Anyone who has spent time at a beach, swimming pool, or gym locker room can attest to the fact that human beings are born with a variety of different physical characteristics. Some are taller or shorter, lighter or darker, wider or narrower in the shoulders, longer and shorter in the leg; they have higher or lower natural levels of endurance, differing types of muscle cells, more or fewer muscle and fat cells.
One popular method of categorizing all these various body types recognizes three fundamentally different physical types, called somatotypes:
The ectomorph: characterized by a short upper body, long arms and legs, long and narrow feet and hands, and very little fat storage; narrowness in the chest and shoulders, with generally long, thin muscles.
The mesomorph: large chest, long torso, solid muscle structure, and great strength.
The endomorph: soft musculature, round face, short neck, wide hips, and heavy fat storage.
Of course, no one is entirely one type but rather a combination of all three types. This system of classification recognizes a total of eighty-eight subcategories, which are arrived at by examining the level of dominance of each basic category on a scale of 1 to 7. For example, someone whose body characteristics were scored as ectomorphic, mesomorphic, and endomorphic would be an endo-mesomorph, basically a well-muscled jock type but inclined to carry a lot of fat.
Although the fundamentals of bodybuilding training apply to all the somatotypes, individuals with different body types often respond very differently to training, and what works for one type may not necessarily work for another. Any body type can be developed by proper training and nutrition, but individuals with different body types will find it necessary to initially approach their training with different objectives, even though they may share the same long-term goals.
There have been champions with every kind of body type. Steve Davis, a well-known competitor in the 1970s, once weighed in at around 270 pounds, which meant he tended heavily toward the endomorphic. It was necessary for Steve to lose a lot of fat while maintaining muscle mass in order to win bodybuilding titles. Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates is one of the biggest champions of all time; in contest shape he weighs in at close to 270 pounds. However, during the off-season Dorian gets up to well over 300 pounds, which indicates his body type tends toward the endo-mesomorphic. The legendary Dave Draper was another endomesomorph (although, having less muscle, he’d be classified as more endomorphic than Dorian), tending to get heavy and smooth easily, but able to stay lean and hard for competition by hard training and strict diet.
Frank Zane, on the other hand, is much more ectomorphic. Muscle-mass gains have always taken Frank a long time to achieve, but this did not keep him from becoming Mr. Olympia three times. Bodybuilders like Frank and Shawn Ray, who at 200 pounds have managed to defeat most of the more massive competitors, are not naturally powerful, muscular individuals. Their muscular development and bodybuilding excellence have come about mostly by a lot of hard, dedicated work. “Muscle did not come to me naturally,” says Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia and another bodybuilder tending toward the ectomorphic. “I was one of those 98-pound weaklings who was motivated to use bodybuilding training to get bigger.”
In my own case, I am mesomorphic enough to be able to build muscle mass relatively easily, and at one point bulked up to a solid 240 pounds, but my natural physique has always tended to be lean, which makes me more an ecto-mesomorph than pure mesomorph or an endo-mesomorph.
Flex Wheeler, who is so renowned for his shape and proportion, is yet another ecto-mesomorph. Look at Flex and you’ll see how relatively small his bones and joints are, despite his muscle size, especially compared to a powerfully built competitor like Dorian. In bodybuilding terms, Flex, Frank Zane, and I would be characterized as having Apollonian physiques (muscular, but tending toward the ectomorphic, more aesthetic than brute powerful), while thicker bodybuilders like Dorian, Nasser El Sonbaty, Tom Platz, Casey Viator, and Mike Mentzer would be classified as Herculean (very mesomorphic or endo-mesomorphic). Both Apollonian and Herculean physiques can have outstanding aesthetics, but the look is very different. Nowadays, the Apollonian physique is generally considered more artistic or beautiful because of its lines and proportion, but if you look back at classic art you frequently find the Herculean physique to be the more admired.
Of course, the top pro bodybuilders nowadays are so massive and well developed that it’s sometimes hard to separate them into different body-type categories. But go to almost any amateur contest and the difference between the various body types will be much more apparent.
Really, though, no top bodybuilder can be too much an ectomorph or an endomorph. His body would lack proper proportion, symmetry, muscle mass, and definition. Remember, bodybuilding is not just about building muscle; it involves the maximum aesthetic development of muscle. Lifeguard-type physiques (lean and defined) can be very pleasing to look at, but lack the mass necessary to compete at the top levels in bodybuilding. Thick, massive, supermesomorphic bodies are great for weightlifters, shot-putters, and football linemen, but the aesthetics of this kind of physique don’t make it on the bodybuilding stage.
Understanding your own body type can save you a lot of time and frustration. An ectomorph who trains like an endomorph is likely to overtrain and not grow. The endomorph who thinks he is more mesomorphic will grow, but will always have trouble keeping his body fat down. Certain principles of training are the same for everybody. But how you organize your training and how you integrate it with diet and nutrition can be profoundly different depending on what kind of body type nature has given you.