though formulas were later applied to quantify some of this, his original body type designations were created based entirely on visual observations of photos of nude students and therefore aren’t what you might consider ‘scientifically rigorous’.

Now you might be saying, “Wait a minute, it sounds like these are arbitrary classifications pulled out of the ass of a more-likely-than-not racist eugenicist who effectively stole a collection of photos of nude college students without anyone’s consent to stare at all day for his ‘study’. Why should I even care about these?”

For the most part – you shouldn’t. At least, not the crazy racist pseudo-psychology stuff. The thing is even though most of the ridiculous and/or downright offensive stuff has fallen away the three body types have largely endured. You’ll find references to them a lot in the fitness world and there are some things about them that can be helpful for people trying to get fit.

So what are they?

The Three Body Types Explained

We’ll pretty much only be focusing on the modern conceptualization of these and leaving out the the awful stuff that was originally tied to it. The three body types are endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph – not to be confused with Animorphs who are Earth’s first and last line of defense against the Yeerk invasion and are too distracted by the horrors of war to worry about diet and exercise.

  • Endomorphs are categorized as people who have a super easy time putting on weight (generally meaning bodyfat) and an equivalently more difficult than average time losing it. These are the stereotypical ‘I eat one doughnut and gain twenty pounds’ people, or the folks who are always trying to lose weight but never seem to be able to.

  • Ectomorphs are the opposite end of the spectrum. People in this category are what are usually called ‘hardgainers’ in the weightlifting community. Think Captain America before the super soldier serum.
    These are people who find it hard to put on weight (usually meaning muscle) and seem to always stay skinny, but can never put on any muscle no matter how much they eat and lift.

  • Mesomorphs are more your post-super soldier serum Captain America types. People in this body type tend to have narrow waists, broad shoulders, lose fat easily and build muscle like it’s nothing. Folks in this category are the types who could live on nothing but cakes and pizza and still look like a swimsuit model, or who can accidentally look at a barbell for too long and have suddenly gained 10 lbs of muscle.

Now these shouldn’t be necessarily taken as a sliding scale, where a 1 is an endomorph and puts on weight easy, a 10 is an ectomorph and loses weight easily, and a mesomorph is a 5 right between the two. Instead it’s more like a triangle spectrum, where each body type is one of the points and people fall somewhere within the bounds of the triangle.

Alternatively you could think of having three body type buckets and you have ten ‘points’ to distribute between all three. If you go Endo/Meso/Ecto then a 8/1/1 distribution for example would be a ‘pure’ Endomorph, but most people would be more like a 6/1/2 or a 3/2/5 or something like that. So just keep in mind that this is not an A, B, or C kind of choice.

Why Understanding Body Types is Useful, and How it Can Hurt You

A general understanding of the three body types can be excellent jumping off point to figuring out what you need to do in order to get to the fitness level you want to be. At least, so long as you don’t take things too far or give these ideas more power than they ought to have.

Do you feel like you mostly fit in the ectomorph category and struggle with building muscle?
Then you should probably make sure your calorie intake and protein consumption is high enough, de-emphasize cardio, and prioritize strength training. Are you probably a endomorph and feel like losing weight is impossible? Then you might want to start with making sure you’re not going overboard on calories, fix your sleep, start a habit of frequent easy movement activity like daily walks, and begin an appropriate strength and cardio training program. Are you a mesomorph and can eat whatever you want and do a handful of push-ups and look like a pro athlete? Well, then you have it kind of easy – but you should still strength train and keep an eye on your calorie intake at a minimum because your ability to skate by on minimal effort will probably dissipate with age.

Beyond that use as a general starting point, there really isn’t any need to get hung up on these body types. I frequently see and hear people both online and in person working as a personal trainer use these body types as an excuse or as a way to make themselves feel better for giving up. I’ll hear things like:

“There’s no point in trying to lose weight, I’m an endomorph. It’s just in my genetics to be overweight.”

“Of course he looks great, he got lucky genes. He’s a mesomorph and looks great no matter what he eats. Must be nice to have it so easy.”

“Why are you trying to lift weights? You’re an ectomorph, you should try running marathons or something instead, that’s what you’re built for.”

“I wish the damn Andalites would finally show up and help us. Maybe I should ask Cassie to go on a date if we make it back from tonight’s mission.” Wait. No. That was an Animorph one again. Sorry.

The point is people let the ideas of these body types and lumping themselves into one of these categories dictate what they think they’re capable of. That’s wrong.

Do genetics play a role in metabolic rate? Sure. But in studies the max range they’ve found between the metabolisms of people is around 600 calories in an extreme case. Around 96% of people fall within the range of 1,840 to 2,160 kcal burned per day resting. That means if you think of the least fit person you know and the most fit person you know they both probably have resting metabolic rates within 300 kcal of each other. Even in the extreme case people in that last four percent fell between 1,680 and 2,320. That means even that possibility of having a resting metabolic rate difference of 600 calories between you and a friend is about 1/2 of a percent.

To put it into context, a Pop-Tart is 200 kcal. Not a pack, that’s 400. A single Pop-Tart.

So before you whine about how you have bad genetics and a slow metabolism and that’s why you’re still overweight and that friend of yours is so fit, recognize that even if that’s true (and it probably isn’t) and you have an exceptionally unlikely low metabolism and your friend has an exceptionally unlikely high metabolism they are still only burning 3 Pop-Tarts more calories per day as a result of that.

Saying you have ‘bad genetics’ or a ‘slow metabolism’ is a bullshit excuse.

On one hand, this is great – it means there is not some invisible immutable force stopping you from succeeding.

On the other hand, this is harsh – it means the fact that you haven’t gotten fit is at least in a significant way if not totally due to your own failings.

Don’t Let the Idea of Body Types Own You

What’s the takeaway here?

The concept of these three body types is still prevalent – honestly even among fitness professionals. You’re going to her this stuff come up. Use it as a starting point for introspection and examining your situation but don’t let it own you. Falling into a kind of fatalistic, hard-deterministic way of looking at your health and fitness because a racist pervert in the ’40s wanted to psychoanalyze people based on how fat or skinny they were is a bad plan.

Having mental models about how your body currently tends to react to things is good, letting arbitrary categories force you to give up and not try to get fit is bad.

Do you have any other questions about these body types? Any ways I didn’t mention they can be used positively,
or ways they get used negatively that you think people should watch out for? Leave a comment and share them with us!

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com