Partially rewritten in 2022 with clearer guidance on subfloor considerations.
The two good options for protecting your gym floor are an array of rubber mats or larger rolls of rubber flooring. Let’s look at how to choose your flooring and what else you might need.
Table of Contents
Dealing With Your Subfloor Type
Depending on what you have underneath, you might need additional materials besides just the rubber flooring.
For all suggestions below with plywood, get high quality plywood sheets you have sighted as flat, not curled at all.
A bare concrete floor is an ideal starting point. With a layer of rubber it can take a beating, has no give, and should be pretty flat. You can lay rubber directly on the concrete, no fuss, easy peasy.
In a garage you may also want to take some steps to deal with the sloped garage floor.
Hardwood, which is almost always laid over a plywood or OSB subfloor, can take some force from weights set down hard and reasonably controlled.
Put a plastic dropcloth over the hardwood before laying down the rubber, to stop the rubber from making black marks on the hardwood.
People often ask about foam underlayment. Avoid foam. It adds cushion that you don’t want.
If you want extra protection, after the dropcloth put down a layer of 3/4″ plywood, then rubber.
A tile floor is in danger of cracking from your weights if you don’t use the right materials to protect it.
A cork underlayment to protect the tile is a good idea. Then a layer of 3/4″ plywood to spread out the load and provide stability. Then rubber on top.
If it’s a really thick, luxurious carpet, that’s not going to work to build a gym on. Either the carpet goes or your gym does.
An average thickness carpet still has too much cushion, but you can deal with it if you don’t want to rip it out. Lay down a layer of 3/4″ plywood. You’ll need to connect the plywood sheets together to make them a stable solid layer to prevent the edges from moving up and down. A few connected plywood sheets can feel surprisingly solid over carpet.
Screw in mending plates to connect them. The issue there is you need to recess the mending plates into the plywood so your rubber has a flat surface to lay on.
What I did was cut out slots a few layers deep into the plywood with a hammer and chisel that I could lay the mending plates in. It was a messy hack job but worked.
Thin carpet – the type used in commercial offices – you can lay mats directly on and you’ll be fine. You can lay down plastic drop cloths first if you want to keep the carpet in good shape.
4ft x 6ft Rubber Mats / Horse Stall Mats
4′ x 6′ happens to be a common size that these “horse stall mats” come in. There are larger and smaller ones. Larger than 4′ x 6′ are almost impossible for one person to handle (this size is already ~96 lbs and all floppy and awkward).
Basic rubber mats like this are all slip resistant, water resistant, and absorb impact.
These mats can work in a 3/8″, 1/2″, or 3/4″ thickness. Get the 3/4″ if you can. That’s the standard stall mat thickness. It protects your floor underneath the best against dropped weights. Anything thinner than 3/8″ is more like a cardio equipment mat that’s just meant to protect the floor against a treadmill or bike sitting on it and not much else.
“Stall mats”, or any mats made with recycled rubber, will stink. If you have time, and you’re just installing a few, drape each one on something outside to air them out for a while. Possibly up to a month. Otherwise just keep the room ventilated and they’ll eventually stop off-gassing.
These rubber mats can be cut to size with a few passes of a utility knife or good serrated knife. I’ve cut 3/4″ stall mats fine with a utility knife and straight edge. When possible, cut the edge that will go against the wall so that the sides against other mats are factory straight.
Drill some wood screws through the rubber and plywood to keep everything nicely in place. You will be drilling the screw head down into the rubber a bit so you don’t trip on the screw head or break it with dropped weights. For 3/4″ rubber and 3/4″ plywood, a screw length of 3/4″ works good.
For a power rack setup, 2 mats will nicely cover the floor under your rack and enough in front for your bench, a 6′ x 8′ area. Most people end up eventually buying enough mats to cover the entire room.
If you’re laying mats directly on concrete, Alan Thrall shared an idea to keep your mats from drifting apart:
These are only like a buck a piece at Home Depot.
My only objection is those teeth stab up around 3/8″ into the rubber. I wonder how much the rubber compresses when you drop a weight on it? 1/4″ teeth would be ideal for this purpose, but I have not found one that size after looking around.
For small quantities, Rubber Flooring Inc’s Extreme Mats have been the best deal online for years running, with reasonable shipping. I ordered one mat from them to expand my area. It’s a good flat texture on top, and a rough bottom, which I think is done to help with air cushioning or to help give moisture a way to escape. All around excellent quality.
If you are filling a big area, the 25-piece skid from Fitness Factory is one of the best deals at the moment and is cheaper than Rubber Flooring Inc per piece. If you don’t need all 25, list your extras on OfferUp or Craigslist for $60 a pop, and you’ll be rid of them in one day and make a friend.
In person, you could go to a Tractor Supply store if you have one close to you. They will have them for cheaper than you can buy in small quantities online. Shipping on 100lb mats is expensive. The problem with Tractor Supply is I have heard stories that they will source any stall mats they can get, with no regard to matching surface texture. Who knows what you’ll find, and good luck if you have to return later to try to get more for a matching set. They originally meant them for animal stalls only, and animals don’t give a rat’s ass about matching decor.
The closest Tractor Supply was 45 minutes away when I needed another mat, and the gas + travel time wasn’t worth the savings to me, leading me to just order the mat online from Rubber Flooring Inc. It arrived safely by Fedex Ground, rolled up pretty tightly (I don’t know how they managed that – these things are thick, and a normal human can’t roll it up), wrapped in plastic pallet wrap.
For any needs larger than around 6 mats, and if you won’t be dropping weights to the point where you need 3/4″ mats, think about the nicer rolled rubber flooring that comes in 3/8″ thick.
Stall mats have some disadvantages:
- They can stink for a month or so. Stacked up on a pallet of 25 stall mats at the store doesn’t allow them to off-gas.
- The thickness of some brands can vary slightly, even from one edge of the mat to another.
- The surface texture can vary from season to season. Stores treat these like a commodity and don’t care about consistent looking texture. These were made for horses, hence the term horse stall mats.
- They can shift around over time, creating gaps.
- Sweat or spilled liquids can get into the cracks between mats
Good rubber rolls don’t have those issues.
It used to be that you had to buy entire 25ft rolls that weigh hundreds of pounds and have a professional install them. If you think a 100lb floppy stall mat is hard to move, think about what a massive roll is like.
Today everybody gets Regupol rolls custom cut to their specs. You have to fill out a form online to get a quote for your size room. One person said his price with shipping worked out to $2.36/sqft, which is in the ballpark of the price for 4’x6′ mats and of better quality.
They’ll custom cut the Regupol rolls for your area. It’s feasible to cut 3/8″ rubber yourself in a single pass with a utility knife and straight edge. I’ve done that with 3/4″ stall mats in 2 passes. But getting a partial roll (the roll sizes are 50′ long uncut) ought to save both money and time.
These rolls are only 3/8″ thick. That’s about the max thickness you’ll see in rolls from any brand.
3/8″ thick can be fine for most of your gym area or for general exercise room flooring. It will protect a concrete floor and give good footing.
For Crossfit / olympic lifting you would best double-up the rubber to absorb dropped barbells. Or add a layer of 3/4″ plywood as the bottom layer, which will be cheaper than doubling up the rubber.
Interlocking Rubber Tiles
These used to be more popular. They’re still around. I think there are so many of the cheapo EVA tiles (see the section below) that got mixed up with these real rubber tiles that they’ve undeservedly developed a bad name. There’s nothing wrong with them.
The advantage of interlocking tiles is they won’t shift around. Stall mats are known to slide around over time unless you screw them down or enclose the area with something tightly.
The disadvantage is you’ve got more seams so more possibilities for edges to stick up. That being said, well-made tiles should have uniform thickness and not stick up at any point.
I advise you to get 3/8″ (or 10mm) thick tiles. That’s about the thickest you’ll find. Double them up if you have to, as discussed in the final section of this guide.
They are a little tough to find now. These tiles on Amazon look pretty good for the price.
Warning: EVA Interlocking Foam Tiles
I have to mention these because they’re all over Amazon. Dozens of them fill the top search results for rubber mats or rubber flooring. They call them “foam rubber” or “soft rubber” tiles. Don’t be fooled. They aren’t rubber. They’re high density foam mats, meaning they are not insanely squishy but are still an open-cell type of foam that are significantly more squishy than rubber. You won’t be happy.
They are actually EVA mats. EVA is ethylene vinyl acetate, a material that’s excellent when used in various types of sports padding like boxing gloves, hockey pads, padded shorts, lots of stuff.
They’re extremely lightweight and easy to install. Each tile weighs mere ounces. Dirt cheap too. That’s the appeal.
They have several major issues:
- Your footing won’t be firm for any standing heavy lifts.
- The floor protection isn’t that great if you drop weights, because it’s too soft to disperse the load like rubber does
- Pieces can stretch from a little lateral force and move permanently out of alignment
- Edges can stick up for no reason at all
- If you don’t make an effort to bend each one flat before installing, they can be bowed up a little and make slapping noises against the subfloor as you step on them.
- The surface texture wears away quickly
- Equipment like a rack or weights will leave permanent indentations after a while
For ultimate protection in dropping barbells when doing the olympic lifts, you can use a platform. You still need to use bumper plates for significant drops, but if you’re careful and not lifting a ton of weight you can do deadlifts with iron plates on a platform.
It’s two layers of plywood underneath, and on top is a another layer of hardwood in the center strip, and a layer of thick rubber on the sides. The whole thing is enclosed by a steel frame to keep it together. It’s awesome.
The width is always 8ft, to accommodate a fully-loaded 7ft barbell with room for slop. As far as the length front to back, get 8ft if you’re going to be doing olympic lifts. That will give you room to drop the barbell in front of or behind you. 6ft depth can work. For deadlifts you only need 4ft.
Putting it directly on a concrete subfloor is fine. Most commonly a lifting platform is on top of the rubber flooring that’s everywhere else in the gym.
The hardwood has just the right amount of traction if you’re using olympic lifting shoes.
If you have anything but a concrete subfloor, don’t try a platform. This won’t go well. Light to moderately heavy deadlifts are ok, but a wood floor underneath isn’t going to like it when you drop olympic lifts, even with the platform.
Get Rogue’s modular “build-your-own” platform kit in the 8’x6′ size or 8’x8′ size. I love things that you can take apart and actually move, and good luck ever moving a regular platform on your own. Basically with Rogue’s solution you buy the frame and a set of 1.5″ thick rubber tiles to stick in it. Done!
Another advantage of Rogue’s is you don’t have to ever worry about wood curling over time or everything staying glued together. The frame keeps it all together, and that’s that. There’s not much to it.
Basement Brandon did a nice video on Rogue’s platform frame:
What did you do for flooring in your gym? Post a pic!