If I were asked what a new person should do to focus on fitness goals, that is, what is the best thing, or what are the best things that person could do, it would be this:

These are a hierarchy, with fitness mentor first, training certification second, and content absorption third. The logic is a quality fitness mentor will be the best investment of your time, a training certification is the next best thing, and absorbing quality content is the closest thing to getting a certification without actually getting a certification.

Get a fitness mentor

A quality fitness mentor will be worth all the time you put into working with him or her. This person should be able to teach you the basics of nutrition, workout planning, exercise form, and life management as it pertains to fitness.

This is not your cousin Kelly who has worked out for a few years or your brother Bob who hits the gym. This person should have at a minimum achieved significant personal fitness success and be able to relay to you how he or she has done that. If that person cannot explain things to you, find someone else. Part of the process needs to be explanatory for you to learn and someone who cannot explain does not know or does not understand how to convey; either is bad for your progress.

This person ideally has helped other people get fit, has an education in fitness, whether formal or informal, and their personal fitness progress includes achievements such as reaching single digit body fat, squatting and deadlifting more than two times body weight, running a seven-minute mile, improving full body mobility, adding 20 pounds of muscle to their body, and being able to run for an hour or longer at a time. This person also has experience in many areas of fitness. A fitness mentor should not just be someone who lifts weights, someone who just runs, someone who just does yoga, etc. The person should be versed and capable in different training styles, since true fitness requires a person to be able to express physical ability as strength, power, cardio ability, muscular endurance, conditioning, mobility, and skill.

I said this person should be able to teach you the basics of nutrition, workout planning, exercise form, and life management as it pertains to fitness. Let us go over what each of those is.

Basics of nutrition—The basics of nutrition include what macronutrients are, what micronutrients are, why calories are important, why macros and micros are important, what food timing is, and why food is a base for health, performance, and recovery.

Workout planningworkout planning includes goal setting, exercise selection, overall program layout, daily specifics such as sets/reps/exercise, why cardio is important to fitness, why resistance training is important to fitness, how to progress, and how to manage intensity.

Exercise form—your workout mentor should be able to explain fitness form, perform the exercises in that form, and assess your fitness form using criteria of the explained and exampled form. The mentor should also be able to help you learn to assess your form.

Life management—one of the biggest barriers for fitness success is life. People have things come up and fitness is often one of the first things pushed to the side. Your fitness mentor should be able to help you understand managing fitness in your life by explaining concepts for how to do so, but also through exampling how he or she has done it in her own life.

This mentorship should be something both of you are vested in and committed to for at least six months of regular interaction, but ideally with some level of interaction for one year or longer. I know that sounds like a commitment, but so is lifelong fitness, so be willing to put in the work.

Complete a training certification

When I suggest completing a training certification, you might think “but I do not want to be a trainer.” Good, a training certification does not make someone capable of being a trainer; that takes years of experience and education beyond a training certification. A training certification provides knowledge that should cover basics of fitness, including nutrition, workout planning, and exercise form.

The training certification you complete does not matter as long as it is comprehensive. There are all sorts of online certification programs a person can take at their own pace that will help you become more informed about fitness and ultimately more prepared to work on your fitness. There are also many scams, short cut certifications, and other illegitimate certification paths that offer no real value beyond a piece of paper and an ego boost that do not help you reach your goals or prepare a person to train others.

For example, online today are some certifications that require you to take a short test, and once you pass, you pay for the cost to create the certificate. Now you are personal trainer, but really you are not and you are no more informed than before you took the test. These tests are notoriously easy, and even if you fail it, the questions or got wrong are shown to you with the correct answers, and you can take the test again immediately with the same questions asked. This has no value.

The length of time it takes to pass a training certification depends on the details of the program. That said, International Sports Sciences Association and American Council on Exercise offer guide options for their personal trainer certifications. The duration is 10 weeks and 16 weeks respectively, with 10 or more hours of time expected per week. This equals 100-160 hours of work time to improve your education about fitness related topics such as nutrition and workout planning. Again, I know that sounds like a commitment, but so is lifelong fitness, so be willing to put in the work.

These programs cost between $500-1000, which may be expensive for some people, but in the long run the cost is a good investment. If you learn the skills necessary to make impactful changes to your nutrition and workout planning that help you reach and then maintain your goals, is that not worth $500-1000? If you eat out, go to Starbucks, etc. even 1-2 times per week, skip that, buy this, and the cost will be about the same over the course of one year. But instead of eating fast food that is likely keeping you from reaching your goals, you consumed knowledge that will help you reach your goals and skipped foods that probably prevent you from reaching them. That is a win in both ways.

Absorb quality content

If you are not willing to commit to working with a fitness mentor or completing a training certification, ask yourself if you are really serious about reaching your goals. If you can honestly say you really are and the first two just cannot work for you for a legitimate reason, then this last approach is for you.

I paid a lot of money to get degrees and certifications. The education and experience earned from these education paths cannot be gained from free resources. That said, there are free resources from which you can learn more about health and fitness.

I am a continuous learner, and not all learning has to come from traditional means. Experience is part of it, which is where the fitness mentor comes in, and traditional is where a certifications or degree comes in. Supplements to these come in the form of free or low-cost books, videos, and a variety of digital resources, such as online courses.

In recent years, I worked through the CrossFit Level 1 and 2 certification books. I did not pay to take the weekend certification or for the books. Free digital copies are available online. By reading these digital textbooks, I learned more about CrossFit history, ideology, and methodology.

The level 1 and 2 books provide insight into CrossFit programming, commonly used exercises, and ideas for nutrition. For example, on page 71 of the Level 1 Training Guide, the section “A THEORETICAL TEMPLATE FOR CROSSFIT’S PROGRAMMING” covers an example layout for CrossFit programming that provides example 12-day and 21-day training phases that include the different modalities employed by CrossFit. The section goes on to layout example classes and other details such as workout structure. This effectively gives you an idea of how to program a Crossfit session just like a CrossFit trainer. Since workout programming is one of the key elements I mentioned in fitness mentorship and certification, this is exactly what you need. And you get it for free, except for some time spent reading, thinking, and writing.

On page 53 of the same booklet, the section NUTRITION: AVOIDING DISEASE AND OPTIMIZING PERFORMANCE begins to cover nutrition topics, eventually leading into using Zone blocks for nutrition planning and how to implement this approach. On page 170, the section NINE FOUNDATIONAL MOVEMENTS SUMMARY covers the basic movements that are part of CrossFit programming, with images showing how to perform each.

What this means is by accessing this free resource here http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/CFJ_English_Level1_TrainingGuide.pdf, you can learn about exercise programming, nutrition planning, and exercise from. All you have to do is read through the 255-page PDF, then actively think and apply the information contained therein. You can apply this same approach by finding free books or buying digital books online. With a little time and effort, you can find the resources to become informed about principles you need to understand to be successful long term.

The beginners guide to reaching fitness goals

At this point you might say this is not a guide to reaching fitness goals. You might have expected a step-by-step guide that tells you to do an exercise, or eat a food, or other definitive fitness tasks. I did not give you that; I gave you something better, that if you apply, will lead to better understanding and ultimately better long term progress than if I told you to eat a specific food or complete a specific exercise. If you want that, then work with me as your fitness mentor by signing up for training here and I will take you through a training program that moves you toward your goals, and helps you understand the how’s and whys of nutrition and workout planning, as well as what good form is.

Otherwise, these are the best steps to guide you on your journey as a beginner in fitness and to ultimately help you reach your goals. Each of these steps builds your knowledge. Notice how I said steps there. In the beginning I said this is a hierarchy, with fitness mentor first, training certification second, and content absorption third. I stand by that, but you can take it further and complete all steps on your path to reaching fitness goals. See there it is, this is the guide I promised. You have three actionable steps, that if completed, will take you from a beginner to someone one who is experienced in workout programming, nutrition planning, proper form, and life management, who can in turn become a mentor to someone else, further passing this process down the line.

Now get to work.

Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, Utah State University, and the ISSA College of Exercise Science. Nathan has 20 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA