The role of a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) is discussed as are professional collaborative partnerships with other professionals. A background of strength and conditioning is highlighted, which includes the formation of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), unification of strength training professionals, and how its CSCSs need to be recognized as ancillary healthcare providers. A myriad of examples and scenarios are discussed, as are guidelines to follow to effectively foster collaboration among other professionals.
What is a “CSCS”?
Have you ever worked with a personal trainer or read a fitness magazine in which one of the authors suffixed their name with “CSCS” and wondered what it was? What do they offer, and what differentiates them from a personal trainer? A CSCS, or Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, is a exercise and health professional who possesses a unique blend of skills, which include an extensive knowledge of strength training and cardiovascular exercise prescription, how to train for improved athletic performance, and a solid foundation of biomechanics, functional anatomy, and sports nutrition. Their expertise is called upon to administer initial fitness assessments, comprised of strength and cardiovascular capacity testing and to provide services during the end stages of injury rehabilitation.
The Official Beginning of Strength and Conditioning
Prior to 1970, very little information on training for sports existed. A majority of collegiate athletic programs lacked properly structured offseason strength and conditioning programs. In fact, some colleges didn’t have facilities where their athletes could train during the offseason. But things were soon about to change.
In 1969, Nebraska hired their first strength coach, Boyd Epley. Epley, a former pole vaulter at Nebraska, developed an interest in strength training following a back injury he sustained during his competitive career. During college, Epley dedicated his time to helping other student-athletes with their offseason preparation, which included instruction on weight training.
Epley’s hiring gave way to a rapidly growing interest in performance training. Big time college athletic programs throughout the country followed suit and began implementing offseason training programs now staffed by strength coaches.
In 1977, Epley developed a strength coach registry that later evolved into the National Strength Coaches Association, now known as the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), that was founded a year later. Epley and his colleagues, who hailed from an assortment of backgrounds, including academia, athletic training, physical therapy, and coaching worked on developing partnerships with researchers, equipment manufacturers, and athletic administrators.
In 1985, the NSCA offered its members a chance to become certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist. The credential is recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agency or NCCA (http://credentialingexcellence.org), and requires:
- a bachelor’s degree
- valid CPR and AED certification(s)
and calls for exhaustive preparation, sometimes in upwards of three to six months, even for those who hold exercise science or other related degrees.
Membership has swelled from its original 76 charter members in 1978 to its present day number, which exceeds 25,000. As of 2000, 60% of NSCA’s membership held certification, either as a CSCS or a Certified Personal Trainer, a designation formed in 1993 and also recognized by the NCCA.
Additionally, the NSCA created sister chapters overseas and is a world leader in advancing research related to strength and conditioning.
What is the role of a CSCS?
Since its inception, the CSCS has become one of the world’s most widely recognizable fitness and exercise certifications and with that recognition comes many expectations. What does a CSCS do? According to the NSCA:
They are professionals who apply scientific knowledge to train athletes for the primary goal of improving athletic performance.
- Sport-specific testing sessions
- Design and implement safe and effective strength training and condition programs
- Provide guidance regarding nutrition and injury prevention
- Consult with and referring athletes to other professionals when appropriate. (National Strength and Conditioning Association)
A CSCS should be well versed in exercise physiology and have a thorough understanding of the musculoskeletal system. They should be cognizant of common medical and psychological conditions, specifically eating disorders and partner with medical and allied health professionals when necessary.
A competent CSCS will know beyond their scope of practice, but practice within it.
Failure to operate within their scope of practice can broach not only ethics, but may also carry serious legal implications. For more on the legal issues of personal training, read my indepth review of previous court cases as well as how to minimize risk.
This is why a working relationship with other professionals is necessary, not only to stay within the limitations of their duties, but to maximize their ability to help athletes and clients achieve their full potential.
Partnering in Team Settings
A CSCS is crucial to the success of a sports team. In fact, the holder of the most Super Bowl rings isn’t a player, coach, or front office executive, it’s a strength coach! Mike Woicik owns six Super Bowl rings, three he earned with the Dallas Cowboys during the 1990s and three during his tenure with New England Patriots.
Legendary strength coach, Al Vermeil is the only strength who coach who has worked in the NFL, NBA, and MLB, holding world championship rings from the NFL, NBA, further making him in anomaly in the field. There are volumes of success stories that have been documented in the media and many more that haven’t, which developed most of the world’s greatest athletes you see today.
CSCSs are valuable assets among a sports medicine team as they collaborate with the team’s athletic trainers and physical therapists to assist with the treatment and prevention of injuries. Additionally, a CSCS will be responsible for developing a reconditioning program with rehab professionals to effectively transition them from rehabilitation to the playing field.
Communication between the team’s other professionals, specifically the athletic training staff “is essential” (Baechle & Earle, 2008, p. 525). Athletic trainers work under the physician and are often the athlete’s first point of contact when injuries or illnesses arise.
Athletic trainers also help with pregame and pre-practice stretching and “the application of prophylactic equipment (e.g. tape and braces)” (Baechle & Earle, 2008, p. 525). The athletic trainer and/or team physical therapist may prescribe therapeutic modalities, specifically exercises, which may be supervised by the team’s strength coaches. Again, communication is essential, and the strength coaches must keep the athletic trainers and physical therapists abreast of the athlete’s progress.
Together the sports medicine team discusses the injury status of its athletes, the nature of the injury -which may be attributed to factors such as muscular imbalances, poor motor control and decelerative abilities, or repetitive stress, and subsequent treatment modalities.
The causes of injuries are exhaustive, but the CSCS should be aware of them and know how to train around them, making modifications in the athlete’s training program. The sports medicine team will also review the athlete’s file, which includes their medical and injury history, which, if extensive, may warrant close attention. The CSCS will also work with the team’s nutritionist, typically a Registered Dietician (RD), deferring athlete’s complex nutritional issues to them (Baechle & Earle, 2008, p. 203).
It is paramount that the athletic trainer and strength coach establish basic plans and policies that pertain to information sharing, coordinating yearly training sessions, determining sports medicine coverage, and establishing emergency action plans (Wagner, Greener, & Petersen, 2011, p. 54).
Additionally, the strength coach may assist with the design of the facility and at smaller programs, shoulder the responsibility of maintaining the facility and/or managing the student fitness center. It is not uncommon for a strength coach to teach a class in the college’s exercise science department and they may also assist faculty with research and other scholarly activities.
Also, strength coaches are employed by school districts and are commonly seen at the high school level, working at larger high schools. Strength coaches also are found in private training facilities with medical and allied health personnel, and again, the same rules apply.
Partnering in Healthcare Settings
CSCSs are often an untapped resource in the healthcare field. With their extensive knowledge of exercise technique and programming along with a solid understanding of anatomy, biomechanics, and the numerous adaptations (both chronic and acute) to exercise, they can assist in either a physical therapy practice, or exercise physiology lab and with additional training and certifications, specifically Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) and ones from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) can work in cardiac rehabilitation.
They can also help burdened healthcare professionals with lifestyle management and health education. A growing number of CSCSs are going this route, pursuing opportunities in health promotion and corporate wellness.
Working in the Fitness Industry
CSCSs may also work as personal trainers, who are hired to help people achieve their fitness goals. They are qualified to perform fitness assessments and provide people with information on basic nutrition and injury prevention. CSCSs in corporate fitness centers, commercial gyms, and working as independent contractors personal training studios must adhere to rules set forth by each establishment and work well with other staff members to provide their clients the best possible service.
Effectively Fostering Collaboration
To ensure that the collaborative efforts of the CSCS with other professionals are effective and runs like the well oiled machine that was intended to run, each professional must recognize the unique skill set they are bringing to the table and respect each other’s role. They must also understand that they are all equally integral to the care of the athlete and /or patient. They must assist each other when needed, not deliberately breach another’s professional duty, share information, and be able to rely on one another.
Closing thoughts: Integrating the CSCS into the Healthcare System
With people working with their personal trainers more often than they see their physicians, personal trainers – who may also be CSCSs, “can have a profound effect to change the health of Americans for the better” (Cannon, 2010). With surging healthcare premiums causing many employers to cut back the group health plans they offer, many people are realizing that exercise is medicine, and who better to practice that medicine than a CSCS!
Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, is a Philadelphia-area healthcare support professional and personal trainer, he holds an M.S. in Exercise Science and has nearly a decade of personal training experience. Presently, he is employed as a Fitness Specialist with the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Recreation and also trains clients Broad Street Fitness in Philadelphia, PA. He is also pursuing a MBA with a concentration in Healthcare Administration, is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. More of his articles can be found on elitefts.com, joshstrength.com and beyondstrengthperformance.com