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Joe Weider's Story: Bodybuilding, Magazines, and Arnold Schwarzenegger

The man who transformed bodybuilding and fitness.

Greg Merritt, photographs courtesy of Weider Health & Fitness
Joe Weider's Story: Bodybuilding, Magazines, and Arnold Schwarzenegger

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“Legend” doesn’t do him justice. 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 for decades to come. Still, Joe Weider, the icon and oracle, has always insisted that every friend, employee, and fan call him Joe—as if he was ordinary. This is Joe’s extraordinary story.

 

IRON

The where is certain—Montreal, Canada. It’s the when that remains mysterious. Joe celebrated his birthday on November 29, and for most of his life 1922 was declared his first year, but, void of records, neither the day nor the year is certain. (Later records choose either 1920 or 1922.) He was 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 did 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 axel from a train and some wheels,” Ben remembered. A rail yard worker had welded flywheels to an axel 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 stated. 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.”

MAGAZINE

He toiled in the dark. Beneath a sheet draped over him and illuminated via flashlight, he pecked at a rented typewriter with his index finger. 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, and he came in the front door, and they threw him out. And he came in the back door, and they threw him out,” sister Freda remembered 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 had 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.

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