CAREERS PODCASTS


Bryant Johnson
Personal Trainer to RBG

If you think you don’t have time to work out, imagine how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fits it in. Bryant Johnson, trainer to RBG and other justices, tells us how she does it and explains why physical wellness is integral to performance in other parts of your life. Bryant also shares a valuable idea about how to think about your personal impact. You don’t want to miss this one.

Bryant Johnson

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Resources

• Bryant’s Website

Show Notes

Mitch Zuklie:

Hi. This is Mitch with another edition of our podcast. And today’s guest is Bryant Johnson. Bryant is a personal trainer, but he’s not just any personal trainer. He has been training Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for 20 years. He’s also the author of the RBG Workout. He’s a records manager at the U.S. District Court and does some special work as a U.S. Army reservist. We were incredibly lucky to have Bryant join us at our partner retreat in Southern California earlier this year, where he led a very fun and inspiring Saturday morning workout. We are really excited to have you back and have the chance to talk with you some more. Thank you for being here.

Bryant Johnson:

Thank you so much for having me.

Mitch:

Absolutely. So, Bryant, can you tell us how you became the Justice’s personal trainer?

Bryant:

She had just finished her first bout of chemotherapy for colon cancer. Her husband looked at her and said that she needed to find a trainer to get her stronger. Then she looked around for certain people, and she asked a judge, Judge Kessler. And Judge Kessler said, “Why don’t you try Bryant? He’s been my trainer for a few years and it might work out for you.” I met the Justice—I knew her from the Court of Appeals—I met her, sat down and talked to her for a brief moment. She’s very quiet, soft spoken. She asked me “How many days a week do you think I should work out?”

Mitch:

And the answer?

Bryant:

For the Justice to start off at least two times a week. She looked at me, and she nodded her head. I gave her some paperwork to fill out, and then we started, and it wasn’t long within our workout sessions, you know how some people are very talkative…

Mitch:

Yeah.

Bryant:

Justice is not talkative at all. So, at that moment, the Justice—you know about her wisdom, and, by her being quiet, all that really did was have me revert back to me being raised by my grandmother. My grandmother was deaf, and she never knew sign language. So, I communicated by way of mimic. And I would play charades, I would mimic things, you know act things out, so she could communicate and we had an internal form of communication. Well, the Justice didn’t talk much, no small talk. So right away I saw that my experience with communication kind of worked perfectly with her. And then over the 20 years that we’ve engaged together, it started kind of integrating—the keys of our long-term communication and success.

Mitch:

Why do you think that exercise and fitness are such an important part of taking care of ourselves and performing optimally?

Bryant:

There are three levels that I talk about. There’s physical, there’s mental and culture. All of them work together, hand in hand. But, people have to understand how to deal with the rapidly changing culture, which can also be toxic and chaotic. And often bring in ways that interfere with physical wellbeing. Because you’re in here and you’re trying to get everything done, so now you’re neglecting your physical wellbeing. Because you’re engaged and you figure that if there are 24 hours in a day, I can work 25 out of those 24 hours. And that’s not going to work here. So, our physical wellbeing is a base and the core foundation to optimal success. You must protect it at times. I remember I was telling somebody one time, “In order for you to do right, you got to get right.” And so, when I said “get right,” you’ve got to make sure that the body’s right. The mind will follow. If you’re sick and you’ve worked yourself to the point that you can’t even function, then what good are you going to be able to do on the job?

Mitch:

I think everyone who had a chance to spend some time with you in Southern California left feeling very inspired. But there are definitely people in our firm who didn’t have a chance to meet you. What would you want to share with folks? What have you learned from training the Justice and other Supreme Court justices that you think would apply to our busy professionals who want to incorporate regular workouts into their schedule? What’s the key takeaway for them?

Bryant:

The single most important thing I learned from training and my experience over time is that to be successful in any field comes with one thing: cognitive control.

Mitch:

Cognitive control?

Bryant:

Which means in life you can actually become what you say to yourself. You can become it out of communication. And so when I train my clients, I do some form where I incorporate that into all my fitness training. So, giving them that positive elevation anchor and talking to them. You know, the one thing that I tell my clients you can never use with me, there’s only one four letter word that you can never use with me…

Mitch:

Which is?

Bryant:

Can’t.

Mitch:

Okay.

Bryant:

So, I’m already creating that elevation anchor right there. Don’t tell me you can’t until you’ve started.

Mitch:

If you had to pick one exercise, imagine you’re someone who understands and wants to make this leap toward getting a little bit more fit, wants to sort of spend some time on their own thinking about one exercise to focus on, before they are ready to go to a trainer or commit more wholeheartedly. If you had to pick only one, what would you pick?

Bryant:

Only one?

Mitch:

For a beginner.

Bryant:

That’s a really difficult question because you’ve got to look at different ranges. So, if you are pretty much fit and you can almost do anything, if you didn’t have any shortcomings, I would say push-up.

Mitch:

Okay. And why is that?

Bryant:

Push-up is an exercise that works almost all muscles. Chest, back, bis, tris, hams, glutes, everything. Just going down and pushing up. If you can’t do it off your knees, then you go on your knees. If you can’t do it on your knees, you do it up against a wall. I know you only said one, but another one I would have is the one I always have people do at the end of their exercise, which is sit down, stand up. A simple exercise; if you can’t do that, you need a nurse 24/7.

Mitch:

That’s right.

Bryant:

Because they can’t sit down to use … and then get up.

Mitch:

Exactly.

Bryant:

Exactly. So, now you’re looking at someone who may be in a wheelchair. Okay, so then what would I tell them? With that, I will say, arms out to the side. Lift them up, raise them up. Bring them back down. Just start doing this. Movement. Do something. Doesn’t matter, just do something.

Mitch:

And, if you were to think about how often you ideally would have clients exercise, what would you have them start with?

Bryant:

I would start off —with the Justice—I started off with twice a week. I now tell people, try not to go three days without doing some form of activity. Try not to go three days—I don’t care what it is. If you have to walk past the gym and then walk back, you know what? That’s something.

Mitch:

Right.

Bryant:

Let’s start with something. You know, I remember this slogan, Nike said “just do it.” Well, in order to do it, you’ve got to show up. So just show up.

Mitch:

If I were to ask one more question about exercise, a lot of people, I think, struggle with sleep. They struggle because they’re traveling a lot, they’re stressed, they don’t have great sleep patterns. What advice do you have for our listeners who are not sleeping well? Any thoughts on how they can improve that?

Bryant:

Movement. Exercise. Because if you stop moving the body, the body is going to shut down when it’s tired, no matter what. Exercise is a silver bullet to everything, believe it or not. Whether you are a cancer survivor, or not, exercise. The body is made to move, so just get out there and move. It will actually help your sleep pattern because if you get up and run, come back, and take a hot shower, you don’t know you’re sleeping until you wake up.

Mitch:

How about this: Is there a time of day that is important, or is doing it the same time of day an important thing?

Bryant:

No. Because I like to work out in the mornings before everyone else gets there. But sometimes my schedule prevents me from doing that and sometimes it’s in the evening. It can be in the midday. Some people do it at lunchtime, they break up their day. I get up early and do something. Guess what, I’m going to break the day and go run. Come back, you become more productive. I remember one time I had a client and Justice came down, had a brain cramp. She couldn’t figure out what was going on. I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to put these boxing gloves on you, and it’s going to come to you.” This is Justice Kagan.

Mitch:

Oh my goodness.

Bryant:

And so, we were boxing. Pat. Pat. Pat. Combination jab, cross hook, uppercut, jab cross hook, uppercut. All of a sudden she was just like, “Stop! I need a pen and a piece of paper.” And she actually wrote down, because whatever that brain…

Mitch:

It worked for her.

Bryant:

It worked. It just unclogged because you stop thinking about it for a moment and let your brain relax. It’s almost like unplugging. Unplug, relax, regroup. So sometimes you want to get a better grip, sometimes you’ve got to loosen it up to grip it again tighter.

Mitch:

Out of curiosity how often do you incorporate boxing into your routines?

Bryant:

Depending on my clients. When I had Justice Kagan, probably once or twice every couple of weeks. I have another judge who likes to do a little boxing also, so I incorporate it in there. It’s probably one of the best interval workouts out there. Because you’ll be going so fast. And buddaduddada {mimicking rapid punching sound} and be like stop, and he’ll be like huh huh huh huh {mimicking rapid heavy breathing}.

Mitch:

You have to breathe.

Bryant:

Yes-yes-yes.

Mitch:

So Bryant, you’ve a lot great mentors in your life I think. You talk about your grandmother a lot. You talk about, the Justice. You’ve talked on our Saturday a lot about military service. And about how important airborne service was to you and how there were some great years that you experienced there. What tips do you have about finding a great mentor or sponsor? Whether it’s in the gym, whether it’s in the office, whether it’s in work, what are your thoughts on that?

Bryant:

Find a mentor that’s wise. My grandmother—she was a wise woman. And she taught me a great deal of important lessons. The Justice, Justice Ginsburg, she’s a wise woman, and I am continually learning from her. And, not in the traditional ways, it’s through our mutual experience I observed her lifestyle, and how she deals with whatever situation comes up. You know, it’s that internal communication

Mitch:

Can you tell when she’s stressed?

Bryant:

Yes. And she doesn’t have to say anything.

Mitch:

Right.

Bryant:

Because it’s our communication from so many years together but, you know, remember my grandmother didn’t talk much.

Mitch:

No talking.

Bryant:

And so just being able to have the balance of internal and external. So, yes, I tell, I tell everybody wisdom is the key. It’s one of the things that we sorely need for the future.

Mitch:

Another question around this: What caused you actually to be drawn the service and choose to be an airborne?

Bryant:

It really wasn’t my choice to be a paratrooper. I merely went, and this lady was talking to me and she said, “Yeah well, I can do it, you can do it.” And I’m like okay whatever. And I just –

Mitch:

And you signed up.

Bryant:

I signed up. I had no idea until after I had completed basic and I went through my school and then they said, “Well next place you have got to go is Fort Benning, Georgia,” and I said “What’s there?” “Oh, that’s Air Force school.” “What?” “Oh, yeah, you gotta jump out of a perfectly good airplane for no reason at all.” “Look, are you serious?” And it was too late then. But….

Mitch:

That’s awesome.

Bryant:

I can say it was probably one of the better things. You aren’t talking. So, whether you want to pray, you want to meditate, or you just want to talk to self. All those forms are that form of that internal communication.

Mitch:

I can imagine that it’s pretty focused when you’re about to jump out of plane.

Bryant:

Yes. Everything quiets when you finally get outside.

Mitch:

I bet. So, is there something, Bryant, that you want to share about us that you don’t think we know that you’d be interested in having us know?

Bryant:

Yes. I am nervous every time that I’m about to train someone or I am about to speak, as far as fitness. And so, I change from nerves, anxiety, because I have that internal conversation with myself. I do it more for humility, humbleness.

And then also, I pray that I am able to deliver the message that people are looking for. My thing is, I always try to do right by people and hope that I can make a difference, but you’re never entitled to know if you’ll make a difference. So, you do what you think is the best thing and you hope for results. And so, I remember when I was teaching your class at Orrick, I came out and she was like, “Oh no we’re not going to introduce you. Just go.” I was like, “Oh my” And then I’m nervous and the nerves all came out. But then focus, quiet, conversation, outside noise, inside noise, balance them, and then go. And so, I never know how everything goes. I always go by the reaction of other people. And so I always tell people—I’ll say, “Always remember, it’s never about you. It’s always about how you leave someone.

Mitch:

That’s a great model for all of us who are—you know, we’re service providers, just like you, who are providing a service. And it is a service that is intensely personal, and one that all of us, I think, get nervous about—we all want to be at the top of our game in doing it. And all of us, I think, have to have those anchor points to get through some of those interactions that are harder.

Bryant:

Yes, yes.

Mitch:

Incredibly, incredibly relevant comparison for us. Hey, where can we find your book? Where can you grab that? Is Amazon the best place to go?

Bryant:

Amazon is the best place. You can go to RBGworkout.com and all the bookstores online.

Mitch:

Awesome. Bryant, thank you so much for being our guest.

Bryant:

Pleasure’s mine.

Mitch:

Thank you so much.

Bryant:

Thank you so much.