What's the Theory Behind Orangetheory Fitness?

Brandi Kupchella

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.

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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.