The Ultimate Guide to Getting Your CSCS Certification
Looking for information on how to get your CSCS certification?
So you can become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist?
Without wasting months of your life studying for the CSCS exam?
If so, you're in the right place.
LAST UPDATE: JUNE 4, 2018
It has been five years since I originally passed the CSCS exam and have gotten recertified twice.
About a year after successfully taking it, I wrote a detailed piece on how to nail the CSCS exam like a boss.
At 3000+ words, it quickly turned into the best damn CSCS exam prep article (even if I say so myself) on the entire Internet. I still receive reader emails thanking me for the tips that helped them get their CSCS certification to this day.
One of the biggest issues I remember - shared by many candidates I've talked to - is that info on how to prepare for the CSCS exam is damn hard to find online.
The NSCA, whether knowingly or not, provide very little information on the topic. This vague article apparently represents the best free advice they can offer to aspiring strength and conditioning coaches.
You'll hardly be able to get anything out of real value from such a short, superficial - yet official - resource.
It seems like the NSCA is more concerned about pushing their live exam preparation clinics than giving out good info to CSCS candidates on their website.
Which, if you think about it, isn't that surprising since they can crank out bigger profits with you attending a live, two- or three-day event for $300+ than someone taking the bare bones approach to exam prep by studying at home.
I'm sure there are people for whom a live exam prep clinic turned out very helpful. But none of the people I personally know who passed the exam on their first attempt (myself included) ever attended one.
Having said that, I'm writing this article so you can find everything you need to know about the CSCS certification in one place.
Prerequisites for CSCS Certification
The prerequisites for taking the CSCS exam are very straightforward. You must:
You should note that only degrees granted by accredited colleges and universities are accepted here.
But what if you never attended an American college or university?
Colleges and universities outside the US must be recognized by the Ministry of Education of the country in which the institution is located.
For reference, I got my degree at a European university. After graduation, I sent the NSCA my degree certificate and it was accepted without any further questions.
In any case, I would recommend international candidates check directly with the NSCA if they're uncertain about their degree's eligibility.
Once you've got both the formal education and CPR/AED parts covered?
Congrats, you can take the test.
Booking Your Test Date
Back when I took my CSCS exam in 2013, computer-based tests were only available to US candidates.
If you lived outside of the USA you had to take a paper-and-pen exam. Those were held a few times per year in places like the UK, Spain, Italy and Asia.
So I traveled over to London for a weekend to take the CSCS exam. That meant spending a few hundred bucks on flights and a couple nights at a hotel on top of the exam fees.
Plus, it took 6-8 weeks for the test results to arrive by mail. Those were some nail-biting weeks one had to endure, I tell ya.
Not so anymore.
You can find a test center in or near most major international capitals, take the test on a computer whenever you want, and get your results immediately after you're finished.
Study Materials Needed
Unfortunately, there's plenty of misconceptions online surrounding the study materials you should get for exam prep.
Take it from someone with no academic background in exercise science:
You only need two or three study resources to obtain the CSCS certification on your first attempt.
In order of importance, they are:
This is the textbook all questions in the CSCS exam will be based on.
Someone once asked me whether they could pass the test without reading the book since they had been a personal trainer for years and claimed to be well-versed in exercise science.
Not a chance.
Back in 2013 when I took my exam a resource like this didn't exist. So I had to go with the official (and frankly, overpriced) NSCA practice quizzes that cost about $100 more than this study guide.
I actually bought this book some time ago and can say that the mock exam questions are very similar to what you'll be asked in the real test.
Not only that, out of all the CSCS study guides listed on Amazon, this has the highest customer rating. Highly recommended.
I personally never used this book when studying for my exam. I had been training people for a few years before taking it and knew what good and bad lifting form looked like.
However, for someone not as experienced in identifying lifting mistakes, this resource will be useful.
In the Practical/Applied section of the test you'll be asked to spot lifting errors based on a video demonstration. This topic alone covers close to 40 questions.
If you don't know what to look for in someone's lifting form, that's easily 20-30+ points lost in the exam.
Points that could mean the difference between passing or failing. So these technique videos will definitely come in handy during your test prep.
Additional Materials Needed
This handbook explains all the practical details about getting your CSCS certification. Things like:
* How to register for the exam on NSCA's website
* What to do in case you get sick before the exam
* Which items are allowed and not allowed in the testing room
* Where to send your official academic transcript from college/university
Read through the candidate handbook a few times so that you're familiar with the what, how and when of the entire exam process.
I haven't set foot inside a classroom in years.
So I have no idea whether students these days even take notes anymore.
Maybe they just plug a cable into the back of your head now and all the information on PowerPoint slides - along with the rest of the course materials - is directly transferred into your brain?
In any case, you'll be going back in time when prepping for your CSCS. That means taking notes by hand, old school style.
I can't stress the importance of this enough.
Passively reading and trying to memorize important facts, figures and concepts from the CSCS textbook won't work nearly as well as grabbing a pen, then jotting down your own interpretations in your own voice/handwriting.
Yes, taking notes by hand is a shit-ton of work.
But I passed the CSCS exam on my first attempt.
So it was well worth it.
NSCA Membership - Yes or No?
A common question that pops up is whether you should purchase an NSCA membership before booking your CSCS exam.
The NSCA membership costs $120/year (or $65/year for students) and you receive a discount on CSCS exam fees, as you can see below.
Purchasing the regular membership along with the registration fee adds up to $460, whereas students pay $405.
With the non-member rate at $475, you're saving money taking the membership route.
With the membership, you also have access to an online library of educational content and a bunch of other stuff you can look up on the NSCA website.
Apart from a monthly/bimonthly subscription to NSCA's Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and Strength and Conditioning Journal, I don't see much value in what they've got on offer there.
Those research journals, however, are dynamite for beefing up your theoretical knowledge of all things strength and conditioning. I read A LOT of them going all the way back to the 1980's and 1990's after getting my CSCS certification.
Also keep in mind that you're not bound to the membership beyond the first year. I got mine with the student price before taking the CSCS exam, kept it for a year and never bothered to renew it since.
Summing it up, it makes sense to buy the membership thanks to the financial discounts and access to the two research journals you get.
The CSCS exam is broken down into two parts:
1. Scientific Foundations
Scientific Foundations covers exercise sciences (anatomy, exercise physiology, biomechanics, etc.) and nutrition.
Personally, I had to cram for the exercise science part much harder than for the rest of the test since I don't have an exercise related degree. If you do, then you're a quick brush-up away from nailing this section.
Interestingly though, I found the nutrition part super easy.
The Practical/Applied section consists of exercise technique, program design, organization and administration, plus testing and evaluation.
As already mentioned, a big part of this section consists of videos/images where you're asked to evaluate someone's lifting form.
You'll also be facing a ton of questions about:
* Plyometric training
* Sprint technique
* Training program design
* Facility layout and administration (don't overlook this topic)
* Normative data on various performance tests
A Word on Non-Scored Questions
Both sections include 15 non-scored questions scattered throughout the exam. These are questions the NSCA wants to pretest or evaluate for future use.
You won't know which questions are scored or non-scored, so be sure to answer each of the 95 questions in the Scientific Foundations and 125 in the Practical/Applied section even though only 80/110 will be counted toward your final results.
Exam Success Rate
To obtain the CSCS certification you're required to pass BOTH the Scientific Foundations and Practical/Applied part.
According to the NSCA, the pass rate for the exam was a paltry 55% in 2016. That means you have almost a 50% chance of not passing it on your first attempt.
I don't like those odds. Here's how you can increase them in your favor...
Hard Questions? My Proven Template to Finding the Right Answers
Since I'm in a giving mood, I'll walk you step-by-step through a few mock questions I pulled from the CSCS Study Guide.
You'll be able to see my thought process behind how I discover the right answer to five Q's.
QUESTION #1: Which of the listed training volumes will affect muscular hypertrophy the most?
A) 5 sets of 10 reps
B) 5 sets of 5 reps
C) 3 sets of 8 reps
D) 1 set of 15 reps
COMMENT: This is the kind of question where you just gotta know your stuff and have it memorized by the time you take the test.
KEY POINT: Increasing muscle size
ANSWER: In general, higher training volumes lead to greater gains in muscle size.
The CSCS certification textbook recommends 3-6 sets per exercise, 6-12 reps per set for muscular hypertrophy.
Out of the provided possibilities, only option A (5x10) falls between those numbers. You'll also notice it has the highest volume (50 total reps) by a wide margin.
QUESTION #2: If a 100-meter sprinter has a problem with pulling her hamstring frequently, what would be a prescription to her in an off-season program to eliminate this issue?
A) Increase conditioning work
B) Increase training frequency
C) Focus on developing weaknesses
D) Improve strength ratios at the affected joints
COMMENT: A different type of question in that you won't find the correct answer in a book. You'll arrive there by using common sense and the power of deduction.
KEY POINT: Preventing frequent hamstring injuries
ANSWER: This sprinter has a known history of hamstring pulls. Increasing work load (options A and B), will only make the issue worse.
That leaves us with C and D.
C could be correct but it's too vague. Developing which weaknesses? If we're talking about strengthening her weak hamstrings (the most likely culprit behind her injuries), then I agree. But it doesn't say so.
Which brings us to D. She needs to improve her posterior chain strength by adding more Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, Valslide leg curls, back extensions, hip thrusts and other similar movements into her off-season program.
QUESTION #3: A track and field coach is designing a training program for one of his broad jumpers. In what order should the selected exercises be performed in this program?
I. Power clean
II. Hamstring curl
III. Reverse hyper extension
A) IV, I, III, II
B) I, IV, III, II
C) IV, III, I, II
D) I, III, IV, II
COMMENT: Again, you'll need to proceed logically to discover the right answer. Here it comes down to knowing how to construct an effective strength training session via proper exercise selection and order.
KEY POINT: Exercise order to maximize training session results
ANSWER: Most of the time, you'll want to do your explosive/neurally most demanding movements like Oly lifts or jumps first in a workout because that's when your nervous system is at its freshest.
That means we can dismiss A and C (deadlifts first), leaving us with either B or D (power cleans first).
Next, you'll perform your big strength lifts - squat, bench, deadlift, etc. - before moving on to lighter "assistance work". So the correct order would be:
B) Power clean, deadlift, reverse hyper, hamstring curl
QUESTION #4: Which situation requires multiple spotters to assist an athlete should they miss a lift?
A) An athlete performing 225 lbs. maximum repetitions test
B) An athlete performing barbell step-ups
C) An athlete overhead pressing 185 lbs.
D) An athlete squatting 450 lbs. in a work-set
COMMENT: If you have any personal powerlifting/heavy barbell strength training experience, this will be easy.
KEY POINT: *Multiple* spotters for safe lifting
ANSWER: You don't spot step-ups or overhead presses (although the NSCA may tell you otherwise). So B and C go out the window.
You'll want a spotter when benching 225 for max reps. But multiple spotters? No. One is enough.
So we're left with the athlete squatting 450 pounds. One good spotter could get the job done but to be safe, you'll want to have three spotters (one behind, two to the sides).
QUESTION #5: If a training program called for three upper body training sessions that emphasized upper body pressing exercises, how would the strength and conditioning coach best create muscle balance in these training sessions?
A) Include horizontal and vertical pulling exercises in all three training sessions
B) Include three lower body training sessions
C) Perform rotator cuff assistance exercises at the end of each session
D) Include overhead pressing and vertical pulling in one of the training sessions
COMMENT: Another practical question.
Important is to know which major muscle groups are worked when doing pressing movements (i.e. bench press, overhead press, push-up) and which exercises/movement patterns to use to achieve structural balance in the upper body.
KEY POINT: Best way to balance out high upper body pressing frequency/volume
ANSWER: Upper body pressing involves the chest, shoulders and triceps to a high degree.
To achieve muscular balance, you need to train opposite muscle groups. That means the upper back in this case.
Knowing this, let's look at the options presented...
B is all about training the lower body. Not what we're after.
D involves even more pressing. You don't balance out a movement pattern by doing more of it. Certainly incorrect.
C might be a solution. But is light rotator cuff work alone really enough to counteract lots of pressing? Don't think so.
Pulling - especially done horizontally with rows - is the best way to build the upper back and achieve structural balance in your upper body. So A is correct.
As you can see from these five examples, arriving at the right answer requires a combination of memorizing facts while also being able to apply basic training concepts in practice.
Whenever you're faced with a question you don't know the answer to right then and there (which will include a big chunk of questions in the real exam), follow the steps I've walked you through in the above examples:
1. Figure out key point(s) in question
2. Eliminate obviously incorrect options
3. Choose best option left
I followed this exact template to unlock most Q's that seemed terribly difficult at first glance on exam day with great success. I highly recommend it to you as well.
Note: No matter how well you study for the test, at times you'll be left with 2-3 viable options after eliminating those that are obviously incorrect.
In such cases, you'll have no other choice but to guess which one is correct based on intuition.
To maintain your CSCS credentials, you have to recertify every three years.
$50 for NSCA members. $75 for non-members.
To me this sounds like a quick 'n easy money grab by the NSCA.
No, it's not a ton of money. And won't break anyone's bank.
It's just that maintaining your CSCS certification seems like a hassle every time you need to go through the renewal process. At three-year intervals, it's a little too often for my liking.
In addition to paying the recertification fee, you need to collect a certain amount of CEUs (continuing education units) through various activities that showcase you're staying up to date as a strength coach.
You can obtain CEUs by attending seminars or conferences, doing internships, publishing books or research papers, completing a pre-approved home study course, taking quizzes (that cost extra money), and a myriad of other ways.
All of these have to be NSCA-approved which severely limits your CEU activities.
For example, I interned with two NHL strength coaches before running my "own show" as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for a junior and pro hockey club.
But since those internships didn't fit the NSCA qualifications, I didn't receive any CEUs for them.
I've learned more about sports performance training from my internships, these resources (most of which don't offer any CEUs) and just coaching real athletes in the gym and on the field than from most of the live events I've attended.
How does successfully training hundreds of athletes for years not count toward continued education?
Why is passive learning and gaining theoretical knowledge valued so much higher than a strength coach actively using his knowledge and skills day in and day out, making athletes stronger, faster and less prone to injury?
This is a huge flaw in the CSCS recertification process. One that I obviously don't agree with.
I've done the recertification twice now and don't know if I'll go for it a third time. My thoughts are still scattered all over the place about this. We'll see.
Frequently Asked Questions
I've received hundreds of questions about the CSCS certification via email, on the blog and in person over the years.
Let's wrap this thing up with some of the most frequent ones...
QUESTION: I graduated from XYZ College/University. Does it fulfill the bachelor's degree prerequisite of CSCS?
Was your degree granted by an accredited college or university?
If so, then it most likely fulfills the prerequisite.
I got my bachelor's degree outside of the US and experienced no hiccups in the CSCS certification process.
If you're unsure, you'll want to check that with the NSCA directly. Send them a message and they'll let you know.
QUESTION: I have the 3rd edition of Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Is the book still valid or should I buy the 4th edition?
You probably could pass with the 3rd edition. However, exam questions will be based on the 4th edition, so why would you want to make things harder for yourself? Especially knowing how almost 50% of candidates fail the CSCS on their first attempt?
I no longer recommend the 3rd edition. Go with the 4th edition which is available here for a very affordable price (cheaper than what I paid for the 3rd edition back in the day).
QUESTION: Is the CSCS certification the best athletic performance training cert for non-US coaches?
Depends on where you're located. From what I hear, they prefer local strength coach certifications in the UK and Australia. So if you want to train athletes in those countries, have a look at what's on offer there.
Anywhere else, I would still get the CSCS to show you're qualified on paper. Just know that it won't carry as much impact as it does in North America.
QUESTION: Do you recommend the official practice exams available on the NSCA website?
Including 204 CSCS practice questions, costing around $140 for members and $180 for non-members, I don't think that's a very good deal.
Back when I was studying for the CSCS exam, the official NSCA quizzes were pretty much the only resource carrying a large number of practice questions and that's why I bought them.
As I've been saying for years, this study guide is a better choice. It contains a similar amount of questions and it's almost $100 cheaper.
QUESTION: What are your thoughts on some of the apps out there? Would you recommend them as a study aid?
I have zero personal experience with apps like that. So I can't recommend them.
Stick with the textbook, practice exams, and all the other tips and resources I've listed above and in 9 Tips for Nailing the CSCS Exam Like a Boss. Those are all you need to pass the test.
QUESTION: I want to take the exam soon. Which books should I read?
Got any further questions or comments about the CSCS certification?
Let me know in the comments below.
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