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Beefed Up

How did two skinny Canadian Polish Jewish kids transform the fitness world?

For 14 weeks in the middle of the Great Depression, young Joe Weider sent payments for a 100-pound weight set that he could barely afford. After mailing the final deposit, he came home five or six times a day to see whether the weight set had arrived. After it had, his mother did what any Jewish parent might have done. She said, “No,” and hid it, for the delivery came on a Friday and she knew too well that he would have violated the Sabbath had he known.

She was right.

But that heap of metal eventually made the family name famous. Joe was so radically transformed by weight training that he would spend the next 70 years spreading the gospel of bodybuilding with his younger brother, Ben.

Their collaboration led to several ventures: Weider Publications, a multimillion dollar publishing empire of muscle magazines for both men and women, including Muscle & Fitness; the International Federation of Bodybuilders and Fitness, which has 173 member nations, and Mr. Olympia, the most prestigious physique contest in the world, which shot Arnold Schwarzenegger to fame.

Joe and Ben each had a distinct role in building the dynasty. “Joe [was] the founding genius and creative engine of our enterprises,” Ben writes in their new autobiography, “Brothers of Iron.” “I carried the Weider vision to the world, fighting for respect and recognition.”

Indeed, others had run physique contests, printed articles, and created equipment and nutritional supplements, but “we wove everything together and made it all last,” Joe explains in the book.

So how did these two skinny Canadian Polish Jewish kids manage to transform the fitness world? The plot is thick.

It all began in the 1930s in a Jewish section of Montreal known as The Main.

Times were hard, antisemitism was common and the brothers — especially Joe — felt isolated. They quit school after seventh grade and went to work to support the family, but neither stopped learning. Joe studied philosophy and world leaders. Ben immersed himself in history. Their father nicknamed Joe “Rabbiyoss” for being such a deep thinker, and the comparatively light-hearted Ben “Benchuk.”

Joe found solace in weightlifting. As he gained strength, he gained admirers. At 17 he won a trophy, and he had never seen his father more proud.

In 1940, Joe created his first muscle magazine, Your Physique, in his mother’s kitchen. It was an instant hit — except with his mother. Against her objections he worked at night, under a sheet. Using two fingers, he typed all 22 pages onto mimeograph stencils and cranked out copies on a rented Gestetner mimeograph machine. Printing the issue was a wet and smelly process that required every inch of wall space to dry. He sent penny-postcards to 600 Canadian lifters and bodybuilders, inviting them to subscribe, and the response generated more money than he had ever seen in his life. He reinvested his earnings in the magazine to make it better, and later developed training and nutritional products that he advertised and sold in its pages. One item sparked a demand for another, and the articles reinforced the demands.

Ben joined the business six years later, after serving in World Word II for the Canadian army.

Joe eventually relocated to the United States and soon thereafter settled in Southern California, where he mentored such determined musclemen as Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno (of the TV series “The Incredible Hulk”).

Ben stayed in Canada and spent much of his time overseas. He traveled to 110 countries during the height of the Cold War to recruit members for the IFBB, while pursuing an unrelated but successful quest to prove that Napoleon’s death did not result from cancer but from being poisoned. For literally rewriting Napoleonic history, Ben was awarded the French Legion of Honor. For his work on the IFBB, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The Weiders’ influence became so strong that it often melted political and cultural obstructions. Ben managed to get South African officials to suspend apartheid for a week in Pretoria so the city could host the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest in accordance with IFBB rules that mandated equality for all participants. In 1986, he convinced communist officials to let Chinese women compete in bikinis. On one Mideast trip, in 1999, Ben opened Weider gyms in both Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

Despite the brothers’ myriad achievements, they were never able to conquer one problem at the professional level: steroids. Joe argues correctly in “Brothers of Iron” that athletes will do anything to win and testing can’t keep up with pharmaceutical innovation. But he fails to note that the ultimate motivations for using performance-enhancing drugs are prize money and fame, and he held the reins to both.

“Brothers of Iron,” which features forewords by both Schwarzenegger and former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, is vividly written and well paced. Both Joe and Ben contribute chapters that are deftly interwoven and read like an adventure novel. The story is also deeply personal. The anecdotes — like the Weider dynasty — have staying power. The only problem, particularly for readers who grew up in the last third of the 20th century, is when the book uses the broadest definition of bodybuilding to mean healthy living and fitness, and readers are asked to believe that the Weiders created and caused not just a fitness movement, but the fitness movement.

To their credit, the authors are careful to acknowledge their predecessors — from ancient Greeks to famed muscleman Charles Atlas — but the overarching and often-repeated message is that no one was unaffected by the Weider principles and vision. Although the wildly popular Jack La Lanne had a national television audience, he merits one paragraph in the book. The brothers leave no room to believe that a large and significant segment of the population was more influenced by La Lanne than by the Weiders and any of their products and publications.

Today, Joe, 86, and Ben, 83, are still involved in the business, although in 2002 they sold their last eight magazine titles to American Media for $350 million and recently handed the mantle and CEO title of Weider Health and Fitness to Ben’s son, Eric.

And their work isn’t finished. In a recent interview, Joe told the Forward, “I’m happy but not completely happy” with the current state of bodybuilding and healthy-living principles he always has promoted with a religious passion, “because it hasn’t reached everyone in the world yet.”

Like the true preacher he is, he won’t be satisfied until everyone’s converted.

Aimee Berg flexes her writing muscles in New York City.

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