It can be quite hard deciding what kind of exercise you want to do. Will a powerlifting regime suit you, or do you want to bulk up with bodybuilding? Do you want a swimmer’s physique or is long-distance running your thing? Or do you want to make the most of high intensity interval training (HIIT)?

Even once you’ve decided on the style of exercise to meet your goals, finding a program and provider can be a minefield. Just focussing on high intensity, explosive power, there are myriad options and providers. These include two powerhouses: Orange Theory and CrossFit.

These will be our subjects today: which is better, why, and which one might be best for you?

The Difference in a Nutshell

The main differences between Orange Theory and CrossFit are in emphasis. By design, Orange Theory will need you taking part in more high-power cardio and HIIT in order to keep you in the much sought after orange heart-rate zone for as long as possible per class. On the other hand, CrossFit will have you taking part in more explosive strength training: think cleans, overhead presses, squats and so forth.

So, simplistically, if you prefer handling barbells and jumping around, go with CrossFit; if you prefer more classic HIIT and circuit-style classes, go with Orange Theory.

However, there is more crossover than this. CrossFit will absolutely have you hitting Tabata sets on a spin bike, as will any self-respecting Orange Theory instructor at some point. Orange Theory will also have you pumping weights and performing burpees, as will any self-respecting box coach instructor at some point.

Let’s break it down a bit.

Orange Theory Fitness

Orange Theory Fitness

As we wrote in our recent guide, fitness guru Ellen Latham began Orange Theory in a Florida studio in 2009. Since then, it’s caught on and taken the world by storm. Over 500 separate venues were hosting her classes within its first decade. It came to European destinations like Great Britain in 2017.

Their Orange 60 sessions are so named because they last one hour. This hour is divided into five distinct training segments, with each segment centring on a station.

Each station is designed to give a blend of several disciplines throughout the hour. These are:

  • Strength training
  • Cardio
  • HIIT (high intensity interval training)
  • Calisthenics
  • Rowing
  • Running
  • Weightlifting

Therefore, anybody taking part in Orange Theory fitness classes will become experienced across several disciplines.

Each session is also designed to put you into a heightened metabolic state. This state should last for around 36 hours, during which your body will continue burning calories at an accelerated rate. To achieve this, you will wear a heartrate monitor during each session. By providing each member with a heart-rate monitor, Orange Theory can monitor your five zone interval training sessions. The five zones are grey, blue, green, orange, and red.

Of these:

  • Gray zone: 50-60 percent of your maximum heartrate. This is your most comfortable zone.
  • Blue zone: 61-70 percent of your maximum heartrate. This is your warm-up period.
  • Green zone: 71-83 percent of your maximum heartrate. This is your comfortable and manageable fat burning zone. You should stay in this zone for 25 to 35 minutes of your workout.
  • Orange zone: 84-91 percent of your maximum heartrate. This is your uncomfortable zone, which creates EPOC (see below). You should stay in this zone for 12 to 20 minutes of your workout.
  • Red zone: 92-100 percent of your maximum heartrate. This is where you push yourself to the limit.

Your instructor will push you to hit your orange zone in each and every workout. The ultimate aim is to be able to spend 12-20 minutes there. At this point, you will hit an ‘afterburn’ effect: your metabolic rate will be boosted for 24-36 hours post-training, resulting in anything up to an extra 1,000 calories being burned. This is due to excess post-exercise consumption (EPOC), upon with the whole of Orange Theory training hinges.

EPOC takes place when your oxygen intake rate increases after hard physical effort. An estimated extra five calories are burned for every litre of oxygen consumed. To bring this up to its full potential, you need to bring your heartrate up to 84%+ during training for as long as possible. The is known as the orange zone, as above; this forms the backbone of Orange Theory.

Pros and cons of Orange Theory

Orange Theory is an incredibly effective training philosophy that can bring about great results. However, nothing is perfect: for every up, there is a down. There are some distinct pros and cons inherent to Orange Theory.

Pros

  • It’s a very effective workout: You will burn a great many calories in an Orange Theory class (up to 1000 per hour long class) and the afterburn effect is real and formidable. You should also end up building a solid foundation of muscle due to the resistance work involved.
  • It has a great community: Orange Theory take your stats throughout each session and put them up on a screen for the whole class to see. Their trainers are supportive and their sessions are fun. This all translates into a really enjoyable, supportive environment for the whole class, with people typically urging one another on.
  • It has something for everyone: Orange Theory care about the effort you put in, not your abilities or fitness level per se. This is what they measure: 84%+ of what you can do, making everything very personal. Their trainers adapt every exercise with various progressions, meaning that there will always be something that you are able to do. It doesn’t matter how heavy you can go, how many reps you can go for, or how explosive you are: as long as you’re putting in the effort, you’ll be benefitting from Orange Theory.

Cons

  • It’s pricey: A typical leisure centre membership with full, unlimited access to HIIT, spin and aerobics classes should set you back around $40-60 per month. There will be a little give on either end, but not much. Orange Theory will be around $60 per month for a single class per week.

CrossFit

CrossFit

CrossFit are another high-intensity exercise provider who have seen massive growth in popularity since their inception in the noughties. They now have over 13,000 affiliated gyms in 120 countries, with 7,000 alone in the US, and they hold their own championships around the world in which increasingly professional athletes regularly participate.

CrossFit devotees are often described as a little cult-like- the movement can become something of an obsession for many. Many CrossFit venues and organisations take training so seriously, and so base their lives around it, that they seem to devote themselves fully, mind, body and soul, to the cause.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground, here. Somebody who just quite likes it and goes along a little bit is something of a rarity. Either you love CrossFit unconditionally or you don’t get involved at all.

But what is CrossFit? Mostly, it’s a strength and conditioning philosophy whose workouts are made up of incredibly functional movement patterns performed at a high intensity level. In many ways, it takes its cue from similar high intensity styles like HIIT and circuit training. However, the base theory runs that it takes elements of any other training style deemed useful, so that powerlifting, Olympic lifting and bodybuilding all form bedfellows with calisthenics, mobility work sprinting, and so forth… really, whatever makes you stronger could potentially have a place in a CrossFitter’s arsenal.

To this end, CrossFit workouts tend to rely on exercises they deem to be ‘functional’. Functional exercises mimic those actions that we use in our daily lives, such as squatting, lunging, carrying, pushing, pulling and so forth.

CrossFit uses a standard ‘workout of the day’ (WOD) that all members complete on the same day. The daily workout can be found for free on their website, alongside a guide on everything needed to take part.

These WODs will be built around functional movement patterns, including many variations on pushes, pulls, squats, carries and so on. Weightlifting and bodyweight exercises are very common, with CrossFit incorporating movements from varied disciplines like powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, and Strongman.

Pros and Cons of CrossFit

As with Orange Theory, CrossFit is an intense training philosophy that boast some truly impressive accomplishments. However, there are some definite pluses and minuses involved with it.

Pros

  • It has a competitive element: CrossFit bills itself as an athletic discipline in its own right and hosts class and club level scores, alongside global competitions, in this spirit. You will be competing with everyone else in the class and in the world with each WOD, as WODs are scored and scores tabulated. Top athletes can go on to CrossFit games, testing their mettle against the best of the best.
  • It teaches you varied techniques from beginner level: Rather than stepping into a gym and getting bored with working machines or overwhelmed at the sight of the weights room, you could go with CrossFit. They offer you the ability to learn compound barbell movements, gymnastic disciplines and a whole lot more. They will teach you from the ground up, so you need no previous experience. Athletic performance will jump up markedly, as you learn skills in different areas and see strength, endurance and explosive power all improve.
  • There is a community in CrossFit: Though it’s often described as a little cult-like, many people love CrossFit for the global community it puts you in touch with. Each class will be filled with like-minded people there to work hard and support one another, keeping you enthused and making everything a lot more enjoyable.
  • It works you like a beast: CrossFit’s competitive element, sprawling, like-minded community, base philosophies and exercise selection all combine to give you one hell of a hard training program. It’s one of the most intense, results-driven training styles going.

Cons

  • It’s impersonal: For all that CrossFit promises a hard workout, there is no personalisation. WODs are set at the macro-level, with hundreds of classes expected to adhere to them. Though a good coach will be able to find variations of some things to accommodate any special requirements, this isn’t a given.
  • Their trainers aren’t always the best: Many, if not most, CrossFit coaches are decent. However, a lack of oversight, a lack of standardisation, and a desire to push you to the max no matter what can all combine to make some of their trainers outright dangerous. Though you should always check this out beforehand, it can be hard for an inexperienced athlete to know the difference between a good trainer and one who will get you hurt until it’s too late.
  • It’s also pricey: That $40-60 per month leisure centre membership is looking increasingly appealing. CrossFit can set you back upwards of $200 per month to train unlimited.
  • It works you like a beast: This isn’t always a pro. CrossFit is well-known for pushing people too hard and burning them out. There is no such thing as moderation in the CrossFit mentality. This can cause long-term health concerns and lead to injury. A good trainer will help you to avoid this, but, as above, CrossFit have a reputation for bad trainers and poor oversight.

So, which is better?

Both are expensive, so let’s set that aside: whichever you pick, you’ll be paying above the odds for your workout.

However, there are some fundamental differences between CrossFit and Orange Theory that should inform you as to which is best for you.

CrossFit places greater emphasis on strength training, with Orange Theory mostly going in for cardiovascular work. Even when they have you lifting weights, it’s with your heart rate in mind.

Partly because of this, and partly because of a failing in standards, Orange Theory is a lot safer than CrossFit. They help you to find your limit, not smash through it, and their instructors are generally far better (or at least more uniformly) trained.

Their better oversight and more generalised standards come from the way Orange Theory structure their business. It is a massive franchise with each studio run pretty much along the same lines, to the same standards. Though they standardise daily workouts, CrossFit boxes are a lot more individualistic. They follow a philosophy, not a set of franchise rules. You could find a great one or a terrible one.

This individuality may be a plus for you but remember that it comes with some risks.

If you prefer individuality, hard work no matter what, and strength training by the bucketload, CrossFit is probably perfect for you. If you want a cardio blast with extras, a solid and safe training methodology and a great technique for weight loss, go with Orange Theory. They are the safe option, at any rate.