How Joe Weider Transformed Bodybuilding
by Greg Merritt Flex
There are lots of legends. Joe Weider is one of a kind—an unparalleled transformational figure. His impact on bodybuilding, publishing, and the fitness industry is immense, and it will reverberate long after he’s gone. Still, Joe Weider, the icon and oracle, has always insisted that every friend, employee, and fan call him Joe—as if he were ordinary. This is Joe’s extraordinary story.
The where is certain—Montreal, Canada. It’s the when that remains mysterious. Joe celebrated his birthday on Nov. 29, and for most of his life, 1922 was declared his first year; but devoid of records, neither the day nor the year is certain. (Later records choose either 1920 or 1922.) He is the second-oldest surviving child of Jewish-Polish immigrants Louis and Anna, following brother Louis (who died before turning 30) and preceding brother Ben and sister Freda.
“The immigrants brought so much of their homelands with them that we lived in a transplanted European ghetto,” Joe said of the Jewish neighborhood of his youth. His father toiled in a garment factory, and Joe also seemed destined for a career of menial labor when, after the seventh grade, he quit school to help support his family by delivering groceries. Self-conscious about his meager formal education, he read all he could, especially on philosophy and history. A scrawny kid, he was sometimes the target of bullies, so he was intrigued when he spotted a muscle magazine in a bookstore. As future generations would upon discovering one of his publications, he bought it and read it again and again, studying its secrets while dreaming of expanding his own body. The flame was lit.
“One day he came back, and he brought this axle from a train and some wheels,” Ben remembered. A rail yard worker had welded flywheels to an axle so Joe could exercise with the approximately 75-pound bar. “If you’re born to the iron, you know it the first time you lift a weight. I knew it,” Joe said. Unable to afford a set of adjustable weights, he purchased one on layaway. Soon, he was winning weightlifting contests, and when a primitive gym opened in Montreal, he joined. “I took up bodybuilding because I was weak and frightened,” he said. “Weights made me strong, made me secure in myself, and really made me feel special.”
He toiled in the dark. Beneath a sheet draped over him and illuminated via flashlight, he pecked at a rented typewriter with his index fingers. His mother didn’t want her kitchen table converted into a desk, so he waited until she was asleep. In the summer of 1940, Joe created his first magazine. “You will, no doubt, think us ambitious. Well, so we are!” he proclaimed in the premiere issue of Your Physique, never letting on that “we” was him under several bylines. He wrote every article and drew every illustration. He cranked out the pages on a rented mimeograph machine and spread the wet paper around the house to dry. Postcard announcements were mailed to Canadian strength enthusiasts, but it was after the issue circulated in gyms that subscriptions poured in.
Joe continuously improved his creation. In the first year, he incorporated photos, professional typesetting and printing, the work of expert writers, and color covers. “He went to the American News, walked in the front door, and they threw him out. And he came in the back door, and they threw him out,” sister Freda remembered of her older brother’s persistence. “And finally they said, ‘We have to see this younger man. He’s so insistent.’ They saw him, and they took on the magazine.” Thus, Your Physique was disseminated by North America’s largest magazine distributor.
In 1942, Joe began selling Weider-brand weight sets and other exercise equipment, which he advertised in his own magazine. He remained a one-man company. A foundry dropped off the forged metal, and he assembled and packed everything himself— at his parents’ house. Weider corporate headquarters relocated only from the kitchen to the living room. In 1945, Joe launched a second bodybuilding magazine, Muscle Power. Both of his publications emphasized photography and design superior to their competition. Joe learned publishing via trial and error and by studying the most successful magazines of the era.
Bodybuilding contests through the ’40s were mere adjuncts to weightlifing meets and, in North America, were under the control of Bob Hofman and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). In 1946, Joe and Ben Weider promoted the AAU Mr. Montreal. Unlike other AAU events, which were typically held in high school auditoriums, the Weiders’ contest was staged in Quebec’s best theater. The brothers hired musicians and a popular guest poser, and they printed programs. The 1,500 tickets sold out, and more than 80 bodybuilders entered. But minutes before the first pose was to be struck, word came from the AAU that the show’s sanction had been revoked.
Joe was livid, but as the audience clamored for a contest, he and his brother made a monumental decision. Forget the AAU. “As of this moment, we have our own governing body,” Joe told the assembled bodybuilders. “We’re calling it the International Federation of Bodybuilders, and it’s going to make bodybuilding bigger and better than ever.” Not one competitor withdrew. The show went on without a hitch. The IFBB was born, and bodybuilding took a giant leap forward, freeing itself from weightlifing’s shadow.
Joe’s business outgrew not just his parents’ house but his native country. The circulations of Your Physique and Muscle Power outpaced the capacities of Quebec printers, so, for more than a year, Joe regularly journeyed across the border to have his magazines printed in the States. In 1947, he moved near the worldwide capital of publishing, New York City. (Ben stayed in Montreal and focused on expanding the IFBB.) While Joe lived in Manhattan, Weider Publishing was nearby in New Jersey. “An office is beautiful because you do beautiful work in it,” he explained. “In that sense, the dump in Jersey was a palace. The magazines got better and better.”
He worked for 10 hours or more daily, so it’s little wonder his first marriage was strained. But that wasn’t its only problem. Joe remembered, “Just a few weeks after the  wedding, I knew the marriage was a mistake. I think my wife [Diana] knew it, too. But our misery went on for years and years.”
Your Physique stopped in 1952 to make way for Muscle Builder the following year. Fighting for attention on crowded newsstands, Muscle Power and Muscle Builder covers screamed out with such jarring headlines as “STOP BEING A PHYSICAL DWARF” and “HEY SKINNY! Are They Laughing at You?” daring you not to turn the page. The formula worked so well that Joe branched out into other areas, launching Boxing and Wrestling, Inside Baseball, and Inside Sports. Then came men’s adventure magazines, including Fury, Safari, and Outdoor Adventures, which sported attention-snatching cover lines like “I WATCHED MYSELF BEING EATEN ALIVE!” There were groundbreaking women’s exercise magazines, and there were cheesecake and beefcake pulps. By the late ’50s, Weider Publications was producing more than a dozen titles monthly. “In some respects, a magazine is a magazine is a magazine, whatever the subject matter,” Joe stated. “And my hands-on touch, which pulled in readers for my muscle magazines, worked in every genre I got into.”
The war between AAU head honcho Bob Hofman and Joe Weider raged— sometimes via lawsuits, but mostly in the pages of their respective magazines. Hofman’s relentless rants against Joe were ofen personal and anti-Semitic, and his Strength and Health ridiculed the same small-waist, broad-shoulder archetype that Muscle Power and Muscle Builder championed. This was to the muscle magazines’ benefit because more people wanted to look like sculpted bodybuilder Steve Reeves than rotund weightlifer Paul Anderson. Meanwhile, the Weider brothers continued to grow the IFBB—which focused only on physiques, unlike Hofman’s AAU—and that in turn inspired top bodybuilders to appear only in Weider magazines.
As a Jewish immigrant, Joe Weider knew the sting of bigotry and was thus determined to fight it. One of his most commendable legacies was the groundbreaking color-blind treatment of nonwhite athletes on the stages of the IFBB and the pages of Weider magazines. This is most evident in the contest placings of African-American Harold Poole, who, despite having the superior physique, was second twice in the AAU Mr. America (no black man won that contest until 1970) before jumping to the IFBB and promptly winning its 1963 Mr. Universe. The following year, he won the IFBB Mr. America. Poole defeated Larry Scott in the 1963 Mr. U. Absent Poole, Scott took the title in 1964. This raised an obvious question—which Mr. Universe winner was better?
Whatever the federation, the Mr. U was then the ultimate title, and once a bodybuilder attained it he had little reason to continue competing. When 26-year old Scott dined with Joe and Betty, he lamented his inevitable early retirement, and Betty began talking about a long-gestating idea for a new professional championship open to all major title holders. “Larry got excited about Betty’s idea, and I knew the time had come,” Joe remembered. “For the likes of him and the future of bodybuilding, there would be a new champion’s championship.”
As fate would have it, Joe was drinking a rare beer at that dinner, and his eyes settled on the Olympia beer bottle. That’s it! Heroic, mythic, celestial—Mr. Olympia. That moment was a turning point from the confusing titles and scant rewards of the past to the prestige and paydays of the future. Sixteen months before Super Bowl I, on Sept. 18, 1965, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Larry Scott won the inaugural Mr. Olympia. Poole was second. The modern era of bodybuilding began.
Though it moved twice, Weider Publishing headquarters remained in Union City, NJ. Still, it had a West Coast office in Santa Monica, CA, which, with the opening of the first Gold’s Gym in neighboring Venice in 1965, was at the forefront of muscle. Weider photo shoots occurred at the beach, and throughout the ’60s, Joe’s magazines became increasingly synonymous with California sunshine and a perpetual holiday in what looked like paradise when viewed on a bleak winter day in New Jersey—or in a small mountain village in Austria.
In that village lived a muscular phenom with a peculiar name. After winning the 1967 NABBA Mr. Universe at 19, Arnold Schwarzenegger became the talk of bodybuilding. In 1968, he adorned his first Weider cover and entered his first Weider contest. On Sept. 28, backstage at the Miami Auditorium, hours before the IFBB Mr. Universe, 21-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger met Joe Weider, the man he would come to think of as his second father. Arnold didn’t win the show (Frank Zane did), but his boundless potential won over the publisher. “He had the mind of a champion, he had the heart of a champion, and I figured that he could be a star, and being a star, he would help the sport,” Joe said of Arnold.
Arnold recalled: “He always would say, ‘Arnold, I want you to be the best and the smartest bodybuilder of the whole world. I see fire in your eyes. I see the competitive spirit in your eyes. That is what I want. And this is why I’ll help you. You’ll come to California, I’ll take care of your apartment, and I’ll give you some spending money so you can live; and all you have to do is train, train, train and beat everyone.’ ”
Arnold was on eight Weider magazine covers over 16 months between July 1969 and December 1970. Articles were penned under his name. Though the advice was his, a writer (often Joe himself) structured and typed it. To get Arnold’s training and nutrition tips, as well as photos of his ever-expanding physique, you needed to buy Muscle Builder or Mr. America. Interspersed with the articles, the future seven-time Mr. Olympia appeared in advertisements for Weider training equipment and supplements. Arnold has, so far, appeared on the cover of a Weider muscle magazine 68 times, including the February 2013 issue of Muscle & Fitness.
The most prominent name in the Weider magazines was Joe Weider. He was editor and writer and also the ubiquitous pitchman of training courses and products like Power Twisters, Killer Karate Krushers, and Muscle Density RX7. In 1970, Sports Illustrated ran a lengthy profile of Joe, proclaiming he had “replaced Charles Atlas as the world’s No. 1 bodybuilder.” Think of muscles and you thought foremost of Joe Weider. The man, then known as the “Master Blaster” and “Trainer of Champions,” had reached the rarefied status of icon. “Bodybuilding is about getting bigger, so I had to be a little bit bigger than life,” Joe wrote in his and Ben’s co-autobiography Brothers of Iron.
“What I did, philosophically speaking, was to create a Platonic ideal of myself and make exciting images of this ideal to catch and hold the attention of millions of people so I could educate them about bodybuilding and provide products they required. The ideal was a lot like reality, because I was a muscle man and I truly deserved my titles Trainer of Champions and Master Blaster. All my life I followed my own advice, working out and watching my diet and health, and I loved bodybuilding with all my heart. If I didn’t walk the talk, as they say, people would have turned away from me long ago.”
Joe’s most distinctive physical characteristic appeared beneath his nose and over his upper lip sometime in 1970, and has remained there, almost continuously, ever since. Millions of people who couldn’t name the current Mr. Olympia knew Joe Weider—the man behind all those weight sets and muscle magazines—by his mustache. To those who’ve heard Joe speak, however, he has a greater distinguishing attribute—his voice. For the writers, photographers, and bodybuilders he worked with, mimicking Joe’s French-Canadian accent and pleasantly honking tone proved irresistible. Even Arnold has trouble quoting Joe without imitating Joe.
After 25 years in New Jersey, the Weider Publishing offices moved to suburban Los Angeles in 1972. Eventually, the atrium and Joe’s office at Weider head quarters in Woodland Hills became a virtual museum, filled with antiques, art, and bodybuilding treasures. The transplant from the East Coast was especially fond of paintings and sculptures depicting scenes from the Old West. Shortly after the move, Mr. America folded, leaving Muscle Builder/Power (renamed in 1968) as the only Weider publication. For the first time since his initial years of publishing, Joe was able to focus on a single magazine for an extended period. The magazine incorporated more scientific research and codified Joe’s tenets of resistance training. The Weider Principles have had a major, enduring impact on the way people work out. Muscle Builder/Power grew in prominence throughout the ’70s—both following and leading the rising interest in weight training.
One catalyst for that rise was the seminal documentary Pumping Iron, released in 1977, briefly featuring Joe Weider. The movie captured the same evocative milieu The once-underground activity of lifting weights to alter one’s physique was by then thoroughly mainstream, in large part due to Joe Weider. Around the globe, Weider magazines, nutritional supplements, and workout products were the gold standard. Annual Weider revenues increased 100-fold from $5 million in 1980 to approximately $500 million in 1989.
New magazines launched: Fit Pregnancy in 1993 and Muscle & Fitness Hers in 2000. Joe also recognized the promise of the Internet early on: M&F started a website in 1996, and FLEX followed in 1997. From an expanding family of fitness magazines to the latest technology to sports nutrition advances, Joe forever embraced the new.
Still, he could be wistful about the ’70s when he moved to California and his one magazine was focused on bodybuilding. In 1996, he recalled those halcyon years, “We had a lot of fun. I used to be in the gym training with the guys. We worked on the [Weider] Principles. Now, I’m a businessman, and I can see the change taking place in me, and I hate that, because I love being in the gym, working out with the guys. That’s my first love.”
Joe sold his magazines to American Media, Inc., in November 2002. “When it’s time, it’s time,” he later said. (The Weiders sold their workout equipment company in 1994 but maintained their nutritional supplement company.) Still, for years afterward, Joe showed up almost daily to his office at Weider Publishing headquarters, consulting with the editors of the magazines he had conceived.
“I love magazines, every single thing about them—words, pictures, color, design, ads,” he wrote in Brothers of Iron. “I love the feel of paper and the smell of ink. And I love what a magazine can do for people. There’s nothing in the world like it. Nowhere else does a few bucks buy so much information and food for thought, entertainment, and beauty. In my magazines, you also get a crash course in exercise and health and how to get more out of life. The cover prices are many times what they used to be, but the value is still amazing. Spend less than $5 on a magazine and you get material worth a fortune.”
On July 9, 2007, the President’s Council of Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition awarded Joe its lifetime achievement award, and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who immigrated to America and settled in California with the help of his “second father,” declared it Joe Weider Day. Four years later, on July 21, 2011, the Joe and Betty Weider Museum of Physical Culture opened at the University of Texas. Joe and Betty donated $2 million and numerous items to the museum.
Joe Weider passed away on the morning of March 23, 2013. Despite his death, Joe's influence in fitness and bodybuilding can't be ignored. It persists in the Mr. Olympia and female Olympia contests; in the International Federation of Bodybuilders, which modernized physique competitions; in the nutritional supplements and workout equipment that bear his name; in the proliferation of women in gyms; in the numerous books he wrote, co-wrote, or edited; and in the magazines he created and nurtured. It will continue within men and women building their bodies around the globe—from physique leg ends to youngsters grabbing their first dumbbells. Joe Weider was an icon, a visionary, and a trailblazer, the likes of which we will never see again.
But he never reveled in such praise. In recent years, when awards and applause were bestowed upon him at public appearances, he preferred to be at his desk, contemplating stories and photos. And he was happier still amidst barbells and benches with people who were “born to the iron.” Two days after the 2009 Mr. Olympia, FLEX held a photo shoot in a Las Vegas gym with all the Weider sponsored bodybuilders. Among them were the new Mr. Olympia, Jay Cutler and future Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath. But the biggest star was Joe Weider. Every champ was honored and thrilled to be in Joe’s presence, and yet he was equally delighted to be in theirs.
When Joe spoke alone to Jay Cutler, it wasn’t about the empire he built or the fortune he made or the fitness revolution he fostered. It was about his teenage weightlifing prowess back in Montreal seven decades prior. Those were his fondest memories. The workouts then were the secret to his success later. Joe Weider, the father of modern bodybuilding, knew firsthand the transformational power of iron, and he never forgot that his life changed forever for the better in the magical moment he opened a bodybuilding magazine. Replicating that was what he dedicated his life to. In all corners of the world, Joe Weider transformed the lives of millions.