What Women Want in a Health Club Locker Room

A well-designed locker room gives women a place to relax, reflect, and refresh in a post-workout oasis.

Today, when it comes to fitness, there are few activities that are gender-specific. Women may tend somewhat toward cardio, and men may incline slightly in the direction of strength, but there’s little bias.

Personal training, group exercise, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and even the most intense CrossFit workouts—men and women are fairly evenly represented.

When it comes to interests and performance, the two sexes may be equal, but critical distinctions remain. Women have unique preferences and tastes—especially when it comes to club locker rooms—and astute club operators are well advised to attend to the “likes” of this crucial member demographic.

According to the 2017 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report, women constitute 50.2% of all health club members.

For women, the locker room is more than just a place to store their personal belongings and change into their workout clothes. A CBI survey of architects, designers, and leading IHRSA clubs reveals that many women regard this space as an oasis where they can relax, reflect, and refresh; indulge in some “me time”; and temporarily escape the incessant demands imposed by the outside world.

Facilities Ohlson Locker Room Column

A locker room designed by Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative

So, in addition to considering the functional aspects of this area, operators should pay close attention to design and ambience, taking all of the five senses into account.

“Dignity” is the word that sums up what a women’s locker room should be about, suggests the Momentum Female Health & Fitness Club, in Mechanicsburg, PA. “A clean, beautiful locker room is our way of showing respect,” explains owner Tracey Wakeen.

“We provide a space where women can put themselves first, feel great about where they are in their health journey, and walk out of the club ready to take on the rest of their day.”

Seamless Satisfaction

The locker room experience should be simple, seamless, and satisfying from start to finish—from entrance to exit, says Hervey Lavoie, a principal at Ohlson Collaborative Design (OLC), in Denver. “Though it’s easy to overlook, the entrance is an important design element,” he says.

“We believe that doors are an impediment to the easy, conflict-free, movement of users,” he says. “For women, particularly, the detailing and planning related to a ‘door-less’ entry is essential to establishing a comfortable environment and a sense of security.”

Momentum, which doesn’t employ a door, is a case in point. “You just take a right, and you’re in,” says Wakeen. “There are no walls or barriers to entry—we don’t need them.”

“The design of women’s locker rooms involves a balance between privacy and safety.”

Bryan Dunkelberger, Owner

S3 Design - Braintree, MA

Other tips by Lavoie include generous clearances to accommodate two-way traffic, the avoidance of blind corners and sharp turns, and the blocking of outside sightlines.

“The design of women’s locker rooms involves a balance between privacy and safety,” says Bryan Dunkelberger, a principal at S3 Design in Braintree, MA. “We address both of these needs by creating a central circulation spine through a locker room, with U-shaped locker bays. This allows staff and members to quickly move through the space and see everything, while allowing the locker bays to remain semi-private.”

“Women prefer privacy over wide-open spaces,” says Kaleena Vasilik, an interior design associate at Fabiano Designs International in Montclair, N.J. “We evaluate each area of the locker room with visibility in mind. Sightlines are always blocked, and spaces are designed to provide a sense of privacy. Sometimes, on request, we’ll incorporate changing rooms to provide an extra level of privacy.”

Brenda Amsberry, a principal and senior interior designer at OLC, stresses that “the layout must be intuitive and user-friendly,” adding that “when the showers are too hidden or too far from the grooming and toilet areas—that can feel unsafe.”

Cleanliness Above All

It goes without saying that, particularly in the locker room, cleanliness trumps all other considerations—design, furnishings, amenities. “Cleanliness is right up there for most women when they make the decision whether or not to join a club,” Dunkelberger says. That means regular, professional maintenance procedures, and frequent tours of the premises by staff. “Operators need to constantly monitor the condition of things,” says Amsberry. “Open lockers, soiled towels, and spilled lotions and cosmetics—they’re all off-putting.”

At Momentum, “Only women are allowed in the locker room,” says Wakeen. “The kids have their own bathroom.” The arrangement helps maintain the calm, dignified, and, yes, clean environment that women desire.

Clubs also should be alert to the inevitable impact of time. “They need to notice when the age of the facility interferes with the appearance of cleanliness,” Dunkelberger says. “Cleaning can’t overcome the aesthetic of aged materials.” Regular capital improvements have to be part of the equation.

In 2014, when Wakeen purchased her club, she implemented just a few, but telling, upgrades—installing new carpeting and new toilets. “We put in these extraordinary, amazing, power-flush toilets, since we were constantly having problems with the old ones,” she says. “We still get tons of compliments about them.

“I never thought women would be so pleased by something as basic as a toilet flush!” she says.

If the plumbing isn’t working, she adds, no one will be happy.

An Inviting Environment

While men may be content with basic, utilitarian locker rooms, women, generally, are looking for something more. They’re tempted by and inclined to indulge themselves in warm, comfortable, and attractive spaces with a variety of enticing amenities.

“Women tend to gravitate toward venues that are sleek and modern in design, but, at the same time, inviting,” reflects Vasilik. “We think of these spaces not as locker rooms, but, rather, as an experience for each person using them. We design more for hospitality than raw function.”

For Debra Siena, the president of Midtown Health in Chicago, which specializes in fitness center management, the locker room is a very personal space that should appeal to all of the senses. “Consider it a sanctuary space,” she says. “Spacious design, softer finishes, and aesthetically pleasing neutral colors all work—but no pink, please.”

Pink, she says, is well beyond passé.

In terms of appearances, “We recommend light, fresh finishes that feel welcoming. If warm woods are used for the lockers, the surrounding finishes should provide contrast with a lighter, cooler tone,” Amsberry says. Conversely, if light, cool colors are used for the lockers, the surrounding finishes should be warmer, or have plenty of warm accents.

“Using these contrasting tones enhances the overall sense of visual and physical comfort.”

Little touches such as artwork and fresh flowers can add to the décor, suggests Camie Evans, the managing partner of The Women’s Club, a women-only facility with 1,900 members in Missoula, MT. “We bring in vases of fresh flowers each week. Our members love that.”

Lavoie agrees, “We like to introduce elements such as artwork, floral displays, and other forms of visual enrichment to help establish a feminine ‘brand’ for the locker room.”

Serving the Senses

Another subtle but significant element is lighting, both for setting a mood and for functionality.

“We want our members’ experience—with respect to every aspect of our club—to enhance their sense of value and purpose.”

Tracey Wakeen, Owner

Momentum Female Health & Fitness Club​ - Mechanicsburg, PA

“For women, it’s tremendously important,” says Amsberry. “It should be indirect in the changing and locker areas, so as not to be harsh and cast unattractive shadows.”

And, adds Evans, “Lighting in the vanity area should be properly positioned, and of a color spectrum that’s conducive to makeup application.”

“It should reflect out onto the faces of the users to compliment them,” Vasilik says. “We utilize backlit mirrors to achieve this, since we want women to feel beautiful.”

Vanities should be placed away from wet areas and should be well-lit and well-stocked with hair dryers and beauty products. “When we conduct a club tour and show prospective members our Beauty Bar, we emphasize that we provide everything they might need,” says Wakeen. “They only have to bring a towel and a lock. Our bathroom stalls and Beauty Bar offer hairspray, deodorant, Q-tips, lotion, contact lens solution, and tampons. And if they forget a towel—we can take care of that, as well.”

The Women’s Club also offers complimentary coffee and tea in its vanity area. “Women notice and appreciate these things, and tell their friends,” says Evans.

When it comes to fragrances, opinions are mixed. Midtown Health provides aromatherapy in its locker rooms, while The Women’s Club has designated the space a “fragrance-free zone.”

Music, too, can be tricky. Accommodating every taste is impossible, but light, soothing music can be effective in masking unpleasant extraneous noises. “Background music creates a safer feeling than a silent room,” says Amsberry.

Evans is working on being able to play more soothing music in the locker rooms at The Women’s Club. “Unfortunately, the music in the vanity area is on the same channel as the workout area. We can lower the volume in the vanity, but we’re exploring the possibility of putting that area on a different station to provide a more relaxing post-workout environment,” she says.

“We want our members’ experience—with respect to every aspect of our club—to enhance their sense of value and purpose,” Wakeen says.

Jean Unger

Jean Unger is a contributor to Club Business International.