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Who Was Joe Gold?

John Romano

I get a lot of great feedback on how much you enjoy the stories from back in the day at Venice Gold’s and World Gyms when the modern era of bodybuilding exploded. Since this era interests so many of you, I thought it would be fitting to tell you a little bit about the guy who started the whole shebang in Muscle Beach during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many of you know the name “Gold,” as in Gold’s gym, but do you know Joe Gold, the man?

Joe Gold was the cantankerous old man who founded both Gold’s and World Gyms in Venice Beach, California. It was from those hallowed temples that our industry was hatched. And along the way, it’s where the bodybuilding gods were built. Joe Gold is responsible for the odd crucible that created the most longed-for love affair with bodybuilding in the history of our sport. Joe Weider may have popularized bodybuilding in his magazines, but it was Joe Gold who built the factories that churned out Weider’s progeny. And if you were lucky enough to be working out in one of Gold’s factories during their zenith, your life has been changed forever. It’s like your soul has received the sacrament of bodybuilding offered by its creator. There were a lot of great gyms over the years, but no one could ever deny that Venice Beach was where the crucial work was being done. It was the birthplace of “hardcore training,” and Joe Gold was its daddy.

Joe opened Gold’s Gym, the first hardcore bodybuilding gym, in Venice, California, in 1965. He designed and built all his own equipment for his gyms. A bodybuilder himself, Joe paid specific attention to the unique needs of bodybuilding and built equipment specifically for bodybuilders that was so good that his gyms were the destination for just about every noteworthy bodybuilder in history, including Arnold. No pantheon of modern bodybuilding would be complete today without Joe Gold.

Every time you stick a pin in a weight stack or grab the handles on a pulley machine, give thanks to Joe; he invented and built the very first models. In fact, the entire concept of “machines” that we use to build muscle can trace its roots back to Joe Gold. And as innovative and technologically advanced as the fitness equipment industry has become, there isn’t a manufacturer in business today—even with every ounce of state-of-the-art technology at its disposal—that can churn out equipment as good for bodybuilding as the pieces Joe welded together in his garage in Venice. Privileged be the few who have moved big iron on one of his machines—you know what I’m talking about.

Joe sold Gold’s Gym in 1970 (for $7,500), and it eventually became a huge international franchise worth an estimated $350 million today. It also grew into quite a rancorous attraction with a transient element that invaded the sanctity of those bodybuilders who took themselves a little more seriously. Eventually Arnold, Franco, and the rest of that little original Gold’s Gym crew were able to convince Joe to open another gym so they could all train in peace. In 1977, Joe opened World Gym in Santa Monica. Immediately such bodybuilding superstars as Lou Ferrigno, Frank Zane, Dave Draper, Tom Platz, and the Mentzer brothers, to name but a few, joined the ranks of Arnold and Franco upstairs on Main Street in Santa Monica. While Gold’s Gym eventually established itself as the centre of the bodybuilding universe, no self-respecting bodybuilder making the trek to Mecca in the late ‘70s  and ‘80s didn’t climb those stairs up from Main Street to train in the sunlit hallowed cement block building with the big outside deck facing the Pacific. Where else in the world could you train outside—with your shirt off—with a view of the ocean? And where else could you train on such good equipment? In fact, all the way up through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was very common for bodybuilders living in Venice/Santa Monica to hold memberships to both Gold’s and World. Most of us trained legs at World because the equipment was so much better. I can still remember how smooth Joe’s leg press was; it practically lifted itself.

I trained at World Gym from 1979 until Joe threw me out in 1983. I’ll always regret that incident. I got thrown out of the coolest gym in the country! That story has been told way too many times to tell it here again. The important thing is that Joe and I soon made up. From the moment we did, Joe welcomed me back into his gym and he never charged me a membership. Behind that cranky façade of his, Joe was a really good guy—a true bodybuilder—and a great gym operator, maybe the best ever in history. Joe was the boss and he ran his gyms lean and mean—mostly with Joe doing the mean part himself—but in a tough-love kind of way. The bottom line is simply illustrated by an anecdotal comparison of the two gyms: At Gold’s Gym, the weights were all over the place—people left plates loaded on machines, and the dumbbells were strewn all over and none were in their proper location on the rack. World, on the other hand, looked like a magazine ad. Every weight was stowed in its proper and corresponding spot, and every dumbbell not in use was stationed on the rack in its proper slot. Joe never turned on the heat, there was no air conditioning, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass if you were comfortable or not. All Joe cared about is that you respected his gym and its equipment and used it with the same pride he used in building it. He liked it when guys got in shape and moved big weights. He liked to see his gym working and his equipment being used and enjoyed by all. Joe genuinely liked his members; he gave most of us nicknames. He liked to see us. He liked to laugh with us—sometimes at us. There was no denying Joe loved being in his gym, so much so that he was there, in the gym, almost all the time, even in a wheelchair, right up until the end.

We all owe Joe Gold our utmost adoration. He started the hardcore gym movement and encouraged more bodybuilders than I could count. Even Arnold counts Joe Gold as a father figure. There isn’t one of us who doesn’t owe him our gratitude. I’ll never forget Joe, and I’ll never forget how he touched my life. I miss him.

Joe Gold died at the Daniel Freeman Medical Center on July 11, 2004. His ashes were put to sea. He was 82.