Underneath the seating of a new $22 million basketball arena at LaPorte High School in football-crazed Texas is a 4,600-square-foot weight room, two walls of which are lined by multiple sets of dumbbells weighing up to 100 pounds in 5-pound increments. In the middle of the room are seven double-sided, multipurpose racks that can accommodate both squats and cable exercises simultaneously. The space, which opened last August in time for the 2017-18 academic year, accommodates nearly 100 athletes at a time with training techniques both traditional (leg-extension and curl machines) and trendy (plyo boxes), and the LaPorte Bulldog logo is literally everywhere.
It's enough to spur envy in most high schools and even a few colleges, but LaPorte isn't satisfied. In April, the school will unveil a football field house containing an 8,000-square-foot weight room that athletic director Todd Shoppe describes as "even bigger and better" than the one still months shy of its first anniversary. "It won't be just a football weight room. We can't afford to do that," says Shoppe, who oversees some 1,000 student-athletes competing in 15 sports. "We have to try to make use of every inch that we've got with all of our sports programs."
While exceptional, LaPorte isn't alone. High schools across the country are giving their strength training areas a lift in both style and substance. Here are five key developments in contemporary high school weight room design:
It's not uncommon for high schools to opt for multiple weight rooms. Last June, Kimberly (Wis.) High School opened a second, 6,500-square-foot weight room to complement its existing 4,000-square-foot space, which has been retooled to better serve girls. Dumbbells are available in 2½-pound increments as opposed to 5-pound increments, for example, and pull-up bars are set at lower heights. "A lot of it's the same," athletic director Ryan McGinnis says of the gender-specific training approaches, "but girls have different bodies and different needs, so those needs are met, as well."
Square footage can turn a weight room into a comfort zone. "We have a 5,000-square-foot weight room and we got to start using it June," says Paul Essary, athletic director at Athens (Texas) High School. "We can accommodate at least 60 athletes at one time and be very safe and organized doing it."
That's a five-fold upgrade over the previous strength training space at Athens, and Essary, who has served as the school's head football coach and AD since 2009, feels student-athletes can finally reach their full potential. "The thing that I like that I've never had enough of is leg-exercise equipment, and one reason was we didn't have the facility. That's no longer the case," Essary says, pointing to his new hip sleds, leg-curl machines and squat racks. "I think it's really going to pay off for us in the future. Our kids are getting extremely strong in the lower body."
Many schools opt to partner with a particular manufacturer for the bulk of their equipment needs, and manufacturers have been innovative in making both the individual pieces and the spaces they occupy as functionally efficient as possible.
Essary chose for Athens a brand of squat rack that features a bench that slides along a track, allowing it to be pushed back, stood upright and stored out of the way within the rack footprint.
At Evergreen Park (Ill.) Community High School, four squat racks among 12 total feature uprights that can be inserted in the floor and removed like volleyball stanchions, allowing the resulting space to accommodate additional uses — such as rope training — beyond plate-loaded lifting.
Kimberly High School went with an in-state equipment supplier that was willing to work with the school's strength coach in designing custom racks — 14 in the larger room alone. "That was a huge plus," McGinnis says. "They were very eager and willing to create what we wanted so those spaces were put to the best use for our student-athletes and our students. Because of the custom design of the racks, there are more bars moving at the same time — four bars at each rack — so you could have 56 kids performing a movement all at one time. It becomes more efficient, and you get kids in and out more quickly."
Schools have also complemented their traditional plate-loaded and cable equipment with functional pieces such as medicine balls, resistance bands and stretches of synthetic turf for sled work and agility training.
Evergreen Park made sure its weight room also included plenty of cardio options — 12 elliptical trainers, eight bikes, three treadmills and two stepmills. "We needed somewhere that our P.E. kids wanted to go, not the traditional football weight room. Somewhere where they're like, 'Hey, this is like a health club. The equipment's real nice, and it doesn't bother me to work out.' And that's what we've got," athletic director Jim Soldan says. "We used to get maybe 20 kids to come to our weight room after school. We're at capacity every day after school for three hours."
Racks, dumbbells and plates are customizable in school colors and logos, as are Olympic lift platforms that may be free standing or embedded flush into wall-to-wall rubber flooring for a finished look befitting a major college or professional weight room. The platforms at Athens, for example, alternate between the school's "A" and Hornet logos.
At Evergreen Park, large cutout Mustangs covering the walls set the aesthetic tone for the entire space. "The branding is unbelievable," Soldan says. "There are like 400 Mustangs. It's crazy. Every dumbbell, every weight — everything is branded with a Mustang on it."
State-of-the-art sound equipment is nearly as commonplace in the modern high school weight rooms as the squat rack. Evergreen Park has 12 speakers in its space, but the system is set up to lower the volume on music anytime an instructor is using a cordless microphone to communicate with kids while they work out. Same goes for the sound system at Athens. "As a coach, it was hard to communicate when the music's on. You'd scream and maybe half the kids would hear you," Essary says, adding that with his facility's new cordless mic feature, "You can walk around the weight room and say motivational things like, 'You're working hard — keep it up' or 'We have to get a little more intense' — and everybody can hear you."
Evergreen Park's weight room includes three TVs, with the largest serving as a motivational device. "Our P.E. classes wear heart rate monitors two days a week," Soldan says. "When they go in the weight room, that 80-inch TV displays a screen that has every kid's name and what their target heart rate is so the kids can watch while they're going up and down trying to reach the goal."
Weight rooms are no longer afterthoughts as new athletics facilities are constructed on high school campuses across the country. For many sports programs, strength translates directly to success. "We just feel it's a major part of your physical development. Not only football, but all sports," Essary says. "If you don't get in the weight room and make yourself stronger, you're not becoming the best athlete you can become. And if you're not becoming the best athlete you can become, you're not giving your team a chance to be successful."
"No question that weight rooms are taking on a new dynamic, a new aesthetic and a new purpose," McGinnis says. "We consider our strength program as the hub of our athletic department, and in a lot of ways a kind of hub for our students in their P.E. classes to be fit and begin to understand their bodies."
"We have a P.E. class in strength and conditioning, and they're in there every day," Soldan says of the Evergreen Park weight room. "Our other P.E. classes rotate and are in there minimally twice a week. We're on a four-block schedule, and it's probably used for curriculum two blocks a day every day of the week."
It wasn't always this way. "If you put it on a scale of one to 10, my old weight room was a 2. This is a 10," Soldan adds. "We're a school of 800, and we have a weight room that can accommodate 71 kids that is nicer than any weight room that I've seen anywhere in my area for a school our size. I couldn't ask for anything better."
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "High school weight rooms reset the bar." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.