by Sarah Hughes
Last weekend I went to the football. Sunderland vs Cambridge in League One. Oh the glamour. Whilst watching the match I found I’d become fixated on the footballers thighs; and not in the way you might think.
These professional athletes all have access to the same training facilities. They’ll all work with the same nutritionists and coaches. They’ll likely spend similar amounts of times training in the gym and out on the pitch…yet they all looked completely different. Some were skinny and lean, looking like they’d never stepped foot in a gym, whereas some were built like powerlifters, with thighs that looked like they’d be more at home in a rugby game. You can’t change what Mother Nature gives you it seems… or can you?
It really made me think about the age-old question I’ve been asked so many times over the years as a personal trainer; “What type of exercise do I need to do to look like her?”
Her, being Sienna Miller/Beyonce/Jennifer Lopez et al. I always come back to the same answer; which is that you firstly have to assess and decide on your own body type, then look at what it is possible to achieve for that body type, and finally to do your homework on what the best exercises are for you specifically (not for Jenny from the Block).
I’ve been there myself before; fallen into the trap of thinking I can train myself to achieve a body like someone else. Back in the early noughties I read an interview with Sarah Jessica Parker. I adored her in Sex and the City (I mean, who didn’t?), the way her crazy outfits hung perfectly on her long, lean dancers frame as she wafted around New York being utterly fabulous. In the article she claimed that the only exercise she undertook was Pilates… and of course some pacy walks around NYC. I quickly decided that my then workout regime of running and kickboxing was doing me no good and I had to adopt SJP’s approach. Sadly I hadn’t taken into account that SJP is one of those naturally slim, lean women. She could’ve ditched her walks and her Pilates completely and probably not looked much different… all that happened to me was some inevitable weight gain due to my body type requiring that cardio-kick-up the-bum.
Finding your body type (the scientific bods call it the somatype) is going to save you so much time in the gym I promise, it’ll help you drop the exercises which aren’t optimal for the results you want, and focus on the moves which will be more effective. Getting into a rut of habitual exercise is a common mistake. When you’re spending hours slogging away but seeing very little change physically, it can be demotivating and depressing. But it’s a mistake which can be easily rectified once you identify your somatype.
A quick caveat before we look further into the best exercise regimes for different somatypes: Remember that you cannot out-train a bad diet. The fact of the matter is our body size will be largely defined by what we eat, while our body shape can be manipulated by how we train. So we can study the best training methods for us personally forever and a day, but if we then overconsume (or underconsume in some cases) calories, it will be far harder to achieve our desired results.
So how do we correctly identify our body type?
Most of us tend to be hyper-critical of ourselves when it comes to our physicality don’t we? Years of failed diets and general body-image insecurity stops us seeing ourselves honestly or objectively. Especially in a world where the media has left us with a pretty warped perception of what slim, muscular or curvy actually looks like. I’ve written a guide below to help give a general idea, but you might also want to take a body type quiz to help you hone it down further and prevent you misclassifying yourself.
Can you spot which you are?
Ectomorph Thin, long, and with very little excess fat. You have a smaller bone structure with shoulders that tend to be narrower than your hips. Over the years, you may also notice you have trouble gaining or maintaining weight, despite eating pretty much whatever you fancy!
Mesomorph You’re more muscular, with an hourglass figure and medium frame.
Endomorph You tend to have higher body fat and struggle to lose weight. You may carry weight in your belly, hips, and thighs and have to be more careful with your calorie intake than other body types.
Another caveat: Most of us, thanks to less-than-healthy diets, busy work schedules and lack of activity, are far more likely to have become a combination, rather than one definite body type. If you identify as one of these hybrid body types, you’ll need to consider training methods which will utilise your strengths and challenge your weaknesses… which is more fun than it sounds I promise!
Ecto-Mesomorphs This body type is lean and muscular, often with a small, compact frame.
Meso-Endomorphs This person is strong but the muscles aren’t well defined. In a recent study this came out as the most common body type for UK adults.
Ecto-Endomorphs This describes a person who is naturally thin but is carrying excess body weight. It often happens to ectomorphs as they age, become more sedentary or have a poor diet.
It’s important to remember that whilst we can’t fight our genetics, our body type isn’t set in stone. It can change as you become older or suddenly become more sedentary due to illness or injury. Wherever possible, try and stay regularly active to make the most of your genetic somatype.
Ok - let’s get to the nitty gritty… Training tips for each body type
Ectomorph - Lots of endomorphs really excel at endurance sports and may find that distance running in particular is enjoyable, since there isn’t much weight to lug around the pavements. However if an ectomorph wants to create a defined look, it’s important not to rely just on steady state cardio. A thrice-weekly weight training regime will not only build muscle but help prevent injuries.
Ectomorphs should look at using compound moves such as squats and lunges with barbells, deadliftsand shoulder presses with weights. Don’t be afraid to lift heavy weights; as women it’s hard to build huge muscle mass due to a lack of testosterone… and for ectomorph women it;s even harder, so I promise you won’t end up looking like an Olympic powerlifter.
In addition to this strength training, throwing in a weekly HIIT session is a great way to increase anaerobic fitness and add an extra challenge to your routine.
Mesomorph - Being more muscular, exercise which involves explosive power comes easier to you. So HIIT sessions and sports which require sprints and jumping (think football, netball, hockey) will probably be enjoyable.
Mesomorphs have fewer slow twitch muscles fibres than their ectomorph friends. This means you have less endurance and can plateau quite quickly in terms of your fitness. It’s therefore important to keep switching your workout regime up every couple of months. Keep your body on it’s toes!
You’re lucky that you don’t have to focus too much on weight loss so you can afford to do a real mixture of high and low intensity workouts to avoid plateauing. Think power-walks, strength training, kickboxing, Pilates, Barre… your options are endless.
Endomorph - If you know you have excess weight to lose, it’s a great idea to focus on your cardiovascular fitness first. So power-walking, jogging, spin cycling, rowing or swimming will be great core pillars of your workout program.
Set yourself targets to keep motivated. Can you shave a few seconds off your 3k run? Can you swim an extra couple of lengths each session?
When you’re feeling fitter, it’s a great idea to add some HIIT sessions in… they don’t need to be scary! Three fifteen minute low impact HIIT workouts each week will still give you huge gains in terms of your fitness and weight management.
Finally, add in some strength training a few times per week. Endomorphs benefit from exercising large muscle groups one at a time, so think a leg and glutes set one day, chest and back another day, and an upper body biceps/triceps/shoulders another day. If you’re not sure which exercises to do or how to perform them, it’s a great investment to book a couple of sessions with a PT who can give you a program which will suit you.
Most importantly, whatever body type you are, invest some time in finding which workouts really make you feel great. I promise there’s something out there for everyone and you’ll be far more likely to keep training regularly if it’s enjoyable. No good ever came from forcing yourself to run if you really hate it, or doing hot yoga if it makes you feel sick! Be fearless, try out lots of different things and aim to assemble a program which over time makes your mind happy and your body strong.