WASHINGTON (CN) – Ruth Bader Ginsburg has called her personal trainer one of the most important people in her life. For trainer Bryant Johnson, whose new book devoted to the 84-year-old Supreme Court justice comes out Tuesday, the feeling is mutual.
When their twice-weekly workouts began in 1999, Ginsburg had just been treated for colorectal cancer. Standing just over 5 feet in height, Ginsburg has since battled pancreatic cancer and undergone heart surgery, but it was the 2016 presidential election that put her fitness in the spotlight.
Johnson, 53, recalled the requests he has fielded in the last year to keep Ginsburg healthy through 2020.
“My thought was ‘why four years?’” said Johnson, who moonlights as a trainer in addition to his longtime job as a records manager at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “Can’t I keep her alive longer than four,” Johnson continued in an interview at his office in the courthouse. “Does it have to stop after four years?”
For Johnson, the focus is quality of life, not how much weight the 100-lb. Ginsburg can lift.
“It’s about making sure she feels good enough to stay on the Supreme Court bench,” Johnson writes in “The RBG Workout,” which hits bookshelves Tuesday.
Usually clad in a black sweatshirt that says “Super Diva!,” Ginsburg works out with several weight machines and also performs one-legged squats, push-ups and, quite industriously, the side plank.
“They’re hard for her,” said Johnson. A master trainer for the military, Johnson noted that he is continually impressed by the tenacity with which Ginsburg approaches her workouts.
“Whatever you put her up against she just goes at it,” he said. “It’s, ‘OK let’s do it, let’s try it.’ What else could you ask for in a client?”
Indeed, Johnson said he cannot recall any time Brooklyn-born Ginsburg shot down an item on the workout.
Though she sometimes surprises herself, Johnson said she shouldn’t be.
“I am not surprised because I know what she can do,” he said.
While Ginsburg is watching “PBS Newshour” during their workout, Johnson said he keeps his eyes on the justice as they move through the routine.
“If she’s rubbing her legs that means she felt that one,” Johnson said.
Johnson was born in Newark, New Jersey, but grew up in Warsaw, Virginia, moving to Washington, D.C., after high school and then enlisting with the Army special forces in 1983 as a paratrooper.
Still in the reserves, Johnson got certified for personal training in 1996 while already working at the U.S. District Court, where he had been in various capacities for the last decade.
Johnson grew his client base from the courthouse, with clerk employee Tawana Davis first on his roster, followed soon after by Elizabeth Paret, the circuit executive for the D.C. Circuit.
“She became my unofficial PR person,” Johnson said of Paret. “Because she enjoyed it, she loved it. And she just started telling people.”
U.S. District Judges Thomas Hogan and Gladys Kessler signed up for training next.
Justice Ginsburg has credited Kessler with leading her to Johnson. In the forward of “The RBG Workout,” she writes that her late husband, Martin, had insisted she get a trainer to rebuild her strength after beating cancer.
“At a pace I could manage, Bryant restored my energy as I worked my way back to good health,” the forward by Ginsburg says.
In addition to Ginsburg, Johnson also trains Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. His practice is not limited to court employees or Democratic appointees, however.
“Exercise doesn’t care who you are,” he said. “I’ve trained a gamut, all walks of life.”
Although Johnson said all of his clients are equally important to him, a small black table in his office boasts several tributes to his longest-running client.
“The RBG Workout,” Johnson’s crown jewel, is displayed upright atop other publications about Ginsburg, including the “Notorious RBG: the Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and a copy of a 2013 Washington Post article about Johnson’s judge-training side-hustle.
In Johnson’s office, cluttered with court paperwork and fitness equipment, his two worlds collide.
“I have pieces of equipment that can take you wherever you want to go physically, exercise wise,” he said.
On the floor next to his desk, Johnson had a black duffel bag packed with boxing gloves, a power rope, agility ladders, cones, mats, balls and hurdles.
He then walked over to a dresser, revealing even more fitness equipment tucked in to the bottom two drawers.
“I have resistance bands, I have resistance tubes, I have jump ropes,” he said. “I have boxing gloves, I have pads that you can hit.”
Two platters of fruit, destined for his colleagues at the court, sit on top of the dresser. Johnson’s office also boasts resistance bands hanging from the coat rack and a pain-relief device by sports-technology company Rapid Release.
In addition to organizing impromptu fitness classes for court staff, Johnson has been known to train people right outside his office door in the clerk’s office.
His workouts with Ginsburg, on the other hand, are planned with her staff a month in advance. And there is not much that can stop her from making those appointments.
Johnson recalled getting a call from Ginsburg’s chambers the day she buried her husband, Martin. They weren’t scheduled to meet that week, but Ginsburg had other plans.
“I was there, and she came in,” Johnson said. “I gave her a hug and she said, ‘it’s best that I keep doing what I do.’”
“At that point you realize the importance of exercise to kind of stay within some normalcy,” he added.
Even a dinner with President Barack Obama didn’t keep her from making an appointment with Johnson.
“She left early to make our training session,” Johnson said. “I saw her and I was like, ‘Justice, you left the president to train with me?”
Johnson had known about the dinner, but said he figured she might not make it to their appointment.
“Once again,” he said, “RBG – notorious.”
The illustrations in Johnson’s book pay tribute to Ginsburg’s flair. “That’s one of her favorite shirts,” Johnson said of the “Super Diva!” ensemble the justice is depicted as wearing.
An opera fan, Ginsburg explained to Johnson that super, short for supernumerary, refers to actors who appear onstage in the opera but don’t sing, while outstanding female opera talents are often called divas.
Ginsburg may not be an opera singer, but Johnson said her effect on people, especially on young people and women, is similar.
Recalling what he said about the meaning of her sweater, Johnson said he told Ginsburg: “But Justice, you are a super diva!”
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “The RGB Workout” ($14.99) is available for purchase at bookstores nationwide on Oct. 17. Read more at rbgworkout.com.