There isn’t any real “science” to  somatotypes. That’s the fallacy.

Before I go any further, let me preface this article with the statement that I am not critiquing bodybuilding or anyone else in the fitness community for being dumb. I'm not discounting that the idea of somatotypes is useful, and I am NOT suggesting everyone abandon them outrightly. I, as much as anyone else, had always believed somatotypes were grounded in some type of sound evidence, and I didn’t question them. Anyone that gets into bodybuilding is familiar with the classification of ectomorphs, mesomorphs, and endomorphs. Within bodybuilding, we've all heard the same statements:

  • “I'm an ectomorph; I've always had trouble building muscle.”
  • “Look at him! He's clearly an endomorph. No wonder he gains fat so easily.”
  • “The top bodybuilders are probably extreme mesomorphs. They’d build muscle by just looking at weights.”

My original intentions with this article were to genuinely find the “science” of somatotypes, and give everyone a historical look at their origin. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I couldn’t find ANYTHING. The origins of somatotypes were even more surprising than the lack of real evidence for them.

The Origins of Somatotypes

The term itself is the creation of one man, a psychologist and doctor by the name of William Herbert Sheldon. Sheldon was born in 1898 in Rhode Island, and came from a very educated family. The fast track through his life is this:
he was a very educated man, earned his bachelors at Brown University, his Masters at University of Colorado, and his PhD in 1925. He also served as an officer in the Medical Corps in WWII. Beginning in 1938, he taught at Harvard University, before later moving on to Columbia University in 1947.

Somatotyping was based on Sheldons study of “nude postural photos” that were taken at Ivy League schools from the 1890s to the late 1960s. The somatotyping system was heavily influenced by his studies and exposure to anthropometry and the belief that body type could be used as part of a holistic and integrated system of physical, mental, and spiritual health. As such, the “nude posture photos” were largely the basis of his research. And this is where things get somewhat weird, as I need to explain what the “nude posture photos” were.

Beginning as far back the 1890s and continuing until the 1960s, Ivy League universities began a practice of taking full length side, front, and back view nude photographs of all incoming freshmen, both male and female. These were called “posture” photos and the practice was very widespread, with tens of thousands of photographs being taken over a roughly 70 year period. Why was this done? Because in the late 1800s, bad posture and being physically weak were seen as unfortunate side effects of an increasingly industrialized society, and unlike today, there was a push in education to address the problem. Subsequently the science of “anthropometry” became very popular. Anthropometry was a system of assessing numerous body measurements as indicators of not only health, but also intellect and elements of character.

There was also somewhat of a sinister and racial intention. Prior to WWII and the rise of Nazi Germany, the school of thought known as “eugenics” was very popular within higher education of the United States and other Western European countries. To avoid a long history lesson, eugenics is, in essence, the idea that people with “good genetics” should procreate with each other, and people with bad genetics shouldn’t procreate at all. Anthropometry was subsequently tied in with this. The idea was that you could “measure” racial purity in people. The scale of this goes beyond this article, but anyone interested in this I encourage to look it up, or contact me if you want recommendations on reading.

john meadows somatype alexander cortes 051914

Sheldon himself was highly influenced by aspects of eugenics, and he coined the term “physique is destiny,” strongly believing that body shape and proportion determined human development. His motivation for his somatyping was driven by the belief that modern medicine had allowed people of poor genetics to reproduce and dilute the genetic pool of society, and his work would be a synthesis and guiding light to correct this course. Needless to say, much of this was racially motivated, and he was known throughout his career for being explicitly racist. From that perspective, his rationale for his work was highly similar to the Nazi school of thought concerning racial purity, though they took it to a far more extreme level.

Endo, Meso, Ecto

Sheldon began synthesizing his somatotyping system in the 1930s, and this is where the terms ecto, meso, and endo first entered the public conscious. Prior to WWII, eugenics was a popular topic, and Sheldon was something of a pop culture academic celebrity. His research and views were especially popularized by Aldous Huxley, being published in magazines such as Life, Time, and even women's magazines, where there were quizzes asking “What morph of man is your husband?"

Before Sheldon published his magnum opus, Atlas of Men, in 1954, he published many other books as well, all discussing various aspects of his somatotyping philosophy. Sheldons theories were very popular within the fledgling exercise science realm, and they were disseminated and taught as part of these programs starting in the 1940s.

david allen somatyping alexander cortes 051914

While Sheldon enjoyed immense popularity during this time, he also was a divisive figure. Never being one for formal research, there was always an undercurrent of criticism that his somatotyping system was not supported by sound science. His racist personal views also did not help him, and he was known for being extremely difficult to get along with. He also was often at odds with the biological science community. Sheldon's dominating belief was that body type determined life trajectory in almost every aspect, but he believed  somatotypes to be largely unchangeable. This ironically ran counter to many other people in his field, who had the differing opinion that proper diet and training could change one’s somatotypes over time.

Regardless, Sheldon's work had a powerful effect on the societal lexicon of health, and his greatest legacy is inarguably the ecto, meso, and endo terminology.

In 1954, Sheldon published the culmination of his research, “The Atlas of Men.” This book contained hundreds of photographs of nude men with their faces and genitals whited out, along with a long formal definition of Sheldon's ecto, meso, and endo scale.

Of note is that this scale was NOT intended to denote musclebuilding or athletic potential like it is today, but instead was consider, by Sheldon, a way to make accurate psychological inferences on a person's character and behavior, based entirely on body proportions. Strength, size, and musclebuilding are things that nascent exercise science and (later) the body building community attached to the somatotyping system. In its original form, its focus was psychological and not physical attributes.

alexander cortes somatyping 051914

Within Sheldons framework, each individual man (Sheldon never fully developed a scale for women, believing them to be inferior in their mental and physical qualities) possessed varying levels of endo, meso, and ecto attributes. Endo, meso, and ecto were also divided into that order as well, reflecting the different layers of the human embryo.

Each of the three categories could be numerically graded 1-7, and a “pure” endo/meso/ecto would rated as a seven in one category, but a one in the other two. For example, a “pure” mesomorph would be ranked as 1-7-1. A pure endomorph a 7-1-1, and pure ectomorph a 1-1-7. It was Sheldon’s opinion that pure examples of each were extremely uncommon, numbered at less than one in ten thousand. Most people were in fact mixes of all three types, with 4-4-3 being the most common.

Endo, Meso, Ecto, and Musclebuilding

So what does all this mean for bodybuilding? And why does the entire fitness industry at large still use this scale? Should we continue to use it? And why does no one know about somatotyping’s origins? I will address each of these in Part II.