An Analysis of Body Types in Weightlifting
In 1954 psychologist William Herbert Sheldon characterized all possible body types according to a three number scale that ranged from 1 to 7 for each of three somatotypes: endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph. A pure ectomorph would score 1–1–7. That is 1 for minimum endomorphy, 1 for minimum mesomorphy and 7 for maximum ectomorphy. Similarly the pure mesomorph was 1–7–1 and the pure endomorph was 7–1–1. Described briefly, the three body types cited were the thin (ectomorphs), the fat (endomorphs), and the muscular (mesomorphs).
Sheldon believed these physical characteristics also influenced personality. Sheldon over-stereotyped his three categories, to the extent that perhaps more people did not fit into them than did. I will not enter into that debate, but I will discuss how the categories affect weightlifting since this has fascinated weight people for decades.
Body morphology in weightlifting is very evident, and very important. Many beers are consumed debating the ideal lifting body type. Muscular is considered a given, but someone can always point out a muscle-less wonder who was a world-beater.
Many people think they can immediately categorize a body type. That guy is fat; therefore he is an endo. His friend is thin; he's ecto. Another is a bodybuilder; therefore he must be a mesomorph. Right? Is it all that simple? Not necessarily. As is often the case the pop culture gets these wrong. Often examples are mentioned. Our late friend Vasily Alexeev (in the video below) will be given as an example of endomorphism, based purely on his large belly. That belly actually was the result of a diet that tried to pack as much muscle as possible on his somewhat ectomorphic frame.
Yes, I said ectomorph. The young Vasily had the long limbs and narrow hips of the ectomorph. His training added a lot of muscle, but when the muscular gains came slower the fat cells came easier with those infamous huge meals. Even ectomorphs can get fat (“skinny fat” is the current gym parlance) if they over-eat and under exercise. Lots of couch potatoes are built this way. Any tall superheavies likely have some ecto characteristics. It helps to be tall to lift there and to have enough room to pack on the muscle. To be tall you have to have proportionately longer leg bones. Again, ecto. These lifters have to eat a lot to get their body composition into favourable amounts of muscularity. It is hard to gain and easy to lose in detraining. So, some meso is desirable as well.
Ectomorphs are mainly characterized by having long limbs and a short torso. These lifters have to eat a lot to get their body composition into favorable amounts of muscularity. It is hard to gain and easy to lose in detraining - the classic hard gainers. Few ectos are successful at the higher echelons of weightlifting. They hardly even exist in the lighter bodyweight categories. In powerlifting ectos have not often been stars at the total but some can specialize in the deadlift. There the long limbs and big hands can be used to advantage, but they will do so after falling way behind in the first two lifts.
But do not discourage your seemingly underweight novice trainees. One should be aware that those skinny kids are not necessarily ectomorphs. Many just need to hit the groceries and get under the squat rack to find their true selves.
Endomorphs are the opposite - short limbs and more normal length torsos, which will appear longer. Shoulder and hip width is greater than the others. It is the lighter categories where these will be found. They do tend to have to fight to keep the pounds off in their prime and often pack on some weight after the need for contest discipline ends. That is why you seldom see 56 or 62 kg athletes in the Masters. Even prime of life 69s and 77s are usually a bit short in the limb. As such, they are generally better at the jerk than the snatch. Endos, especially with training, can be as muscular as mesomorphs. Their limbs must do a lot more work just carrying them around.
Endos do appear more often in powerlifting since thick muscularity is even more important and bar speed is not so important. So men like Ed Coan can start in the 75s as fully grown adults and then continue to grow into 110s and be successful at all stages. This would be unlikely in Olympic lifting.
Finally, mesomorphs are intermediate in relative leg and trunk lengths, appearing “normal” and considered ideally proportioned in limb and girth. They tend to be of average height, around 5’9” (175 cm) in Caucasian and African populations, less in Asians. They indeed can become well muscled, but even they need to exercise or work to have this noticeable and to keep the fat off. These lifters will be found in the 85, 94, and 105 kg categories.
Body Type and Physics
This is all well and good when referring to “pure” endos, ectos, and mesos. But due to the unending intermarrying of body types, a pure example is seldom found. Many people have the characteristics of two different body types. I myself am a good example. At 5’9” I have large boned legs with muscle attachments that allowed me to do my first 400 lb squat after only about ten good workouts. But I had a 75-inch boxer’s reach on thinner-boned arms. My press never could keep up with my squat. And so it is with a lot of us. The 2012 Olympic champs in 85 and 94 were both 5’9” tall, well proportioned, and two to three inches taller than traditionally.
Those with long limbs have, in general, dealt with bad moments of force when lifting. If they can get the bar moving, though, they can build up greater bar speed at full extension, giving them more time in the third pull. Those with shorter limbs and more muscle are better leveraged to get the bar moving, but those shorter lengths usually mean less speed at full extension. That is why endos often appear to just get under their lifts, while ectos seem to have all day to dive into their squat.
In closing it is well to remember that these body type terms refer to proportionate body limb and trunk lengths, not the type of soft tissue one has. Fine, but why is all of this important? The anthropometric characteristics of athletes will determine their ideal positions in the start, squat, rack, and catch positions. If a coach gets these wrong and tries to get a lifter to start his pull all wrong for someone of his build he may be hurting his lifter’s chances for success.
It is up to us and our coaches to find the correct style for our body types. Fortunately, weightlifting is still small enough that some exceptions do appear and do well. And even more importantly, we should stop using our less than perfect body type as an excuse for failure.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.