9 Tips For Nailing the CSCS Exam Like a Boss
I took the CSCS exam (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) in London back in 2013 and wanted to write down my thoughts on passing it.
Since I couldn't find a proper study guide for it anywhere on the interwebz and recently had a few people ask me how I prepared for my CSCS, I decided to come up with a few pointers so you'll go in ready for war like FDR and rock the test on your first try.
LAST UPDATE: MAY 28, 2019
This guide will be to your exam success what his mojo is to Austin Powers' ability to be the international shag-master that he is.
What CSCS Exam?
The CSCS certification, provided by the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), is generally regarded as the "gold standard" of training certificates.
Simply put, if you ever want to train athletes or athletic populations for the primary goal of improving athletic performance (say, as a college or pro level strength coach) in North America, this is the one cert you need to get.
Absolutely not. However, having passed it lets prospective employees and organizations know you've actually taken the time to study your field and have at least a rudimentary base of strength and conditioning principles down.
The CSCS exam itself consists only of a theoretical component, so no actual coaching skills are assessed on test day. This means that you could know nothing about teaching a beginner how to perform a barbell squat yet still pass with flying colors - a glaring flaw, yes, but that's not the topic of discussion here today.
Now there's an off chance that the examiner is gay and finds you inexplicably hot, letting you pass without taking the test. In that case, I salute you and wish you all the best with your glamorous career change into male modeling.
You're a better man than I am.
But that better not be the horse you bank on riding on exam day.
Here are 9 tips to help you ace the CSCS test the first time around...
Tip #1 - Get the "Professional" Membership Option
The Professional membership runs for $120/year and entitles to discounts at the NSCA store on various items - most notably, the CSCS exam fee and study materials. You'll actually save more than the $120 you paid for the membership fee on the exam fee and study materials, so it definitely makes sense to go that route.
Plus, you get access to two monthly research journals - The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and Strength and Conditioning Journal - and their back logs dating over several decades, which are a great resource not only for passing the test (you don't need them to pass the test, just follow the instructions in this guide and you'll be fine) but also to deepen your understanding of improving athletic performance via peer-reviewed research papers.
For example, if you've ever wondered how many sets you should perform for optimal strength gains or how much body fat elite athletes from various sports carry, you can find the answers to those and many other questions in these research journals.
Although you'll pass the CSCS exam just fine by studying the book and completing the sample exams, those research journals are great for additional learning (if you wish to apply more than the minimal effort required, you lazy bum).
The "Student" membership option is a good, less expensive choice if you're planning on taking the exam as a college senior, since you get the discounted price for the exam fee and study materials (including subscriptions to the research journals mentioned above), but at $65/year it's almost at half the price of the regular membership.
Tip #2 - Devote 3 Months to Studying the Textbook
UPDATE NOVEMBER 5, 2018
I'm often asked whether you should buy the 3rd or 4th edition of Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (the study book that the CSCS exam is based on).
Want the straight answer?
Get the 4th edition.
So what's the difference between the 3rd and 4th edition?
- Added two new chapters (so there are now 24 chapters in total)
- Revised some of the written content
- Improved images
- Made tables and charts easier to grasp
- And included a web resource featuring exercise demonstration videos (pointing out flaws in someone's exercise technique while looking at training videos is a big part of the exam).
The content in the 3rd edition is over 10 years old.
Plus, I've been told by a representative of the NSCA that more and more test-takers are failing due to studying outdated material.
So, it makes no sense to go with the 3rd edition - especially considering that you can grab the 4th edition at a steep discount here.
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE #1:
Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning - 4th Edition
My advice would be to read one chapter a day with undivided focus, and strive to do that each day.
Why do I recommend 90 days of study time when it takes a quarter of that to read the book?
There will always be days when you don't have the desire to study or something else comes up in life.
So these built-in "off days" take care of that instead of getting overwhelmed with the amount of new knowledge needed to gather in a short time span, and having to try and catch up when days suddenly start running out as the exam date nears.
If you find yourself in a pinch, you could shorten the study period to two months. In that case, you should shoot for reading one chapter in the morning and one in the evening.
I don't recommend any less than two months although I'm sure people exist who could breeze through the exam with minimal preparation. Most of us are not those people. So take the time to study. (See also #3)
On the other hand, I don't want you to think that you need to study any longer than that just for studying's sake. Think of the exam prep like a 2 a.m. booty call - get in, get the job done, get out.
Unless you're a complete newb to strength training for athletes (meaning that you've never studied anatomy, haven't read your Zatsiorsky and think that "clean & jerk" refers to your spouse and dirty socks left lying on the floor), you should have no trouble passing within the time frame I've provided as long as you study smart and follow the tips provided in this article.
Tip #3 - Read the CSCS Textbook at Least Twice
The first time you plow through the book your focus shouldn't be on memorizing every little detail but to get a basic understanding of the topics covered.
You'll notice which topics require a thorough understanding and which are more of the "good to know but not crucial" variety.
(Hint: program design is covered in great detail whereas the chapter on the psychology of athletic preparation and performance is rather short - guess which section was heavily represented in the real exam?)
The second time you read the book is when you want to unleash your inner John Nash and go full throttle on that beauty.
By now you should be able to understand elementary concepts, such as nutrition or testing protocols for athletic performance - you may not remember exactly how the hexagon test should be administered, but you should know that it involves jumping and measures agility.
The practice tests that you'll be taking later ensure that further specifics will get covered even if you haven't got all the details down just yet. (See tips #4 and #5)
Use a highlighter for the second go-round to mark important points that you can quickly find if you need to review a certain topic.
You can find a few practice questions at the end of each chapter on the specific topic just covered. Answer these but resist the urge to check how many you got right. (More on this in tip #5)
Tip #4 - Buy the Practice Exams and Do a Dry Run
No matter how many tests you've taken at school, in college or even if you've done a basic personal training cert - the type, scope, and difficulty of the CSCS exam is very different from others and can't be prepared for by any other means than going through the mock tests.
At the time I took the test last year, there were only three practice exams in the NSCA Shop.
I don't know if this has changed, however I recommend getting them all since these are the only materials along with the textbook that I consider essential for passing the test. Which is another reason why you should become a member and enjoy the discounted price on them. (Like I told you in tip #1)
UPDATE NOVEMBER 5, 2018
The NSCA no longer sell the three practice exams I used back in 2013.
As of this writing (November 2018), they now have several "domain topic practice questions" available for purchase at their online store. These are titled:
* Exercise Science
* Exercise Technique
* Program Design
* Testing & Evaluation
* Organization & Administration
You can also buy Scientific Foundations and Practical/Applied question bundles that contain all of the domains listed above.
To be honest, the pricing is quite ludicrous for them. Almost $200 if you buy both of the bundles.
The CSCS Study Guide below is a cheaper and equally useful alternative - at a fraction of the price that the official NSCA practice exams cost.
Check out the study guide on Amazon by clicking the orange button below.
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE #2:
CSCS Study Guide
The CSCS is a multiple-choice test, so you won't be asked to write elaborate essays on the Krebs cycle (nice!).
Now, don't get too cocky if you pass the mock tests. The real exam will be a lot harder.
Based on my own experience, I'd say you'll be in a good position to pass the real exam when you can pass all practice exams with a score of at least 90%. It took me three tries to get there but it got me used to the format of the test and forced me to become efficient with managing my time spent on each specific question.
Time flies during the actual exam, so it also makes sense to keep an eye on how long it takes you to answer each question on average during this trial run.
Having to go through the last 50 questions with only 15 minutes on the clock on exam day will all but guarantee you won't be walking away from the room like this fella...
Tip #5 - Don't Look Up the Correct Answer(s)
When you're finished with a practice exam, it's time to tally up the score and see how you fared. The natural tendency then would be to look for the right answers to the questions you failed that can be found listed on the back of the practice exams.
I'm telling you now...
Don't do this.
Instead, you'll go back to the textbook and read through the corresponding chapter until you find the exact answer.
Why am I advocating this method?
Because this is active learning, which forces you to find an answer to a dilemma on your own.
(Which is another reason why highlighting important passages comes in handy, as I pointed out in tip #3 - you'll locate what you're looking for a lot faster when crucial parts of the text stand out)
The benefits of this method are two-fold:
1. A sense of accountability. So now the onus is on YOU to find the answer instead of it being passively spoon-fed to you.
2. When you discover the answer on your own, you'll remember it longer.
And if you're anything like me, you'll be able to draw an image of the exact spot you found it with all the related content on that same page in your mind's eye and keep it there (sort of like a photographic memory, albeit on a much more elementary level).
Then, whenever a similar question about the same topic comes up, you'll be able to immediately access that "stored" image in your mind, making answering questions on that topic relatively easier.
Passing the CSCS exam is not merely about memorizing the entire textbook but you should also have a decent grasp of how different concepts relate to each other.
In other words, if you don't know why longer rest periods between sets are required for strength and power exercises than endurance work, or how come a 1RM squat test provides more pertinent information about a football player's general strength levels than the 3-cone drill, you'll be left scratching your head when the exam asks you to place the front squat, 1.5-mile run, power clean, T-test and the sit-and-reach test in the most appropriate testing order.
Tip #6 - Don't Overthink
The questions can get tricky but you'll do well if you keep the following guideline in mind...
Answer how the NSCA would want you to answer, not what you think the appropriate way to do things is.
For instance, the NSCA textbook gives instructions on how to spot a push press. Well, to me overhead lifts are not exercises where you spot someone. If you fail the lift, just drop the bar or catch it on the chest.
Another example that I disagreed with when studying the textbook was that they showcased people barbell squatting high (top of the thighs were clearly above parallel to the floor).
Had they then posed a question that asked "what's wrong in this exercise setting?", I would have disregarded my first instinct of pointing out the lacking squat depth since I knew this was "good form" according to the NSCA, and would have looked for other errors instead - such as knees caving in or excessive neck extension during the movement.
Questions like that will come up in the Practical/Applied section, especially when they show you exercise videos and you need to decide what's wrong with someone's exercise form, which means you'd better recognize what the NSCA views as proper exercise technique.
You may have a certain way of doing things when coaching people or in your own training, or have read a new study on post-workout nutrition that disagrees with what the NSCA textbook says. However, in an exam situation it doesn't matter what I, you or anyone else thinks of any of the topics covered in the book. So keep that in mind.
Tip #7 - Success by Elimination
Many of the questions you'll encounter in the CSCS exam will have at least two - if not even more - potentially correct answers on the first look.
Now, since we know that only one of them can be true, we'll try to arrive at the right choice by eliminating the obviously wrong ones and go from there.
You may have a question like the following...
"Which description best fits a test of anaerobic capacity?"
A) The movement is at low speed but requires one maximum exertion by the muscle.
B) The movement is fast and requires maximum effort for about 1 second.
C) The movement requires maximal effort for a duration of between 30 and 90 seconds.
D) None of the above.
Admittedly, this is probably one of the easier questions you'd encounter in the exam but nevertheless, it serves as a decent example.
So here's how I would approach this question if I didn't know the answer straight off the bat...
First, find the key point in the question.
Here it is "a test of anaerobic capacity". So immediately we realize it has to do with the three energy systems - ATP-CP, anaerobic and aerobic - a prime example of why I encouraged you to understand the "big picture" behind a question in tip #5.
With that in mind, we can exclude any test that has either to do with ATP-CP or aerobic capacity.
What jumps out then are the first two statements that can instantly be ruled out as A) is a measure of maximum strength and B) a measure of maximum power (I've highlighted the key points) - "The movement is at low speed but requires one maximum exertion by the muscle" and "The movement is fast and requires maximum effort for about 1 second".
After this elimination round we're left with ''The movement requires maximal effort for a duration of between 30 and 90 seconds.'' or "None of the above.''
Knowing that the anaerobic system predominates in supplying energy for exercises that last less than 2 minutes, we can deduce that C) is correct.
With this method, I've essentially handed you the key to unlocking the CSCS exam, as it can be applied to any multiple-choice question you'll come across in it - even those questions that appear hard to crack on the surface.
Pretty awesome, huh?
Tip #8 - Know How Many Questions You're Supposed to Answer in the Exam
The CSCS exam is divided into two sections:
1. Scientific Foundations
When I took the test in 2013, the Scientific Foundations section had 80 scored and 10 non-scored questions and the Practical/Applied had 110 scored and 10 non-scored.
So in the first part you'd answer a total of 90 Q's out of which 10 would not be counted towards your final results, and in the second part you'd answer 120, out of which 110 were scored. Obviously, you didn't know which questions would be scored and which wouldn't during the exam.
After consulting the current exam handbook, apparently the current 2014 test consists of 80 scored and 15 non-scored items for the Scientific Foundations part, while the Practical/Applied part contains 110 scored and 15 non-scored items.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because after we handed in our exam sheets and were done for the day, two guys who sat in front of me started discussing some of the exam questions.
I couldn't help but overhear the loud cursing and witness the subsequent snapping-a-pencil-in-half-in-frustration act from one of the exam takers when it dawned on him that he had failed to answer the last 10 questions in the Practical/Applied part because he thought there were only 110 questions instead of the 120 (scored + non-scored).
Clearly, preparing properly for the CSCS test encompasses more than just learning the study book inside out. So know exactly how many questions you're required to blast through well before stepping foot inside the exam room.
Tip #9 - Don't Be in a Rush Afterwards
This last tip comes courtesy of my buddy Teemu Mäki, who attended the CSCS exam at the same time as I did.
Due to a scheduling conflict, he had booked a flight back home for the same evening, counting on making it onto the plane in time after finishing the test.
Well, as you know, things rarely run smoothly and according to plan in a testing situation, and on top of that it takes a while to get to the airport from the city centre in London... not exactly a recipe for success when you need to catch an international flight in a hurry.
So what ended up happening was Teemu had to leave in the middle of the exam without having answered all the questions, then take a train to the airport in order to make it onto the British Airways flight back to Helsinki.
As he rushed over to the gate just as the BA personnel were closing it, the reality suddenly hit him...
He was at the WRONG AIRPORT.
You see, British Airways operate the flight he was supposed to be on out of Heathrow, not Gatwick, where Teemu found himself clutching his ticket that was essentially a worthless piece of paper by now - plus all the prep for the CSCS certification over the last couple of months had been in vain since with a bunch of unanswered questions he had no way of passing it.
That's not a position you want to be in.
International flight, hot date, business meeting... make sure you have no obligations right after the exam as there's always the possibility that schedules get out of whack.
Aight, man... So what's next?
Follow these tips and dominate like a boss come exam day.
Now all you need to do is find nice mahogany frames for the CSCS certificate the NSCA will be sending your way after having passed the test.
When that happens, light up a fine Cuban cigar and pour yourself a nice, relaxing shot of vodka. Next, shoot me an e-mail so I know this guide was helpful to you before you begin basking in the glory of being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.
It has been statistically proven that having the letters "CSCS" after your name comes with its fair share of perks.
You'll be upgraded to business class on international flights free of charge, your parking tickets and other minor misdemeanors suddenly vanish from the police database and hot chicks will want to hang with you.
I'm telling you, life on the other side is pretty sweet.
Best of luck with the exam,
Yunus Barisik, CSCS (You like that?)
Update & Bonuses (January 28, 2017)
UPDATE JANUARY 28, 2017
This is a long article (over 3200 words) about passing the CSCS exam on your first try.
I've converted it into a PDF file you can download for quick and easy reference whenever you want, even when you're offline.
PLUS you get the CSCS Exam Prep Cheatsheet (print-ready) that serves as your guide map on your way toward acing the CSCS exam in 90 days or less.
AND you get two bonus articles you won't find anywhere else on the internet that answers frequently asked questions about the CSCS test, the ONLY TWO RESOURCES you need for passing it, and everything else you need to know about exam prep.
Click the yellow button below to get them all.
Frequently Asked Questions (Added March 5, 2017)
This article took me tens of hours to put together, and it's the most comprehensive free CSCS study guide on the Internet - even if I say so myself.
It has been interesting to receive so many questions on how best to prepare for the test from my readers. Not to mention those proud emails from guys and girls notifying me that they followed my methods and passed.
So I've added this FAQ that covers many of the questions I've received from you over the years. Some of them have already been answered in the main article above, but I believe this short, bullet-point style will serve as a nice reminder nevertheless.
Q: Is the CSCS exam hard?
Yes and no.
Yes, because many don't respect the amount of time and effort you need to successfully study for it.
This isn't one of those college courses where you can just wing your way to a passing grade. Either you know the answer to a question or you don't. Simple as that.
No, because ANYONE (I mean it) can put in the work, follow the methods that I've laid out in this guide, and memorize the most important parts and passages in the book to come out as a winner on the other side.
Q: How long should I reserve for exam prep?
Depends on your background, of course.
Do you have experience training people, are you well-versed in powerlifting/Olympic lifting/strength and conditioning, do you have a degree in exercise sciences, and all that...
But since you want a firm figure to shoot for, my suggestion to most people:
Q: Which study materials do I need for passing the exam?
Official textbook by the NSCA. Mandatory reading.
Some nice tips that definitely help with exam prep. Most valuable part is the practice exam section. Mandatory reading.
3. Exercise Technique Manual for Resistance Training (optional)
I never used this PERSONALLY to study for the test, so keep that in mind.
However, some of my readers have told me it was a helpful resource, especially for those without a practical coaching background in the fitness industry.
When ordering any of the resources mentioned above from Amazon (since that's the cheapest place you can find them), be sure to sign up for the Amazon Prime membership for faster delivery and to skip the shipping and handling costs you'll otherwise be charged.
I remember it taking over a month for the books to arrive by mail to Europe when I ordered them back in 2013. And they charged me a pretty penny for overseas delivery.
If you live in the US, the books will arrive at your door in two days with Amazon Prime. Technology sure has come a long way since those days when I was prepping for the test.
In addition to fast free shipping, they've also got thousands of TV shows, movies, songs and e-books you can instantly check out.
You can try Amazon Prime for free without any binding contracts or sign-up fees.
Click the orange button below to activate your free first month.
(Yes - that's a blatant affiliate link, and I appreciate the token of support if you buy through it.)
And if you're a college student, sign up through the special link below to get Amazon Prime for free for 6 months (including free shipping on college textbooks).
Q: Should I get the 3rd or 4th edition of Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning?
Q: Should I get the book or web version of Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning?
Book form would be my preference. Easier to highlight important parts and write down your notes.
And I just like the feel of holding a real, physical book in my hands. I'm old school like that.
Q: Any other materials you recommend? Apps, books, study courses..?
Nope, the pointers I've given in this article will be all you need.
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