The Power of RBG: Working Out With a Supreme Court Justice

This story was originally published on Nov. 8, 2017. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Sept. 18, 2020, of pancreatic cancer.

Bryant Johnson could have been easily intimidated when he first met Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1999.

But Johnson’s upbringing in Warsaw, Va., surrounded by determined women like his grandmother, mother, aunts and sisters, prepared him for the justice and his task to guide her wellness journey.

The coming together of Johnson, a full-time U.S. District Court clerk, with Ginsburg is well-documented and is the basis of the story behind the book, “The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong and You Can Too.”

Johnson’s book offers readers an easy-to-follow fitness plan filled with colorful illustrations. The book shows a variety of stretches and exercises that can be done at home with fitness bands and dumbbells, as well as instructions for getting the same results one would get at a fully equipped gym.

With encouragement from her late husband Martin, Ginsburg began training with Johnson in 1999 after treatment for colorectal cancer. The two have continued to work together, even getting through Ginsburg’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2009.

To help Ginsburg bounce back from chemotherapy and radiation, Johnson, a certified trainer, researched the physiology and the psychology he was up against.

An illustration from Johnson’s book.

“What does chemotherapy do but rip and tear your body apart? It destroys your body and in turn rips your soul,” Johnson said. “You feel less than a person. Start building that body up and your self-esteem comes back.”

The results with Ginsburg have been impressive. She was in her 60s when she started with Johnson. Now, the 84-year-old justice has annual bone density scans that serve as a report card for the increase in her bone density. Advancing from wall pushes to on-the-floor traditional pushups to front and side planks also are indicators of Ginsburg’s fitness.

Johnson also spends time at the Supreme Court gym, working out with Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. In addition to his high court clients, Johnson also trains several federal judges and courthouse staffers.

“I train them as I would want to be trained — it’s all about them,” he said.

So how does this 53-year-old court clerk and fitness trainer manage yet another job as a U.S. Army reservist? Johnson went into the Army in 1983 and was trained as a paratrooper. The Sgt. 1st Class now serves as a U.S. Army Equal Opportunity adviser at least one weekend per month or as needed. He manages a brigade that works with soldiers on discrimination issues like the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Just as in regular society, you can’t discriminate in the military,” Johnson said.

Johnson fully believes everyone can be fit. He hopes the “The RBG Workout” inspires people to do something for wellness.

Ginsburg has already inspired the women in Johnson’s family. His 75-year-old mother is hooked on exercise, now adheres to a vegan diet and has lost 50 pounds. One of his aunts walks two miles a day. Another aunt asked Johnson to show her how to use the weights at the YMCA.

The workout plan, along with Johnson’s enthusiasm, is contagious.

“Exercise is the great equalizer,” he said. “It doesn’t care about your race, religion, color, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. You’ve got to do it.”

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