Trainer Paul Sklar’s Advice for Fitness and Muscle Beyond 50

Paul Sklar has the superhero-like body most guys dream of building: Full chest, boulder shoulders, and chiseled, boxy abs. But to get as lean as he is, the one-time All-American endurance athlete doesn’t do steady state (think: long running, cycling, etc.) cardio.

“I do not do additional cardio training at this stage of my life… I just choose to get it in during my [strength] training sessions,” he says. “I could be lifting weights for 90 minutes and my low heart rate can be 130 to 140, and I can maintain that.”

Sklar says he accomplishes that high level of exertion during strength training with regimens built on supersets and giant sets, with little rest in between. After implementing these practices in his own training, he designed the workouts in his PaulSklarXfit365 programs similarly, offering high-volume sessions that change every month. Sklar says these workouts have kept him lean and strong as he’s gone from a 20-something champion in the steeplechase and duathlon to the 50-year old owner of a gym in Charlotte and one of our 55 Instagram Accounts That Will Motivate the Hell Out of You.

Sklar spoke with MH about how guys can and should train in their 40s, how to eat to stay lean, how his workouts are structured, and how to stay motivated to stay intense as you approach—and smash through—middle age.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What’s the biggest mistake or misconception you think that guys make with their training over 40?

The idea that you “can’t build muscle over 40,” so guys end up resorting to crazy measures in order to build muscle. It just takes some commitment and some thought. So probably the biggest mistake guys make is they probably try to do too much too soon. They try to go from A to Z without actually taking the proper steps to get there.

So you haven’t worked out in 10 years, and you decide you want to get in shape in your late 30s or 40s, which is definitely possible. You have to realize that it takes some time to get into shape, just as it took some time to get out of shape.

With that in mind, do you think that most guys in that age range train hard enough to get into that kind of shape? Or are they training too hard?

I think most guys don’t really understand what it actually takes to really, truly change your physique. And most of them will either work the bare minimum and think it’s going to happen, or they’ll just go off the wall. They try to train the way they were in their 20s. And that doesn’t really work well when you get into your late 30s and early 40s and beyond.

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It’s mindfulness, it’s understanding your body. And really, it’s about formulating a goal. You have to actually see what you want to accomplish before you can start. So if you decide you want to get in shape, you’ve got to have this mental image of what you want to look like, how you want to feel, how you want your body to perform. If you can formulate that image and get that image in your mind, then you can take the proper steps to get there.

I think sometimes guys either have an unrealistic view or they think, you know what? I’m in my late 30s, my early 40s, I’m probably not able to accomplish that much. So, you know, I’ll just see what happens.

What are some exercises that for you, become riskier as your clients age? And what would you substitute for them?

A lot of your big lifts—your deadlift, your squat, your bench press—those are the big exercises that everybody wants to go heavy on. Lifting real heavy weight in front of you with a deadlift is a great exercise, but you can modify that with a kettlebell. With a single kettlebell in between your legs, it’s a lot less stressful than a barbell. Changing the way that you perform the exercise, making some modifications, that’s a great way to do it.

You can decrease the weight on these exercises, and then just increase the volume with multi-setting, supersets, and giant sets. So, let’s say my bench press mark used to be 300 pounds, but now I can only lift 185. If I want to make them feel like 300 pounds, I can superset with a simple set of pushups. I can either do my pushups before or after, but I can simulate a lighter weight to feel heavier without actually lifting the excess amount of weight. And it’s a little bit safer on the joints. On bench press, guys always want to go crazy. And older guys run into shoulder problems and then they tear in a rotator cuff—you’re seeing a lot of rotator cuff injuries as guys get older. Ego needs to go out the door. How much do you bench? It’s a silly question. You’re in the gym for how long, an hour? Then you spend the next 23 hours walking around, and who cares how much you bench press?

Do you think that there is a little less wiggle room on form as you’re older for those reasons? You’re not as springy as when you were younger?

Yes. And I’m very strict on form. It’s really important. Because when you’re almost perfect, then your mind is actually connected with your muscles. So as you get older, you should be always aware, every rep, every set. How do I feel during the entire motion? It’s an intuitive process that people just kind of stop, and they forget to do it. Should I bring this weight lower? Should I go to full extension? Should I change up my range of motion because my shoulder’s killing me at the bottom of it? Should I add more weight? It’s really an intuitive process. You really have to think about everything that you do, especially as you get older. Because if you get injured, yeah, recovery takes a lot longer.

Let’s talk about getting lean. When it comes to your own training, you don’t do bulking or cutting phases. Do you think that that method is overrated, or is it just something you don’t like to do?

I just don’t think it’s a healthy thing to do. I don’t think it’s what the human body was designed to do—to fluctuate high, then fluctuate low. For me, it’s just this steady, persistent work over time which is the best. I don’t want to try to eat as much as I can and put a ton of stress on my body, then all of a sudden I’m going to try to cut it back down to get lean. I think people go to these extreme processes to try to do something that really just takes time. It’s just more part of our society of getting from A to Z as quickly as possible, and not really going through the process that allows you to sustain it. You see so many people do these bulks and cuts; that’s not sustainable.

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Also there’s the health aspect of it. You’re taking in all of this food to try to gain all this weight just to strip it all off. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s a lot of unnecessary work that could be accomplished with some steady work.

What’s a myth about getting lean that you wish you could debunk for all time?

People think that you need to resort to hormones and testosterone throughout [to get lean]. This is one of the biggest things I think guys just get all messed up with. They automatically assume that if you take testosterone, you’re going to get lean, you’re going to get muscle. And to me, it’s just an unhealthy way to do it. I think, again, it goes back to the A to Z process of looking for a quick fix. Unless you want to screw with your metabolism, screw with your hormones and end up taking something for the rest of your life that most likely wouldn’t need to take, it’s just going to a solid process of understanding how to get there.

What are some of the keys people looking to be lean should do instead? What are some foods that you think people need to avoid more often to maintain something close to your level most of the time?

I think the biggest problem is that they consume too much in a portion. Look at what a real portion size is, and what people actually consume—it’s usually two different things. And the way I look at it is, you want to live happy, you want to live healthy. In my 30 years in this business, I’ve found that that restricting people’s diet usually ends up with a poor result. If I tell you that you can’t eat a cookie, the only thing you can think about is eating a cookie.

The key is moderation with all. And it’s easy to say, but it’s very hard to crack. So when I look at food, I look at it in the sense of, “Is this going to help me, or is this going to hurt me?” And then I make an educated decision on whether or not I want to actually do it. I like chocolate chip cookies, right? So if I look at the cookies and say, “Is this going to help me, or is this going to hurt me?” And then I decide, You know what? I can do this because I’ve actually burned off enough calories and I’ll take that. But it’s a conscious decision that you to make. I think people are less than mindful when it comes to eating, so they just take in stuff, and don’t even really know what they’re taking in.

You were talking about portion size there. What’s a typical meal like look like for you?

We’re always taught that, you know, when you go to Thanksgiving, you see people sit back after and they have to unbutton the top button in the stomach. I never get myself to that point of being full. And it’s a tough concept to understand. Most people think, “well, I’ve got to get myself full. That means that I’ve eaten enough and I satisfied myself.” You know, you’re not going to starve to death.

So the portion size, most of it, if you look at a portion of anything, is that it fits in the size of your fist in your hand. People just tend to eat way too much.

So speaking of “it’s not going to kill you,” you said in a recent post that “most people will never really challenge themselves enough to actually realize their goals.” Why do you think that is?

I think people are afraid to get into that zone of discomfort. And for me, since I was eight years old, I’ve enjoyed that. And so I think people just kind of scratch the surface of it.

And that discomfort can be even with eating. So they’re looking at something thinking, “I’ve got to have this. I’ve got to eat it.” You have to decide whether you want it or you need it. Most people want it, but they don’t necessarily need it. So it works in nutrition, and it certainly works with exercise.

Can you run us through a quick sample so readers can try to get a taste of that discomfort, and get a taste of what your training style is like?

You know, it’s funny. My brother runs the technical side of my programs, and when I sent him the first set of workouts for the program a few years ago, he called me up and said, “You really do this?” I said, Yeah, I don’t look like this by chance!

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So most of my programs involve a lot of volume, but concentrated volume. I use a lot of multi-setting and super setting. But I also work in traditional strength training where you have enough time to rest in order to build muscle.

A typical workout, say on a Monday, can involve a series of high-volume deadlifts, right into a bench press or dumbbell press, then into a series of pull ups, and then even into a set of squats. I would do five rounds of that.

When you do a giant set like that with four different exercises, is there any rest between exercises? Or is it like a burnout circuit running right through all four?

I think some people make the mistake that they shuffle through giant sets too quick. You want to give yourself as little time as possible in order to be able to successfully complete the next set in the series. So let’s say I do 15 deadlifts. And I’m wiped out from it. I’m supposed to get 10 reps on the chest press, and I’m so tired that I only get three. That defeats the purpose. So I’ve got to intuitively understand my body, and understand how much rest that I need in order to make sure that I complete it or take the prescribed number of reps.

It’s almost intangible. But I would say when you can talk, you’re ready. If you can’t physically talk, wait a little bit. And that’s not having a good conversation That’s being able to get a couple of words out.

Is a session like that your cardio for the day, or are you doing additional cardio?

I do not do additional cardio training at this stage of my life. When you look at the track athletes at the college level and beyond, like distance runners, we’re not pitter-patter. We’re not just completing runs. We’re fully engaged in all of these. The type of training that I did back then was very, very conducive to endurance, but it wasn’t conducive for muscle building. So when someone comes to me and they say, “I want to build a lot of muscle, I’ve been running five miles a day, 10 miles a day.” That’s not very conducive to actually building muscle.

Look at distance runners and their physiques, and it’s [a physique that’s] conducive to running fast over distance. Look at sprinters: They’re very muscular, and they’re able to use that muscle to go very quickly over short distances. People have this idea that marathon runners are these Adonis-looking guys, and it is the complete polar opposite. So using my background in endurance training, I’ve taken that and then correlated into strength training and endurance at the same time. So I don’t do any additional steady-state cardio.

“The one thing that I always remember is—and this may sound corny—your fitness is only borrowed.”

That’s not to say that steady-state cardio is not great for health reasons, because it is. And I think people get confused when I say that. It’s extremely important for most people, for health reasons. I just choose to get it in during my training sessions.

If you’re in a training session and don’t have to lift excessively heavy weights, but if you really want to keep your heart rate high, you can keep it elevated pretty fast. I’m almost 50 now. I could be lifting weights for 90 minutes and my low heart rate can be 130 to 140, and I can maintain that. If I’m weight training at 80 to 90 beats per minute, I’m not really going to be burning that many calories. That’s certainly not considered, or what I would consider, cardiovascular work.

Keeping a heart rate of 140 while lifting is no joke. How do you create the mindset to go that big? What are some self-talk or some motivational strategies guys can use to really challenge themselves?

Go back to how you want to look. In order for me to reach my goal, I have to do this. And if I don’t want it, if I don’t want to reach my goal, then I don’t have to do that.

So when I’m doing a workout, I’m always thinking, “this is something that I want to do.” And “I enjoy it, and it’s something that I want to do.” So you have to develop that “want” and then even that “why.” Why am I doing this? What do I want?

If you go into a workout and think “I’ve got to maintain that 140, well, this sucks.” That’s the wrong way to think. [Instead:] This is exactly what I need to do in order to reach my goals. I’ve got to maintain this. So it’s establishing and understanding wanting to do it.

Guys tend to just get to a certain point in their life where they just decide that they essentially want to give up. And it may not always be a conscious decision, but I find that they just all of a sudden stop caring about the way they look. They’ve stopped caring about the way they feel and they concentrate on other things—could be career, could be money, anything. And they just forget about themselves. And I think it’s extremely important to be mindful and understand that you won’t be able to give as much as everyone around you. So for me, it’s empowering. When you go into that workout, it’s an empowering feeling to know that I’ve got the mindset and I can get myself into this mindset that allows me to be stronger everywhere. If I’m strong in the gym, I’m going to be strong at work, I’m gonna be strong with my family. I’ll be strong with my friends.

You’re a former athlete, and the kind of person who’s a goal setter and a goal hitter. But a lot of people probably look at you physically and think you’ve hit the goal. So what’s after that? Do you have another goal out there? How should guys discover a next big goal? Or is just about maintaining what you’ve built?

Certainly, I love how I feel. I love how I look. But the one thing that I always remember is—and this may sound corny—your fitness is only borrowed. It’s not something that you own. It’s almost like renting an apartment. If you don’t pay the rent every month, the apartment gets taken away. And it’s the same thing with fitness. If you don’t pay your body, it’s taken away. I keep that in mind.

It can take you decades to get into great shape. And then you go three or four months doing nothing, eating like a slob, and it’s gone. So what do I want to do? I want to keep everything I have, always.

And it doesn’t mean being crazy at all times. Now, at 50 years old, I don’t have to kill myself anymore. I killed myself forever, so now I can actually step back a little bit and enjoy my workouts a little bit more because I don’t have to work as hard.

It’s kind of counterintuitive. You think as you get older, you got to work a lot harder to maintain. And I still work very, very hard. But it’s sort of like you climb the fitness mountain. And I always relate this to my clients: You’ve got this big mountain, and your goal is at the top of the mountain. And you’ve got all these obstacles that you have to either go over, around, or through on the way up. And that’s the most important time to stay committed, because once you start to fall off on that track, you slide back down. But once you get to the top and you’re looking out, you’ve got these beautiful views. You don’t have to work as hard as you did when you were climbing the mountain. This is about as big as I get, and I’m comfortable with that.

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