The main function of any weight room should be focused on three areas: reducing the occurrence of injury, building strength and increasing power. In planning a weight room, however, there are countless ways to achieve these goals. So, what is the best weight room layout for your program?
One question you can ask that will help guide your weight room layout is this: Do you want movement in the room, or do you want each athlete or student fixed to a location?
Understanding your programming philosophy, the size of your room and the number of student-athletes you are coaching at a time will help answer this question to ensure your weight room best contributes to your program objectives.
Where We Came From
In the “old” days of the ’80s and ’90s, high intensity programs were one popular philosophy of strength training, and it was almost entirely machine-based training. The thought at the time was to avoid potential training-related injuries, while still being able to build large amounts of strength. If you had walked into The University of Michigan, Penn State or the Washington Redskins’ weight rooms or other HIT programs during that time, you would have seen athletes constantly on the move from one machine to the next.
It wasn’t just HIT that saw movement, though. When I was at the University of Akron in the mid ‘90s, our weight room was set up with designated stations — flat benches, incline benches, squat racks and platforms all in different areas. We rotated through the room and didn’t think anything of it.
That changed for me in the late ‘90s when I coached at UCLA. I was fortunate to be there after Los Angeles hosted the Olympics and the weight room there was turned into an Olympic training hall. Coach Kevin Yoxall had wood platforms built from the front edge of the platform, all the way to the wall. This resulted in one continuous training surface all the way around the weight room. We bought utility benches that could be rolled into and out of the racks. Athletes were kept at the racks, fixed to a platform, and did 95% of their workout there. It was totally different than what everyone else was doing at the time.
Room To Move
Today, the idea of keeping your athlete at the rack as much as possible continues to be a popular strategy in planning your weight room. It is my belief that unstructured or unplanned movement from location to location is inefficient and wasted training time. My goal was always to get the most work done in the short amount of time we have with our athletes.
Room size can significantly influence the flow of your room. The larger the room, the more luxury you have to designate stations and move your lifters around the room if you plan to pull them away from the racks for dumbbell movements or machine work. Storage can be specialized to each station and your weight room can become a systematic, progressive flow through your program.
In the case of North Carolina State, we set up the room to have easy transition from racks to dumbbell stations. The platforms and racks were on the outside of the room and dumbbell racks ran down the center just a few steps away. This is an example of structuring movement and making it efficient.
If you have limited space, you will need to find ways to optimize your setup and avoid bottlenecks. Minimizing movement by allowing your lifters to accomplish more in one area is one way to accomplish this. For me, the rack can become the hub for a high school athlete’s full routine. I like to have three people to a rack because it tends to result in 2.5 minute to 3 minute rest ratios, and provides a spotter during heavy sets.
One option to maximize space is to run double half racks down the center of the room. This bisects the room, creating two zones and creates opportunities like assigning less-experienced lifters to one side and more experienced lifters to the other. This reduces the amount of time wasted swapping out weights by partnering lifters at similar weight levels.
Going with double-half racks down the center, however, will require additional coaching staff since it will break your line of sight and you won’t be able to monitor the entire room at any one time. If coaching the room on your own, you may instead want single half racks tight along facing walls so you can walk the center and see all activity.
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Rack accessories and attachments — from dip stations and plyos to athletic training arms and landmines — can provide any number of additional routines to a program. You can also put storage between the racks, which can keep dumbbells, kettlebells and other equipment your athlete’s may need within easy reach. Keep in mind, however, that storage between racks could restrict access from one area of the room to the next.
Accommodating Crowd Dynamics
In the high school environment, weight rooms typically aren’t just for athletics anymore, but also for physical education classes. I’ve seen incredibly effective layouts with this in mind where they essentially designed two different rooms in one.
At one high school, when first entering the weight room, there was an entire line of selectorized machines. PE students could easily move up one side and back down the other in a steady circuit. This is great for a physical education teacher who needs to introduce a large number of students to entry-level strength conditioning because there’s less need to focus on technique. Beyond that area and through a second set of doors was the athletic training facility, which housed racks, platforms, turf, plyo boxes and all other strength and conditioning equipment.
Even with collegiate athletics, you may have different sports working out at the same time, which may adjust how you set up the room to accommodate different teams in the same space.
The amount of time you have available with a group can also influence how much you want participants moving in your room. If you only have 40 minutes with a group, you don’t want to eat up a lot of time moving them from one area to another. But, when you have more time with your athletes, and when space is larger, you may see programming that starts their athletes at one area for a routine such as the squat, then move them to another area for machine work, then to another area to do dumbbell work.
Flow can also be determined by whether or not you’ll be receiving large groups all at once or have a continuous flow of athletes due to situations such as staggered practices. This often happens with track and field. If dealing with a large group all at once, you may be more likely to restrict movement and keep each lifter in place as much as possible. This would contrast to an entire team coming into the weight room at once.
One thing that may not immediately come to mind if you are fortunate enough to be designing a new weight room for your school — especially a college or university — is to keep the next coach in mind. When I was at the University of Texas at El Paso, I was given the opportunity to plan out a new weight room. Knowing that the average stop at one school is in the neighborhood of 3-5 years, I tried to keep the next strength coach in mind when making decisions about the layout. In the end, I wanted to build the best weight room for UTEP as well as accommodate my program, but not heavily restrict others.
I’ve been asked before: what’s the best way to set up an Olympic weight room, or the best way to lay out a high school weight room vs. a collegiate weight room. My answer is always the same: It depends on your program, room size, philosophy and budget. There is no one right way to set up a weight room, but there is one best way to set up your weight room.
This article was written by Craig Sowers, Vice President of Sales, Dynamic Fitness & Strength. Craig has an extensive background of over 20 years coaching experience at elite programs, including UCLA, NC State and Velocity Sports Performance. For more information about how to properly set up your weight room, Sowers can be reached at email@example.com or 916-306-9435.