The Ectomorphs Dilemma

About 10 years ago, I came up with a phrase to best describe the choice ectomorphs must make when pursing their fitness goals. Before diving into the topic, review the image below to show the different somatypes.


Image from How to Eat Right For Your Body Type by Dr. John Berardi. Typically Ectomorphs are taller and Endomorphs are shorter. Other than that this image is a good representation of somatypes.

Mesomorphs are ideal candidates for both losing fat and gaining muscle. Endomorphs may never sport washboard abs, but they tend to gain muscle easily. When it comes to gaining muscle, the Ectomorph has been dealt the worst hand. It is possible, but it comes at a price and therein lies the dilemma.

The Ectomorphs Dilemma: Do you want to look good with your shirt on or with your shirt off?

The quest for muscle on the ectomorph frame will require lots of calories. Not all will be directed at muscle growth. Some will end up as fat. The upside is your chest to waist ratio will improve. The downside is your waist size will increase. In other words, you’ll look good in a shirt, but not as good at the beach. Or you could choose the 6-pack abs and end up with a physique that looks great on the beach, but stick boy in a shirt. This is what I call The Ectomorphs Dilemma.


Bruce Lee is an Ectomorph that pursued leanness.


A shirt and jacket completely hides the strength of Bruce Lee.

How did I answer the Ectomorphs Dilemma? From 2001-2008, I decided to pursue muscle over fat loss. Since gaining muscle is much harder than leaning out (especially for the ectomorph), I always figured that I could do it later. Well, later has arrived. For years my weight was steady at 208. Since leaning out this year, my new normal weight is 193. Did I lose muscle? Possibly, but it all could just be a visual illusion. Let me explain.

There are 3 types of fat.

  1. Visceral – This is the fat between the organs that is also known as “belly fat”.
  2. Subcutaneous – This is the fat just beneath the skin.
  3. Intramuscular – Located throughout the skeleton.

Although it may look as if I’ve lost muscle, I think all I really lost was intramuscular fat. This was confirmed Friday when I reviewed some material from fitness guru Art De Vany. In a presentation he stated that working out in a fasted state does a great job of targeting intramuscular fat. And since I typically do one fasted weight workout per week, this means I am specifically targeting intramuscular fat.

This may sound like good news on the surface, but I don’t think it is for the ectomorph. Sure we want less visceral and subcutaneous fat, but a little more upper body intramuscular fat would help us fill out our shirts better without increasing our waist size.

Starting this week, I am ceasing fasted weight workouts. On days when I do Intermittent Fasts, I will stick to just walking. On weight days, I will resume post workout protein shakes. This is just a test and I’m not sure if I have the science right, but I love a good experiment! I’d be interested in hearing feedback from other lean Ectomorphs.


Add yours

  1. I can’t think of any ectomorph’s that look ‘muscular’ while wearing a shirt. That’s the exclusive realm of the mesomorph. Feel free to provide me with an example.

    But this is both a curse and a blessing. The blessing part is that an ectomorph looks fit/thin in a shirt regardless of diet and exercise.

  2. There are certainly some elite volleyball and basketball players that are ectomorphs that still look muscular in a shirt. Swimmers too.

    I would consider surfer Laird Hamilton to be an ectomorph (6’3 and 215). Not as ectomorph as Seinfelds Kramer, but not quite a mesomorph.

    Us ectomorphs certainly don’t have the genetic potential as mesomorphs, so we gravitate toward sports that favor long levers (running, biking, skiing) that compound the difference.

  3. I can say from personal experience, that ectomorphs can look bad in a shirt with poor diet/exercise. Look at a picture of me from a few years ago, sporting 220 lbs. (5’11”) and a nice spare tire. Now, I’m a lot trimmer (175 lbs.), and while I don’t look like an NFL linebacker, I definitely fill out a suit nicely.

    Part of looking good in clothing is getting clothing that fits really well. If you get trim clothing (not tight), you’ll look more muscular in it, regardless of body type (assuming you’re reasonably fit).

    On a side note, if fasted workouts target intramuscular fat, what does a good job of targeting visceral fat?

  4. Anything that reduces insulin output will be good for visceral fat. Cut the carbs and Intermittent Fasting.

  5. Ectomorphs like “Never Back Down’s” Cam Gigandet and actor Alex Pettyfer are two that look ‘muscular’ wearing a shirt. Although I will admit Hollywood pushes actors to look this way they must have some initiative about themselves to maintain their look once a film is finished.

  6. Actually brad Pitt is an ectomorph but looks muscular in a shirt

  7. @Chris – I agree that Brad Pitt is probably closer to being an ectomorph than a mesomorph. Had he been a few inches taller, I think his Troy physique would be lost inside a suit. His Fight Club look would be certainly be lost in a suit.

  8. I’ve just come to realize that my so-called ‘muscle loss’ may also just be a major loss of intramuscular fat from some diet issues I had years ago.

    Now my question is: How to increase intramuscular fat?

  9. @BJ – Good question. My game plan once spring starts is to eat more. At the point I lose all ab definition, I’ll increase by fasting periods. If that works, I’ll be sure to post on it.

  10. I think anyone(mainly Ectomorphs)can achieve a body of a Mesomorph. An primary example would be Vince Delmonte. He was “one of us” for a while and then became Muscular.
    I’m currently “cursed” with this body type but regardless, I’m gaining Muscle.

  11. @Dante – I strongly disagree.

    Vince is one of the very rare ectomorphs that has almost no distance between his elbow and edge of his contracted bicep. Many ectomorphs (myself included) have a 2 inch space there. This is a strong genetic predictor of muscular potential. The greater the space, the less muscular potential.

    I’ve gained 25-30 pounds of muscle since I was in Army Basic training at the age of 17. Muscle is possible for ectomorphs, but we still have limitations that most mesomorphs don’t have.

  12. So what your saying is, we’ll end up looking like Bruce Lee then?

  13. @Dante – Of course not. We all are different. It is a spectrum. There are ectomorphs that are much closer to the mesomorph somatype. Surfer Laird Hamilton comes to mind.

  14. i’m a bit late on this topic, but i thought i’d chuck in my penny’s worth as it’s such an interesting topic. i agree that a “muscular” (i.e. defined, as in very low body fat) ectomorph with proper conditioning will look great in trunks on the beach, but i disagree entirely that he looks skinny or stick-like when dressed in clothes. i think this is all a question of how you dress and whenever i’m in the USA i struggle to find adequately-fitting clothes for my slim frame – everything seems XXL-sized and even though i am 6’1″ at 175lbs i buy only small/S size when states-side to guarantee a half-way adequate fit. whereas back in europe i’m comfortably provided with a monster selection of trim clothes, slim and fitted to provide a lean and athletic look. as to looking muscular in clothes, i guess that’s a question of aesthetics – no, i certainly don’t want my shirt straining at the biceps or my trousers stretching at the thighs, you just look stupid. the american actor cam gigandet is an ecto whose look i admire, he looks trim, slim, conditioned and defined, whether fully-clothed or shirtless in shorts. yes, if you run around in an L or XL t-shirt with comfy-fit jeans to match, you’re going to look skinny, but if you pay a bit of attention and go for something fitted, you will look outstanding. after all, they don’t really use mesos or even endos as fashion models as clothes never sit well on their frames!

  15. @Phil – I do have trouble buying shirts. My shoulders want a Large, but my waist wants a Medium. For mobility, I tend to pick the higher size. I need to do a part 2 to this post now that it is 3 years old.

  16. Hm, I would say his body type would be close to an endomorph except without the gut belly. The ectomorph may be exaggerating the skinniness or leanness.

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