From the five heart rate zones to "splat points" to "lobby life," head into your first session with confidence by reading up on these must-know facts.
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When I signed up for a free trial class with Orangetheory Fitness, being asked by the front desk to show up 30 minutes early felt extreme.

Sure, I assumed there'd be waivers to sign, forms to fill out, and maybe a tour of the studio. But an orientation half as long as the workout itself? That seemed a bit overkill.

But I was willing to trust the process to see what the hype was all about, as I'd heard several friends rave about the workout. So when a new studio opened in my neighborhood with a free trial class, I decided to pull the trigger.

Upon arriving onboarding started out standard enough — I filled out a form with my height, weight, age, and gender, detailed my sporadic (but well-intentioned) current workout routine, and listed my fitness goals — mainly to challenge myself after almost two years of minimal effort at-home workouts. (Related: How Orangetheory Fitness Classes Pushed Me Out of a Workout Slump)

Once paperwork was complete, I was handed a heart rate monitor (called the OTBEAT Burn). Our coach noted that the monitor would calculate our maximum heart rate, or MHR (the highest number of beats your heart can achieve in a minute), which can be used as a metric to calculate how hard you're working. For example, the American Heart Association defines moderate-intensity aerobic activity as roughly 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, and vigorous exercise about 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. (So, in other words, MHR is different for everyone.)

As it turns out, "different for everyone" is a major characteristic that makes Orangetheory workouts stand out. There's a ton of personalization behind the sweat — ranging from those high-tech monitors to the unique ways coaches motivate class members — which is designed to deliver an effective burn for a wide range of fitness levels.

Granted, stepping foot into a treadmill-lined, orange-hued studio can feel a bit intimidating for first-timers. And while coaches and other staff members are trained to make you feel comfortable from the second you sign up, knowing what you're jumping into can help ease any fears about taking on this new fitness challenge.

Here are six things I wish I'd known before signing up for my first Orangetheory Fitness class.

8 Things to Know Before Signing Up for Your First Orangetheory Fitness Class , Young woman running on a treadmill at the gym.
Credit: Adobe Stock

1. Show Up 30 Minutes Early to Learn the Science Behind the Sweat

Even if you're a seasoned fitness class participant, don't skip onboarding, says Jesse Milleson, owner and trainer at Orangetheory Fitness in Astoria, NY.

During my orientation, Milleson walked me through the science behind the heart rate-based technology that allows class participants to track their performance. "We want to prevent over- and under-training, which is why the heart rate monitors and results are so important to the workout ," Milleson explains, noting that the stats would be displayed on TV monitors throughout the studio.

During the workout, expect to encounter five different heart rate zones. Here's a quick breakdown of each:

Orangetheory Fitness Zones
Credit: Orangetheory Fitness

While the Grey and Blue zones account for your heart rate upon walking in the studio and starting to move on the treadmill, the workout itself goes down in the Green, Orange, and Red zones, says Milleson.

"When you're in the Green zone, you're 71 percent to 82 percent above your MRH, which means you're working at a challenging, but doable, aerobic [pace]," Milleson explains, noting that this is typically an exerciser's home base. "The goal is for participants to spend around 20 minutes [of the hourlong workout] in this zone."

The Orange and Red zones are where the magic happens, he notes. Once your heart rate hits 84 percent over max heart rate for 12 minutes or more, you enter the Orange zone, which activates your body's EPOC effect (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption).

"EPOC is a term used to describe an elevated volume of oxygen consumed during the recovery period following exercise," Milleson explains. "The result of the elevation in oxygen consumption is an elevated metabolism — so you're burning extra calories after the workout ends." FYI: Studies show that EPOC boost your total caloric burn from a workout by an additional six to 15 percent.

Each minute spent in the Orange zone accounts for your "splat point" total, with the goal of each class being to get 12 or more points. Related: How to Find (and Train In) Your Personal Workout Heart-Rate Zones)

2. There's Special Lingo Tied to the Zones

Slightly confused as to when, and how, you're supposed to move in and out of certain heart rate zones? Don't worry — your Orangetheory coach will give you clear verbal instructions along the way.

Expect to hear terms like "base," "push," and "all-out" to let you know when to maximize your effort and when to utilize active recovery. "Base [or the Green zone] is your active recovery — a manageable pace that you can always return to," explains Milleson. "Push [or the Orange zone] should challenge you — it should feel uncomfortable but easy to return back to base."

All-out, or your Red zone, means you're giving 100 percent of your effort, Milleson notes. "All-out efforts are done in short sprints and always followed with a walking recovery to avoid overtraining." This means that everyone's base, push, and all-out efforts won't look the same, he adds.

3. Haven't Exercised Recently? That's No Problem

Because Orangetheory workouts are designed to maximize heart rate output based on an individual's unique metrics, the class is dynamic enough that anyone can do it, Milleson explains.

"Orangetheory Fitness is for anyone, whether it's your first time working out, you haven't worked out in a while, or you workout every day — that's because you go at your own pace," he says. "You're not trying to keep up with anyone. We train each person based on how their heart rate responds to the intensity. It's all about going at your own pace."

4. Expect a New Workout Each Time You Walk Through the Door

Each 60-minute Orangetheory Fitness class is broken out into various sections: a heart rate training portion (done on the treadmill and water rower) for about half of the workout and a strength training portion (done on the floor with weighted exercises) for the remainder of the class.

First-timers should expect to begin on the rower. "For the rower portion of class, we monitor your heart rate to see how your heart responds to different intensities," says Milleson. "After the rower, first-time guests transition to the floor, where most of the strength training and muscle work happens using dumbbells and other equipment." Your OTBURN monitor is still activated during this portion.

"Finally, you'll finish on the treadmill and continue heart rate training. There's a flexibility block at the end to stretch — then we'll go over the results and answer any questions."

Though the above format stays the same from class to class, each day focuses on a different type of training — endurance, strength, power, and ESP (a mix of endurance, strength, and power). "On strength day, get ready to use more inclines to strengthen muscles," says Milleson. "Endurance days feature longer push durations followed by active recovery. Power days focus on short, high-intensity intervals on the treadmill and powerful exercises in the weight room."

Milleson notes that all classes are suitable for first-timers. "The workout is different every single day; that way, we can prevent plateauing," he adds.

5. Don't Let a Hatred of the Running Keep You Away

If your main hesitation in trying Orangetheory workouts is that you loathe the treadmill, other options are available. You can power-walk if you don't want to run, which involves higher inclines to push you to certain heart-rate zones throughout the workout.

And even if you do decide to run, Milleson wants those who don't love the treadmill to know that you're not running the entire time. "The workout is broken up into different blocks and intensities — so thinking about what you're doing and makes the treadmill fly by."

Prefer a different piece of equipment entirely? You're in luck. "There are other options we have for anyone looking for low-impact," says Milleson. "We have bikes and ellipticals at every studio for individuals."

Milleson adds that if members have a specific physical limitation that doesn't allow them to perform on the rower, the bike or elliptical can also be used as an alternative.

6. Prepare to Meet Some Lifelong Friends

Having been to plenty of workout classes where waiting in a silent lobby among serious-looking athletic types was the vibe, the casual banter and approachability of everyone at my Orangetheory Fitness studio has been refreshing.

As Milleson explains, that atmosphere isn't by accident. "One of our major differentiators is the community that's formed within our studios," he says. "We focus on developing a culture that fosters member engagement with sales associates, coaches, managers and most importantly, other members — we call this 'lobby life.'"

Plus, as he adds, staff will often go out of their way to make sure new and current members are comfortable, excited, and feel like they're part of a community. It's common to hear birthdays announced in class, and to see class milestones celebrated — whether it's your 10th or 100th class. (Related: This Couple Met at Orangetheory — and Gave Nods to the Class at Their Wedding)