Highway to Hell Week: Inside Orangetheory’s Iconic Workout
Orangetheory members flood studios during Hell Week, a series of hair-raising, spine-chilling, blood-curdling workouts that get their hearts pumping like never before. Why is this fitness challenge so popular? Take a look behind the scenes.
It could have been worse, much worse.
In 2013, when the team at Orangetheory was debating how to create a special Fall workout program, they were looking for inspiration. For a while it seemed like the Navy SEALS’ Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training seemed like a good place to start. Long recognized as one of the toughest physical and mental training regimens in the world, the program routinely washes out 75% of the elite warriors who sign up.
Thankfully, the Orangetheory team kept looking elsewhere.
“It was apparent we needed to dig deeper and create the ultimate challenging week that members would talk about throughout the year,” said John Driscoll, Director of International Fitness. “We spent hours searching the internet for ideas that represented a challenging and demanding week.”
Eventually, the focus turned to horror movies, particularly ones with “hell” in the title, and culminated in the concept of Hell Week — a name that sounded intentionally intimidating yet intriguing enough to keep members curious. In the years that have followed there have been other signature workouts added to the Orangetheory repertoire, such as DriTri and All Out Mayhem. But Hell Week was the first.
True to its moniker, the gauntlet of five workouts — with themes inspired by popular scary-movie classics like “Death Row,” the first-ever 23-minute rowing block, and “The Hills Run Red,” a series of rising inclines — was designed to be far more intense and exhausting than standard classes.
As menacing as that might sound, every workout, whether it incorporates the treadmill, rower or weight floor, was also constructed to be accessible by, and personalized for, both OTF veterans and newbies.
And fun. Although physically taxing, the classes were always meant to be fun, reminds Vincent Emanuele, Orangetheory’s Workout Design Specialist, and survival isn’t as daunting with the proper mental preparation.
“You take them at your own pace,” Emanuele said. “The difference (with Hell Week workouts) is that the design of them is a little bit more elaborate, but there’s nothing that says you have to go and work at a certain level you’re not comfortable with.”
From the very beginning, Hell Week has generated a buzz among members and quickly shattered previous attendance records. Worldwide, it’s remained one of the most popular and anticipated programs on the Orangetheory calendar; studios display Halloween decorations, waiting lists overflow with names and many locations operate at full capacity, from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., throughout all eight days.
Halloween has always been a special time at Orangetheory studios, even before that first Hell Week.
“We wanted to make it like the members were out trick-or-treating,” Driscoll said, recalling the pre-Hell Week era. “All members would reach into a pumpkin, pull either a ‘trick’ or ‘treat’ and perform whatever was on the paper. This was a favorite among the members, as it was different and exciting at the same time.”
During the debut of Hell Week, participants needed to attend a minimum of four classes in five days to complete the challenge and earn a T-shirt commemorating the accomplishment. In year three, 2016, the requirements were adjusted to five workouts during an eight-day span.
“It became so popular that members felt a bigger sensation to complete all eight days,” Driscoll said. “We kept it at eight days and will continue to do so. Eight days allows rest and recovery, and members are still able to achieve the five classes needed for the shirt.”
That annual giveaway has become a coveted collectors’ item, as many finishers have accrued all five versions released to date and proudly share photos on social media. The 2017 edition, depicting a skull with Orangetheory logos in place of eyes and orange beads of sweat streaming down its forehead, swelled in popularity. Based on overwhelmingly positive feedback, the design team reintroduced the premise in 2018.
After crafting the 2018 concept — the silhouette of a cranium comprised of inspirational messaging wrapped around spaces for the eyes and nose — Brian Monaco, Orangetheory’s graphic designer, paid close attention to the facial expression he wanted to present on the 2019 shirt.
“My goal was to create a skull that you can connect with,” he said. “He has a little smirk on his face, almost like, ‘I’m intimidating, but you’ve got this. Yes, this is kind of scary, but you can definitely do it.’”
Detail-oriented members may also notice a familiar graphic, prominent on studio decals and performance-summary emails, concealed in the design, Monaco teases.
“Our iconography set has a bunch of symbols in it, including the ‘burn’ symbol, which is a flame. That flame icon is actually the shape of the Hell Week logo for this coming year," he said.
“You’d be surprised at what people have done for that T-shirt,” Emanuele said with a chuckle. “People change their schedules around so they can get that T-shirt. People call out of work all the time … or get a babysitter for an hour so they can get to class.”
“It’s the Super Bowl for Orangetheory for a week in the studio,” he said. “Each year, we have to kick it up a notch and try to top it from year to year. We always unveil something new.”
For Hell Week 2019, the design team first met almost a year prior. "Watching our dreams evolve into reality has been an exciting experience. The result from that meeting was a handful of 'first-evers' in Hell Week history, including a full TV series concept, a first-ever ‘To Be Continued’ template and a couple of new designs." Said Caitlin Donato, Workout Design Manager.
While workout titles continue to play off recognizable horror motifs, coinciding with the increased propensity for TV binge-watching, the workouts in 2019 followed a narrative structure comprised of storylines unfolding over the length of Hell Week’s Season Six.
“The workouts are meant to build on each other, almost like you’re watching a series,” Emanuele said, right before Orangetheory kicked off Hell Week Season Six. “We’ll have some stuff that we’ve never done. We’re doing a ‘To Be Continued’ workout — a workout that starts on one day and picks up the next day … (The way) you’d binge on a show, we’re hoping you binge on Hell Week.”
Another new component in 2019 was “US,” a partner-workout spinoff in which every member, working in tandem, contributes to the overall score. After a 13.5-minute rowing block, each participant inputs his or her total distance into a global Challenge Tracker. At the end of the day, the system calculates each studio’s weighted average and displays its rank across the entire Orangetheory network — including each state and the entire country.
“Everyone is really excited, and the energy is through the roof,” Emanuele said. “You get a really good feel for the community vibe we have in the studio. We want you to experience it, work hard and have some fun.”