Body type training – are we slaves to our ‘body type’ genes?

Body type training – are we slaves to our ‘body type’ genes?

Article at a glance:
  • The classification of body types is made;
  • The relationship between body types, sports suitability and sports performance is identified;
  • Other factors influencing sports performance from a physiological perspective are presented.

The human body comes in a huge array of different shapes and sizes, but should your natural body type dictate the sport you choose or the way you train? John Shepherd looks at the evidence and in particular whether it’s nature or nurture that really counts

In a particular sport or event within a sport, the participants will often share a similar body shape. For example, male sprinters tend to be relatively tall and be proportionately muscled, whilst female gymnasts tend to be relatively slight with very low body fat and shot-putters relatively round with more body fat and large muscles. These sports’ body shapes quite closely reflect the three derivative ‘somatotypes’ (body type classifications). The sprinter fits the typical mesomorph body type, the gymnast the ectomorph, and the shot-putter the endomorph. In this article, we’ll consider the relationship between body types, sports performance and training response.

Somatotypes, body classification and ‘typical’ training response

As indicated there are three main body types or somatotypes: endomorphs, mesomorphs and ectomorphs. This basic classification derives from the work of the psychologist William Sheldon in the mid 20th century. In everyday terms these types can be described as ‘fat’, ‘athletic’ and ‘thin’ (see figure 1). Sheldon believed that each somatotype had distinct physiological (and psychological) traits.

 

Figure 1: Sheldon’s three main somatotypes

Figure 1: Sheldon’s three main somatotypes

Although his work is perhaps overstated it provides a useful starting point for the analysis of male and female body types. This is because it’s possible to identify the ways that these types will typically respond physiologically to training and the way they are represented across various sports.

Most athletes (and non-athletes) are actually an amalgamation of the three main body types and there is a further level of somatotype classification that describes a body type in terms of ‘parts’ of the three. This is known as ‘dominant somatotype’. Sheldon identified ‘seven parts’, 1-7 for each somatotype, with 1 being the minimum and 7 the maximum number of parts attributable to that somatotype. For example, 2-6-3 indicates low endomorphy, high mesomorphy and low ectomorphy (note variations to this system exist which use decimal points). The panels on this page describe the three main body types more fully.

The influence of body type on sports selection

Athletes often seem to fit a blueprint for their sport and numerous research findings appear to confirm what common sense suggests. Greek researchers looked at the somatotypes (as well as body composition and anthropometric measurements) of 518 elite Greek basketball, volleyball and handball players(1). The team discovered that the volleyball players were the tallest and had the lowest levels of body fat. Their somatotype was characterised as ‘balanced endomorph’ (3.4-2.7-2.9). Basketball players were taller and leaner than handball players. The former were profiled as mesomorph-endomorph (3.7-2.7-2.9). The latter were profiled as mesomorph-endomorph also but their ratio was identified as 4.2-4.7-1.8.

Jargonbuster

Body composition
The ratio of lean (muscle) mass to fat (non lean weight)
Anthropometric measurements
Specific measurements of limbs and body parts
Overtraining syndrome
Identified state of health when the athlete will negatively adapt to training, become injured or ill

Delving deeper, the researchers also considered level of performance, as the athletes represented both the first and second divisions of their sports. Interestingly it was discovered that the first division players were taller, heavier, but leaner than the second division players. Even more interesting was the fact that players from all the three sports displayed a greater similarity between somatotype characteristics. It is possible that this similarity could be attributed to that particular somatotype balance making for ‘better’ players.

American researchers went a little further than their Greek counterparts by looking at somatotype differences within a sport(2). Specifically, they considered 168 elite basketball players. The team discovered that there were considerable differences between playing positions; guards had greater mesomorphy than centres, and less ectomorphy than forwards and centres.

Serbian researchers took up the theme of this research and basketball was again the sport of choice(3). Interestingly the conclusions on somatotypes by the Greek researchers were somewhat different than those reached by their Serbian counterparts (of which more later). The particularly interesting aspect of this research was the inclusion of the relationship between physiological capability and body type across a number of measures.

The 60 players surveyed came from five clubs in the Serbian first division. Physiological testing of the players was carried out during the final week of their pre-season training. Players were categorised according to court position. Here’s what the researchers found:

  1. Centres were taller and heavier than guards and forwards;
  2. Forwards were taller and heavier than guards;
  3. Centres carried more body fat than guards and forwards;
  4. Centres had lower estimated VO2max values compared to forwards and guards;
  5. Guards’ heart rates did not reach the same levels of centres and forwards during the last minute of a bleep test;
  6. Centres had better vertical jump power than guards.

These findings led the researchers to conclude that ‘The results of the present study demonstrate that a strong relationship exists between body composition, aerobic fitness, anaerobic power and positional roles in elite basketball.’

Conundrum

You may have noticed that the Greeks and Serbian researchers were not consistent in their findings relating to body type propensities and basketball playing position. The Greek guards for example had greater mesomorphy (and endomorphic tendencies) than their Serbian counterparts; however, it was the Serbian centres who were more mesomorphic with endomorphic tendencies.

This throws up a very interesting conundrum and challenges the assumption that only certain classifications of body types are suitable for certain sports/positions. Although it is a given that being tall will be a distinct advantage for basketball, it may well also be that training factors or even the natural genetic tendencies of a race can also influence the ‘ideal playing position shape’. This also chimes in with recent research identifying the presence of certain ‘sporting genes’ – ie genes that are a positive asset for sports performance (more on this later).

Nature versus nurture and the identification of sporting genes

Body type is established at birth, while body shape is the result of physiological adaptations to training, diet and lifestyle factors. However, there are sufficient anomalies in sport to show that body types can vary (to a degree) within a sport and player positions. Compare for example the more endomorphic-mesomorph body shape of English striker Wayne Rooney with the more ectomorphic-mesomorph French striker Thierry Henri – both great footballers.

According to Mike Rennie, professor of clinical physiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School in Derby, the split between nature and nurture is about 55:45. He provides the example of identical twins from Germany, one of whom was an endurance athlete, the other a power sportsman(4).

Nurture is of course a powerful influencing factor and one that is often cited in the case of Kenyan distance runners who have won more distance, steeplechase and cross-country Olympic and world titles than any other nationality. However, the famed running doctor Tim Noakes indicates that these runners have a greater preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibre, especially when compared to their North American and European counterparts(5).

But it is also possible to argue that this is a training response and not a genetic one as most humans start off with a fairly even distribution of fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibres. And perhaps even more crucially for the nurture argument, running is an endemic feature of Kenyan life. It’s also one of the few areas where Kenyans can display their prominence on the world stage and gain individual notoriety and wealth; this makes it all the more likely for them to do it.

Jargonbuster

Fast-twitch muscle fibre
Power and speed producing muscle fibre
Slow-twitch muscle fibre
Endurance producing muscle fibre

Sporting genes

Research has recently begun to appear on sporting genes. These are specific identifiable genes that have been found to be relevant to enhanced sports performance. By 2005 nearly 200 genes had already been identified as having a direct effect on sports and fitness performance and training adaptation(6).

The EPOR (erythropoietin receptor) gene, for example, has been identified as crucial for red blood cell production. In some people this gene mutates and continues to work producing an abnormal amount of red blood cells. Finnish researchers identified an entire family with this EPOR mutation, several of whom were championship endurance athletes, including the great cross-country gold medalist skier, Eero Mantyranta(4). Mantyranta won two gold medals at the 1964 winter games and it was discovered that EPOR mutation allowed him to produce 50% more red blood cells(7).

As red blood cells are crucial for carrying oxygen to the working muscle the EPOR gene is crucial for enhancing aerobic performance, regardless of body type. Other similar genetic research has indicated that one in five Europeans cannot produce the alpha-actinin-3 protein found in fast-twitch muscle fibres. This genotype is crucial for speed and power sports(4). A lack of it appears to reduce the potential for Europeans to be as fast as their Afro-American counterparts. Coincidentally it is being argued that the first genetically mutated athletes could be competing in next year’s Olympic games!

The difference between body type and body shape

Body shape is the trained response or the everyday life response/effect that ‘changes’ an individual’s body type. Long distance runners may have a body type that has mesomorphic tendencies; however, while they are in training, due to their high calorie expenditure and lack of training emphasis on building (and maintaining muscle) they may well develop a more ectomorphic shape. At the other end of the spectrum, countless millions of the sedentary general public will gradually take on more of an endomorphic shape as they gain weight, due to a lack of exercise, excess calorie intake and poor food choices generally!

Conclusions

Body type analyses provide a strong starting point for sports selection, prowess and training response. Although it is very much the case that certain body types seem better suited to certain sports, there is still very much a degree of ‘you are what you train for’. This is true within certain parameters and has been exemplified by research pointing to differences and anomalies within playing position in basketball (and other sports). Additionally, the more recent research into sporting genes could have even greater implications than body type in terms of ‘determining’ who will be good at certain sports and indeed who will be ‘made’ better at sport.

John Shepherd MA is a specialist health, sport and fitness writer and a former international long jumper

References

  1. Sports Med Phys Fitness 2006 Jun; 46(2):271-80
  2. J Sports Sci 2005 Oct; 23(10):1057-63
  3. J Strength Cond Res 2006 Nov; 20(4):740-4
  4. The Guardian, Thursday August 5, 2004
  5. The Lore of Running, Noakes T
  6. www.medscape.com/viewarticle/551096
  7. www.newscientist.com/channel/life/ genetics/mg19125655.300-only-drugs-can-stop-the-sports-cheats.html

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