I Tried Orangetheory And Didn’t Die…But It Was A Close Call

by Alex Cavallo

Orange you glad I didn’t say CrossFit?…is a joke I made to myself after learning I was going to be taking an Orangetheory class for the first time.

Like CrossFit before it (which is now kind of passé, imo), Orangetheory is the latest fitness craze sweeping the nation with increasing intensity, gathering a cult-like community of hardcore devotees in its wake. Designed as one-hour, full body interval workouts that combine strength training and cardio, Orangetheory isn’t new—in fact, it’s been around since 2007. But most people have likely only noticed the signature orange gyms popping up, well, everywhere within the last couple years, as classes have gained momentum as a fitness movement.

At present, there are 20 Orangetheory gyms in the Greater New York City area, with more on the way.

Interval training isn’t a new concept. What makes Orangetheory different, I learned during my half-hour consultation with an enthusiastic Orangetheory staffer and self-professed believer, is the theory upon which its name is based.

Participants wear heart rate monitors throughout the workout, which keep track of how long they spend in five color-coded zones: Gray (the most comfortable zone, and essentially at rest, at 50-60 percent of your maximum heart-rate) Blue (the warm-up zone, at 61-70 percent), Green (a still fairly comfortable fat burning zone, at 71-83 percent), Orange (the title zone, at which you begin to become uncomfortable and really feel the workout, at 84-91 percent), and Red (a zone at which you’re pretty much running on empty, at 92-100 percent of your maximum heart-rate).

As you might infer from the name, the Orange zone is the most important, and the goal is to remain in this zone for 12 to 20 minutes of the entire one-hour workout. But how does one know what zone they’re in at any given time? Glad you asked! The heart rate monitors project your stats directly onto large screens mounted around the gym, where you can watch your progress—along with everyone else’s—in real time.

This was the most stressful fact I learned during my consultation. I have enough to feel self-conscious about at the gym without worrying that the hard-bodied 20-something in head-to-toe Lululemon on the next treadmill is judging my zone status.

But I was committed. So, when O-Day came, in the name of #journalism, I dragged my tired, untoned carcass out of bed at the ungodly hour of 7 am (listen, I’m not a morning person), mainlined some coffee, and headed out.


Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

After registering for my first Orangetheory class—the first session is free, unless you’re attending a “Select Studio” (I was, all the NYC locations are designated as “select”), in which case you pay half price—I was instructed to arrive a full half-hour before the class was scheduled to begin.

I was warned that if I failed to do so, I would not be able to attend the class. A half hour? How many “not our fault if you die from exercise-induced bodily shutdown” wavers did I need to sign before class? What horrors had I willingly signed myself up for that they needed a full 30 minutes to prepare me to face them?

I had once attended a free ab class at a Boston Sports Club and they just let you stroll into that one without even introducing yourself. I couldn’t laugh without wincing for days afterward.

I was concerned.

The Consultation

The Consultation
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

I dutifully arrived 32 minutes before class and was instructed to sit at a high-top table by the window to wait for a staffer with whom I would go over my fitness goals (to not die), get me hooked up to the aforementioned heart rate monitoring system, and prep me for the class.

As I sat waiting, I gazed longingly out the window at all the people walking by. Look at that guy, just living his life, not about to subject himself to 60 minutes of non-stop physical fitness! Must be nice!

After a few minutes (guess that 30-minute rule only applies to the client) a peppy young man bounced up to my table, upon which I was slumped, sucking half-heartedly at the dregs of my iced coffee and scrolling through poorly shot pictures of other people’s food on Instagram.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

I explained to him what I should have mentioned earlier here: I am not what you would describe as an “active” person. In the summer, I occasionally wakeboard off the back of a friend’s boat, but the best part of that activity is the beer enjoyed back on board as I dry off in the sun.

In the winter, I take a few weekend snowboarding trips, but the best part of that activity is the après ski beers in the lodge (and the live ’90s cover band that seemingly every ski resort in the country has on retainer. But I digress).

I have a gym membership, but as I tell the doctor when they ask about exercise at my annual physical, “I make it to the gym maybe once a week? Unless, you know, something else comes up.”

When I do make it to the gym, I spend all my time lifting marginally-heavy free weights in the weight room with all the sweaty dudes who check themselves out in the mirror after every set and grunt like guttural affirmation is a prerequisite to exercise.

Because cardio is terrible.

After painting this vivid picture of health and vitality, I asked my consultant to shoot me straight: “Can I actually do this?”

He assured me I could, and that everyone who came in had the same question. I wasn’t convinced, but hey, I was already here. I allowed him to velcro a blinking heart monitor to my forearm, and was sent on my way with a bright, “you got this!” Easy for you to say, buddy. I’m sure Napoleon gave his dudes a similar pep talk before Waterloo.



The Class

The Class
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

My coach (that’s what they call Orangetheory trainers) is a very buff and energized man from New Jersey named Stan*.

Before I enter the gym, along with my fellow Orangetheorists**, a group of mostly 20-30 something women and a couple of similarly aged dudes, Stan asks if anyone is new to Orangetheory (me!) and I get a high-five for my efforts.

He then makes an announcement that almost stops my rapidly beating heart. Apparently, I have chosen to arrive on a “Tornado Day.” I envision a twister picking me up Dorothy-style and depositing me in the Land of summer bOdZ, from whence my only hope of escape is to click my sneakers together and whisper “there’s no place like my couch” three times and hope for the best.

Actually, it turns out that a “Tornado Day” means that all the intervals will be done in rapid-time (about 2 minutes per station) and, ostensibly, the class will seem to pass even quicker for it. Okay.

After a quick but rousing pre-workout pep talk just slightly less inspiring than Mel Gibson’s Braveheart speech, we’re doing it.

*Name changed to protect the innocent, and also because I forgot it in the ensuing melee. 

**Did I just coin that? If so, you heard it here first.

Courtesy of the Author for LittleThings

The first station is a rowing machine. I’ve never been on a rowing machine. Spoiler alert: There are no oars. There is water, however. Orangetheory employs water rowers at their studios, which just means that water provides the resistance within the machine.

You guys, it wasn’t that bad. I might even…like the rowing machine? Not like, I want to take it out and treat it to a nice dinner like it, but I’d Netflix & Chill with it on a Wednesday, if I didn’t have better plans.


Courtesy of Author for LittleThings
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

Less than two minutes into class and I was already in my Red zone. I was also the only person in the Red zone. Was this normal? This couldn’t be normal. [Note: the above picture was taken near the end of class, but accurately depicts the board at the beginning of class. That’s me, up there in the red.]

I looked around, expecting to see a pair of EMTs rushing toward me with a stretcher, but nobody — Stan included — seemed concerned. I kept rowing.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

Stan put us through our paces through a constant stream of encouragement and directives shouted through a headset microphone. Next up: the mats. This is where we’d tornado our way through a series of weight-based strength exercises. The exercises were helpfully demonstrated both by Stan and by fit avatars on screens mounted around the mats.

Above, please observe an example of two such exercises, including something called a “goblet squat.” As if a regular, run-of-the-mill squat isn’t bad enough? My gluts screamed at me and called me horrible names but I got through my set of 10 reps without dying.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

Sadly, I cannot say the same thing about the burpee-pushup combo, which I can only imagine was dreamt up by some sadomasochistic trainer with an axe to grind. I will not be doing any more burpee-pushup combos in the near future.

The rest of the class passed by in a blur (literally, due to the sweat streaming into my eyes and obstructing my vision) as I ran from station to station — including a brief interlude with the treadmill, which was actually not as onerous as I’d feared. Or maybe that was just in comparison to the burpee-pushups.

Before I knew it, a full hour had passed, and Stan was clapping and lustily congratulating us through his head-mic.

It was really over? And I was…still alive? Not only was I alive, I was still standing semi-upright, albeit on legs that seemed to have turned into linguine sometime in the past 60 minutes.

I was actually kind of proud of myself. So was Stan, who gave me my second high five of the day (and my second of the year, to be honest).

The Post-Mortem

The Post-Mortem
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

Stan then went over my stats with me (a courtesy afforded all newbs; they also helpfully email you a log of your results). I’d gotten 31 “splat” points! Splat points represent the amount of time spent in your Orange and Red zones. It turns out, I’d kind of killed it. Killed it being a euphemism for having done pretty okay for my first time.

To be honest, the worst part of Orangetheory is what happens after class, when 10-13 sweaty ladies cram into a locker room fit for maybe 3 and fight for a chance to shower before work.

And, okay, water boarding seems pretty bad, yes, but have you ever tried pulling on skinny jeans just out of the shower in a steamy, crowded locker room full of other women?

Editor’s Note: After the events detailed in this article took place, the author subsequently went on to purchase an Orangetheory membership. She may or may not be hooked.