Fitness Role Models Revisited

Exactly 5 years ago I posted my thoughts on Fitness Role Models. My understanding of fitness has changed a lot since then. In that post, I listed a few guidelines to pick a realistic fitness role model.

1: Same Sex This should be obvious.

2: Same Height Visit or Yahoo! Sports for this data.

3: Similar Age The photos should be within a decade of your current age.

4: Body Type Are you lanky (ectomorph) or stocky (endomorph)? Pick appropriately.

I made an error on #4. I divided the world into 3 somatypes and in reality, it is more complicated than that. Last year I learned that the muscular potential of ectomorphs has an extreme variance. In the book The New High Intensity Training by Ellington Darden Ph.D., I came face to face with two formulas that had escaped me in my many years of training and researching fitness. Darden has worked with thousands of individuals engaged in strength training and has collected lots of data. Here are his 2 muscular potential charts.

Bicep Chart: Distance Between Elbow and Edge of Contracted Bicep

InchesBiceps LengthMuscular Potential
0.5 or lessLongGreat
0.5 - 1Above AverageGood
1 - 1.5AverageAverage
1.5 - 2Below AveragePoor
2 or greaterShortVery Minimal

Triceps Chart: Distance Between Elbow Tip and Top of Inside Horseshoe

InchesTriceps LengthMuscular Potential
3 or lessLongGreat
3-4Above AverageGood
6-7Below AveragePoor
7 or greaterShortVery Minimal

After reading those charts, I put down the book, took my measurements, and discovered with no surprise that my muscular potential was “very minimal”. Then I thought about all my ectomorph role models and went on an image search. Sure enough in every case that I could find where an ectomorph went from scrawny to brawny, they had tighter spacing on their bicep edge.

Seems that my “realistic role models” weren’t realistic at all. I spent over a decade slamming the weights trying to bulk up. Although I gained some muscle, I also gained fat and was frequently sore or injured from pushing my physique further than it wanted to go. I had painkillers, X-Rays, cortisone shots, and even surgery. I wasted thousands on supplements, protein powder, and energy bars. All in the quest to gain more muscle.

These days I have no fitness role models. Once I dropped the excess weight and inflammation, I was happy with my results.

UPDATE September 2013: I wanted to clarify the phrase “gained some muscle”. When I entered Army Basic Training at 17, I weighed 156 pounds. Weight training did bring me up to 200 pounds. My height is 6 foot 2.5 inches, which is the exact same height as Evander Holyfield and Laird Hamilton. Considering how lean both those elite athletes are, I suspect each has 20-25 pounds more muscle than me.

My point in this post was to say that they were never realistic role models given that have different body types. This point was not apparent until I read Dr. Darden’s research. When I accepted my body type, I stopped excessive training and the pains went away.

The lesson I learned is that chasing perfection can be both painful and futile.


Add yours

  1. Are those numbers only accurate for men? I have about 2″ between bicep and elbow.

  2. @Marian – I’m not sure. I would assume it to be true, but the magnitude of differences wouldn’t be as much. IOW, the difference between me and Arnold would be greater than you and the top female bodybuilder at your height.

  3. You’ve been on a real roll lately MAS. A very interesting post.

    I always find it hard to draw the line between accepting my fairly average genetics and making excuses for not doing things the right way. I’m much more realistic about things now that I had ever been before and have gotten better results because of it I think, but I still feel a twinge of something (regret, hope, doubt, annoyance?)when I hear guys like Rippetoe or Dan John, who obviously know a lot about strength training, talk about how anybody can put on major size if they just drink their milk, do 20 squat reps, follow a 40 day plan etc…

    It’s not that I’m dying to look like a bodybuilder, but another 10-15 pounds of muscle wouldn’t hurt and it would be nice if the ascetics caught up to my strength.

  4. I have no fitness role models either. My fitness focus is simple -I’m on an obsessive quest to see how fast my 47 year-old body (and mind!) can row 200 meters on the Concept 2 Indoor Rower. Everything else flows from that. Whatever it takes – nutrition, rest, meditation, three short workouts a day, etc. I’m only stopping short of taking any controlled substances, such as tetosterone.

  5. trying to gain muscle mass never really worked for me. i trained a lot in college as part of my football program. despite the volume and mass amounts of calories, i probably gained only 8-10 pounds of lean muscle over 4 years. other guys seemed to look at weights and put on 20-30 pounds of muscle. could it have been performance enhancers? maybe, but weekly random drug tests would have made it pretty expensive to take stuff ahead of the testing curve.

    anyways, when i just focus on getting stronger, positive and visible body changes happen. that is what has worked for me. get stronger in big movements while not grinding myself to a nub in the gym.

  6. @Karl – I know exactly how you feel. I still want 10-20 more pounds of muscle. Unlike before, I now believe I’m not a failure if I don’t achieve it or get there much slower than a young mesomorph would. These days I am focusing more on increasing my recoverability times through optimal nutrition, reducing stress, better sleep and self experimentation. Young mesomorphs can follow volume plans because they have exceptional recoverability – not because they have more drive. Their feedback loop is shorter than ours. Ectomorphs have chronically responded to this problem by increasing workout frequency, which I now believe just makes things worse.

    @Glenn – My new glitter gym has a rower. I’m going to give it a try.

    @Chuck – I think it has a lot to do with recovery. John Little had a great podcast on High Intensity Nation about his work measuring recovery with a pro hockey player.

  7. This is s very good post and generally needed. However, when we are younger we do not want to listen to stuff like this. Getting leaner has made things better for me – a skinny ectomorph with ripped muscles is better than a skinny ectomorph with no muscle and a belly

  8. @Chris – Thanks. Sadly, too many ectomorphs take advice blindly from mesomorphs that don’t even understand that they won the genetic lottery.

  9. has there ever been hormonal comparisons between ectomorph and mesomorph body types?

  10. @Chuck – I did some quick searching and all I found was observational stuff. Seems us ectomorphs have lower T and GH levels and higher estrogen and cortisol. Seems we are wound too tight.

    There seem to be 2 camps of advice for the ectomorph on muscle gaining.
    2- Relax, sleep more, calm down.

    Camp #1 lost me years ago. I think the much smaller and less vocal Camp #2 might be onto something. The most neurotic lifters at the gym are almost always these stick boys putting in endless hours of lifting. I met one recently. When I suggested his training volume might be too high (4 hours a week), he laughed at me. He was probably 30 years old with the body of an 11 year old girl. His solution was to add in an extra day of lifting on the weekend.

  11. @mas

    i have always been a hard gainer. based on my body shape and what i have read, i am not sure i am an ectomorph. i am probably a tweener.

    is there any more substantial reading on this subject you would recommend? i really enjoyed Power to the People. the most significant point i learned was always leave a little in the tank. i always have to remind myself of this but i believe it has allowed me to make significant strength gains. i train for strength and take any muscle changes that come with it.

  12. @Chuck – I only have data from one client: myself. I did Pavel from 2001-2010. Most of the gains I got were in the first two years. Now I’m doing HIT. I leave nothing in the tank and train far less. I like it better and have gained muscle with no joint pain.

    Keep experimenting is my best advice.

  13. @mas

    i did HIT from 92-96 with some gains but was probably held back by overtraining. by nature, i am an explosive person. i would be at an elite level in the 40 yard dash but got more and more average to bad as the distance increased. to not use this skill even at my age would be uncomfortable for me. it would be not enjoyable.

    i am just trying to be smarter about how i train. leave a bit in the tank. more substantial rest. lower weights. i did tweak my shoulder going over board. i was not being smart. i learned that lesson the hard way. i now caution on the conservative side of things. rather than going forward if i think i may be able to, i just shut it down.

    i have been surprised at how things have progressed since adopting the philosophy of leaving a bit in the tank. i always thought grinding out reps was what it would take to get stronger and bigger. that may work for others but not for me.

  14. @Chuck – Something I’m playing with now that I really like is doing a few full reps at a heavy weight, then move to partial reps in the mid-range followed by a static hold to failure. I’ll explain this more in a future post, but I think it may be the secret sauce for long limbs.

  15. @mas

    i stumbled upon this without looking. i guess i am definitely a “weightlifter”.

  16. @Chuck – What I like about that video is the slow negatives. That is why that particular lifter had trouble with 15#. Where I disagree is that a full range repetition is required.

    After reading some of Bill DeSimmone and John Little’s work and testing it for myself, I believe partial reps and static holds are superior to full range reps, especially as fatigue sets in. The most muscle is recruited mid-range, so the limiting factor for its fatigue will be determined at the endpoints. That may not mean much to a mesomorph, but for a long limb, getting those first few inches without injecting a swing into the movement is tough. My solution is reduce the range of movement as the set progresses.

  17. This is interesting.

    I wish I could have role models for this. I’ve taken my pic, scaled it, and compared it to the pics in the Atlas of Men, which was a really fun exercise, but I was shocked at how big boned I am when scaled for height. I don’t look like any other woman I’ve ever seen (most of the big boned ones have more fat). And I know my back muscles attach on higher ribs than in the anatomy books. And even though I’m supposed to be meso, rather than central or endo-meso, I don’t seem to bulk up that easily. My recovery time when I was doing power factor training was ridiculously long. I think it’s because I have a huge head on a small body and that dominates over my body’s body type.

    I really should check out that HIT book.

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