This is Part One in a series of reviews of “High Intensity Interval Training” (HIIT) gyms. Part Two reviews 9Round, the 30-minute kickboxing concept.
There’s a lot of buzz around High-Intensity Interval Training, a.k.a. “HIIT”. Research studies highlight its effectiveness and time-efficiency for fitness development and calorie burning. New HIIT-centric gym concepts are being heavily marketed.
I’m a longtime endurance-preferring guy (run, swim, sometimes bike) who’s added more strength training in the last several years. Most of us tend to skew one way or the other, but especially at 40+ we should seek a balanced fitness approach.
So HITT interests me because of its inherent fitness benefits, and because it often combines endurance and strength work in an intense way.
I’ve started checking out HITT gym concepts and at-home workout programs, to add HITT into my own mix and also share findings via OlderBeast. This is the first of several reviews, starting with Orange Theory Fitness (“OTF” for short here).
CONTEXT: COMPONENTS OF HITT
As context for this OTF review, let’s first break down the HITT concept into its two main parts. Different gyms/programs combine these in different proportions and styles.
1. High-Intensity Cardio Intervals. Running, biking, rowing, jumping rope, and plyometrics (jump training) can all be done with an interval approach. Short bursts of near-all-out effort are mixed with measured recovery times. Many of the recently-reported clinical studies used cardio intervals as their “experimental” group to compare to a lower-intensity, longer-duration cardio “control” group. There are so many example studies, that rather than just point to one, here’s a link to a Google search if you want to learn more.
By the way, swimming can feature high-intensity intervals as well, as can certain more-specialized exercise concepts like cardio (opponent-less) kick-boxing.
2. Metabolic Resistance Training. This means strength exercises done with minimal rest between sets. When done with enough intensity—some combo of resistance level, rep pace and rep count—this type of workout becomes cardio, too. You’re working your cardiovascular system, lots of muscles…everything you’ve got…all at once. It burns a ton of calories—hence the “metabolic” label.
REVIEW OF ORANGE THEORY FITNESS
OTF’s workouts are one hour long. They mix treadmill and rower cardio intervals with metabolic resistance work featuring dumbbells, TRX straps and bodyweight exercises. Cardio time is at least half, and often two-thirds, of the hour. All participants wear heart rate chest straps that show your HR “zone” on TV monitors. The goal: spend much of your workout in the “orange” (2nd-from-highest) intensity zone. That’s the “Orange” part of the name.
This is a franchise system with over 600 locations in the U.S. (44 states) and 10 other countries. So chances are, there’s one near you (or soon will be, with plans for at least 350 more locations).
A highly-choreographed hour, where each participant has their own assigned treadmill, rower, and strength-work station.
- Treadmill intervals are based on clearly-called-out variations of speed and incline, to help you calibrate “base, push, and sprint” levels of intensity that last from 30 seconds to two minutes.
- Rower intervals are a little more subjective (driven by you and how hard you choose to push yourself), but effort meters on each rower show power and speed for guidance.
- On my visit, strength work mixed squat and lunge variations, core work, and triceps/lat moves with dumbbells. Strength moves (how-to illustrations plus # of sets/reps in the circuit) are usefully displayed in moving, graphical form on TV monitors.
At Orange Theory Fitness, if you push yourself, you’ll definitely get a good workout and sweat a lot, man. Based on my HR monitor, the OTF system said I burned 850 calories in the hour.
Facility & Staff
Since this is a franchise, there’s likely more variation among locations than you see in corporate-operated chains.
The Dublin, CA OTF (SF Bay Area) was really nice. They have high-end equipment, clean and well-maintained, and the layout (and having your “own” station for each part of the workout) makes moving around during short rest periods easy.
Along with the video-monitor cues for strength work, the treadmills have easy-to-follow placards coaching you on how to select your base, push and sprint levels of speed/incline.
There was only one shower, though. With 10-40 people working out in each class (not all of them needing to shower at the gym, of course), there might be a wait for the shower sometimes. A few Yelp reviews do mention this.
Staff was friendly, helpful, and good at coaching people through the workout, demonstrating techniques, etc.
Classes run every hour for much of the day, 5 am through 8 pm. You need to book online in advance if you don’t want to risk being shut out. As I write this on a Wednesday, the Dublin, CA location’s schedule for Thursday shows four of 11 classes in “waitlist” status, three waitlists for Friday, and the coming weekend’s classes more in waitlist than available-to-book status.
Costs appear to vary by metro area a little bit, but the general picture is that per-session costs range between $10 (if you do unlimited membership and use it 4-5x/week) and $15-16 (for a 4 x per month membership). These are mid-range prices— a little more than basic all-around gyms, similar to many yoga or other “boutique” studios, and less than high-end full-service gyms or higher-end boutiques.
Pro’s & Con’s
- All-in-one coverage of cardio and strength-training
- Well-designed facilities with nice equipment
- Easy-to-understand program, HR-zone goals and related data tracking/encouragement
- Heavy emphasis on cardio you could do at a gym with more-diverse facilities, or on your own
- Limited space for strength work precludes things like barbells, medicine balls, kettlebells, battle ropes
- Need to pre-book classes may limit your “workout spontaneity”
OTF meets a lot of people’s needs pretty well, if they’re looking for a blend of cardio and strength HITT, external motivation via instructors, and technology-assisted fitness. It’s particularly good for people who are just starting or re-starting a fitness focus, or those who “need motivation to do cardio.”
It’s less appealing to people like me who actually like running and would rather do that outside (for free, and with my dog). Also, those who want a higher mix and greater diversity of Metabolic Resistance training (and less pure-cardio) might find other concepts more appealing.
But not everything is for everybody, and there’s a reason why OTF is doing well and expanding quickly. It’s a good concept, well-executed.
If you’ve been generally interested in HIIT, or wondering about Orange Theory Fitness in particular, I hope this review helps you.
But I also challenge you to experiment with fitness alternatives on your own. You try new foods, go new places, watch new TV shows — so start bringing that curiosity into your fitness life, brother. It’ll be GOOD for you.
You can try OTF for yourself at no cost by signing up for a free workout at their website. Pretty much ANY other gym or studio (or online streaming program, nowadays) also offers free trials. Start taking advantage of them! You’ll learn something from each one, and maybe find a long-term new part of your fitness mix.
“With every mistake we must surely be learning. Still my guitar gently weeps.” While My Guitar Gently Weeps (George Harrison, –click to listen)
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