Bryant Johnson has been Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s personal trainer since 1999. He appears in the new documentary RBG, (out in theaters today!) where he is shown spotting Justice Ginsburg in her weight training workout. This is the same workout that was chronicled in a Politico article and later on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. That first bit of media buzz was the inspiration for the full-color instructional book The RBG Workout, with the Justice’s full support. Johnson told Justice Ginsburg about Schreckinger’s (Politico) interest and her response was “I hope he makes it through the workout.”
While her routine may not get you as ripped as Marlen Esparza, it is rigorous.
I spoke with Johnson about the Justice’s health, workout routine, and life.
At 85, Justice Ginsburg’s 5’1″ frame appears tinier. Her voice is just as articulate as her legal opinions, but quiet and measured, frankly showing her age more than some of her peers featured in the documentary. The eldest judge on the Supreme Court, she is 25 years into a lifetime appointment. Left-of-center, progressive and Democrat voters are noticeably paranoid about her longevity, a topic brought up in the documentary.
Frequently in the minority opinion against a pro-business conservative bloc, if she is replaced during the current administration, protections for women, immigrants, the environment, voting rights and healthcare will stand even less of a chance than they already do. The list of judicial precedents standing in the way of Making America Great Again goes on and on, and Ginsburg’s is not the only health liberals should be concerned with, as a Trump presidency could see three new appointments, including the relatively young Neil Gorsuch.
During the Obama administration, there were calls for her to step down. She could be replaced by a younger left-leaning judge. But Ginsburg did not step down and has said she will do the job for as long as she is physically and mentally capable. For anyone who didn’t vote for He of the Tiny Hands, there is considerable anxiety that Ginsburg continue to perform with her current acuity and fearlessness in defending the Constitution. She was not always the most liberal Justice, and as is shown in RBG, was a consensus-builder before becoming the renowned dissenter.
It seems coarse, ageist, and a little sexist to ask after RBG’s health, but, like the documentarians, I have to. Women of America need reassurance here.
Johnson says, “I have called her a cyborg. She keeps going until she can’t go.” She trains twice a week for about an hour, and this fuels her frightening cyborg work ethic. RBG explains that she works until early morning and catches up on sleep on the weekends. Johnson says the workout reinvigorates her. “She leaves with 153% more stamina.” Not only does the workout put pep in her step, it resets her mental capabilities. Johnson says she puts on News Hour during her training and “gets to turn her brain off for an hour.”
Justice Ginsburg initially started training with Bryant Johnson in 1999 at her late husband Martin’s behest. Marty, as RBG called him, said she looked like she’d just left Auschwitz. Justice Ginsburg underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation (all without missing a day in the Court) and survived. Johnson and Ginsburg’s shared the same goal. “We were focused on getting her stronger, improving her bone density, getting her stamina back.”
Johnson agrees that when she first came to him, she was very weak. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer, pancreatic, and again fought it with surgery, chemo, and radiation. Johnson points out that physical activity is one of the biggest factors in surviving cancer, and this is especially important for women. He educates his clients on exercise and cancer risk, and supports the organization 2unstoppable, which helps cancer patients access physical fitness individually and in a community. He’s designed tee shirts, the same ones that Justice Ginsburg wears in her workouts and in the documentary, that say Super Diva! (Justice Ginsburg is an opera enthusiast), and all proceeds go to 2unstoppable.
The opera reference invokes high drama, but for Johnson, the work ethic embodied by RBG, both in the court and in the gym, is not flamboyant or a spectacle. “The way you show up, the way you grind, you don’t cry, you don’t complain, you just do what you have to do. You are a strong woman, you are a super diva.”
Early in the documentary, Justice Ginsburg tells us that her mother taught her to be a lady, which to her meant keeping her emotions in check. Not exactly the first connotation I think of when I hear the word lady, but it explains how Justice Ginsburg’s naturally sober character and tireless work ethic fits so well with Johnson’s training style.
His message to anyone trying to get into an exercise schedule: “It matters less what you can’t do. It matters what you can do and we’ll go from there… No matter what you’re going through, just show up. That’s half the battle.”
I jokingly ask Johnson how much can RBG lift? “In what particular exercise?
“It’s all relative. She does five pounds in shoulder raises, leg extensions are 60 pounds. Pull downs are 40-70 pounds. She does weight training at least twice a week, cardio at least twice a week. Cardio can be taking a walk.” Johnson doesn’t buy these metrics as a measure of strength. “There’s body weight movement and functional movement” in RBG’s routine. And all of it is aimed at maintaining strength. “The routine has gotten harder because she’s stronger. She keeps up the pace.”
In addition to her workout, Johnson’s sense of humor and friendship no doubt supports her stamina and health. In the documentary, the Ruth we see is outwardly somewhat stoic. Johnson says, “She has to be on guard. If there’s a microphone in front of you, you have to be careful what you say. She’s very precise when she gives answers. She’s very thoughtful.”
It seems like all Justice Ginsburg needs is a light push to show what Johnson calls her “excellent sense of humor.” Her husband Marty was a jokester, and he seemed to give her permission to crack up. In the film, this (and a shared love of opera) seems to be the strongest thread between her and her close friend, but judicial and philosophical antithesis, Justice Antonin Scalia. However hard Johnson’s routine is, he can “crack a joke or a comment and she’ll laugh to the point she almost chokes.” Careful there, Johnson. We need her.