CrossFit vs. Orangetheory: Which Is a Better Workout?

Group fitness programs are an effective way to shake up your fitness routine and add accountability to your workout, especially if you’ve been exercising at home since the pandemic began.

Large group of athletic people having sports training on exercise bikes in a gym

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For those who are looking to find a community of like-minded workout buddies, CrossFit and Orangetheory have likely bubbled up as potential choices. Though both feature group training sessions run by an experienced and knowledgeable coach or trainer, the two approaches to fitness are actually quite different in how they work, and to whom they appeal the most.

What Is CrossFit?

Initially conceptualized in 1996 by Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California, CrossFit was incorporated by Glassman and Lauren Jenai in 2000. Within a few years, the CrossFit ethos had spread across the country when affiliate gyms, called boxes, sprang up to offer this unique approach to high-intensity interval training that incorporates elements of Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, plyometrics (a type of high-intensity jump training) and conventional cardio training.

“High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is one of the more efficient ways to burn calories,” says Shaun Carrillo, lead wellness coach with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. If you’re looking to lose weight or build strength, HIIT workouts, which feature super intense bursts of effort followed by short recovery periods, can help.

CrossFit also includes nutritional education components that help make it more of a lifestyle than a gym routine, says Nicole Carroll, general manager of education at CrossFit. In 2021, the company started offering an add-on nutrition course for an extra fee.

“CrossFit can be used to accomplish any fitness goal, from improved health to weight loss to better performance. The program can be adapted to work for everyone – from people who are just starting out to people who have been elite athletes for years,” she says.

Workouts of the Day, or WODs, change daily, which provides lots of variety to help keep members coming back for more. “The exercises we perform in CrossFit are ‘functional movements’ because they mimic patterns that are found in everyday life,” Carroll says.

This means that instead of moving just for the sake of moving, the exercises you’ll be doing in CrossFit are designed to make you stronger and increase stamina for the basic things you do in your life, from walking and lifting groceries to running to catch the bus or moving to a new home.

“We don’t use any machines that isolate a single muscle or joint,” Carroll adds. “Instead, we primarily use full-body movements.” Many of these rely on your own body weight or simple devices like medicine balls to create the challenge.

A Mix of Movements

CrossFit movements can be classified into three general categories, Carroll says. These include:

  • Weightlifting, or moving your body with an external load. An example would be a weighted squat.
  • Gymnastics, which are basic bodyweight movements such as pull-ups and burpees.
  • Monostructural movements, which are traditionally known as cardio. This includes things like running, rowing, biking and jumping rope.

“The hallmark of CrossFit’s programming is how we combine these three elements together in a variety of ways. This makes for uniquely challenging, and uniquely fun workouts that are unparalleled in their ability to increase overall fitness,” Carroll says.

CrossFit Benefits

CrossFit created quite a buzz in fitness circles when it first stormed the scene in the mid-2000s, and a key aspect of why it’s endured is that people who tried it were able to track their results and see improvements in how their bodies look and in how they perform.

“Workout results such as time to complete a workout, the weights used and the number of reps completed are recorded and tracked,” Carroll says. This helps CrossFitters visualize gains in fitness and health as their numbers improve. “These numbers are great indicators that your strength, speed, endurance, stamina, etc., are also improving.”

Some CrossFitters also see improvements in health metrics, including blood sugar levels, bone density, body composition, cholesterol levels and weight. “Another side benefit, and something we hear anecdotally, is that people also get happier,” Carroll says. “Their physical health strongly influences a healthy outlook on life, and many find themselves feeling stronger and more capable in every way.”

There’s also a community aspect to CrossFit. “CrossFit classes encourage everyone to perform the same workout but tailored to their level of fitness. This creates a sense of camaraderie that is palpable in every CrossFit gym,” Carroll says, even if the participants aren’t all at the same level physically.

For those who want a competition outlet, such opportunities also exist with CrossFit.

“CrossFit has a reputation for being challenging, and we don’t deny it,” Carroll says. “What you get out of this program is directly linked to the effort you put into it. Hard work drives results.”

What Is Orangetheory?

Founded in 2010 by Ellen Latham, Orangetheory is an hour-long workout offered to groups in boutique gym settings across the country.

Kevin Keith, chief brand officer of Orangetheory Fitness in Boca Raton, Florida, says the company’s approach to fitness leverages “heart rate-based interval training, which burns more calories post-workout than a traditional exercise.”

When you’re working out with Orangetheory, you’ll wear one of their heart-rate monitors that display real-time results on large screens throughout the studio. “Intensity is based on your individual heart-rate zones, making the workout effective for all fitness levels,” Keith says. The sessions are led by fitness coaches who adjust the session to help users avoid over- or under-training.

Latham created Orangetheory with the intention of “designing a program for people of all fitness levels and capabilities,” Keith says. “No matter what your fitness level, our expertly trained coaches can provide options for you to tailor the workout to your needs.”

Variable Intensity

The driving principle behind Orangetheory Fitness is to offer variable intensity interval training with cardio training machines, including on the treadmills and rowing machines, and matching that with “functional strength training on the floor. It’s a well-balanced, challenging workout that can be scaled up or down to meet the member where they are,” Keith says.

Orangetheory Benefits

In fact, Keith says “our workouts are designed for everybody and every body, so our audience will naturally overlap with other fitness brands.” It can be a good standalone option or be worked in alongside other fitness and sports pursuits.

Orangetheory coaches hold National Commission for Certifying Agencies-accredited certifications and are able to offer hands-on feedback to members to adjust their form to ensure safety, he says.

The company also offers Orangetheory Live, which is an “all-new interactive experience that brings the workouts members love online, so they can get live coaching, live energy and live results while staying connected to their local studio’s community.”

The idea behind offering both in-person and digital workouts is to help members stay connected in the way that works best for them. “Orangetheory continues to evolve as a hybrid in-studio and digital fitness model in an effort to give our members options, embracing a ‘bricks-and-clicks’ model,” Keith says.

Workouts change day to day, so there’s plenty of variabilities and little chance for boredom. “We also work with our own medical advisory board to keep workouts safe and effective,” Keith says.

CrossFit or Orangetheory: Which Is Better?

“Both Orangetheory and CrossFit are great exercise options for people looking to build endurance and become stronger,” says Jessica Mazzucco, a New York City-area certified fitness trainer and founder of The Glute Recruit. “Whether one is better than the other comes down to the goals people have in mind for themselves and what they’re looking to get out of an exercise program.”

If, for example, you’re new to working out or looking to lose weight, Mazzucco says that Orangetheory might have the edge. Orangetheory “contains much more cardio with less weight lifting,” which can help you burn calories, but may require a little less technical know-how or specific skills. It may also feel a little more approachable to a newbie who’s never lifted weights before.

“For people who need more guidance when working out, Orangetheory ensures that they will know exactly what they should be doing every minute of the class,” she says.

If you’re a veteran gym rat or an athlete looking to improve in your sport, CrossFit might offer a better claim. “CrossFit is essentially supposed to help people become stronger, faster and more agile,” Mazzucco says.

Carroll adds that “our job is to get you fitter and healthier no matter where you’re starting out.” Every new member of CrossFit gets an orientation and skills training from a coach on-site to guide them through how to safely perform the movements included in workouts.

Determining your own fitness goals should be a key component to choosing the right exercise option for you. Mazzucco notes that “heavy weight lifting can cause some people to gain muscle and bulk up, so if your goal is to become leaner, CrossFit might not be right for you.” But if you’d like lots of variation in your workout program, then CrossFit will keep you engaged indefinitely with its constantly changing daily workouts.

Carroll emphasizes that CrossFit is adaptable to all fitness levels, from beginners to elite athletes, and that even if you’re new to sports, you shouldn’t be afraid of trying CrossFit. “In a CrossFit gym, you’ll find people of all shapes, sizes and capabilities,” Carroll says.

“We know different people are ready for different levels of challenge, so we modify workouts to match the level of the individual,” a practice called scaling. “CrossFit workouts are infinitely scalable,” Carroll says, meaning that “every workout can be adjusted so every person can do a version of that workout.”

The social aspect of these programs can also help you choose the right one for you, as you may find you click with the group at one program better than another. “Generally, CrossFit draws people who want to be empowered by their fitness program,” Carroll says. “This means showing up, being ready to put in some good, old-fashioned work and supporting those around you who have chosen to do the same.”

How to Decide on the Best Gym for You

In the end, the workout routine that you’ll stick with is the best one for you. “Exercise does not have to be intimidating,” Carrillo says. “Exercise is not a one-size-fits-all.” Start where you are and do what’s fun and feel good for your body.

“The only way to determine whether CrossFit or Orangetheory is better for you is to try them both,” Mazzucco says. She adds that some people do both and switch between them throughout the week to make a well-rounded fitness plan. “All in all, each workout has its own benefits and can help you become a better version of yourself.”

For her part, Carroll says, “I don’t see this as a competition. We’re facing a crisis of chronic disease, mental illness and (health risks associated with) obesity, all of which have been worsened by the pandemic. It’s vital for people to get back to the gym, build their fitness and improve their health regardless of which approach they take.”

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