Train for the right body shape – whether you’re ectomorph, endomorph or mesomorph – and you can outsmart your genes
Ectomorphs stay lean despite hours in the gym, endomorphs struggle to shift their gut and mesomorphs pack on muscle with ease. Learning which one you are will help you train smarter to maximise your potential.
The idea that human body types are genetically pre-set is nothing new. Plato mentions it inThe Republic, which was written around 380BC, 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, ectomorphs have difficulty building muscle
Endomorph Big with high body fat, often pear-shaped, endomorphs have a high tendency to store body fat
Mesomorph Muscular and well-built, mesomorphs have a high metabolism and responsive muscle cells
Over the past decade, science has discovered more about the genetics that go into making you the shape you are – and what you can do about it. Read on to discover how you can get results, whatever your genes.
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.
What’s Going On?
It’s all to do with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition – or, in layman’s terms, the number of cells surrounding your muscle fibres and your ability to add more by training. In one study of 66 people, the top 17 “responders” experienced a 58% gain in muscle cross-sectional area, while the bottom 17 gained nothing. Unfortunately for ectomorphs, they tend to be the worst “responders”.
What Ectomorphs Might Be Doing Wrong
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. 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
“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 or 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.
“It’s important for ectomorphs to use supplements properly,” says Hughes. “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
Endomorph Body Type
Endomorphs are adept at storing fuel, with muscle and fat concentrated in the lower body. The endomorph is the hardest body type to have in terms of managing your weight and overall fitness, but to get a more balanced physique, you should focus on developing your shoulders and stripping away excess fat from your lower body. A low- to medium-intensity cardio plan will help you shift fat, as will a 1,750-calorie-a-day diet that’s high in fibre.
Are You an Endomorph?
If you have trouble shifting weight, the chances are you’re an endomorph, characterised by a relatively high amount of stored fat, a wide waist and a large bone structure.
What’s Going On?
The good news is that, evolutionarily speaking, you’re a badass: when food was scarce, natural selection favoured humans with fat-storing metabolisms. The bad news is that, now sofas and milkshakes are readily available, those genes are scuppering you. Some experts suggest heredity factors might account for as much as 70% of your body mass index (BMI).
What Endomorphs Might Be Doing Wrong
First, the good bit: there’s no point in spending hours plodding away on a treadmill. “The first thing I tell people trying to lose weight is to ditch the long, slow, steady-state cardiovascular work,” says Purdue. “Then I get them doing more interval-based conditioning to strip away fat. Sprints and box jumps are great, but if you’re heavy to the point of being worried about your joints, then moves like the sled push are slower but just as intense.”
And if you’re doing hundreds of crunches to try and shift your gut, ditch them now. “Spot-reducing fat just doesn’t work,” says Hughes. “You need to lose it from everywhere to see results around your waistline.”
What Endomorphs Should Be Doing
While much of the endomorph’s focus should be on shedding fat through aerobic exercise, we’re of the opinion that weight-training is best because it carries on burning calories long after your final set. What’s more, the calories you ingest during the recovery period will help your muscles grow rather than fuelling your gut. Therefore, we recommend doing four days a week of hypertrophy training (heavy weight, low reps) alongside your cardio.
“Combine hypertrophy work – basically, muscle-building – with conditioning to strip away unwanted body fat,” says Purdue. “A four-day split might go something like: Monday, upper-body hypertrophy; Tuesday, lower-body conditioning such as sprints or sleds; Thursday lower-body hypertrophy; and a Friday ‘repetition’ day on the upper body, when you’ll do lots of reps at relatively low weights.”
What to Eat
From a nutrition perspective, a low-carb diet that still includes oats and brown rice should be complimented by a high protein and fibre intake. Nutrients such as green tea and spinach will help with the fat burning process. You’ll have to watch what you eat more strictly than people with other body shapes. “Get your carbs from vegetables,” says Purdue, “and steer clear of white bread and rice.”
Endomorphs who are sub-15% body fat should aim for 2.5g carbs, 3.5g protein and 1.3g fat per kg of bodyweight on training days. On rest days reduce the carbs to 2g. Endomorphs are more susceptible to gain fat on highcarb diets, so start low and only increase carbs if progress stalls.
“There’s evidence that extra weight around the midsection indicates high stress levels or a low ability to handle stress,” says Purdue. “Try to minimise the effects of the stress hormone cortisol by getting plenty of sleep and avoiding overtraining.” And avoid sports drinks. “They’re full of carbs,” says Purdue, “and they’ll spike your blood sugar through the roof.” And, of course, steer clear of the booze.
“Get used to using your body,” says Purdue. “Work on bodyweight moves such as the press-up or chin-up, and moves that force you to use good technique such as the Turkish get-up.”
The Endomorph Cheat Sheet
Train with intensity
Watch your carb intake
Build your shoulders
Do endless crunches
Jog for hours
Drink sports drinks
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