Take a look around at any moment and, unless you’re in an elite-level ballet class, you’ll likely see a variety of body types. Bodies vary as much in height as they do in width, shape and proportion, and contained in those subtle variations are clues as to the types of workouts and nutrition to which each person is best suited.
The human body is truly incredible — it is a complex machine designed to function in a variety of forms. There is no “best” body type, and each one is capable of many of the same things, like thinking, feeling, moving, lifting, stretching, etc. Plus, each is uniquely suited to perform at its best under different conditions. Your genetics, your environment and your ancestors’ environment largely shape what your body looks like and how it runs. Your strengths are uniquely your own and can shine brightest when your body receives what it specifically needs in terms of nutrition and movement.
The three main body types (or somatotypes) are endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph. You’ll probably identify most with one of these, or you may see yourself reflected in a combination of two.
The three main body types
Endomorphs usually have a larger frame and an overall higher body fat percentage. They tend to be efficient nutrient storage machines and store fat quite easily. They can also develop muscle tissue quite quickly, so while these things mean it can be more challenging to lose weight, it also means an endomorph may have an easier time building strength. Metabolically, the endomorph metabolism runs a little more slowly than the other two types; again, because the body is efficient at storing nutrients and energy and is less inclined to use them. This can lead to faster rates of fatigue, as energy is less easily released for movement or bodily functioning.
The ectomorph’s body frame is the smallest of the three — think low body fat percentage, smaller bones and joints, and smaller muscles (like a marathoner, if you need a visual). Metabolically, ectomorphs have a higher burn rate, so that tall, skinny friend of yours who can eat whatever they want and never gain a pound is likely an ectomorph.
Mesomorphs, as the name suggests, fall somewhere in the middle of the other two. The mesomorph body is athletic and prone to quicker muscle gain and strength development; however, it can also be prone to fat accumulation, particularly in the lower body. Mesomorphs are strong, respond well to exercise (i.e. they see quick change and results when starting a new workout routine) and can eat a moderate amount of food relative to their activity level without gaining a ton of weight. Metabolically, too, they fall in the middle of the other two types.
What metabolism has to do with anything, anyway
Metabolism is how your body converts what you consume into energy for movement and functioning. Think of it in terms of how efficiently your body turns fuel into action, like how a car turns gas into forward motion.
Some bodies are keen to use fuel as soon as it is brought on board, where others are more inclined to hang onto it for a future need. Maintaining a healthy weight and optimal functioning is dependent on bringing in the best types of fuel for that body; similarly, exercising the body in a way that allows it to most effectively use the fuel brought in helps keep things running smoothly. It’s all about economizing and helping the body stay well in its uniquely preferred way.
Finding the best fuel for your metabolic type
The key for endomorph metabolic bliss is to consume foods that provide steady, lasting fuel without spiking blood sugar. (Spikes in blood sugar cause a surge in insulin production, which is the body’s “storage” hormone and encourages the body to hang onto as much as it can.) Endomorphs tend to do best with a diet that lends itself to less storage and higher burn, as the tendency to store calories and nutrients can become problematic with a diet high in foods prone to easy conversion to storage. This means focusing on complex carbs from veggies and grains, rather than simple carbs like white starches and sugars. The former will be converted to more steady energy when consumed in low to moderate amounts semi-regularly. Endomorphs can also help keep their metabolisms humming with high-protein, higher-fat foods — think fish, healthy oils, avocado and nuts — that help regulate hunger and energy levels without spiking blood sugar. Paleo- and ketogenic-inspired diet plans can also be beneficial.
Due to the high rate at which ectomorphs burn fuel, small and regularly timed top-ups can be extra beneficial. Ectomorphs can also stand a higher quantity of carbohydrates — up to 50-60% of their entire diet, from all carbohydrate sources — than the other types, as these provide quick hits of energy that can keep the body running well. The advice to consume five or six small meals throughout the day makes the most sense for this body type. The balance of the ectomorph diet should be divided fairly evenly between protein and fat (although if one is looking to build muscle, additional protein and less fat can be a good approach). Think well-balanced, clean foods with high energy potential: whole grains, nuts, seeds, veggies, fruit and clean protein are great options.
The mesomorph body is — you guessed it — one that thrives in the middle of the nutrition spectrum: a good balance of carbs, protein and fat (along the lines of 40%/40%/20%) is essential for keeping weight in check and staying energized. Because mesomorphs tend to put on muscle quite easily, including a source of protein at each meal can be a good way to support the body’s natural inclination; plus, this can help keep hunger signals a little more regular and promote a nice even-humming metabolism. A paleo-inspired approach (where most of the carbs come from veggies and fruit instead of grains, and where there is ample protein from animal and/or plant sources coming) can provide a good framework for an ideal nutrient profile for this body type. If weight fluctuation tends to be an issue for you, upping protein and cutting down on carbs (adjust those percentages by about 10% to see a difference) can provide quick results; however, if you’re extra active, don’t decrease your carb intake too much, lest your body start consuming muscle tissue for fuel.
Finding the best workout for your metabolic type
Great news! As an endomorph, your body is really well-primed to build muscle and gain size quickly. If you’re looking to build strength, moderate-to-heavy lifting (incorporating large muscle groups, and as many groups as possible with compound movements) with short rest periods between sets might be your best friend. The other side of that is the endomorph body’s preferential careful preservation of resources. It can sometimes use a little extra motivation to kick it into high gear and drop weight (if that is your goal), so balancing out your strength workouts with quick bursts of interval training can be beneficial. Swap out the gentle hour on the treadmill for a 20-30 minute HIIT session to turn up your metabolism. This high burn may cause a decrease in body fat, which will bolster your strength and conditioning training.
Despite many endurance athletes being ectomorphs, unless you’re an elite-level marathoner, you’ll want to focus on more strength- and muscle-building work instead of endless cardio. Strength will happen most efficiently with slow, heavy sets with longer rest periods: schedule these 3-4 days each week, balanced out with a couple of days of cardio to keep your heart in good shape.
Ah, yes — in the spirit of moderate flexibility, mesomorphs respond favorably to just about any kind of exercise. This affords you some latitude when it comes to what comprises your weekly plan, but aim for a relatively even mix of cardio endurance and strength training. Think short bursts of HIIT work, moderate-to-heavy lifting (with varying periods of rest) and low-intensity, steady state cardio work for endurance. Feeling particularly motivated to plan ahead? Craft workouts or schedule classes so you’re doing strength, building and endurance work in three distinct chunks in the same workout or in the same day. Be mindful not to veer too much to one end of the workout spectrum to prevent a loss of muscle mass with too much endurance training or the potential for fat cell retention with too much resistance work.
Your body is a unique machine with a pretty specific set of needs when it comes to working out and refueling. While one of these might sound like a perfect match for your body, always pay attention to the signals your body sends you. If you’re feeling run down or imbalanced, your food and workout plan might need a bit of tweaking. Experiment with what works for you to help you feel your best.