Commentary

JJ strengthens his grip on Cup reign

Updated: February 13, 2010, 3:15 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- A race car driver's hands are his paycheck. They are the channel through which the intricacies of his chariot -- every creak, moan and change in performance -- reach his brain and ultimately his team, those charged with adjusting the car to peak capability.

Their grip on the steering wheel is firm yet fluid. Too tight, and the driver might miss something the car needs him to know. Not tight enough, and he might wreck it.

Drivers' hands and forearms are nutcracker strong, trained from thousands of miles of wrestling ill-handling machinery. And right now, for four-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, that is a very good thing.

Because right now, his hands are extended high over his head, grasping a pair of steel handles. Fastened around his waist is a bulky black belt with a chain attached. That chain, incidentally, is threaded through a 45-pound steel plate, which hangs between his knees.

Pull-ups.

Johnson is 5-foot-11, 160 pounds. The weight belt makes him 205. In other words, he's pulling roughly 130 percent of his suspended body weight skyward. His hands and back are freakishly strong.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson and Mark Martin
AP Photo by J Pat CarterIf anyone understands what Jimmie Johnson is going through with his rigorous workout regimen, it's fellow fitness freak Mark Martin, right.

"What he's doing now for his back is what power lifters would do, what pro body builders would do," said John Sitaras, a New York City personal trainer with whom Johnson has worked since December 2007. "I know a lot of body builders that can't do what he's doing now."

Sitaras stands alongside Johnson, guiding him through a rigorous workout. These pull-ups are the final stanza of a two-hour docket that includes bench-pressing 100-pound dumbbells, leg-pressing 500 pounds and 90-pound weighted dips, just to start.

"What I noticed about Jimmie from day one, Jimmie never trained to race -- Jimmie trained to win," Sitaras said. "That was a very clear mindset he had.

"And when we did the training, he pushed past his limits. And he has to go deep down inside and strip the essence of who you are. To get better, you really have to dig deep and find that. Can you really push that far? Are you willing to put in the time and focus to push through?"

When Johnson met Sitaras, he had two Sprint Cups on the mantle. When he dedicated himself to the current training regimen, he was marching toward a third.

That begs the question: Why invest all that time, effort and pain when he was already spanking the competition?

Because complacency is a first-class ticket to mediocrity.

"In sports, and especially in NASCAR, you cannot sit still," Johnson said postworkout while attempting to choke down an orange-ish protein mush.

"If you look through the garage area, the majority of the drivers, if not all, are on some type of training program. What I was doing [before] was working for where I wanted to be at that point. But to be the best and to stay on top, I had to find a way to step it up."

The program is working. Johnson's body fat percentage has plummeted. Although uncertain of specifics, he figures at one time it was about 20 percent. It now is around 8 percent. Meanwhile, his strength has improved dramatically.

"I think it gives him confidence that he's doing everything he can outside of the race car," said Johnson's wife, Chandra. "It has made him a machine, so determined. I've never seen anyone so focused. I think he's missed like two workouts in the past year."

Sitaras said that when Johnson first walked into the studio, he was fit and confident but had no idea what he was in for.

Sitaras began by conducting assessments of Johnson's physical thresholds. He quickly noticed that half of Johnson's body was much tighter, having acclimated to offsetting the g-force load from Johnson turning left his whole life. He was strong but off scale.

Typically Sitaras' clients are either generally strong or weak. Johnson was strong on one side, weak on the other. It was a unique challenge.

"It was complicated," Sitaras said. "You're only as good as your weakest link, and I had to go to work on those weak muscles, without giving up his strong muscles. The weaker muscles had to go up on an even scale for him to go past that.

"So he's going into those places where your identity starts to change, because you're going into an area you're not great at."

It has made him a machine, so determined. I've never seen anyone so focused. I think he's missed like two workouts in the past year.

-- Chandra Johnson

Once Sitaras successfully balanced Johnson's strength, he created four specific workouts for Johnson weekly, each unique from the others. That continues today. Four days include weight training, and six are spent doing abdominal work.

Sitaras also devises a run schedule that includes at least 20 total miles weekly, broken into several days. Some are 7- or 8-mile endurance runs, others all-out 2-mile sprints.

Each week, the regimen gets more challenging. Sitaras recalibrates the plan with new variables to ensure Johnson's body doesn't adapt to the workout, thereby helping to ensure his progress doesn't peak.

"Most days, hell is a pretty good description for what we're doing," Johnson said, laughing.

Johnson's home is in Charlotte, N.C., and visits to Manhattan are sporadic, so one-on-one time with his trainer is rare. Typically, Johnson e-mails or faxes his training logs to Sitaras in New York, with detailed feedback on the ease or difficulty of each set, the number of repetitions completed and any observations as to his performance.

Mark Martin, whose demanding fitness regimen has long been the Sprint Cup Series' standard, recently invited Johnson to his personal gym to work out. He agreed with Johnson's assessment of the program.

"He is obscenely strong for his size," Martin said. "Second to none."

Johnson's physical improvement has boosted him mentally, as well. That, he said, is the next tier of the program. There are several areas he soon will explore mentally and physically, such as fast-twitch muscle development, hand-eye coordination, physical strength and endurance, and better hydration and diet.

"There's a whole circle there that I think is real important to have complete," Johnson said.

When that circle comes full for Johnson, he feels "unstoppable" on race day.

"At the end of a race, that's when you need to be your strongest," he said. "That's when they're going to pass out the check and the trophy."

This is a new dynamic. Two years ago, he didn't feel indomitable on race-day morning.

"Oh yeah, it's definitely different," Johnson said. "I've always had something that I've done fitness-wise, but nothing to this degree, nothing as focused and for a reason. What we do all week long is to break me down and then rebuild so that Sunday morning, I wake up with peak energy and I'm ready to do my job. That's certainly a big part of the confidence climbing in the race car.

"Honestly, the best example for me to know that this has worked is how I feel Monday morning. Monday morning tells the story for me every time I wake up. I remember how I felt a few years ago on Mondays. I was worn out, dehydrated, done. I mean, Monday was on the couch."

These days, Monday means a two-plus-hour workout. That intensity required a complete lifestyle change: more sleep and proper hydration. And biggest of all, diet -- burritos and beers aren't quite so prevalent anymore, replaced by time-release protein supplements and amino acids.

"If he was drinking alcohol because he was at a celebration, I'm texting him, 'Just one drink; you can't do this because you're going to pay for it at your workout tomorrow,'" Sitaras said.

Johnson added, "After a race, on Monday, I want to drink some beer and play some golf and have some fun with friends. I mean, that just whammies me for two or three days. It impacts sleep. I've definitely cut way back.

"At this point, I really want to hang on to what I'm doing and the success I've had."

That includes on-track performance. Johnson's eight-year run at the Cup level is among the most dominant first eight years for any driver in NASCAR history. But NASCAR's rules packages put its teams in a small ingenuity box, so gains over the competition are difficult to achieve.

The gym, Johnson said, is one area in which he can beat the next guy. He is not alone. Most of the Sprint Cup elite are more focused on training. Several have hired personal trainers to work solely with them.

"Just means I have to work harder," he said. "I need to do everything I can to stay on top. Our sport is extremely demanding if you think how long the season is with 38 races. The length of time in the car, the way that I can prolong my career and success is by doing everything I can.

"And there's only a few areas I can work in. One of them is training. And it's always been important to me, but I've stepped it up to the next level and clearly I've had great results over the last two seasons doing it. And I just need to keep going with it."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.