When you build a home gym, one of the first decisions you have to make is what to do with the floor. Not only do you need a reliable surface to train on, but you also need to prevent damage to the floor below.
Most home gym owners use one of two options: Horse stall mats or rubber flooring made specifically for gyms. Most people who post recommendations, however, have never used both options. So it can be hard to get a good understanding of which might be best.
Horse stall mats are a great option for your home gym floor if your main concern is cost. If your main concern is performance, looks, or ease of installation there are better ways to go.
I’ve personally used both horse stall mats and rubber gym flooring. I currently use and prefer the latter, but that doesn’t mean that stall mats don’t have their place in the home gym world. They do. Where you fit in will depend on a few things and I’ll cover them in detail in this article.
UPDATE Nov 2023: I’ve found an amazing source for low-cost rubber gym flooring. It’ll save you a ton of money while still getting the same flooring I recommend in this article. Inventory changes pretty regularly, but head over to Freedom Fitness’s flooring page to see what’s available today. They usually have a tremendous selection and their pricing is well below what you’ll find anywhere else! And make sure to use our exclusive coupon code, “GC1” for 5% off of your order!
Two key functions of gym flooring
So why do we need flooring at all? Why not just use the floor that’s already there?
In a word, safety.
Your safety, your floor’s safety, and your equipment’s safety all rely on having the right surface in your gym to train on. Damaged floors, damaged gear, and damaged body parts can all result when improper flooring is used.
I wrote a very in-depth guide covering pretty much every flooring option you have available that you can read here. In the end, though, most of those options failed to come through in one or both of two very important areas: Training surface and floor protection.
A safe surface to train on
The first thing your gym floor should do is provide a hard, level, smooth, grippy, durable, and moisture resistant surface to train on.
It’s literally the foundation your gym sits on and it should be rock solid.
- Your floor should be firm. It shouldn’t give, shift, or move beneath you. You shouldn’t use deep pile carpet or foam tiles as an example. Both are too soft a surface to make a good gym floor.
- Your floor should be level and smooth. There should be no gaps or seams that you can feel with your feet. There certainly shouldn’t be any that you can trip over.
- Your floor should provide a good grip for your shoes. It shouldn’t be slick. It also shouldn’t be overly tacky or sticky.
- Your floor should not only last a long time, but it should be able to take a good amount of abuse. It should be easy to clean and disinfect as well.
- Your floor should not absorb moisture. A wet or damp floor is a place for mold to grow. Mold is toxic and we certainly don’t want it in our home gyms.
Protecting your floor and gear
The second thing your gym flooring should do is provide some level of protection. Protection for the floor underneath it as well as protection for any equipment that you may set down or drop in the course of training.
Does that mean that the flooring you use should be able to absorb and mitigate all abuse you could possibly dish out inside your gym? NO. A point we will discuss later is that there is no flooring available that fits that description.
What it does mean is that your flooring should be shock absorbent enough to protect your floor and your gear from normal use. And despite what the folks on Instagram might want you to believe, deadlifting 600+ lbs from the floor is certainly NOT normal use!
Horse Stall Mats vs Rubber Gym Flooring
As I mentioned already, the two gym flooring options that best serve the two purposes outlined above are horse stall mats and rubber gym flooring. That’s why when you go out and visit gyms, 99% of the time, you’ll see one of those two options under your feet.
Horse stall mats are 3/4″ thick recycled rubber and come in 4′ x 6′ sheets, each weighing in at just under 100 lbs. Rubber gym flooring comes in tiles or rolls and is typically 3/8″ or 8mm thick. It is also made from recycled rubber. The tiles usually have an interlocking “puzzle piece” pattern along the edges which allows the pieces to form one large continuous surface.
There are a lot of points with which to compare the two. Let’s cover the ones that matter one at a time, starting with the more important and working our way down to the least.
For a quick reference see this table. I’ve rated each quality 1-5 with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest.
|Ease of Installation
Which is the better surface to train on?
This is why we buy flooring, right? To train on? Both horse stall mats and rubber gym flooring provide a good working surface for your gym. Both are stiff with little give. Both provide a good grip for your shoes. Both are water and sweat resistant.
Stall mats typically have a little more texture than rubber flooring. They are typically a “pebbled” surface. Some newer versions are available in a faux diamond-plate. That texture is designed to allow water to flow away when used in horse stalls.
In a home gym application, there is no benefit to the texture. The only noticeable effect is that it will make your mats harder to clean.
The texture is a minor issue, though. The bigger issue is the overall surface once stall mats have been installed.
The problem with stall mats is seen where the mats come together and butt up against each other. If left unsecured, they will move around and separate.
This leaves gaps that are both uncomfortable to walk on and that you can trip over. It also means you will constantly be repositioning the very heavy mats to get rid of these gaps.
Rubber gym flooring comes in tiles with “puzzle piece” edges. Those edges interlock creating seams that virtually disappear. The tiles never move around or separate. This creates a much safer and nicer looking surface to train on.
There is a way to address the moving stall mats by anchoring them to the floor underneath. There is a great article over on garage-gyms.com that walks you through how to do this if this is a concern for you.
Note the images in that article, though. Even once they are secured (and he does a really nice job), there are still visible seams between the mats. Those seams may cause issues over time.
As for providing a good working surface, I think the edge goes to the tiles. Once installed, you end up with a perfectly smooth floor that is uniform and never shifts or moves. There are no dangerous gaps to worry about.
That doesn’t make the stall mats a bad option, just more labor-intensive and sometimes a pain to deal with. For me, the cost-savings weren’t worth the trouble. Plus there are other differences to consider.
Since those gaps and seams impact what the final installation looks like, I think it’s important to address the looks of your finished floor as well.
People will spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to make their gyms look nice. They buy incredibly expensive power racks because they can get them in custom colors with matching contrasting hardware. They buy fancy colored bumper plates because they look cool. People spend a lot on things for looks alone.
Then many of those same people put down the cheapest flooring option they can find underneath their great looking gear. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.
In my opinion, stall mats look terrible. I know not everyone feels this way, but to me they do. When my floor was lined with stall mats, I never felt like my gym had a nice, finished look. It always looked kind of grungy and thrown together.
I think if people were being honest, most of them would agree. This is why almost all commercial gyms use rubber flooring and NOT stall mats.
A big part of having a successful gym is appearances. Prospective members need to like the way the gym looks among other things. Stall mats would not attract many prospective customers.
I know there are some very popular power lifting gyms as well as CrossFit boxes that use stall mats. And I’m sure their members like them just fine. But I assure you that those mats are not there for looks. They are their to save money.
The only gyms that use stall mats are those that were started by people on a strict budget. When you read about your local CrossFit box installing stall mats, it’s always preceded by, “we couldn’t afford to spend much on flooring…”. It’s never preceded by “we wanted our box to look great and have the best possible floor”.
Stall mats are a budget option and they look that way too.
Again, I know a lot of people don’t care. And I’m not saying that they should. I also know people who like the gritty look that stall mats give their gym. I’m not saying they are “wrong”. What I am saying is that if you do care about looks, then stall mats are probably not your best choice.
This is the most misunderstood point when comparing these two types of flooring. Since stall mats are 3/4″ thick and rubber floor tiles are 3/8″ thick )(or 8mm in many cases), people insist that stall mats will protect their floors when the rubber gym tiles won’t.
Let’s start by asking “Protect them from what?”. Here’s a list of things you’ll be doing on your gym flooring:
- Setting up your power rack
- Using your bench
- Dumbbell work
- Setting up your treadmill, rower, elliptical, etc.
- Skipping rope
- Battle ropes
- Slam balls
- Kettlebell work
- Plyo box work
- Stability ball work
- Olympic lifts
Both types of flooring will provide the same amount of protection to the floor beneath for all but the last two activities.
If you are doing the last two activities with a lot of weight, metal plates, or both then neither type of flooring we are discussing will protect the floor underneath!!!
Invariably, when I recommend rubber floor tiles, I have multiple people tell me that 3/8″ rubber flooring won’t protect their floor when deadlifting 400 lbs of metal plates. And they are right. But neither will stall mats.
When performing deadlifts or Olympic lifts with heavy weights or metal plates, no flooring will provide adequate protection.
If you will be doing either or both of these activities, and you don’t want to damage your floor, you’ll need to build a lifting platform.
I wrote an entire guide to lifting platforms that you can see here. The short version is that when you drop a heavy weight on your floor, you need something to disperse the shock across a large area.
Rubber flooring does not do this regardless of its thickness. Lifting platforms are made up of several layers of 3/4″ thick plywood topped with another layer of 3/4″ rubber.
It’s this construction that allows the platform to disperse the force of a heavy dropped bar. It’s this dispersion across a broad surface area of wood that protects the floor below.
One last point here. You lay flooring across your entire gym floor. You only deadlift or drop your bar in one spot. So lay extra protection in that one spot! Preferably in the form of a platform!
Again, if you need a lifting platform, use one. If you don’t, then both stall mats and 3/8′ (8mm) rubber tiles will provide adequate protection for every other activity you’ll be doing in your gym.
Here’s an area of comparison where stall mats win hands down. They are cheaper… By a lot.
Cost is the number one reason that stall mats are used as gym flooring.
To point to any other reason as the primary one would be lying. Whenever anyone recommends stall mats, they are almost always doing so due to cost.
Stall mats, when bought at your local Tractor Supply store, will end up running you right at $2 per square foot of coverage. Rubber floor tiles will end up costing between $3 and $4 per square foot.
That’s a big difference! I’ll use my current gym as an example. The portion that I have the flooring installed on measures 10′ x 14′. That’s 140 square feet. The cost to cover that with rubber tiles at $3.50 per square foot is almost $500. That’s close to double the cost of stall mats, which would come in at $280.
Want to see what it would cost to use tiles on your gym? Check out the exact tiles I use in my gym here on Amazon.
And my gym is pretty small. If you are putting flooring down in a 2 car garage or a reasonably sized basement, the cost of rubber tiles will add up very quickly.
This is the whole reason I used stall mats in my first gym build-outs. I just couldn’t afford to spend the extra on better flooring. To me, it was more important to invest in a great bar, rack, bench, and plates instead.
So, are rubber tiles better enough to make them worth more of your money? For me, that answer is yes. For you, that answer may be different.
For me, this was a big one. But I want to try to paint an honest picture here. And I’ll start by stating that all recycled rubber has an odor. Both types of flooring will smell like rubber when you first buy it.
The difference comes in the quality of the rubber between these two choices.
Recycled rubber is made up of ground-up car tires. Those bits of ground-up rubber are then mixed together with a binding agent. The bits of tire in both types of flooring is the same. The binding agent is not.
Stall mats are made for use in well-ventilated barns and outdoor areas. They are not made for small, enclosed human living spaces. For that reason, they use a far less expensive binding agent (that often includes sulfur – a primary reason for the terrible smell).
This is one of the reasons that stall mats are less expensive. They are made with cheaper ingredients. And those cheaper ingredients off gas obnoxious odor along with possibly dangerous VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
I wrote an entire article about why rubber flooring smells, the different types of rubber, and how to mitigate the odor here. What caused me to write that article (and a huge reason why I will never again use stall mats) is an EPA study on the dangerous compounds that off-gas from cheap recycled rubber. You can read that study here.
Rubber flooring made for use in human dwellings, while still emitting some odor, is considerably safer. It’s also considerably less smelly.
Again, it will still smell and you’ll have to be patient for that odor to completely disappear. But it will disappear. And a lot faster than the odor from stall mats.
To be honest, I’ve never visited a gym of any age that uses stall mats where I didn’t smell their strong odor. Even years after installation.
Both types of flooring we are discussing are durable. It almost seems silly to try to differentiate here. I don’t think anyone would be disappointed in either option for a home gym.
I would point out, though, that stall mats do seem to be the least durable when viewed in real-world applications.
Go into a heavily trafficked CrossFit box that uses stall mats (the most common commercial application). Compare the condition of their flooring to a heavily trafficked commercial gym that uses rubber gym flooring.
In almost every case, the rubber flooring holds up better.
I don’t think that should matter to home gym owners, though. Our gyms will most likely never see the use and traffic it takes to wear either option out. If durability is your concern, then either option will work great for you.
Ease of installation
I posted a video on my YouTube channel reviewing my current gym floor. In it, I show the installation process. You can see that here if you are interested.
This is another category where at first glance there seems to be no difference. Having installed both options myself, I can tell you that is definitely not the case.
Since you only have to do this once, I don’t know that this difference will be a deal-breaker for many, but there is a difference.
Stall mats are extremely heavy and awkward to move around. You’ll need a truck, van, or SUV to bring these home from the store. It’s also a two-person job if you don’t want it to take you all day.
The small 1′-2′ squares of 3/8″ or 8mm thick rubber gym flooring are very easy to move around. It’s a one-person job for sure.
Cutting the rubber flooring is also much easier. Unless you need a simple square and don’t care that the edges of your floor don’t meet up with the walls on all sides, you’re going to need to cut your flooring to fit your particular room.
Cutting 3/4″ thick stall mats is a chore at best. And the cuts will almost never come out clean and nice looking.
Add to this the issue I previously discussed of having to anchor stall mats to the floor so they don’t move around and the clear winner in this category is rubber flooring tiles.
Once you get your floor down, the first thing you’ll end up doing is cleaning it. Both types of flooring are rubber, so cleaning is pretty easy overall.
A mop and some low ph cleaner is all you need. Simple green is a good choice used by many.
Stall mats, unlike the rubber gym flooring tiles, will often be textured. That texture will eat your mop heads. It will also more easily trap dust and dirt.
Honestly, it’s not a huge difference. But now that I have tiles, I do realize that they are a bit easier to clean than the stall mats I used to have. Should this make your decision for you? No. But it’s just one more thing that will add up over time.
So should you use horse stall mats?
If you’ve made it this far, I bet you expect me to say that no, you shouldn’t use stall mats. But that’s not what I’m going to say at all.
More home and garage gyms use stall mats than any other type of flooring. Those who use it seem to like it. Just check out the comment section of the video I posted above.
For the money, there is no better option… For the money.
And this is where I think the stall mat supporters out there should maybe be a little more honest about things.
If both options cost the same, would anyone still buy stall mats?
I’m sure a few people would, but not near as many. As you can see in the chart at the beginning of this article, rubber gym flooring wins out in almost every category.
Does it win out enough to make it worth a LOT more money? Only you can answer that. Look, if rubber floor tiles are not in the budget and stall mats are, go for the mats!
Remember, this isn’t a “stall mats bad, rubber tiles good” issue. It’s a “stall mats good, rubber tiles better” issue.
For me, I’m thrilled with my current choice of flooring. If I ever move and build another home gym, I’ll use the same stuff. For me, I won’t ever opt for stall mats again. But that’s me. How about you?