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The next time you’re in the gym, or at a shopping mall for that matter, take a close look at all the different body shapes and sizes. Although the general human population may seem extremely diverse, it’s possible to group people according to these traits, the most common being skinny, fat and muscular. Probably the most popular method for classifying body types is Dr. William Sheldon’s three-category somatotype system. Sheldon photographed over 46,000 men and women and discovered 88 distinct categories he called somatotypes. To keep things simple, he grouped all 88 into three major categories: endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph.
Endomorphs tend to have more fat cells and large bones, and are usually short to medium in height. While building muscle is not a problem, losing fat is. This is the most difficult group to classify. The person may truly be and endomorph, but he or she could also be an ectomorph or mesomorph who is simply eating too much and doing little or no exercise.
Ectomorphs are often called “skinny” and tend to have long thin bones. Ectomorphs are lucky because they don’t easily gain body fat. However, they have a difficult time building muscle and have to fight significantly for every ounce of muscle they gain.
Mesomorphs are most blessed when it comes to bodybuilding. The usually have large bones and no problem building muscle mass. Some mesomorphs gain fat easily, while others do not. Most of the competitors you see on stage at the Mr. Olympia contest are pure mesomorphs or mesomorphs blended with characteristics of one of the other two.
Few individuals fit precisely into any one of these categories – most are combination’s of all three. To illustrate this, Sheldon created a scale to rank the dominance of each somatotype within each person. He came up with a scale that gives each somatotype a value from 1 to 7 with 7 being most dominant. For example, a person of ectomorphic 1, mesomorphic 5, and endomorphic 4, would be an endo-mesomorph. This person would gain muscle easily, but would have trouble getting lean for a competition. Conversely, an ectomorphic 5, mesomorphic 3 and endomorphic 1, would be ecto-mesomorphic. For this individual, loosing far would not be a problem, but gaining muscle would.
Since ectomorphs are primarily concerned with gaining muscle mass, I suggest they keep their workouts short. The vast majority of exercises should be compound in nature (i.e. involving more than one joint and muscle group) and performed for no more than six to eight sets in total. Since losing fat is not really a problem, ectomorphs can take long rests between sets – at least one to two minutes. Cardio should be also kept to a minimum (no more than two or three sessions per week) because any excess calories will be used for building muscle tissue, not for building body fat. A couple of cardio sessions will keep the heart and lungs in shape without interfering with recovery. When it comes to nutrition, ectomorphs are the luckiest of the three somatypes because they can eat just about anything and get away with it. However, optimal muscle is built with optimal nutrition. You’ll need protein for building muscle tissue and carbohydrates to supply energy. Don’t forget good fats either, as they help with the recovery process as well as helping to maintain overall health.
Since they tend to gain fat easily, endomorphs should keep between-sets rests to a minimum (about 20 to 30 seconds). As they gain muscle fairly easily, endomorphs can peform a combination of compound and isolation (single-joint-one-muscle) exercises. Cardio will play just as important a role for endomorphs as weight training, so a minimum of three 30-minute sessions should be performed per week, and you could easily go up to fix or six sessions of 45 minutes. Adding in outdoor exercises such as cycling, hiking and tennis would also be a good idea.
Endomorphs will need to pay strict attention to their diets. Endomorphs are in many respects opposite to ectomorphs, and that means they store fat easily. All junk food will need to be avoided, especially deep-fried foods and simple sugars (i.e. fries, cakes, candies and most desserts).
During World War II the bomber pilots had a “club” they referred to as the “lucky bastards club.” To qualify for the induction, a bomber crew had to survive between 25 to 35 missions (depending upon the year) over Germany. Well, mesomorphs are the lucky bastards of the bodybuilding world! They can build the most muscle tissue of all three somatotypes and can drop their body fat levels as low as ectomorphs, provided they eat and train properly. Mesomorphs have such fast recovery systems that they can endure very intense training sessions. They don’t have to be as strict as endomorphs with their diets. However, to minimize their muscle gains they should eat highly nutritious meals containing good sources of protein, fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy fats.
SO WHAT AM I?
You’re probably wondering by now which somatotype classification best describes your body. As you have discovered, classifying your body type does play a role in your eating and training. But let’s face it – there is far more to bodybuilding than a grab bag of DNA! Dedication, passion, solid nutrition and strong training play the largest roles in building a great physique. Remember the greatest genetics in the world are useless if you don’t train consistently and eat clean.
If you really want to label your body type, start by glancing in the mirror. Do you have wide shoulders that seemingly touch both sides of the doorframe, or are they narrow and sloped? Do you have large bones and joints, or are they small and frail? Consider your diet. Do you gain fat easily, or can you eat junk food every day and not gain an ounce, or something in between?
You can use body types to help you choose sports and types of training. This doesn’t mean that you avoid sports unsuited to your body type. It just helps you pick the sports or training that you may have more ‘natural’ success in. The following table lists common sports and the somatotypes that tend to dominate each. Keep in mind that I’m talking success at a very high level here. There are ectomorphs that make good wrestlers, and some great basketball players are more mesomorphic. Also, remember that one person is rarely a strict endomorph, mesomorph or ectomorph. Most people are a blend.
While anyone can be a bodybuilder, an ectomorph would have a difficult time doing well in a competition. If you are an ectomorph, however, you can still build your body to a great degree, look amazing, feel great and perhaps get involved in personal training. Champion bodybuilders are normally mesomorphs and occasionally lean more to the endomorph category.
Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler are primarily mesomorphs, but also have endomorph characteristics (all three weight 30 or 40 pounds or more above their competition weight during off-season). Frank Zane is mainly mesomorph, but with ectomorph characteristics. Markus Ruhl and Mustafa Mohammad could be described as endo-mesomorphs, depending on perspective. Both have incredible muscle mass but tend to carry excess weight during the off-season.
Even the great Arnold Scharzenegger wasn’t a pure mesomorph, with his tall frame and long limbs. In fact, Arnold has characteristics from all three somatotypes.
How genetics relates to bodybuilding is a complicated topic. You will never really know your genetic hold until you start training, and even then you’ll never reach your maximum potential. Guys like Arnold, Lee Haney, Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman, have come close, but all have areas they can (or could) improve upon. Also, individuals with seemingly inferior genetics do go on to win top bodybuilding titles. Conversely, other who were touted to be the next “Arnold” disappeared over a few short years.
Some of you will find your potential for bodybuilding is average. Some of you will have fantastic characteristics such as good size, great strength and a fast recovery system. At the same time, you’ll also have some less-than-optimal traits like poor symmetry an inability to get really defined and “hard”. In terms of body parts, you may be able to compare your legs with state and national champions, yet your arms and chest could barely make it to the city level. You may have outstanding genetics which enable you to achieve success in other areas, such as your job, but those same traits may prevent you from training consistently. Or you might be prone to frequent injuries, tendonitis or weak joints.
So let’s say that after a few years of training, you assess your potential as less than outstanding. Should you give up or cut back? No way! For one thing, your entire assessment might be wrong. How many potential Mr. Olympias gave up because they or someone else thought they had no future in the sport? Tons, we assure you! If you give up too soon, a vital part of your life will disappear. Your health will suffer, your social life will become reduced, and perhaps most importantly, you’ll never know just how far you could have gone.
If you still think that your potential is limited in some way, the following guidelines will help you honestly assess it. And don’t be surprised if you discover that you were wrong and you have unlimited potential!
Don’t make bodybuilding your entire life. Of all the bodybuilders training worldwide, only a small percentage will make their living from the sport. Even then, most of what they make comes from seminars and posing exhibitions, not prize money. There’s probably nothing with being obsessed with bodybuilding, but don’t let that addiction keep you from enjoying other aspects of life. If you love reading about nutrition and anatomy then great. Why not invest some of that energy into doing a personal training course or nutrition degree? Completing some sort of education degree will not only help your bodybuilding, but also lead to greater financial rewards down the road.
Don’t overtrain. You may love training, but the body can only endure so much before it reaches the point at which it can’t fully recover between workouts. For the average person (who’s not chemically enhanced!) three or four 45 to 60-minute workouts are more than adequate. It’s better to undertrain than overtrain.
Mix it up. Unless your training routine keeps consistently bringing your results, change it every four to six weeks. The body adapts very quickly, and often a lack of progress is not so much a case of limited genetics as a lack of training variety.