What's it like to be the personal trainer for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Turns out it doesn't involve a whole lot of talking.
For a while, the working title of Bryant Johnson’s book was “How I Saved The Country One Push-Up at Time.”
It would have worked. As the personal trainer of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Johnson is working to keep one of the oldest and most liberal voices on the court in fighting shape through the Trump presidency.
“People tell me, ‘You have to keep her alive for four more years,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Why four? Why not six or eight or 10?'”
And why not help those who don’t get to wear a robe to work?
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Last fall, Johnson published “The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong … And You Can, Too!”, a whimsical-yet-serious little volume (just 128 pages) that includes illustrations of Ginsburg, 84, demonstrating the moves Johnson has put her through twice a week for the last 20 years.
And she does them he was quick to add, without modifications.
Johnson will appear at The Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, Feb. 17 from noon to 1 p.m. to sign books and demonstrate some of the moves he puts Ginsburg through.
“Full-strength planks, push-ups, chest and shoulder presses, bicep and leg curls, one-legged squats and knee raises,” Johnson said. “Pull downs, cable-rows. Inner- and outer-thigh. Glute work.
“Yes, we work the booty.”
You don’t really want to think about a Supreme Court Justice’s butt, but it is literally part of Johnson’s job.
As a clerk at the U.S. District Court (and an Army Reservist), Johnson became a certified trainer and started working with some of the judges there, including Senior U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler. It was she who recommended Johnson to Ginsburg, who in 1999 was recovering from treatment for colon cancer. (She never missed a day on the bench through her chemotherapy and radiation.) In 2009, she underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer.
“I didn’t have any expectations,” Johnson said of their first meeting. “All I needed to know was what she could do. When I saw her, I said, ‘OK, she’s a little small, she’s frail.’ And I had her do weight-bearing exercises to help with the bone density.”
They meet two or three times a week in a Justices-only gym inside the U.S. Supreme Court building. He calls her “Justice,” and she usually wears a “Super Diva” sweatshirt, a gift from the Washington, D.C. opera after Ginsburg appeared onstage as a supernumerary (an extra, for those not up on opera lingo).
When Ginsburg first arrives, Johnson performs what he calls “The Three As: Assess. Adapt. Adjust.”
“She sits down, she doesn’t say much and I say very little. I’ll say, ‘Hey Justice. How are you?’ and she’ll say, ‘Hey Bryant, I’m really tired,’ or ‘Hey Bryant, an hour’s sleep.'”
“When (the Supreme Court is) sitting, that’s when (Ginsburg) has a lot on her plate,” Johnson said. “She stays up all night reading every opinion. That’s when she has the least amount of sleep.”
Once the workout starts, there is no break or conversation. Johnson is fine with the quiet. He was raised in Virginia by his grandmother, who was deaf.
“So Justice Ginsburg not talking to me is fine,” he said. “We just take in each other’s presence and we have grown to like each other because of that. You don’t always have to be talking.”
The workouts take an hour, during which Ginsburg keeps the television tuned to The PBS NewsHour. Every now and then, she will talk back to the television or laugh at one of his jokes. Otherwise, she is stoic and focused.
“She may laugh, and I’ll be like, ‘Yes! Finally. I got a good one.'”
When they’re finished, he escorts her back to her chambers.
Johnson has never signed a non-disclosure agreement. “I came by word of mouth,” he explained. “That’s the beauty of it. They came to me. They sought me out.”
People only learned about him when, during an appearance last year, Ginsburg called Johnson “One of the most important people in my life.”
“She said it in kind of a whimsical way,” Johnson said. “She was stating the importance of keeping herself healthy.”
A reporter from Politico contacted him, wanting to do Ginsburg’s workout, which she said was fine.
A publisher saw the story and sent Johnson an email: Would he like to write a fitness book, based on his work with the Justice?
He forwarded the email to Ginsburg’s chambers.
“This was not me pushing this,” he remembered telling her. “This is the result of somebody else and if you say OK, I will go forward. But it can’t in any way look bad on the Court.”
A few weeks later, after the lawyers had gone through it all and Ginsburg was assured final edit, she arrived at the gym and said, “So I hear you’re going to be an author.”
“I was like, ‘Huh?’ and it was so touching,” Johnson said, “because she didn’t have to do that, she didn’t have to agree to it. It’s part of her legacy, I guess.” Ginsburg even wrote the foreword.
The book is a best-seller on Amazon.com’s “Stretching Exercise and Fitness” category, no doubt because it is “The Notorious RBG” on the cover. And Johnson has created a website, RBGWorkout.com.
Johnson is “honored and blessed” to have Ginsburg as a client, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to go easy on her.
“It doesn’t matter who you are when it’s time to do that push-up,” he said. “That robe ain’t going to help you when you get on the treadmill. It’s the greatest equalizer.”