31 Oct The Guardian | Pistol squats and push-ups: how Ruth Bader Ginsburg stays fighting fit
In the days after the 8 November election, distressed liberals offered to donate their vital organs, shipments of fresh produce – anything – that might keep the supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg healthy and out of retirement.
While Democrats fretted online about the bone density and blood pressure of the oldest and arguably best-known member of the supreme court, the justice, now 84, quietly continued her twice weekly workouts with her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson.
“I always tell people, ‘If you think she’s tough on the bench, you should see her at the gym,’” said Johnson, whose new book The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong … and You Can Too!, was released this month. “She’s tough as nails.”
Earlier this year, a Politico reporter asked Johnson if he could try Ginsburg’s routine. The decision, as always, was up to the justice. When Johnson asked her, she paused to consider the request, before saying only: “I hope he makes it through the workout.”
Johnson says Ginsburg, a two-time cancer survivor whose small frame often appears swallowed in a sweeping black robe, is stronger today than when they began training together more than 18 years ago.
In an interview at Johnson’s office inside the DC federal courthouse, where he works by day as a records specialist, Johnson said he was motivated to write the book to set the record straight about what the workout entails.
“Push-ups and planks. That’s all everybody talks about,” Johnson said. “I was like, really? Y’all think that’s all she does?”
The book presents Ginsburg’s fitness regimen from warm-up to cool-down exactly as she does it in the justices-only gym on the ground floor of the US supreme court.
Each exercise is illustrated by colorful graphics of the justice demonstrating proper form in yoga pants and sneakers.
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Her workout includes chest presses, leg curls, pull-downs and cable rows, and yes, push-ups and planks. During the hour-long session, Ginsburg does regular push-ups and a version with a hand placed on a medicine ball, as well as front and side planks.
Perhaps the hardest move is the “pistol squat”, which requires moving up from a seated position with one leg. For this exercise, Johnson says he holds the justice’s hands for stability.
For years, Johnson urged Ginsburg to rest more, but once, during a workout, PBS NewsHour aired a segment that mentioned Benjamin Franklin slept only four hours a night. They exchanged looks and Johnson never again advised her to get more sleep.
Concern over Ginsburg’s health surged after the election, as liberals awoke to the reality that Donald Trump’s strongest legacy might be his power to reshape the supreme court for decades to come.
Trump has already filled one vacancy on the supreme court and it is possible that he will make more appointments during his term – a nightmare scenario for liberals. For her part, Ginsburg has vowed to remain on the bench “as long as I can do it full steam”.
Ginsburg has referred to Johnson as her “physical fitness guardian”. And asked earlier this year who the “most important person” in her life was, she replied: “my personal trainer”. Both find humor in the swirl of attention around her fitness and diet.
“I am often consumed by the heavy lifting supreme court judging entails, reluctant to cease work until I am sure I’ve got it right,” Ginsburg writes in the book’s foreword. “But when time comes to meet with Bryant, I leave off and join him at the gym for justices. The hour-long routine he has developed suits me to a T.”
They meet in the evenings, always with the TV tuned to NewsHour. The justice begins warming up slowly on the elliptical machine. She often sports a sweatshirt that says “Super Diva”, which Johnson explained was a reference to the world of opera that she adores.
During the sessions, Johnson counts each rep and periodically offers words of encouragement. Occasionally he makes jokes, which she indulges with a smile or a laugh if it’s genuinely funny – but their discussions rarely veer far beyond the task at hand. After the workout, Johnson escorts Ginsburg back to her chambers before leaving for the night.
Johnson’s doctors agree that Ginsburg has only gotten stronger with age. The trainer calls her regular bone density scans his “report card”, and so far he’s meeting the mark.
Ginsburg started training with Johnson in 1999, at the urging of her husband who insisted she was too frail after recovering from a long bout with colorectal cancer.
Over the course of her training with Johnson, the liberal justice has voted on cases that determined the fate of the 2000 presidential election, allowed unlimited spending by corporations on elections, exempted certain companies from providing birth control and legalized gay marriage.
Their longstanding workouts have endured despite the occasional interruption. Johnson, an army reservist and equal opportunity adviser, was deployed to Kuwait from 2004 to 2007. Ginsburg continued exercising with another trainer while Johnson taught kickboxing and aerobics classes on the military base.
In 2009, Ginsburg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She recovered and was back on the bench within weeks of surgery. And in 2014, she had a stent placed in her heart.
She also suffered personal losses. In 2010, her husband of more than half a century died of cancer. And last year, she lost her “best buddy”, the conservative justice Antonin Scalia.
During one workout, the justices’ friendship was a topic of discussion on the evening news. The presenter wondered how it was possible Scalia and Ginsburg had maintained such a close friendship, given their sharp ideological differences.
“She turned to me and said softly, ‘He made me laugh,’” Johnson recalled. “That was that.”
Ginsburg is perhaps the most liberal and certainly the most outspoken member of the supreme court. During the presidential election, Ginsburg was sharply critical of Donald Trump and a day after the election she appeared on the bench wearing her “dissent” collar. Even so, politics rarely interferes with their workout, Johnson said.
Johnson counts most of the supreme court’s liberal bloc among his clients. In addition to Ginsburg, he also trains the justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
But he insists would gladly train any judge or justice, regardless of their ideological leaning.
“There is no party line when it comes to exercise,” Johnson said. “A lunge, a plank, a push-up. It doesn’t matter who you voted for.”
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