Male body types can help hone what diet and exercise you need

There is no universal diet or exercise program.

strong man lifting weights
  • In the 1940s, William Herbert Sheldon, Jr. invented somatotypes to differentiate male bodies.
  • Understanding your physical composition can help you choose a workout plan and diet.
  • There is variation between heights and muscle composition, so fine-tuning is necessary.

Yesterday morning I was discussing body types with my workout partner. I mentioned what it would take for me to put on mass—quite a lot. At 6'3", I've weighed roughly 175 pounds for 25 years. In somatotype terminology, I'm a classic ectomorph: tall and ropey, with broad shoulders (fortunately) and thin legs (unfortunately). My friend is a standard mesomorph, so it's easier for him to put on mass, though a double-edge sword as that mass can go to his center if he's not mindful of his diet.

Psychologist William Herbert Sheldon, Jr. dreamed up somatotypes in the 1940s to differentiate male body types. He also stereotyped each somatotype with psychological qualities that didn't reflect reality in any way, making him a minor laughing stock on the psychology scene. Yet his body typing system remains influential, and for good reason: look around.

With so much emphasis on female bodies in the media, we sometimes forget that males have body issues too. Given the number of men I regularly see pulling up their shirts to stare at their abs in the gym, how they look is of utmost importance. And if they want to optimize their workout and diet, each one has to come to terms with their genetics.

Endomorphs are short and stocky, making it easy for them to put on muscle yet challenging to keep off fat. Mesomorphs are the average of averages, in the 5'9" to 6'0" range that can be bulkier or leaner. Finally, ectomorphs are the gangliest of the bunch, though, as with all types, categorization is not destiny; we can bulk up with some work or tone with plenty of lean muscle.

Within each type, Sheldon scored on a one-to-seven scale; it's quite possible to be short and thin (like many world-class marathon runners) or tall and bulky (NBA and NFL players). Understanding what you're best suited (or not suited) for helps you devise a plan of action.

Endomorphs

According to the trio at Bony to Beastly, short guys are built to throw weights around: lift them above your head, push them away from you, swing them in circles. Denser bone structure supports higher loads, as in bench pressing and squatting. By design, weights are to your advantage, with shorter lever lengths and explosive force coming from thicker musculature:

An endomorph's muscles respond well to lifting too. According to the research of Dr. Casey Butts, guys with thicker bones are able to build muscle far more easily than those with narrower bones, and ultimately become far more muscular.

By contrast, cardio is tougher; the added density creates more impact force when running. Of course, this would not affect them as much when cycling or swimming, and everyone needs to get their V02 max levels in order.

On the dietary front, BTB recommends foods rich in micronutrients while low in calories. Junk food is not your friend—but really, beyond occasional satiety, when is it?

Mesomorphs

Photo: Quino AI / Unsplash

Average height has advantages, such as a tendency to be constructed with leaner middles and better muscle composition. They're also more coordinated than guys shorter or taller then them. As can be expected, recommended workouts and diet is, well, average. You can pretty much go anywhere with it.

If they want to get leaner, they'll want to eat more like an endomorph, but may need to be more wary of losing muscle mass. If they want to get stronger, they'll want to eat more like an ectomorph, but may need to be more wary of gaining fat.

Common sense. They also recommend a 40-30-30 macronutrient guideline, which is the basis of The Zone diet, and where did Barry Sears get us? The problem with diets in general tend to be less on what food we're consuming and more on what time (and how often) we're eating. The median timeline for the majority of Americans is 14.75 hours, meaning they eat pretty much from waking to sleeping. That is not a good approach for any type. Of all the types, however, mesomorphs seem most flexible.

Ectomorphs

Apparently, however, the tallest among us have the least problems keeping weight off—though, as BTB notes, there are plenty of overweight taller people. They advocate for 50-60 percent of calories from carbs, though as I've written about extensively, lowering my carb intake cleared up many long-standing problems. I'm not a fan of gorging junk food, the following makes a bit of sense, given how many shorter people I've known that eat very little and still cannot lose weight:

Because of our smaller appetites, rampaging metabolisms, higher carb tolerance, and higher calorie tolerance, we don't need to focus as much on restricting junk food as the other body types. It helps to think about eating more good stuff, not less bad stuff. Otherwise, it's going to be too hard eat enough to grow bigger, stronger muscles and denser, sturdier bones.

Finally, workouts: big cardio fans they are. Again, you have to look big picture—longer lever lengths make joints less stable. I've torn my labrum a few times and have had one knee surgery thanks to running. I generally stick to cycling and HIIT now, along with rowing and the assault bike. Bulking up, well…

While our hearts are strong, our bones and muscles are not. While we can quite literally run a wildebeest into the ground, we may have quite a lot of trouble picking it up afterwards.

To be clear, strength is subjective as well. Are you strong enough to pick yourself up off the ground? Can you move objects pain-free? While a fan of throwing kettlebells around, we also need to stay focused on the goal: living a healthy life. Loading is essential for your bones and muscles, especially as you age, though it's not the final marker of health. How heavy isn't the real issue. Sometimes "some" is an appropriate response.

Yet being realistic is important. Goals are important, but if you're overly ambitious and unrealistic as to your type you're only going to be disappointed. Instead of focusing on what's not going to happen, start where you are and see what's possible. A good roadmap is handy, but it's never the territory.

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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