As Weight Rooms Have Evolved Into Eye-Catching Areas of Color Coordination, Once-Utilitarian Weight Room Flooring Has Drawn Design Attention, Too.

Twenty years ago, the fitness area at the local YMCA may have amounted to little more than a Nautilus machine or two tucked into the building's basement. A high school or college weight room may have looked only slightly more elaborate, with circuit-training stations joined by racks of dumbbells and barbell plates in a functional, but otherwise sterile environment. Often, the amenities for which these utilitarian rooms were named - the weights - rested on or occasionally crashed onto floors made of solid black rubber.

In time, weight rooms evolved into something else altogether - something closer to highly designed showcases of chrome, bright colors and mirrored glass. It only made sense that the surfaces underfoot in these spaces became more pleasing to the eye, as well. Today, fitness facility operators can choose from a greater selection of colors, textures and trims in weight room flooring than ever before. "The nature of all facilities that we sell to has upgraded significantly," says a representative of one decades-old manufacturer. As he describes it, even as recently as the mid-1990s, the success of a sales call to a major college ultimately came down to whether or not the football coach liked the flooring samples he saw. But competition among flooring companies, driven in part by prospective clients' ability to more easily comparison shop via the Internet, changed everything. "Now you go to a high school, and even they've got a lawyer there, in addition to the principal, two coaches and the mom who ran the spaghetti supper to raise the money," says the flooring rep. "There might be 12 people there acting as interior designers for the weight room."

The scene can get even more crowded in private health clubs and YMCAs, he adds. "There are people looking at how the countertop matches the upholstery on the equipment, and the way all of that matches the floor. Compared to before, there are more opinions about aesthetics."

Many facilities are taking full advantage of the broadening aesthetic possibilities, according to a spokesperson at another weight room flooring manufacturer. "We're working with a couple of designers now, and we're thinking, 'You want what colors where?' We did a red, a purple, and a red and gray floor - all in the same facility. You walk into this facility, and you understand why, because one wall is yellow and this wall over here is green. The designers are going nuts with color," he says. "And it's absolutely gorgeous."

In addition to standing up to the visual scrutiny of users, weight room flooring must pass less glamorous tests. It must protect its subfloor from the pounding of dropped dumbbells, and its pedestrians from the possibility of slipping on a surface often wet with sweat. The second flooring rep sums up the current market by asking, "Who's going to be able to produce a product that has the most color in it, is inexpensive, and still is durable enough to take the punishment of a free-weight area? That, right now, is where this industry is going."

Competition, coaches like to say, makes everyone better. If that's the case, these are heady times for weight room flooring. As a third industry insider puts it, the business of selling weight room flooring has become nothing short of "cutthroat," producing low profit margins for manufacturers and suppliers, which in turn creates high value for consumers. "It's so competitive," he says. "In fact, we offer weight room flooring just to stay competitive - to go with all of our other weight room products."

Athletic Business recently surveyed 38 manufacturers and suppliers of weight room flooring to find out just how many choices confront buyers these days. Survey results appear throughout these pages and are intended to provide readers basic flooring information at a glance. More technical specifications and individual price quotes should be sought from the manufacturers and suppliers themselves. (Contact information for all companies listed is available at www.athleticbusiness.com/buyersguide.)

First, a quick primer on the information presented here:

Application. Weight room flooring can assume many forms, from seamless poured-in-place urethane to recycled rubber tiles, rolls and brick-like pavers - and their method of application is likewise varied. A common flooring system is one of interlocking tiles, which when puzzled together remain stationary as individual pieces of a larger surface (listed on the chart as "Interlocked"). Manufacturers and suppliers of tiles, sheets and rolled goods cut to exhibit a straight edge may recommend a liquid adhesive or double-sided tape to ensure the floor's stability (listed as "Adhered"). In addition, seams in straight-edged systems are sometimes heat-welded or doweled together (listed as "Mechanically Fastened"). Meanwhile, the sheer weight of some products - dictated by their trim size, density and thickness - is enough to keep individual flooring pieces butted up against each other from migrating (listed as "Loose Laid"). Note that some individual products can be applied in more than one manner, and that some brand names are available as either interlocking or straight-edged systems.

Composition. The vast majority of weight room flooring is made at least partly with recycled rubber, often taking the form of shreds or crumbs of discarded car tires. These components are incorporated into the floor with a binding agent or, in rare instances, are revulcanized and remolded. Entries in the accompanying chart that show a combination of "New Materials" and "Recycled Materials" likely do so because of the virgin rubber content necessary for their colorization.

Colors. Flooring listed as available in "Standard Colors" may be of solid color, but weight room floors more often incorporate color speckles or flecks against a black background. Usually, a customer can choose to combine two or more speckle colors in the same floor. Note that availability of "Custom Colors" typically entails a minimum purchase order. "Full-Depth Color" and "Partial-Depth Color" refer to whether a floor's color - be it solid or speckled - permeates the full thickness of the product. "Logo Inlay Ability" refers to a company's ability to create inlay logos and other designs within that particular brand-name product.

Reversibility. Reversibility of weight room flooring also requires some interpretation. Few weight room floors are truly designed to be used on one side for a long period of time, then flipped over for extended use on the other. However, flooring that exhibits the same properties of color and texture on one side as the other can often be reversed. For this to be possible, though, initial installation must entail meticulous preparation of the substrate, as a debris-laden substrate will wear the underside of flooring, even as the top layer endures direct foot traffic. Obviously, flooring applied with a liquid adhesive can never be flipped to reveal its underside. Likewise, some flooring comes with an underside specifically designed to channel air and moisture, or prevent creeping, but never to see the light of day.

Miscellany. "Textured Surface," for the purposes of this chart, refers only to flooring exhibiting a three-dimensional pattern that is purposely embossed or hammered into the surface and plainly visible, as opposed to a matte finish. "Border Transitions" refers to a company's ability to supply the customer with accessory flooring pieces or transition strips that give the surface a beveled edge at those areas around its perimeter that don't directly abut a wall.

Prices and Warranties. Note that an entry of "N/A" (not available) appears under some brands in the "Warranty" and "Price/Square Foot" columns. Some companies choose not to offer warranties, feeling in some cases that their products are of a permanent enough nature not to need one. As for price, many companies prefer to discuss dollars and cents directly with the consumer, pointing to variables such as the size of a given order and the distance it must be shipped as influencing potential price breaks on preinstalled materials. Moreover, the price range for a particular flooring product may vary greatly based on the percentage of color content ordered. In short, a weight room floor should never be purchased based on price alone, and certainly not solely on the prices listed on these pages.

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.