Bryant Johnson, Personal Trainer For Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On Staying Fit, Staying Motivated & Ditching The Excuses
6 min read
By Kathleen Nicholson Webber | June 16, 2020
Bryant Johnson spent 30 years in the U.S. Army, 12 of which were in the Special Forces airborne unit, jumping out of planes. But despite all that bravery, most people know him as the guy who's been keeping Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in tip-top shape for the past 20-plus years. After he was referred to Ginsburg by another Justice (he trains three) back in 1999, he started working with her when she was recovering from cancer and looking to get stronger.
Johnson's custom workout for Justice Ginsburg focused on building strength, and eventually became a best-selling book in 2017 after a young Politico reporter read about him in The Washington Post and approached him about trying the workout for an article, Johnson asked Ginsburg permission to do the story. After some thought, she replied, poker-faced: "I hope he makes it through."
The reporter barely did make it through. The Politico story went viral and a book publisher approached Johnson about putting pen to paper. The result, "The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong and You Can Too" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), features a forward by the Justice, who has called Johnson "the most important man in her life" after her family. Over their time together, Johnson has seen Ginsburg through four bouts of cancer. "She has recovered from colorectal and pancreatic cancer and never missed a beat," he says.
The book walks the reader through the one-hour of cardio and strength training that once made that 26-year-old Politico reporter crumble. Johnson can also be seen training the then 85-year-old Justice in her now-famous documentary, "RBG."
The founder of Body Justice, Johnson is a certified personal trainer to many judges and other high-powered people on The Hill, and is a master trainer in strength training, boxing, kickboxing and sports and conditioning. In addition, he still trains military personnel around the world, and sits on the board of directors for 2Unstoppable.org, an organization educating women diagnosed with cancer about the benefits of staying active during and after treatment.
Here, Johnson talks with Connect the Dots about the physical changes of menopause and the best exercises to help us stay fit and healthy.
Connect the Dots: You've been training Justice Ginsburg since 1999 and have seen her bounce back from cancer and other health issues. What has that been like?
Bryant Johnson: Working with Justice Ginsburg is an honor and I am truly humbled to have been given the opportunity. It enabled me to develop the Dynamic Wisdom Workout, which teaches people to help themselves. She likes to listen to "PBS NewsHour" while we train and will sometimes comment on the news of the day.
CtD: Let's talk about women in menopause. What do you see happening to them physically when they're going through this life stage?
Johnson: In menopause your estrogen and progesterone levels decrease, which leads to weight gain. These hormone changes can also lead to osteoporosis. Your body is like a fine automobile - the first 30,000 miles requires very little maintenance, but after that you need to do routine maintenance. But just because it's older doesn't make it obsolete. As you age, you have to take care of your body more. The added benefit of an exercise program is that you will have more energy and you sleep better, and sleep is often disrupted in menopause.
CtD: Given your years of experience in personal training, what do you consider the best cardio for women in menopause?
Johnson: Cardio is only one component of fitness. Whatever cardio you do is fine as long as you do something. The other components of fitness are muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility and body composition, which is your body fat to muscle ratio. Whatever cardio you choose, it can't be boring because you are less likely to stay with it. If you like to power walk, then walk for two minutes and do some squats. Walk again for 10 minutes, then do 10 lunges.
With Justice Ginsburg, I cut the rest time down between cardio to keep the intensity up. Interval training is the best way to burn calories. Think of interval training like gas mileage on a vehicle. Which burns more gas, highway or city driving? City driving, because it's stop and go. Well, interval training is slow and fast. Jumping rope can be better than running because it's high intensity. Jump rope for 100 strokes, then rest for 30 seconds, then do another 100 strokes.
CtD: Weight training is a big part of the RBG workout. What are the best bodyweight - or actual weights - exercises for women in menopause?
Johnson: A pushup, a squat and a plank cover it all. Bodyweight movements like squats, lunges and pushups are great weight-bearing exercises that build stronger muscles and help with bone density. Not doing weight-bearing exercises will lead to osteoporosis. Your bones get brittle in menopause and that can be bad if you have a fall because you're more prone to break a bone.
When I tell people they need to train with weights, many will say, "But I don't want to get big and bulky." You won't. Using resistance tubes with handles and a door anchor are great muscle-strengtheners. You can do a pull-down, a row and a chest press. You can mimic almost every piece of equipment in a gym at home. If you're a beginner, you start with things like wall pushups and then build to doing pushups on your knees, then to doing pushups off your knees. Then add planks.
Many will say, "I can't do a squat." Sit on a chair or bench and hold three-pound weights. Sit down and stand up. That's a squat. My report card for Justice Ginsburg came back when she visited her doctor in her 70s and her bone density had gone up. The doctor said he had never seen that happen to a person of that age. Whatever you're doing, the doctor said, keep it up.
CtD: What are some of the fitness "mistakes" you see women in menopause making?
Johnson: Not doing any type of exercise at all, or if they do work out, not including weight-bearing exercises. You can do weight-bearing exercises at home. You can do squats, pushups and use a gallon water - it weighs about eight pounds - or 16 ounce water bottles, which weigh about 2.5 pounds - to do curls. Be creative. There are many exercises you can find online that use just your bodyweight.
CtD: Let's talk about diet. What food choices do you see women getting wrong in menopause?
Johnson: Remember the analogy of your body being like a fine automobile? Well you can't eat what you used to when you were in your 20s and not gain weight given the decreases in estrogen that affect your metabolism. You have to eat more protein for bone density and to build muscle, and you also need to increase healthy fats and grains. Once you start working out and getting into a routine, you'll say to yourself, 'I don't want to sabotage my work,' and your body will also crave healthier foods and water.
CtD: How do you keep clients motivated?
Johnson: I talk to them about the principles of my Dynamic Wisdom Workout: consistency, courage, resilience, thoughtfulness and toughness.
When I say, "Be thoughtful," I mean know why you're doing what you're doing. The body is the greatest machine known to mankind, but it needs attention. When people say, "I've fallen off the wagon," I say: "That's okay." Because when you fall off the wagon, it doesn't move; it stays right there waiting for you to get right back on. It's like a jet ski - when you fall off, the lanyard that's around your wrist cuts the jet ski off and it stops and waits until you get back on.
It's all about what I call "Choice Fullness": having the awareness, ability and control to make wise, thoughtful and self-directed choices about fitness and controlling the things you can. In order to change, you have to do something.
Excuses are easy. I remember someone told me once that they were too old to work out. I said, "Justice Ginsburg is 87. She started 21 years ago with me, at age 66." Or they'd say, "I'm too busy to work out." I say, "Are you busier than a Supreme Court Justice?" Or they might say they have a bad back and are too weak to work out. Justice Ginsburg has survived four bouts with cancer and each time has continued to exercise. I say be consistent over time and just show up.
Kathleen N. Webber is a freelance writer who has written about fashion and retail, beauty and wellness, and the environment for Women's Wear Daily, W, Women's Health, The Philadelphia Inquirer and EcoWatch.