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What’s the Theory Behind Orangetheory Fitness?

Orangetheory Fitness studios seem to be everywhere these days. The eye-catching logo, bright colors, and sleek studio formats seem to beckon you in. The fitness franchise world is blowing up, and it may be hard to determine what one studio offers from another. So here’s the skinny on OTF, as the insiders call it, and why it might be your next fitness obsession.

What Is OTF’s Theory on Fitness?

OTF bases its entire workout regimen on two concepts: heart-rate monitoring and Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). OTF calls EPOC “afterburn” — the concept that when you work at a sufficiently high level of energy, your body creates an oxygen deficit that must be restored after the energy requirements level off (e.g. you finish your workout). While your body is working to repay its oxygen debt, calories continue to “burn” long after the workout stops. OTF claims afterburn can last up to 36 hours with some participants. And as a byproduct, anywhere from 500 to 1,000 calories can be credited per workout.

Sounds like a great premise. How do they get you to the afterburn stage? Through working in a five-level heart-rate zone.

Before anyone begins at OTF, they fill out a health survey where they state their fitness goals and their maximum heart rate (MHR) is calculated through age, weight, and height. The workout is based on achieving color-coded levels of MHR over a 60-minute class, associated with different levels of effort. Zones 1 and 2 are for warmup and recovery. OTF recommends spending 25-30 minutes of the workout in Zone 3, with 12-20 minutes in Zones 4 and 5 to maximize afterburn.

How Do You Get the Afterburn?

A typical 60-minute class divides into two groups: one begins on treadmills for interval work and the other alternates between full bodyweight training and rowing-machine intervals. Those reluctant or unable to run on the treadmill can powerwalk or, if need be, swap out the treadmill for a cycle or a strider. Changes in pace and incline make the treadmill work very challenging, but that is what gets the participants to the coveted Orange Zone.

The weight training varies daily and utilizes the hottest tools in fitness these days: TRX straps, BOSU, steps, hand weights, kettlebells, and many bodyweight exercises. The intervals vary, some days timed, some days the principle of AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible). All Orangetheory locations receive their exercises from corporate to ensure quality control across all the franchises. The exercises and interval work (reps, timing) are displayed on monitors, along with a video example for referral throughout the workout. The treadmill workers need only look up to watch their progress on their own monitor.

What Do the Coaches Do?

During the workout, coaches roam the room, encouraging participants, correcting form, and ensuring appropriate time is spent in the work zones.

At my neighborhood OTF (McKinney, TX), staff assured me that the coaches will not single out participants for sub-Zone work. Their job is to motivate but not hypermonitor each minute of class. Participants are encouraged to learn how to self-regulate and adjust upward or downward as needed to hit the right time in the right zones. The McKinney OTF staff explained that most new participants are surprised at the difference between their perceived exertion and their actual heart rates when they start the training. That is why the coaches are there, to help participants adjust to the workload and to gauge their performance. The more the participants can match their efforts to their heart rate, the more successful they will be at attaining the desired afterburn.

What Can You Expect?

According to Head Coach Melody Cullen of the McKinney OTF, expect to be a little overwhelmed by your first couple of classes. Cullen cautioned, “The workouts are always tough and it could take a couple of times before you really understand everything that is going on.” Cullen believes the work can be calibrated for almost anyone as her participants range from stay-at-home moms to pre- and postwork warriors to participants in their 70s. Cullen cites the coach’s role as providing motivation and modifications as well as monitoring performance throughout the workout. All coaches are certified personal trainers and are known for their high energy, positivity, and inclusivity.

When asked if people are self-conscious about their stats being visible to the entire class, Cullen was adamant that no one pays attention to anyone’s work but their own. The lighting is dimmed, the music is loud, and people zero in on their own performance. They don’t have time to wonder what the person on the treadmill next to them is doing. Cullen is enthusiastic about OTF, citing amazing results driven by science (and helped along by dedicated coaches, one would think).

What About Those Results?

The afterburn focus lends itself to increased fat-burning, a key payout of the OTF work principle. Most participants come into the McKinney location with three main goals: improvement in overall health, toning and shaping, and weight loss. OTF enthusiasts believe this approach does work, but they recommend attending at least four to six sessions a week paired with healthy eating to achieve optimal results.

After every workout, participants receive an email with their results for the day, which can be tracked in a downloaded app. Every six months, OTF will offer a Peak Performance Week with different challenges that allow participants to gauge their progress. A monthly 90-minute “Tornado” workout offers a chance to speed up their regular workout by rotating through the treadmills, rowers, and weight work in much shorter intervals (two to three minutes).

How Do You Get Started?

On your first visit, allot 30 minutes for the fitness survey and to be set up with your heart-rate monitor. Only OTF monitors sync with their program (which means your Fitbit or Apple Watch won’t work), so subsequent visits will require rental ($5) or purchase ($69) of your own monitor. Speaking of cost, like many boutique fitness shops, OTF is not inexpensive. Prices vary by location (McKinney OTF memberships range from $59-$159 or a drop-in fee of $28/class). Your first class at any OTF is free. Classes are capped at 24 for the 60-minute classes, which can be booked in advance through an online portal.

So, aren’t you curious to feel the afterburn? Why not hit an Orangetheory franchise near you and find out?

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