Set Up For Safety

The safety of athletes is always an overriding concern for strength coaches. Here are some objective measurements to see if your weight room is as safe as it can be.

By Allen Hedrick

Allen Hedrick, MA, CSCS, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the United States Air Force Academy.

Training & Conditioning, 12.6, September 2002,

As a strength and conditioning coach, I am always interested in reading about ways to improve my training programs. Give me an article on some aspect of training and you will have my undivided interest.

Trying to get me to read an article about creating a safe training environment in the weight room is going to be a bit more difficult. Important as the subject is, safety is just not exciting compared to Olympic lifting, plyometrics, or speed training. Unfortunately, safety often gains attention only after an injury. And if a lawsuit follows, safety is in the front of everybody’s mind.

Safety is not a sometime thing to be considered only after something goes wrong. Safety is the best way to keep things from going wrong. The purpose of this article, then, is to help you learn about the best ways to design a weight room that will keep your athletes as safe as possible.

Weight training injuries account for about 60,000 hospital visits each year in the U.S. Based on available reports, the most common causes of injury appear to be unsafe behavior, which accounts for 63 percent of injuries; equipment malfunction, which accounts for 37 percent; lack of supervision, 30 percent; and inattention of athletes for 10 percent of injuries. Note that an injury can have more than one attributed cause, which is reflected in the above percentages totaling more than 100.

Fortunately, the above reasons can be rectified through competent supervision and proper weight room design, which includes the choice and placement of equipment.

Steps For Safety
There are several basic steps that all strength coaches should take to make their weight rooms safer for athletes: obtaining pre-participation medical clearance for all athletes prior to the season, ensuring that all supervisors have proper credentials and training, maintaining a good coach-to-athlete ratio, putting athletes through orientation, using proper equipment purchasing and spacing, and performing daily maintenance.

The trend is to require that all participants be medically cleared before using the room. This means that an informed consent form should be signed by each user and parent, and a pre-participation examination (PPE) must be conducted by a licensed physician. The PPE should include a comprehensive health and immunization record and a physical exam that includes an orthopedic evaluation and cardiovascular screening. Also, for athletes aged 12 years and under, medical clearance must also include a determination or certification by a parent or physician that the child has reached a level of physical and emotional maturity to allow participation in appropriate strength and conditioning activities.

Adequate supervision is critical. In addition to the injuries that can be attributed to inadequate supervision, it is an issue in approximately 80 percent of all court cases concerning athletic injuries. It should be obvious that supervising your athletes is a key safety issue in any weight room setting for both injury prevention and exposure to liability claims.

To provide proper supervision of the athletes, strength coaches in charge of the weight room must be properly located. Coaches must have a clear view of the athletes and be close enough to see what they are doing and clearly communicate with them. Being close to the athletes also ensures quick access to those in need of spotting or assistance.

In addition, strength coaches must continuously be supervising the weight room. But being present in the weight room is only the first step of supervision. Supervision must be consistent and rules must be uniformly enforced. At the Air Force Academy, I have established the following supervision guidelines:

Be qualified and certified. Minimum requirements should be a national strength training certification, such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist designation. The individual supervising the strength and conditioning facility should have a bachelor’s degree or, ideally, a master’s degree from an accredited college or university in a relevant subject such as exercise science or kinesiology. Further, certifications offered through professional organizations with continuing education requirements and a code of ethics are available to strength and conditioning coaches and should be required for employment in the profession.

Be active and hands-on. Sitting in the office talking on the phone does not constitute supervision. Be on the weight room floor as much as possible. Make an effort to actively supervise and interact with your athletes. It will not only make the athletes’ training safer and more effective, it will make your job more interesting as well.

Monitor and enforce rules and regulations. Rules are effective only when they are enforced. Make the athletes understand that rules are not suggestions.

Monitor and scrutinize the environment. Be on the lookout for possible dangerous situations that can develop over time. Examples are overcrowding, unsafe training practices, and inexperienced lifters attempting to perform an activity beyond their capabilities.

Inform athletes of safety and emergency procedures. Let the athletes know what they should do if an injury does occur. By constantly talking about safety you can keep your athletes thinking about being safe in the weight room.

Post warning and information signs. Signs should be used to reinforce your emergency procedures and other safety messages. Signs should be posted at eye level (five to seven feet high), and messages should be short and simple.

Be prepared. If an accident does happen, be ready to handle the situation as quickly and efficiently as possible. Your weight room should have an easily accessible emergency preparedness plan that has already been approved by your athletic director.

Inspect equipment regularly. Is the equipment safe and well maintained?

Know your players. Know their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t place an athlete in a position that increases his or her potential for injury. If the athlete is not physically or mentally prepared to participate in a drill or activity, provide an alternative activity.

This advice also includes knowing your athletes’ health status and physical limitations. When an athlete is injured, you need to know what the athlete can and cannot do. Because of their competitive nature, many athletes will attempt to exceed the guidelines that athletic trainers and doctors have laid out for them.

Be a strong supervisor. Make sure that everyone knows you are present, in control, and available—and that you care about them. If your athletes know you care about them, they will be less apt to question your supervision—and that increases safety.

All of these supervisory guidelines should be implemented by all weight room supervisors throughout the season. Whenever new athletes come into your weight room, you should have a formal orientation that will provide the athletes with an overview of safety rules and your expectations of them. For example, first-time users of the facility should be required to receive instruction and pass a basic evaluation quiz. Better yet, put in place a mandatory weight-room orientation course as part of the school’s physical education program. This orientation can include information on how to spot a partner, an array of typical exercises, how to warm up and cool down, and all safety rules.

Coach-To-Athlete Ratio
The ratio of coaches to athletes is one of the first questions that comes up during a discussion about weight-room supervision. Ideally, strength and conditioning activities should be scheduled to evenly distribute athletes throughout the day. Unfortunately, most facilities have times of peak usage, and it is not always possible to spread activities throughout the day in order to maintain an acceptable strength coach-to-athlete ratio.

To help combat this problem, I recommend that strength and conditioning activities be planned so that guidelines recommended by the NSCA for both minimum average floor space allowance per athlete (100 square feet) and coach-to-athlete ratios (1:10 for middle school, 1:15 for high school, and 1:20 for college) are met during peak usage times. Ideally this results in one strength and conditioning coach per three training stations or each 1,000 square feet of area for middle school weight rooms; per five training stations or 1,500 square feet for high school weight rooms; and per six to seven training stations or 2,000 square feet of area in college weight rooms.

Purchasing Equipment
This may seem obvious, but it is worth repeating: Your weight room equipment should always be purchased from a reputable dealer with a good customer-service track record. If parts are broken or missing, you want a dealer who will make things right—right away.

Reputable manufacturers have detailed instructions for the use, care, and maintenance of the equipment they sell. Those instructions should be strictly followed. Furthermore, the manufacturers of your equipment should meet or exceed existing standards and guidelines for professional or commercial use. Do not buy equipment designed for home use, which usually is flimsy compared to professional-grade weight-training equipment.

After receiving the equipment, ensure that it is used only for the purpose intended by the manufacturer. Do not modify it from the condition it was originally sold in unless such adaptations are clearly designated by the manufacturer and instructions for doing so are included in the product information. If the manufacturer includes signage for its equipment, be sure to post it as designated by the manufacturer.

Once your strength and conditioning facility is operating, daily maintenance is a must. First, check every piece of equipment every day for damage and wear that could put your athletes at risk of injury. Exercise machines have cables and other moving parts that wear out and need periodic cleaning and lubrication. There should be no corrosion or rust. If a piece of equipment is broken, clearly indicate that the equipment is off limits with a sign that is attached to it. In addition, equipment pads, seats, and handles should be cleaned on a regular basis.

Proper Spacing of Equipment
Where you place equipment is also important for improving safety. Overcrowding and improper spacing of equipment can lead not only to injury, but also inefficient movement of athletes from station to station.

Proper equipment spacing means that it is placed in a way that maximizes movement and minimizes the possibility of injury. It does not necessarily mean even spacing. Facilities often place their equipment so that there is an equal amount of space to get by on either side of each machine. However, athletes going through these narrow spaces can easily bang into some part of the machines. A better scheme is to group the machines by twos, allowing adequate space to safely walk by on one side of each machine. There are several formulas that I use to space equipment for safety and efficiency. For more information, see Sidebar, “Formulas” at the end of this article.

One effective suggestion for laying out the weight room is to divide it into sections. This only makes planning easier, it reduces the chance of athletes involved in one type of activity from interfering with those doing another activity. For example, having aerobics and free weights in the same section is a recipe for problems. Weight machines can be placed in one section, free weights in another, and space for aerobics, floor, and stretching exercises in another area.

Machines with electric cords should be kept as close to walls as possible. If an athlete has to step over a cord or near a cord, it should be covered and secured.

If the strength and conditioning facility is a square or rectangle, one possible layout would be to have aerobic training machines against the walls on one side of the room and free-weight stations along the walls on the other side of the room. Before finalizing the design, the strength and conditioning coach should walk the area to discern any potential traffic problems.

Safety Assessments
A safe weight room is a combination of good supervision, quality equipment that is properly spaced and maintained, and athletes who are medically cleared to use the room and receive proper instruction. The suggestions provided in this article can help you go a long way toward making your weight room a safer place for your athletes. But there is one final piece of advice: Once you have a well-supervised, well-designed weight room, you should periodically perform a safety assessment. I recommend that this assessment be performed twice each year, such as at the beginning and end of the academic year.

Do not do the assessments yourself. Instead, have a qualified strength and conditioning coach from another school come in and perform the safety assessment for you. Another option is having your institution’s risk manager weigh in on your room’s layout and operation. A qualified “outsider” will be able to pick up on many things that you could miss. I would look for someone who is knowledgeable in the area of strength and conditioning but who does not see your facility on a regular basis.

Sidebar: Formulas
When weight stations are improperly spaced, your athletes will move inefficiently and the risk of accidents increases. For example, if weight benches are too close, athletes moving between them can bump the ends of a bar as another athlete is involved in a lift. Moreover, should another athlete drop a dumbbell, Olympic bar, or other equipment, the adjacent stations should be far enough away to avoid having a falling object strike an athlete.

In laying out my equipment, I have found that by adding a “safety space cushion” to the actual dimensions of the equipment, the spacing is both efficient and safe. Safety cushions range from three to 10 feet, depending on the specific activity. Generally, standing exercises have larger space cushions than prone or bench exercises. Also note my suggested space and perimeter walkways for each piece of equipment. Here are some examples:

Prone/supine exercises: Triceps extensions and bench presses.
Figure in the weight-bench length (six feet), plus a three-foot safety cushion. Multiply that sum by the suggested user space for width (seven feet) plus a three-foot safety cushion. The formula looks like this:
(6 ft. bench + 3 ft. safety) x (7 ft. suggested space + 3 ft. safety) = 90 square feet of area.

Standing exercises: Biceps curls and upright rows.
Figure in the actual bar length, in this case, four feet. Add a safety cushion of six feet. Multiply that by the suggested user space for standing exercises width of four feet.
(4 ft. bar + 6 ft. safety) x (4 ft. suggested space) = 40 square feet.

Standing exercises from rack: Back squats and shoulder presses.
Figure in actual bar length, in this case a seven-foot Olympic bar. Add a six-foot safety cushion, and multiply that sum by a 10-foot suggested user space for standing rack exercises.
(7 ft. bar + 6 ft. safety) x (10 ft. suggested space) = 130 square feet.

Olympic lifting area: Power clean.
Figure in the platform length, which typically is eight feet. Add a perimeter walkway safety cushion of four feet. Multiply that sum by the lifting platform width, which typically is eight feet, plus a perimeter walkway safety space cushion of four feet.
(8 ft. platform length + 4 ft. perimeter safety) x (8 ft. platform width + 4 ft. safety cushion) = 144 square feet.