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How is your athletic performance determined by your body (Somatotype)?

We all understand the stereotypes - the rugby player built like the Incredible Hulk, the sprinter with legs like a gazelle and the tennis player with arms all over the place. But how much does our body type really affect our athletic performance? Can we change our bodies in order to excel at a particular sport? Or should we stick to the activities we naturally find easy?

Somatotypes

Let's start with the technicalities. There are said to be three body types or somatotypes. Scientists have developed terminology to differentiate these.

Image of a human skeleton top down showing the muscles, veins and nerves

The Endomorph

The endomorph has short limbs, a large central body mass, and is pear shaped with wide hips and shoulders. Their large mass means they generally struggle with any sport which requires agility or speed, such as gymnastics or running. However, their bulk means they excel at strength exercises and make excellent weight lifters. Their sheer size and brute force also ideally suits them for rugby, where being a man mountain pays off. Endomorphs are also said to be good at sports like rowing, which require a combination of strength, endurance and lung capacity. However, endomorphs have to work hard at their training, because although they gain muscle and bulk up faster than other body types, they also lose condition very quickly. We have all seen the bodybuilders who have lost interest in training and "gone to fat".

The Mesomorph

The second body type is the mesomorph. The mesomorph looks a bit like Superman. He has a square head and a muscular, triangular shaped body with narrow hips that look like they should be sporting a pair of superhero underpants. He has broad shoulders and thighs, and is characterised by lots of muscle mass and not much fat. He is made to excel at pretty much any sport he cares to try. His high muscle mass means he is strong enough to power lift, yet his medium height means he is agile and speedy, so he is just as happy buzzing about the football pitch or launching himself off a diving board. Mesomorphs find it relatively easy to gain or lose weight, and are light enough to find cardio activity achievable.

The Ectomorph

The third type is the ectomorph. Lean - skinny, even - without much in the way of muscle, the ectomorph is the epitome of the weedy guy. However, don't underestimate him, because he and his female counterparts can do things that the other types can't. Their light frame means they can excel at gymnastics, ice skating and dance. Their small body surface area and better ability to thermally regulate suits them perfectly for endurance sports like long distance running. However, although they exude this type of stamina, they can sustain injuries if they attempt to lift too many weights, and their tendency to become extremely thin can be damaging, especially for young women. Ballet dancers are usually ectomorphs, and stories abound about the long term effects some dancers have suffered from being underweight and malnourished.

The science behind somatotype and sports

So much for the technicalities.

Of course, none of us fit neatly into the mould of any one particular body type. Instead, we are a combination of them all. Scoring systems have been developed by researchers such as WH Sheldon, who have suggested that everyone can be given a score out of 7 for each somatotype. Different sports will ideally require different combinations of scores from their "perfect" players. A power lifter, for example, might be 751. 7 for high endomorphy, 5 for average mesomorphy and 1 for low endomorphy.

This is a good system, whereby researchers can determine which body types predispose individuals to excel at certain sports. Gymnasts, for example, are usually something like 157 to reflect their low body fat, average muscle mass and slight build.

Footballer profiles

Scientists love numbers but in reality these things are perhaps not so simple. Football (soccer) players are a motley bunch. It is actually very hard to generalise about the body type that characterises football players. Lionel Messi is just 5"7. Michael Owen was only 5"8. Both are mesomorphic. Goalies, however, tend to tower over six feet, with a balance of endomorphic bulk, mesomorphic muscle and ectomorphic height.

In his book "The Global Art of Soccer", Richard Witzig has pointed out that great footballers have ranged from tiny and 5’6” to 6’2” and blocking out the sun. This range of physiques encompasses 95% of the adult male population, which means that football is comparatively egalitarian in terms of its somatotypical reach. Other sports such as American football and basketball demand physical standards that exclude all but 10%. Perhaps this inclusiveness explains the enduring popularity of football?

Interesting Fact: Lionel Messi was once told he was too small to play football because he was 5’6” (1.7 meters). Imagine what the beautiful game would have lost without him on the world’s stage.

Rugby player profiles

The stereotype of the rugby player is also a generalisation. If you actually look at the lineup of a rugby team, you will see various physical types, and most people would argue that different physiques are suited to different positions in the game.

So weight wise, you may find a prop who is twice the weight of a scrum half, who has to be agile and speedy as well as strong. The second row tend to be more endomorphic, as their sheer bulk is vital to their role. If you play a number 1 or a number 3, the chances are you will be the heaviest on the team. Your power and strength are akin to that of a rhino, and you are the rock on which the team is built. Locks are usually built differently in physical form to the rest of the scrum, as they need to combine power and stability with height - they are the ones that perform the vertical jump in lineouts.

Flanks tend to be smaller, faster and more mobile, due to the fact that they have to defend the scrum. The eighth man has to combine the bulk of a prop with the speed of a flanker, and is often likened to a bull mastiff. A scrum half needs to be tough, small and fast, able to manage the scrum, take hits and manoeuvre round the opposition. On the other hand, the flyhalf and the wing tend to be more like sprinters in build, but have more upper body strength.

As you can see, there are actually a wide range of different physical types within a rugby team, just as there are on a football squad. The idea that you can change your basic body type is foolish. However, even within a single sport like football or rugby, you can find the best position for your physique, stick to it, and train accordingly.

For example, if you have elements of endomorphic bulk, mesomorphic muscle power and ectomorphic height, you may find yourself suitable to be a rugby lock. You will need to work on your strength and power training, for example, by performing tractor tyre drags with your teammates. You will also need to perfect your vertical jump, as this is your starring role in the game. Rugby players practice their vertical jumps by jumping up onto boxes of varying heights for increasing numbers of repetitions.

How different somatotypes should train

Although it is impossible to change the body type you were born with completely, you can make the most of what you have got. No matter what body type athletes possess, they are always at the peak of their physical fitness.

Ectomorph individuals usually find it hard to build strength and muscle. Bodybuilders and power lifters are often natural ectomorphs, drawn to weight lifting out of a desire to appear less puny. Through sheer willpower and determination, however, they manage to transform their natural skin and bone into a mass of muscle. They do this by training extremely heavily, with more rest breaks than usual and greater emphasis upon compound lifts. They are also advised to stick to around 5-10 reps for each exercise. Ectomorphs will do well to avoid cardio, as it will just cause them to lose weight and therefore fail to pack on muscle.

Image showing the back of a group of people on a treadmill

Endomorphs are at the opposite end of the scale. If you are on this part of the body type spectrum, the cross trainer is your best friend. Personal trainers recommend that endomorphs do cardio exercise as much as possible, in order to keep their weight down.

The natural mesomorph is, of course, physically gifted, naturally possessing the kind of body that others aspire to. Mesomorphs can use their naturally athletic bodies to their advantage, exercising in whichever ways they enjoy. However, although most mesomorphs don't gain weight easily, they cannot be lackadaisical and they do need to exercise several times a week in order to maintain their best physique.

Whether an athlete is a tennis player, rower, rugby player or gymnast, their body type will largely influence their sphere of excellence. However, what all athletes have in common is that they make their bodies work for them by following the training regimes most suited to their body types and the specific needs of their chosen sport or position.

Can you change your Somatotype?

The simple answer to this is no.

It’s impossible to change your height (though in extreme cases people have embarked on surgery to achieve this).

There are however a number of factors which can influence your athletic performance, over and above your somatotype:

Diet: This is obviously important as if the world’s strongest man decided to stop exercising and take up burger eating as a hobby then the effect would be quite dramatic. Even when exercising your diet plays a fundamental role in your athletic performance as there is a direct correlation between the energy you have and the food you eat.

Genetics: Your genes define who you are extensive research has been undertaken throughout the years to understand what characteristics are passed on and why.

Alcohol: Like your diet, the amount of alcohol you consume will have an impact on your athletic performance. The main negatives are an effect on protein synthesis, a lowering of testosterone levels and reduces your energy levels (as well as making you dehydrated).

Weight Loss: Simply put, if you lose weight then you are carry less weight when you’re running which makes it easier. A leaner physique can not only offer additional health benefits but help to keep you fitter on the move.

Exercise: whilst there are those people are naturally have the perfect body, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone and you have to work hard for it. Even modern day professional athletes had to start somewhere and will have embarked on years on continuous training to get to where they are now.