Last night I visited one of the hottest** new fitness chains in the country: Orange Theory Fitness. There are 200 locations around the U.S., and a number planned locally. But only one has so far opened near downtown Atlanta: on Howell Mill, beside Stooges Bar. And it's already popular. I called midday and was told that the best they could do was put me on a waiting list for the 8pm class. Fortunately, I got in. I was wearing an orange jacket and shoes; maybe that helped.
After filling out some paperwork, I was handed a heart rate monitor to track the intensity of my 55-minute group workout, which would incorporate a treadmill, a rowing machine, and free weights. Wrapped around my torso using a strap that presses directly against the skin, the monitor was slightly uncomfortable. But it made me feel like the subject of an experiment. That was kind of cool. And kind of true: the experiment was my own, though.
Kristen, an irrepressibly energetic young trainer in spandex, startled me as I emerged from the bathroom after attaching my monitor: "Is this your first time?" she said. (For a second, I thought she meant my first time in a bathroom.) Her eyes were wide and sparkly. I told her it was indeed. Then she conducted a cheerful, conversational version of an intake form—how often do you work out, where, what intensity—finally welcoming me to Club Orange. "You're gonna love it!" No stoic or aloof trainers here.
Next came instructions, which Kristen delivered to the group of seven to which I'd been assigned. (Each class contains around twenty people, divided into groups of three; each rotates through three stations.) I was told to pay attention to the color of my personal data box on a large screen positioned above the treadmills: "Green is your base level," said Kristen. "Orange is that level where you don't want to talk to anyone, and red is where you can't possibly give anything more. Like, you want to die. Almost." Then the big sparkly smile again.
The gym itself is bathed in a luminous, orange glow. Techno/electronica/pop blared, natch. Sometimes it obscured Kristen's commands from a microphone. She began by telling my group, stationed by the free weights, to drop down into plank, the yoga position that works the abs and shoulders. From there, we did a half dozen sets of shoulder touches and elbow-to hand movements that were challenging. I looked up at the heart board: still in the green zone.
Next, after a few seconds of rest, came the treadmill: a few minutes of hill climbing at a fast jog, bringing the heart rate up to orange, briefly. And then more plank, this time on the treadmill itself. (This felt a little unclean, hovering above lots of anonymous sweat and dirt.) This was followed by the rowing machine, at a high intensity level, for a few minutes. Repeat. And then back to the free weight area for some curls and squats. All without much of a break, or water, keeping the heart rate high and the planks low.
I spent four of the last ten minutes of the class in the red zone, maxing out at 95 percent of the highest safe heart rate their machine calculated for me (given my height, weight, and age). I certainly didn't want to talk to anyone, even to brag. The best I could do was keep my grunting at a relatively low decibel level. Kristen urged us on: "You can do anything for thirty seconds!" and "You can do anything for fifteen seconds!" and "You're almost done!" That last one was a lie. But an effective one. I finished feeling more wrung out than I have in a while.
I noticed, before leaving, that my total red zone percentage for the workout was six percent. Someone else, I saw, had been in the red for three times that long!
This loosely data-driven set-up—similarly used at Buckhead's Flywheel spinning studio—is the main thing that sets OTF apart from its competitors. All the equipment and most of the exercises are familiar to anyone who has been to a gym or taken fitness classes in the last few years. Still, I recommend trying a free class, as I did, to see what a little extra data, mid-workout, will do for you.
**According to an OTF representative at the Buckhead location on Piedmont Road, opening in a few months, where I stopped in yesterday after the dentist.