Hate the gym? Love the gym? It hardly matters: as 2016 begins, there’s so much misinformation floating around in the guise of common sense that there’s every chance you’re wasting your time there either way. That’s why Coach’s sister brand Men’s Fitness assembled a team of experts to bring you the truths you need to know to assess any new regime, however plausible or ridiculous. Give a man a fitness plan, the saying could probably go, and he’ll work out for a week – or 12, tops. Give a man the knowledge to understand which fitness plans work, though, and you give him the means to stay fit and healthy for life.

1. Harder Isn’t Always Better

Nobody can go hard all the time, whatever that guy in the office who just started CrossFit says. Intense activity raises your levels of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol, with the effect of shutting down some of the body’s major functions, including digestion. That’s fine if you’re running from a tiger, but less so if you’re in the gym trying to lose fat. “Stick to activities that provide a little discomfort rather than distress,” says trainer Rannoch Donald. “Drills create skills, so we focus on exercise that challenges us just enough to keep us coming back. A few good reps are more beneficial than struggling to finish a set, and making movement fun is key.”

Enter Donald’s 100 Rep Challenge Golden Goose plan. “We use this to create a quick session on the fly, pretty much anywhere,” Donald explains. “Our toolbox contains basic movements, and we simply pick one from each section. You can do them in one session or break it up over the day. As you become skilled at each drill you can start to experiment and explore… and you become your own bodyweight movement expert. Only those who learn to do simple movements with ease can learn to perform complex movement effortlessly.”

The 100 Rep Challenge Golden Goose plan

  • 20 reps of either a press-up, Spider-Man press-up, diamond press-up, incline press-up or decline press-up.
  • 5 reps of either a reverse row, narrow-grip pull-up, wide-grip pull-up or mixed-grip pull-up.
  • 30 reps of either a squat, wall squat, prisoner squat, pistol squat or jump squat.
  • 25 reps of either a plank (1 minute), flutter kick, V-up, crunch or leg raise.
  • 20 reps of either a star jump, ski hop, mountain climber, jump lunge or burpee.

2. Fat Loss Is About Inefficiency

Or technically, it’s about inefficient exercise. “Any sort of exercise works for fat loss,” says strength coach Dan John. “But as you get better, you become more efficient. This is the problem with jogging: when you start, doing a mile works fine, but as you improve you need more mileage to get more benefit. Inefficient exercise is different for everyone – I’ll waste energy dancing, say, but a skilled dancer won’t get anywhere near the fact loss hit”

The takeaway? Try new sports, or rotate your cardio from rower to bike to treadmill. Alternatively, add another element to your workout: according to studies of muscle response to stimulation, using two kettlebells rather than one increases muscle activation – and fat burn – by 40%.

3. The Best Abs Are Functional Abs

Anyone can get a six-pack if their body fat gets low enough. The trick is getting a set of abs that do the job they’re supposed to. “A strong core reduces your risk of injury, improves posture and allows your body to perform better,” explains Sutcliffe. “But it takes more than sit-ups to get one. Instead of just lying on the floor, you need to train your abs in every plane of motion in which they can be engaged – this hits the deeper layers of muscle of the transverse abdominis, and creates balance by training your obliques and lower back.” Translation: sit-ups are dead.

4. Strength Is the Glass

Whatever your goals, strength is key to a better quality of life. Or to put it another way: think strength, not cardio – at least for now. “Absolute strength is the glass,” says John. “Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. What does that mean? The stronger you are, the more of the other stuff you can do.”

Muscle withers when it’s neglected, and the process only speeds up as you age. Getting weaker means gaining fat, a higher risk of age-related disease, worse balance and a decreasing ability to carry sofas/romantic partners/children/crates of beer.

John’s two biomarkers of adequate strength? Ten pull-ups, and three deadlifts with 1.5 times your own bodyweight on the bar. 

5. You Don’t Need an Hour a Day in the Gym

Good news for the time-strapped: doing one hour of exercise every two days and then lying on the couch isn’t as productive as introducing small amounts of activity throughout your day. “Think of it as vitamin EDA: Every Day Activity,” says Donald. “It’s your daily movement, done regularly, that provides a foundation of fitness. We live in a culture of convenience so we have to seek out movement opportunities each day – taking the stairs, getting off a stop further from your office.”

Donald suggests what he calls “basket walks”. “Next time you are at the supermarket use one or two baskets rather than a trolley. You’ll be less likely to load up on non-essentials and you’ll work your core and grip in the process. It’s these little EDAs that make all the difference.”

Finally, for a quick workout you can do before you even get dressed, try the “Let Me In”. Wrap a towel around a door handle, sink back into a squat, then use your arms to pull yourself towards the door.

6. Willpower Is Overrated

It’s not about wanting it more, it’s just about getting it done. Willpower, according to research from Florida State University, is a finite resource: use it to stay off Twitter while you do your taxes, and you’ve got less to spare when it’s time to resist the biscuit tin. Ignore the motivational Instagram posts, and set yourself up for success with healthy, time-efficient habits instead.

Cook in bulk “When you cook, use all four burners,” suggests fat loss expert Josh Hillis. “Two for meat, and two for rice and vegetables. Aim for three meals with one type of protein and carbohydrate, and three with another. Package enough for two or three days into Tupperware and freeze the rest – that way you set yourself up to win.”

Use If-Then planning Plan ahead with statements like, “If everyone orders dessert, then I will have a coffee”. A recent review of 94 studies found that this technique aids success in everything from drinking less to recycling more and negotiating better. Find yourself skipping the gym? Your new mantra: “If I miss a day, I’ll do 100 press-ups at home.” Stick to it.

Say don’t, not can’t “If you claim you can’t do something, it sounds like you’re being victimised by your plan,” says Hillis. “Don’t is stronger, and doesn’t require justification – it’s a declaration about what you stand for.”

7. You’re Supposed to Enjoy It

The first time you ever hit the gym will be the worst. Three weeks after that, it’ll be all fist-bumping the regulars and feeling that sweet endorphin rush. The most important truth about training is a pretty simple one: most people don’t like things they’re bad at, but by setting simple goals and aiming to improve, you’ll soon reach the point where you miss training more than you dread it. Here’s how to get it done.

Ignore everyone else Don’t worry about what everyone else in the gym is doing. You don’t know their training history or goals, so there’s no point in competing with or feeling intimidated by them. Having the discipline to stick with the weights and exercises you’ve chosen will see you a long way towards your goals.

Embrace the process Stop reading the FT (or Grazia) between sets or while you pedal your bike. The rest between sets is your time to catch your breath, mentally run through form and psych yourself up. Besides, if you’re reading tweets while in the saddle, you should probably be going faster. Training should be a release from daily distractions. When you’re really focused it’s almost like meditation.

Just show up If there’s ever a day you can’t face the gym, just go there and do something – have a sauna, have a shower, do two minutes on the rower, whatever. Not only will this get you used to the process of going to the gym, but when you’re there, chances are you’ll do more than you planned. A nice corollary to this is that many solid training plans only require you to do two or three moves a session, not the dozens most people attempt. Go to the gym, warm up, do some squats, and leave.