The Beginner’s Guide to Body Types: Ectomorph, Mesomorph, and Endomorph

We are all unique.  

Yes, even you. Your mom was right!

And you’re here because questions about your body type and genetics:

What body type am I?

How does it affect my training and diet?

I have bad genetics, how screwed am I?

I am a [body type]. Does that mean I shouldn’t do [activity]?

We all have different bodies, genetics,reactions from certain foods, strengths, and weaknesses, and thus we each have different activities and behaviors that we’re predisposed to be good at (or struggle with!).

The standard way of thinking tells us that we have three main “body types”:

  • Endomorph
  • Ectomorph
  • Mesomorph

(Don’t worry we’ll get into each of those below too.)

HOWEVER, when it comes to your genetic benefits and shortfalls, there is way more to it than just which category your body fits in.

As you’ll soon learn, just because you’re predisposed to be good at one thing or terrible at another doesn’t mean you should be pigeonholed or limited with what you can do.

With a bit of help from our favorite Role Playing Games, we’re going to dig into body types, character classes, and ways to buck the genetic lottery.

Whether or not you know your body type, or you have never heard those terms above before, I got you covered!

The three main body types

body shapes - endomorph ectomorph mesomorph

Back in the 1940’s, an American psychologist named William Herbert Sheldon tried to classify us non-superheroes into three neat categories called “soma types”:

  • Endomorphs
  • Ectomorphs
  • Mesomorphs

Over the years, these three body types have become widely accepted as three solid classifications for how our bodies will generally react and grow based on our training and diet.

We’re going to ignore the parts about Sheldon trying to equate people’s body types to wildly generalized psychological traits, or the fact that he obtained the photos for his study under shady circumstances.

The 3 body types that Sheldon created managed to endure and have found a place in fitness, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Sure, there is this complicated math formula that you can use to calculate your “soma type,” but we’re going to skip the formula and go right into the stuff you actually need to know. [1] .

These are the three types and how they’re characterized. I bet you’ll find you fit into one of them:

Ectomorph (thin)

Ectomorphs are characterized as having long, slim, and thin muscles/limbs and low fat storage. Ectomorphs are not predisposed to store fat nor build muscle.

These are the “hardgainers” that can’t gain weight even when they “eat so much.”

I am an ectomorph, and fought my genetics for 10 years – I also used this “diagnosis” as a crutch before finally overcoming it – I’ll talk more about this at the end of the article.

Mesomorph (muscular)

Mesomorphs are the “lucky ones.” They have medium bones, solid torso, low fat levels, wide shoulders with a narrow waist.

Mesomorphs are predisposed to build muscle but not store fat. Aka “lucky AF.”

You might know somebody that can just look at a weight and seem to get bigger and stronger: that person is a mesomorph.

Endomorph (curvy)

Endomorphs play the game of Weight Loss on extreme difficulty. These are people with wider waists, large bone structures, and are predisposed to storing fat instead of building muscle.

If you struggle to lose weight, or you put on fat easily, you MIGHT be an endomorph.

Again, I’ll explain why the diagnosis isn’t as important as how you respond to it!

IMPORTANT NOTE: These body types are not to be confused with the fourth classification: Animorphs, who possess the ability to change into any animal they touch.

Animorphs are necessary for the defense of Earth against the secret alien invasion.

Which BODY TYPE am I?

butterfly

Although the three categories give us a decent foundation on which to build, there are a litany of other factors that are at play here.

For starters, instead of us fitting neatly into three categories, it’s more like a massive 1-1000 scale.

Imagine there is a triangle with each point representing one of the three body types.

We humans can exist at any point inside that triangle, from storing fat easily to not gaining weight easily to building muscle well. The reality is that we all have some parts of each of those.

What it really comes down to:

  • Some bodies are efficient at burning energy for fuel.
  • Some bodies are less efficient and tend to store more energy as fat.
  • Some bodies are really efficient at building muscle.
  • Some bodies are inefficient at building muscle.

Despite our genetics, our lifestyle choices, the foods we eat, and how we train will ultimately determine our body shape!

Where the problem with “soma types” begin: It’s very easy to use one’s classification as a crutch for being unhealthy or weak. 

Let’s use a different example: have you ever taken a personality profile for work (“I’m an INFP! You’re an ENTJ!”), and then used that as an excuse: “Sorry, the test said I’m an introvert, it’s not that I’m an ass. Deal with it!”

Just like with personality tests, our Soma Type should be a starting point for us to put a plan in place.

We are not going to use our genetics as a crutch anymore. I did it for a decade until I finally allowed myself to create a different identity!

  • “I’m an endomorph, so I’m screwed and that’s why I’m overweight.”
  • “How lucky is he? He can eat whatever he wants and not gain weight!”
  • “That dude just looks at weights and gets bigger. Must be nice.”

Here’s the truth: We have all rolled a random character in this Game of Life. We don’t get to pick our parents, we just have to play the hand we’re dealt to the best of our ability:

Some people hit the genetic lottery and get to play Life on Easy difficulty.

Some people have really crappy genetics and have to play on Legendary difficulty.

Your genetic makeup isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility.

And this whole concept of dramatically different metabolisms due to soma types is overblown, which is GREAT NEWS:

Studies have shown that most people tend to fall within 200-300 calories of each other on the “metabolism speed scale.” [2] .

Your genetics can only help or hinder you so much – it’s the decisions you make after your character has been rolled that determines how quickly you progress through the game.

What this means: 

  • If you are really overweight, you don’t have as slow of a metabolism as you think. In fact, your metabolism is FASTER than somebody who is thinner than you (your body burns more calories to fuel your extra mass). What it really means is that you probably eat too much compared to how many calories you burn.
  • If you are really underweight (as I was), you don’t have as fast a metabolism as you think. Although you think you eat “so much,” I bet if we tracked it, it’s significantly less than you are estimating.

I’ll address each body type below with specific instructions on how to react!

This is great news, but it means you’re going to need to work for it!

Now, in addition to body types, we also get a lot of questions about muscle fibers and how they affect your physical fitness…

Twitch Muscle Fibers: Fast and Slow

Your muscles are influenced by body type

To further emphasize that we are all unique snowflakes, our muscles have different types of qualities as well.

Based on your genetic makeup of what percentage of each type of muscle fiber you have, you might have a higher athletic ceiling when it comes to certain activities.

Again, this is just a starting point; I’ll get to how we can change our fate later.

Our muscle fibers can generally be classified as fast-twitch or slow-twitch:

  • Slow twitch fibers (Type I): These muscle fibers can carry more oxygen and sustain longer periods of aerobic activity (activities that require your muscles to use oxygen) than other types of fibers, using fats or carbs as fuel.  They can contract for long periods of time, but are weak.  Think: long distance running or hours of cardio.
  • Fast twitch fibers (Type IIb): These muscle fibers can carry less oxygen and only work with short periods of anaerobic activity (activities that require your muscles to burn glycogen) before becoming exhausted.  They have the greatest potential for strength and for gaining size. Think: sprinting, power lifting, strength training.
  • Fast twitch fibers (Type IIa): These are a mix of Type I and Type IIb fibers, and thus can be used for either aerobic or anaerobic activities.

So, if you are somebody that genetically has more slow twitch fibers than fast twitch, you’re genetically predisposed to be a better distance runner.

If you have more fast twitch fibers than slow twitch, you’re genetically predisposed to be a better powerlifter or sprinter.

Either way, we have some of each: as we age, our Type I fibers remain generally unchanged, while our amounts and sizes of our Type II fibers will decrease.  [3] .  

So, are we born with muscle fibers that have cemented our fate, and we can either be marathon runners or sprinters?

Hell no!

We can actually change our muscle fibers based on our training!

A study performed on males who were tasked with “sprinting” all out on a bicycle with a specific training regimen for 4-6 weeks resulted in decreasing their slow twitch fibers from 57% to 48% while increasing their Type IIa fibers from 32% to 38%.[4] .  

In another study performed on females who went through a rigorous endurance training schedule, Type I fibers did not increase, Type IIb fibers decreased, and the Type IIa fibers increased significantly.  Type IIa fibers are the “switch hitters” that can be used for increased power or endurance.[5] .  

Although more studies should (and will) be done on muscle fibers and how they’re affected by training, and how it differs between men and women this is the conclusion I’ve drawn:

Genetics be damned.

It might be an uphill battle, but we can change our fate. Body type, metabolism, muscle fibers, they are merely a starting point for discussion.

We can change our size and the percentage of our muscle fibers with the right training, just like we can change our body composition with the right diet.

Yes, at the upper echelon of elite world class athletes, those with a higher genetic ceiling might have a physical advantage over those who have less of the beneficial muscle fibers.

But for regular muggles like you and me, there’s no reason why we can’t be who we want to be, and look how we want to look.

To hammer this point home, we’re gonna dive deep into online role playing games.

Even if you’re not a gamer, I guarantee this analogy will make you go “I get it, and damn Steve you are both clever and smart and really good looking and also modest.”

Thank you!

Role Playing Games and Body Types

Are you a wizard body type? Or a BARBARIAN?!

I remember playing Everquest (the game that paved the road for World of Warcraft) back in 2001.

I spent hours reading the official strategy guide in order race for my character, Morphos Novastorm, who was to be the most kickass wizard in all of Norrath.

Why wizards? Because they always start scrawny and weak and end up really freaking powerful. Duh.

According to the guide, my best choice was to select the Erudites: they possessed the highest amount of intelligence to start (INT), and thus would give me an advantage over against non-Erudite wizards.

I agonized over this decision and spent hours before even starting the game because I assumed this decision that would forever haunt me if it was the wrong one!

And then I started playing.

As I watched Ogre Wizards, Gnome Wizards, Elf Wizards, Halfling Wizards kick serious ass in the later levels, it made me realize that although my character’s skill potential was slightly affected by my race….it had NO impact on how good I was at the game!

There were so many other factors that were more important:

  • My style of play.
  • The equipment my character is wearing
  • Who is in my group.
  • Was I having fun and challenging myself in a certain way?

Do you see the point I’m trying to make here?

YOUR BODY TYPE IS NO DIFFERENT.

Genetically, you might fit into one of the soma types above: ectomorph, mesomorph, or endomorph (animorph? call me).

Ultimately, think of your body type as your character’s “race” in a role-playing game:

How you choose to PLAY that character in this game of life makes all the difference in the world.

OKAY!

SO we’ve established the 3 soma types. We’ve discussed muscle fibers and genetics. And then we learned that the difference between the body types is minimal and that you can change your muscle fiber composition with training.

I have a few final points to make, but you might be looking for some recommendations:

I am an Ectomorph, Endomorph, or mesomorph. What do I Do?

Body types can influence your actions

Okay okay okay, you’ve read all this way, and now you’re wondering what you should actually do.

Let’s say you firmly believe you are an Ectomorph, Endomorph, or Mesomorph, and you want to know the best steps forward. This assumes that you REALLY are the soma type listed below.

Just know that I bet a LOT of people who think they gain fat easily are actually not an endomorph, they just have a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits! I’ll cover that below though:

I AM AN ECTOMORPH: Congrats, you are somebody that can’t put on any weight or muscle! I am too, and assumed for a decade that I was doomed to be thin as a rail. The reality was I just wasn’t eating enough. I had to break my own identity to go from Steve Rogers to Captain America.

If you are trying to get bigger, you should minimize cardio, maximize strength training, and whenever in doubt eat more calories!

I’d also recommend reading the following articles:

I AM A MESOMORPH: Congrats, you get to play life on easy difficulty! You’re more likely to build muscle and not store fat, but that doesn’t mean you get to rest on your laurels!

You’ll want to strength train, and depending on how old you are, you’ll have to become more disciplined with your diet. You can get away with it when you’re younger, but building healthy habits at a younger age and keeping your nutrition on track means you’ll keep a good physique as you get older!

I would recommend reading the following to help determine HOW you want to train: How to build the physique you want.

I AM AN ENDOMORPH: Congrats, you are playing life on a higher difficulty level. For starters, I want you to remove the stigma from your mind that you are a lost cause.

For starters, your metabolism isn’t slow, I PROMISE. The truth is that you most likely eat more than you realize, and you don’t do enough strength training to combat it.

You might also eat unhealthy foods (and/or consume a lot of sugar) that lead to physiological responses in your blood that promote fat storage!

What this means: you can’t use your genetics as a crutch or an excuse. It just “is what it is.” This means you’ll need to address both the quantity, and the quality of your food. I would focus on eating protein and healthy fats and try to minimize carb consumption.

As you start to strength train and make better food choices, you can affect HOW your body processes the calories you consume and start to change your body’s make-up. You can change it from “store fat” to “build muscle,” but you need to be disciplined about it!

May I recommend:

Regardless of what you THINK your body type is, and what your ACTUAL genetic make-up is, it is a tiny tiny tiny piece of the puzzle.

The rest comes to how you want to play the game!

What happens if I don’t like my category?

Get Swole as ANY body type

You might have a few final questions, and I bet they fit into these categories:

Steve I’m kind of an overweight guy but I hate strength training, can I still run?

I’m skinny and I hate running, and I want to strength train, is that cool?

Here’s what to do if you don’t line up with what your genetics say you’ll be good at: acknowledge them, and then move on.

Write your own destiny.

Become the hero you want to be, not who you’re “supposed” to be.

The Truth: Your body will store fat and burn energy in a certain way.  Depending on your genetics, sex, hormone balance, age, and medical conditions, you might need to be more careful with your consumption of sugar and processed foods than other people, as you might be genetically more likely to store those foods as fat rather than burning them as fuel.

I’ve come to learn there is so much more to being healthy than just “eating less” and “moving more.”  It’s a complex topic involving dozens of variables that we still don’t fully understand yet.  Your genetics are the opening act, and your diet is the main actor in this story.

It sucks, but that’s the truth.

Your diet will be responsible for 80-90% of your success or failure when it comes to weight regulation.  So the BEST way for you to change your fate is to focus on eating the right kinds of foods.

How you chose to exercise makes up the other 10-20%. Ultimately it comes down to one big rule with exercise:

Enjoy it.

We’ve already covered the different “professions” and how you can be whatever you want in real life, be it Warrior, Druid, Assassin, Monk, Scout, Ranger, or any combination.

Hell, we even built a free character creation system here at NF so you can ACTUALLY treat life like a role playing game!

I can’t think of a better example of somebody deciding to Write their own path than Staci on Team NF.

She recently got her genetic testing done as well, and discovered that she’s supposed to be terrible at powerlifting based on her genetic makeup. Luckily, she didn’t listen to this, and now consistently deadlifts 400+ pounds:

A post shared by Staci Ardison (@staciardison) on

I’m definitely an “ectomorph.”  I have thin wrists, skinny legs, skinny ankles, and have struggled to put on any weight, be it muscle or fat, for most of my life. I’m genetically predisposed to be a good distance runner, and I’m not built for strength training.

On top of that, I have a genetic spinal condition that will severely limit my potential when it comes to getting big and strong.

I don’t care! 

I love strength training, so I strength train.

I don’t like distance running, so I don’t run. I train the way I want to because that’s WAY more fun for me – I don’t care what my peak genetic alignment says – I want to do the stuff that makes me feel alive. And that’s gymnastics!

A post shared by Steve Kamb (@stevekamb) on

You might be an overweight guy or gal and want to become a Parkour Assassin or Martial Arts Monk or Elite Scout.

That is amazing! Freaking go for it.  Yes, you might have an uphill battle on your hands, but there’s no reason you can’t get to a great level of proficiency with your desired profession and HAVE FUN WITH IT.

We have a community full of characters of all races who are playing the game of life on different levels of difficulty….and having a damn good time doing so.

I want to leave you with one final public service announcement.

While we’re at it, comparisons are silly.

Good choices will lead you towards success no matter what body type you are

I once wrote about why comparing ourselves to our celebrity heroes in movies is silly: their lives are so different, their motivations are different, and their situation is different. 

It’s not a fair fight.

The same is true on comparing yourself to others in the gym or those you see in magazines.

You might walk into the gym and see a level 50 guy or girl, absolutely jacked/ripped/toned/thin/whatever in the weights section and think, “Wow! If I only had their genetics! Must be nice…”

“Must be nice” is one of the most dangerous phrases in the english language. Followed closely by “Hold my beer, watch this,” and “trust me, they don’t bite.”

The truth of the matter is, the people you wish you were like, no matter how good their genetics are, achieved their high level of fitness through consistent dedication to regular workouts and a healthy diet.

No matter watch edge you might possess genetically, you won’t see results without hard work.

Don’t let the fact that everybody is at different points in their quest be an excuse to blame genetics! You have NO idea what somebody’s genetics are like – it’s just easier to say “it must be their genes” rather than “they work WAY harder and are way more disciplined than me.”

We have different genetic makeups: different amounts of fast twitch or slow twitch muscle fibers, different bone densities, different levels of efficiency when it comes to fat storage and fuel consumption.

For these reasons, don’t compare your “reality” with somebody’s highlight reel:

  • If you are a Night Elf, comparing yourself to an Orc when it comes to being a tank/warrior isn’t going to be a fair fight.
  • Conversely, comparing yourself as an Orc to Night Elves on the topic of quickness is a losing proposition.

Just because somebody is muscular or skinny doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Just because somebody might be overweight compared to others doesn’t meant they aren’t in great physical condition.

So, the only comparison you should be making is to who you were yesterday.

Go. Level up.

mushroom

And that concludes today’s World of Warcraft lesson on Genetics.

Remember, there is only one thing we say to our genetics: Not today!

To recap:

Like in any role playing game, your character has strengths and weaknesses in the game of life, but it shouldn’t determine how you play the game. 

So regardless of your soma type (ectomorph, endomorph, or mesomorph), or your muscle-fiber composition, you can do whatever the hell you want. Training and the correct nutrition can fix nearly any genetic shortcoming, it just might require a very strict regimen and discipline and assistance.

If you want to be an elf warrior, or an ogre wizard, go for it.

I’d love to hear from you:

And what “soma type” are you, and have you changed your fate or decided to do so?

Leave a comment and let me know!

-Steve

PS: While we’re talking about the Game of Life, I wrote an entire book on this subject that is available in bookstores nationwide: Level Up Your Life.

It’s currently a Kindle book of the Month on Amazon, which means it’s on sale for only $2.99!

###

Photo Sources: Wizard, World of Warcraft Minis, apple and orange, punch, mushroom, pipe, butterfly, Oky – Space Ranger Inside Out minifigs

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  • Ben Stark

    I really loved this post. So much of it rings true. Of course as a bigger guy, I would have given anything to be an ectomorph. Especially true is the advice you gave to exercise based on what you love. I loathe lifting weights. My three nights lifting is just short of torture. My workouts swimming, biking, rowing, skiing or even running are way more enjoyable even though I will never be as good at those as I am at lifting. I am not planning on winning any triathlons so I don’t care. I just want to do the best I can and have the best time I can.

  • natalie

    That Anamorph reference was hillarious! I totally lol’d. Interesting stuff, thanks!!

  • Natalie

    Animorph*

  • Tony Langdon

    Love this post, and it reminds me of some challenges I have ahead of me. The more I do sport, the more I learn that it’s about attitude and how you play the game. Sure, the qualities you bring to the table can help – I’ve always been predisposed to sprinting, which fortunately, I love, but through application, I can extend my range beyond my “natural” limits. I’m learning how to improve my 400m performance through better race strategy, tactics and mental attitude, despite this being a distance I’ve struggled with all of my life.

  • Kiwi

    However, there is a fourth type, which you have totally ignored, called the Skinnyfat. These are people who look good in clothes but have excess flab that is visible when shirtless. We can’t eat whatever we want; we DO gain fat, and we have a hard time gaining muscle.

  • Gar

    Loved the Animorphs name drop!

  • Love this post!! It’s easy to classify oneself as endomorph (which I totally am) and use that as an excuse. Some people might be afraid of starting a game on a harder difficulty (also me). But using this base information to get the ball rolling with a little motivation to overcome a single obstacle – like one sesh at the gym – and recognize that as long as you’re doing what you enjoy for exercise, you can totally build the body you want.

    Also, Animorphs! Get this – I’m 26 and recently married, and my husband grew up with Animorphs. I don’t know why I didn’t. I LOVE animals and totally would have been into the books. Just wasn’t exposed to them, I guess. Anyway, he told me I have to read them – all of them – and I was all like, “Aren’t those books for kids? And from the 90’s? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in that.”

    I was wrong. I was so wrong.

    I’m only on the 6th book but DAMN are these books cool! Such a great story and scary premise, and the characters are actually pretty great! I’m definitely not challenged by the reading, but I also don’t feel like I’m reading a picture book or something.

    Yay Animorphs!

  • Ben Stark

    Being determined goes so a really, really, really long way in most sports. In my 20 plus years of competing, I found it wasn’t until reached the highest level of competition that the rare combination of extreme talent and extreme determination mixed together. Up to that point, a person with a great deal of drive but little talent or a ton of talent but little drive could do really well.

  • Tony Langdon

    I agree that being determined is an essential ingredient for high performance in sport. For some of us, it’s essential for any performance level. 🙂 I’m not at the highest level, but have crossed the point where both talent and determination are needed, for me, age has become an additional factor to account for, but that just means train harder and smarter again. 🙂

    Now, to work out why I’m starting so badly, and then fix that – I’m sure it’s largely a head issue, not fitness.