Strong Designs

Designing a new strength and conditioning facility entails many factors, but it all boils down to knowing your needs and working with others.

By Paul Chapman

Paul Chapman, MS, SCCC, USAW-Level I, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of New Hampshire. He also spent 10 years as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of North Dakota.

Training & Conditioning, 14.8, November 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1408/strongdesigns.htm

In years past, most people viewed the weightroom as being primarily for the school’s football team. But today’s strength and conditioning facilities have grown into essential components for training male and female athletes from all teams as well as for recruiting new student-athletes. As a result, athletic programs around the country—from major NCAA Division I-A universities to small colleges and high schools—are allocating more and more resources toward their strength and conditioning facilities.

With the increased use and visibility of weightrooms, having the proper design has never been more important. From layout to equipment, even a top-of-the-line facility from 10 or 15 years ago probably won’t work well today, with the larger and more diverse groups of athletes we now have to train.

In 12 years as a head strength and conditioning coach, I have designed and been involved with upgrading seven training facilities. During my 10 years at the University of North Dakota, I designed the layout and selected the equipment for four weightrooms totaling 25,000 square feet, the largest a 10,000 square-foot state-of-the-art ice hockey weightroom housed in the Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The circumstances surrounding the planning and design of the Engelstad Arena were exceptional. Due to an incredible $100 million gift from the late Ralph Engelstad, there were virtually no budget or space restrictions for the Arena or the weightroom. Along with a great arena, Mr. Engelstad and the university wanted to build the largest and most well-equipped hockey training facility in the world.

During the design process, I met with the arena engineers and outlined the dimensions needed. At completion, $300,000 was spent on equipment, including 10 Power-Lift half-rack combo stations with platforms, 24 Hammer Strength pieces, 24 cardio machines, 20 other various machines, and a 1,000 square-foot hardwood warm-up area. When the facility opened in the fall of 2001, the arena and the hockey weightroom were truly state-of-the-art facilities.

When I took the position of Director of Strength and Conditioning at University of New Hampshire two years ago, I was immediately charged with redesigning the school’s weight-training facility. A new 12,000 square-foot weightroom is being planned, but for the time being, the space allotted for weight training was not going to change. Thanks to a generous donation from a former UNH football player now in the NFL, $150,000 was available to help turn the existing 4,000 square-foot weightroom into the Jerry Azumah Performance Center, which would handle 700 athletes from 24 teams. This required redesigning and re-equipping the existing weightroom to make it more functional and aesthetically appealing.

LAYOUT
The first step in designing or redesigning a facility is determining your needs and goals. At North Dakota, the main goal was to build a facility capable of accommodating a full hockey team at one time without having to split players into groups. Since this facility was intended for use not only by North Dakota hockey, but also by other teams—including NHL teams in preseason camp and teams in town for national and international competitions—it needed to satisfy a wide variety of training situations. I wanted enough equipment and space to handle any type of training program.

In most cases, though, the design of the facility will be determined largely by your personal training philosophy. With limited space at New Hampshire, I had to focus on tailoring the facility to fit my training philosophy, which is a more traditional-based program using cleans, squats, and presses. The need to accommodate multiple teams in different training seasons and training programs also played a large role in the arrangement of equipment.

Since the structure of the facility was not going to change, I had to somehow make the T-shaped design of the space work. I decided to redesign the layout of the room to create two functional training areas, each of which could accommodate two small groups or one larger group, within the existing structure. This let me establish a flow that would allow as many as four groups to work out at one time.

I like to have a coach with each team, be it my assistant, a student assistant, or myself. By creating two distinct areas within the weightroom, each coach has his or her own space when working with their team.

The backside of the performance center, which occupies the top part of the "T", has six Power-Lift double-sided combo racks with platforms on each side positioned down the middle of the area providing 12 stations for bench presses, squats, or Olympic lifts. This area also includes four reverse hypers and four glute-ham raises.

The custom-made double-sided racks have platforms on both sides, which accommodate up to four athletes on each side, providing workout capabilities for 48 athletes at once. This way, I can bring a whole ice hockey team or soccer team in to work the same program at once, although I do have to split the football team into offensive and defensive groups.

The front side of the performance center, which is located in the bottom of the "T," is our dumbbell area, used primarily for in-season training, small groups, and rehabilitation workouts. In addition to the dumbbell space, we have 12 pieces of Hammer Strength equipment, two half racks, two lateral pulldowns, and five adjustable benches in that area.

Having a specific dumbbell area is especially useful for teams that choose to train immediately after practice, when dumbbell workouts may be more productive than circuit training. The half racks, meanwhile, allow small groups to clean, squat, and press without taking space away from the larger groups in the main rack area.

AUXILIARY SPACES
While the actual workout space receives much of the attention when designing a weightroom, it’s important not to overlook the other areas in the facility. The ability to leave open space for a warmup and cooldown area is extremely important. Unfortunately, creating such an area was not realistic in the current UNH facility. It will, however, be a priority for our new weightroom.

Having unlimited access to an indoor track located nearby would be the most desirable scenario if an appropriate area is not available within the weightroom. At UNH, we are able to handle our warmup area needs through use of both indoor and outdoor tracks as well as a small gym. A minimum area of 15 feet by 30 feet allows a group of 10 to 15 athletes to comfortably warm up, stretch, perform torso work, and cool down.

When planning a weightroom, the strength and conditioning coaches’ offices should not be ignored. The temptation is to want to use as much room as possible for the athletes and their workouts. But you need to set aside enough space for offices, which act not only as a work place, but also as a recruiting room, classroom, meeting room, and counseling room.

The office in the original weightroom at UNH was a desk inside the entrance, which did not meet the coaching staff’s needs and took up valuable space. Fortunately, an infrequently used locker room was located adjacent to the back of the weightroom. The wall between the weightroom and locker room was removed so that a separate 12-by-18-foot office could be constructed.

Instead of splitting the area into two smaller offices, one large office for both me and Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach John Ciani was deemed more desirable. In addition, the office design included a third workstation area for undergraduate and graduate student strength training assistants.

The final area to consider is the location of locker rooms or restrooms. Ideally, full locker rooms will be available close to the weightroom to save time for the athletes. When locker rooms cannot be located nearby, restrooms should be readily accessible.

EQUIPMENT
Once you’ve decided how to lay out your facility, you’re ready to address filling it. At UNH, we spent a considerable amount of time selecting barbells and weights for the facility. After much research and discussion, I decided to purchase both Olympic training bars and power bars. Although this setup requires us to teach athletes the difference between the two types of bars, it provides the opportunity to do more exercises at one time and the bars will last longer.

Despite the extra expense, we chose urethane weights and dumbbells because of their ability to handle wear and tear as well their clean look. In order to have a very comprehensive dumbbell area, we bought two sets of dumbbells at each weight along with five adjustable benches. One change I made from previous years was to buy dumbbells in 2.5-pound increments from 10 to 40 pounds. This allows for greater programming flexibility and accommodates female athletes’ strength training needs more effectively.

Seeking to accommodate as many as 48 athletes working out in the main area, we elected to have custom double-sided combo racks created for us. A lot of weightrooms have equipment with a platform on one side and the bench and squat on the other, but I wanted platforms on both sides of the rack mirroring each other.

We also have a custom pillar-mounted system for two lat pull downs, which also allows us to do seated rows. This saved a great deal of space and made it possible to get those two pieces in the room. Without the custom design, we would have had to go without lat pull downs or seated rows because of the amount of space they would have occupied.

The key to getting custom equipment that worked for our facility was our communication with the equipment manufacturers. They came out to our facility, and we discussed what we wanted to accomplish and how they could fill that need. The important thing when getting custom equipment is making sure you feel completely comfortable with the final decisions because you’re the one who will have to work there every day. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have someone from the outside lay out the facility and design the equipment for you, but it can be helpful to have someone do it with you.

AESTHETICS
While the first purpose of a weightroom is to improve athletic performance, that’s no longer its only purpose. With the increased attention paid to strength and conditioning, especially in the recruiting process, the appearance of the weightroom has taken on extra significance. The right look and feel will not only help your athletes as they train, it can also help attract athletes to your programs.

In men’s ice hockey, we’re recruiting some of the top players in the country at UNH, so it’s important that our facility compare favorably with others. And in most other sports at UNH, getting one or two key players can make a big difference in determining whether we make the NCAA tournament.

One addition I made to the facility was mirrors, which make the room look much larger and aesthetically appealing. Some strength and conditioning professionals believe that mirrors have no useful effect, but mirrors do give a feeling of enhanced space and depth, which is especially valuable in small weightrooms. When athletes walk into our room, it looks twice as big as it really is with twice as much equipment thanks to the mirrors we have lining the back of the room. The mirrors also help in teaching some of the more technical lifts.

Many people stick to their school colors for their weightrooms. But at North Dakota, I started buying equipment painted in black and white and adding school logos. This was partly because we always had problems matching the school’s green color and also because we weren’t satisfied with the overall look of the green and gray equipment.

I carried the black and white scheme with me to New Hampshire because I like the clean look it presents. Having the school logo stamped throughout the facility makes up for the lack of school color. We also put a large school logo onto each of the 12 platforms, which helps develop a sense of pride among athletes while also looking petty impressive to an 18-year-old touring the facility.

I also had aesthetics in mind when I chose urethane weights and dumbbells. Not only do they last longer than metal plates, but they also look quite sharp. In addition, I made sure to leave enough room on the walls for signage. Athletes appreciate recognition for their efforts in the weightroom, and attractive record boards can serve as a focal point, both visually and mentally.

I found a few other items helpful in setting the right tone for the room. Music is a terrific motivational tool for athletes and staff alike. Having a quality audio system provides clean sound even when played loudly, though it should never be overwhelming. Having a combination DVD/VCR allows for interactive video opportunities, especially when we use video cameras to provide instant feedback on training techniques.

Dry-erase boards are also an important part of our operation. They allow us to post altered workouts, daily updates, orientation information, and other types of information to be exchanged.

SUPPORT
There’s one indispensable necessity for building a successful facility that you can’t find in any catalog or buy from any salesperson, and that’s support. The most tangible form of support is money. But money only comes in when coaches and athletic administrators understand the value of strength and conditioning.

Talk with coaches about your services for each sport and the athletic program overall. Point out how keeping current will make recruiting easier and maintain morale and enthusiasm. Coaches who understand the value of strength and conditioning are likely to encourage athletic administrators to keep weight training facilities up-to-date and functional.

Just as success on the field relies on teamwork, so does success in the weightroom. Whether teaming with administrators to find funding or consulting with manufacturers to customize equipment, you’ll find that your ideas can often be best realized by working with others.