How A Justice Stays Fit: 'The RBG Workout'

Oct 8, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In 1999, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was recovering from her first bout with cancer. Her husband said she needed to get her strength back. So she asked around and was led to Bryant Johnson. He's a court clerk who moonlights as a personal trainer. Now, almost 20 years later, that relationship endures. Justice Ginsburg, a spry 84, works out two to three times a week with Johnson. And he's written a new book called "The RBG Workout." We invited Bryant to train a few of us on WEEKEND EDITION to see if we could keep up.

This is us, the NPR team ready to go.

BRYANT JOHNSON: We got a young thundercat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: And then we have everyone else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The young thundercat mentioned is Eric McDaniel, age 25. The rest of us are a tad bit older. Bryant told me, like us, RBG wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of a hard workout at first.

JOHNSON: We've been doing it since 1999.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

JOHNSON: And so the workout has evolved over years. I do remember clearly that I told her that we will be doing pushups, and we'll be doing weight bearing exercises, and we'll be doing a lot of things. And when I said pushups, she didn't say anything. But she looked at me like, really?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was there no moment that you thought actually (laughter) I'm going to make Ruth Bader Ginsburg do pushups? Is that going to be a problem?

JOHNSON: No, it was never a problem to me. The beauty is that exercise is the equalizer. It doesn't matter who you are - race, religion, color, gender, national origin, sexual preference. It doesn't matter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You only do her? Or do you do other justices? I mean, is it - only the liberal justices? Or do you do the conservative justices, too? Is this a liberal workout - is what I want to know because people really are very obsessed with this partisan divide here. So you know, is this a liberal workout, only for liberals (laughter)?

JOHNSON: Exercise does not have a party line (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, I was about to say because we are impartial here at NPR. So I would have to recuse myself from this if that was the case.

JOHNSON: That is not the case. A pushup, a lunge, a crunch doesn't care who are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The bipartisan nature of the workout established, we got put through our paces.

JOHNSON: So since we have a group here, we're just going to kind of go nice and easy. And I'm going to have you go into a plank position once we go down and stretch the legs out a little bit. And I'm going to tell you the plank is one of the exercise that the justice is not that fond of.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: It's just laying down right? Plank - I just, like, lay.

JOHNSON: Good answer. That's the young thundercat. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) The young thundercat.

JOHNSON: It's laying down. I will show you laying down. So first of all, let's just take...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That, by the way, is, like, going to be your nickname from now on...

Bryant told me the workout is good for any age and ability, but it is designed with older people in mind because for them to stay independent, they need to be able to move around.

JOHNSON: And this is my sneaky way of getting the justice down on the ground and then making her get up off of the ground because what are elderly people afraid of? Falling down, getting up. And my mother - I trained her maybe four or five months ago in weights. And I said, I need you to get on the ground. She looked at me. She's like, I'm not getting on the ground. I waited. She eventually got on the ground. You're going to have to get - help me up. Helped her up - and now she can get down on the ground, get up. What happens if you fall, and no one's around? How are you going to get yourself up?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what muscles are you working on here?

JOHNSON: Just to get down on the ground and get up is going to take almost every muscle in your body - your core and everything - just to be able to stand back up.

Stand up. Sit back down.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The book is illustrated with drawings of Bader Ginsburg doing squats, bicep curls and chest flies, all while wearing a shirt with the word diva on it.

JOHNSON: That's her favorite shirt, and it says super diva. It doesn't just say diva.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, wow.

JOHNSON: It's super diva.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she really wears that shirt?

JOHNSON: Yeah. That's her favorite.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: That's one of her favorite shirts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Awesome.

JOHNSON: Yes. She wears the super diva sweatshirt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That - I'm now - any time I see her in her robes, that's going to be the image that I am going to have with her with a super diva t-shirt underneath...

Bryant Johnson says the most memorable moment with the justice was when he finally got her to do something she thought she couldn't.

JOHNSON: The most enjoyment I have is when she was able to do push-ups off her knees because she lit up. I kind of had my hands around her hips just in case. And she started going down and up. And I just kind of released my hands. And she just kind of went up and down. And I said, OK, Justice, you just did it without being on your knees. She's like, (gasps). And she was excited. And so that's the one exercise that she always does.

Ah, the young thundercat is shaking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What felt like hours later, the team was done.

JOHNSON: Awesome, awesome. Relax, relax, relax. Good job, everybody. That was awesome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, guys. How do you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. How was it, young thundercat?

MCDANIEL: Well, if I can do it as a young thundercat, I'm even more impressed, feeling a little bit winded, that we have - someone who's my grandmother's age can do this workout.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bryant Johnson's book is "The RBG Workout." And thanks to our staffers who huffed and puffed, especially young thundercat, which is what we now call Eric. And I had, of course, one tiny request for Bryant.

Yeah, please tell the justice I want a super diva t-shirt, too.

JOHNSON: I'll make it happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Also a super diva, this is Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUNDERCATS THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Thunder, thunder, thunder, ThunderCats. Thunder, thunder, thunder, ThunderCats. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.