Digging Deeper into the Science of Somatotypes
In the first part of this series, I deconstructed the origin of somatotypes and revealed that, contrary to common belief, they are not supported by any sound science but rather the work of man, a psychologist by the name of William Sheldon.
One thing that was pointed out to me is that somatotypes have been used in various studies and so, by extension, they are, in fact, validated by science. Rather than argue or attack these individuals, I thought this would be a great opportunity to discuss the quandaries that I believe render somatotypes “unscientific” and why their usage in studies is inherently flawed. (To preface, I'm not attacking the studies themselves or the people who set up these experiments. I'm also not a scientist working in a laboratory setting, so I beg pardon if my definitions are in layman's terms, not textbook terms. I'm trying to explain this to as wide an audience as possible.)
To understand why somatotypes aren't scientific, one must be familiar with the scientific method.
In its most basic definition, the scientific method is an organized way of figuring something out. It’s a logical series of steps that are built upon each other to understand something. For a more formal definition though, the scientific method is the process by which scientists, collectively and over a period of time, undertake the formulation of a logical, reliable, and nonarbitrary understanding of the world. There is one very specific word that I'll focus on—“nonarbitrary,” meaning not subjective or personally influenced.
Expanding further, the process for the scientific method is as follows:
For something to be called a theory, it must be proven by repeated observations and testing in controlled experiments, often with many other supporting experiments. There must be a collective agreement that the body of evidence supports the hypothesis. Said simply, a theory is backed up at a lot of evidence.
So where does somatotyping stand in all this? According to the scientific method, the somatotyping system (as devised by Sheldon) does not stand up to the criteria and can't truly be called scientific at all.
My rationale for the above statement is as follows:
- Somatotyping relies upon subjective assessments of anatomy to infer subjective assessments of psychiatry. These assessments were never validated by any controlled experiments. They were purely the observations of Sheldon himself and his personal beliefs on body type for determining personality.
- Somatotyping's “origins” of numerical assessment are based on the highly arbitrary pseudoscience of racial eugenics and the belief that there is a master race.
- Despite the numerical grading system (which it gives the illusion of science by lying with fake statistics), there was never consensus within the scientific community on whether this system was accurate. In fact, it was largely criticized as being the opposite.
- Somatotyping in its present usage is for determining morphology regarding muscle building potential and athleticism. It was never intended to be used this way though, and even during Sheldon's lifetime, its repurposing for physical assessment and development was criticized by the scientific community
- Relative to how it's used today, somatotyping doesn't take into account training or training experience or even physical maturation
- Somatotyping was based off a very specific population of Caucasian, untrained males between the ages of 17 and 24 attending Ivy League universities. Sheldon also didn't like Jews and actually singles them out in his book The Atlas of Men. When its progenitor was a known racist, how does this make the system applicable to trained populations and different ethnicities?
- Somatotyping is gender specific (men only). Its creator never published a formal classification system for women, nor was it meant to be applied to them. Should somatotyping be used for assessing women then?
Somatotypes—broscience at its finest
At this point, I'll assume that I've invited a firestorm of criticism, but hear me out a bit. To an extent, I still think that somatotypes should be used. Why do I feel this way? Because bodybuilders and the fitness industry have used somatotypes for years and it would be ignorant to say that they don’t kinda sorta work.
Are there individuals with slower metabolisms who gain weight readily? Definitely! Are there guys who have to eat their faces off and train and train to build an ounce of muscle? Yep! Are there people who are predisposed to being big and strong? For sure!
At times, giving out recommendations based upon perceived somatotype can be pretty useful. I've trained endomorphs who did well on low carb diets. I've trained ectomorphs who needed an extraordinary number of calories, and I've had so called mesomorphics who put on muscle in a near linear fashion. But at the same time, there is so much variance in body type that the general scale of somatotyping really becomes nothing more than a very general guide. Does it really inform what kind of training is best for someone?
Anyone who’s been in the game long enough has likely come across some sort of “training for ectomorphs” article, which essentially says don’t go too heavy, eat lots of food, and let yourself grow, which really isn’t anything that unique. There are exceptions to every type though—the ripped bodybuilder who was a fat kid, the skinny guy who turned himself into a 242-pound lifter, and the super heavyweight lifter who dieted down and got into bodybuilding.
What’s the point to the somatotypes then? Is it really helping anyone’s training beyond the novice stage? I don’t expect somatotypes to go away overnight, nor do I really want them to. They definitely have their uses, and they provide some semblance of perspective when looking at one's physique.
At the same time, I don’t think they should be fully endorsed. Too often, I've seen somatotypes used as an excuse as to why someone can't progress. To be blunt, this is bullshit. Somatotypes are not science. They're an entirely subjective and biased system that just so happened to be generally accurate and became popular. Your muscle building potential, your body fat, your ability to get big and strong or lean and ripped or anywhere in between—that isn't limited by some predetermined classification at all.
More than anything else, I think somatotypes are useful for the most general of classifications for beginning trainees, not as a rationale to limit one's potential. Your somatotype isn’t even “real.” Don’t use somatotypes as an excuse to create a preconceived limit where there isn’t one.
I hope this article has been informative, and I welcome any dialogue on the subject from anyone. Live, learn, and pass on.