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Fighting Chance

Imagine what you need to do to succeed in action movies. Aside from being photogenic and a competent actor, you have to project a heroic aura, something that makes you stand out, even if you play bad guys. Not only must you embody the character and everything he stands for, but you also must make his actions credible. Whenever possible, you should at least be willing and capable of performing your own stunts on camera.

Somehow, after you’ve fulfilled each of those requirements, you also better have chemistry with the public. They have to like who you are and how you come across in the story. Reaching this goal can take a painstaking climb up the entertainment-business ladder or a series of lucky breaks — usually a mixture of both. And when the big time doesn’t seek you out, you’ve got to make your own luck.

Enter Michael Jai White. Here’s a man who has the qualities — namely the talent, physique and charisma — and yet he isn’t waiting around for Hollywood to do him any favors. Recently, he wrote, produced and starred in his own hilarious action tribute to a genre of film that is famous for its independent spirit, a future classic that he called Black Dynamite. Granted, the blaxploitation era is 40 years old; its heroes never really hit the heights, but White knows the difference between corny and cool. His movie is a treasure trove of references and in-jokes, and he channels Jim Brown like few others could.

Meanwhile, he refuses to stay cooped up in some character-actor limbo. He’s displayed admirable range in comedies (Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?), noir thrillers (Batman tale The Dark Knight) and crime drama (Thick as Thieves). His is also the voice of Green Lantern in the 2006 Eidos video game Justice League Heroes.

In addition to his acting chops, a big part of what makes White special is his dedication to the martial arts. A holder of seven black belts (in shotokan,kyokushin and goju-ryu karate, taekwondo,kobudo,tang soo do and wushu), he approaches weight training with the same kind of discipline and practical attention to detail that one would come to expect from an athletic champion. Here’s more on how White has created a physique that gets noticed in Hollywood.

M&P: What philosophy drives your training program?

MICHAEL JAI WHITE: For me, it’s all about aesthetics and performance. I think it’s no coincidence that those who are aesthetically balanced are better athletes — your centerline can move much better when your front and back musculature are balanced. There’s something that’s universally pleasing about a balanced aesthetic, and to achieve that balanced aesthetic is to achieve great physical ability, as well. I’m always going for that.

M&P: What is your main weight-training focus?

WHITE: One of the flaws committed by many people who lift is that they neglect the back tremendously. A lot of guys are always doing bench presses [and other front-of-body exercises], and that will cause your shoulders to pull forward, which in turn brings the weight of your arms in front of your hips. Then the lower back suffers because it has to compensate. It’s no wonder why people have so much lower-back pain, because they don’t do enough back work. Men tend to do what’s dominant for them because a lot of them are coming at it out of ego. “How much do you bench-press?” is a common question from guys, not “How much can you row?” Women tend to overtrain their legs, because that’s generally their most powerful part, and neglect their upper bodies.

M&P: On the flip side, is there a body part you steer clear of training?

WHITE: I never do shrugs. When I’m in a suit and tie, I look like an athletic gentleman. Overly developed traps would just ruin that by limiting how I’m viewed. The next films I’m getting ready for, I have to stay on the lighter side because if I’m one of the biggest guys in the movie, it no longer looks heroic when I beat up a smaller guy. Coming in at 210 to 215 pounds is really light for me — when I’m 230, I just appear to be the biggest thing on-screen and then I look like a bully instead of a hero.

M&P: For your recent movie Black Dynamite, is there anything special you did to get ready?

WHITE: Mainly, it’s just martial arts training As it turned out, I’d done a movie, Blood and Bone, that wrapped 10 days before Black Dynamite started filming. In many ways, I was already there, having done plenty of fighting stuff for Blood and Bone.

M&P: Martial arts aren’t really known for focusing on bodybuilding; there isn’t really a lot of intersection between the two. What allows you to bridge that gap and practice both?

WHITE: I knew there were some [practitioners who came] before me who enhanced their martial arts abilities through bodybuilding. First, there was Joe Lewis, who has become a good friend of mine. I had a picture of him on my wall as a kid that he has since autographed for me — he was shirtless and was holding a wooden sword. I wanted to look like that when I grew up. Knowing he was a martial artist told me that you can be a great martial artist and muscular because he was fast and powerful. I think I’ve always had that image in my head.

M&P: So keeping the two together has been something that’s been part of your mentality the whole time?

WHITE: I use bodybuilding to alter my physique to work best for me in my martial arts. I can manipulate my weight a lot with bodybuilding, but I know the weight limit at which I’m less effective. Not all weight is good weight to me.

M&P: It’s said that Bruce Lee avoided doing a lot of biceps work and focused on triceps because it benefited punching.

WHITE: Maybe, but I don’t think it would have made a difference. Bruce Lee had a lot of fast-twitch muscle, and that was going to take over no matter what. Look at today’s sprinters as opposed to those from 20, even 10 years ago. These guys are ripped. I borrow a lot of my training methods from them. I know a lot of Olympians; I was a decathlete in college. It’s all about having muscle that’s functional, which is important to me.

M&P: Are there bodybuilders you learn from, as well?

WHITE: I use a couple of principles I learned from a good friend of mine who I train with every now and then, a guy named Victor Martinez. He was sixth at last year’s Mr. Olympia. He finished second in 2007, and he’s a contender for Mr. Olympia this year. I train with Victor and his trainer.

M&P: Can you walk us through a typical workout?

WHITE: I pair chest and triceps. I think I’m chest dominant, so I really am a bit careful about how much flat bench I do. I try to concentrate on inclines and shaping movements. I’ll warm up with push-ups, then I’ll start using dumbbells for pressing. I thrust my motions forward and hold to work the fast-twitch, explosive muscle fibers. In essence, I’m punching. Every bench press is a punch.

M&P: So you’re doing a sort of punch against resistance?

WHITE: Exactly. I also do a thing with curls — I take an EZ-curl bar or barbell and curl it hard enough that I can let it go into the air and catch it.

M&P: How many sets do you do per muscle group?

WHITE: I do three to four sets per muscle group, maximum 15 reps per set, minimum five or six. Sometimes [I’ll do more for] a residual muscle group. [For example], when I’m doing back, I may finish up with six sets of rear delts because they’re already worked indirectly through the back workout.

M&P: The back is a strong group, but it’s also easy to injure — so how do you do those explosive fast-twitch exercise with your back?

WHITE: The very same way. One of the things that might scare some people is with my back extensions — I’ll get on a 45-degree-angle back-extension machine holding a weight and come up with such velocity that I will stand all the way up. I get a lot of muscle stimulation that way because I’m exploding. When you’re grappling and you have to lift someone, you’re using the lower back and you have to explode up. Or just like when you’re doing jerks and cleans.

M&P: So you don’t believe in muscle-group isolation exercises, or do you also do them occasionally?

WHITE: I do them occasionally. One muscle group that I isolate quite a bit is my rear deltoids because they can never be too big. I tend to hit those specifically for growth with bent-over dumbbell raises and bent-over rear-cable flyes.

M&P: What kind of physical results do you see with your explosive-oriented workouts?

WHITE: I see a mature muscle quality overall. When your muscles fire like that, you’re working not only the target body parts but also everything else. When you see a picture of somebody running in stride, all these muscles are in play that wouldn’t be if they were moving slowly. Also, I govern my results through my diet — the same workout with a different diet will gain me size, while an alternative diet would keep me lean.

M&P: Do you use supplements to achieve your physique goals?

WHITE: Yes, I do. If I had to gain weight quickly, I’d use creatine. It makes me hold a lot more water in my muscle tissue. That’s a quick fix for me, but I pretty much do branched-chain amino acids [daily], and I drink about two protein shakes a day. I eat pretty well, too — I’m pretty consistent. I get a lot of vitamins through my diet.

VITAL STATS: Michael Jai White

BIRTHDATE: Nov. 10, 1967

BIRTHPLACE: Brooklyn, N.Y.


HEIGHT: 6′ 1″

WEIGHT: 215 pounds

FILM HIGHLIGHTS: Spawn (1997); Universal Soldier: The Return (1999); Exit Wounds (2001); Why Did I Get Married? (2007); The Dark Knight (2008); Blood and Bone (2009); Black Dynamite (2009); Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010)