Martin Streight has served as a strength coach at nearly every level of competition during a career spanning two continents and more than two decades. With stops at Penn State University and Princeton University, as well as the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Ravens and NFL Europe, it's no wonder he's referred to as "Coach" around the Lancaster, Pa., offices of flooring distributor Abacus Sports Installations Ltd.
He has instructed thousands of athletes in the weight room — from high school teens to elite professionals — and has indirectly influenced thousands more in his latest role as performance weight room specialist for Abacus.
"Strength and conditioning coaches consider the floor as an integral part of the weight room," says Streight. "As coaches design and program workouts, they demand a floor that will give them the functionality to perform multiple movements with large groups of athletes."
Just as workout equipment has become more specialized, so has the weight room flooring underfoot. A single workout space might include various zones of flooring specified to accommodate different activities — from Olympic lifting to plyometric training — all while maintaining a uniform appearance wall to wall.
"One of the biggest developments over the past 20 years has been the technology and science that surrounds the strength-and-conditioning and fitness worlds. Athletes are training longer and harder than ever," says Wil Younger, marketing manager at flooring manufacturer Regupol America. "A key component to their training that often gets overlooked — or is underappreciated — is the surfaces they train on, and how the floor can affect their overall training program."
The surface is typically comprised of either nonporous recycled rubber or vulcanized virgin rubber, and specified based to some extent on budget and commitment to sustainability, or whether a school color match is desired in the floor's aesthetic. Some manufacturers offer vinyl as a wear-layer alternative to their rubber products.
Weight room flooring can also be specified with a rubber underlayment, and here's where substantial performance tweaking can take place. According to Streight, a low-density rubber underlayment allows for high shock absorption and reduced impact on the athletes' joints, tendons and soft tissue during high-velocity movements. A medium-density rubber underlayment can be designed for most fitness applications that require some force reduction, as well as energy restitution. Finally, a high-density rubber underlayment offers ideal shock absorption but has the energy restitution suitable for Olympic lifting. "This density provides a firm surface to perform ground-based movements while at the same time reducing the force and protecting the athlete," says Streight, adding that it also reduces bounce and sound resulting from dropped weights.
In fact, the most noticeable change to the modern weight room has been the increasing obsolescence of dimensional Olympic platforms. These traditionally have risen two inches or more above the surrounding floor with maple-topped plywood for athlete footing flanked by rubber drop zones capable of withstanding hundreds of pounds falling from heights of several feet. Today's state-of-the-art facilities feature flooring engineered to safely handle the lifters and the lifts while remaining perfectly level with the surrounding surface area.
This comes in handy when a team weight room requires multiple platforms aligned in a row, and a smooth lane replaces an area once dotted with raised platforms that could represent tripping hazards or cause foot and ankle injuries, or even produce splinters if not properly used and maintained. (For facilities that prefer the look and performance of wood, flooring companies can inlay wood platforms so that they're flush with surrounding rubber, as well.)
"The primary feature that coaches desire is the Olympic platform to be inlaid into the floor to create a flush, versatile surface for athletes to train on," Streight says. "The weight room surface can go from an Olympic lifting station to a dynamic warm-up and flexibility area to a place where the entire team performs core exercises at the end of the workout."
Versatility in terms of specific uses is one factor driving today's weight room flooring market. Here are a few more:
All rubber surfaces have a fairly high coefficient of friction, with some exceeding .95 — regardless of whether the surface is wet or dry.
"Coefficient of friction is an important factor in designing any performance surface," says Troy Kelley, director of sales for Ecore's south region. "In many of the high schools I visit throughout the South, I see coaches and athletes training the same way a lot of colleges train — small groups of two to three athletes at each rack, rotating through rigorous training cycles. This intensity generates a lot of sweat that often ends up on the floor. Because of the natural characteristics of vulcanized composition rubber, the coefficient of friction on a wet floor versus a dry floor is very similar and, as a result, the floor is less likely to see a slip-and-fall injury. Injuries are part of the game but should not be part of the training."
Certain manufacturers may offer surfaces that are textured by design or otherwise treated to further enhance the footing stability of end-users.
"Depending on the intensity and level of the workout, non-slip surfaces can be a major safety benefit," Regupol's Younger says. "You do not want a professional athlete — or any athlete, for that matter — injured because they lost their footing while working out in the gym."
"Slip resistance is extremely important, as keeping athletes and members safe is the facilities' number-one priority," adds Sean Evans, account manager at US SportFloor. "Our recycled product has a smooth surface, but also has a high coefficient of friction due to the manufacturing process and materials used. It's sanded on both sides, which allows the athletes and members to easily grip the surface while allowing a better surface for adhering the product to the subbase."
Weight room flooring comes in several forms — including rolls, straight-edge tiles and interlocking tiles with seams that may be fastened or heat-welded — and a variety of thicknesses.
"While the products remain similar, over the past 20 years there have been opinions that a thicker floor is more impactful for the comfort of the athlete and coaches alike," says Ethan Reeve, director of strength at Mondo. "Thickness can now range from 1/6 to over an inch thick for some weight rooms."
Thickness is an installation consideration based on the weight room's location within a facility and the floor's ability to mitigate sound and vibration transmission. "There has been a move throughout the industry toward creating a weight flooring system that also encompasses sound dampening," Reeve says. "Modifications are geared toward maximizing facilities' space to include weight rooms on second or third floors, where sound may travel below."
Thickness, which tops out at a full 3 inches for one product on the market, may also factor into whether the sheer weight of the flooring product is enough to ensure its stability, without having to adhere it to the subfloor. That said, some manufacturers suggest adhesives are always the safest approach.
"The best installation on all of the materials would be to adhere them to the subbase," Evans says. "The second-best installation would be interlocking the tiles. We do recommend using double-sided carpet tape when loose-laying to prevent movement. We also suggest use of 10-millimeter material when choosing to loose-lay. Anything thinner tends to lift more easily. Tiles can be loose-laid with straight-edge material, and we would also recommend using the double-sided carpet tape on the perimeter to limit movement. If the product is going into a room with at least three walls as the border, the carpet tape is not essential. The equipment in the room can also limit movement."
Regardless of anchoring methodologies, Streight recommends leaving installation to professionals. "Since today's performance floors have become more customized and specialized, it is vital to have the floor installed by a manufacturer's certified installer," he says. "There is much more to the installation process than just troweling some adhesive and rolling out the rubber. Inlaid platforms must be laid out in accordance with the equipment companies' layout so that the platforms and racks line up correctly. A lackluster install could result in uneven seams, delamination of the rubber from the floor and bubbles occurring under the surface. Ultimately, the workmanship and quality of the install is the true indicator of the durability and performance of the weight room floor."
Weight rooms of the past could be dark, crowded and somewhat scary places, and solid black rubber flooring did little to mitigate the intimidation factor. That's changing.
"We're seeing commercial and institutional facilities looking to be more open and inviting to everyone," Kelley says. "While there are still some segments of the market that would classify as the underground, intimidating gym, most facilities are encouraging a more open, inviting concept, allowing all athletes of various abilities to lift, work out and gather. The floor can enhance that openness through careful selection of colors and even the soft texture of the floor, which enhances the feeling of safety throughout the facility."
Aesthetic options have advanced from varied percentages of colored flecks being introduced to otherwise black formulations, to marbelizing capabilities, to waterjet and ultrasonic cutting technology allowing for detailed logo reproduction — and even inspirational messaging — to be inlaid within weight room floors.
"High-percentage colors with inlaid logos are more commonplace," says John Ficks, global sales and marketing manager for Robbins Sports Surfaces. "As weight rooms have evolved, they have become college or member recruitment tools, and attention to design is now as important as function."
In a very real sense, design becomes function when wayfinding is introduced to the weight room. "I recently worked with a university wellness director who was expanding their current rec center," Kelley says. "In addition to choosing a warm, neutral, welcoming color for the expansion, they also wanted to replace the floor in the existing space in order to match the new expansion. We've worked through the different areas to ensure the rubber flooring matches up perfectly with terrazzo. The terrazzo makes for a high-end walkway through the weight room, while the rubber flooring designates the various workout stations throughout the building."
All things considered, a weight room floor does a lot of heavy lifting. It is equal parts welcome mat and security blanket. It can encourage patronage while providing a solid foundation for safer workouts. It is protector of both infrastructure and inhabitants.
"Coaches consider the training surface from an injury-prevention standpoint. Does the floor offer a high level of energy return? Does the floor absorb the impact force imparted to the athlete when catching a heavy clean or snatch?" Streight says. "Today's coaches look to lower the force on an athlete's bones, ligaments, tendons and soft tissue as they perform high-velocity Olympic movements. In addition, coaches consider the training surface to protect the facility. Modern floors are engineered to reduce bar bounce as well as mitigate vibration and sound caused by the impact of a heavy barbell. This not only protects the athlete but the facility, as well."
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "The Expanding Role of Weight Room Flooring." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.