Joe Weider Built a Fitness Empire


Deciding on a recipient for Club Industry's first ever Lifetime Achievement Award, was not an easy task. In fact, it was far more difficult than the staff had ever assumed it would be. Perhaps the most daunting task was to decide on what type of person we wanted to bestow the honor. Would it be a club owner? A manufacturer? Someone from an association? In the end, we decided the award this year — while open to all of the above — needed to go to someone who has helped all of the above by promoting the healthy lifestyle on many levels.

After that, the field was now finite, and we set out to find that person. Of course, with such a narrow field, our task was much easier. OK, that is revisionist history. In searching for nominees from our advisory board, industry veterans, club owners — just about anyone that would listen — we received so many worthy candidates from all walks of the fitness industry that we knew our decision was going to be even harder. That is until we noticed one name that kept popping up over and over. That's not to say that this person was the only one coming up multiple times. It is just when looking at this man's influence on bringing bodybuilding, fitness, nutrition and healthy living to the forefront of the public's mind — and building a sound business behind it — it is easy to say that his hard work helped to raise the profile of the entire fitness industry.

Club Industry is proud to award its first Lifetime Achievement Award to Joe Weider, a true pioneer in his efforts to bring strength and fitness to the public's consciousness.

Since 1936, Weider has been paving the way for strength training and fitness. His training principles have influenced athletes, coaches and sports scientists to alter their training. He has prompted the medical community to embrace strength training and fitness as preventive “treatment” for illnesses and a factor against aging. He has also helped show psychologists that exercise is a powerful tool in mental health. He has brought the sport of bodybuilding out from the shadows and turned its competitors into stars and role models.

But ask Weider which accomplishment he is most proud of and like a proud father he'll tell you he loves them all.

“I'm proud of everything that I did over the years,” says Weider. “Everything that I did was for the love of it.”

Born in 1922, Weider grew up in a tough neighborhood in Montreal, Canada during the Great Depression. He left school at age 12 to work as a delivery boy for a fruit and groceries market, pulling a wagon for 10 hours a day. A slight boy, standing 5 feet 5 inches and weighing a mere 115 pounds, Weider became easy prey for local thugs.

“I lived in a neighborhood where kids used to fight. They used fists in those days; today they use bullets,” Weider says. “I was small and decided I had to do something to change.”

Weider tried joining the wrestling team at the Montreal YMCA, which he says turned him down for fear he'd hurt himself training with boys that were much heavier and stronger than he. But that would change.

“In Montreal in those days they had shops that sold copies of old books and magazines, and I bought two copies of Strength Magazine. I took them home and read them all night,” he recalls. “I decided that strength training was the way to go if I wanted to get bigger and stronger and defend myself. I started lifting weights at age 13 or so.”

By the age of 15, neighborhood bullies no longer bothered him, except to ask for advice about getting bigger and stronger. Just two years later, Weider competed in his first amateur contest, the Montreal Senior Meet, where he lifted 70 pounds more than competitors in his weight class.

His dream through all this was to bring accurate, complete training advice and routines to the masses, not just the guys in his neighborhood. So, with $7 in his pocket, he began to work on what would become the first issue of Your Physique — the precursor to the Weider publishing empire — to be published in 1940. The orders poured in and within 18 months he had made $10,000 in profits. In 1942, Weider started the mail order Weider Barbell Co.; his magazine now offered weight sets and other equipment, as well as some rudimentary vitamin and mineral supplements.

“Fitness was like a religion to me, and I wanted to bring the message to the people,” says Weider. “I wanted to do nothing more than bring bodybuilding to the world.”

But Weider knew he wasn't in it alone when educating people.

“As far back as the 1950s I knew that the gyms would become the educational force for people to get strong, be healthy and live longer,” he says. “I knew that it would grow from a place where people just wanted to build muscles and turn into a place were people would go to improve their health. It is because of this that bodybuilding is going to keep growing and expanding.”

Weider doesn't limit the term bodybuilding to those that take their body to the limits, going even as far as turning pro the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB), which he and his brother Ben formed in 1946.

“Everybody that works out is bodybuilding,” muses Weider. “They are taking their physique and sculpting it — be it making the muscles larger or stripping away body fat — building it into a healthier, higher functioning and more attractive thing.”

In fact, weight training and bodybuilding continues to grow in popularity — especially among women — thanks, in part, to many of Weider's publications (which were sold to American Media last year) such as Muscle & Fitness, Flex, Shape and Muscle & Fitness Hers.

“When I started Shape in 1980, I thought to myself ‘how am I going to get women interested in training with weights and getting strong?’ There had always been such a negative connotation to strong women,” says Weider. “I decided to put actresses and models on the cover. Even then it was difficult to get them to hold a two-pound dumbbell for the cover. Now you look in a gym and women are training, often harder than the men.”

But even today in his 80s, Weider says that both men and women need to continue seeking the fitter lifestyle offered in today's clubs.

“If you compare people today with our ancestors, you can see a couple of things. One of them is that our biology hasn't changed much. The other is that our lifestyle has. This has led to poorer health and fitness,” he says. “Our biology is still one that is built around being active and using our muscles. But instead, we sit, hunched over keyboards and do nothing. This leads to us being weak, fat and unhealthy. Exercise is the only way people of today can be in touch with their biological side.”

But while Weider believes the industry as a whole is doing a great job of providing education and resources to the masses for improving their fitness, some of the problems may be harder to fix than the fitness facility industry can handle.

“People are lazy. They are looking for a machine that they don't have to do much on. They want a magic pill rather than watch their diet. There are a great many people out there looking for the path with the least line of resistance,” says Weider. “That's how the hucksters get into the game — making promises that can't possibly be kept — and make it hard for the legitimate fitness professionals. I've worked hard to make sure that I am not thought of in the industry as a huckster by providing accurate, truthful and helpful information in the magazine, with our equipment and in our supplements.”

Despite his goal of getting out the message of bodybuilding and fitness to the masses, many say his image of bodybuilders is that of unnatural proportions.

“If you look at bodybuilders through the years, there were plenty of big, strong men in the '30s and '40s, etc.,” says Weider. “And before the 1960s and '70s nobody was taking any drugs. And even if they are today, they may help a little, but those people still need to train hard and eat well to really excel. You have to be very disciplined to be in shape, and to take it to the sport of bodybuilding, you need to be the most disciplined of all the athletes.”

In fact, Weider takes aim at the many false claims and empty promises, be it in nutrition, training or health clubs.

“We placed ads years ago to open gyms and must have gotten 2,000 responses of people wanting to open gyms,” says Weider. “But we never did it because too many of them were badmouthing other gyms — many that were owned by friends of mine — or making exaggerated promises. Even with our nutrition products, we make no exaggerated claims or crazy promises so people know what to expect.”

But in the end, Weider says that if his publications over the years have helped and continue to help shape the industry, he is satisfied without making the exaggerated claims of others.

“Personal training grew out of the education given in the pages of our magazines in the '70s and '80s. Today, clubs offer nutrition, aerobics, children's programming and a number of other things to make sure that there is something for everyone,” says Weider. “And as long as we get the right message, right education and the truth about training, nutrition and supplementation out there and give them the equipment, and places to use them, eventually, the sport of bodybuilding and the health of the people will continue to advance.”

Timeline of Joe Weider and His Businesses:

  • 1922 - Born
  • 1934 - Left school
  • 1940 - Publishes first issue of Your Physique [precursor to Muscle & Fitness]
  • 1942 - Weider Barbell Co. launched
  • 1946 - Starts International Federation of Body Builders
  • 1950 - Introduces the Weider Training Principles
  • 1965 - Creates the Mr. Olympia contest
  • 1978 - Creates the Ms. Olympia Contest
  • 1980 - Launches Shape magazine
  • 1989 - Weider Health and Fitness establishes its three principal business divisions: Sporting Goods, Nutrition and Publications, as independent subsidiaries
  • 1995 - Creates Fitness Olympia
  • 2002 - Weider Publications sold to American Media Inc. for $350 million

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