Building Strength

Once famous as dank places in the deepest basement corners, today’s weight rooms are just the opposite. Designed to motivate athletes in new ways, they appeal to the senses as well as the muscles.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.4, June/July 2003,

Strength and conditioning facilities have become literal centers of power in collegiate athletics. Not only do they help student-athletes reach their full potential, they are also clarion calls that announce an athletic program’s commitment to success. Such facilities can play a key role in attracting potential recruits, whether they be student-athletes or new coaches.

It’s no surprise, then, that strength facilities have become another weapon in the “arms race” among NCAA Division I universities looking to surpass their conference rivals. For example, in the Big 12 Conference, the University of Kansas unveiled the $8 million Anderson Family Strength and Conditioning Center this spring, Oklahoma is planning a football-only strength facility, and Nebraska recently re-equipped its famed Husker Power program.

While today’s weight facilities are still focused on helping athletes get bigger and stronger, they also are designed to help motivate athletes in new ways. This includes providing enough space so an entire team can work out together, paying attention to aesthetics, and providing the right view. They are also including more open areas for speed and plyometric work.

The first thing people notice about today’s newest strength and conditioning facilities is how nice they look. “Traditionally, a lot of weightrooms have been these small, dark boxes—from the inside, you couldn’t tell if it was day or night, rain or shine,” says Jim Whitten, Strength Coach at East Carolina University, which recently opened a 22,000-square-foot facility.

“Since a weightroom has to appeal to potential recruits and new coaches, administrators want it to look nice,” says Chris Dawson, Strength Coach at Kansas. “Strength coaches around the country fought that approach for a long time, thinking if it’s not functional, how will it help us? But what I’ve seen recently is a coming together of these two factors, which is perfectly exemplified here at the Anderson Center. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, it’s also very functional.”

One common way to make a facility feel more welcoming is by installing large windows. These let in more light and make the room seem less confining. With the right view, weightrooms can also help generate a sense of mission, such as at schools where the weightroom is adjacent to the football stadium.

“In our new facility, we can look out over the football field, which our guys like,” Whitten says. “It makes them realize where all the hard work in here can take them.”

Southern Mississippi designed its new strength facility to also overlook the football field. “We have 12-feet-high ceilings and huge windows that go from ceiling to floor,” says Strength Coach Charles Dudley, who helped design the 4,300-square-foot facility. “It just makes the kids more excited about being in here.”

Aesthetics go beyond the design of the building, according to Dennis Poremski, Assistant Director for Recreation and Health Promotion at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who is helping to plan a new facility that should be completed within two years. “I’d never compromise on having the best equipment, but everything else being equal, matching equipment looks really good and catches the eye when people walk in,” he says. “We’ll probably go mainly with one line of equipment, which will help us manage and maintain it, but we’ll also mix in a few other pieces for specific purposes.”

Practical considerations will often clash with aesthetics, forcing designers to find other ways to create the atmosphere they want. For example, when location precludes large windows, coaches are doing all they can to avoid the dark and dingy rooms of the past. Arizona State’s new 16,000-square-foot strength room is located in the basement of its building, but Sports Performance Coach Joe Kenn says the facility’s designers did a great job in installing a bright and full lighting system.

Poremski, meanwhile, would rather have 14 or 20-foot-high ceilings in his new facility, but the architect has only allowed for 12-foot ceilings. “So we had to step back and think about how to make the ceiling look higher—whether it’s a certain type of paint job, skylights, or recessed lighting,” he says.

As important as appearances are, sometimes it’s best to put function over form. For example, Dawson suggests working a garage door into the weightroom design to better move equipment in and out of the facility. “Some administrators will likely resist that because of the way it looks,” he says. “But if you hide it at one end of the room, away from the front door, it won’t be as noticeable. And it will be very useful.”

While most strength coaches agree that bigger is better when it comes to the weightroom’s size, the important thing is making the most of whatever space you do have. “It’s not just the size of the room, it’s how the room is equipped and how functional it is for the athletes,” Kenn says. “In recent years, the trend has been to maximize space and efficiency. So instead of having 10 stations each for bench press, squat racks, and power clean, we’ve gone with 24 multipurpose stations.

“One of our goals is teambuilding,” Kenn continues. “With this setup, we can train 96 football players in one time period, or we can do three or four other sports all at the same time. We’ve had to educate our kids on the proper way to use the multipurpose stations so they’re not standing around, but it’s uncongested, and we have lots of flow.”

At 4,300 square feet, Southern Mississippi’s new facility is not as big as others, so Dudley carefully chose equipment that would help serve the student-athletes most efficiently. “We went with 12 multipower stations, so athletes can do the majority of their exercises while staying in one area,” he says. “We used to have four squat racks, three benches, and three platforms, so from an organizational standpoint, this new weightroom has been a blessing. We can coordinate and work with up to 40 athletes, and it cuts down the time that we have to put in as a staff.”

Dudley’s weightroom also adjoins a 2,000-square-foot visitor’s football locker room, which is adapted for training use. “We have teams visiting here only five or six times per year, so we put the lockers on rollers, and push them against the wall when they’re not being used,” he says. “That gives us space for a plyometrics and stretching area. It’s worked out well.”

Of course, bigger spaces allow you to have more equipment and more versatile workout spaces. Kansas’ Anderson Center has a 70-foot x 30-foot artificial turf field that’s lined like a football field. “It really gives us a lot of freedom in training,” Dawson says. “We can do either the whole offense or defense at the same time, or everyone at one position.”

East Carolina’s new facility has a four-lane, 55-yard indoor track; a 20-yard x 15-yard turf area for agility drills; and a 15-yard x 3-yard plyometric area for jumping exercises. Whitten also chose a variety of strength machines that will appeal to specific players, such as linemen. “Different position players want to see different things,” Whitten says. “The linemen are usually more concerned about the pure weightlifting aspect of strength training, while skill players are more interested in the speed part of the program. Now we have all the components of a complete strength and conditioning program in one facility.”

The two-story design of the Anderson Center has an especially effective plyometric-training area: a 20-yard indoor “hill,” which consists of a ramp rising from a 37- to a 45-degree grade, plyometric steps that are filled with shredded tire, and a row of stadium-like steps. Inspired by a similar outdoor facility designed by Istvan Javorek, Strength Coach at Johnson County Community College (see “Hill Work” below), the area enables the Jayhawks to do resistance training, rehab, and hill training.

“Most strength coaches use stadium steps, but they’re always a little too short and not quite high enough,” Dawson says. “We’ve built a series of steps, going from the first to second floor of the new facility, into this indoor hill. It’s about what you’d want from stadium steps if you were using them to train athletes instead of seating people—they’re double the height and length of typical stadium seats. I’ve always worried about the effect of the hard impact on players, so we used a three-inch-thick rubber substance to fill the steps. It’s dug out into the step itself to reduce impact.”

Whether you’re planning a huge space like Kansas’ or a smaller one, Poremski suggests that you talk with as many equipment reps as possible. “I’ve invited them to campus, given them layout plans of our building, and asked them what they thought,” he says. “They’re trained to solve your problems, and they can tell you how their equipment will work most effectively in your space. Best of all, it’s a free service.”

Administrators and strength coaches at other schools are also valuable sources of information. “It’s a learn-as-you-go situation, so it’s important to have as many conversations as you can with as many people as you can,” Poremski says. “Get out to see places, and note what you like about them and what you would do differently. That will help you get a template for your own facility. It’s easy to get caught in the flash of what’s possible, instead of focusing on what you really need.”

With all the tangible benefits that can be gained from a new weightroom facility, it’s easy to forget the emotional impact. But just because it’s harder to measure doesn’t mean it should be ignored. A new facility can give student-athletes a renewed sense of purpose and an excitement about strength training.

“It’s like a new car, kids want to get in and drive it around,” Dudley says of Southern Mississippi’s new facility. “Attendance has gone up, and the kids stay longer at their sessions. And everyone seems to be in a better mood all the time.”

Dawson agrees. “It changes the perception of how athletes view themselves, and the way we as a university and athletic department view ourselves,” he says. “All the facilities are in place now for KU football to succeed.”

Arizona State’s new facility has had a similar effect, but Kenn reminds others to not lose sight of a weightroom’s main purpose. “The aesthetics of the room are great for recruits, but when all is said and done, 45 pounds is 45 pounds,” he says. “While we want people to be impressed when they walk in, we also want them to see that we’re doing some serious work in here.”

Ultimately, building a new facility comes down to providing student-athletes with an opportunity to rise to the occasion. “You build something like this with several hopes,” says Gary Kempf, Assistant Athletic Director at Kansas, about the Anderson Center. “Not only that the kids will like it, but that they’ll feel a sense of responsibility. It’s not only for their enjoyment, there’s also a certain amount of expectation—if you build this, kids will use it to become better athletes. We want the student-athletes to feel that sense of responsibility.”

Sidebar: Hill Work
For most strength and conditioning coaches, building a facility means getting a new weightroom full of shiny equipment and fresh workout areas. But for Johnson County (Kan.) Community College Conditioning Coach Istvan Javorek, the best part about having a new gymnasium built on campus was the opportunity to design his own hill-training facility.

The new conditioning hill replaces a series of sand-filled jump boxes that Javorek had built years before. With a blank canvas to work from, Javorek designed a facility that comprises the three main surfaces used in hill conditioning: a ramp, steps, and jump boxes, all of which climb a slope between the new gym and the track.

“I believe hill conditioning is a highly effective part of a well-rounded strength and conditioning program,” says Javorek, the former coach of the Romanian national weightlifting team before defecting in 1982. “As an athlete and coach in Romania, I learned the importance of plyometrics, and I have relied heavily on them ever since. Uphill training is an especially effective form of plyometrics since it reduces the landing forces that jumping athletes experience when they return to the ground. At the same time, uphill training forces athletes to work harder than on a horizontal surface since they receive less help from inertia when going uphill.”

Each of the three surfaces is 46 feet in length, and the rise from bottom to top is 13.5 feet. The top of each lane has a flat 16-foot concrete run-out area while the bottom has a flat 20-foot concrete run out. Three-foot-high concrete walls separate the three lanes.

The stairs are not much different than those you find on any college campus. Its treads are a little wider than normal at 15 inches with six-inch risers between each step. There is an eight-foot-long landing at the mid-point with 14 stairs both above and below the landing.

The jump box section includes 10 box steps. The risers are 16 inches tall and vary in length from five feet at the bottom to three feet at the top. The boxes get shorter to create an increased inclination from the bottom of the run to the top. This increased inclination makes the exercises progressively more difficult as athletes work their way up the jump boxes. To make the landing areas soft enough to avoid overstressing the joints during the jumping exercises, but firm enough to hold up under repeated use, Javorek filled the boxes with eight inches of rubber mulch made out of recycled tires.

The whole thing cost about $65,000 to build, and construction lasted two months using a local two-man firm. It could also be completed by a school’s grounds and maintenance crew or even an especially handy coach.

“The athletes have responded well to the uphill work and seem to enjoy it much more than simply running stairs or lifting weights,” Javorek says. “It is very tough work, but it pays off. The basketball coaches say they can’t run the team hard enough to affect the players. After going through our hill-training program, the players laugh at the demands of running in the gym.”

Javorek cautions that hill sessions must be approached carefully, however. In order to avoid injuring or overworking athletes, they should be introduced to hill work gradually, beginning with easier, simple exercises before progressing to more demanding exercises.

Javorek would be happy to share his design with anybody who wants to build a similar facility. He can be reached at: or (913) 469-8500 ext. 3594.

Sidebar: High School Hints
The emphasis on state-of-the-art strength-training facilities at the collegiate level is beginning to trickle down to high schools. Case in point: Hillsborough (N.J.) High School.

“We serve as many as 450 athletes in our summer and school-year strength and conditioning program,” says James McFarland Jr., the school’s Strength and Conditioning Coordinator and Assistant Football Coach. “We also have a strength and conditioning club.”

To make the weightroom more appealing to student-athletes, McFarland suggests choosing a color that’s bright and reflects the school’s spirit, along with keeping the room neat and clean. He also recommends posting training charts and honors earned by student-athletes past and present. “That reflects on the program and affects the perceptions of students and staff,” he says.

When designing the layout, McFarland suggests grouping racks and platforms, which can facilitate teaching, peer coaching, and timed rotation. “Grouping techniques such as spidering or circling are alternatives to just lining up machines in a row, and leads to less travel of weights and people between machines,” he says.

Areas for plyometrics and other non-machine type exercises are also important. McFarland has space for them both indoors and outdoors.

High-tech touches to consider include digital video cameras with wireless TV playback, power measuring devices, electronic timers with wireless remotes, and clock timers with wireless remote controls.

“Our clock timer is mounted on the wall and signals with a shrill whistle when to move from any of our five stations to another, which allows us to maintain more structure in our 3,000-square-foot facility,” says McFarland. “Electronic timers with remotes are placed on the track just outside the weightroom and allows us to time a 40- yard dash while remaining in the weightroom. The sensor pad is released by the runner on the start, the wireless sensor records the finish, and the information is transmitted to a remote stopwatch in my hand—all as I stand in the weightroom or at the door.

“We also have an announcement TV playing PowerPoint announcements and congratulatory messages to our kids,” he continues. “In the future, we hope to add mounted remote cameras to free up floor space and gave us the ability to tape more than one athlete at one location. We’d also like to add a power measurement box to measure power factors of Olympic-style lifts.”