Last updated on March 4th, 2021 at 06:31 pm
When people ask about the best flooring for their home gym, the answer is almost always rubber. Rubber flooring has a ton of benefits and is the ideal floor for your home fitness area. That said, it’s important that you use the right kind rubber. If you don’t, you can run into a few different problems, not the least of which is odor. And we aren’t talking the “oh it kind of smells like tires in here” kind of odor. We are talking about the “now I have a headache that won’t go away”, toxic off gassing kind of odor.
To reduce the odor of rubber flooring, leave it in direct sunlight for up to two weeks. The heat from the sun will speed the release of chemicals causing the odor. Before installation, clean both sides with a ph neutral cleaner and let dry. Ensure the room is well ventilated until the odor dissipates.
Pros and Cons of rubber flooring
While rubber has a lot of benefits as flooring material, it also has some drawbacks. Knowing both before you buy will help you decide what’s best for your home gym.
- Versatile. Rubber flooring can be cut and ordered in an endless number of shapes and sizes.
- Durable. Of all you flooring options, rubber will take the abuse of a gym and still look great for years.
- Strong. Want to deadlift and then drop 500 lbs? Rubber has you covered.
- Joint friendly. Rubber floor will provide enough cushion to protect your knees, ankles, and back while lifting heavy weights.
- Protective. Rubber keeps the floor underneath free from damage.
- Quiet. Rubber will dampen the sound of dropped weights and absorb noise in your home gym.
- Anti-static. Winter time workouts will be shock free.
- Grip. Sure footing is a must when heavy things are over your head.
- Affordable. It’s one of the most affordable flooring materials you can buy if you know where to look.
- Appearance. I like it, but some don’t.
- Staining. Rubber is porous and can stain easily.
- Flammable. It is by no means flame retardant. If your are using a space heater, set the heater on a ceramic tile or get it up off the floor for safety.
- The edges can curl and peel. Especially if you go super cheap with stall mats.
- It can smell really bad. Buy the wrong thing and your gym will stink for years (another problem with stall mats).
- It can off gas toxic chemicals. Once again, buying the wrong thing (usually based on price alone) could net you not only a stinky gym, but also health problems (you guessed it, a problem with stall mats).
The 2 types of rubber flooring
There are a lot of different marketing names that companies will give their rubber floors, but in reality there are only two types.
TDR (tire derived rubber) – Also known as recycled rubber or crumb rubber, 99% of all recycled rubber comes from old tires. They grind it up and press it into its new form. The pieces are held together by another substance like urethane or other various chemicals. This is the stinky and sometimes dangerous stuff.
There are different levels of quality here and the price point you are paying is a good indicator. The cheaper the flooring, the smellier and more potentially toxic the off gassing will be. Beware of “vulcanized” TDR or TDR that uses sulphur in its binding agent.
NR (new rubber) – Also known as virgin rubber, this type still has some smell, but is markedly less stinky than TDR. It is usually more durable, easier to care for, nicer looking, and more expensive in many cases.
The flooring I recommend is recycled, but it is the highest grade of recycled. Virgin rubber is the ideal option for things like bumper plates (see my recommendations on those here), but it’s just too expensive for flooring when there is a viable recycled option available.
Why does rubber smell?
Rubber is a porous material. If you looked at it under a microscope, you’d see a ton of space between the rubber particles. Those spaces are filled with chemicals that are the byproduct of rubber manufacture, recycling, and binding. Some are harmless and relatively odorless. Others are not and could be hazardous to your health.
The off gassed chemicals you smell coming from rubber are called VOCs (volatile organic compounds). If you listen to the rubber companies, they are harmless. If you listen to scientists, they are not. For me, I’ll err on the side of caution. I’d rather not fill my garage, basement, or other indoor area with possible toxic chemicals. It’s just not worth it to save a few $ on flooring.
All rubber will smell to some degree. Even virgin rubber will have an odor to it (albeit much less strong than TDR/recycled rubber). Just because a rubber floor smells does not mean it is off gassing harmful VOCs. The more and lower quality recycled content in your floor, the more smell and the higher a chance of dangerous VOC emissions.
What VOC’s are found in TDR rubber?
Xylene, butylated hydroxytoluene, ethylbenzene, toluene, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde are found in many TDR products. Lower quality samples also contain benzene and carbon disulfide in amounts that are considered above the “health threshold”. Some of those initial listed chemicals have not had “healthy thresholds” determined so it is unknown what damage they may or may not be doing to our bodies.
If you are interested in a full study showing what types of compounds your rubber floor may be letting off, see this 2010 study performed by the California Public Health Institute titled “Tire Derived Rubber Flooring Chemical Emissions Study”. As the title suggests, it’s utterly thrilling reading!!!
Eliminate odor by buying the right flooring in the first place
Buy the right flooring. Yep, it’s that simple. Buy flooring made for indoor use that’s made from high quality TDR or better yet from new/virgin rubber. You don’t need to spend a fortune. The flooring I use is 8mm thick rubber tiles (see the exact flooring I use in my gym here on Amazon). It was low odor, went in easy, and is my top recommendation for gym flooring (see my full, in depth guide to gym flooring here)
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m against the number one flooring recommendation in the home gym industry…. Rubber horse stall mats. That’s right, don’t buy those. Please. I know every home gym YouTube channel and blog recommends these. I know this is what a lot of CrossFit boxes use. I know you see them everywhere. But they are a bad idea.
Horse stall mats are the lowest quality TDR you can buy. They are made specifically for well ventilated, mostly outdoor type areas!!! They are vulcanized and bound with sulfur laden agents. They therefore have the highest potential for health problems of any flooring choice. They also smell the worst. One 24 sqft mat will stink up your house for years. The whole time letting off who knows how many potentially harmful fumes and chemicals.
Step one is to stay away from horse stall mats.
Wash and ventilate the flooring
Okay, so you bought a stinky floor and it’s too late. Now what do you do? First, you’ll never get rid of the smell entirely. Just know that pretty much all rubber floors are going to smell to some degree forever. That said, you can minimize the odor with some effort.
Start by washing and airing out the flooring. To wash it, you want to use a ph neutral cleaner. Something like Simple Green works great. So does diluted vinegar. Just mix one cup distilled white vinegar with one gallon of hot water. Use a cloth and scrub down both sides of each piece of flooring.
Once washed, set the flooring out to air dry. Prop it up on edge or set blocks under it so that air can pass over both sides. Do this either outside or in a well ventilated area. You may want to leave your flooring here for a few days or weeks. The more odor the flooring starts with, the longer you are going to want to store it in a well ventilated area before installation.
Let your floor sit out in the sun
Quite honestly, if you bought horse stall mats, the above simply won’t make any difference at all. They are so smelly that you need to bring in the big guns. This will be true of any low quality rubber (including low quality rubber bumper plates). It’s time to call in the help of the sun.
Probably the best way to speed up the off gassing of that stinky rubber floor is to put it out in the hot sun. The heat of the sun will help the pores of the rubber expand and open up. This will let the toxic VOCs and bad smell escape much more quickly than any other manner.
That said, “much more quickly” is still not fast. If you went to the Tractor Supply store this morning, you’ll quickly learn that an afternoon in the sun will make almost no difference in the smell. Realistic time frames for this to work could be months. Yes, that’s right, months. And even then, the smell won’t be gone. It will just be diminished. Better quality flooring could be almost odorless with just a couple of days in the sun. Some won’t require any time outside at all!
If you use this method, it’s a good idea to get the flooring up off the ground so air can flow over both sides. It’s also a good idea to flip it over occasionally. Make sure that the flooring gets even sun and air exposure. And make sure you are doing this during the warmer months. It will do almost no good to do this when it’s cold outside.
Another caution is not to leave the flooring outside for too long. The sun can quickly dry the rubber, causing it to crack or loose elasticity. A good guideline is 1-2 weeks max time outside.
How much does low odor flooring cost?
You could end up spending about twice as much on low odor flooring through Great Mats or another flooring outlet than you would spend on stall mats from Tractor Supply. That’s a big pill to swallow for those on a tight budget, but it’s totally worth it.
It’s worth it for the low VOC’s. It’s worth it for the durability and lack of seams in the floor (I HATE the uneven seams between stall mats). And it’s completely worth it for the odor difference.
I literally can’t spend more than about 5 minutes in a basement or garage that’s covered in stall mats. It’s unbearable to live with. And it’s worth every penny of the price difference. Especially considering that in addition to reducing odor, you are making a much healthier and safer choice.
In the end, take the necessary steps to make your gym a pleasant and safe place to be. Once you have it built, you want to be happy with it and use it. If it smells and gives you headaches, that kind of defeats the purpose!