Muscle Beach: Pumping Iron in Ukraine

Kachalka-Muscle-Beach-Ukraine
Kirill Golovchenko—Kehrer
Shot from behind, a body builder lifts weights at Kachalka, a fabled outdoor gym in Ukraine.

LightBox takes a look at the world of Ukrainian bodybuilders, who use open-air gyms on the island of Tuhev, not far from the site of recent bloody protests in Kiev.


The Ukrainian weightlifters in Kirill Golovchenko’s photographs make even the burliest CrossFitters look bantam cute. A fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his childhood, Golovchenko documented fitness fiends in a public park of his home country, appropriately naming his book of the photos with the Ukrainian word for “to pump.”

Kachalka: Muscle Beach is a tribute to the sprawling Soviet-era open-air fitness space that covers more than 6 square miles, is free to anyone who wants to work out there, and has been in operation since the early 1970s. The brainchild of Polish gymnast Kasimir Jagelsky and mathematics professor Yuri Kuk, Ukraine’s muscle beach is an enduring community-based hub for both amateur and aspiring athletes.

(More: Fire and Ice in Kiev: Ross McDonnell on Ukraine’s Front Line)

For decades they’ve flocked to the park on the island of Tuhev, not far from the recent bloody protests in Kiev, to test their mettle among rusting hunks of metal — large vehicle parts, hooks, and other salvaged materials welded together in constructivist-influenced design. Only a layer of brilliant blue paint covers the constructions and their accompanying wooden benches. There is no padding, just as there is no air-conditioning, cushioned flooring, or any other creature comforts.

In contrast to their hulking, aging machines, rusting into the sand below them, the minimally clad and often barefoot bodybuilders are strapping and spirited. They lift, twist, push, flex, grunt, and grimace. It’s a public spectacle that leaves every participant with, as Golovchenko writes, “a heavy body and a light heart.”


Kirill Golovchenko is a Ukrainian photographer. He studied photography at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences in Germany and he won the Documentary Photography Award from the Wüstenrot Foundation in 2007 and 2008. 

Sara Distin is a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo., and Brooklyn, N.Y. Follow her on Twitter @sldistin.


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