A little over a year ago, my best girlfriend had started working out at ORANGE THEORY FITNESS (OTF). She had done so on my recommendation. From my long range observations, it looked like a solid workout and she, being a former D1 athlete, high intensity (HIIT) advocate and student of the fitness game, looked like a good fit.
At Saturday brunch in early June, we discussed me joining for a Sunday sweat session. After a phone call I was in. I was headed for my first OTF experience.
In the event you have been living off the grid, ORANGE THEORY FITNESS (OTF) along with CROSSFIT are likely the most successful fitness brands in the last five years. No small task considering the explosion in the fitness market.
Orange Theory started out small and unassuming. A Florida based gym started by Ellen Latham was packed everyday seven days per week. People booked early and every class was full. Ellen was doing very well exceeding 99% of all boutique gym operations.
A couple of her clients discussed franchising her concept. She was reluctant initially but finally agreed to listen and the rest is history.
OTF is based on a blend of High Intensity Intervals (HIIT) utilizing treadmills, water rowers, and floor movements including TRX, bodyweight and dumbbells. Each session lasts approximately one hour and is varied. Long or short interval pieces or combinations of modes.
Participants wear a heart rate chest strap to monitor intensity. The objective is to spend at least 12 minutes over 82% of heart rate max (Age Predicted) or in the ORANGE zone. Each minute in this range generates one point. At OTF these minutes become 'SPLAT' points.
At the end of the session on a large monitor 'SPLAT' points and caloric burn rates are displayed and reviewed for all to see. Before a participant can return to their vehicle and smart device an email has arrived with that same summary.
While the workouts are varied you are always running, rowing or on the floor doing calisthenics. In theory there is variation but only if you count the duration of the intervals. SPLAT points still drive the session and are the quantifiable piece.
People with limitations need to jockey in line to use one of the two bikes in most of the studios. If you like treadmills and water rowers you will be in hog heaven.
Instructors are mic'd up and the music is bumping. OTF has official sound tracks but instructors will sometimes toss in their own mix. The music mix ranges from amazing to just okay. The instruction is the same. Some did an excellent job of timing the sessions while others lacked energy and lost track of the interval count.
None of this bothered me in particular but I am more than a little familiar with interval programing and heart rate monitoring. Trainers are more cheerleader than technicians. There is little technical coaching involved. Follow the script, encourage and run the clock.
An orientation for a newbie lasts around five to ten minutes. Here's how you turn on the treadmill here is how you turn off the treadmill and here is where you can see your heart rate. Not much time to learn the limitations of the new recruit before the upcoming trial session. The Coach in me wanted more background.
All the studios where I participated were clean and tidy. Each equipped with at least one furnished shower. Since these are franchise studios the consistency was a constant. The studio in Overland Park looked and functioned like the studio in Oxford Mississippi.
The heart rate monitoring piece was both good and bad. I, and others, had difficulty with registering heart rate measurement many times. It was frustrating when I was working my ass off on a rower and would loose connection and SPLAT points! Front desk personnel spent much of their hour patching together functional transmitters.
I believe day in and day out work over 80 percent violates a wave approach to training load and sets the stage for injury and overtraining. If you only participate three times per week and take care of recovery then you would be fine but that is not good for a business looking to sell unlimited membership packages.
The part that impressed me the least was the floor portion. The instructors rarely had time to provide quality instruction and the techniques performed by the participants bothered me to an extreme level. There was a monitor with OTF HQ staffers performing the movements some of which were even more offensive.
For example, dumbbell swings. These were taught without an emphasis on hip focus defaulting to the squat version of the swing. Shame. Most folks didn't know any better.
The floor portion was best when combined with a row piece or a treadmill piece. This was the most potent stimulus, my favorite sessions, and the most like a CrossFit workout.
After my first session, I was approached about teaching at OTF. There was a studio two miles from my home looking to employ a male coach. I had time so I agreed to go through their three day instructor training.
My reviews from the regional trainer were solid. It looked like a perfect fit. Before the three days were completed I was courted to move to another region to become the regional trainer in that market. Extremely unique considering I had not even stepped on the floor as an instructor.
Over a ten week period I lead classes in four different studios sometime with less than four hours notice. Each with a slightly different mix of athletes and slightly different expectations. While coaching in these different studios I received a mix of feedback from great to "you should have done it this way" and you need to smile more :)
In the end, it did not materialize into coaching I enjoyed or what the studio owners wanted.
OTF claims to have more than 800 studios across the United States with no business failure. My personal opinion is that units without a studio within 10 miles will likely do well long term but like the CrossFit expansion they sometimes are competing for the same clients. This is a disastrous formula.
In the end, if you show up at an OTF studio and you can make it part of your routine you will be healthier and happier as a result. A good studio will provide a client friendly environment with a conditioning structure and good energy.