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I Got My Ass Kicked by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Personal Trainer

Keeping Ginsburg healthy and alive is more than a joke — it’s a job. And Bryant Johnson knows better than anyone what would happen if he were to slip up.

It’s 9:45 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and I’m standing in a bright, nearly empty gym in the basement of the U.S. District Court. My muscles are burning, I’m wearing a sweat-soaked, royal blue “Super Diva!” T-shirt that grossly contradicts my mood, and I’m trying my absolute hardest not to puke. Welcome to Washington, D.C.

To steady my stomach, I try to center myself. I think of where I am, and the things that have happened in this building. Just a few floors above me, in a series of airy and marbled courtrooms, some of the most infamous trials in American history have taken place. Bill Clinton was tried here when he diddled Monica Lewinsky with a cigar. Oliver North was taken to task for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. George W. Bush and his administration were ordered to search for and preserve the 22 million emails regarding WMDs in Iraq they conveniently claimed to have “lost” just weeks before he left office.

Down here in the court’s well-stocked subterranean gym, however, I’m undergoing a very different type of trial. Amongst the well-worn machines and shelves of colorful weights, mats and exercise balls, I’m attempting the Ruth Bader Ginsburg workout, the now-infamous fitness routine developed specifically for her by her personal trainer, 54-year-old Bryant Johnson. Tall, bespectacled and always clad in his airborne pendant (a parachute with wings worn by paratroopers), Johnson’s military-bred posture is softened by the near-constant grin he wears between high cheekbones on his perpetually clean-shaven face. A man of happy contradictions, he’s warm and upbeat, but also looks like he’d wreck you if push came to shove, the very definition of tough but tender.

Of all things, his wrists, broad and steady from years of working on his own fitness, offer the most telling example. On one, he wears a stunning, expensive-looking watch with a digital face and pedigree I’m too uncultured to know. On the other, a sentimental, handmade bracelet of white and blue beads. On training days, he’s full casual in sweats and a grey hoodie advertising Body Justice, his personal training business. On others, he’s decked out to the nines in tailored, cerebrally detailed and color-coordinated suits replete with silk pocket squares and matching glasses. And though he can be a boisterous hype man and a total sucker for practical jokes — he once convinced a newly discovered half-sister he’d never met that he was a white guy named “Ned” — he’s also present, meticulous, focused and calm — a vision of militaristic poise and reliability wrought by years as a Sergeant First Class in the Army Reserves and a stint abroad in Kuwait. “I play, but I’m not playin’,” he laughs, something he’ll repeat many times throughout the handful of days we spend together, perhaps unaware how adequately that describes who he is.

As I get to know both sides of him, it becomes clear why Ginsburg has kept him around as her trainer for 20 years, and why Johnson jokes she’s the longest relationship he’s ever had. They just get each other, something he tells me comes from growing up with a deaf grandmother who taught him to communicate by feeling and intuition, not with words. And as the Notorious RBG is Notoriously Taciturn, he’s perhaps the only person in her life she can speak to without saying a word. Twice a week, the two meet in the Supreme Court gym for a 90-minute workout she schedules with him months in advance, always at night, and always around 7 p.m. because, as Johnson laughs, “That woman isn’t a morning person.” In fact, he’s just come from training the 86-year-old night owl to exact her signature workout on me.

We start with a non-threatening five minute warm-up on the elliptical, followed by a series of mild stretches that lull me into the false belief that what we’re about to get into will be docile. Three reps each of increasingly weighted chest presses and quad extensions convince me otherwise, and pretty soon, I can barely peel myself off the floor after a series of brutal side planks and “unstable one-arm push-ups” that turn my muscles into quaking mush. “You know you’re doing something right when it feels like someone’s pouring hot water on you,” Johnson jokes.

Me, nearly dead, only halfway done

Not that Ginsburg shows it when the hot-water feeling hits her. If something’s too much for her, she just screws her face up and powers through it, same as she’s always done since her career in the male-dominated field of law began nearly 60 years ago. Without so much as a peep, she does lat pull-downs, one-legged squats and push-ups, and no, not the “girl” kind. And just when you think she’s had enough and needs to curl up in front of a Golden Girls re-run with a hot Lipton tea, she busts out a medicine ball and balances on it while she squats and pumps iron at the same time (she can bench press 70 pounds, which is exactly 70 percent of her body weight, in case you were wondering). And, unlike me, she doesn’t even need to puke after.

Her workout is brutal, and in case you haven’t heard, it’s supposed to save the world. While it was originally developed by Johnson to keep Ginsburg fit and healthy enough to survive the colon, pancreas and lung cancer that have plagued her on and off for years, he says the workout is now being counted on to help her survive President Trump. “With all that’s going on in the news, I’d be lying if I were to say this workout wasn’t getting a little extra attention lately,” he says, handing me a pair of lime-green weights my arms will feel for days later. “We don’t really talk about that stuff in the gym, but let’s just say the stakes have been raised.”

* * * * *

It’s November 9, 2016, one day after Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. On an upper level above the white marble halls of the Supreme Court, the woman who many consider to be the most important in the world walks into the basement gym and makes an uncharacteristically blunt announcement to Johnson, who is waiting for her inside: “Well Bryant, looks like you’re going to have to keep me alive for four more years.”

“Well, Justice,” he replies. “Looks like you’re gonna have to add some more reps to your routine.”

Were this directive coming from somebody — anybody — else, it might have been nothing more than a lighthearted joke told to ease the dread of an impending workout. But Ginsburg isn’t just anyone. She’s an octogenarian who recently survived two bouts of colorectal cancer, broke three ribs, had a pair of suspicious nodules removed from her left lung and is the subject of a countless number of conspiracy theories claiming she’s already dead. To anyone unfamiliar with the Herculean workout routine she does to avoid giving that theory any credence, it might seem that Johnson and whatever other doctors and specialists she relies on to “keep her alive” have a tall task on their hands.

But for Johnson, keeping Ginsburg alive is more than a joke — it’s a job. And he knows better than anyone what would happen if he were to slip up.

Were Ginsburg to become incapacitated or die before Trump’s out of office — a fate not out of the question for a tumor-prone 86-year-old, even a fit one — there’s no question that America as we know it would change. The president, semi-erect with power having already appointed conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, would almost certainly fill Ginsburg’s empty seat with another right-winger to tip the balance of liberals to conservatives to the autocratic ratio of 3:6. Because there are no longer any true moderate justices sitting on the bench, this would give the right an unchecked amount of power to make good on their promises to overturn fundamental precedents like Roe v. Wade, throw same-sex marriage out the window and do away with protective laws that prevent discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, race and religion, among other things.

Given what’s at stake, it’s not a stretch to say that the iron grasp Ginsburg’s vowed to keep around her seat may be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a president whose entire platform seems to be predicated on the vaporization of human rights and the cherished American ideal of liberty and justice for all. In a very real way, Ginsburg keeps democracy as we know it alive, and Johnson, wielding the immortal weapon of longevity-increasing exercise, does the same for her. No wonder he says he’s often referred to as the “most important man in Washington you’ve never heard of.”

It’s not just Ginsburg he’s important to, though. She’s a part-time gig. Also on his training calendar are justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, several appeals court judges and an ever-evolving lineup of bureaucrats who rely on him to keep them fit and focused enough to lay down the law. As such, Johnson’s services have been affectionately referred to as the “fourth branch of the government, grafted onto the judiciary, keeping it aloft.”

Several of them, including retired District Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr., even credit him with keeping them in well-enough shape to do their jobs. “After every workout with him, I felt like going to court and doing my absolute best,” Kennedy tells me. “This job, it takes a lot out of you. It’s high stress; you’re always sitting. Physical fitness puts your head in the game. It declutters your mind, which is important when you’re making big decisions. Training with Bryant brought out the best in me, and I know at least one other judge who feels the same.”

When he’s not sculpting the glutes of Capitol Hill, Johnson somehow finds time to work his full-time job as the records supervisor in the clerk’s office of the D.C. District Court, where he manages, organizes and stores every ounce of paperwork that passes through the court. It’s a relaxingly bureaucratic break from his regularly scheduled military duties, which take him around the country conducting equal opportunity counseling at bases, the monthly naturalization ceremonies that he emcees and the exercise advocacy he does with 2Unstoppable, a group that promotes physical fitness for female cancer survivors such as Ginsburg.

As I contemplate all that he has on his plate, the weights I’m leg-pressing suddenly don’t seem as heavy. If I can barely handle three reps of an exercise that an 86-year-old grandmother does twice a week, how is it possible that he can keep Ginsburg alive, sustain the pulse of the U.S. judiciary and work between two and four additional jobs without imploding under the pressure? I’m aware the military makes ‘em strong, but that just seems superhuman. Is this guy a jack-of-all-trades, or something else entirely?

* * * * *

As I’ll come to find during my time in D.C., Johnson’s unique life experiences have laid the groundwork for a mind-state that allows him to handle the pressure of his job. Physical artifacts of this are strewn about his office on the ground floor of the U.S. District court, a cluttered, navy-blue-carpeted mega-cubicle where I begin my futile attempt to unravel him. Currently, I’m waiting with amusement while he rummages through the mini-fridge in search of a can of Northern Neck, a Canada Dry imposter he’s convinced is “the best ginger ale in the world.” You can only get it in Virginia, he tells me as he hands me a cold one. He keeps his fridge stocked with the stuff to remind him of home.

Johnson was born in the working class suburb of Newark, New Jersey, in 1964, but he was raised by his grandparents in the rolling green hills of Warsaw, a high school-sized town about an hour northeast of Richmond. For an independent only child like Johnson, who liked to play outside, or “the country” as he calls it, Warsaw was a total wonderland. His closest neighbors were a quarter-mile away, and his house was surrounded on all sides by dense cornfields and lush woods, an organic playground he spent hours exploring on his own nearly every day. His grandpa worked the fields and his grandma wasn’t about to galavant after him into the woods, so Johnson spent a lot of time alone. Without the constant oversight of adults and others to mold his mind, his imagination grew like untrimmed hedges, largely unchecked by the disappointing realities of life as a young black man living in a region where the culture didn’t always sync up with the law.  

With no one around but rivers and gullies to tell him what he couldn’t do, he began to develop an inner voice that told him what he could. No matter how hectic things became, if he shifted his focus inwards and listened to his inner voice, things would be okay on the outside, too. “That’s how I learned to shut out all this, ‘Oh my god, she’s so frail!’ and ‘She could die any minute!’ nonsense,” he tells me. “My inner voice was the equalizer. It filtered out what didn’t serve me and let me focus on what did.”

Not that some anxiety about his work doesn’t slip past the filters from time to time. But if he ever gets too anxious about Ginsburg or her health, he employs a little mind trick he learned during paratrooper training: He thinks of a calm place where he feels safe, where he can tune out the outside noise and focus on the task at hand. For him, that place is 4,000 feet above the ground in the cabin of a wide-body C-17 aircraft with a 30-pound parachute strapped to his back, the fields and forests creating a patchwork quilt of brown and green below.

“Want to learn how to control your fears and anxieties?” Johnson asks me as he adds 10 more pounds of weight to a Medieval-looking machine we’re using to pummel my rhomboids. “Try jumping out of a perfectly good airplane just because some guy with more patches on his jacket than you told you to.”

As a soldier in the Army Special Forces Airborne Unit, Johnson did that hundreds of times in preparation for his 2005 deployment in Kuwait. And though he never had to use that skill in combat — he ended up working with jammer networks to intercept IED signals for convoys — every training jump he completed conditioned his mind to put his fear aside and trust the process the military had taught him. “In the air, you don’t have the luxury of self-doubt,” he says. “There’s no time to second-guess yourself, or to consider what would happen if you failed. All you have is your training, and all you can do is act. You have to trust yourself. If you don’t, well… splat.”

And so, when his phone blows up with text messages notifying him that Ginsburg broke a rib or he’s hit with the realization that it’s largely his duty to make sure she bounces back, he does the same thing he did with his anxiety in military training: he turns his brain off as best he can and puts his faith in the process.

That said, when doctors found cancer in her lungs last year, he was just as nervous as everyone else. Same for when she had to have a stent implanted in her right coronary artery to address a blockage in 2014. But again, instead of allowing himself to be consumed by worry, he trusts in the decades of preparation he’s had for sustaining her. “The day after she came home from the hospital after the lung cancer was removed, she wanted to work out,” he tells me. “I had to train her at her house. I didn’t know how it was going to work out, but I had to trust that she could do it. And I had to trust myself that I could do it.”

* * * * *

Back in Johnson’s office, I take a moment to look around. It’s a flurry of boxes, books and papers that have begun to grow vertically over the 30 years he’s worked here. Next to my chair, there’s a shrine-like table with his book, The RBG Workout, proudly displayed alongside a pile of memoirs and autobiographies written by his clients and friends. Across from that, there’s a bowl of apples and bananas anyone is allowed to take from at any time, so long as they promise not to ask him if it’s okay.

The most notable thing in the room is a bookshelf displaying an eye-catching photo of him and President Barack Obama talking at a naturalization ceremony Johnson emceed in 2014. Just seconds before their interaction was immortalized, Obama had stopped in his tracks to admire the beige, orange and green suit Johnson had tailored especially for the occasion. If you look close enough, you’ll notice Johnson’s normally composed demeanor has cracked, and he looks genuinely surprised, holding his hands together in a way that’s uncharacteristically awkward for someone who’s spent a lifetime becoming comfortable enough with his own body to use it as a tool in the military and as a trainer.

That, he tells me, was a reaction to the president reaching for his silk pocket square. “Time slowed down, and I couldn’t believe the president was about to touch me,” he laughs. “He don’t even know me like that!” He had to physically restrain himself from swatting Obama’s hand away, and even had to excuse himself from their conversation because he could feel he was about to stan out and lose his cool.

Working with Ginsburg can bring on a similar feeling. Though they’ve been training together for decades, he tells me he does have to stop himself from losing his composure over her — and her health. Because just like with Obama, if he succumbs to the same hysteria about her as the rest of the world does, he’ll lose his focus and slip up. And in his line of work, slipping up is far more consequential than a simple mistake. “If you’re anything less than 100-percent focused and present when you’re training somebody, you could seriously hurt them,” he says. “I do that once, and there goes the neighborhood. Because of that, I have to be hyper-present all the time. That’s the only way I can do this job.”

His grandma Essie trained him well in that department. Essie was a firecracker of a woman who shocked everyone she met by speaking with crystal-clear enunciation even though she’d been deaf since the age of 16. Far from the type of girl who’d let a little thing like a lack of hearing stop her from living her life, she taught the people closest to her to speak an expressive, non-verbal language of mimics, gestures and facial expressions so she could watch TV, talk smack over cards and go to church, just like everyone else.

Johnson spent more time around Essie than anyone, and so, he became her most prized and capable translator. If they were at church and a group of people were talking to them, she’d study him intently as he listened to them and read his lips when he’d reply. Based on how he reacted with his body and expression, she’d know exactly what to say. She’d turn to the person who’d been talking and reply as if she’d heard everything they’d said herself.

“You have to be so present to be able to that,” Johnson says, a tone of wonder accenting his voice. “I learned that from her. That’s the only reason I’m able to adjust and adapt to what I have to do on a daily basis. She taught me to be present enough that I respect who a person is without getting caught up in the position they hold. That’s the key to presence. It’s not about me.”

He’s especially ever-present in the gym, where it’s not too difficult for him to notice my growing despondency and muscle failure toward the end of the workout. Without having to say anything or acknowledge my vaguely embarrassing struggle, he seamlessly pivots into roasting me to give me a break while I catch my breath. “Looks like you’re about to meet my friends Ralph and Hurl,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. “I remember my first 10-pound weight.”

Somehow, his humor gives me the motivation to push through, and I surprise myself by finishing the workout with my lunch — and my dignity — intact. Johnson calls the way he was able to tap into my personality and adjust the workout to my needs “dynamic wisdom.” It involves him using the non-verbal communication skills he learned from Essie, the balance of his inner and outer voice and his military training to “assess, adjust and adapt” to where a person’s at before tapping into their unique personality to shift their subconscious into thinking they can get through it.

As the recipient of this psychological tinkering, you don’t even realize it’s happening to you. All you know is that you were belly up just a moment ago, but now, you’re finishing the workout. You walk away thinking you can do way more than you thought you could, and he didn’t even have yell at you drill-sergeant style (though he tells me he’s perfectly happy to do that too, if that’s your thing).

It’s this ability to tap into what his client’s needs are in the moment that’s made him so precious to Ginsburg.

During his first session with Ginsburg 20 years ago when the Supreme Court justice was a spry young thing of 65, he remembers asking her if she felt comfortable adding squats and push-ups to her routine. Without a word, she shot him a look like he was “stuck on stupid and locked on dumb,” a non-verbal rebuke he instantly recognized from his grandma. “I never asked her another question like that again,” he says. Today then, most of their workouts are conducted in a blissful, familiar silence — save for the occasional murmur of PBS NewsHour in the background — the place where both of them feel most at home. This unspoken connection is the central control tower of their relationship, and the reason why they’ve stuck together for this long.

There is one thing he couldn’t keep quiet about, though. A few years into them working together — when he felt like he’d earned the right to say anything he wanted, within reason of course — he was escorting her back from the Supreme Court gym when he finally decided to ask her something he’d wanted to know for years: “What’s the deal with the Super Diva shirt?” he wondered, referring to the bedazzled, typeset sweatshirt given to her by the Washington Opera that she wore — and continues to wear — to nearly every workout.

With a wry smile, she told him it was a reference to the lead female role in opera, which just so happens to be the one thing she loves more than three reps of chest presses. The Diva is the lead, she explained to him. It means you show up, no matter what it takes, and do what you have to do. “Just show up” became her mantra, and soon after, it became his, too.

“Once you show up inside,” he says, tapping his fingers against his chest, “you show up everywhere.”