Posted on 31 Aug 2013
11 min read
When you think of bodybuilding, certain iconic images will undoubtedly spring to mind.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, smiling smugly, chest inflated like two fleshy beachballs; Ronnie Coleman leg pressing 2,300lbs, screaming “yeah buddy” like a brain damaged child; Reg Park as Hercules, swanning around in some frankly awful sword and sandals flick; or maybe Louis Ferringo as the Hulk, looking like a cross between a sex offender and a gigantic green blob.
These archetypal images, these larger than life personalities, are the glossy face of bodybuilding.
These are the athletes that we know and love.
We have posters of them on our bedroom walls, we have all their videos bookmarked on YouTube, we’ve spent the best part of 10 years hunting down their home address and spying secretly on their family’s every movement, silently waiting.
However, as with many successful popstars and political candidates, it’s often the people behind the scenes to who we owe the real gratitude.
In the case of bodybuilding, that backdoor busybody (not a euphemism) is Joe Weider.
Everyone who harbours an interest in bodybuilding, from the steroid-addled pros to the scrawny weekend warriors, would not be lifting iron if it were not for Weider.
That may sound like a bold claim, but I do not doubt its veracity for a second.
The ‘Master Blaster’, as he is affectionately referred to (although that sounds more like a Power Rangers toy or an exceptionally thorough dildo), didn’t just contribute to the sport of bodybuilding; the guy practically invented it.
Just take a look at his resume:
Now that is what you call a CV.
So, as our way of saying thank you to Weider, who passed away earlier this year, Gymtalk have decided to bring you the story behind this legendary figure, this charismatic prophet and bodybuilding Goliath, who promoted the gospel of fitness with the evangelical zeal of a musclebound Christ.
Although being a Jew, he probably would have hated this metaphor, so here’s one he might be more appreciative of…
If Eugen Sandow was the father of modern bodybuilding and Arnie the precocious first son, then Joe Weider was the all-powerful godfather, a Don Corleone figure, chomping on a fat cigar while directing all the action from a smoky backroom office.
(Just without all the murder, extortion, and decapitated horses, as the Gymtalk lawyers have advised me to add.)
This is his remarkable story…
Josef Weider was born in Montreal, Canada some time between 1919-1922 (no-one really knows), to a Jewish family of Polish Emigrants.
He grew up in the Plateau District, one of the poorest and roughest areas of the city, which was essentially a transplanted European ghetto infested with gangs, troublemakers and right knobheads.
Weighing in at just seven stone, Weider was a scrawny kid, an easy target for the bullies who made a game of tormenting and beating up the local Jewish kids (not one I think Hasbro could ever market).
In attempt to toughen himself up, Weider tried to join the local wrestling club, but was turned away by the coach who was concerned that the boy’s small frame would result in him being “beaten the f*ck out of”.
“If you’re born to the iron, you know it the first time you lift a weight.” – Joe Weider
One day, as he was thumbing through a magazine called ‘Strength and Health’, Weider was mesmerised by the pictures of muscular wrestlers, boxers and weightlifters.
Sick of being weak, weedy, frightened, and constantly beaten up, he read and reread the training advice imparted by these musclemen, voraciously hoovering up their suggestions like an industrial strength vacuum cleaner.
Weider decided to save up money for a barbell set, but, to his dismay, he couldn’t find one anywhere.
So he decided to improvise and make his own weights.
After rummaging through a rail yard, he came home with a train axle which he had got a yard worker to weld to two flywheels.
The first time he lifted this makeshift 75-pound bar, Weider knew his life was going to change.
“Weights made me strong,” he said later, “made me secure in myself, and really made me feel special.”
After being invited to join a local weightlifting club, the increasingly muscular Weider began winning a string of local strongman contests.
As a result of his success, he was so beset with questions from people asking him for advice that an idea began to kindle in his mind, an idea which would not go away.
His intention was to create a magazine which would cater to these questions and lay out his vision for the sport of muscle-building.
In 1936, at the age of just 16, when most boys of his age were smoking cigarettes and wanking into socks, Weider, with a meagre budget of just $7, began working on the first issue of a Mimeographed instruction-magazine which was to be called ‘Your Physique’.
Despite the protestations of his disapproving mother, who insisted he was wasting his life away, he set up shop in the family kitchen with a desk and a filing cabinet.
He wrote every article and drew every illustration himself, and the first issue was stapled together by Weider’s own hands.
Overflowing with ambition and enthusiasm, Weider channeled his passion with a determination which he later described as being akin to a “religious fervour”.
After ‘Your Physique’ was taken on by the American News, Weider’s nascent business began to take off, and, in the following decades he launched a series of other magazines.
‘Muscle Power’ was the next to follow in 1945, and then others, such as Men’s Fitness, Shape Magazine, Flex, Muscleboy, and Monsieur (the last intended for a more discerning clientele/perverts), began to appear on shelves all around the country.
All of Weider’s publications were underpinned with a characteristically boisterous tone, boasting titles such as HEY SKINNY! and ARE YOU SICK OF BEING A PATHETIC WEAKLING?
This unique style became a roaring success, and The Weider Empire soon became a juggernaut, tearing through the publishing industry like a runaway train, relentlessly spreading the Weider fitness gospel through dozens and dozens of different publications.
He also set up a range of other entrepreneurial enterprises, including equipment and nutrition companies that sold products aimed at packing on muscle, all of which he advertised in his fleet of magazines.
Weider also went on to author many books about bodybuilding, the most notable of which was The Weider System of Bodybuilding (1981).
To give you some idea of the monopoly that Weider had over this industry, in 2003 he sold his magazine empire to American Media for a cool $357m!
To coincide with his muscle-building magazines, Weider had begun to organise bodybuilding contests in cities across the United States and Europe.
In 1946, with the help of his brother Ben who had just returned from serving in the Second World War, Joe initiated the first Mr Canada competition.
Despite a few teething problems, this contest became a riproaring, sell-out success, and, together, the Weider brothers co-founded the IFBB.
This was a seminal moment, for bodybuilding had been, for the first time, officially divorced from weightlifting, and it was about to forge its own path.
From that point on, the IFBB began to unify, control and co-ordinate this new sport throughout the world.
Much like Weider’s publishing empire, the IFBB has grown immensely over the years, sanctioning contests at both amateur and professional levels all around the globe.
In 1965, to compete with the Mr Universe competition, Joe and Ben created the Mr Olympia, the “champion’s championship”, and, with it, the modern era of bodybuildng was born.
In the early 60s, the bodybuilding subculture had been picking up steam, and it was teetering on the edge of mainstream culture.
In particular, surf culture, the cult of muscle beach, and the “body beautiful” ideal, had aroused the national imagination, and one of Weider’s most popular male models, Dave Draper, a blonde-locked, bulging Adonis, was achieving a modicum of national fame, playing bit parts in several television shoes in addition to his magazine shoots.
In 1967, Joe, who was always sniffing out apostles to spread his message, travelled to Europe, where he met a young Austrian bodybuiler who was making a name for himself in the fitness industry.
This bodybuilder was of course Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, after a great deal of correspondence, Weider managed to twist Arnie’s arm and convince him to travel to the United States to pursue his dream.
Reflecting on this propitious meeting, Weider said,“Every sport needs a hero – and I knew that Arnold was the right man.”
Once the Austrian Oak arrived in the US, Weider funded the young bodybuilder’s first apartment in Santa Monica, bought him a car, gave him enough money to make ends meet, and paid him $100 a week to write magazine articles that endorsed various Weider products.
All Weider wanted in return was for Schanwengger to “just train”.
It was also Weider who, along with Reg Park, convinced Schwarzenegger to pursue a career in acting.
Weider even told lies to the American film studios about Arnie’s acting experience, declaring that the young Austrian had played Iago in a German touring production of Othello, putting in a performance that was so raw, intense and disturbing that many of the audience were too scared to stay for the second half (you can take that one of two ways).
Schwarzenegger later reflected that Weider “didn’t just inspire my earliest dreams, he made them come true”.
Over the course of his relationship with bodybuilding, Weider gathered together and honed many of bodybuilding’s most effective training principles.
Though often debated, and sometimes heavily derided, it is these cornerstones that many of today’s bodybuilders religiously abide by.
These techniques, which are commonly referred to as ‘The Weider Principles’, include such staples as Pyramiding, Supersets, and Pre-exhaustion training.
For a more in-depth look into the Weider Principles, check out this article.
Joe Weider’s vision, hard work and daring salesmanship revolutionised the fitness industry, ushering in a new age of health and wellness.
In light of this lifetime achievements, in 2005 he was recognised by the National Fitness Hall of Fame for his contribution to making physical fitness a popular lifestyle choice.
But, perhaps more importantly, not only did this visionary transform what was an oft-rebuked subculture into a mainstream lifestyle, he also triggered a global phenomenon.
The culture of bodybuilding changed the world, introducing weight training and sports supplements to the masses.
He spearheaded and nurtured a whole new culture which redefined our relationship with our bodies and promoted the human physique as an art form.
However, there were, owing to the brute force of his personality, a number of detractors.
Many cited his colossal ego as a stain on his character.
Indeed, he often compared himself to a savior figure, such as Moses and Ghandi, and, it would not be uncommon while flicking through copies of Muscle & Fitness to find hundreds of pictures of Weider, all part of a veritable conveyabelt of self-promotion and self-congratulation.
In addition, he once claimed credit for producing every bodybuilding champion of the last 40 years, and he even commissioned a gigantic bronze statue of himself that he later displayed in his office, which, let’s face it, is the behaviour of a bit of a tosspot.
There is no denying the force of his personality and the size of his ego, but, ultimately, I can’t put it better than the man himself:
“You think anybody says negative things about Jesus? About Moses?
“You get a lot of atheists and devil worshipers that hate God. Why should I be loved by everybody?”
On 23 March, 2013 Joe Weider died at the age of 93 from heart failure.
However his vision endures.
It is stronger than ever and shows no signs of diminishing, as it hurtles inexorably onwards, like one of those annoying bellends doing walking lunges up and down your local gym.
The ideals that he fought tooth and nail for can be glimpsed everywhere, from the proliferation of protein supplements and busy gyms up and down the country to the chiseled female physiques on Instagram and Facebook groups (this is worth 15 minutes of anyone’s time).
Ultimately, Weider was a flamboyant, emotional, powerful, and totally unique personality, who, in the words of Arnold, was a “titan in the fitness industry and one of the kindest men I have ever met”.
And as for that moustache, well that’s worth a whole article in itself…