Perhaps you remember the terms for body types from high-school biology. These are from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Ectomorph. A human physical type (somatotype) tending toward linearity, as determined by the physique-classification system developed by the American psychologist W.H. Sheldon. Although classification by the Sheldon system is not absolute, a person is classed as an ectomorph if ectomorphy predominates over endomorphy and mesomorphy in his body build. The extreme ectomorph has a thin face with high forehead and receding chin; narrow chest and abdomen; a narrow heart; rather long, thin arms and legs; little body fat and little muscle; but a large skin surface and a large nervous system. If well fed, he does not gain weight easily; if he becomes fat, he is still considered an ectomorph, only overweight.
Endomorph. A human physical type (somatotype) tending toward roundness, as determined by the physique-classification system developed by American psychologist W.H. Sheldon. The extreme endomorph has a body as nearly globular as humanly possible; he has a round head, a large, round abdomen, large internal organs relative to his size, rather short arms and legs with fat upper arms and thighs, but slender wrists and ankles. Under normal conditions the endormorphic individual has a great deal of body fat, but he is not simply a fat person; if starved, he remains an endomorph, only thinner.
Mesomorph. A human physical type that is marked by greater than average muscular development, as determined by the physique-classification system developed by American psychologist W.H. Sheldon. Although the Sheldon system of classification does not make absolute distinctions between types, a person is classed as a mesomorph if mesomorphy predominates over endomorphy and ectomorphy in his body build. The extreme mesomorph has a square, massive head; broad, muscular chest and shoulders; a large heart; heavily muscled arms and legs; and minimal body fat. He tends to develop muscle easily.
These are not mutually-exclusive types. Most of us are a mix. I’m an ectomorph-endomorph. I have long arms and legs, but also tend to get fat in the middle … and I definitely have the slender wrists and ankles, despite being thick through the upper thighs and butt area.
Some really beefy guys are mesomorph-endomorphs. They’re very muscular and strong with the fast-twitch muscles and quick reflexes of a mesomorph, but also tend to get fat around the middle. Think offensive lineman.
It’s the mesomorph type I’ll be talking about here, so let’s look at another brief definition from an article in Men’s Fitness:
Mesomorphs look well built without setting foot in a gym, and pack on muscle the instant they pick up a dumbbell.
Mesomorphs look well built without setting foot in a gym … Yup. I’ve known people like that. In order to stay lean and muscular, all they really have to do is not screw up. But many mesomorphs do work out, because the results are so rewarding and impressive. The same article in Men’s Fitness mentioned a study of the effects of resistance training. Given the same workouts, the ectomorphs put on almost no muscle at all, while the mesomorphs made big gains in muscle size. It’s character vs. chemistry again – the chemistry in this case being genetics.
The Older Brother and I had a mutual friend in high school who was a perfect mesomorph. The guy had a small waist, wide shoulders, big muscles, chiseled abs and veins popping out all over the place. So what did he eat? Any damned thing he wanted to, including a lot of junk. And his exercise program? He didn’t have one. If he’d ever decided to take up weight-lifting, he would have looked like a Greek god in no time. I ran into him in a bar 20 years after high school (where yes, he was drinking beer) and he still had exactly the same build.
So here’s the point: a whole lot of people who consider themselves experts in exercise or nutrition because they look so darned good and are so darned athletic are mesomorphs. But what you’re seeing in their impressive-looking photos and videos is a genetic gift. If they don’t totally hose themselves with a crappy diet, they stay lean. If they work out at all, they put on muscle.
So when they point to their muscles and abs as proof of their superior knowledge about nutrition – or worse, point to an endomorph’s fatter build as proof that he can’t possibly know as much as they do – it’s bull@#$%. Period. (Given my last couple of posts, you can guess who inspired this post.) When I see a natural-born mesomorph posting a picture of his beautiful body as proof of his expertise in fitness and nutrition, I roll my eyes and think, “Well, that’s fabulous. Be sure to send your mom or dad a thank-you card for passing on those genes” — especially if the mesomorph has to puff out his belly to produce a “before” shot of himself looking kind of, sort of, maybe a little bit fat.
I’m not saying anyone who happens to be a mesomorph is disqualified from giving diet and exercise advice to those of us not so genetically gifted. Some really know their stuff. Mark Sisson is mostly a mesomorph (with a bit of ectomorph mixed in), and I’d certainly take his advice. But here’s the difference: Mark knows his ripped build is largely a genetic gift. He’s said several times that he was lean and muscular even when he was living on what he now knows was a garbage diet. He just wasn’t healthy on that diet.
It doesn’t prove anything if a particular diet or exercise program works well for a mesomorph, because pretty much everything that isn’t actually harmful works for them. Vegetarian diet, vegan diet, high-fat diet, low-fat diet, paleo diet, whatever … if these guys get adequate protein, work out now and then, and don’t fill up on junk foods that overcome their natural tendency to stay at a low level of body fat, they’re going to look great. Their impressive physiques don’t in any way prove they have the answers for the rest of us.
Let’s use academic achievement as an analogy. I wasn’t genetically blessed in the body-build department, but I was in the intelligence department. So was The Older Brother. We both breezed through school. Sure, we studied, but not as hard as some kids who were B or even C students.
I remember one of my roommates in college looking at the single spiral notebook I took to all my classes and saying, “That’s all the notes you take? How the heck are you getting A’s in everything? You hardly write anything down!”
“Uh, well,” I mumbled, “if the professor says something and it makes sense, I just remember it. I don’t really have to write much of it down.”
That’s a genetic gift. My dad was like that. He loved to read, and he could quote from books he’d read 10 years earlier. When the game Trivial Pursuit came around and we played as a family, he’d mop the floor with the rest of us. He’d read a ton of books in his lifetime and it seemed he hadn’t forgotten a word. So he’d finish in maybe 20 minutes, then the rest of us would pretend he’d never been a part of the game and play on.
The point is, I would never, ever point to what worked for me in college – just remember what the professor said! – as proof that it’s the best approach for everyone. I wouldn’t take a picture of my high-school report cards or the plaque I received when the professors in the communications department at my university named me the top senior in the department, put those pictures on a web site, and point to them as proof that I’m an expert in education or in how to get good grades.
I got those grades largely because I’m a “brain mesomorph,” so to speak. Brain mesomorphs can pick pretty much any method of studying and still do well, as long as they don’t do something to screw up that genetic gift – like, say, don’t study at all.
The Older Brother and I were both A students, but we approached schoolwork in totally different ways. I don’t like scampering to meet deadlines, so if I was assigned a term paper, I’d start weeks ahead of time and work on it a little bit every day. Sometimes I’d be finished days before turning it in. Then I’d get an A on the paper.
The Older Brother would wait until the day before the paper was due, then start writing. Sometimes he’d work all through the night and turn in the paper without having slept a wink. Then he’d get an A on the paper. Completely different approaches, same happy result.
Neither of us would ever be so foolish as to point to those papers and say, “Here’s proof of my expertise in how to get good grades.” And neither of us would be so foolish as to point to an average-IQ kid who worked his tail off to get a B in a tough class and say, “Well, I sure hope nobody listens to that kid if he offers advice on study habits. If he had any expertise in good study habits, his report card would look as good as mine.”
In fact, I’d consider that average-IQ kid who had to seriously apply himself to get all B’s the true expert on how to raise your grades. He actually had to overcome his lack of genetic gifts to reach that goal. That’s the kid I’d ask for advice on study habits if my kid wasn’t blessed with a high IQ and was struggling in school, not the high-IQ kid who barely has to study to get straight A’s.
So to paraphrase what I said at the end of my previous post, if you’re 100 pounds overweight, maybe the best weight-loss coach for you is someone who had to struggle to lose 100 pounds, even if he’s still built like an endomorph because (duh) he’s an endormorph. The mesomorph who’s never been fat a day in his life can’t relate to your struggle, and if he’s like some mesomorphs, he’ll mistake his genetics for proof of expertise.
And if he’s an a-hole of a mesomorph, he’ll consider you a failure unless you end up looking like him, even though you couldn’t possibly look like him unless you had his parents.
Knowledge can be passed from one person to another. Genetics can’t. Don’t mistake one for the other.