What is Orangetheory? And could it help you lose weight?

Whether you're trying to lose weight, or build strength and endurance, Orangetheory's approach may be just the motivation you need to hit your fitness goals.
Orangetheory Fitness - Fairfax, VA
People take part in an Orange 60 class at Orangetheory Fitness on Jan. 2, 2014 in Fairfax, Va.Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
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By Stephanie Mansour

Are you motivated by competition? If so, Orangetheory might just be the workout you’ve been searching for.

You’ve likely heard of the exercise chain, which has you strap on a heart-rate monitor and uses the approach of tracking heart-rate "zones" to motivate members to push themselves in the gym (and on the leader board).

But for those who have never tried a class, the unique structure can be intimidating. So how exactly does it work? And could it deliver the results you’ve been looking for? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is Orangetheory?

Orangetheory uses a combination of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and traditional cardio to help members reach their fitness goals – whether that be weight loss, strength or endurance. HIIT is a technique where you alternate between shorter periods of high-intensity exercise and periods of less intense exercise or recovery, and research shows that HIIT workouts may be better than traditional steady state cardio when it comes to fat loss. While Orangetheory uses HIIT concepts, the workout also works on cardiovascular endurance by steadily raising the heart rate, which helps with overall endurance, power and strength.

Eli Ingram, coach and regional fitness director at Orangetheory Fitness, notes that the class is a well-rounded, full-body exercise because they “are comprised of either endurance, strength or power exercise within your one-hour workout. Through the various templates that we employ, no two workouts are ever alike.” When a work out varies from day to day, you keep your muscles guessing and prevent burnout and boredom with your exercise routine. Similar to CrossFit, Orangetheory also has one daily work out that is shared across all of their gyms across the nation.

What are ‘zones’ in Orangetheory?

The Orangetheory spin on HIIT is called “zones.” They recognize five zones, the most notable being Zone 3, Zone 4 and Zone 5. During your workout a digital board on the wall displays what zone you are in based on your heart rate (tracked by your wearable heart rate monitor), as well as what zone you should be striving for based on your personalized workout plan.

Zone 3 is a period of time where the exercise should be challenging, but not making you overexert yourself. Zone 4 is a little more difficult, and makes the exercise seem a little uncomfortable. Zone 5 is the highest intensity you can give an exercise and will only be done for a short amount of time. The ultimate goal is to spend around 12 minutes total of the one-hour workout in Zones 4 and 5.

The science behind the zones is based on the concept of excess post exercise oxygen consumption. What does that mean? When you're working out and exerting energy, especially in Zones 4 and 5, your body will need a significant amount of time to recover. So much so that your body will continue to burn calories for up to an additional 24 hours after a workout, boosting your metabolism.

As previously mentioned, your zone tracking will be based on a wearable tracker. There are a few options as to what tracker you can choose, but generally it will either be worn around your wrist or around your waist. These trackers will read to your cell phone and a TV monitor in the room from an app and are easily tracked throughout your workout.

What happens during an Orangetheory class?

Each class is an hour long. Ingram explains that that time is broken up into thirds: time spent on the treadmill, the rowing machine and the floor.

  • Treadmill: “The treadmill is probably the most recognizable section of an Orangetheory workout,” says Ingram . “We structure the workouts to mimic an outdoor experience. By changing the variables of either speed or incline we are able to focus on different muscles and aspects of aerobic and strength training. Changes in speed will focus on power, changes in incline will focus on strength while Flat roads of 1-3 percent for a timed distance will focus on endurance and respiratory training.”
  • Rower: “The rowing machine is a fantastic full-body workout that incorporates 85 percent of the body’s muscles while imitating the natural technique of water rowing,” says Ingram. “Based on the distance, stroke rate and/or the time allotted to perform this section we will work different energy systems of the body. The lower distances of 100 to 500 meters will focus more on power, medium distances of 500 to 1000 meters will work primarily on strength and most distances over 1000 meters will focus on endurance. This machine does it all."
  • Floor exercises: This is the strength training portion of class. “The floor portion includes exercises with TRX straps, benches, free weights, mini bands and sometimes other equipment,” says Ingram. “Which equipment you use depends on the workout that day. Before you start the floor portion, the coach will demonstrate each exercise. There’s also a video screen with a GIF of the exercises, plus how many sets and reps to do of each.”

Is Orangetheory right for you?

Shara Posner, DC, an Orangetheory coach as well as a chiropractor at Back to Health Center, recommends Orangetheory as a great workout option because the intensity is based on your own individual heart rate zones, making the workout accessible for all fitness levels. Orangetheory is a great option for beginners because of how many modifications can be made to the workouts. It’s also great because the zones you are given are completely unique and created based on your height and weight among other factors.

Many who attend Orangetheory feel that the unique daily workouts help to build camaraderie as well as community within their gyms — another motivating factor to stick with it. Another upside of having the daily workout standard across all gyms is that it allows the coach to focus their time on showing individuals modifications that can be made to take their workout to the next level (or make it safer or easier), instead of demonstrating an exercise or explaining how to do a move.

While the ability to personalize the workouts does make Orangetheory a good exercise option for many people, it is still important to consult a medical professional before starting any rigorous program.

There is also the possibility of overexerting yourself in this type of environment because you see how fast others are working around you and may feel compelled to keep up. Make sure that even though you are following the zones given to you, you also listen to your body and set your own limits. Don’t be swayed by the speed or weight being used by other people in the class. Listen to your body and respect your limits to avoid injury.

“If you go from not working out at all to an hour class where you are trying to go as hard as you can trying to get in the ‘orange zone,’ you are asking for an injury,” says Joey Thurman, certified personal trainer and host of the “Fad or Future” podcast. He also warns that these classes don’t always take into account proper rest periods, metabolic stress, mechanical tension and muscle damage. “Going from a sprint to the floor and trying to lift heavy without proper rest and knowing your percentage of one rep max and having your tempo under control won’t pack on the muscle,” he explains. So ease into it, and if you're currently in couch potato mode, it may make sense to get a few weeks of activity like walking/jogging and strength training under your belt before trying a class.

How to incorporate the Orangetheory method into your at-home workouts

Implementing elements from Orangetheory into your workouts at home can be surprisingly easy. The best way is to use a fitness tracker such as a FitBit or Apple Watch to track your heart rate during a workout.

You may lose the competitive spirit with others in the class, but you can draw motivation from pushing your heart rate to certain thresholds, and thinking of your own past performance as your competition. In each workout, try to do more reps in the same amount of time or the same amount of reps in less time than you were able to complete during your last workout. In a notebook, track your progress week by week to see how your numbers, speed and strength improve.

You can also mimic the setup of an Orangetheory class by arranging stations in your family room or home gym. For example, put your yoga mat in one corner and do core exercises on it; put dumbbells in another corner and do your strength training over there; put a resistance band in another corner and do resistance training there. Make yourself move from section to section of the room instead of staying in once place.

Finally, you can also search for Orangetheory inspired workouts on YouTube as well as Pinterest to give you some more ideas of ways you can give the method a try at home.

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