If we take a closer look at the physique of different people, we find that although it essentially follows a given blueprint, it differs in detail from individual to individual, sometimes significantly. As is often the case, the reason for this diversity of body shapes, known as phenotypes for short, is human genetics, which determines, among other things, the muscle-building potential of an athlete.
In health science, this field of research was already being studied in detail in the 1930s, as it was discovered that a person's phenotype can provide information about part of his or her physiological performance. William Sheldon, one of the first sports scientists, conducted intensive research on this subject and, after numerous studies, came to the conclusion that three basic metabolic types can be distinguished from one another. The classification of the three elementary body types was made on the basis of specific characteristics, which include the tendency to build fat and muscle respectively, as well as the anatomical composition of the skeleton. However, since only very few athletes can be assigned to exactly one of the resulting physique types, but as a rule exhibit characteristics of several, sports science has established around 80 different characteristics to date. Nevertheless, the determination of one's own physique or metabolic type according to the tripartite classification into ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph is still of importance for athletes today, since conclusions can be drawn for the optimization of training and nutritional behavior.
Table of Contents
- The Ectomorph
- The endomorph body type
- The mesomorph body type
- Body type determination in practice
The ectomorph - muscle building under difficult circumstances
The first and at the same time most distinctive among the three basic metabolic types is the ectomorph body type, which is comparatively easy to recognize because the people concerned are usually, but not always, tall and comparatively thin. Characteristic of an ectomorphic metabolic type is, in addition to a short upper body with narrow shoulders, the presence of long arms and legs, each tending to have delicate hands and feet. According to the length of the limbs, the muscles attached to them are necessarily elongated. Since the volume of the musculature is thus distributed over a relatively large surface area, it often takes a long time for mass gains to become significantly apparent in the ectomorph body type, so that it sometimes happens that such a person appears not very muscular despite hard training and corresponding strength gains. On the other hand, an ectomorph metabolic type has a very low body fat percentage, which is due to a significantly increased metabolic rate. These individuals, known as "hardgainers" in training jargon, accordingly find it extremely difficult to build muscle due to their organism's inefficient utilization of energy and nutrients. If an athlete with these special genetic conditions wants to build up a massive body, he needs significantly more calories than an athlete with a mesomorphic or an endomorphic body type.
Building muscle with the handbrake on
On the other hand, the advantage of the so-called hardgainer is that even in an extended mass phase he does not have to worry about gaining body fat. People with such a metabolic type also differ in terms of muscle fiber composition from athletes whose physique is more endomorphic or mesomorphic. In plain English, this means that they have a significantly higher number of type 1 muscle fibers, also known as slow-twitch or red muscle fibers. This has direct implications for training, as this dominant muscle fiber type is predestined for endurance performance due, among other things, to its above-average oxygen supply. Since the athletes in question, in terms of their genetics, are therefore not equipped with the optimal prerequisites for building muscle, the key to success lies primarily in training. Given the comparatively low number of type 2 muscle fibers, it takes quite a long time for the strength level to increase, so patience is required in this case much more so than with any other metabolic type. However, it should be mentioned in passing that the muscle fiber composition can be changed by targeted training within a framework that is also genetically predetermined, which means that even hardgainers can develop a respectable muscle mass.
Compensation of inefficient metabolism
The basic prerequisite for muscle building in ectomorphic metabolic types is, however, in addition to intensive strength training in the hypertrophy range, the consideration of sufficient rest periods between the individual training units. Since the regeneration capacity of fast metabolic types is sometimes rather poor compared to the average due to the inefficient nutrient utilization of the organism, the rest periods should be at least 48 hours. Another consequence resulting from the unproductive nutrient utilization is the prominent role played by nutrition for athletes with ectomorphic body type.
Accordingly, in the course of nutrient intake, attention must be paid above all to a sufficiently high protein intake. This should not fall below a minimum of 2 to 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. It is obvious that it may be difficult to absorb such large amounts of energy with the help of solid foods, which is why dietary supplements play a key role in this context. In addition to high-quality protein supplements such as our ESN Designer Whey Protein, soluble carbohydrate sources such as waxy corn starch and maltodextrin are considered helpful in this regard.
The endomorphic type - curse and blessing at the same time
The exact opposite model of the ectomorph metabolic type is the endomorph body type, which is colloquially regarded as a particularly efficient feed utilizer, which implies both advantages and disadvantages for the athlete in question. This body type can be recognized by the fact that the athletes in question also have a pronounced shoulder area in addition to a voluminous chest and broad hips. Another characteristic is the usually relatively high percentage of body fat, which not only ensures that the face usually appears soft and rounded, but also means that the existing muscles are located under a layer of body fat and are therefore poorly defined.
The reason for the tendency to store fat lies in the fact that a metabolism of the endomorphic type works slowly and the available nutrients are used correspondingly efficiently. Conversely, athletes with a body type that tends to be endomorphic have a much easier time building muscle, especially in cross-comparison with athletes of the ectomorphic metabolic type, so that no special adaptations are necessary with regard to the design of strength training. Taking into account the metabolism-specific preference for storing body fat, on the other hand, it is clearly more important for athletes who have an endomorphic body type to increase the organism's energy consumption with the help of cardio training in the context of a mass phase.
In order to avoid the excessive gain of passive mass, three to four supplementary cardio sessions should be integrated into the training plan apart from strength training. The duration of each session should be 30 minutes, assuming that it is completed on a training day, whereas the length can be increased to 45 minutes on non-training days. So that endurance training to prevent fat gain does not become a torture, in the course of the training planning it is also necessary to pay attention to variety, which in plain language means that different forms of cardio training are to be applied. In addition to classic units on the cycle ergometer or treadmill, distance swimming or cross-country running can also be used.
Nutrition as the central approach of the endomorph athlete
Even though training is of course also important in the case of the endomorphic metabolic type, nutrition is much more important. Athletes who belong to this category must therefore pay extreme attention to what and above all how much they eat, even in the course of a mass phase. In practice, this aspect is reflected in the fact that the daily diet should be meticulously planned and divided into five to seven smaller meals, so that the metabolism is kept on track by the continuous supply of nutrients, which also prevents the storage of acutely superfluous nutrients.
Both in the context of mass gain and with regard to weight reduction, the low-carb principle has proven to be profitable for metabolic types of the endomorphic type. However, low-carb is not synonymous with no-carb, which many athletes still mistakenly assume. Rather, the principle simply implies a significant reduction in daily carbohydrate intake so that glycogen stores are no longer completely filled. As a result, the conversion of excess carbohydrates into fat is already prevented in advance. Even though athletes with a metabolic type that tends to be endomorphic do not have to do without carbohydrates, it is even more important that the carbohydrate sources consumed are not refined products such as white flour or industrial sugar, but complex carbohydrate sources such as potatoes, rice or whole grain products.
The mesomorph - Optimal conditions for an athletic body
If there is such a thing as ideal prerequisites for building and maintaining a perfectly defined athletic body in the field of weight training, it is definitely the mesomorph body type, which provides the best possible genetic basis for it. A body of the mesomorph type can be recognized primarily by external features such as broad shoulders together with a massive chest, narrow hips and the resulting V-shape of the upper body. In addition, prominent cheekbones, a broad jaw, thick body hair and, last but not least, large hands and feet suggest the body type mesomorph. However, the purely anatomical basic construct represents only one aspect that predestines the mesomorphic body type for maximum mass building.
Since such an organism tends both to the fast muscle build-up and to the no less fast fat reduction, athletes blessed in such a way do themselves in every respect clearly easier. However, the relatively fast muscle build-up also means that deviations in training intensity with regard to individual muscle groups can lead to the occurrence of imbalances, which not least affect posture. To prevent this problem, care should be taken to ensure a balanced training intensity. In addition, the mesomorphic body type benefits from its above-average ability to regenerate, which enables such athletes to complete long and intensive training sessions with short breaks.
In terms of nutrition, on the other hand, there is much less to consider for building a muscular and at the same time defined body, as the organism works as efficiently as Swiss clockwork in every respect. Consequently, in the course of diet planning, it is quite sufficient to pay attention to a micronutrient-rich diet with an increased protein content.
How can the body type be determined in practice?
In view of the rough tripartite subdivision of body types into ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph, every trainee is obviously faced with the question of which category to place his or her own body in. In reality, however, this undertaking turns out to be much more complex than it might seem in view of the theoretical basis of sports science, which is based on the findings of William Sheldon. It is not for nothing that, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the original classification has had to be expanded in recent decades to currently include more than 80 different body types. In plain language, this means that the exact classification is not possible on one's own without large-scale sports medicine tests and analyses.
Subsequently, however, a tendential classification can be made with the help of specific characteristics. For this purpose, both in sports medicine and in training support, the determination of body types according to the so-called "Heart and Carter A Modified Somatotype Method" is used. In addition to the phenotypic characteristics, additional measured values are collected and used, which, with the help of a special formula, result in a so-called somatotype index. The aspects that are collected as part of the method, which dates back to 1967, include body weight, height, a skin thickness measurement at four points and a bone width determination. However, since very few recreational athletes want to spend time and money in this regard, it is perfectly adequate to rely on the original method of sports physician William Sheldon for the purpose of roughly locating one's own body type.
The approach from the 1930s clearly makes it easier to identify one's own body type as ectomorph, endomorph or mesomorph on the basis of the catalog of visual appearance characteristics and to base both training planning and nutrition planning on the result. For recreational athletes, this approach is sufficient in any case, but ambitious athletes should consult an expert sports physician.
Without a doubt, the three body types endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph form the indisputable basis for the development of a body on the basis of genetics. Applied to everyday life, this means that the individual development potential inherent in each athlete is determined to a large extent by his or her genetic makeup. Consequently, it can be concluded that not every person fulfills the optimal prerequisites for every type of specific performance.
A lean, ectomorphic athlete will realistically never mature into a massive world-class sprinter, although this does not mean that an athlete with an ectomorphic physique cannot also produce good sprinting performances. The bottom line of the body type classification is to highlight the different metabolic differences that can occur from person to person and subsequently determine the extent to which an athlete is predestined for a particular performance class.
Even if genetics cannot (yet) be influenced, it is nevertheless a comforting certainty that we can certainly influence our phenotype, i.e. pure appearance, by means of training and nutrition. By being able to at least roughly locate our body type, it is possible for us to tailor training and nutrition to make the best use of the potential that lies dormant within us.