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As personal trainers, it's our job to give our clients our absolute best in terms of advice and training. They place their trust in us, and it's up to us to show them the path to get the results they seek in achieving their fitness goals.
One of the most common reasons a person comes to a personal trainer is to change their body in some way—often to lose weight, or gain lean muscle mass and bulk up. Whereas there's nothing wrong with this, often someone is looking at media portrayals of various body types and hoping they can change themselves fundamentally to be like those others, as opposed to following a training program tailored to their body type.
A person likely cannot change their body type purely from something like being an ectomorph to a pure mesomorph, but an ectomorph can absolutely gain more muscle and bulk up with the right diet and exercise routine. This often will result in the client straddling the middle ground between two body types. However, this can take a large degree of dedication and training, and the results desired aren't always attainable.
One of the better goals to try and redirect your clients towards is training the optimal system for their own existing body type. As their personal trainer, you are well suited to evaluate where they're at and to recommend how they can make their existing body type really shine through for them. We'll dig into that, but first, let's talk about the variations in body types.
When putting together the right workout plan for a client's body type, there are several things to consider—most importantly being what body type they have naturally. Bone structure has a little to do with this in terms of what your body can support, and this is determined by genetics. There are three principal categories that most people fall into:
Endomorph Body Type. This body type consists of higher body fat percentages, a body shaped like a pear, and is much more likely to store fat.
Mesomorph Body Type. This is commonly thought of as the "V" shape frame in the torso. Mesomorphs bulk muscle more easily, and have a fast metabolism.
Ectomorph Body Type. This is the tall, lanky individual who has difficulty putting on weight of any kind—muscle or fat. High metabolisms are common in these individuals.
A person can also have a combination of these types. For instance, as someone loses weight, they can often shift from being purely an endomorph to more of a mesomorph. By losing fat and gaining muscle, their body starts to show a more muscular frame. Depending on many factors like habits and genetics, this could be the best they could hope to achieve, so it's important to help mesomorph clients manage their expectations.
The workout plan is only part of the equation. Diet also has a lot to do with it. So, let's go over the basics there.
First of all, remember that your specialty as a fitness professional is not diet. Only a registered dietician or similarly credentialed professional is qualified for that. However, there are some guidelines that can really make a difference. Here is a great article about how tracking your macronutrients, like healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates, is a very reliable plan for fat loss. In fact, tracking these is also recommended for those who are at higher risk for weight gain simply from having a lower basal metabolic rate.
On top of that, though, remember that your clients, on the whole, aren't going to ever be able to just eat whatever they want, so long as they're working out hard in the gym. Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer, was often discussed in the media for his insane diet of over 8,000 calories per day when training. Phelps is an example of an outlier—someone who is extremely different from everyone else. So, when discussing this issue with your clients, just remind them that they aren't going to be able to always exercise away the calories they consume, especially as they get older in life. It might be possible for some teenagers and clients in their early twenties, but no one should reasonably expect such a metabolism to last forever.
Working with your body is easier than working against it. For this reason, in terms of maintaining your client's fitness level, tailoring your program to their body type can help them stick with it. Trying to train a mesomorph like a cross-country athlete will likely result in injury, or at the very least strong discomfort. This dramatically decreases the likelihood that they will stick with your program, which does them and you a great disservice. So, let's go through ideal programming for each type.
Many people will likely solicit your services because they're an endomorph. Typically obese, people with these body types will often benefit from weight training. The more lean muscle mass they have, the higher their basal metabolic rate will be, and, thus, the more calories they will burn every day. It's also important for these types to engage in a good portion of low-intensity cardio training for about an hour per week on top of strength training, especially in the lower body.
Another benefit of strength training for this group is psychological. Being that they've carried extra weight, they will likely be more familiar with this exertion. When someone carries extra weight, even standing up is an exercise that requires strength. So, use this to their advantage. With women, make sure they know that strength training will not cause them to bulk up.
Also remember that for someone carrying a lot of extra weight, even walking long distances can cause a lot of repetitive stress injuries. Start off by giving them confidence with whatever they do well. As their metabolism improves as well as their diet, branching out to other things will be helpful.
The critical thing with this body type is avoiding injury. If they walk, keep it to 20 minutes at a time for the first six weeks or so. As the weight comes off, this can go longer. Or, just have them get cardio exercise in the form of the elliptical, the rower, or other machines that are easy on the joints.
For lifting weights in this population, consider squats, lunges, and deadlifts as they lose their initial weight and develop the strength they need to support their frame for more sophisticated movements.
For ectomorphs, heavy strength training is likely going to be problematic. They are lean with likely high metabolisms, and as such, they should train to this. Think circuit training that involves moderate resistance.
People with this body type can often go for longer durations as well, so keep that in mind. High-intensity interval training can do great things for developing a six pack or toning their arms and legs, as this will help burn through any extra fat stores they have.
Body weight exercises are generally a good idea with this population. This way, they don't overload themselves too much and they're still able to really thrive in their fitness goals. This isn't to say to avoid strength training at all, but only to say that it's likely best to not make heavy weight training the primary focus for this group like you would a mesomorph. Also, interval training, in general, can be a great way for ectomorphs to stay engaged in their workouts.
For this population, consider a lot of the regular dumbbell exercises, focus on isolating muscle groups like you do with bicep curls, and go strong with aerobic exercise.
Mesomorphs bulk muscle easily. They will likely get a lot out of training with heavy weights—just be sure to focus on their form. With people of this type, their upper body likely has broad shoulders and a tight waist, allowing for most typical barbell exercises as well as high-intensity interval training. Also, for this group, powerlifting can be extremely useful.
Remember that body types are not a hard science—they are more generalities. This is because there are a host of factors involved, some that can be controlled, like diet and exercise, and others that can't be, like genetics.
One great means of comparison between mesomorphs and ectomorphs is thinking of the difference between a rugby player and a soccer player, respectively. Both can run long distances, but the soccer player will likely run faster and the rugby player will likely have more power and brute strength. Whereas this is not always the case, it's a general concept that can serve you in determining the appropriate programming for these types of clients.
Overall, make sure that you are training your clients safely and in a way that keeps them engaged. Training them based on their body type is a great way to ensure you keep them around, safe, and happy.
Not yet a trainer but interested in the science behind health and fitness? Explore the ISSA's certified fitness trainer course to learn how to improve your training and boost your fitness. Then, take it to the next level and use that knowledge to help others as a certified personal trainer.