Why Your Bodytype Makes or Breaks Your Fitness Endevors

Understanding Somatotypes: The Basis of Human Traits

body types


Somatotype, in common parlance, connotes human body type. Stand in front of a mirror and look at yourself. The physical body that you view is shaped in a way distinct from others giving you an identity of your own. And this discrete body shape has also its bearing on the strength, traits and temperaments you carry. In the 1940s, William Herbert Sheldon, an American psychologist, used somatotype as the fundamental element to link physique with psychoanalysis. His theory of constitutional psychology defined human behavior, character, intelligence, personal attributes and achievements based on the biological size and shape.

The History and Development of Somatotype Theory

The first reference to association between human body and intelligence was traced to the researches of Victorian psychologist and anthropologist Francis Galton. His research on psychometrics and investigation of human mind led to the foundation of eugenics that advocated genetic quality improvement. Sheldon emerged as the pioneer of this school of thought with the publication of his book “The Varieties of Human Physique.” He was the first to coin the word somatotype and divide it into three variations – endomorphic (fleshy body), mesomorphic (muscular body) and ectomorphic (lean and thin body), each corresponding to predominance of a “germ layer during embryonic development.”

The innermost layer or endoderm results in formation of internal organs and people with this predominant growth have bulky features. Mesoderm or the middle layer forms into muscle and bone and people with these predominant tissues are sturdy and muscular. The outermost layer or ectoderm converts into skin, brain and nerves making people predominantly rich in cerebral features.

Sheldon also devised a 7-point scale through photoscopic rating to categorize the different varieties of possible somatotypes. It was redefined later into Trunk Index method albeit without wider use and with own criticisms. Three more books by Sheldon – The Varieties of Temperament, The Varieties of Delinquent Youth and Atlas of Men – published between 1942 and 1954 further propagated his constitutional psychology derived from somatotype physiology theory.

British doctor Richard Parnell studied Sheldon’s somatotype theory during his extensive investigation into association between physique and behavior. Family, Physique and Fortune, his book published in 1984, interpreted human behavior, achievement and temperament in the light of biological shape and size.

Barbara Heath, a close associate of Sheldon, continued her independent research and co-developed the universally accepted Heath-Carter somatotyping method along with Lindsay Carter, a physiologist of repute known for his study of anatomy, kinesiology and biomechanics, in the 1960s.

Sheldon’s Somatotypes

Sheldon suggested role of biological roots – the embryonic development – as the keystone of his somatotype theory. He identified various body-type dimensions and their leading features based on three layers of tissues play a significant role during the prenatal child development. Human body is a complex integration of tissues and making a sharp delineation for each is impossible. However, the simplistic approach and clear demarcation influenced many subsequent researchers and embryologists studying correlation between physical and psychological traits and they readily accept such somatotype classification as the basis.

Sheldon’s generalization denotes all body types with the following three physical and psychological characteristics.

·         Endomorphic Somatotype

The first of Sheldon’s somatotypes, endomorphic people are characterized by fatty and plump body. Endoderm is the innermost layer consisting of flattened cells and appears to be converting into organs during the fifth week of embryonic development. It develops into digestive, respiratory, gastrointestinal and other organs. Their predominance makes human body bulky, flashy and chubby.

Physical Traits: Endomorphic body is discernible with large structure, wide waist and high amount of fat. The presence of fat cells and digestive tissues in greater proportion results in easy fat storage and weight gain. With muscles underdeveloped, the body remains soft and largely round. They also seem to have short arms and legs and a short thick neck due to overwhelming fat presence. Sumo wrestlers with heavier and rounder body shape are classic examples of endomorphs. Celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey, also fit this category.

Psychological Traits: Endomorphs enjoy eating, mixing with people and affection of others. They are also characterized by being more tolerant, good humored, friendly, relaxed, unvaried emotions and love for comfort.

Fitness Level: Rated poorly on fitness scale, endomorphic body is prone insulin resistance and carbohydrate sensitivity. It is more susceptible to slow physical reactions and being complacent. Over-developed digestive system makes them struggle to control fat and lose weight. However, they can achieve higher fitness level, bring down fat proportion and acquire a leaner shape through well-planned and calculated dieting and exercise regimen. Contrary to popular beliefs, endomorphic body is also suitable to build better muscle mass and develop more enduring strength.

Nutritional discipline and reliance on physical activity helps endomorphic people to stay healthy and fit. They should avoid too much sleep and eliminate intake of processed food. While cardio training and aerobic activities enable them to remain lean and active, resistance exercises are a great way to improve the metabolism and fight fat accumulation.

·         Mesomorphic Somatotype

Hard and muscular, mesomorphs are viewed as genetically gifted. Mesoderm, the middle layer, appears as the embryo enters the third week of development through the gastrulation process. It gradually folds into connective tissues, muscle tissues, cartilage, neural tube and bone. The adrenal glands, kidneys, heart, limbs and gonads are also produced with the help of this germ layer. Athletics are good examples of mesomorphic people. Usan Bolt, Magic Johnson, Christian Ronaldo and Rafael Nadal come under this category.

Physical Traits: Mesomorphic body features a solid torso characterized by wide shoulders¸ broad muscular chest and greater muscular growth. Low fat levels and large bones complement rectangular shape and thick skin with a narrow waist. Due to preponderance of muscular tissues, this type of people looks lean, strong and physically athletic. Hard body with well developed muscles gives upright posture, muscular arms and legs, greater endurance capability, more power, agility and mature appearance.

Psychological Traits: Inclination toward risk taking, adventure activities and sports are common in men with mesomorphic body. They are courageous, vigorous, bold and more direct in nature and Mesomorphs also eager to compete, be dominant and assertive, love physical activity and remain indifferent to others.

Fitness Level: Men and women falling in this somatotype are natural athletics. They can build up muscles, lose fat, endure physical activity, gain weight or sustain on low fat levels easily. No diet or exercise constraints impact them, except under medical conditions.

However, most of mesomorphs fail to utilize their full potential as they more prone to rely on genetic advantages than full exploitation of their ability to gain from smart training adoption. Lack of discipline sets in and they forgo their natural talent in the absence of support from mentors.

Expert guidance enables them to gain from their inherent flair to positively respond to cardiovascular and resistance exercises. Additional focus on nutritional intake allows to maintain and improve their potential while keeping their enviable shape intact.

·         Ectomorphic Somatotype

A typical skinny model with stringy muscles and long limbs has an ectomorphic body. Ectoderm or the outer layer forms into cranial system tooth, nail, skin, mouth and nervous system. When these features become dominant, the human body tends to be lean, restrained and delicate.

Physical Trait: Small joints and slim figure make ectomorph fragile with poor muscles, narrow shoulders and thin chest. Arms and legs are long while the upper body is short with discernible large brain and low fat storage. Described as cerebrotonic in medical annals, ectomorphic body is characterized by fast metabolism. Such people find it tough to gain weight.

Psychological Traits: Those coming under ectomorphic somatotype class tend to become very sensitive, restrained in emotions and posture, self-conscious, non-assertive, tense, introvert, secretive and anxious. They prefer solitude and isolation and are prone to concealment.

Fitness Level: When mentored suitably, ectomorphs can achieve great sporting and fitness success. They rank high on endurance and are endowed with greater flexibility and agility, a key element that propels such men to become successful long-distance runners, jockeys, soccer players and basketball players. However, many men with ectomorphic bodys hate their narrow-chested frames and their failure to develop muscle; two visual elements defining sexuality.

Fitness experts can assist such men to maintain and improve their youthful appearance and overcome frail physique. Training can bring out the natural-born gymnasts and aerobic talents. Their genetically gifted thermo regulation, when adapted to the environment, enables them to endure strain for long and stay put in activities that require stringent physical involvement. Daily workouts help such people to gain muscles through resistance training and without any dietary restriction. By taking meals just before going to sleep, they can prevent muscle catabolism taking place at night.

Can We Change Our Somatotype?

Sheldon’s somatotype classification stands tall despite criticism and is widely used by anthropologists, psychologists, physiologists and fitness professionals. No doubt complex genetic character of human beings makes it difficult to draw a water-tight distinction based on biological shape. While it is not uncommon to identify a pure endomorph, mesomorph or ectomorph, most of the individuals are a combination of two types. Often our habits cause us to lose the genetic gifts and let our body alter considerably. Ectomorphs look like endomorphs with considerable addition of fat overtime.

Identify your body type and plan your exercise, proper diet, training and protein intake to maintain or improve it. Endomorphs have disproportionately high fat. They should have regular cardio and weight training and diet restrictions to eliminate fat in the body. A continued regimen ensures they gain better body shape akin to mesomorphs. Ectomorphs struggle to reshape their body due to fast metabolism in them. By adding more calories into their meals, taking supplements and keeping workouts short, they can gain muscle mass. Mesomorphs are prone to gaining fat. They should watch their calorie intake with continued physical exercise and cardio training to maintain their natural shape and physical traits.

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