Legs, arms, arms, legs, I silently repeated to myself as music blared and a coach shouted instructions into a microphone. I was on a rowing machine just 10 minutes into my first Orangetheory class, and my go-to rowing motto was keeping me focused—as well as distracted from how sweaty I was already. As I glanced at the row of treadmills in front of me and the strength training floor behind me, both of which I’d be using before the class was over, I knew it wasn’t going to get any easier, but I wasn’t really mad about it.
This was my first taste of the buzzy boutique fitness chain Orangetheory, which started in suburban south Florida in 2010 and now has more than 1,200 studios across the U.S. (in all 50 states, with higher concentrations in bigger cities) and locations in 22 countries. But even with its wide reach, I knew very little about what to expect from Orangetheory before my first class.
I knew that the hour-long class incorporated cardio and strength work, and that it was split between rowers and treadmills and a strength training floor. I also knew that it had a devoted community of members, and I had plenty of friends who’d chat about the day’s workout, which is the same across every studio.
I’d also heard it was tough, and in that moment on the rower, I knew I’d heard correctly. Because you wear a heart rate monitor during Orangetheory workouts, you can see at any given time what percentage of your estimated maximum heart rate you’re working at. I used this as a kind of accountability system to remind myself when I could push a little harder. As a result, my first Orangetheory class was the most challenging workout I’d done in a while—and also the most rewarding. I left with tired muscles and a sense of accomplishment that had me hooked. That was just a few months ago, and I’ve since become an Orangetheory regular; I hit the studio two days a week.
But I still remember the pre-workout jitters before my first class. Any time you try a new workout, especially one with such a tight-knit community of fans, it can also feel a little like being the new kid in school, where everyone knows the gist but you. (What is a “splat point,” anyway?)
So to give you a better sense of what’s about to go down, here are a few things to know before your first Orangetheory class.
1. You’ll wear a heart rate monitor during class to measure how hard you’re working.
Orangetheory is built around the concept of heart-rate-based training—the idea is to keep an eye on what percentage of your maximum heart rate you’re working at. While your rate of perceived exertion (RPE, or how hard you think you’re working) can be a great way to check in with your body during a workout, a heart rate monitor allows you to quantify your effort in numbers. You’ll be able to see your heart rate on a screen mounted in the room in real time during your workout.
There’s a catch here: To get the initial estimate of your maximum heart rate, Orangetheory uses the Tanaka equation, which is 208 minus 0.7 times your age. (So, time for a math refresh: If you’re 21 years old, the Tanaka method would estimate your max heart rate as 208-0.7×21, or about 193 beats per minute.) The thing is that the Tanaka equation—like all formulas used to estimate heart rate—was created to be a generalized method for predicting heart rate in healthy adults based on age. If, for whatever reason, your maximum heart rate deviates from the average (perhaps due to your physical activity level, your gender, or both), this formula obviously wouldn’t account for that, which means that you may end up working harder (or not as hard) in order to hit a certain percentage of your max. This isn’t really a huge deal for most people, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
After 20 workouts, Orangetheory uses data from your past sessions to re-estimate your max heart rate using a proprietary formula, which the company believes boosts accuracy. The idea is that after 20 Orangetheory workouts, the new estimate of your maximum heart rate is probably going to be closer to your actual maximum heart rate. (Keep in mind, though, that even when you’re wearing a heart rate monitor, what you’re getting is an estimate of your maximum heart rate, says Yuri Feito, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University.)
All that said, unless you’re a competitive athlete and precision is therefore really important to getting the most out of your workouts (in which case you’re likely not relying on a fitness chain for your training), you’re probably getting a good enough approximation with commercial trackers. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine, all seven commercially available wrist-based heart rate monitors tested (including versions of the Apple Watch, Fitbit Surge, and Samsung Gear) fell within an “acceptable error range” (from 2% to 7%).
“The takeaway is, use the numbers as a guide, but don’t get too caught up, says Feito.
2. Your heart rate monitor determines how you rack up “splat points.”
In each class, the goal is to earn at least 12 “splat points,” and each splat point reflects one minute spent working at 84% of your (estimated) max heart rate or higher.
On the screen, your heart rate levels are shown in three main “zones”: green, orange, and red. The green zone is 71% to 83% of your max heart rate, which should feel like a challenging but comfortable baseline. The orange zone is 84% to 91% of your max heart rate, which is where things get uncomfortable (in a good way). The red zone is 92% or above, which feels close to the maximum effort you can give. So, in other words, 12 splat points equals 12 minutes spent in the orange and red zones combined.
The idea behind the 12-minute goal is to stimulate excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). This is also known as the “afterburn effect,” since your body is still using energy (that is, burning calories) at a higher rate even after the workout is over, as your body works to return to a resting state. “A comparison I like to use is when you are baking a cake, it still cooks for a short time after you pull it out of the oven,” Eli Ingram, coach and regional fitness director at Orangetheory, tells SELF. “The body is the same.”
Again, there are some caveats here. First and foremost, there’s no EPOC switch that turns on when you hit the 12-minute mark at a certain percentage of your max heart rate, says Feito. It’s also worth noting that the EPOC effect isn’t going to be as significant as what you do in your workout itself—and people tend to overestimate the effect it has. Plus, EPOC is something that you’re likely already experiencing after your workouts, especially if they are HIIT-based.
That said, the 12-splat-point guideline can still be a great goalpost to keep you going. “It’s a motivational tool for people to work toward something,” Feito says.
3. The class is usually split between the rower, the treadmill, and the strength training floor.
There are a few different class formats, but in general you’ll be spending about a third of your time at each station—a “3G” workout has one group at each station at all times, while a 2G workout (or Orange 60) is a bit more flexible (though you’ll generally be on the rower, the treadmill, and the floor at some point in every class).
The floor portion can involve TRX straps, benches, dumbbells, looped resistance bands, and other equipment, says Ingram. “Which equipment you use depends on the workout that day,” he says. “Before you start the floor portion, the coach will demo each exercise, and there is a video screen with a GIF of the exercises as well as how many sets and reps to do of each.”
On the treadmill your coach will cue you through when to be working at your “base,” “push,” and “all-out” paces. These are speeds and inclines you determine for yourself based on whether you want to power walk, jog, or run. Orangetheory offers general guidelines for each—for example, runners are encouraged to set their base pace at 1% incline and 5.5 mph or higher. Your push pace is 1 to 2 mph faster than your base, and your all-out pace is 2 or more mph faster than your base. Depending on the workout, the treadmill portion might include a combination of sprints, hill climbs, and steady-state endurance running.
The coach will also cue you through the rowing part of the workout, which might have you rowing for time or distance (for example, either a one-minute row or 150 meters), as well as how much effort you should be putting in at any given time. You may also be hopping off the rower for body-weight or medicine ball exercises.
4. Workouts are focused on endurance, strength, or power.
The goal of this is to target different measures of fitness and keep your body from getting used to any one workout. In a strength workout, you’ll use heavier weights and fewer reps, says Ingram. On the treadmill, he adds, you’ll work with higher inclines to help strengthen your posterior chain, or the backside of your body (like your glutes and hamstrings).
In an endurance workout, “we use lighter weights with higher repetitions, challenging the body’s ability to perform for longer periods of time,” explains Ingram. “These classes will also represent longer treadmill efforts to help increase aerobic capacity.” (So you won’t come across as many short intervals on the treadmill.)
Finally, on power days, you’ll have less recovery time and use a mix of different weights on the strength floor, and you’ll also be utilizing different interval speeds on the treadmill and rower. “This type of training asks the body to recover faster while improving agility and stability,” says Ingram.
5. You should show up half an hour before your first class.
Orangetheory asks all new participants to show up 30 minutes before their first class—the basic idea is that you get comfortable with the space and the equipment ahead of time so that you’re not thrown into class feeling flustered and confused. You’ll also have ample time to settle in, complete necessary paperwork, and get acquainted with the space.
During this time, the coach will take you into the studio privately to walk you through the equipment, offer tips for the class, and get to know your fitness goals, says Ingram. They’ll set you up with your heart rate monitor and prep you on proper rowing form so that you’re ready to go when the workout calls for rowing.
6. You’re going to want to wear comfortable workout gear and show up hydrated.
Orangetheory is a high-intensity workout, so hydrate before class and bring your water bottle with you. (A good general rule is to drink one to two cups of water before your workout, and, of course, continue to sip throughout your workout.)
As for gear, “stretchy, moisture-wicking fabric is a must, since you will most definitely break a sweat,” says Ingram. “Whatever you wear running or to the gym should do the trick.” You may also want to bring a towel, since not every location has them.
7. Take it easy during your first class—everyone moves at their own pace.
It can be tempting to go all-in during your first class to rack up those “splat points,” but give yourself a chance to adjust to the workout.
“Start slow—you don’t need to perform at your maximum effort levels on day one,” says Ingram. “In full transparency, you don’t know what your base, push, or all-out effort will be until you’ve attended five to six classes.” His advice? Don’t come into the workout with any expectations about your performance. Just give it your best shot, listen to your coach, and try and push yourself out of your comfort zone (no matter what that is for you).
8. Stick around after class to reconnect with your coach one-on-one.
After class your coach will take you through some cool-down stretches, and then they’ll reconnect with you about how you felt about your workout. “[They] will explain your workout summary and what all the numbers, colors, and zones mean,” says Ingram. You can ask them any other questions, and they can offer advice on your next class, he says.