CrossFit Vs Orange Theory: Battle of the Orange Heart Rate Zone

We break down the differences between Orange Theory and CrossFit. Plus we’ll explain how you can do these style workouts at home or with your personal trainer.

CrossFit Versus Orange Theory Programming

Did you know that both brands of fitness use the Orange Zone in their programming? Did you know that sports like soccer and basketball do too?

Do I need to be in the Orange Zone?

Orange Theory didn’t invent the orange zone, the heart rate monitor, and isn’t even the first company to use it.  They did (in the Author’s opinion), however, present one of the best marketing approaches towards convincing customize that exercising in the Orange Zone is necessary or most efficient to improve overall fitness.

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Truth be told, people have been losing weight long before heart rate monitors were invented.  Do you really need a strap on your chest to tell you that your heart is elevated?  And more to the point, does it matter if your neighbors heart rate is higher than yours?

Do I need to Lift Weights as Fast as Possible to Get Results?

Take a look at CrossFit’s highly sucessful lady WOD (Fran, Debbie, Angie, etc.) and you’d certainly think so.  Watching the CrossFit games might convince someone to do that.  Certainly, the CrossFit Open requires that.  But is that optimal for consistent safe results?  The men and women that compete in the Olympia and the Arnold Classic (International Federation of Bodybuilders) don’t need/use CrossFit — why do you need it?

A big CrossFit Class with a motivating partner will leave you exhausted on your back.  If you are feeling faint and covered with sweat — surely that must have been the best thing for your body right?  American’s spend millions of dollars on equipment to measure heart rate.  Companies like the Apple Watch, Fitbit, Polar, and Garmin play on your ignorance in effort to sell you a product you don’t really need.

High Heart Rate Does Not Equal Calories Burned

Heart rate alone doesn’t tell you much about calories burned.  For example, if you heart rate is 160 beats per minute because you are watching a horror movie — do you think you are really burning 800 calories per hour?  The body burns calories when muscles require additional ATP to bind and release myosin and actin fibers.

Most electronics will ask you about your age, height, and sport you are playing to map a formula against the heart rate you are measuring.  However, these formulas are extremely inaccurate because one formula to cover all the hundreds different of levels of athletes (and their efficiency) is just not realistic.

Is Heart Rate that Important?

Orange Theory built their whole business model by playing to consumer’s belief it’s extremely important.  Here’s the truth:

Orange Zone Heart Rate is not that Important

  • For Bodybuilding: a heart rate of 50-60% is ideal.
  • For Weight loss programming: a heart rate of 60-70% of max is ideal.
  • For Glycolytic threshold training: a heart of 80% is ideal (that’s orange zone.)
  • For Strength Programming: a heart rate of 90%-100% is ideal.

But it’s not necessary to measure heart rate, because for bodybuilding: time under tension is much more important (40-100 seconds is ideal.)  For weight loss, the fastest pace that can be maintain continuously with good form is ideal.  For glycolytic training – failure should occur at the 90-120 mark.  For strength training, we don’t usually even measure heart rate (it’s not very accurate nor important.)

CrossFit Hype vs Orange Theory Hype

Both programming systems have their supporters.  People who swear these programming systems have changed their lives for the better.  And, also just as many people who have complained about how these programs have hurt them.

The secret of CrossFit Programming

CrossFit group class programming structure is simple.  Teach a class 2-4 compound exercises.  These exercises need to have a load movement (e.g. barbell from the floor to overhead).  Make sure everyone can do the movement with relative minor faults.  3-2-1 Go.  Make the class do the workout as fast as possible.  This induces large amounts of glycolytic acid and exhaustion.  When done with perfect form and precise balancing of exercises, this programming works.

Why do people get injured?  When you ask 20 untrained athletes to work as fast as possible for as long as possible, the athletes will cheat the proper form in an effort to win.  Or, to make the exercises easier.  While the coach or two are supposed to make corrections – athletes trying to win don’t want the corrections.  In addition, since the CrossFit gym cannot control which session a given client attends, there is no way to ensure the programming is balanced for a specific athlete.  While some of the better gyms do have balanced programming, that programming assumes you’ll attend all the sessions.  Moreover, what an individual needs in terms of balance, will vary.  Strength does not increase at the same rate for all clients.  Furthermore the need for specific correctional exercises cannot be easily accomplished.

The secret of Orange Theory Programming

Take advantage to two large calorie burning equipment (rowers and treadmills) and pit the clients against each other by publicly displaying their heart rate.  The desire to win or the fear of shame for losing, helps motivate clients to work harder.  Running on a treadmill at Orange Theory doesn’t burn more calories than running outside.  Shocker.  To break up some of the monotony of rowing and running Orange Theory peppers in some light weight functional training.  The functional training would be a nice benefit if there were sufficiently trained coaches and adequate supervision (which there is not.)  To minimize some of the risk, Orange Theory favors equipment that is generally easier to use (Bosu, TRX, and dumbbells.)

As compared to equipment like barbells and kettle bells, the TRX, Bosu, and Dumbbells are easier.  Nonetheless improper technique and especially improper balancing of programming will cause injury.  Like CrossFit, Orange Theory cannot balance their clients training, and thus their client get injured.  In addition, because their are many clients for one trainer, trainers cannot make corrections fast enough to prevent injury.

Neither company puts out bad coaches.  In fact, how good the coaches are is more of a function of the individual’s coach’s commitment to learn than the brand itself. The Group model is a result of financial pressure the American public puts on these businesses to provide personal training programming at $10-$25/session.  I have trained thousands of clients.  I can honestly say that I cannot reliably watch more than 3 clients at one time.  So when companies like Orange Theory ask their coaches to watch 20 clients at one time, they know it’s likely to create an environment that can cause injury for lack of supervision.  In an ideal world, their clients would knowingly assume that risk when they start the program.  Ideally more, each client would be assessed to see if this style of programming is safe for them.  Sadly, financial pressure to obtain clients and lack of knowledge on how to safely screen clients creates a situation where every client is welcome — even those are at high-risk to get injured.

So Why Isn’t There more Semi-Private Training?

Cost mostly.  Group training rates go from $10-$25 per session.  With cancellation rates at about 50% for most classes, having 1.5 client per session yields a revenue per session of $20-$25 per session.  If it costs $20-$25 just to pay to coach for the session (not including overhead), a gym cannot make money with semi-private training at the $10-$25 price point.  Sand and Steel charges $60/session for Semi-Private Training for this reason.

Is Personal Training Better than Semi-Private Training?

In general: Yes — when you compare improvement per session, and No — when you compare improvement per dollar.  However, if you have any injuries or imbalances than personal training is far superior.  How can you tell if you have imbalances?  Simple: get an FMS/YBT screen.

So what Model Does Sand & Steel Use?

Sand & Steel has 40 different programs.  One of them emulates Orange Theory’s programming style, while the other emulates CrossFit style.  The other 38 programs cover the remaining 95% of the population who needs a more customized programming option.  We use our Fitness Performance Benchmark to place you into the appropriate program.

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4 thoughts on “CrossFit Vs Orange Theory: Battle of the Orange Heart Rate Zone”

  1. Thank you so much for the great article. I’m a veteran Crossfiter & as I’ve gotten older I’ve switched to OrangeTheory. It’s a happy “medium” for me. Anything is better than a secular gym. (LOL).

    Your article was spot on. Thank you!!!

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