Across America and, indeed, throughout the world, gym fanatics are in mourning for Joe Weider, considered by many the father of the modern health and fitness industry, who died at the age of 93 last Saturday at his Los Angeles home.
You might not know the name Joe Weider, but if you’ve ever picked up a dumbbell, taken a fitness supplement, or glanced at a fitness magazine, its highly likely that you are not far removed from Weider’s legacy.
Weider: Not Just The Man Who Nurtured Arnold
Let’s get the obligatory name-check out of the way: Weider is largely responsible for introducing the world — and specifically the United States — to the eponymous bodybuilder turned actor turned politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s little wonder, then, that Schwarzenegger was among the first to make a public statement about Weider’s death, saying, “I knew about Joe Weider long before I met him – he was the godfather of fitness who told all of us to ‘Be Somebody with a Body.’ He taught us that through hard work and training we could all be champions. [...] I know that countless others around the world found motivation in the pages of his publications just as I did, but as I read his articles in Austria, I felt that he was speaking directly to me and I committed to move to America to make my vision of becoming the best bodybuilder, to live the American dream, and to become an actor a reality.”
Weider would go on to help Schwarzenegger with his training, be the driving force behind landing him his first movie role and even helped promote Schwarzenegger’s run for Governor.
But Joe Weider’s legacy extends much further than this.
The Skinny Kid Who Made it Big
Montreal-born Weider was by his own admission the skinny kid who got bullied at school. He was even turned down for a place on the wrestling team because the coach worried Weider was too fragile for the sport.
Weider refused to let that image define him. He famously claimed that at 14, he built a set of barbells out of car wheels and axles and began lifting.
Word soon got around about the kid pumping iron in his parent’s garage. Weider was then invited to join a weightlifting club and, by his own admission, he was “mesmerized” by, not only the poundages lifted or the physiques being built, but by the way the men in that gym supported and helped one another.
Weider won his first bodybuilding contest at age 17 and earned the nickname Master Blaster. At about this time, the industrious Weider also published Your Physique magazine, his first but certainly not his last foray into the magazine industry.
He also began to set down or, in his own words, “codify” for the first time, the principles that he witnessed being used at the weightlifting clubs he visited; those techniques that led to muscle gain, fat loss and potentially a healthier way of life.
These became known as the Weider Principles. While some have spawned problematic misunderstandings, one culprit being the idea of ” muscle confusion,” many are supported by science and in some version are still practiced in gyms up and down the country today, such as the idea of keeping the muscle being worked under continuous tension, and the idea of progressive overload for encouraging muscle growth and strength gains.
Weider Shapes a Generation of Fitness, The Good and Bad
Next came Weider’s mail order barbell business and, with the help of his bodybuilder younger brother Ben, the formation of the International Federation of Bodybuilders and staging of the first Mr. Canada bodybuilding competition.
A slew of magazines followed, many of which are still in print today. These include Muscle and Fitness, Flex, Men’s Fitness, Muscle and Fitness Hers, Shape, and Fit Pregnancy.
In 1965, Weider would go on to create one of bodybuilding’s iconic events, the Mr. Olympia competition. He would add to that with a Ms. Olympia contest in 1980, the Fitness Olympia in 1995 and the Figure Olympia in 2003, and in that time inspired local, regional and national competitions across the globe.
Add to this Joe Weider branded fitness equipment that aimed to better serve the isolation techniques and pyramid training found in the Weider Principles, and the Weider brand supplements (Weider Nutrition, now Schiff Nutrition International), some of the very first protein shakes, testosterone boosters and fat blockers on the market that claimed to help a generation fuel the gym-time that would earn them the body of their dreams.
But with this came legal issues. Weider’s nutrition products and programs sometimes made factually dubious claims. In 1972, Weider was forced to change his marketing of a product that claimed to allow you to pack on a pound (implied: of muscle) a day.
Further legal challenges were made about Weider’s use of suspect Before and After testimonials, while a pattern of legal wrangling with the FTC started and would last until the year 2000 when, as part of a $400,000 settlement, Weider’s company agreed to a ban on making unsubstantiated claims in the marketing of its drug, dietary supplement, food or fitness programs.
And Weider’s legacy isn’t all glowing, either.
Many would point out that the fitness industry has largely moved on from Weider’s vision of bodybuilding, and many might criticize that his (arguable) pursuit of increasing size in his bodybuilding proteges fueled a generation of steroid and hormone abuse, though Weider denied such accusations and opposed, via public statements and written comments, illicit pharmaceuticals.
Weider also certainly popularized an industry of fitness supplements that have dubious efficacy. True, there are a number of well-researched and established products, the protein shake has its place and the use of creatine is now a sport staple, but many of the products on the market today have been assailed as costing substantial amounts of money while having little to no impact on overall performance and gains.
So, too, with the fitness magazine industry which thrives on selling its readers a better body it doesn’t really want them to achieve too quickly, because that would leave a hole in their readership, and so it drip-feeds muscle-building tips, cribbed scientific studies that support its aims, and advertises must-have products (many of which, often, the parent company also owns).
To allege, as some have, that Weider is directly responsible for the thousands of women and increasingly men who, as a result of feeding into their existing issues, have developed body dysmorphia and eating disorders is patently ridiculous.
However, it is undeniable that the bodybuilding revolution has played a part in pushing the “perfect body” meme, especially when coupled with the media’s obsession with action heroes such as the aforementioned Arnold Schwarzenegger.
These latter criticisms are not specifically Weider’s to own, rather they are the product of an industry running rampant and a culture that lacks a method of gaining perspective on what is normal, what is attainable and what is extraordinary and out of most fitness enthusiasts’ reach. A note too, that Weider championed not the stick thin women seen in Hollywood but the idea that women too could have muscular, toned and healthy physiques.
The Man Who Introduced Bodybuilding to the Masses
Regardless, for many, Joe Weider remains a defining figure who helped cultivate and popularize a sport whose ethos and charm is often overlooked by the perception of a “meathead” culture and the scarlet letter of substance abuse: that bodybuilding takes dedication, of finesse and technique, of self-control and a will to overcome limitations.
Weider’s legacy is, like all those left by people of prolific industry, a complex one. That he inspired and will continue to inspire millions to pursue their fitness and physique dreams is assured. He also taught us a valuable lesson: watch out for the skinny kid.
Photo credit: Wikipedia