Jan 29, 2015
Strength in Design

If you ever get the chance to be involved in the design of a new strength and conditioning facility, you’ll want to hear what these coaches–who have done just that–have to say.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].


Ryan Derrick is the Head Football Coach and Strength Coach at Harding Academy, in Memphis, where he is also a teacher. In the seven years that he has been Head Coach, he has led the team to a state runner-up finish and two other trips to the state semifinals.

Mike Gentry, EdD, MSCC, CSCS, is the Associate Director of Athletics for Athletic Performance at Virginia Tech, where he oversees the Strength and Conditioning, Sports Nutrition, and Sports Psychology programs for the athletic department. He has been working at Virginia Tech since 1987 following stints at the University of North Carolina and East Carolina University.

Sean Manuel, CSCS, is the Head Strength Coach and an Assistant Football Coach at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, which has won three consecutive football state titles. An All-American tight end at New Mexico State University, he played four seasons in the NFL and one in the XFL. He has also served as a Sports Performance Director at Velocity Sports Performance in Dublin, Calif.

Yancy McKnight, MS, CSCS, SCCC, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning for Iowa State University football. He has also been a head strength and conditioning coach at Rice University and Louisiana Tech.

Michael Rankin, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Drexel University. In 2007, he was named the College Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year by the NSCA.

Whether you call it a weightroom, strength and conditioning facility, or sports performance center, the spaces operated by today’s strength and conditioning coaches are much more than four walls housing some machines and a few racks of free weights. These facilities can run into the millions of dollars and occupy tens of thousands of square feet.

Getting the chance to be involved with the creation or renovation of a strength and conditioning facility can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a coach. It’s a chance to outfit the space to his or her exact specifications, including layout, flooring, racks, and more equipment. We talked to five top strength coaches who had key roles in recently completed facility projects. They share their thoughts on mapping out their new digs, the research they did before beforehand, and what they would do differently if given the chance.

T&C: Can you tell me a little bit about your facility?

Yancy McKnight: Our new strength and conditioning room is about 12,500 square feet and is part of our new football facility that also includes the football equipment room, locker rooms, coaches’ offices, meeting rooms, team auditorium, and athletic training room. We have 18 racks in the center of the room with auxiliary equipment along the walls.

Mike Gentry: Our Olympic Sports Performance Center opened in July and is used by athletes in all sports except football and men’s and women’s basketball, which have their own facilities. The center used to be a basketball practice gym and has a footprint of about 6,000 square feet. We were able to add an additional 1,500 square feet by constructing a mezzanine over one of the corners of the room. Most of our machines are on the floor and the mezzanine serves as our functional movement area.

Sean Manuel: The Fertitta Athletic Training Center is a 36,000-square foot facility, which includes an 18,000-square foot weightroom and a 60-yard indoor track with four lanes. In the middle of the weightroom, we have 22 racks with various equipment around them including leg-drive, glute-ham, hamstring curl, leg-extension, and multi-station machines, multiple dumbbell racks, functional trainers, performance trainers, medicine balls, physio balls, plyometric boxes, treadmills, ellipticals, sleds, body bars, bikes, and a variety of tubes or bands.

Ryan Derrick: We now have two rooms–upper and lower–which are connected by a couple of steps. We just expanded into the lower room where we put all of our racks. We’re calling it our Lions’ cage. The upper level is more of a “finishing” room with specialized machines for specific exercises. The dual room model works well because each has its own feel and that helps the athletes get in the right mindset for the work they’ll be doing.

Michael Rankin: Our main weightroom, the Walter Spiro Varsity Weight Room, is about 3,500 square feet, and we have an auxiliary room that is roughly 1,500 square feet. The larger room is where we do our Olympic lifts and squats and that’s where the majority of our equipment is. The auxiliary room is where we do most of our warmups, plyometrics, and speed work.

How did you decide where to position everything?

Gentry: Our Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports, Terry Mitchell, was very involved in this aspect of our project and he wanted lanes where coaches would be able to walk between racks in order to see the most athletes training at one time. We also thought about traffic flow and how the athletes are going to enter and exit the room.

We prefer having similar pieces of equipment located together and in near proximity of the rack and platform areas, thus allowing a logical sequencing of exercises. For example, the athletes should be able to easily move from an area designated for squat and clean variations to an adjacent area to do glute-ham and reverse hyperextension exercises, which affect the same muscle groups. We also put the dumbbell and kettlebell racks close to the power racks and platforms, which allows athletes to limit their movement throughout the facility during the workout, thereby increasing their productivity.

Rankin: The first thing we looked at was safety, then we examined our needs and functions second, and aesthetics third. Safety determines everything we do. We want to make sure that everybody has their own designated area so they’re not worried about people coming too close to where they are working. After that, we decided how we wanted our athletes to flow through the room. I like to have a beginning, middle, and end. That way, when an athlete comes in, they understand how it’s going to work from start to finish, and there’s no confusion over where they should go next.

The other important thing is that a coach is able to see everyone. By putting our main coaching platform up in the upper right-hand corner of the room, I can see every rack. If I need to tell an athlete to make an adjustment, I can easily walk over, have a one-on-one conversation with them, and then go back to my spot.

McKnight: We started with our racks in the center of the room and then set up the auxiliary equipment–glute-ham machines, belts and bands, pulley systems, neck machines, and our dumbbell area–along the walls. Everything is set up in pods of five or 10 so we can have each strength coach take his or her group through the training session like a position coach would on the field. We have a certain tempo to our workouts, and we dictate the work and rest times to the players. The pod layout makes this easier while ensuring that no one has to wait for equipment.

Did you use any tools to help you decide on the positioning of equipment?

Rankin: At first, I filled an entire notebook with my own drawings of possible layouts. Then I found a downloadable 3-D design program. I’m lucky to work at an engineering school–I had some work study students create an exact replica of my room so I could do a 3-D virtual walk-through of it before construction even started. I began using the software because I did not feel comfortable constantly going to the manufacturers and asking them to move this piece from here to there. Most of the time, these changes were ideas I just wanted to play around with and see if they would work. With the 3-D program, I could check for myself without having to bother anyone else.

McKnight: We took an Excel file and made squares that each represented one square foot in the new room. Then we filled in the squares to show where we wanted to put pieces of equipment. We gave that to the architects and they ran with it.

Manuel: We sat down with one of the architects on the project and did everything using AutoCAD, a professional 3-D design program. We checked to see how the racks fit at various placements and made sure we got the proper spacing between them. I’m a visual learner, so you could tell me two pieces of equipment would be four feet apart, but that wouldn’t mean anything. Then I would see a picture from AutoCAD and say, “That’s not as much space as I thought it would be. Let’s try it again at six feet and see how that looks.”

How did you address aesthetics in your new design?

Derrick: Once the machines were in and we realized how phenomenal the room was, I went to our school president and athletic director and told them, “We can’t park this luxury car in a barn. We have to do some things to make it look nicer.” So we’re putting in a lot of photo quality wall hangings with different 3-D style graphics. We’re also putting up some 3-D signs that say “Harding Strength” and we’re going to play up that theme throughout the whole school. We also have our lion’s head graphic on the equipment and even inlaid on the floor in our upper room.

Another thing we did was put all of the existing equipment on one side of the upper room since it has a different look than the new equipment. I don’t know if it was good planning or just blind luck, but it all fits along one wall. Not only does it look sharp, it’s very functional because everything was put in the order that the teams generally use them.

Rankin: I looked for a company that could match our school colors throughout the entire equipment line. We also wanted our school name etched into the dumbbells with a custom color backing that really jumps out, but not every company does that. Fortunately, we were able to find one who did and we got just what we wanted.

Manuel: I think I caused the equipment companies some nightmares as I went over every detail to make sure that things were pleasing to the eye. Although a lot of our equipment is customized, I didn’t want it to look slapped together.

For example, we had crossbeams put on our racks where we can do suspension training or pull-ups. Traditionally, the crossbeam is placed lower on the rack attachment, but I think it looks kind of clunky like that, so I had them move it to the top where it would be just as functional, but more aesthetically pleasing. I also wanted it hidden so you couldn’t see the bolts. It was hard work going back and forth over and over again to make sure it had the functionality and look we wanted, but it was worth it.

Did you do anything special with your surfaces?

Gentry: We talked to people at a lot of other schools about whether to use a raised wooden platform under our racks or use the flooring itself as a platform, which seems to be the current trend. We went to Wake Forest University, where they use the flooring as the platform, and it looked like it was working well for them. So in our new room, we went from three-eighths inch thick to one-inch thick flooring and have the racks right on the floor. Not having raised wood platforms gives us a lot of extra floor space we can use for functional movement exercises.

McKnight: We went with a rolled rubber floor with oak inserts for our platforms. I don’t know if anyone’s done that yet with a rolled rubber floor. They’ve cut the rubber out for the platforms so they are flush with the floor and have a nice clean look. We also put a railing system around each platform so our athletes can do speed deadlifts with bands or vertical plyometrics.

What kind of research and consulting did you do before starting your project?

Derrick: One of my best friends was in charge of a similar project at his college, and I asked him what he would have done differently. That saved me some phone calls and helped me avoid a couple of pitfalls.

For example, he said he regretted some of his flooring choices because of the durability of the flooring. He chose it because it was a beautiful floor, but said he would go in a different direction if given another chance. Right away that made one of my big decisions much easier. He also said he would have gone with machines that offered a little more capability as far as different exercises per machine. There are a million things running through your brain when you start a project, so being able to eliminate certain options right off the bat helped tremendously.

McKnight: A lot of our staff members have been able to visit other facilities, so I asked everyone to take pictures of what they saw and keep journals. Then, we combined our efforts and compared notes. Coaches who don’t have a staff can get some of the same benefits by corresponding with other coaches who are in the process of project planning. Or they can do a survey of what other schools have done in terms of square footage and equipment inventory. Just make sure you look at schools that have the same conditions and face the same restrictions you do.

Rankin: I’m big about being hands-on. If you’re not using your facility then how do you fully grasp what your athletes are going through? When I go to clinics and conferences, I get on the equipment I’m considering and make sure that it works for me. Another option is to have some colleagues get on the machines and make sure that they work for multiple body types. Mike Boyle’s book, Designing Strength Training Programs and Facilities, also answered a ton of questions and helped me a lot with our facility design.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently with your project?

Manuel: I don’t think I’ll use a one-stop shop approach again. I would rather contract with the individual vendors myself. I like to hold people accountable and make the follow-up calls to ensure that everything will be ready on time. The only pieces that didn’t arrive on time were the ones that were contracted out. That could have been a coincidence, but I didn’t like the feeling of not being in control.

Derrick: I wish we had begun working on the aesthetics of the room a little bit earlier. The designers we worked with didn’t walk into the room until the equipment was placed because they wanted to know exactly what was visible from where. They’re artists. Their work takes time, and I didn’t account for that. But if we had started the process sooner, I think we could have been further along by the time the equipment arrived.

McKnight: The only thing, and it’s a really small thing, is that we moved into our new building in November, which is in the middle of the season. The players get used to their surroundings and training in a certain rack, so there was a bit of an adjustment period. But I’m certainly not going to complain about moving into a brand new facility, regardless of the time of year.

What advice can you provide on how to best work with others involved in the project, such as architects, construction companies and your athletic director?

Derrick: I don’t think I can emphasize enough that communicating your excitement and enthusiasm for the project carries over to the people who are working on it. When you do that, they understand how important it is and want to put their best stamp on it.

We made it clear that this project was the foundation of our athletic program going forward and we wanted to make a strong statement with it–we weren’t going to cut any corners and we wanted the best companies and the best people to be part of this project. To do that, we did a lot of Skype online and FaceTime on our phones when we couldn’t meet in person. That made it easier to show them what we wanted.

Manuel: It’s difficult when you have a lot of people involved. When you work with that many people you’re not always going to get what you want, and you have to understand that and accept what you do get. You have to decide which things you will push for and what you can do without. Sometimes I would say, “If you want this to be something that can maximize our athletes’ potential, I think this would be the best way to accomplish it.” That approach was the best way to work through any issues.

Gentry: This project was truly a collaborative effort between our administration, our Olympic sport strength coaches, the architects, and myself. We’re fortunate that the philosophy of our athletic director, Jim Weaver, is to have the end-user very much involved in the whole process, and he set that tone up front. Still, I think it’s important to be ready to explain your reasoning and be open to suggestions. Many times, other people see things from a different perspective and understand areas that you may not.

Is there anything unique about your facility that others may want to implement?

Rankin: We left one room completely open for warmups, plyometrics, and flexibility work, and we attached all our resistance-band equipment to the walls. If we had filled that area with equipment, we would have been bottlenecked by where I can warm up our athletes. When we need to utilize that space for band or rope work, we can pull those out–otherwise it all stays put away.

McKnight: Because we only had to think about football, we were able to do things I have never been able to do before. We have 18 six-post racks with a three-part set up that includes an Olympic bar, squat bar, and third bar on the other side for the bench. That way, we don’t have to move things around. We can have our equipment set to match our exercise order and not have guys wasting time transitioning. Our squat racks also have hydraulic motors on them that move them up and down between 36 inches and 72 inches in about 20 seconds with a push of a button. We also put break-away “J” hooks in every squat rack, and the bases of our racks are a little bit wider to accommodate our bigger athletes. And we had nine-foot high bars put on our racks for pull-ups and other work.

Manuel: One of the most unique things is how our indoor training track is connected to the outside. We extended the track surface by putting flooring down outside a garage-type door that leads from the track to our turf field.

The other thing is our pneumatic air racks. They’re phenomenal pieces of equipment, especially for explosive training and contrast training, which involves changing the load during the set.

Gentry: Putting in a mezzanine allowed us to gain some nice square footage to do different things that might not be possible at a lot of other facilities. The mezzanine covers about a quarter of the room and sits 10 feet above the main floor. With about 14 feet from the mezzanine floor to the ceiling, there’s plenty of room above it, too. We are calling it our functional movement area. It is a nice spot to get a team together to start and finish a workout. We can get them away from the weights and talk to them about the objectives of the day at the start and then have them refocus together at the end of the day.


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