Update 9/5/20. If you have the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential, you know you have one of the most highly coveted fitness /certifications in the world. Several people have noticed the “CSCS” in my email signature (and license plate) and have asked me if I could give them some pointers on how to study for and pass this exam –and that’s exactly what I’m going to do now. My goal in this CSCS review is to not only tell you what I did but hopefully also give you some insights on how you can study and pass the CSCS exam. If you have any questions leave a comment below.
Why Pick The NSCA?
The NSCA is a nonprofit organization that was created in 1978. The CSCS certification was the first fitness credential offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and dates back to 1985. As I write this, there are over 30,000 NSCA certified fitness professionals, spread out over 72 different countries. You can see the NSCA history in this video.
Certifications offered by the NSCA are accepted at pretty much every gym, health club and spa around the world. In fact, some places only accept NSCA certifications, which is a testament to their respect in the fitness industry.
CSCS Test Requirements
I took my CSCS exam in the mid-1990s. Back then, the NSCA required at least a BS degree in a health-related field in order to take the CSCS exam. If you didn’t have that, there was no way they would let you sit for the CSCS exam. Since I had a BS in chemistry and biology, so I was ok.
Since then, the NSCA has relaxed that requirement and now accepts a BS degree – in any field – to as a prerequisite take the CSCS exam. So, for example, you could have a degree in accounting and still be eligible.
Update: By 2030 the NSCA will require you to have a science college degree once again.
What If You're in college now?
If you are a current college student the NSCA will allow you to take the CSCS test but, the results are not released until after you graduate. I believe this is still the policy.
The NSCA currently has 4 different certifications:
- NSCA-CPT (certified personal trainer)
- CSPS – Certified Special Populations Certified
- TSAC – Tactical Strength and Conditioning
The NSCA does not make people take other certifications as a prerequisite for the CSCS. In other words, you do not have to first take the NSCA-certified personal trainer cert before you are allowed to take the CSCS exam. You can jump right into the CSCS certification.
Also, after you have the CSCS (or other NSCA certs) you are not required to take the certifications, although taking another cert will count toward you getting re-certified the next time around.
What Is The CSCS Exam Like?
Again, I'm going to tell you what it was like for me. What the CSCS exam is like now, maybe somewhat different. When I took the CSCS test, it was a 400 question test and took 4 hours to complete.
The first 200 questions pertained to exercise science. You need to study exercise science if you attempt to take the CSCS exam. Do not take this section lightly. The questions are not basic. There were questions about mitochondria, energy systems (Krebs cycle, etc.), muscle and cardiovascular physiology, etc. I had a BS in chemistry and biology when I took the exam and I felt the questions I ran into were on par with the types of information I needed to know for my degree.
We were given 2 hours to complete this section. After this section, there was an hour lunch break.
The second section of the test also consisted of 200 questions. We had 2 hours to complete this section. This next section pertained to the following topics:
- How to design exercise programs
- Muscles used in various exercises
- Equipment layout in gym design
As for equipment layout, I distinctly remember questions having to do with how far apart exercise equipment (benches, machines, etc.) had to be from each other and how far away from mirrors equipment should be. Make sure you are at least somewhat familiar with this stuff.
When I took the CSCS exam, there was a video section of about 25-50 questions. In this section, we were shown an exercise and had to answer a variety of questions about it, such as what muscles are used, what the person was doing incorrectly, etc. This section was also a multiple choice. We were given about 20 seconds to answer each question.
I have heard that the NSCA exams are now computer-based. They were not so when I took it. We were given a test booklet with all the questions. We worked as fast as we could to finish the questions within the allotted time.
Does The CSCS Exam Have A Practical?
There was no hands-on /practical section on the CSCS exam when I took it. I have heard that a practical portion of the exam is probably going to be added. Because of this, you should be prepared to demonstrate exercises and answer questions about them.
What’s a Passing Score For The CSCS?
To pass the CSCS test, people had to pass each section. I believe at last 70% on each section was needed.
Do You Get The Test Back?
No. If you passed or failed the CSCS exam, you will not be given the test back. This is standard for every fitness cert I’ve ever heard of. It makes sense. If someone failed the exam and they knew the questions they got wrong, then all they would do is study those questions for the retest. That’s not good. The NSCA wants thinkers of the highest caliber, not people who memorize questions.
Also, since the test is basically scantron, it's graded on a computer. Even if they did return this to you, all you'd get back were a bunch of dots on a piece of paper. you would not a list of questions.
How To Study For The CSCS Exam
I’m going to tell you what I did to study as I think this might save you time and energy and also save you money.
From what people tell me, if you call the NSCA, and ask them what you need, they might try to sell you all sorts of materials to help you prepare. These might include NSCA flashcards, videos, audio DVDs, etc. I did not use any of that. That is going to make things expensive. I don’t recommend you invest in most of that stuff.
Instead, when I prepared, I used only these materials:
Both of these you can get from the NSCA and I’ve linked to them on Amazon as they may be less expensive there. Since I am NSCA-certified, I know what they are not discussing. So I recommend the practice test I created too.
I believe the NSCA has a pack of practice tests now. If you are starting from scratch, I suggest you study the book first. Depending on your starting point and how much time you can devote to studying, I recommend giving yourself 6 months to prepare.
Then take a practice test. How did you do with it? Did you pass?
The thing I like about the NSCA practice tests is that they tell you where you are strong and weak AND they refer you to the chapters in the book that you need to study to improve in those areas.
Then just study those chapters that you need to brush upon.
After you study more, then, take another practice test. Did you pass this time?
If not, study the chapters where you are weak and take another practice test
Another thing I liked about the NSCA practice tests is they also told me if I was going to pass – and also told me how much I was going to pass (or fail) by. I found this to be VERY close to how I scored when I took the “real” test.
What To Bring To The Test?
Before I was allowed to take the CSCS exam, I had to show my CPR/AED certification and a form of ID (driver’s license) to prove my identity.
Be sure to bring these with you.
I would not be surprised if they prevented you from bringing cell phones, tablets or internet-connected watches into the exam area.
Format of CSCS Exam?
The test was all multiple choice and was graded using Scantron, so a computer-graded our tests. I would not be surprised if the test was all computer-based now. The advantage of this is that people would know their results immediately. The disadvantage is a human is not grading your exam. This is very different than when I grade exams of people who take the AAAI/ISMA exam.
Another disadvantage of NSCA and a lot of others too- is no computer test can really gauge how well you apply your knowledge in the real world. Working with people is very different than taking a multiple-choice test on a computer. This is an important issue the fitness industry has not adequately addressed – and I think it will come back and bite them in the butt one day.
The NSCA requires members to get recertified every 2 years. They will start sending reminders about a year before this happens. You need to accumulate a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) prior to the expiration date on their cert. You can report your CEUs on their website. If you prefer, you can report your CEUs on a paper form and mail it to them.
There are different categories of CEUs in which to accumulate points. The number of CEUs you need varies according to how long you have been certified. In the beginning, you don't need much.
One thing to remember is that CPR/AED certs do not count toward rectification. In other words, they don't give you any CEUs. The NSCA expects everyone to be CPR/AED certified and so they don't reward people with CEUs for having it. I don't like that.
It can be expensive to renew your CSCS certification (or other NSCA cert). It can cost hundreds of dollars. The cost could be in the thousands if you attend a conference in another state and you add in airfare, hotels, etc.
If you are self-employed, you rationalize it as its a tax write off, but still, I think it's getting out of hand. The NSCA needs to address this issue. My friend and colleague Paul Thomas let his CSCS expire for this very reason.
When Did I Get My Results?
When I took the CSCS exam, it took about 2 months to get results. These days, you find out sooner – maybe that day – if you passed. That's about it. Did I answer some of your questions about the CSCS exam? If you have any other questions, leave a comment below.