In the early hours of Nov. 9, as stock markets began to rally on the news of Donald Trump’s upset win, there was another dramatic spike afoot. Interest in the bone density and cholesterol levels of an 83-year-old woman from Flatbush, New York, was also soaring.
Many people wanted to know whether two-time cancer survivor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest and perhaps the most liberal justice on the Supreme Court, had enough gas in the tank to outlast the Trump presidency, or whether Trump would get a chance to fundamentally alter the balance of the court by replacing her, a possibility he dangled successfully to entice wary Republicans to vote him.
As it turns out, the answer to that question lies largely in the hands of a staffer in the clerk’s office of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Asked earlier this month about the most important person in her life, Ginsburg, who was widowed in 2010 and lost a close friend with the 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia, responded, “My personal trainer.”
That would be Bryant Johnson, 52. You could think of Johnson’s sturdy limbs as a fourth branch of government, grafted onto the judiciary, keeping it aloft. When Johnson is not helping run the District courthouse or fulfilling his duties as a Sergeant First Class in the Army Reserves, he moonlights as a physical trainer to local jurists, including not only Ginsberg, but also Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, two of the high court’s other three reliably liberal votes, as well as several appeals court judges.
Since Trump’s election, Ginsburg’s continued survival has become a matter of severe anxiety for liberals, many of whom pressured her in vain to resign during the Obama years to ensure that a Democrat appointed her successor. On Thursday night, during an appearance at George Washington University, she vowed, “I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam.” Worried about just how long that will be, people have been offering to send her kale or donate blood or clad her in protective padding, and it’s not entirely clear they are joking.
To address their concerns, I set out to investigate the world’s most important workout, an endeavor that the chambers of Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan all promptly declined to have anything to do with.1
This was a setback. But there was a loophole. Though the justices wouldn’t touch this, Johnson was free to cooperate. Was there some way to simulate the RBG workout without Ginsburg herself?
I determined to undergo the workout myself, and to write about it. To meet a sufficient evidentiary standard to prove this actually happened, we would also have to film it.
I’m no athlete, but I’m young and reasonably fit. I thought the workout would be pattycake, but it was much harder than I expected. Ginsburg’s personal trainer, it turns out, is no joke.
Muscular and bespectacled, Johnson clocks in at 5-foot-11 and just over 200 pounds. He grew up on a farm in Virginia and played football in high school, enlisted in the military in 1983 and began working in the clerk’s office three years later. In 1997, he was certified as a personal trainer. Rather than open his own gym, Johnson trained clients from his workplace—judges, deputy U.S. marshals and other court personnel—at the facility inside the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, which houses Washington’s district court, its appeals court and the U.S. FISA Court. Word of Johnson’s prowess spread in Washington’s legal circles, and in 1999, after she recovered from colon cancer, Ginsburg began working with him at the urging of her late husband, Marty. At the time, Ginsburg has said, “I looked like a survivor of Auschwitz.” Aside from a three-year deployment in Kuwait, Johnson has trained Ginsburg nonstop since then, adding the other two justices along the way.
Johnson’s niche makes him perhaps the world’s only personal trainer whose job it is to ensure that his clients keep riding the bench, and probably the one whose work is most consequential, whether you’re rooting for or against the liberal justices staying on the job. A number of precedents that have long been fundamental to the American legal landscape, like Roe v. Wade, and more recent landmarks, like the 2015 split decision legalizing same-sex marriage, would likely be out the window should Trump get the chance to replace one of the court’s four liberal justices.
Trump has done little to allay those fears on the left, naming Neil Gorsuch, an originalist in Scalia’s mold, as his first Supreme Court pick. For her part, Ginsburg has not hidden her feelings about her contemporary from Queens. In an interview published last week by the BBC, she said, “Some terrible things have happened in the United States,” and “We are not experiencing the best times.” Last July, she was even more blunt, calling Trump a “faker” and saying, “I don’t even want to contemplate” a Trump presidency’s effect on the court, comments she later walked back.
Of course, at the beginning of every one of his campaign rallies, a disembodied voice playing over loudspeakers reminds attendees that Trump is a “lifelong defender of the First Amendment” in case they had forgotten his threats to lodge frivolous lawsuits against journalists, his vows to “open up” libel laws and his relentlessly hostile attacks on the “lying media,” which he recently described as “enemies of the people.” In a meeting last summer with Republican lawmakers, Trump also reportedly proclaimed his commitment to protecting Article I, Article II and Article XII2 of the Constitution, displaying an admirable willingness to defend equally the existent and the nonexistent provisions of our founding charter.
Suffice it to say some people3 are concerned that Trump, who has described the 150-year-old Geneva Conventions against torture as “the problem” and famously attacked a federal judge in Indiana for having Mexican parents, might reshape the Supreme Court in his own image based on ideas he got from watching the shows.4
Trump has little discernible constitutional philosophy, though he said in September that his appointees would “need to preserve the very core of our country and make it greater than ever before.”
The future of the Supreme Court was perhaps the biggest prize up for grabs in last year’s election, and depending on attrition, Trump could get a historic chance to implement his vague vision for it.
Justice Ginsburg, who will be 84 in March, is not the Supreme Court’s only octogenarian. The court’s swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, is 80 years old and Breyer is 78—making it plausible that Trump could get the chance to place as many as three reliable conservatives, or three Trumpists, in seats they do not currently hold. Last week, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said “the odds are very good” that another Supreme Court seat will open up this summer—though he professed not to have any inside information.
My investigation of RBG’s gym regimen promised to answer all sorts of questions. What is the world’s most physically fit profession, judges or journalists? And while we know that Justice is supposed to be blind, is she also ripped?
Johnson agreed to meet me on Presidents Day at an undisclosed location.5
He came dressed in a T-shirt advertising his business, BJ’s Body Justice (“It all begins with attitude”6), under his windbreaker, with an airborne pendant, a parachute with wings worn by paratroopers, hanging from his neck.
Ginsburg usually works out with Johnson twice a week, on whatever days are mutually convenient, for about an hour per session. Normally, the workouts start around 7 p.m. at a gym inside the Supreme Court, and she listens to PBS NewsHour while she exercises. If the workout has to be squeezed in at another time, she will stoop to turning on cable news.
Johnson and I began around 10:30 a.m. with a five-minute warmup on an elliptical machine. When Ginsburg uses the elliptical, Johnson stands at her side, ready to catch her in case she loses her balance. “I’m kind of like the security blanket, the lifeguard,” he said. “I’m just here making sure nothing happens.”
Five minutes on the elliptical was a snap, leaving me unimpressed. But we were only getting started.
We know a lot about Supreme Court justices’ ideological flexibility—think of the party-line ruling to end the 2000 Florida recount or John Roberts’ pragmatic vote to uphold Obamacare—but surprisingly little about their physical flexibility. After the elliptical came some light stretching, and as it turns out, Ginsburg is more flexible than I am. I was unable to bend over and touch my toes, or even grab my ankles, from a seated position with my legs extended.
After some lecturing about my need to improve and a butterfly groin stretch, we proceeded to the strength training.
When Johnson informed Ginsburg he would be leading me through her workout, she told him, “I hope he makes it through.” This was obviously some sort of coded instruction to humiliate me, because after the stretching, Johnson announced he would make me use double the weight that Ginsburg did on the strength exercises to achieve the same effect.7
For most of the exercises, Johnson said Ginsburg performs three sets of 10 to 13 reps, depending on his judgment of what her body is up to on a given day. Sometimes he engages in what he called “counting funny” to customize the length of a set, a habit I noticed when he would mumble a count of “four” under his breath after what felt like at least eight reps.8
The strength exercises started with a machine bench press, where Ginsburg normally puts up 70 pounds. From there it was leg curls and leg presses, chest flies and lat pull-downs, all on machines, while stretching the muscle groups being exercised in between sets. I performed three sets of seated rows and three sets of standing rows. It was so many rows I asked Johnson, “What about Wade?”9
He didn’t take the bait or hold forth on his own judicial philosophy. “I stay in my lane,” explained Johnson, who swore he never gave in to the temptation to play shadow clerk by offering his clients his two cents on matters before the court.
Ginsburg also performs one-legged squats, an exercise that illustrated just how intimate the trainer-justice relationship could get. While he held my hands, Johnson instructed me to raise one leg in the air between his legs and to stand up from seated position on a bench using the other leg until I was standing, practically embracing him, 10 times for each leg, three times. This was not easy, and caused me to look at Johnson — who has jumped out of helicopters, planes and a hot air balloon in the service of this country — in a way he found deeply unsettling. He asked me not kick him in the groin, something that, for the record, Ginsburg has never done.
From there, we went to the floor. Johnson said Ginsburg takes great pride in progressing from horizontal pushups against a wall when he first began working with her, to pushups with her knees down on the ground, to full pushups.
“Justice Ginsburg does 10 pushups and she does not do the so-called ‘girl pushups,’” explained Georgetown Law Professor Mary Hartnett during an appearance with the justice earlier this month at the Virginia Military Institute. “She does not use her knees.10 And then she stretches back for a very brief pause and she does 10 more.”
I was able to match Ginsburg’s pushups feat with only a little grunting, though Ginsburg never grunts, as Johnson felt compelled to tell me at one point. He also let me know, as I peppered him with questions, that unlike me, Ginsburg barely rests between sets.
Then came planks: 30 seconds of a standard plank and 30 seconds on each side. These are a recent introduction for Ginsburg, who previously performed sit-ups, and not her favorite exercise. While I planked, Johnson nudged my waist from side to side, instructing me to provide resistance, to further work my core. He does this with Ginsburg, and also stands ready to catch her should she experience muscle failure while planking.
After that, we broke out a giant exercise ball which I sat on while panting, sweating and performing arm and shoulder exercises with dumbbells. Then I pinned the exercise ball between my back and the wall and alternated sets of squats with dumb-bell curls. For this, Ginsburg pumps 12 pounds and I pumped 25.11
Next, Johnson set up a platform about 18 inches high and had me step up on it while raising my knees and performing a variety of movements to promote leg strength and hip flexibility.
Somewhere in there, he also had me perform leg exercises on the floor as well as while standing and holding on to a staff to keep my balance. At one point he even had me standing on an upside-down bosu—the top of an exercise ball affixed to a flat platform—and falling off while attempting to squat.
Finally, he had me sit on a bench while holding a medicine ball, then stand up, toss him the ball and sit back down again after he flipped the ball back to me.12 “I told the justice that if you cannot do this exercise, you will need a nurse 24-7,” Johnson recalled.
This exercise is crucial, he explained, because it employs the motion needed to use a toilet unassisted. I passed that one with flying colors. After 90 grueling minutes, panting and red in the face, I had more or less successfully completed the Ginsburg workout.
After catching my breath, I asked Johnson whether he recommended that older people do a workout like the one we just went through or do Trump’s self-professed regimen: playing golf and giving stemwinder campaign speeches. “Do something. If you’re not doing anything then I advise you do something,” Johnson advised diplomatically. “It doesn’t matter what you do. You find out what is your niche and do something. Your body is made to move.”
But does Johnson believe Trump, who is 70, could complete Ginsburg’s workout? Wisely, he declined to comment.
Trying a different tack, I asked Johnson what he made of older people who say they forgo vigorous exercise because their friends who work out suffer from all sorts of joint problems. Johnson compared muscles to a pair of pliers — which will get rusty from lack of use but begin to function like a fine-tuned machine if used regularly—and agreed that that sort of just sounded like an excuse.13
As for Ginsburg’s continued vitality, after going through one of her workouts I can confirm she could not be in better hands. Sore, disoriented and cranky, I didn’t feel a day over 65.