Somatotype: Definition and Measurement


Somatotype is the word used by the famous psychologist William Sheldon to describe a body-type using his method of classifying the human physique.  Although many researchers have attempted to develop an objective method of classifying the human physique, Sheldon stands out as the pivotal researcher in this field.


The method of somatotyping used on is based on the work of William Sheldon.  Sheldon knew about the efforts of others, but chose to start from scratch to develop his method. Rather than imposing vague concepts gleaned from a small population of patients or acquaintances, Sheldon wanted to build on a foundation consisting of a large number of subjects.  The initial population in his research consisted of 4,000 college students.  He took photographs of each student from the front, side, and back.  Special care was taken to control the type of camera, lighting, lens, and camera distance to avoid distortion.


Example of side, front and back poses for somatotype photos.











Keep in mind Sheldon’s goal was not to impose his ideas on the data, but to let the data speak for itself.  To this end he sorted out the photographs into whatever extremes became evident.  He settled on three extreme types.  Simply stated, the three extremes are described as being - Fat/Round - Muscular/Square -Thin/Linear.  This schema was illustrated as a triangle of extremes with a coming together of the extremes into a balanced center. This is how Sheldon describes the process in his book, “The Varieties of Human Physique”:

“To those who may wonder why three extremes were chosen, it should be pointed out that in a large random sample it is precisely three extremes which stand out.  Repeated combing of the population for what might reasonably be called a fourth basic type of extreme variation simply yielded nothing at all.

We were not committed to find three first-order variants - and only three. It is indeed, fair to state that we rather expected to find more than three.  We were initially reluctant to accept the conclusion that only three fundamentally different extremes can be isolated.”


Sheldon’s inclination to search out biological roots led him to make an association between the three tissue layers in the development of mammalian embryos with the dimensions he found in the photographs. The three layers are called the endoderm (innermost layer), the mesoderm (middle layer), and the ectoderm (outermost layer).  The endoderm forms into the lining of the stomach, intestines, and other internal organs.  The mesoderm is the tissue from which muscle and bone emerge.  The ectoderm forms skin, nerves, and brain.  Sheldon felt it would be appropriate to name the various body-type dimensions after the tissue layers that were most significantly connected with their dominant features. Endomorphs appear gut dominant.  Mesomorphs are muscular. Ectomorphs are highly invested in nervous and cerebral features.

Embryologists and other specialists naturally take issue with this seemingly simplistic concept.  Yes, humans are a complex integration of tissues, making it difficult to form sharp lines between where cells finally differentiate and migrate.  However, on a general level, Sheldon’s associations best describe the characteristics of the various body-types. In fact, to Sheldon’s credit, his labels for the body-types remain in use today.  Wherever somatotypes are discussed, the words “endomorph”, “mesomorph”, and “ectomorph” are likely to be the terms that are used. Even those who have created competing systems of somatotyping use these three terms.


Sheldon wanted to do more than merely confirm the existence of certain components of physique.  He wanted to produce a useful scientific tool for measuring the effects of these components. Therefore, a numeric value needed to be applied to each of the components. He chose a scale of seven degrees.  Odd numbers are a good choice for this kind of scale, because it allows a central balance point.  A verbal equivalent of his scale looks like this:

7. Very High

6. High

5. Moderately High

4. Average

3. Moderately Low

2. Low

1. Very low

Working with somatotypes over time, Sheldon became so sensitive to the subtleties that it enabled him to expand this to a 13 point scale.  1, 1½, 2, 2½,3,3½…  The final form for expressing a somatotype numerically is with three numbers, where the left number represents the degree of endomorphy, the middle number indicates the degree of mesomorphy, and the final or right number represents the degree of ectomorphy.  An extreme endomorph is represented as a 7-1-1.  An extreme mesomorph is represented as 1-7-1.  And finally the numbers 1-1-7 represent an extreme ectomorph.  A 4-4-4 would be a balancedsomatotype with each of the three components being equally represented.


Another part of Sheldon’s work that persists is his chart of somatotypes. It is an attempt to aid in the visualization of the relationships between the various somatotypes.  A tetrahedron would be the ideal way to view the relationships, but this is a serious challenge for the average person’s spatial abilities.  Instead, he flattens it out into a curvilinear triangle. The figure below is how this is typically illustrated.










Originally, somatotyping could best be described as an art, skill, or technique that you had to “get good at.”  This was discouraging to researchers.  It was hard enough to put together an experiment that required nude photographs of the subjects, let alone dealing with the long learning-curve to be able to make accurate assessments. Science is about replicating experiments and verifying the evidence collected. Since Sheldon and some of his close associates were the only ones skilled in these techniques, it is easy to see the danger of a conflict of interests. A somatotype that required interpretation might be weighted in favor of the desired experimental results.

Sheldon was not ignorant of the need to make somatotyping completely objective. Throughout his career he experimented with various direct physical measurements of a subject in addition to the photographs. Finally, around 1968, he published a paper answering criticisms of his methods.  The key to objectifying the somatotyping process is the Trunk Index, which is the ratio of the upper and lower torso areas.  This measurement remains very constant throughout a person’s adult life, even with weight gain or loss. Once you know a person’s Trunk Index, height, weight, and age it is possible to determine which of nearly 1,800 possible somatotypes is a match.


There is no exclusivity to the term “somatotype.”   You could measure the human physique in any conceivable manner and decide to call it a somatotype.  The most popular method used today is one developed by Barbara Honeyman Heath, a former associate of William Sheldon.  The main difference between the Heath-Carter method and Sheldon’s has to do with a philosophical perspective about somatotypes.  Sheldon believed the somatotype is relatively constant throughout an adult’s life. This view fit into Sheldon’s intent of determining a causal relationship between somatotype and temperament or personality.  Conversely, the Heath-Carter method abandons that idea, preferring instead to describe the somatotype as a structure that can have wide variation over time. uses Sheldon’s method because, in addition to describing a person’s physical tendencies (athletics, health, and weight), it also encompasses mental characteristics (temperament and personality).


When assessing somatotype, adds a fourth index to the standard three.  The additional index expresses the degree ofbalance between the three systems.  When you look at the chart of somatotypes, it is clear that in addition to a somatotype’s location with reference to the three extremes (corners of the triangle), you also become aware of a somatotype’s location with reference to the center. This is the key to harmonizing Sheldon’s work with the many temperament theories based on four factors. We will address this later.  See SOMATOTYPE AND PERSONALITY


NEXT: Somatotype and Sports








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