The Musclemen of Bethnal Green
As “Diamonds” by Rhianna beats loud on the stereo, I eavesdrop in on a conversation between three men who are comparing themselves in a mirror. They look like extras from a gladiatorial movie – minus the loin cloth, leather sandals and shields – waiting in the wings before they film the bare-fisted knuckle fight with the famished tiger inside the Coliseum. These men had just completed a workout and were gleaming with sweat under the fluorescent lighting. With their tops off, they were inspecting each other’s chests and six-packs. “Put that away man, you’ve gotten fat,” one teases another. A single gold tooth punctuates his smile. “It’s true, you know, I have,” says the friend being interrogated and begins to put his vest back on. The third, a little more encouraging, says, “you must go along with your age and size, bro. There is no point being something you’re not.” The banter continues in this vein as they pinch, poke and pull at each others knurls, curves and knots.
To say the men are big, or muscled, would be an understatement. They are that and more. Muscleworks Gym’s website explains that this “mecca of bodybuilding” has a startling collection of apparatus to become “bigger, stronger and faster,” including “handpicked gym eighty, hammer strength and cybex machines both plate loaded and selectorised alongside tonnes of barbells, bumper plates and dumbbells all the way up to 180lbs.” All around the two-storey gymnasium, there were more of them: heaving, pushing, grunting, lifting and slamming heavy weights. Their teeth glared, faces strained, veins bulged as they pulled air in furiously and blew out full and fast. Some worked with others, their partners helping count reps, loading bits of metal onto machinery. Older assisting younger, experienced guiding novices. The gym reflected the diversity of Bethnal Green and indeed London. Above them all, hanging from the low ceiling, are those they literally look up to and model themselves on – hundreds of laminated posters and photographs of champions of bodybuilding competitions (what the gladiatorial bouts have been reduced to), many of whom train and have been coached at no.2 Hague Street, including eight time Mr Olympia, Ronnie Coleman.
Amongst the dizzying array are pictures of Savvas Kyriacou, ‘Sav,’ who set the gym up in 1988 when competing as a bodybuilder himself. In one black and white image, he is seen posing on stage in a pair of Speedos during the 1992 Southeast Britain Bodybuilding Championships. He looks just above the camera, both hands clenched in fists – right curled above his head and left just above his hip. Growing up, Sav had a predilection for films which starred the nineteen- fifties America bodybuilder and actor Steve Reeves, whose titles include ‘Tarzan,’ ‘Hercules,’ ‘Hercules Unchained’ and ‘Duel of the Titans’. Sav went on to win that competition. He is a busy, busy man these days, organising bodybuilding competitions himself now, with one due to take place in a matter of weeks. When he eventually allows himself a few minutes to talk, he explains how he ended up creating such an influential gym dedicated exclusively to bodybuilding.
“I moved to the UK in 1974. I was fourteen and a half years old. It was during the Turkish War, when they invaded Cyprus. I was allowed to leave because I was under sixteen, otherwise, I would have had to join the army. I stayed with relatives and at fifteen got a job at a cash-and-carry in Stoke Newington. Very early in the mornings, I would go to Spitalfields Market to buy produce for the shop. At seventeen, I got a driving license and would do this before I went to school in the mornings and then after school worked in the shop. I had to do it, there was no one to support me. I couldn’t really study and there was no chance of going to uni anyway as I was foreign and wouldn’t have been able to afford the fees. This made me wonder what I could do with my life that wouldn’t mean having to go to the market and cash-&-carry each and every day. At the time, gyms and health-clubs were not what they are today, they were mostly council run places and not very good. So, at twenty-four, I opened my first gym in Tottenham. I like to think that this was the beginning of breaking new frontiers.
I had begun training at twenty-one and was good at it. I soon started questioning the whole way bodybuilding was being taught. I thought it was archaic, medieval even. None of it was really scientific. The majority of people wanted to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger but what they didn’t understand was that although his genes allowed him to be like that, everybody is different, their bodies are different which means that they can’t be Arnold. At twenty-three, I won my first competition. It felt like a footballer scoring a goal, a goalkeeper winning a save. It felt good.” He since went on to win Mr Cyprus twice.
Half way during our talk, Sav is called away. He has to teach someone how to pose for a competition. Following detailed instructions, the man steps forward, raises his arms elegantly into the air as a ballet dancer might, wrists cocked delicately, one leg out in front. He clenches hard. and the tiny ribbons and rivulets of muscles and veins appear on full display. Others look and stare. With his plumage unfurled, the man lowers his head and beams at his tutor.
Afterwards, Sav says “I love the fact that you are in control of what you do. You are an artist, creating something. It’s difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t do it why someone would want to build up their body. It’s self-satisfying, an addiction. It’s like a religion. If you do it right, it’s healthy.
I try and advocate that you don’t have to do it for hours. Five hours per week is fine. Having knowledge about what you are doing is crucial. It’s like the difference between a black cab and an ordinary taxi: a black cab will take you straight to where you want to go, whereas a taxi will go all over the place, looking for the right destination.
Anyone who knows anything about bodybuilding, knows us. We have trained thousands of people and coached many champions. The whole atmosphere is important to people. If I moved into a bigger place, something I have considered, people wouldn’t like it. This building, here, this is Muscleworks. I have another place in Stoke Newington, one in Enfield and one for women on Bethnal Green Rd. They are all different, but this place is the original. I wanted to create the best gym in London, pure body building, just like the ones in the US. I think I’ve achieved my aim. It’s now not just the best in London, but the most successful in the UK.”
“I’ve been training for quite a few years, but it is only now that I want to enter into competitions. I started coming here because I wasn’t progressing much elsewhere. Now that I’m training properly, I do it every three days, with one day off in between. At the moment, I’m dieting to compete. In the morning, I eat oats and eggs. My carbs are brown rice and sweet potatoes. I eat chicken breast, meat, fish and green vegetables. No dessert.”
“I’ve been coming here since I was seventeen. I grew up around here. Everyone comes here to train. It feels good. I do it to relieve stress, it’s a total stress buster, helping me keep focused. Sav has done a lot for us, he’s like a father to a lot of people. The place has history, there are good people here. I’ve been doing it for so many years now that it’s become a part of me.”
“I’ve always enjoyed fitness. I want to gain size and muscle mass. I started five years ago in Australia, where I am from. It’s not for others, but about achieving a goal – a personal thing – wanting to exceed my own expectations. I want to compete one day, maybe the under 75kg class. I massively respect these big guys, they have obtained these amazing physics but my optimum body image will be toned, athletic, built. It’s about a sense of fulfilment, when you look at yourself in the mirror. But diet, sleep and negative thoughts all affect your goal and the endless pursuit.”
“This is one of the best gyms in London, the atmosphere is great. I train for an hour and twenty minutes, after work, five to six days a week. I’ve been doing it for around ten years. I always feel better afterwards. I have my own schedule. If I go for a week without doing it, I feel terrible. I don’t have the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on my headphones, no, I listen to ‘System of a Down’ or techno or house music.”
“I’ve always been skinny, believe it or not. But obviously I worked hard and progressed. I’m now entering a competition later this month.”
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
Learn more about Sav Kuriacou’s Total Fitness Bodybuilding Extravaganza on 22nd September
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