The CSCS: What is it, Why to Pursue it, and How to Study for it

NSCA - CSCS

During the months prior to beginning physical therapy school, I began studying for and eventually took the examination to become a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), but why? Did I envision becoming the head strength coach at a prestigious university? No. Did I want to open a strength and conditioning facility for young athletes? Nope. Did I need a few more letters behind my name to feed my ego? Maybe… but still no.

Before I get into why I chose to pursue this certification, let me explain a little bit about what the CSCS actually is…

To start, here is the scope of practice of a CSCS, as determined by the NSCA:

Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCSs) are professionals who apply scientific knowledge to train athletes for the primary goal of improving athletic performance. They conduct sport-specific testing sessions, design and implement safe and effective strength training and conditioning programs and provide guidance regarding nutrition and injury prevention. Recognizing that their area of expertise is separate and distinct, CSCSs consult with and refer athletes to other professionals when appropriate.

As a future physical therapist, within the scope of practice, there are several areas that jump out as paramount in the rehabilitation of athletes. First of all, “Professionals who apply scientific knowledge to train athletes for the primary goal of improving athletic performance” is a strong statement demonstrating the need for evidence-based training principals. This is one area where the PT community has some short-comings. I have seen far too many therapists utilize the “3 sets of 10” philosophy… AND IT DRIVES ME CRAZY! We must use our knowledge of biomechanics, bioenergetics, and general exercise physiology to guide our exercise prescription. A 300 pound offensive lineman should not be performing the same program as a 160 pound soccer player (let alone your geriatric patient). Preparation for the CSCS reinforces these basic principles that should be in the back of the therapist’s head every time an exercise is prescribed.

In addition, “conduct sport-specific testing sessions, design and implement safe and effective strength training and conditioning programs and provide guidance regarding nutrition and injury prevention” are all areas that therapists should strive to excel at. Sport specific testing, especially when determining an athlete’s readiness to return to sport, must be utilized by ALL therapists. These testing procedures have come a long way even during my short career and if you want to provide the best possible care to your athletes, you must have an intimate knowledge of these protocols. Also, injury prevention is such an integral aspect of a PT’s job that it’s hard to argue with furthering your education through studying for the CSCS. In regards to nutrition, I do not see this as an area that PTs should necessarily ‘own’, but we should have enough working knowledge to understand why and when to refer a patient to receive nutritional counseling.

So, now that we understand what the CSCS is, why did I pursue it?

Inherently and somewhat secretly, I am a nerd at heart. To that end, I absolutely love broadening my understanding of just about anything that will aide me in becoming a better therapist. Studying for the CSCS gave me a great opportunity to learn a large amount of material that is most definitely applicable to the physical therapy profession. Whether it be basic exercise physiology, nutrition, exercise testing, or exercise technique, all aspects of the material for this examination have a place and should be engrained in the well-informed therapist’s mind. Upon completion of this process, you will by no means be at the level of a head strength coach, but it will give you a basic understanding of all aspects of exercise prescription and programming. This information will aide me in treating and implementing rehabilitation programs geared towards an athletic population. In addition, I believe it gives you further credibility in the eyes of patients, employers, and colleagues because of the importanace and relevance of the knowledge necessary to gain certification. If you are seeking employment within a sports medicine clinic, I believe this is a good measure of your drive and understanding of rehabilitation concepts related to an athletic population.

Well, enough rambling, how should you study for the exam?

First, you must take into consideration how the exam is formatted. There are two different sections on the exam. The first is referred to as ‘Scientific Domains’ and is further broken into ‘Exercise Science’ and ‘Nutrition’. There is roughly a 70/30 split between exercise science and nutrition questions (with the majority being exercise science). This section is where your knowledge of exercise physiology, bioenergetics, biomechanics, and basic nutrition come into play. From my memory, the majority of questions were straight forward, but could get a bit complex at times. This was especially true when it came to nutrition questions as this is an area that I have not had a great deal of exposure to and my understanding reflected that. My suggestion would be to spend the vast majority of time delving into the complex princicples in regards to bioenergetics/energy systems as there was a large body of questions on this topic. Also, determine what areas you lack understanding in (whether it be through practice tests or self-awareness) and devote the necessary time to these areas.

The second section of the exam is titled ‘Practical/Applied’ and was purely dedicated to your ability to use priniciples from the ‘Scientific Foundations’ section in your exercise prescription/programming. This section is once more broken down into smaller sub-sections. The ‘Exercise Technique’ questions (36% of the section) would give you a scenario or video of an exercise technique (resistance training, speed training, or plyometrics) and from the information provided, you would have to either correct the client’s form or modify the exercise due to extenuating circumstances. If you have experience training clients or working in physical therapy practice, these questions should typically be ‘gimmies’. The ‘Program Design’ section (36%) will ask you to demonstrate your ability to apply proper exercise selection, progression, and overall design to specific athletes. These questions are challenging, but by knowing the demands of each sport (energy systems, biomechanics, etc.), you will be able to eliminate those answers that do not apply fairly quickly. Going hand-in-hand with the ‘Program Design’ questions will be questions testing your knowledge of ‘Exercise Testing’ (18%). There will be questions regarding specific protocols as well as your interpretation of an athlete’s results. You must become familiar with the results charts within the NSCA’s Essentials of Strength & Conditioning text book as this is where your justifications will come from. You will be able to use common sense for many of the questions, but having a general understanding of what is good and what is bad will go a long way on this portion of the exam. The final section of this exam is ‘Organization and Administration’ (10%), which I admittedly did not study very intensely and subsequently did not do too hot on. The material is very dry and boring in my opinion, but thankfully these questions do not make up a large portion of the exam. You will be asked to answer questions dealing with policies and procedures, staffing, layout and safety guidelines for facility design.

After all was said and done, I read the text book cover to cover, reviewed applicable notes from my exercise physiology and program design courses, and spent significantly more time on areas of the exam that I did not feel confident in. This would be my overall reccomendation to anyone that is considering pursuing this certification. It is a lot of information, but if you have an exercise science or physical therapy background, the material should not be overwhelming.

With any standardized exam, there are plenty of resources, but which ones are actually beneficial? Here is a rough list of what is available and my opinion as to their importance in your preparation:

Essentials of Strength & Conditioning, 3rd edition – $91.00 (non-member), $89.00 (NSCA member)

This is a must have resource as the questions from the exam primarily come from this text. Each chapter has information that is applicable to your studies and the majority of your study time should be spent utilizing this textbook. If you only plan on using one resource, this is without a doubt your best bet.

CSCS Exam Content Descripton Booklet – $36.00 (non-member), $17.95 (NSCA member)

This booklet outlines the major content areas on the exam. Is it worthwhile? I’m sure it is, but I think I only opened it twice.

CSCS Exam Practice Set – $184.50 (non-member), $75.60 (NSCA member)

These exams should be an integral part of you preparation. I took one exam before beginning the studying process to identify areas of deficiency and this allowed me to study more efficiently. If there’s one tip I would give, it would be to identify the areas that you are not comfortable in and hit those sections hard during your studies.

Exercise Technique Manual – $80.95 (non-member), $65.00 (NSCA member)

Do you know how to squat? Do you know how to bench press? Do you know how to deadlift? If the answer is yes, there is no need to buy this book. There is absolutely no substance outside of exercise technique within this book. I bought this and, once again, opened it a grand total of two times. Even if you are not comfortable with all the exercise techniques, take advantage of the resources available on the NSCA website and save yourself the money.

So that’s the CSCS in a nutshell. If you are currently pursuing this credential and need additional help or advisement, feel free to send me an e-mail.

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12 thoughts on “The CSCS: What is it, Why to Pursue it, and How to Study for it

  1. John,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Out of the 10+ people I have discussed this with the ones who used the practice tests to guide their book study passed. Those who didn’t failed.

    Remember – its an entryway and a certification. Learn the basics and also learn the language the NSCA want you to answer in. Then just use your standardized test taking skills to get the certification. At this point you have opened a door, go through and start learning.

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  2. Great article John. thanks for taking the time to write it down and share it. With my CSCS exam coming up in little over a week its very useful.
    Best Wishes, Mark.

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  3. John, thank you for sharing something dear to me. I think the CSCS is a great complement to having a Physical Therapy degree even if you decide to work in geriatrics. Stay passionate about learning!

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  4. Interestingly I obtained my CSCS just days before I started PT school as well. I found that going through PT school helped me become a much better coach. The synthesis between the two can be done. Be the unicorn!

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  5. The program provided an entrance to a strength and conditioning career at age 42 ,
    starting with CSCS 1992 , MEd. Exercise Phys 2000 and 20 yrs getting paid (blessed) for sharing with athletes and public safety workers

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  6. Hi John, great recommendations for preparing for the CSCS, however, I am facing a huge dilemma. I am a personal trainer and have 6 years experience. I train youth soccer and baseball and also for weight loss. I have taken the text twice and failed. The second time I came within 6 questions. Did much better the second time around. I studied my heart out with every video and quiz booklet I could find. It seems that anyone that does not have a Kiniesiology degree or sports performance background is facing an uphill battle with this cert.

    i am determined to pass this cert. i extremely confident that I know and can apply the principles of strength and conditioning for any athlete, unfortunately, my score doesn’t reflect that. I just don’t know how to study any “differently” to ensure a passing score. Any suggestions?

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    1. Dear Debra
      I def know your pain! I have 2 1/2 of experience in the S&C world mostly with HS athletes. Got a Degree on Exercise Science and this last summer failed my CSCS exam by 7 points on the Science part and by 3 points on my practical part. I was devastated! Im planing in giving it a shot again during April of next year. I will put my heart out again while studying for this exam. I NEED to have this certification. I will not be happy with myself until I do it!!!!

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  7. John, quick question: how did you do on the practice exams in relation to the actual exam? Did you find that it was a relatively accurate assessment of your performance on the real deal? Thanks!

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  8. Great article- thank you for taking the time to share your experience and advice.
    How many months in advance would to study the material if I do have a degree in this area but you have been a CrossFit coach for about a year and a half now.
    I know that CrossFit is generally looked down upon within this community but I had great instructors that held me to high standards as far as technique and injury prevention goes.
    All that to say- have a lot to learn but I am familiar with the field and would like to be more equipped to train and coach other.

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  9. Hi John,

    I am considering taking the NSCA CSCS exam, but I wondering how many hours/mo you would advise needing to study for the exam. I have been a DPT for about a year and my current role is pretty grueling so I am not sure if I have enough time to study for this exam right now.

    Thanks,
    Lauren

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