Where the Weights Are

Functional training can only take place in a functional facility. This article takes a look at the nuances of designing an effective and efficient strength-training facility.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 12.8, November 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1208/weights.htm

“Strength training” is an umbrella term that encompasses far more than most people first realize. It covers everything from traditional weight lifting to plyometrics and resistance work. With this in mind, designing a good strength-training facility needs to be more than throwing weights together in a big room. Instead, it should be thought of as a center devoted to the development of all aspects of strength and power.

The goal is to design a truly functional facility that provides for the full spectrum of strength-training activities. This entails thinking about issues such as space, arrangement of equipment, and construction materials.

It is also vitally important that you look to the future when you make your basic design plan, particularly when considering the amount of usable space. There is a common tendency to design and build a facility that only meets present needs. But your needs today are not the same as they will be two, three, or five years from now. It’s best to anticipate growth as well as other possible uses of the facility so that down the line, when changes do occur, you are ready to accommodate them. Failure to anticipate growth and change is one of the biggest mistakes I have seen in facility development.

During the early design stages, take advantage of lessons learned by others. Visit as many facilities as possible that service the same, or similar, populations as yours. Be sure to visit while athletes are working out, preferably during peak times. That will enable you to see traffic flow, what gets used most, and how efficient the setup is.

Keeping all of this proactive planning in mind, the first design consideration is space—especially space to move about. The more open space the better. This is not only particularly important for effective group workouts, but it also is a key consideration in safety. Without adequate space, it is more likely that athletes will be running into each other or even dropping weights on each other. This increases the likelihood of injury. The question is, how big is big enough?

It is critical to look at space in terms of maximum occupancy. To determine an accurate maximum occupancy for your facility, sit down with your sport coaches and athletic director and determine the largest number of athletes who will train there at any one time. You also need to establish whether they will be in homogeneous groups, such as members of one team, or mixed groups, both in terms of sports as well as level of development. Those determinations will go a long way in deciding how to best layout your floor plan, and ultimately utilize your facility.

Once you have determined the maximum occupancy, you can calculate the optimum size for a strength-training facility. Most strength professionals say that the optimum size is about 100 square feet per athlete. This may be out of reach for most high school and smaller collegiate situations, but it is what everyone should be aiming for.

One helpful design tip is to think of practical ways to increase available space without creating a larger facility. When I was with the Chicago White Sox, our facility was only 2,500 square feet, but we had a large sliding garage-type door that opened onto an outdoor concrete area that included a wall suitable for medicine ball work. This design feature added much-needed flexibility and floor space, allowing us to train one-third more players at one time than if we had been limited to the original 2,500 square feet. Of course, that space was usable only when weather permitted, and such designs are less practical in the northern states.

However, I have seen facilities adjacent to a hallway or an open multipurpose room that allow for easy expansion by adding a sliding door. Be sure to consult with your architect about such doors—the hardware may be expensive, but it certainly can help you maximize available space.

Another design trick that enhances spaciousness is a high ceiling. A low ceiling restricts variations in exercise routines that involve throwing. In addition, a high ceiling lends a more open feeling and appearance to the room. It also affords the ability to do ballistic activities without being concerned about hitting the ceiling. The height should be 12 feet at a minimum, and 25 feet is ideal.

The time to explore creative options for arranging space in your facility is while the project is still on the drawing board. So think long and hard about key spaces, such as special places for plyometrics, large exercise equipment, and your office areas. Once these key areas have been finalized in brick and mortar, it will be difficult, and expensive, to move them.

So-called functional areas have become a popular part of facilities. Personally, I do not like the term because the whole facility should be functional. Whatever you call it, you should have an area dedicated to plyometric work and speed development activities. Wide-open space is the key here, so you’ll need to place platforms and other equipment elsewhere.

The office is the administrative nerve center of your facility. It should be positioned so that all traffic flows past it. This will help keep your office accessible and will aid in communicating with the athletes. It should also have large windows to view the action.

The workout recording area should also be close to the office but not in front of the facility’s entrance. This area can easily become a bottleneck if not properly located and laid out.

A bulletin board for announcements is also a good administrative tool to place in the recording area. Be sure to allow adequate wall space to mount white boards used to display workout information. They should be easily visible from most areas of the room.

One important feature that every strength-training facility should have is a dedicated warmup and cooldown area. This area should have adequate room for an active warmup. It is probably best located close to the office.

Once the design has been established, it’s time to consider the materials. In terms of actual construction, I prefer that walls be solid concrete or cinder block. These are durable materials that allow for throwing activities against the wall. They also provide solid anchors for attaching apparatus or shelving to the wall. Whatever material you use for the walls, be sure to choose light wall colors. Lighter colors makes rooms appear larger.

Flooring is another key area where costs tend to be cut. My advice is to spare no cost here. Make sure your flooring material is durable and easy to keep clean. It must be a material that will not get slippery when the athletes drip sweat on it or come in with wet shoes.

Your flooring material must also have a good coefficient of friction so that it can be used effectively for lifting, planting, and cutting activities. It must be thick enough to absorb shock, but still have some give. It should also be durable enough that weights can be dropped on it without cutting or otherwise damaging it.

Outside the weight areas, you should consider a different floor material for the plyometric area. Here, a springy floor material is particularly effective because it “gives” when athletes land on it from jumps. A commercially manufactured sprung floor can be very expensive. I have seen facilities that could not afford sprung floors successfully use double-thickness rubber flooring to help absorb shock in their plyometric areas.

Whatever you do, stay away from carpet. Carpet maintenance costs are very high, and carpeting is hard to keep clean. It also has a tendency to become frayed, presenting safety hazards. Unlike walls, floor colors are best when they are darker, which helps disguise scuff marks and dirt.

One of the most overlooked features of a well-designed facility is storage. The ability to easily secure equipment and then access it quickly is well worth the extra planning effort and cost. Storage has to be convenient, yet not interrupt traffic flow. Several walk-in type closets are very helpful.

Lighting is an important feature that is often taken for granted. Good lighting can completely change the feel of the facility. Since it’s best to use as much natural light as possible, position windows to make the best possible use of all natural light sources. Consider the types of artificial lighting as well. Light fixtures that hang from the ceiling will hinder throwing activities.

Electrical outlets are much more important than they used to be with the use of videos and computers as training aids. They must be placed strategically throughout the facility both on the walls and in the floor. This is another feature that there never seems to be enough of.

Drinking fountains are a simple but important tool for keeping the athletes well hydrated. The last thing you want is a line of athletes waiting for a drink. Therefore, have several drinking fountains placed strategically so as not to interrupt traffic flow. If built-in drinking fountains are not an option, then allow space for hydration stations. Also, be sure to have space for trash cans to accept the drinking cups after use.

Although often treated as an afterthought, video monitors and recording devices can be tremendous instructional tools and should be strategically placed so they are easy to view, but will not be hit. Video technology has evolved to the point where the athlete can view his or her last effort and store it. This feature will increase cost, but it is a nice addition to a functional facility. If multiple monitors are not available, consider strategically placing a video projector so the athletes can view their techniques.

Mirrors should be another consideration. More than a cosmetic feature, mirrors are essential in a good facility. They serve a very important teaching function by allowing athletes to observe their techniques. Mirrors also give a room a bigger feel.

To avoid having anything fall against a mirror, it is best to place them 18 inches off the ground. The optimum height of the mirror is eight to 10 feet. However, it is a good idea to keep mirrors out of areas where throwing activities will frequently take place.

Finally, a sound system for music is a good motivational tool. This system should include a public address system for announcements.

Everyone works under budget constraints. But the best way to get full value from your dollars is to specify everything exactly the way you want it, and never compromise on quality. Never accept inferior substitutes. And be sure to consider shipping costs, which some dealers will include as a negotiable point. Also, do not overlook refurbished equipment as a budget saver. Reputable manufacturers and dealers who have customers trade-up often have refurbished equipment that is as safe and functional as brand-new equipment.

But, ultimately, it’s your thorough advanced planning that will be your greatest cost saver, saving you the expenses associated with unused equipment, relocations, and construction redesigns. In the end, you’ll have a strength-training facility to meet the needs of both your athletes of today and the teams of tomorrow.

I would like to thank the following people for their input into this article: Steve Odgers, Chicago White Sox; Robb Rogers, Middle Tennessee State University; Richard Tucker, Fresno State University; Steve Myrland, Myrland Sports Training; Sherm Button, former professor of strength training at Boise State University; and Patrick McHugh, Athletic Director of North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Ill.

Choosing Equipment
Although it may not seem to be part of the design process, you should be deciding exactly what equipment you need as you design your facility. If you decide early on in the process, the equipment you use will dictate many of your design decisions. The alternative is to let the design of your facility dictate your choice of equipment.

When it comes to equipment, there are two main questions: What type? How much?

I am not machine oriented. My concern with machines has always been expense and efficiency. In most situations, training is done in groups. Since only one athlete can use a machine at a time, I view that as a time-waster.

In my opinion, the only machines necessary are pulldown and rowing machines and variable cable columns. Also, I like to see the weight training area centered around self-contained power stations that contain a platform, power rack, Olympic bars and plates, and dumbbells in two-and-a-half-pound increments up to 100 pounds. Another option is to have dumbbells in a range that fits the strength level of the athletes using them.

The dimensions of these power stations (size of platform) should be 12 feet by 12 feet with at least an extra four-foot buffer zone from the wall. Each power station should safely accommodate four athletes. The number of power stations is dictated by the size of the facility and the objectives of the training program. Also, be sure to have quality bumper weight plates. They are necessary for safety and proper teaching.