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Ectomorphs stay lean despite hours in the gym, endomorphs struggle to shift their gut and mesomorphs pack on muscle with ease. Learning which one you are will help you train smarter to maximise your potential.
The idea that human body types are genetically pre-set is nothing new. Plato mentions it in The Republic, which was written around 380BC, and 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to the idea in The Antichrist years before the American psychologist William Sheldon popularised three broad ‘categories’ of body in the 1940s.
Since Sheldon’s conclusions were published it has become widely recognised that most people have a body type. These are:
Over the past decade, science has discovered more about the genetics that go into making you the shape you are – and what you can do about it. Read on to discover how you can get results, whatever your genes.
Ectomorphs are good at processing carbohydrates into energy and your fast metabolism means that you burn off fat easily. The downside is that you struggle to bulk up because your fast-twitch fibres are underdeveloped. To become more muscular, you need to keep cardio sessions to a minimum and focus on intense workouts using compound exercises to maximise growth hormone release. You’ll also need to take on about 3,000 calories a day including plenty of starchy carbs and whey protein, possibly from a supplement.
You’ve got the build of a marathon runner – lean, but short on muscle. It can be hard to pack on size despite hours in the gym.
It’s all to do with satellite cell-mediated myonuclear addition – or, in layman’s terms, the number of cells surrounding your muscle fibres and your ability to add more by training. In one study of 66 people, the top 17 “responders” experienced a 58% gain in muscle cross-sectional area, while the bottom 17 gained nothing. Unfortunately for ectomorphs, they tend to be the worst “responders”.
Three days of strength training should be coupled with two days of low-intensity cardio. Effective abs exercises include the captain’s chair, the bicycle crunch and abs crunches while sat on an exercise ball. First, ditch the treadmill. “Ectomorphs often gravitate to long, slow distance work, but it’s the worst thing they can do,” says trainer Will Purdue.
And it may be tempting to pack your routine with classic bodybuilder moves such as the biceps curl, but that’s another mistake, says Purdue. “I often see ectomorphs focusing on isolation moves, whereas big, compound movements such as the squat will involve more muscles and give you the hormonal boost that helps build muscle. I still use isolation moves, but they’re supplementary to the main workout moves – 80% of moves should be working big muscle groups.”
“Compound movements, sets in the eight-to-12 rep range and quite a lot of volume are what you’re looking for,” says Purdue. “So a system such as German Volume Training is ideal.” Popularised by muscle expert Charles Poliquin, GVT prescribes ten sets of ten reps in key moves such as the bench or squat.
And there’s no need to live in the gym to put on muscle – quite the contrary, in fact. “If you’re working out four, five days a week you’ll be speeding up your metabolism too much,” says trainer Hughes. “I tend to limit my ectomorphs to three workouts a week, keeping the actual training time after a warm-up to 45 minutes or less.”
In terms of nutrition, a diet that is high in calories, carbs, protein and fat will aid you in your quest for muscle gain. This should not be mistaken for eating precisely what you like. Rather, it just means you should eat more of what is healthy. Good news: you don’t have to steer clear of carbs such as oats, wholemeal bread and potatoes. Fats found in nuts, seeds and avocado will also bring about the right results. “Ectomorphs should respond well to carbs, which will spike blood sugar and help to drive protein to their muscles,” says trainer Mark Hughes. “Stick to the complex kind, such as sweet potatoes and brown rice.” Aim for 2g per kilo of bodyweight per day of protein minimum, but be wary of overdoing it.
Ectomorphs who are sub-15% body fat should aim for 8g carbs, 4.3g protein and 1g fat per kg of bodyweight on training days. On rest days reduce the carbs to 7g. A high carb diet will spike blood sugar, helping drive protein to your muscles without elevating insulin resistance.
“It’s important for ectomorphs to use supplements properly,” says Hughes. “I’d advise a carb/protein shake to drink before and during your workout, and either another one or a good meal afterwards.”
The deadlift is your best friend: people with long arms should find it relatively easy, and it uses the entire body so it’ll pack on mass. Although squats and benching will do wonders for your physique, taller ectomorphs might find them difficult. “Your longer levers might give you trouble getting below parallel in the squat,” says Purdue. “That’s when I recommend the leg press.”