How Joe and Ben Weider
Became the Founding Fathers
of Bodybuilding

This article tells about the early years of Joe and Ben Weider; how they started in bodybuilding; how they built the business; and much more. It also responds to the accusations against Weider by Alan Klein. The article was written by Tim Hoxha, and was featured in Flex Magazine, September 1995 issue.

If you think that Canada's contribution to sports stops with hockey, you've got another thing coming. In the 193Os, a slightly built boy named Joe Weider and his younger brother Ben couldn't make it home from school through their tough section of Montreal without being beaten up or picked on by neighborhood hooligans. An ad by Charles Atlas caught their eye; they were sick of being '9O-pound weaklings'; and they tried his calisthenics program. When that didn't do much to make either their muscles bigger or the bullies go away, they turned to Strength & Health, a magazine published by strongman-competition promoter Bob Hoffman.

As they grew into young men, the brothers set about building strong bodies with a set of barbells made with parts found in a junkyard. They soon discovered that lifting weights made more than their biceps and triceps bigger. It also built self esteem, which, as it turned out, was the real key to beating bullies. They didn't realize it then, but this passion for exercise marked the beginning of a career for both of them, one that would ultimately impact the lives of millions and launch an international sport.

The Early years

By age 18, Joe did indeed become the strongest kid in the neighborhood, a feat that led him to win Quebec's weightlifting competition, the most important of that era. Twelve year old Ben was not far behind in his enthusiasm for weightlifting.

"Developing my body by lifting weights and applying intelligent nutrition Concepts to my life became something of a holy quest," Joe remembers. But improving his mind and physique wasn't enough. "Sooner or later," he says, "it becomes necessary for people to do something that they consider important, and I felt it necessary to pass on the information I had learned to others."

Joe realized the impact those early muscle magazines had made on him, even though he'd discovered that the information they provided was often incorrect. He dreamed of publishing his own fitness newsletter to promote the physical and psychological value of working out. But the Weiders' mother wasn't impressed by her elder son's Conviction.

"The best thing for you to do is learn a trade," she admonished,"instead of growing up to be a bum." Mrs. Weider was so distraught she sought a fortune teller's advice, who predicted Joe would be a success and advised her to let the boy follow his dream. Mrs. Weider heeded the counsel, perhaps believing that a greater power guided her Son's inspired, if unusual, actions.

So with a fortune teller's blessing, seven dollars in his pocket and a mimeograph machine, Joe began publishing YOUR PHYSIQUE, a 12-page instructional magazine. His first subscribers were fitness buffs who attended strongman competitions in Montreal, and people who had written letters to the editor in Strength & Health, to whom Joe had Sent penny postcards asking them to accept a two dollar yearly subscription.

The strategy worked. By 1943, the circulation of 'Your Physique' reached across Canada. So many readers wrote in for information on weight equipment that Joe began his own equipment mail order business with help from brother Ben, who had recently returned home from duty in the Canadian army.

There was such a community of weight training devotees by 1946 that the Weiders organized the first Mr. Canada contest. This event was different from the exploitive carnival and vaudeville contests of the time, in which participants had to perform such stunts as bending steel bars or biting through steel. The Weiders wanted a contest that was respectful of the individual and of the discipline of lifting, and so developed a sport by having competitors pose in front of judges to determine who had the most balanced muscular build.

"After that first contest, I understood the depth of interest people had in strength and bodybuilding", Ben recalls. "I figured that since there was so much interest in Montreal, there must be equal interest around the world".

The following year, Ben visited Europe to spark interest in the growing sport of bodybuilding. (He eventually traveled the globe and established the International Federation of Bodybuilders, which has grown to include more than 150 member nations.)

At the same time that Ben was promoting bodybuilding as a sport, Joe was persuading a large distribution company to carry 'You Physique' on its newsstands. Circulation rocketed to 50,000 copies a month and orders for weight equipment multiplied. To better manage publishing and production demands, Joe left Canada for the East Coast of the United States, while Ben remained in Montreal to oversee the IFBB, a task he continues to perform to this day.

No Smooth Sailing

From a small, shabby warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, Joe established a magazine empire. By 1952, 'Your Physique' reached record sales levels and prompted Weider to distribute 20 separate magazines with a total circulation of about 25 million readers. Joe Weider was on the verge of his 30th birthday and already a millionaire.

Then troubled waters hit. The Weider's distribution company was dismantled in a buyout, leaving Joe with no distribution for his products as well as an unpaid $2.3 million debt. To save the company, he quickly cut back to publishing his first successful vehicle, 'Your Physique', which he renamed Muscle Builder.

It reached a respectable 80,000 monthly circulation by 1965, allowing the Weiders to focus their energies on bolstering the sport of bodybuilding. The sport was losing many of its top competitors, who were force to take jobs as bouncers, bodyguards and professional wrestlers because they couldn't make a living in the sport of their choice. By increasing contest incomes, the Weiders hoped to keep both veterans and rising champions in the sport.

They subsequently created the Mr. Olympia contest to showcase bodybuilder's top talent in the hope of attracting lucrative television and business contracts that would support the fledgling sport. Yet the deals didn't materialize. In the mid-'60s, advertisers still considered bodybuilding a cult sport practiced by 'muscleheads', and having little mainstream appeal.

Building a Dream

How to move bodybuilding from cult to mainstream? First, Joe moved his American operations to sunny California, home to the body conscious and hub of the bodybuilding subculture. Then the Weiders stepped up the educational approach to bodybuilding, filling every article in their publications with hands on information readers could utilize to improve their bodies and mind. Still, they needed a spokesman who would be a living, breathing symbol of the virtues of the sport. And they found it in a young, charismatic Austrian champion named Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Weiders moved Schwarzenegger to California in 1969, where they paid him $100 a week to write about his training and diet in 'Muscle Builder'. Joe also took the young bodybuilder under his wing by managing his daily training schedule and tutoring him in real estate investments, media relations and the arts. Joe even loaned Schwarzenegger his favorite three paintings to decorate a new apartment. "Five years later, I tried to give them back, but Joe said 'Keep them; they're yours,'". Schwarzenegger has said in interviews.

In return, Schwarzenegger told readers about the benefits of using Weider supplements and equipment. Soon, Schwarzenegger personable manner, wit and charm captivated audiences and helped to dispel the notion that big muscles equated with little brains. "When Arnold did the talk shows," says Robert Kennedy, publisher of Toronto based 'Musclemag International', "people realized that this was a guy who made sense, and made us laugh too. They liked him."

The release of the motion picture Pumping Iron in 1977 served not only to make Schwarzenegger a household name but helped boost the sport itself. For the first time, the general public had a bodybuilder to admire. By the early 1980s, bodybuilding and the healthy lifestyle associated with it were ingrained in the public consciousness, thanks in no small part to the Weiders' marketing skills.

By drawing a stronger line between bodybuilding and fitness, the Weiders, through their growing publishing efforts, have been able to bring the spirit of fitness to an ever widening readership in 17 countries: 'Muscle Builder' evolved into the 1.7 million circulation magazine Muscle & Fitness, attracting the general bodybuilding and fitness fan; Shape, a publication devoted to women's health and fitness, was launched; Flex became the journal for hardcore and professional bodybuilders; and Men's Fitness was created as a health and lifestyle periodical. The corporation that publishes the magazines also produces vitamins and food supplements. Combined, the two businesses create products available in some 60 countries and gross nearly $1 billion a year.

The success of their publishing efforts and products has made it possible for the Weiders to realize that goal they sought years ago: to make bodybuilding lucrative for the athletes and recognized as a sport. Today, success as a bodybuilder often attracts greater attention from the public at large. Consider the multi million dollar film status of Schwarzenegger; the respect eight time Mr. Olympia winner Lee Haney has garnered; the television achievements of the very inspirational Lou Ferrigno; and the prolific career of author / product representative / actress Rachel McLish, the first Ms. Olympia.

The list of successful bodybuilders is extensive; gone are the days when being a bodybuilder meant you could cut your destiny off at being a bouncer. Joe Weider himself contracts, on average, 20 athletes who perform a variety of jobs within the company, from generating articles to endorsing products and representing the Weider name. The overall expenditure on these contracts exceeds well over $1 million.

Breaking Down Barriers

As a result of the Weiders' strong beliefs in the concept of liberty and equality or perhaps because of them, the brothers have done their share to open the sport to all people, notably, women and ethnic minorities. By putting women bodybuilders on the cover of their magazines, writing articles about them and promoting women's competitions, the Weiders have made the image of strong women acceptable to society at large and marketable to boot. ESPN and other cable contracts have brought both men's and women's competitions into millions of living rooms across North America.

When Joe and Ben created their first bodybuilding competitions way back in the 1940s, they also broke race taboos that permeated American culture in general and American sports in particular. "The Weiders liberalized bodybuilding at a time when black athletes were shunned from competition," explains Leroy Colbert, the first black Mr. America. "Before that, the competitions were very prejudiced and unfair, and if you were black, you were not allowed to win. But when Joe and Ben began organizing, they said 'If you're the best, you're going to win. We don't care what color you are.'" By opening the door for black and Hispanics in bodybuilding, Colbert maintains, the Weiders were the first to apply true sportsmanship to bodybuilding.

A Sporting Revolution

However, the most dramatic of the Weider's contributions has been to athletic training, which they revolutionized. "During the 1950s, when we first popularized bodybuilding and weight training, bodybuilding as a basis to build strength for sport was rejected 100%," explains Ben. Experts of the time believed the weightlifting left athletes muscle bound and uncoordinated.

So vehement and numerous were the Weiders' critics that scientists would not write articles for their magazines. Even Charles Atlas told Joe he was 'an idiot' for selling barbells to build strength, Ben remembers. Despite this, the Weiders persevered. They created the 'Weider Triangle of Peak Performance', based on exercise technique, nutrition and bodybuilding, to enhance athletic performance in activities like running, swimming and cycling. With help from Leroy Colbert, they also created speed training programs to develop fast twitch muscle fibers aimed at increasing speed for specific sports. "We investigated and assessed all the training methods available and compiled them into one catalgue," Joe explains.

The catalogue, widely accepted by the sporting community and by the numerous doctors, researchers and scientists who now regularly contribute to all Weider publications, is nothing short of the bible for the fitness revolution in our culture. "The Weiders have helped millions of people, including a generation of bodybuilders," Schwarzenegger has stated.

On the nutrition front, the Weiders' development of vitamin and supplement programs has been key to benefiting both athletes and nonathletes. "In 1950, it was against the medical and coaching communities thinking to use vitamins and supplements," says Ben. But in this area too the opinions of many athletes, doctors and scientists have swung in favor of the Weider' approach. Take the example of Dr. Linus Pauling, who was a Nobel Prize recipient for his work on vitamins' effects on the body. He argued that supplements are a nutritional requirement, especially for athletes striving for the highest level of athletic efficiency.

As far back as the 1940s, the Wieders have stressed the link between the mind and body for optimum health and fitness. "The principles of the Weider lifestyle stand for education of the whole person: body, mind and spirit," says Joe. For the Weiders, 'total fitness' depends upon following principles that enable us to effectively interact with others.

The Weiders were also ahead of their time in waging campaign against the tobacco and alcohol industries. As early as in the 1930s, the brothers were educating readers about the pitfalls of both addictions, an endeavor that, according to Ben, became a permanent policy. In fact, it was under Ben's direction that the IFBB reprinted a paper by the Executive Health Report on the dangers of smoking to motivate both the layman and the athlete to live a healthier and more productive life. So committed are the Weiders to this message that they not only devote editorial pages in their publications to informing readers about smoking and alcohol dangers but they refuse to accept what could be very profitable advertising revenue from the billion dollar tobacco and alcohol industries.

The Mechanics of Success

As pacesetters in the sports business industry, the Wieders have built an interdependent group of companies that sell more than 100 bodybuilding and fitness related products, making the Weider name synonymous with health and fitness. How did they do it?

Corporate analysts praise the Wieders for the entrepreneurial skill; even the 'Wall Street Journal' has lauded them for the organization of their management team, their marketing tactics and their high productivity. The Weiders are ranked among the tip five in the 'best of the best' list of 300 executives compiled by the Peak Performance Center of California.

High company standards spark the Weiders' success. For example, at the Weiders' food supplement headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, they employ leading specialists in research and development, as well as consult with a team of outside experts to further guarantee that their supplements and vitamins meet the highest standards. As a result, Toronto based professor of sports medicine Dr. Mauro DiPasquale counts Joe Weider as "one of the most responsible supplement manufacturers."

Aided by a keen executive team that includes Michael Carr, Richard Bizzaro, Eric Weider and David Obey, the Weiders keep honing new market strategies. In the mid-1980s, they bought a Los Angeles based maker of high energy nutrition bars. They also have phased out the long standing mail order business in favor of selling Weider products in retail stores throughout North America. Fiannly, the company uses a 'synergistic' approach to promotion, placing subscription ads for their publications inside video and equipment items. The thought is that by promoting health and fitness, interest will be generated in products. In turn, using the products and being involved in bodybuilding as a sport spurs interested in the magazines.

False Accusations

Despite the brothers' business and financial success, or perhaps because of it, they have been criticized. In 'Little Big Man' an academic critique of the Weider organization, sports sociologist Alan Klein accuses the Weiders of conspiring to control the organization and competition level of bodybuilding, the marketing and sales of products and the ideology of the sport. "They have a monopoly." Klein writes.

Unfortunately for Klein and his reputation as a scholar, his research is anemic, at best. His arguments are based on hearsay evidence given by unnamed individuals. Klein's claims that the Weiders dictate the organizational and competitive levels of the sport rest on the assumption that Ben Weider processes, like a king, absolute power within the IFBB as its president. However, Ben is but a member, albeit a founding one, of a democratically elected governing body comprised of affiliates in 156 countries.

"If they want to vote someone else in," Ben states unequivocally, "they can vote me out." What's more, federation members vote on proposals, which effectively negate any claims that the president runs the IFBB with uncontested power.

Nevertheless, Ben does not deny that the IFBB oversees a 'monopoly' in the dictionary definition of the term, since the organization functions like another other recognized sports federation that regulates and coordinates a sport. The General Association of Sports Federations (GASF) grants authority to the IFBB just as it does to entities like the International Gymnastics Federation. Having another group organize and supervise bodybuilding would be like having a group other than the International Olympic Committee (IOC) put on the Olympic games.

Klein also charges that the Weider control the ideology of the sport. However, Klein never defines what he considers to be the 'ideology of the sport' nor dies he outline what 'ideology' the Weiders are purported to preach. The Weiders do instruct readers to build muscle, strength and stamina. Most coaches who are aware of the principles of physiology and performance offer their athletes the same instruction.

Another of Klein's charges is that the Weiders have a monopoly on bodybuilding as an industry. He is not the only one to have claimed this, which means he is not the only one to be wrong. In 1990, two separate court rulings dismissed an antitrust suit filed by Twin Laboratories, Inc., that charged Joe Weider with blocking competitors from selling supplements by not allowing them advertising space in either 'Muscle & Fitness' or 'Flex'. The appeals court judge in fact noted that Weider name a "responsible and legitimate decision in refusing ad space to Twin Labs," remarking that the plaintiff "is not a 90-pound weakling in whose face Weider kicked sand. Rather, it is a muscular competitor who is complaining about the competitive process."

When reviewing charges by Klein and his ilk, it's important to realize that the Weider Corporation does not control the flow of information. In Canada alone, no fewer than nine different bodybuilding magazines are sold. Simply put, the existence of many independent publishing groups means that no one magazine can be recognized as the 'canon' even by dedicated enthusiasts. "It is a free market," notes Robert Kennedy of MuscleMag International. "Anybody can sell magazines, supplements or weight equipment."

Klein has also contended that the roles of Joe and Ben in the business and sport of bodybuilding overlap and thus create a conflict of interest. "Joe Weider can make or break a career," Klein maintains. He argues that a star bodybuilder who appears in Flex or wins an IFBB meet can't promote a competitor's product because if he does, the iFBB will shun him.

"Klein is completely prejudiced, or he lacks the facts," Ben says bluntly. "There is no way the IFBB allows its sport to be involved with business. Bodybuilding is a sport, and we keep it as one." Take the example of Lee Haney, Ben notes, who once endorsed Weider products, but then signed a contract with a competitor. "Because Haney endorsed someone else's products," Ben says, "they said he would never win another Mr. Olympia contest. P.S.: Haney won."

"There are new stars coming up all the time and no reason why people shouldn't progress in the sport," notes competing publisher Kennedy. Kennedy says that since he often oversees articles written about up and coming champions, he knows firsthand that success in the sport is not controlled by the Weiders. He adds that bodybuilders who work for Weider are on contracts that allow them to run their own seminars, sell their own merchandise or endorse clothing lines from other companies.

Klein also charges that the Weiders "indirectly influence the outcomes" of competitions through judging that "can be manipulated to fit a standard the Weiders want by selecting judges who agree with the Weider philosophy of bodybuilding." This is allegedly done in order to ensure that highly marketable athletes will win, which will allow them to sell more magazines and merchandise for the company. But again, Klein has apparently failed to research the reality: There are hundreds of qualified judges within the IFBB who are selected by a panel of IFBB officials.

"There is only one way to face a contest," Ben says. "You approach the nine judges and say, 'I am president of the IFBB, and if you guys want to continue being judges, you're going to vote my way. I don't want Lee Haney to win, you vote for my new man.' How long do you think that is going to stay a secret? How quickly do you think my life's work, 50 years of work, would be destroyed?"

Klein's speculation does not define the 'standard' or 'philosophy' the Weiders supposedly use to 'influence' competitions. Such a definition would be impossible anyway. Consider the significant physical differences between former Mr. Olympias. Three time winner Frank Zane is white, 5'7" and relatively muscular; eight time champion Lee Haney is African American, 6' and extremely massive.

Like any other federation, the IFBB does have a set of guidelines; bodybuilders must possess muscularity, definition, size and symmetry. Ben suggests that the Weider philosophy literally mean the 'Weider lifestyle' or 'total fitness,' not a standard by which judges can base decisions. Every IFBB judges, Ben asserts, votes according to his or her conscience.

Klein contradicts his statements that the Weiders "indirectly influence" the outcomes of competitions in his argument concerning women. He reports that Ben is "really opposed to overly muscular women," yet in the next breath he observes that the overwhelming number of female champions "keep pushing the edges of that envelope." Using logic, if Ben 'indirectly influences' judges, why do 'overly muscular women' continue to win? In the end, judges must select winners based on their own interpretations of muscularity, proportion and symmetry.

Several policies ensure the credibility of the IFBB judicial process. First, to eliminate bias, the highest and the lowest score of each competitor is dropped. Second, Ben instructs judges to 'look at an athlete from his neck down'. Forget about who he is. Judge him by his physique'. Ben never attends prejudging because judges usually narrow down the field at that time. If a tie between two or more athletes exists, then the judges make a final decision during the evening presentation.

"I have never, ever, ever expressed my preferences to any judges as to who should win and who shouldn't," Ben states. Leaders within the sport back up Ben's assertions. "Anyone can win," says former Mr. Universe Mohamed Makkaway. "Bodybuilding is like gymnastics or figure skating, not everyone agrees with the results." Adds Frank Zane, "The only person who doesn't disagree with the judges is the winner."

To the Future

Criticism aside, the Weiders are the undisputed pioneers of bodybuilding, whose guiding missionary zeal has turned a once marginalized activity into a competitive and mainstream sport, one that may well number among the Olympic competitions one day. In 1995, for example, bodybuilding moved one step closer towards IOC recognition when it was one of the events participating officially at the Pan American Games in Argentina. But perhaps most important has been the Weiders' impact on the health and well being of millions on nonathletes: "Ours is not simply a sport, it is a lifestyle," Ben explains. "This is our contribution, our life and our dedication."