When you look at your naked body in the mirror, what do you see? Unless you are some sort of genetic muscle mutant, your body will fall into one of the three typical body shapes.
The idea that human body types are genetically pre-set into one of three camps is nothing new. Plato mentions it in The Republic, which was written around 380 BC, and 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to the idea in The Antichrist years before the American psychologist William Sheldon popularised three broad categories of body in the 1940s.
Since Sheldon’s conclusions were published it has become widely recognised that most people have a body type. These are:
Ectomorph: Lean and long, with difficulty building muscle
Endomorph: Big, high body fat, often pear-shaped, with a high tendency to store body fat
Mesomorph: Muscular and well-built, with a high metabolism and responsive muscle cells
But what do these three terms mean in reality? In short, ectomorphs stay lean despite hours in the gym, endomorphs struggle to shift their gut, and mesomorphs pack on muscle with ease. Learning which body shape you were born with, and understanding what that means for your training and diet plans, will help you train smarter to maximise your potential and get closer to building the body that you’ve always wanted.
Falling between categories
Although there are three clear body types, it’s important to be aware that these aren’t set in stone.
Ectomorph Body Type
Ectomorphs are good at processing carbohydrates into energy and your fast metabolism means that you burn off fat easily. The downside is that you struggle to bulk up because your fast-twitch fibres are underdeveloped. To become more muscular, you need to keep cardio sessions to a minimum and focus on intense workouts
using compound exercises to maximise growth hormone release. You’ll also need to take on about 3,000 calories a day including plenty of starchy carbs and whey protein, possibly from a supplement.
Are You an Ectomorph?
You’ve got the build of a marathon runner – lean, but short on muscle. It can be hard to pack on size despite hours in the gym.
Unfortunately for ectomorphs, they tend to be the worst “responders”.
What Ectomorphs Might Be Doing Wrong
First, ditch the treadmill. “Ectomorphs often gravitate to long, slow distance work, but it’s the worst thing they can do,” says trainer Will Purdue.
And it may be tempting to pack your routine with classic bodybuilder moves such as the biceps curl, but that’s another mistake, says Purdue. “I often see ectomorphs focusing on isolation moves, whereas big, compound movements such as the squat will involve more muscles and give you the hormonal boost that helps build muscle. I still use isolation moves, but they’re supplementary to the main workout moves – 80% of moves should be working big muscle groups.”
What Ectomorphs Should Be Doing
Three days of strength training should be coupled with two days of low-intensity cardio. Effective abs exercises include the captain’s chair, the bicycle crunch and abs crunches while sat on an exercise ball.
“Compound movements, sets in the eight-to-12 rep range and quite a lot of volume are what you’re looking for,” says Purdue. “So a system such as German Volume Training is ideal.” Popularised by muscle expert Charles Poliquin, GVT prescribes ten sets of ten reps in key moves such as the bench press or barbell squat.
And there’s no need to live in the gym to put on muscle – quite the contrary, in fact. “If you’re working out four, five days a week you’ll be speeding up your metabolism too much,” says trainer Hughes. “I tend to limit my ectomorphs to three workouts a week, keeping the actual training time after a warm-up to 45 minutes or less.”
What to Eat
In terms of nutrition, a diet that is high in calories, carbs, protein and fat will aid you in your quest for muscle gain. This should not be mistaken for eating precisely what you like. Rather, it just means you should eat more of what is healthy. Good news: you don’t have to steer clear of carbs such as oats, wholemeal bread and potatoes. Fats found in nuts, seeds and avocado will also bring about the right results. “Ectomorphs should respond well to carbs, which will spike blood sugar and help to drive protein to their muscles,” says trainer Mark Hughes. “Stick to the complex kind, such as sweet potatoes and brown rice.” Aim for 2g per kilo of bodyweight per day of protein minimum, but be wary of overdoing it.
Ectomorphs who are sub-15% body fat should aim for 8g carbs, 4.3g protein and 1g fat per kg of bodyweight on training days. On rest days reduce the carbs to 7g. A high carb diet will spike blood sugar, helping drive protein to your muscles without elevating insulin resistance.
“I’d advise a carb/protein shake to drink before and during your workout, and either another one or a good meal afterwards.”
The deadlift is your best friend: people with long arms should find it relatively easy, and it uses the entire body so it’ll pack on mass. Although squats and benching will do wonders for your physique, taller ectomorphs might find them difficult. “Your longer levers might give you trouble getting below parallel in the squat,” says Purdue. “That’s when I recommend the leg press.”
The Ectomorph Cheat Sheet
Train with compound moves
Get enough protein
Use isolation moves as finishers
Overemphasise isolation moves
Do too much cardio
Ectomorphs have to work harder on the weights in order to gain a toned physique.
Mesomorph Body Type
You have the body type that finds it easiest to add new muscle and you don’t tend to store much body fat. Mesomorphs tend to take their naturally athletic builds for granted, which can result in diluted workouts and poor diets. Keeping in peak physical condition is often tempered by a scattered approach to eating and training.
The key here is to make the most of your body shape. That means following a progressive plan that will make you stronger and more athletic by increasing your power without getting too bulky. To fuel your workouts, you’ll need around 2,500 calories a day, getting plenty of wholegrains but limiting your total fat intake.
Are You a Mesomorph?
If you are, you’ll know it from the jealous looks. Mesomorphs look well built without setting foot in a gym, and pack on muscle the instant they pick up a dumbbell. If this sounds like you, you’ve hit the genetic jackpot – but you can make the most of your DNA with some tactical workout tricks.
What’s Going On?
The same research that’s so unflattering to ectomorphs offers plenty of positives for mesomorphs. While the worst responders in the study mentioned above saw no change in their regulation of myogenin – a key gene responsible for muscle growth – the mesomorphs on the same programme saw theirs spike by up to 65%.
What Mesomorphs Might Be Doing Wrong
“Mesomorphs often won’t train as hard as they can,” says Hughes. “I usually give them timed workouts, to give them goals to aim for and raise their workout intensity.”
What Mesomorphs Should Be Doing
“I get mesomorphs to train athletically,” says Purdue. “So I might do sprints, box and vertical jumps or other plyometrics. They respond well to low reps and power moves. Alternatively, interval sprints will pump up their metabolism and strip away fat.”
What to Eat
Although the usual caveats apply, the good news is that your body will respond well to whatever healthy food you put into it. “You can eat a moderate amount of carbs,” says Hughes. “And err on the side of more when it comes to protein.” A basic guideline for mesomorphs to follow would be to consume meals that are 40% complex carbohydrates, 30% lean protein and 30% healthy fats. So, for example, a plate that contained vegetables such as cauliflower and broccoli, grilled chicken and olive oil on wholegrain bread would represent a staple dish for this body type.
Mesomorphs who are sub-15% body fat should aim for 6g carbs, 4g protein and 1.2g fat per kg of bodyweight on training days. On rest days reduce the carbs to 5g. More healthy fats will make up
for the reduced carbs without risking insulin sensitivity that can make you store fat.
“Mesomorphs respond well to creatine,” says Hughes. “It’ll aid their recovery from athletic workouts and help them work out harder.” You should also factor in recovery days. “Although the explosive nature of athletic workouts minimises the eccentric [lowering] portion of your moves, which helps stave off muscle soreness, some light movements on your rest days will help get the blood flowing and keep you fresh.”
“You’ll respond well to power moves,” says Purdue. “Try pairing a strength move with a power move that works the same muscles. For example, superset five reps on the deadlift with five on the power clean.”
The Mesomorph Cheat Sheet
Train like an athlete
Time your workouts
Set personal bests
Take your body for granted
Eat whatever you like.
Endomorph Body Type