Physical Types – George W. Kirkley (1963)

Today we present another excerpt from Kirkley’s book Weight Lifting and Weight Training. The excerpt below is the second chapter, which describes the classic concept of somatotyping, or categorizing physiques into three general types: ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph. Nearly any book on strength or bodybuilding/physique training is likely to repeat some version of these ideas.

In recent years, fitness writers have been more critical of the somatotype model for trying to shoehorn every human body into one of three distinct categories, and many weight trainees have trouble determining which somatotype they are supposed to fit into, as they may have aspects of more than one of these types. However, Kirkley here acknowledged that these types are generalizations rather than strict, hard-and-fast categories; and his approach to training different body types in different ways was based on years of experience and observation. Most importantly, he did not dismiss any body type as hopeless when it comes to physical improvement.

KirkleyDeadliftThe author Kirkley demonstrating the deadlift, from elsewhere in his book (click to enlarge, will open in new window/tab)

Book excerpt:

All men are born with different physical characteristics and potentialities – and in the world of physical-culture various authorities have made long and careful studies of the different anatomic types.

Perhaps the most famous of these authorities is Doctor Sheldon, an American who went to extreme lengths in scientific research to categorize human beings.

Broadly, he has divided men into three main types, or groups. Few men, of course, belong predominantly to any of the three types ; few are extreme examples of the two outer groups. But the vast majority have quite easily-discernible bodily tendencies or characteristics, and a knowledge of them can determine a man’s potential and the best methods of training to attain the maximum bodily development.

In the body-building sphere it has been proved that different types need different training methods to achieve maximum results. Further, the physical type of a man governs largely what particular sport or athletic pursuit he will be best suited for.

For example, the heavy, globular individual, who is destined naturally to achieve heavy girths, cannot ever hope to excel as a marathon runner – but he may well become successful at heavy athletics.

Ectomorph Type

Sheldon’s first anatomic type is the thin man ; an individual characterized by his deep thorax and restricted abdominal area. He is generally light-boned, with slender musculature and is essentially suited to such pursuits as cycling and middle to long-distance running.

He can, of course, make good progress at body building or weight lifting, although he will rarely win championships in these spheres. And he will have to work many times harder for his gains than one who is better equipped physically

Sheldon is emphatic that nothing can alter the physical destiny of the ectomorph, but my experience in body building has shown me that persistent and correct training in the formative stages can transform one of this type into a well-built and strongish man, although perhaps not to the extent of winning championships and other major honours.

Endomorph Type

At the other end of the anatomic scale there is the endomorph : thick-boned, often fleshy and with a large abdominal area.

This individual tends to put on weight easily. Obviously he is not suited to such activities as cycling or running, but can excel at many of the slower types of strength feats in weight lifting.

His large abdominal area, with its longer-than-average intestine, means that he can absorb the maximum nourishment from his food, a dominant factor in bodyweight increase. He respons to heavy training, can make great gains in the minimum time, but has difficulty in moulding a shapely and hard, muscular physique.

Mesomorph Type

This is the middle or intermediate type. He belongs to the group from which a large proportion of weight-lifting and body-building champions arise, and is particularly likely to become a champion if he has predominant endomorph tendencies.

His physical proportions will be the most pleasing of all the types ; his mobility and musculature eminently suitable to excel at most athletic strength feats.

No individual with ambitions in any particular physical sphere need be discouraged if he discovers that he is attempting something ‘out of his class’.

The ectomorph can put on weight and increase his muscular size. The endomorph need not be a shapeless bulk. But it is extremely unlikely that an extreme ectomorph will ever win a world weight-lifting title or a Mr. Universe contest. No extreme endomorph is ever likely to win an Olympic 10,000 metres or marathon title.

But everyone, no matter what his type, can improve his health, strength and physique if he is ambitious enough and prepared to work hard and consistently.

The road will be hard for some – particularly those at the extreme ends of the anatomic scale. But progress is certain if the right methods are used.

The teenager starting out on the trail to seek honours as a weight lifter or body builder will be all the better equipped if he knows at the onset that his ambitions will be governed to a large extent by his physical type.

If he is an extreme ectomorph or endomorph, he will know that his chances of top honours are more remote than those of the more fortunate types. But if he feels that the rewards of self-improvement are worth more, in the long run, than championship honours, he will at least begin with no illusions.

The fundamental principle of type-training is low repetitions with high resistance for the ectomorph, and high repetitions with low resistance for the endomorph.

The late George Walsh, noted British authority and instructor on this method of training, carried out numerous experiments with his many pupils – and his successes were positive indication that he worked on the right lines.

Extreme and near-extreme ectomorphs thrive best on a training routine consisting of a few exercises only, involving not more than four or five consecutive repetitions, with resistances ranging from 75 per cent to 95 per cent of maximum ability for one single movement.

At the opposite end of the scale, the extreme and near-extreme endomorphs thrive best on routines consisting of a large number of exercises – maybe as many as fifteen or twenty – involving high repetitions with resistances ranging from 30 per cent to 60 per cent of maximum ability.

In between these extreme ranges lies the greater majority of body builders and the scale of repetitions, and resistances generally, need readjusting to an ‘in between’ range.

A knowledge of the principles of type of training will enable the novice bodybuilder to avoid much trial-and-error training at the start of his career. Even so, it is by no means certain that he will immediately hit upon the ideal routine for his own particular needs, though he can be sure that he won’t pursue a path that deviates much from his own ideal route to success.

First, he will need to determine his anatomic type My brief description earlier on will help but his self analysis should be supplemented, if possible, by the help of someone who has good experience of this method of training.

Weight training for body building has been proved to be the easily the best means of development. And no matter what physical type a man is, or how weak and undeveloped he is – provided he has no organic defects – he can make improvement. Even if he merely follows a standard course without bothering about his physical type.

Everyone can improve to some degree. The best gains will be made by those who have the best natural potential, the highest degree of ambition and determination, pursue their objective with the greatest zest and enthusiasm – and who follow the training routine most suitable for their physical type.

2 thoughts on “Physical Types – George W. Kirkley (1963)

  1. Conor Heffernan February 22, 2018 / 8:16 am

    Fascinating to see the body type idea being promoted again. It’s incredible to note how long this idea has been brought around.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh at FoundationsOfIron February 22, 2018 / 8:40 am

      Hello Conor! Yes, even on fitness and bodybuilding discussion boards today, decades later, these three types are brought up rather frequently.

      One interesting point that I did not go into at all with my introductory commentary is that Doctor William H. Sheldon, who came up with the three body types in the 1940s, was actually a doctor of psychology, not medicine or biology. A major part of his work on somatotypes was the idea that specific psychological/personality traits are intrinsically associated with each body type. I don’t think his ideas hold much weight in academia anymore. But many fitness writers over the years have repeated the body type categories, while quietly disregarding the supposed psychological aspects.


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