The best thing about talking to Jason Statham is that it’s exactly what you’d hope talking to Jason Statham would be like. The voice that makes gravel sound like sand. The almost poetically geezerish turn of phrase that led director Guy Richie, nearly two decades ago, to cast the former street trader in Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, then promote him to the lead in Snatch. The only unexpected bonus is the chuckle.

This partly explains Statham’s enormous popularity, and why his upcoming slate continues to be packed with sequels: Spy 2, The Expendables 4 and Fast & Furious 8. OK, so he’s only been in three of the latter, but still, the point remains: audiences, whether cinemagoers or Men’s Health readers, want more of him, because what they see is what they get. Unlike the dodgy watches he used to flog, Statham is legit. Kosher. Proper.

(Related: training tips from Stath’s co-star Vin Diesel)

Of course, a large part of this enduring appeal is down to the spectacular athleticism that has seen Statham triple-pike into the best seat at Hollywood’s action-hero table. Impressively knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his training, Statham can teach even professional fitness writers a thing or two.

But even if he appears to have everything figured out, with the approach of his 50th birthday (yes, really), Jason Statham is the first to admit that he’s
still learning as he goes.

For the benefit of the reader, can you explain how we came to be photographing you in New Zealand?

Sure. I was over there shooting a film for Warner Bros about a big shark [Meg, out in 2018, which sounds ridiculously brilliant, or brilliantly ridiculous]. I’m very excited about that. And the good fortune was I was able to get a great house there and set up a nice gym.

It looks a lot fancier than the set-up you had last time we spoke [for the June 2015 issue of MH]. Back then you’d been filming Mechanic: Resurrection in Thailand and training with barbells made out of old car axles…

Ha! Yeah, this was a little bit more streamlined. I had a framework put together in the backyard, this sort of bar workout area where I could mount some gymnastic rings. I’ve been using rings as part of my training now for the past 12 months. If you can find a place to string them up, there’s so much benefit that can be had in terms of shoulder mobility and real, usable strength. I really like them because you’re always trying to learn a new skill, which makes things more interesting rather than just repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s such a difficult piece of apparatus to master. I’m getting better, but I need a bit more time in the saddle before I can show you pictures of the iron cross…

What kind of moves have you nailed?

Well, luckily I have a bit of a gymnastic background from back in the day. So I can get an L-sit, I can get a handstand. But the things that are very beneficial are the muscle-ups and the rotations through the shoulder: hanging upside down, moving around and almost creating a kind of flow. You’re developing strength, but you’re also developing mobility at the same time. A lot of people throw around heavy weights but they don’t take the shoulder joint through its full range of motion, which is a key problem for most guys. That kind of training might be great for that one position, but the shoulder is a complex joint that requires a fair amount of maintenance. The rings are perfect for that.

During our last conversation you were quite adamant about not working with a PT. Are you still training yourself?

Yeah. Over the last couple of years I’ve started to look really closely at doing things correctly. When you’re on your own, you can do a lot of examination of your movements and how good or bad they are. There’s so much information on the internet now. You can acquire the knowledge to figure out exactly how to do the big lifts and other stuff correctly while avoiding injury. It’s been good. I’m really enjoying the studying and putting it into practice.

(Related: Can you handle the official Statham workout?)

And you’re still training by feel rather than following a programme?

It’s funny, I did so many years of set things: cardio this day, weights this day… Some people need structure, and to write everything down. For me, I’ve been there and done that, so I’m happy to make up my workouts depending on how I feel each day. I’ve learnt that the body is like an adaptation machine: whatever you throw at it, it finds a way to do that particular thing and you never make any more gains from that. Doing my own thing in the gym each day gives me variety. I’m always trying new things. And it’s a way for me to figure out how to fix those old ailments that I’ve gathered over the course of my silly career.

Plus you don’t have the peer pressure of the gym to put another plate on the bar and do yourself a mischief.

There are benefits to both. Some of my better days were when someone was hanging over me and really pushing me. But that’s what I was trying to do at that time, and I can push myself in different areas now. A trainer sometimes comes with their own ideas and it’s hard for them to understand how I got all my fucking injury problems. By training yourself, you can be really responsive to how your body feels and adjust accordingly. It suits me at the moment. But who knows what I’ll be doing next year? Training’s part of my life and it’s always changing in some way.

Is there anything that you always do?

I always train in the morning. I’ve always been a morning person, back from my days as a diver. When you train in the morning, you can never make the excuse that you ran out of time, or this meeting came up, or you couldn’t get back from work. Those things don’t apply. If training’s first on your list of things to do, it never gets compromised.

Do you have any guiding principles for how you put a session together?

I tend to combine some kind of Olympic lift with gymnastic training. And it depends on the acuteness of that training. If I do heavy squats or deadlifts on the Monday, I’m not going to do anything like that again until Thursday or Friday. Recovery is a key issue that I’ve always overlooked. In my earlier years it was all about quantity and making sure you got tonnes done, even if you felt tired: just get in there and get it done.

You’ve obviously got some skills: levers, handstands…

Yeah, I see a lot of the calisthenics stuff that’s all over the internet and these people make it look so good. And their physiques… I’m always impressed by people who make a muscle-up look that easy. They’re the movements that I want to do.

(Related: Ultimate muscle-building tips from Jason Statham)

Everything has to work in unison for you to perform those static holds.

Exactly. Bodyweight training really allows you to find your weaknesses rather quickly [laughs]. You need all the components: flexibility, explosive power, the lot. You can build a good physique just lifting weights down the gym. But that doesn’t necessarily give you the athletic agility. And for what I do, agility is more usable than just sheer brute strength.
So that’s what I tend to lean toward.

So doing handstands on the parallel bars is more than just showing off?

[Laughs] I actually do handstand dips on those! You get big powerlifters who can lift a car above their head; for me, to do a handstand dip, and get right deep into that dip through the bars, that develops great, usable strength. And I always enjoy executing a skill at the same time. It’s very hard to develop bad technique with a handstand dip.

I saw you had some kettlebells in your set-up, too. What do you do with those?

Again, the kettlebell is a fantastic piece of equipment. You can get a whole workout done with just one of those. There’s that guy, he’s done a couple of books, I forget his name now…

Pavel Tsatsouline?

Pavel, yeah! He’s great. I’ve listened to him in a couple of interviews, I think it was on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. There are some great people on his podcast. Charles Poliquin talking about strength training, too. Joe Rogan’s another smart guy who I listen to regularly. Really informative. They’ve all got different ideas about training, so you get a real slice of their experience and then you can take it or leave it.

Fast 8 is out next month. What canyou let us know about that?

What can I tell you about the storyline? Not much – I’m sworn to secrecy. What can I tell you about the process of making it? It’s a big beast. They spent a lot of money on it. The stunts are great. Everybody gets stuck in. I love working with the Rock. We’re just about to start all the promo, so you’re going to hear about it. People all around the world love that franchise, so here’s another one. And it keeps going.

Speaking of keeping going, you’re turning 50 this summer…

[Laughs] I am! That’s right.

How do you feel about that?

You know what, I feel pretty good. I’m in decent shape. I’ve been harbouring a lot of injuries and I’ve almost cured them all over the past year. When we speak next year, I’ll be giving you my road map to recovery! But yeah, I’m moving better than I used to. I’m feeling pretty nimble. It’s about the whole thing: training, eating, sleeping… all of those have a massive impact on how you feel. And I’m doing better at all of those things. Sly Stallone’s got 20 years on me and still looks good so he’s part of my inspiration.

The Expendables 4 is in the works.

I sat and had a meeting with Sly before I went away. Any opportunity to work alongside that man is a great one. He’s got such a reputation and a charisma. What he stands for in the movie business, and the fitness world… he’s been an inspiration to so many people. He’s a man that you can’t say no to. So when he comes to me and says, ‘Listen, I want to make another Expendables, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m in.’ He definitely wants to do one, so it’s real. But there’s no concept yet; it’s still pie in the sky. We’ve got to figure out what the story is – and who comes to the party.

(Related: The Rock v Jason Statham – who do you back?)

What have you learnt from Stallone?

It’s hard to pinpoint a philosophy. It’s more of an intuitive thing. He has a lot of confidence, and great ideas about how things will play out. He doesn’t work from a textbook and he didn’t learn it from film school. He is Rocky. That’s what he’s like. Everything he does seems to be with a natural swagger. And, like in any kind of business, when you see someone doing their thing so well, you become a sponge. You soak it up.

If you asked someone to think of a ‘real man’ or a ‘tough guy’, they’d likely think of you. Who would you think of?

Ha! These public labels, the things the media like to paint you as, I don’t really look at them. I see myself as a pretty standard sort of chap, really. I keep a lot of my pals close to me and I think that keeps my feet on the ground. I don’t know if they’ll say the same thing! But we all come from the same place. Some of us have certain jobs and some of us don’t. Hollywood has a caustic effect on a lot of people. It’s a cruel business. You can get a big head about things. But what goes up must come down.

People inevitably confuse you with the characters that you play, but you’re indisputably an action hero for this generation. Who were your heroes?

Bruce Lee graced my brother’s bedroom walls when I was a nipper. He was a massive inspiration and he’s never had anyone who could get close to him in terms of physical ability and confidence. He was very, very special. And he could probably take on 10 guys for real. Today, you’ve got to put on a pair of tights and a cape to be able to do that. He was authentic and I think that’s the key word. Muhammad Ali was exactly what he was, too. These people are inspirational because they’re not pretending to be something that they’re not.

Are you still doing a good amount of martial-arts training?

Yeah. That’s what I have to give most of my time to these days: training for what I have to do in terms of providing action in an authentic manner. If I’m trying to show something on screen, I want to be able to do that and not rely on special effects or a bunch of other chaps who can do it better than me. When I talk about authenticity, it’s people like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and even Sly himself, he gets stuck in. These are the people that I like to work alongside because there’s an authenticity to those chaps.

Your old mucker Guy Ritchie is a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and brown in karate. Do you ever spar together?

I remember when we started out, we’d go on a press tour for Lock, Stock… and we’d be moving all the furniture out of the way in the hotel room, trying to choke each other out.

That’s one way to keep all those interviews interesting…

Exactly! You turn up with a scrape on your head and the interviewer is like, “Where did that come from?” They probably thought we’d stumbled out of a bar and had a fight with the pavement. I’m a huge fan of MMA and always have been, ever since the first days of the UFC. It really filters out the non-effective aspects of martial arts: you get to see what works and what doesn’t. I love it.

What do you think of Conor McGregor?

I love him, too. He’s so good. He’s got every aspect of what he does down to a fine art. He’s got the ability and he’s so confident. When it comes to the banter, the destruction of his opponent mentally, there’s no one better. I can’t get enough of him. I think he’s superb.

As we mentioned, you’re about to turn 50… What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 20?

You don’t have to grind so hard. It’s not about quantity; it’s about figuring it out, the refinement of the movement: that’s where the benefit really lies. Before it was about getting the work done. But even when I was diving, the coaches really knew nothing about how you can generate the most power, and how the movement is essential to that. What I’ve learnt is that I’ve missed out on so much. Every detail of how you do an exercise is key to how you progress and get really good at something. And that translates all the way down, from Olympic lifts through to the gymnastic skills, everything. If I’d have known then what I know now, I’d have gone back to the basics a lot, lot sooner.