There’s a theory that guys can be sorted into 3 distinct body type categories: endomorphs, mesomorphs and ectomorphs.
Is that true?
Different people do have different heights and bone structures. That’s a fairly uncontroversial fact. What’s far more interesting is how these traits can combine together to form groups of guys who respond to exercise and diets in fairly different ways.
For example, people don’t grow proportionally. Our limbs grow longer faster than they grow thicker. So shorter guys tend to be thicker, taller guys tend to be thinner. Then consider that being a heavier person causes your body to develop thicker bones to support the extra weight, and that having thicker bones allows you to build more muscle mass. So you have shorter, stockier guys who can build more muscle more easily than taller, skinnier guys. Then factor in that these naturally skinny guys need to expend more energy to move their longer limbs, but because they aren’t as wide, they also have proportionally smaller stomachs.
We already have 2 archetypes that require totally different approaches to exercise and nutrition, and we haven’t even covered half of the reasons why.
The History and Controversy of the Body Types
You’ve surely noticed that different people are, well, different. People have different muscle shapes, insertions, bone lengths, bone shapes, types of hips, they came in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and can be different in a million different ways. That’s not in dispute.
It’s a little more controversial when you try to organize people into distinct categories and then make assumptions about them. It’s the fitness version of stereotyping, and it can seem a little arbitrary. While doing research for this article, I realized that a lot of writers want to believe that everyone is different in their own unique way.
There’s some truth to that. But the categories are far from arbitrary. Certain clusters of characteristics do go together.
If you don’t believe me, ask any ectomorph why he doesn’t “just eat more,” then ask any endomorph why he doesn’t “just eat less.” As they collapse onto the ground into fetus-shaped balls of exasperation, you’ll realize that people really do have distinct issues based on their body types. If you tried to put them on the same diet, they’d both hate you for totally different reasons.
The next question is why? Why do these characteristics so often cluster together?
There are a lot of reasons. For one example, shorter people tend to have proportionally larger heads than taller people, not unlike how babies have proportionally larger heads than adults. The same is true with our feet, hands, bone thickness and muscles. As we grow taller, everything grows a little bigger, but not by as much as you’d expect.* Shorter guys are a little stockier than average, taller guys are a little slenderer.
*You would expect our mass to scale with the cube of our height, but Adolphe Quetelet, a renowned statistician, defined our body mass index (BMI) as our weight divided by the square of our height. This reflected his observation that taller guys are often more slim than average while shorter guys are often stockier. He took it too far, though. We’ve since discovered that neither the cube nor the square of our height predicts how our mass changes as we grow taller. It’s probably something in the middle (study).
You can see how proportions can differ here, comparing 5’6 Ed Coan with 6’6 Michael Jordan. Both of these guys have very different strengths and weaknesses due to their opposite body types. Ed Coan’s stocky body type helped him become one of the best powerlifters in the history of powerlifting. Michael Jordan’s lankier body type helped him become one of the best basketball players of all time.
There is a lot of bad body type science, though. In the 1940’s a psychologist named William Herbert Sheldon began his body type research by sorting people into 3 body type categories that he called somatotypes:
- Endomorphs: Guys with a sturdy, round bone structure: wider hips, stocky limbs, and a barrel-shaped ribcage.
- Mesomorphs: Guys with a broader, triangular bone structure: narrower hips and broader shoulders.
- Ectomorphs: Guys with a slighter, rectangular bone structure: longer limbs, thinner bones, and a flatter ribcage.
All is well and good here. Ed Coan is the perfect example of the endomorph body type. Michael Jordan is the perfect example of the ectomorph body type.
So far so good, but then Sheldon tried to associate personality traits with the body types. He thought that having a more athletic, mesomorph structure made someone more adventurous; having a more ectomorphic, slender structure made someone more intellectual; and having a more endomorphic, stocky structure made someone more affectionate (among other things).
He was then accused of just rattling off common stereotypes. A 1989 study by Ryckman et al found that we have a natural inclination to assume that fat people spend too much time eating and too little time moving, that fit people are more confident and capable, and that skinny people must be nonathletic intellectuals (study).
Or perhaps Sheldon was just noticing the differing fitness levels of people with different interests. It’s not that farfetched to think that people who get lost in deep intellectual activities may sometimes forget to eat and exercise and wind up thinner. That’s not why most ectomorphs are skinny, but I can see how someone might think that.
Regardless of his reasonings, the psychology side of his somatotypes didn’t pan out. His theory was refuted. Nowadays, somatotypes are just used to describe someone’s physical characteristics—especially those that are genetic.
And for that, they’re very good.
The Heath-Carter version of Sheldon’s somatotypes, which just uses someone’s physical characteristics, is now the most respected way of classifying body shape. Moreover, it’s been 70 years since Sheldon coined the terms endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph, and they’re still widely regarded as one of the key things every guy needs to know before attempting to build muscle or lose fat.
The better we understand our differences and similarities, the easier it will be for us to become strong, fit and healthy.
Going through these categories, keep in mind that most people are a combination of a couple different body types, if not all three. 7,0,0 refers to a pure endomorph. 0,7,0 refers to a pure mesomorph. 0,0,7 refers to a pure ectomorph.
The Endomorph Body Type
Endomorphs are stocky, heavy guys with wider hips, shorter limbs, thicker bones and rounder body shapes. Their shorter limbs often put them on the shorter side, but not always. It also seems like being proportionally heavier causes the body to develop thicker bones in order to support the extra weight, especially in the lower body (study). This is a possible explanation for why endomorphs have stockier, more bottom-heavy physiques.
What’s the best type of exercise for endomorphs? Cardio is popular for a reason. It’s an effective way to burn calories, and calories are the mortal enemy of endomorphs. But being proportionally heavier can make many cardio activities rougher on endomorphs. If an endomorph goes out for a jog, there’s a lot of weight landing on their joints with every footfall. Moreover, when measuring their fitness levels (VO2 max), the endomorph’s heavier body weight lowers their scores, perhaps unfairly (study).
However, being sturdily built allows endomorphs to excel at strength sports, like powerlifting. Their crocodile-like proportions make for great lifting leverages and reduce the range of motion of most lifts, such as the bench press and squat. Their thicker, denser bones are also able to safely support heavy loads.
An endomorph’s muscles respond well to lifting too. According to the research of Dr. Casey Butts, guys with thicker bones are able to build muscle far more easily than those with narrower bones, and ultimately become far more muscular.
You could argue that having naturally thicker, denser bones and larger muscles removes the need for lifting weights. After all, some of the main benefits of weightlifting have to do with improving bone density and muscle strength—something that endomorphs don’t tend to struggle with.
However, lifting helps with the endomorph’s calorie problem as well. Even a pound of fat burns around 2 calories per day, so with every pound lost, their metabolism slows, and their diet must become more strict. This can lead to yo-yoing in and out of leanness.
This is where weightlifting comes in. A pound of muscle burns approximately 6 calories per day, giving a muscular endomorph the opportunity to keep his metabolism high by building a pound of muscle for every pound of fat lost.
Moreover, endomorphs are often able to build muscle even while losing weight because of their great muscle-building genetics and higher body fat percentage. If they can do that, there’s another benefit they can take advantage of. It takes over 2,000 calories to build a pound of muscle, speeding up fat loss or giving their diet some wiggle room.
Lifting is also good for the brain, and is associated with a host of other benefits. Same with cardio.
What’s the best diet for endomorphs? Endomorphs tend to have lower insulin sensitivity and slower metabolisms, meaning they don’t handle high-carb or high-calorie diets very well.*
The endomorph’s lower insulin sensitivity might be due to their naturally higher fat mass, meaning that becoming leaner could help a great deal. Muscle development will help as well. Still, there may be a genetic component that can’t be changed via lifestyle.
A possible reason for their slower metabolisms is how efficient this body type can be. It takes less energy to move a shorter limb than a longer one, even if the shorter limb is proportionally heavier—both a blessing and a curse courtesy of physics.
It seems like endomorphs have proportionally larger stomachs as well, since their stockiness comes from shorter limbs, not narrower torsos. If a 5’7 guy has the stomach size of the average 5’10 guy, this can create challenges.
To make things easier, endomorphs may want to primarily eat foods that are filling, rich in micronutrients and low in calories. Minimally processed foods that are higher in protein, fibre and water are good for that. Chicken breast is an example of a food that’s filling because it’s rich in protein and water. Broccoli is an example of a food that’s filling because it’s rich in fibre and water. Sugar is an example of a food that isn’t filling because all the fibre and water is processed out. But a fruit, with it’s sugar bundled up in plant cells alongside fibre and water, is just perfect (study).
And here lies the secret to every pop-culture diet. Cupcakes, french fries, and chips are very high in calories for how filling they are, so they’re shunned. Apples, carrots, and white fish, on the other hand, all contain a lot of micronutrients and hardly any calories at all—far better.
This allows endomorphs to feel fuller on fewer calories while still getting all the vitamins, minerals and fibre that they need.
Another approach is reducing the amount of meals per day (aka intermittent fasting). If an endomorph normally eats 500 calories for breakfast, skipping breakfast for a week would lead to about a pound of fat loss. (A pound of fat contains around 3,500 calories.)
*Some experts, like renowned sports nutritionist Dr. John Berardi, recommend keeping carb intake as low as 25% of total calories. Most research shows that keeping protein intake higher is a more important factor, but experimenting with a lower carb approach is helpful for a lot of guys.
The Mesomorph Body Type
Mesomorphs are athletically built men with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and triangular body shapes, perhaps from having more testosterone shaping them as they go through puberty. They’re known for being naturally leaner and more muscular than the other body types, again possibly due to having naturally higher testosterone levels shaping them.
The mesomorph is also defined by being neither as stocky as an endomorph nor as slender as an ectomorph. This gives them some of the strengths and weaknesses of both body types. There may even be something magical about being a man of middling height and proportions. For example, a 2015 study by Li Xiaoxin found that men of average height (5’9–5’11) had better coordination than guys who were shorter or taller (study).
What’s the best type of exercise for mesomorphs? Mesomorphs are known for having thick enough bones to support quite a lot of muscle growth, but another advantage comes from having a good balance between muscle bellies and tendons—which are both important. This makes them well suited for a variety of types of exercise. They particularly excel at Olympic weightlifting, where having a huge shoulder-to-waist ratio is a very strong predictor of success (study).
What’s the best diet for mesomorphs? Mesomorphs respond best to a fairly balanced diet with around 40% of calories coming from carbs, 30% from protein, 30% from fat. No need for precision there, though.
If they want to get leaner, they’ll want to eat more like an endomorph, but may need to be more wary of losing muscle mass. If they want to get stronger, they’ll want to eat more like an ectomorph, but may need to be more wary of gaining fat.
The Ectomorph Body Type
Ectomorphs are taller, lighter men with proportionally thinner bone structures and rectangular body shapes. Most skinny guys are ectomorphs, but not all ectomorphs are skinny. Being an ectomorph has more to do with our bone structures and proportions than our muscularity. This is where things get interesting.
It seems that as people grow taller, our limbs grow in length a little more quickly than they grow in circumference (study). This could at least partially explain why taller ectomorphs have thinner, longer bones. For example, I’m 6’2 but have the wrist size of a 5’4 man. A less extreme ectomorph might be 6′ and have the wrist size of a 5’8 man. Or a short ectomorph might be 5’6 but have the wrist size of a 5’2 man. This makes us “hardgainers,” as having narrower bones limits how muscular we can become. (Although even the strong ectomorph pictured above shouldn’t have too much trouble naturally building another 20 pounds of muscle without hitting his genetic ceiling.)
What’s the best type of exercise for ectomorphs? Ectomorphs excel at cardio. Not because of our height—most marathon runner are actually unusually short ectomorphs—but because our frames are proportionally lighter. It takes little energy for a light person to travel long distances.
Our cardiovascular health is often fairly good as well. Our metabolisms are usually quite high, helping us resist fat gains and ward off heart disease, and we’re often more active than the other body types, even when we aren’t trying to be, because of something called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). More colloquially, you could say that we’re often fidgety or restless, causing us to burn a startling amount of calories without ever realizing.
However, while our hearts are strong, our bones and muscles are not.
While we can quite literally run a wildebeest into the ground, we may have quite a lot of trouble picking it up afterwards.
Fortunately, this can be remedied with some time under the bar, some time under the sun, and some time under the sheets. Lifting will make our muscles far bigger and our bones far denser.
We do need a bit of a different approach, though. Lifting is not a form of exercise designed for us, even though we’re the ones who benefit from it the most. Our narrower, hardgainer bone structures don’t start us off with as much muscle mass as the other body types, and our postures often crumble if we don’t take the time to strengthen the muscles that hold us in a proper position.
Some lifts will be harder because of our proportions. Having long limbs makes it harder to squat and bench competitively, and while the larger range of motion stimulates greater muscle growth, it can make it harder for a beginner to do the lifts safely—especially if he hasn’t strengthened his postural muscles yet. This makes progression more important. It also makes loaded carries important, which are one of the best things for improving an ectomorph’s posture and strength.
But we also have other lifts, like the deadlift (especially the sumo variant), that favour our longer reach and relative lightness. There are even lifting techniques, like the hook grip, that don’t work for guys with stubbier fingers.
What’s the best diet for ectomorphs? Ectomorphs have higher metabolisms and better insulin sensitivity than the other body types, allowing us to eat more calories and carbs than the other body types. We can benefit from getting as much as 50–60% of our daily calories from carbs.
Having a higher metabolism doesn’t just mean that we can eat more food, it also means that even while eating more food, we’re more likely to remain lean (study). Being able to eat more calories also means that we can often eat foods that are proportionally lower in micronutrients while still getting enough to be optimally healthy.
For example, consider an endomorph who burns 2,000 calories per day and needs 10 grams of vitamin X for optimal health. He needs 1 gram of vitamin X in every 200 calories that he eats. Then consider an ectomorph who burns 3,000 calories per day and needs 10 grams of vitamin X for optimal health. He only needs 1 gram of vitamin X in every 300 calories that he eats.
Because of our smaller appetites, rampaging metabolisms, higher carb tolerance, and higher calorie tolerance, we don’t need to focus as much on restricting junk food as the other body types. It helps to think about eating more good stuff, not less bad stuff. Otherwise, it’s going to be too hard eat enough to grow bigger, stronger muscles and denser, sturdier bones.
The ectomorph’s problem is that eating enough food to be strong and healthy can be incredibly hard, especially if we try to eat like an endomorph. After all, it seems like our stomachs don’t scale up proportionally along with our height.
The same goes for meal scheduling. While a lot of endomorphs have success with skipping breakfast, we often benefit from taking the opposite approach. Instead of breakfast, lunch and dinner, ectomorphs may want to eat more like a hobbit—breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, second lunch, etc. These in-betweener meals don’t need to be fancy or schedule-breaking, though. A handful of trail mix, a protein shake, or a pint of milk is perfectly fine.
On that note, while the other body types might benefit from foods that are low in calories, we do not. We thrive on higher-calorie foods like: dried fruit, nuts, bananas, rice, cheese, dark chocolate, muesli, and trail mix.
We do well with liquid calories too, which don’t create as much fullness as solid food, and are more quickly digested. Smoothies, milk and even juice are great when trying to bulk up leanly.
Bony to Beastly Plug: If you want a workout and diet program for ectomorphs that has all of these factors optimized, videos teaching all of the lifts, a yearlong membership in our ecto-community, coaching throughout your entire transformation, and a guaranteed 20-pound gain within 3 months, we recommend our Bony to Beastly Program.
Does being skinny-fat mean that I’m part endomorph?
Probably not. While it’s easier for some than others, any body type can gain fat. Endomorphs, with their shorter, thicker bones, wouldn’t be calling themselves skinny-fat, just fat. If you’re describing yourself as skinny-fat, it doesn’t sound like you have a naturally thicker, endomorph body. Sounds more like you’re an out-of-shape ectomorph. (We’ve got an article for you here.)
Does being short make me an endomorph? Or being tall make me an ectomorph?
No, not always. In the Bony to Beastly community, for example, we noticed that a lot of our members seemed fairly tall. One of our members started up a poll, and it turns out that the average height of a b2B member is around 6′ tall. Still, though, that’s just an average. We have ectomorphs who are 5’2 all the way up to 6’10.
For another example, most elite marathon runners are very short ectomorphs, averaging 5’7 or so. It’s just that their bone thickness might be similar to men who are shorter still. They’re taller than their bone size would have you think, you could say.
Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (The Mountain on Game of Thrones) is an incredibly strong 6’9 endomorph. Here he is next to Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martel on Game of Thrones), who is of fairly average ectomorph height—5’11.
You can see how Björnsson, even though he’s incredibly tall, still has proportionally thicker bones, longer muscle bellies, a thicker neck, and even a proportionally bigger head.
As an ectomorph, is there anything I can do to change the thickness of my bones? For example, can I make my wrists thicker?
There are no muscle bellies around your wrists, just tendons. They have no muscular growth potential. Looking at your wrists is a great way to tell what body type you are because they cannot be changed with exercise—at least not in any significant way. The more interesting question is whether you can make your bones thicker by progressively preparing them to lift heavier and heavier things. Unfortunately, assuming you’re past puberty, the main way your bones will respond to weightlifting is by growing denser, not thicker. They’ll probably grow a little thicker as you lift heavier and heavier weights over the course of several years, but by the time you get that strong, you’ll be so muscular that you won’t be worried about your wrist thickness anyway. It will come too late.
Are ectomorphs and hardgainers the same thing?
Usually yes. The word hardgainer is used to describe someone who struggles to build muscle for whatever reason. This describes most ectomorphs, as most of us will struggle to eat enough to gain weight. Calling ourselves hardgainers is a little misleading, though. While we might not be able to get the extremely muscular appearance of a fully developed endomorph, ectomorphs are the body type that can build muscle the most quickly. It’s not uncommon for an ectomorph to gain 30+ pounds in just their first year of lifting—something that the other body types wouldn’t be able to do (or at least not leanly).
More questions? Ask them below.
Whichever body you happen to have been born with, all of them can be perfectly strong, healthy and attractive. The path there is just a little different for everyone. While trying to transform themselves, endomorphs will have to fight to become fitter while trying to curb their appetite using whatever method works best for them, whereas ectomorphs will need to focus on getting stronger while scheming up ways to eat more.
The good news is that once you’re strong and lean, maintaining your physique over the long term will be far easier. After all, there’s no calorie deficit required if you aren’t trying to lose weight anymore, and no calorie surplus required when you aren’t trying to gain weight anymore.
I hope this article makes it a little easier to get to that point!