“This is what we call the dungeon,” an Orangetheory fitness studio manager tells me as we walk into the massive room where the workout takes place. She laughs, but the rows of treadmills, benches, rowers, TRX straps, and weight racks in the dimly red-lit room do not look like a joke. Even though I’ve done boot camp workouts (like Barry’s) a zillion times and love a grueling sweat session, I’m a little intimidated by Orangetheory.
What makes the Orangetheory workout different than other boot campy HIIT-style classes is that it’s all centered around your heart rate. But it’s not like you’re just keeping tabs on your cardio game as you would on your Apple Watch/Whoop/other wearable-of-choice: The workout displays your (and everyone else’s) stats — to the entire class — as you aim to spend at least 12 minutes in the “orange zone,” aka an elevated heart rate just below your max. So rather than a class that’s all about how you feel or matching your efforts to the beat of the music (a la SoulCycle), Orangetheory is truly a numbers-based workout — which is great for competitive stats fanatics.
Curious about what makes the uber-popular global fitness chain so appealing? Here’s what to know about the HIIT workout and what it’s actually like to take a class.
There’s a good chance there’s an Orangetheory studio near you: There are more than 1,000 locations across the country (not counting the ones across the globe). The cost of a class will vary depending on where you are (the average is about $28), but what’s nice is that your first workout is free. If you love it, you can sign up for a membership — choose between Orange Basic (four classes a month), Orange Elite (eight classes a month), or Orange Premier (unlimited classes a month).
Though each Orangetheory class is going to be a little different, the core of the workout remains the same. Intervals occur in three sections: the rower, the treadmill, and the floor. In each one, you’re effectively working every single muscle in your body for a challenging cardio-slash-strength workout.
If you think the combo of an intense HIIT-style class, stats displayed to the class, and heart rate zones sound like something only the more advanced fitness fanatic can handle, think again. You can essentially make Orangetheory as easy or as tough as you want; you’re the one in control of your treadmill speed and the weights you use, after all, but the studio prides itself on appealing to all fitness levels. The coach leading the class is there to offer modifications, and if you’re dealing with an injury or don’t want to run or row, you can hop onto a stationary bike or strider for your cardio circuit. The studio also encourages first-timers to arrive at class early so that someone there can walk them through everything before they step inside to sweat. (I did this and found it really helpful.)
When you check in, you’re given one of the studio’s heart rate-tracking armbands to wear throughout the workout. As I mentioned, your goal is to hit a certain heart rate to get 12 “splat” points — you receive one for every minute your heart rate’s in the orange zone (aka Zone 4). For reference, there are five zones: Zones 1 and 2 are chill, so you’re primarily working within Zones 3, 4, and 5 during the workout (4 is approximately 84% of your maximum heart rate, and 5 is the highest, aka what you hit when you’re doing an all-out effort). You receive a splat point for your time spent in both Zones 4 and 5. You’ll know where you stand since there are two screens displaying everyone’s stats — splat points, current heart rate, and calories burned — throughout the class.
The whole idea is that when you’re pushing yourself within these specific heart rate zones, you’ll reap the benefit of an after burn, also known as excess post-exercise consumption (EPOC). When this happens, your body has an increased metabolic rate (you burn more calories) for up to 24 hours after your workout. Translation? You’re getting more out of the exercise session than the 60 minutes you spend inside the studio. When you’re inside the studio, your workout looks a little something like this:
When you row, you’re working your lower body muscles, your core, and your arms as you get a low-impact form of cardio. Your coach may have you do a combo of speed-based and distance-based intervals (where you’re trying to row the longest distance in a certain amount of time) while you’re on the piece of equipment, but don’t be surprised if they throw in some off-rower exercises like jump squats for a spicy challenge.
Orangetheory has three different levels you can use as guidance for your speed on the tread: power walker, jogger, and sprinter. You’ll spend a third of the class here moving between intervals at different speeds and, yes, sometimes an incline. Of course, since this circuit is so cardio-based, you’ll likely score most of your splat points here.
In any given Orangetheory class, your coach will have you working with dumbbells, TRX straps, Bosu balls, medicine balls, or an AB Dolly for some strength training. After the coach goes through the exercises you’ll be moving through, each is displayed on a couple of screens nearby — along with the number of reps you have to do — so that you can easily follow along and make sure you’re using proper form. Expect a variety of compound exercises (think chest-press-hip-bridge combos, mountain climbers, and bench step-ups holding dumbbells) that hit all your major muscle groups.
The same reason some people love trail mix or meal combos is likely the same they’d gravitate toward Orangetheory: The nationwide studio offers a true assortment of workout modalities and pieces of fitness equipment, all packed into one hourlong class, to deliver a HIIT session that’s far from boring.
Orangetheory’s real selling point, however, is its reliance on numbers. As you track your heart rate during class in an effort to reach a specific goal (i.e. at least 12 splat points), you’re effectively working on your cardiovascular health. While there are plenty of other workouts — even cardio-based ones — where you can sweat your face off and feel like you’re killing it, you might not be raising your heart rate to the recommended levels for ultimate heart health. For reference, the American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of cardio exercise a week — and this means aiming for a target heart rate of 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate for moderate exercise or 70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate during vigorous exercise. With an Orangetheory workout, you don’t have to guess: If you get those splat points, you’re doing amazing, sweetie.
Personally, I’m the kind of person who needs to see my heart rate during workouts — something I do via my Apple Watch. I mainly do HIIT-style running on the treadmill, and I like seeing how hard I’m pushing myself and also how quickly I can recover after sprints. But that’s only something I can do when I’m streaming a workout at home because it’s not exactly feasible to constantly look down at your wrist in a group fitness class IRL. (Trust me: I tried it once in a treadmill-based class and almost busted my skull open.)
Orangetheory studios also feel like their own community. The class-goers, from my experience, all seem to be devotees of the workout — in a not-annoying or intimidating way. Coaches are incredibly welcoming and friendly; the one who taught my class shouted my name (among others) in encouragement during certain moments when I felt like I was really kicking butt. Mid-reps in a floor circuit, I looked around at the crowded class of people running, rowing, and lifting and thought it felt a lot like the sports camps I went to at my local YMCA as a kid. There’s a camaraderie that made me want to play my part in the quest for splat points.
The overall verdict? It’s a fun place to get your fitness on. If you don’t want to waste your time sweating, Orangetheory will effectively push you — and your heart — for an efficient and grueling yet fun hour-long workout that’ll totally wipe you out (in a good way). It’s hard to slack when you’re face to face with your stats.
LaForgia, J. (2006). Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. J Sports Sci. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17101527/