How Strength Training Helped Race Car Driver Josef Newgarden Win the Indianapolis 500

How Strength Training Helped Race Car Driver Josef Newgarden Win the Indianapolis 500

Before he gets behind the wheel, 2023 Indy 500 champion Josef Newgarden usually runs on the same kind of premium fuel as his race car…well, most of the time.

“On race weekends, every now and then, I’m eating Fruity Pebbles as a snack before bed because that’s what’s going to satisfy me,” the two-time IndyCar series champion says with a laugh. “I go by the 80-percent rule. If I’m hitting my goals 80 percent of the time, then it’s OK if I slack off a little.”

It’s funny, but the physical challenges of racing a race car are serious: As he hurtles down the track at more than 240 miles per hour, 5,000 pounds of gravitational force bear down on Newgarden’s head. When he turns, he can catch six or seven G’s of lateral force.

Race Car Driver Josef Newgarden pumps his fists in front of a crowd while standing on a stage.
Courtesy of INDYCAR

“It’s like a fighter jet that’s just been designed to go on the ground,” he says. Without power steering, the average steering weight at those speeds is 25 to 30 pounds. “It’s like going to the gym, picking up a 25-pound weight plate, and trying to steer for an hour and a half — in a cockpit that’s 110 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.”

That’s why the 12-year veteran of the IndyCar circuit has always been committed to training not just in the car but in the gym — so much so that in The CW’s 100 Days to Indy documentary show, another driver suggested that Newgarden has “too much muscle.”

But that muscle’s working. Last month, the 32-year-old got his first Indy 500 win in 12 tries. Sadly, the post-victory milk chug didn’t come complete with Pebbles.

Here’s how Newgarden’s training has evolved and what he’s added to his regimen to keep his edge on and off the track.

sweat equity

At such blistering temperatures in the car’s cockpit, Newgarden sweats a lot during a race; he says he loses several pounds before the checkered flag.

“Hydration has always been the most critical component that we have to think about when preparing for a race,” he says. “If you find yourself arriving on race day dehydrated, it’s really hard to hydrate yourself 24 hours before the event. You’re really got to start a week out from the race.”

Like an endurance runner who’s carb-loading, Newgarden performs a kind of electrolyte loading to make sure he stays hydrated and focused behind the wheel. This includes sports drinks and water, of course, but also extra sodium: “I sweat mostly sodium…so I’m drinking quite a bit of it to keep my levels up and make sure I’m not depleted on race day.”

[Related: Why Don’t I sweat When I Workout?]

To Go 240, He’s Got to Stay Under 185

While he wants to be strong to wrestle his car against thousands of pounds of force, Newgarden says he can have too much muscle on race day.

“I like to put on as much muscle mass as I can acceptably get away with. I can’t weigh over 185 when I start the year,” he says. That’s because all IndyCars are balanced for their drivers to weigh 185 pounds or less; if the driver weighs less, ballast weight is added to bring the total up to 185 — so if a driver tips the scales at 150, 35 pounds are added to the cockpit. But if he weighs more, Newgarden says, “I’d basically be taking a weight penalty.”

Josef Newgarden performing Russian twists with a medicine ball on the shirtless floor.
Courtesy of DREAM Digital

To be as muscular as possible at 185 pounds, and maintain as much as possible during the season, sweating bullets in the car, Newgarden periodizes his training. In the offseason, he bulks, trying to increase strength and overall mass. He’ll do bodybuilding-style workouts combined with heavy lifts.

“As we get close to the season, I’ll start changing from max strength to muscular endurance,” he says. “On top of that, I need a great cardiovascular base. That way, I can use my body for a long period of time and take advantage of the cardio base I’ve built up.”

During this endurance-building phase, he says, he’ll do CrossFit-style workouts, as well as lots of rowing and work on the ski erg. He values ​​both cardio styles because they engage his entire body, just like a race car does.

[Related: How to Burn Fat for Weight Loss and More Definition]

Eating for Driving Muscle

To fuel his bulk and maintain muscle throughout a sweaty season, Newgarden’s diet isn’t just Pebbles: His focus, he says, is protein.

“Protein is the most important macro for me to be [tracking],” he says. “With the stress of traveling and the stress of the season, I’m losing muscle mass throughout the year. So I just want to make sure I’m eating enough protein to maintain it. So as long as I’ve got my calories up to a level to maintain my weight, and I’ve got enough protein to support muscle mass, I’m pretty happy.”

He stays happy, he says, but allows himself some stress-busting treats on race weekend, but keeps it simple. The worst thing that can happen is eating food that disagrees with him before he’s behind the wheel.

During the off-season, Newgarden adds more carbs to the mix to help with his bulk. One off-season cheat he looks forward to while adding weight: Pancakes.

“If I’m cheating, I’m definitely going to a really good brunch spot. I’m going to have a ton of pancakes, add some eggs to that, and then an iced latte,” he says.

[Related: The Best Whey Protein Powders for Muscle Growth, Weight Loss, and More]

Building Boulder Shoulders to Steer

To prepare for the heavy turning weight of his IndyCar, Newgarden doesn’t just joke about “steering” a plate at the gym. It’s an exercise he really does.

“I’ll pick up a 25- to 45-pound weight plate and do shoulder rotations with that for 30-60 seconds on a set,” he says. This variation on a plate raise, called a bus driver, keeps tension on the shoulders as you turn, similar to what he experiences behind the wheel. Newgarden also does 60-second sets of plate halos, where he raises a plate in front, then rotates it around his head before reversing the motion.

Courtesy of DREAM Digital

With the weight extended in front, these moves also tax the core. To keep himself upright against the thousands of pounds of G-force, Newgarden turns just about every exercise into a core-challenging move.

“So even if I’m going to do a chest press, I like to do it in a braced position on the floor,” he says, with his hips elevated in a bridge position. “Then there’s a core component to that.”

[Related: The Best Shoulder Exercises for Building Muscle and Strength]

Training to Explode, Not to React

To be ready for split-second turns and other decisions, some racers train their reaction time. Newgarden used to do this, doing drills with lighted discs (see the video below), but he says he’s stopped.

“I’ve just found it doesn’t make that big of a difference for me,” he says. “I’m of the opinion that you either have this incredible skill set or you don’t. We’re already operating at such a high level. I don’t know if you can make it better.”

Instead, he’s been training to be more explosive to turn his reactions into movements faster.

“Instead of reaction training, we try and build a reactiveness to the body…so it’s used to firing fast-twitch rather than slow-twitch,” he says. “And so anything I do now is geared sort of in that direction.”

[Related: The 16 Best Plyometric Exercises to Power-Up Your Training]

Taking the Plunge and Trying to Keep Up With His Wife

After workouts and during the two-week layoff between races, Newgarden says he’ll do anything and everything to help with recovery: He’s always trying to commit to yoga to stay limber as he ages and will use an infrared sauna on a few days. And during the winter at his Tennessee home, he’ll use his icy swimming pool for an afternoon cold plunge.

“My wife would join me, and it would be like 38 degrees in the pool. It’s gnarly,” he says. “And she would get on these three-minute sets — three minutes on, three minutes off. And I just couldn’t join her in that! I would do one three-minute set and be done; I’d go back inside and look at her getting in and out of the pool. She was nuts!”

[Related: The 10 Best Cold Plunge Tubs for Muscle Recovery in 2023]

Josef Newgarden’s 5,000-Meter Row-and-Clean Workout

During the season, Newgarden says he wants to build muscle endurance and save time, so he’s been drawn to CrossFit-style workouts.

Josef Newgarden's row-and-clean workout
Courtesy for INDYCAR

[Related: The Best CrossFit Workouts for Beginners]

“I really like the challenge of trying to complete a certain amount of exercises in a given time period while trying to be safe,” he says. This workout alternates work on the rower — Newgarden says he’s a “big C2 guy” (indicating the Concept 2 Rower) — with a dumbbell clean and press, both moves that incorporate the entire body.

How to Do It:

  1. Perform 10 dumbbell cleans and presses (Newgarden uses 35-pound weights).
  2. Row 1,000 meters as fast as possible.
  3. Repeat the clean/presses, then the 1,000 meters. Keep going until you’ve performed 50 reps and rowed 5,000 meters.

target time: 25 minutes or less

[Related: The Best Rowing Machines for Home Gyms, Budget, Competition, and More]

Wrapping Up

For Newgarden, physical preparation from workouts like this means he’s strong enough to pilot his car as it careens around the Brickyard or the streets of a major city in a race like the Detroit Grand Prix. But unlike in other sports, where an athlete’s performance hinges on their speed, agility, or explosive power, winning or losing on the racetrack comes down to making split-second decisions again and again. And the IndyCar winner says his work his in the gym gives him an edge there, too.

“You’re taxed in numerous ways during a race,” he says. “The more physically prepared you are, the more you can really lock in on the mental side.”

Featured Images: DREAM Digital / INDYCAR

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