Brooklyn in the 1970s was no place for the weak. If being tough didn’t come naturally, you soon learned. Michael Jai White found this out first-hand. ‘I was an insecure kid growing up in a harsh environment. Martial arts was my armour,’ says White. And although he started training at the age of seven, he wasn’t pushed into it by his parents – in fact, White had to attend these classes in secret without his mother knowing because she didn’t even want him learning martial arts.
‘She thought I would use it to fight and get in trouble so she didn’t let me go,’ says White. Since he says he was a child who would ‘go into abandoned buildings and punch holes through the walls for fun’, you can see where she was coming from. At first he would go with friends and watch from the sidelines. After months of learning purely by observation, the instructor allowed him to train for free. By the age of 13, he was knocking out grown men and received what would be the first of seven different black belts. And thus was conceived a truly formidable fighter with flair.
The Michael Jai White you see on screen is an absolute monster. With his 106kg of pure muscle, the untrained eye would assume he’s a bodybuilder. While White does need that amount of bulk to look good on screen, he also needs to be able to move dynamically, which means every single kilo of muscle must contribute to functional strength. He tells MF the exercises he uses to achieve the right balance between hulking mass and explosive functionality.
You’ve got the massive physique most men dream of but you still move like a lightweight. What’s the secret?
I’ve always worked on explosiveness. I have never wanted to sacrifice speed during my reps.
So you’re laser-focused on lowering slowly in a rep and then powering up out of it as quickly as possible?
Absolutely. I literally throw the weights as hard and fast as I can to develop maximum power. So for the bench press or Smith machine, I throw the weight at the top of the rep, catch it, then lower it – I am basically punching with the weight. I do the same thing with barbell curls, I throw the bar and catch it at the end of each rep. I train like a sprinter – they have huge, defined bodies but it’s all useful, powerful muscle.
How many reps and for how many sets are we talking, and at what kind of weight?
I generally do 12 to 15 reps for three to four sets at 65% of my one rep max – it’s really about quality, though. As the reps go on, you can’t fling the weights as much so you need to squeeze and contract the muscle as hard as you can at the top of the rep to get that ripped definition. Even when you can’t throw the weights any more, still try to explode up as much as possible.
What about legs?
The standing leg press is ideal. I get on that and just literally jump at the end of each rep. Otherwise you can do normal squats but explode by jumping up out of the rep.
Where are most guys going wrong in the gym when it comes to looking good?
Everyone wants big arms and a big chest, but 80% of guys I see in the gym are doing it completely wrong. They don’t realise the shape of your whole arm and chest is dependant on your triceps and back. So you see people hammering away for years at the heavy curls and bench press thinking it’s going to build them up but instead of developing good-looking arms and chests, all that happens is their shoulders and chest get pulled forward and they look hunched – the complete opposite of what they want. This can even hurt the lower back as well, because it has to compensate for the weight of your arms and chest putting weight beyond the centreline of your body.
What should we be doing then?
Wide-arm pull-ups. People need to realise that strengthening the back muscles will make your chest and arms look more pronounced by pulling your shoulders back and opening your chest. Pull-ups are easily my favourite exercise because they are one of the best at strengthening your back, which keeps your aesthetics balanced and makes you look good without a shirt. It also straightens out your spine.
Also, practise your triceps dips to focus on building thicker arms because the triceps are the muscles that really make your arms look good. If you really want to work your explosiveness, try to progress to muscle-ups when you get strong enough.
How many reps and sets?
15 reps of wide-arm pull-ups will really develop a strong back to open up your chest. They go well with your bench press so superset them if you want a good balanced chest workout. When these get too easy, start weighting your pull-ups. Start with small plates and steadily add more as you progress. I generally use 115lb [52kg] which is half my bodyweight.
Get the Coach Newsletter
Sign up for workout ideas, training advice, reviews of the latest gear and more.
Sam Razvi wrote for Men’s Fitness UK (which predated and then shared a website with Coach) between 2011 and 2016.