(Work till you’re) musclebound
In London’s East End they’ve been building championship strongmen for 30 years. We go inside Muscleworks Gym (and come away feeling puny).
Let’s bench-press the point: Muscleworks is no fitness fad catering to preening gym bunnies more concerned with getting “club-body ready”. At this east London institution, you won’t find “fat-burning” teas with diarrhoea-inducing side-effects, posture balls or electronic ab belts. You’ll only find serious gym-goers focused on the heavy business of building competitive muscles.
Since opening in 1988 Muscleworks has become the go-to training base for thousands of bodybuilders, including amputee and former soldier Mark Smith, 2nd place Heavyweight British Champion Jamo Nezzar and eight-time Mr Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman. According to the gym’s website the United Kingdom Bodybuilding Fitness Federation (UKBFF) has described Muscleworks as the “Most Successful Gym in British History”, noting that over half of the UKBFF men’s champions had trained at Muscleworks.
Proudly stood at the centre, beach-ball biceps and all, is founder and ex-bodybuilding champ Savvas “Sav” Kyriacou. A 59-year-old Greek Cypriot, Kyriacou fled Cyprus, aged 14, during the 1974 Turkish Invasion. He came to London with £50 in a hidden pocket his mother stitched into his trousers. The city, specifically the East End, has been his base ever since.
Escaping the feelgood house blasting through the speakers, Kyriacou and I chat in the small physiotherapy room of this hallowed Bethnal Green fitness mecca. It’s immediately obvious that his humble early beginnings had a profound effect on his balls-of-steel work ethic – Kyriacou speaks with a passion and charisma so inspiring I find myself silently nodding, eyes-wide-open, remembering that I’ve held a gym membership since January and haven’t been once. Looking a bit like a cross between Sly Stallone and a superhero, I worry the gym-owner can read my mind for a brief second.
“I ended up going to school, working in a shop, while living above the shop,” Kyriacou tells me of his difficult beginnings in a city 2500 miles from his family. “I worked every single day even when I was at school. The only time I had off was Christmas Day.”
The journey to gym glory was anything but an easy ride. He remembers his meals consisting solely of Weetabix (which he prefers with “ice cold” milk), fried eggs and packs of ham. It’s a far cry from the protein-laden diets hoovered up by gym-goers aiming for the lean, smooth physiques on the cover of Men’s Health – the types obviously not rewarded through a diet of beer, fags and Pot Noodles, I think, begrudgingly.
Like its owner, Muscleworks had humble beginnings. But also like its owner, it had steel at its core. A bodybuilder in his younger years, Kyriacou was smart enough to realise that, even though he competed at a “very high standard”, he realised that “genetically” he didn’t have what it would take to become a Mr Universe or Mr Olympia. “So my next goal was to create the best gym in the country!”
With fire and determination, he used Los Angeles’ legendary Gold’s Gym – at the time training muscle messiahs like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu and Ken Waller – as the template to build a new kind of London fitness facility. “I wanted to have a gym that wasn’t a health club as such, but a proper gym that followed the route of Gold’s.”
Three decades on, Muscleworks’ approach celebrates “an atmosphere of champions and gym-goers being in a place where they can follow their dreams or get inspired”. Inspiration comes in the shape of walls lined with bulging shelves bearing the heavy load of countless bodybuilding championship trophies and medals. Alongside this the walls are also plastered with images of ripped, Spartan-like figures, many signed to the man himself: “To Sav, thanks 4 believing in me,” reads one, “To Sav, my master and mentor,” reads another.
This, then, is the Kyriacou “way”: a proper old-school vibe of graft, grunt-work and effort, all with the goal of achieving muscle-mass glory. This gym-work isn’t about supplements, selfies and short-cuts. It’s about no-nonsense hard work and determination.
“I look at things scientifically and logically. I don’t want to criticise Arnold [Schwarzenegger], but even he said things that were illogical and stupid. Just because somebody is a champion or somebody has won something, it doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about,” says Kyriacou in typical straight-talking style.
I ask: what does he think is the future of health and fitness in the UK? Surely those fat-burning, shits-giving teas must boil Sav’s blood?
“It will get better because there’ll be more education, more science involved, more statistics and more clinical studies being done on a lot of different things,” he replies. “But it will take time. We’re still about 10 years behind the Americans, though.”
There’s no doubt the UK’s £5 billion health and fitness industry is booming. But while we’re stuck in a vortex of diet fads – vegan, paleo, kale-only, raw vegan – or convinced that a vibrating belt will magic up Rocky Balboa abs in a week, there’s one thing for sure: Muscleworks Gym and Savvas Kyriacou will stay standing strong, an inspiring tour de force.
How do I know? Because after an hour in the company of Sav, even I was inspired to move away from the crisps and pints and get back in the gym. With results like that, no bloody wonder it’s been pumping out champs for three decades.
Postscript: TJ Sidhu made it halfway down the road. Found himself in the pub. Sorry, Sav. It’s not you, it’s me.