CNN Photos

Pumping iron on ‘Muscle Beach’

Kirill Golovchenko was fascinated with bodybuilding growing up in Ukraine in the 1980s, thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his breakthrough role in “Conan the Barbarian.”

Or, more to the point, Golovchenko wanted the famous Austrian bodybuilder’s muscles so he could impress girls.

Golovchenko never quite attained a barbarian’s physique and pursued a career in photography instead. But, he felt like he’d been transported to the age of the Cimmerians when he set foot for the first time on Kachalka, an outdoor gym in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.

The Soviet-era island fitness facility is the subject of Golovchenko’s latest photography book, “Kachalka: Muscle Beach.”

Far from the typical members-only gym with digital exercise machines, Kachalka is free to anyone who prefers pumping iron with tank treads, rusty chains or old tires.

“I stood there and thought, can it really be?” Golovchenko said of the first day he saw the place in 2010. He was reminded of the Wheel of Pain that Conan was chained to as a child after being taken as a slave.

“The size of the units and the chains impressed me immediately,” Golovchenko said. “These archaic steel monsters (looked) like something from a science fiction movie.”

The facility and its unconventional equipment were developed under the direction of Polish gymnast Kasimir Jagelsky and mathematics professor Yuri Kuk in the 1970s.

Many of the “muscle machines” were welded together from rusty metal scraps, machine gears, crane hooks, steel beams, axles and heating pipes.

“They are very rude, crude and heavy,” Golovchenko said. “Again and again, equipment is tinkered and welded, because it breaks time to time by the friction. In the same time new gym equipment are created.”

In the sandy sweat pit littered with equipment made from Soviet-era scrap metal, Golovchenko saw an embodiment of his homeland: “Outdated in many areas and rusted,” he said, but “still works.”

The book highlights the egalitarian nature of Kachalka, with people from all social strata sweating alongside each other on the same blue-painted rusty equipment.

They are athletes, retirees, bodyguards and bandits, Golovchenko said. Many go to work before or after visiting Kachalka, he said. All of them want to be fit.

Golovchenko befriended many of them, including 85-year-old Ivan Vasilievich, who is pictured in the book. He visited Kachalka every day at noon, summer and winter, and shared with the photographer stories of his childhood in Nazi Germany.

Another obvious favorite of Golovchenko’s is a young man with sunglasses and hairstyle reminiscent of Schwarzenegger in the film "Pumping Iron."

Naturally, Golovchenko used some of equipment himself. His favorite? The chains-as-dumbbells.

“It's a great feeling,” he said. “I would love to train there.”

- Emanuella Grinberg, CNN