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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

SOMATOTYPING: Endo, Meso, Ecto. Aspiration and Realisation — Finding the Balance

William Sheldon, MD, introduced the concept of body types, or somatotypes, in the 1940s. Since then, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and doctors have used it to help design effective, individualized fitness plans. The gist is that everyone falls, though not altogether neatly, into the three categories below. Keep in mind that these are generalizations, and that most of us have characteristics of two or even all three somatotypes. People are born with an inherited body type based on skeletal frame and body composition. Most people are unique combinations of the three body types: endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph. Physical traits of the Endomorph * Usually short in height or stature * Difficult to lose body fat * Bulky physique, round body * Can gain both fat and muscle easily * Wide shoulders and hips Physical traits of the Mesomorph * Medium build, rectangular/wedge body shape * Wide broad shoulders * Fairly lean with a hard body * Can gain muscle easily * Are usually strong * Muscled arms and legs Physical traits of the Ectomorph * Hard to gain muscle (known as a “hardgainer”) * Slender frame * Narrow shoulders and hips * Narrow chest and abdomen * Small bone structure * Very fast metabolism 

In Atlas of Men, Sheldon breaks the three Somatotypes into 88 different categories.  In his 1954 book, Atlas of Men, Sheldon categorized all possible body types according to a scale ranging from 1 to 7 for each of the three "somatotypes", where the pure "endomorph" is 7–1–1, the pure "mesomorph" 1–7–1 and the pure "ectomorph" scores 1–1–7. Controversially, Sheldon felt that from one’s somatotype number, an individual's mental characteristics could supposedly be predicted. He was the proponent of a school of thought that held that the size and shape of a person's body indicated intelligence, moral worth and future achievement. While I knew about the physical element of somatotyping I never knew about the psychological aspect of it and have found it fascinating. I have always been interested in physiognomy (the practice of assessing a person's character or personality from their outer appearance — especially their facial features) and combining the two disciplines has an immediate appeal as both theories compliment and support one another. Unsurprisingly though, Sheldon’s initial visual methodology has been discounted (as has any serious study of physiognomy), as subjective and largely discredited. Judging a person’s character, intelligence and worthiness, by their appearance is a fool’s errand.  

Scientists hoped that the study of faces could be used to pinpoint a ‘criminal look’ which could help police identify criminals, perhaps even before they committed a crime. So what does this all mean for someone who wants to “change” their body-shape? If you are born with strong endomorphic traits, are you doomed to always being overweight and lethargic? Will an ectomorph have to settle for being skinny and shapeless all their lives? The answer is a resounding: No! Exercise, diet, and general lifestyle can completely change your shape and appearance. I’ve had many clients who have transformed themselves from either fat, to slim and muscular,or from thin to athletic. The first step is to identify your somatotype. This is not as easy as it would seem because modern life has skewed how we ought naturally to look, due to the amount of food we eat and our lack of exercise. There are more and more overweight and obese people around, does this mean there are more endomorphs than there used to be? Of course not — merely more people who look like endomorphs! As Sheldon established, most of us are a combination of the three body-types. Remember we score 1 to 7 and always endo, meso and then ecto. Although I now look like a 2-7-4 after a lifetime of lifting weights and eating with control, I think I am naturally more of a 4-4-2. Anyhow, try to rate your somatotype as honestly as possible to understand your body-type and potential more clearly. It is quite complex and there are many classic combination somatotypes, including pear-shaped ecto-endomorphs with thin, delicate upper bodies and high fat storage in the hips and thighs, and apple-shaped endo-ectomorphs, with high fat storage in the mid-section and thin lower bodies. The sub-heading of this post is : Aspiration and Realisation. What I mean by this is that aspiring to be the best, or to be amazing, to go above and beyond is fantastic, however, there must be a realistic realisation of what can be physically changed or achieved with the body type you have inherited. One of my favourite clients at the moment is a guy called Vash. He is approaching a significant (40!) birthday in four months time. In a bodybuilding scenario, he does everything I tell him to do, I told him what to eat — and hey presto, he just did it. I was astounded, he sends me photos of his meals every day, he is like a machine. He has increased his focus and intensity in the gym and is training really hard. If I were to rate his somatotype I would go 3-3-5 — slim build, not naturally muscular with quite a small frame. And what do you think he wants from me? “To gain 7 kilograms by the end of September.” 7 kgs of muscle in 4 months! Not a hope in hell! Even the most gifted and pure mesomorph would struggle to do that. To try illustrate the folly of his outrageous goal, I ask him if he would like me to make him a foot taller while we are at it? On Vash’s frame, even 2 kilos would be a significant change. He needs to accept his body type and adjust his goals accordingly.  

A sample of Vash’s meals. Same stuff over and over again.  He is a machine!! Many of my female clients want to be slimmer. Fine — being lean is a good goal, but, if you are not a (1-1-7) ectomorph, then you are never going to look like Victoria Beckham! And nor should you want to. You will look starved and unhealthy. Let’s be realistic. Women of my mother’s generation had basically one physical ideal to aspire to — to be slim — and the only way to achieve that goal was to diet. I remember my Mum, complaining about being “hippie” and then dieting on Ryvita, cottage cheese and cans of Tab. Essentially eating very little, and eating food that was not very tasty either. For her, the idea of actually exercising to lose weight would have been very unusual indeed, and the concept of going to a gym and lifting weights to build up muscle mass would have been unthinkable! Lunges, squats and some cardiovascular exercise would have allowed my mother to change the shape of her “hippie” body without having to starve herself, and would have improved her fitness and general well-being too.  

I have very fond memories of my Mum drinking Tab!

Fortunately that has all changed and women are embracing the wonderful new world of being muscular, fit, energetic, healthy and feminine! They are realising the joys of sweating, lifting weights and being strong! I see so many fantastic women working out in the gym, discovering this exciting new world and (as someone who has lifted for nearly 40 years!) I feel I have helped, in some small way, to bring about this great change. It is interesting that the ideals of feminism — that women are as strong and competent intellectually as men — are now being realised in the physical sense too. When I was a competitive bodybuilder, I spent a lot of time looking at my physique in a very critical manner. While I had some body parts that I begrudgingly acknowledged were ok, I focused a lot more on the ones that were not up to scratch, always worrying about them, berating myself to work harder, trying to bring them up to par. Now that I am no longer a competitive bodybuilder, I have been freed from the tyranny of just seeing the negative aspects of my physique, and can now enjoy all the positive parts of my body too. While my strategy of harsh scrutiny was acceptable for a competitive bodybuilder, many gym-goers fall into a similarly negative pattern of just seeing the bad, while ignoring their positive points. I have clients who spend so much time and wasted energy obsessing over what they think are unattractive aspects of their bodies, constantly criticising every little detail. Even worse than thinking these things, they also use negative and harmful words to describe themselves. I know from my own bodybuilding experience how damaging this behaviour can be, when actually, it takes a certain degree of maturity and confidence to accept that we will never be perfect, so get over it and learn to love the body you have! After all, we are in the gym to make ourselves happy, not miserable. Somatatyping should be used as a helpful tool, a system to help guide and inform you, something positive to help you achieve your realistic best, while realising that some things cannot be changed — they can always be improved. It is very important to strike the right balance between acknowledging your weaknesses and obsessing over them. Make the most of your gifts and talents, and accentuate the positives — there are always many!!!  

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