Most athletes have heard about the three different somatotypes used to classify different body types. These include the terms ectomorph, mesomorph, and endormorph. Each somatotype ropes everyone into these three categories based on their bone structure, joint ratios, and body composition.
Since the original somatotype formulations they’ve been used by many in both the fitness and academia world as a way to classify individual’s body types. Some professionals use the classifications as a means of constructing diet and exercise plans, but how accurate are they? There are a few underlying issues with the definitions, and a few useful aspects in the areas of gym and diet that come with the three somatotypes.
This article will dive into the history of somatotypes, what the normal body types are defined as, and how following their definitions strictly can be somewhat misleading.
History of Somatotype Classification
The idea of somatotypes came about in the 1940’s when American Psychologist William Herbert Sheldon constructed a new (his) version of somatotypology. His ‘theory’ looked at one’s body’s ratios and body composition to place them into one of the three classes. When he first performed his somatotype research, Sheldon used nude postural photos of Ivy Leave undergraduates, which has since been seen as very controversial. From here, he defined three classes judging from one’s bone ratios and body composition.
Sheldon then formulated the definition of each somatotype to relate them to characteristics like one’s personality and life trajectory path. There have been plenty of critics of Sheldon’s original somatotyping research. Some criticism discusses how Sheldon’s views were often biased, or opinionated with little actual science behind them. Yet, research has seen some truths between somatotypes and various aspects of sport performance, gym performance, and nutrition habits, but not as much when it comes to personality and life trajectory paths.
Sheldon’s Original Definition of Somatotypes
Below are summaries from the book Dictionary of Theories, Laws, and Concepts in Psychology, by Jon E. Roeckelein, of how Sheldon originally defined each somatotype.
- Ectomorph: Characterized as linear, thin, usually tall, fragile, lightly muscled, flat chested and delicate; described as cerebrotonic (intellectual), inclined to desire isolation, solitude and concealment; and being tense, anxious, restrained in posture and movement, introverted and secretive.
- Mesomorph: Characterized as hard, rugged, triangular, athletically built with well developed muscles, thick skin and good posture; described as somatotonic, inclined towards physical adventure and risk taking; and being vigorous, courageous, assertive, direct and dominant.
- Endomorph: Characterized as round, usually short and soft with under-developed muscles and having difficulty losing weight; described as viscerotonic, enjoying food, people and affection; having slow reactions; and being disposed to complacency.
In Sheldon’s book, Atlas of Man, he then used a series of three numbers to define each body type. Often times, people are a mixture of all three body types, and the chances of one being a full ectomorph, mesomorph, or endomorph are slim. A full ectomorph in his rating system appears as 7-1-1, a mesomorph 1-7-1, and an endomorph 1-1-7.
Somatotypes, Strength Training, and Dieting
So now the question remains, how relevant are the above definitions to current strength training concepts and diet? Some coaches believe that heavily relying on somatotypes can be a way to box in one’s way of perceiving themselves, while others feel that there are some useful truths to the definitions.
After all, somatotypes don’t account for many of life’s normal factors, which include things like age, stress, training history, genetic factors, among other things. To help me gain a better understanding of somatotypes and their relationships to training and diet, I reached out to JC Deen, fitness trainer and writer.
Boly: Do you think somatotyping is an accurate way of one to think of themselves?
Deen: Not entirely because there are many factors that influence how someone’s body looks, such as diet, training, sleep, stress, as well as the genetic stuff like muscle belly length, joint size, shoulder width, and various other factors.
Boly: Do you think it can build walls around growth?
Deen: I do because if someone writes himself off as being genetically inferior, or doomed to a certain physiological outcome, then their chances of overcoming those barriers are slim due to lack of effort or consistency in any training program that could yield the results they want.
Boly: For context, how often do you have someone say they’re an ectomorph, but in reality find out they’re simply not eating + training in a way that’s comprehensive towards their goals?
Deen: It’s pretty commonplace. Lots of guys start out as skinny and under-muscled and turn into mass monsters with many years of training. it all comes down to their work ethic, drive, and consistency with training and diet. And some people are simply doing too much training while not eating enough, which will keep someone from growing and developing over time.
Boly: Are there any truths at all worth noting behind somatotyping in the world of nutrition & training?
Deen: I would say there are some truths and ideas worth considering…for instance, the typical ectomorph body is that of someone with small joints, short muscle bellies, narrow shoulders and in general, a low body fat and or low body weight. However, there are plenty of people who started out with this ‘body type’ and overcame the odds to build 30-40 pounds of muscle and completely changed their look.
The most gifted of the somatypes are those who we label as mesomorphs. They tend to have very long and full muscle bellies, big joints, broad shoulders and big bones, in general. These people are able to build strength and muscle relatively easily when compared to someone of smaller bone size and shorter muscle bellies simply due to their genetics.
But for the most part, these somatypes are not hard-coded into our DNA because there are many varieties of body types. And people seem to overcome some of these so-called limits with proper training, diet, and long-term strategies for changing their physique.
Another thing worth mentioning is the environment someone spends most of their time in will have a big impact on their development. For instance, if someone is exposed to weight training at a young age, their chances of overcoming a certain “body type” are greater due to more time under the bar than if they started at a later date. The same goes for those who work laborious jobs and develop their physiques under the stress of manual labor.
Somatotypes have been long used as ways to define body types, but there’s much more that go into defining one’s genetic make-up, than they were originally used for. We constantly see gym-goers overcome their original body type definition, which then begs the question, how much truth should one put into the somatotypes? As Deen points out, they can be useful for some reasons, but to an extent.
The takeaway message is that somatotypes have their time and place when being applied to one’s training, diet, and lifestyle, but shouldn’t be an end all be all, as they can box one into a certain way of perceiving themselves.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @hesham.fit Instagram page.