“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.
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.”