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The Enigma of the Ectomorph

Somatotyping is a system of classifying human physical types and body shape. Developed by American psychologist William Sheldon and revealed in his book The Atlas of Man, human beings are categorized by a natural, genetically predetermined body build, appearance and temperament.

Sheldon wanted to help resolve the age-old question of whether our body type was connected with the way we acted. By exploring the link between body and temperament, and interviewing hundreds of people, he searched for clues and tried to find traits which could describe the basic elements of their behavior. He found there were three basic components of body type that stood out which he called endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph.

According to Sheldon, everyone has all three elements in their bodily makeup, just as we all have digestive, circulatory and nervous systems. Each person has components and characteristics of an endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph, but we have these components in varying degrees. Sheldon evaluated the degree a component was present on a scale ranging from one to seven, with one as the minimum and seven as the maximum.

We all have the makings of each bodytype but in general, certain characteristics of our genetic size, cellular make-up and body shape tend to dominate, thus creating a visual contrast controlled by unique biochemical, thermogenic, enzymatic, neurological and hormonal release/sequence patterns.

In essence, the endomorph is round, corpulent and pear-shaped. Arms are shorter and legs have large bones. The mesomorph is broad-shouldered, thick-chested, narrow wasted, lean and muscular. The ectomorph is slim and linear, and small-boned with long arms and a thin neck.

Most of the North American population by nature display endomorphic characteristics, thus explaining (in part) the widespread incidence of obesity. Endomorphs love carbohydrates and are ruled by emotions connected to the pleasure and opiate-like sensation of eating sugar and starch. The 'monkey on their back' enjoys tempting them incessantly with mental images and signals borrowed from memory chips in the brain that stir attraction to smooth, chewy, crunchy foods loaded with sugar and fat. Work, sleep and fitness only serve as temporary distractions from their constant craving.

Then there's the Ectomorph. We all know them – the people who can't gain weight no matter how much food they eat. In fact, they're often mentioned in conversation as a phenomenon, because it's a spectacle to watch someone gulp down food endlessly without 'packing it on' or showing any outward physical evidence of the feat.

Ectomorphs are slender, lean and long, and secretly many endomorphs hate them for it. They tend to miss meals, stop eating under stress and very seldom do they have a sweet tooth.

Their 'monkey' plays with their mind and says things like, "You’re so skinny you look like a toothpick" or "You're less of a man or woman - literally" the ultimate effect of which often works to lower their self-esteem. An Ectomorph with a concave chest can be just as terrified, sensitive or shy about revealing their physique at a public swimming pool as an endomorph who shudders at the thought of someone catching a glimpse of their ‘rear end reality' or 'cottage cheese' thighs.

For the true ectomorph or hard gainer, the two most important limiting factors that prevent normal weight gain and muscular development are metabolism and appetite. Metabolic rate is governed by genetics, but through training, science and nutrition, it is possible to calm things down in the same way we can speed things up for the endomorph. Food must be consumed according to the clock, not according to how you feel. Training is not an option. The entire process must be treated like a business enterprise, to be successful, you do what must be done whether you like it or not.

Hard gainers actually waste a significant amount of energy from food thermogenically through a process called ‘futile cycling’. Calories are literally wasted in the form of heat by uncoupling them before they are converted into usable energy and then converted into matter.

Demand for energy is high due to basal metabolic demands, so high in fact, that hardgainers seldom experience the satisfaction of building larger muscles as a consequence of training. A poor appetite doesn't help matters. The appestat is a mechanism in the brain that dictates the amount of food consumed before feelings of satiety arrive. As we know, everyone's appetite varies, and the appetite and minor emphasis on food observed in the ectomorphic model doesn’t make the objective of gaining lean mass any easier. You can’t build something out of nothing.

The physiological characteristics unique to the ectomorph somatotype are fascinating. This body type typically cannot gain weight no matter how much food they eat or how hard they train. Over time, after spending months in the gym and training (often incorrectly), the accretion of mass is viewed as an impossible task, a fleeting fancy. The metabolic rate of an ectomorph is driven by the chemistry of the brain and uncoupling proteins (UCPs) that allow energy to escape through proton channels in the inner mitochondrial membrane of cells.

A single, exact mechanism that describes the relationship between the effects and production of excitatory neurotransmitters, neural inhibitors, uncoupling proteins and appestat function in humans is yet to be revealed. However, individuals who cannot gain weight and struggle to hold on to what they have when exposed to physical or mental stress, display anorexic behavior patterns regarding the consumption of food. This behavior provides clues as to why. Certainly, UCPs, the brain and nervous system are behind the biochemical throttle responsible for revving up the metabolic rate into a catabolic state. Hard gainers tend to put a low to nil priority on food, convert a higher percentage of food matter into heat and are often sinewy and wiry in appearance. They are sometimes viewed as 'nervous' or hyper people that fidget constantly.

We should keep in mind that an underweight condition can negatively affect human performance and often lowers self-esteem. Thin, wiry individuals with a linear appearance that reveals no bulges along the frame possess many Type A personality traits. They often suffer from anxiety and nervous system-related problems and are prone to neurological trauma.

So, how can a hard-gainer increase his or her lean body mass? Listed below are some of the major points I’ve discovered to be essential, and in private consultation with clients, each one is discussed and explored in great detail.

• Increase food intake systematically: supply the demand
• Learn how to sedate the mind & nervous system
• Create a growth impulse through progressive resistance-training: train like a powerlifter/bodybuilder
• Modify aerobic activity and minimize unnecessary fuel expenditure
• Reduce or eliminate intake of empty carbohydrates & chemically damaged fats
• Consume slow-burning, low-glycemic energy dense fuel
• Maintain a positive nitrogen balance: consume 2-3 g of high-quality protein per kilogram of lean body mass daily in 6 individual portions
• Decrease catabolism and thermogenesis with supplements: lecithin granules, calcium, magnesium, niacin, B-complex, inositol, melatonin, GABA, glycine, 5-HTP, tryptophan, acetyl-L-carnitine, HMB, CLA, vitamin C, gingko biloba and phosphatidylserine.
• Stimulate the appetite (weight-lifting, B12 & zinc)
• Improve sleep habits (power naps & evening calcium loading)
• Avoid stimulants (ephedrine, caffeine, tobacco)
• Consume liberal amounts of clean fats & oils.

The answer to part of the ectomorphic challenge lies in the amount and quality of carbs, fats and proteins (macronutrients) consumed daily. Correct training is paramount. Attitude is huge. The ectomorph must be realistic, consistent, and above all PATIENT. The motto is "I will persist until I succeed". If the ectomorphic athlete can take in sufficient calories, modify catabolism, sedate body chemistry, stimulate growth, conserve energy and efficiently convert energy from food into living tissue, quality muscle mass will be gained along with essential structural bodyfat.