This past Saturday, after five months of intense studying, I took the CSCS exam (certified strength and conditioning specialist) and passed...on my first try, with no degree in exercise science; however, I do have an exercise science background and solid experience from being a trainer with a good book of clients. Even so, experience won't help with rote memorization when I have no way of truly applying the sliding filament theory, other than wondering if the I-band and H-zone are shrinking during the concentric portion of a lat pulldown I'm having my client perform.
In any case, I've never felt such pride upon achieving a hard-earned designation before. Certainly I was excited upon earning my personal trainer certification, and I did study hard to make the test easy for me, but it didn't induce the stomach-curdling stress on exam day that the CSCS did. I was also completely apathetic about getting my Bachelor's in English, mostly because it wasn't that difficult of a degree to earn. I obviously can't speak for others, but English has always been a strong subject of mine, so I've never had problems writing essays. Granted, I did have core classes I stressed over, like statistics and geography, but these classes gave me study guides with exactly what was going to be on the test. You memorize that study guide, and you've pretty much bagged the test. Yet, no amount of studying made the CSCS exam any easier for me--and I threw money at every legitimate study guide I could find.
So why was the CSCS so horrendously difficult? Why would I not mind retaking my personal training certification but would rather drop acid in my eyes than retake the CSCS?
It's difficult because NSCA's own study materials assume you have a background already. This does not mean the book did a shoddy job of teaching me what I needed to know. Far from it. When I was studying for my CPT, I chose the American Council on Exercise. With their textbook, they broke everything down, including scientific terminology and even providing a small book on exercise science to help you better grasp it in order to understand the material in their main guide. They included a bunch of activity pages within that exercise science guide, as well as exercise science flash guards. For their main textbook, they had a multiple choice activity guide. If you decided to spring for their full package, they also had an online course you could take with videos and quizzes that simplified the material. ACE's simplification of complex subject matter is the reason why there's such a high pass rate for their exams. Even after taking the CSCS, I'll still sing praises about how ACE is a perfect certificate for those who have zero background in exercise science.
The NSCA only has their main textbook, which is actually shorter than ACE's main textbook. They have recommended guides you can purchase, but I honestly did not find the exercise technique guide that helpful, and I probably wouldn't have found the nutrition guide that helpful either considering I already have a nutrition specialty. In fact, you're better off studying the exercise technique guides already in the main manual. You're better off studying only the manual in general. Don't waste your money on accessory books. If you want any accessory study materials, get their online course and find updated study guides from other companies that offer tons of multiple choice questions. It's the practice of test taking that will determine your success.
Yet, even their online study course doesn't hold hands. It's not a summary of the main book. In fact, with some of their practice activities the answers were sometimes nearly impossible to find. I had to skip some of them because I grew frustrated trying to find the answers. Their course apparently isn't based off the 4th edition, so that was likely part of it. Even so, I purchased the course for the practice tests, which were incredibly helpful.
What's also difficult is that a Google search yields that the CSCS has little free practice questions. ACE had tons. It seems like there are plenty of companies out there that take advantage of this and decide to charge for their guides. I actually purchased a study guide from CSCStestprep.com, which didn't disappoint. It contains tons of practice questions and two exams. The guide summarizes the 4th edition of Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.
All right. Before I get ahead of myself, let me list exactly what I did to prep for this exam.
1. Study the textbook. Know it cover-to-cover.
You can get the textbook off Amazon probably for a little bit cheaper than what I got it, but I just went ahead and purchased the practice questions and this book as a bundle. You absolutely MUST purchase the updated manual, as the changes made from book-to-book will determine whether or not you get a question right or wrong. I can't recall it off the top of my head, but the 3rd edition has a list of sports and their contributing energy systems. The 4th edition has this same list, but how much each energy system contributes to the sport is changed from the 3rd edition. Seems like a minor detail, but the entire scientific foundations of the CSCS exam is all about the minor details.
You can't afford to go into this exam thinking you can skim over the little details. My CPT exam was all about big-picture stuff. The CSCS is not. Even with their practical/applied section, those little details can make a huge difference in determining how you rationalize your answer in a question that forces you to apply your knowledge. I read the book twice through. I highlighted what I thought I needed to know, took the practice exams, then went through and highlighted what I knew I needed to know. I also answered the multiple choice activity questions at the end of each chapter to ensure I could apply what I learned.
I would aim to read a chapter a day. I read the book in less than a month. I would also recommend giving yourself at least three months to prepare. I would have taken the exam sooner than five months, but I was transitioning from one job to another and so needed to hold on to the cash I had. If I axe out the days I didn't study, I would have only needed four months to fully prepare, which is an improvement on the six months I needed for my CPT exam.
To reiterate, get the book, read it cover to cover, and study the major and minor details with a focus on the minor. This exam is a case where you do need to sweat the small stuff.
2. Make your own flashcards.
I didn't make any flashcards for my CPT exam. I felt I didn't need to. Yet, with the CSCS, I created over 400 of them. Some were definition flashcards, but most were questions I made up on one side with the answer on the other. I spent much of my floor shifts at the Y studying and creating flashcards, so it wasn't hard for me to find the time. My advice to you is to find a place to study that forces you to study. Otherwise, if you didn't study, you'd die of boredom.
So how do you go about creating flashcards? I recommend that once you finish the book, answer the practice questions to discover your weaknesses. Go through the book again and create flashcards based off those weaknesses. When you study your cards, read the question aloud. Before flipping over for the answer, try to answer the question out loud. If it's wrong, read the correct answer out loud. In no time, you'll have these flashcards memorized, which will make information recall nearly effortless.
3. Find every practice question you can, even if that means needing to purchase a few.
For those of you with exercise science majors, you may not need to do this, but for those of us without, I wouldn't risk it. As well as what I listed above, I also purchased the CSCS Pocket Prep app, which was cheap. There are about 600 practice questions structured exactly how the questions are on the exam. Of course, these questions, in my opinion, couldn't hold a candle to the difficulty of the questions on the actual exam. Despite this, they still revealed my weaknesses. They also do a thorough job of explaining why you're wrong along with giving you the exact page number in the textbook to understand why their answer is correct. I also noticed that with each update to the app, new questions were slipped in, either as additional questions or replacement ones. I was never sure of which, but the app ensured I didn't abandon it, even after completing all 600 questions.
Now there are a few free practice questions you can find through Google. I only recommend one website for those free practice questions: cscsquestions.com. I believe it's based off only the 3rd edition, but it's still a good study tool, especially for the practical/applied section of the exam.
With NSCA's practice question bundle and the practice exam that comes with their online course, I would recommend not doing these open book. I would also recommend not looking up the correct answer in the book. I'd read over the correct answers the question bundles provide, but I wouldn't study them. Believe me, when you retake the test, you will not immediately recall the correct answer your previous attempt gave you.
Not looking up the correct answer forces you to study beyond what you need to know. As I took the practice tests, and as I looked over my incorrect answers, I wrote down what I needed to study. Here are some examples: fluid intake guidelines, macronutrient ratios for different sports, energy demands of sports, and ECG readings. I had more, but you can see that I created general and not specific notes of what I needed to study to force me to read for more than just the answer.
I'd also recommend scoring the equivalent of an A on the practice question bundles. I can guarantee anything lower will ensure failure. I feel like I just scraped by on the scientific foundations section, and I made sure I came out with A's on the practice questions.
4. Apply what you're learning.
From what I've read, most of the people taking the CSCS exam already have a personal trainer cert, which means they're likely working as trainers in some capacity. Of course, there are people who don't have a CPT, but these people more than likely have degrees in exercise science. After all, you need at least a Bachelor's to be certified. Either way, test takers have some sort of background, be it exercise science or applied experience. If you find that you are neither of these people, someone who wants to be a strength coach but has a degree in mathematics and was never a trainer, you need to find some sort of internship opportunity, be it shadowing a trainer or actually interning at a gym. The test will otherwise be almost impossible to pass.
I did stellar on the practical/applied section because I am a trainer and practiced a lot of the program design concepts on my clients who love to be pushed and try new things. I was also able to practice periodization on a client who was in middle school and participated in both track and football. I was able to plan an entire mesocycle for him based on some of the results of the tests I conducted that I pulled directly from the 4th edition. I practiced a lot of powerlifting exercises on a client who grew to love this style of lifting. Of course, before I practiced on her I had a member who used to do CrossFit and has a degree in exercise science teach me how to do them.The experience also taught me how to break down powerlifting moves to make it easily teachable for anyone, even for my clients who ultimately did not like them because of the learning curve involved.
Ultimately, you have to find a way to apply what you're learning to better understand the questions you'll face on the exam.
5. Try not to second guess yourself.
I'm the last person who should be advising against second guessing. I spent most of the exam second guessing myself, while doing my best to keep to the answers instinct told me had to be correct.
You want to avoid second guessing yourself in order to lessen the stress during the exam. With my CPT exam, my nerves relaxed entirely around question 20. Around question 50, I just wanted to hurry up and finish the exam because I wasn't having a difficult time and felt like 150 questions was unnecessary. With the CSCS, however, my nerves were playing an unreasonable form of hopscotch the entire time. And there were more questions on this exam! Even the break I had after the first section wasn't enough to relax me. By the time i submitted the second part of the exam, I felt like I was going to vomit over the uncertainty of whether I had passed or not.
I knew I had passed my CPT exam as soon as I submitted it. There was no doubt. I can't say the same about the CSCS. I was a little positive I had passed the first part, but I was not at all certain about the second part.
So what's the big deal about this constant stressing if I passed anyway? Well, if I hadn't been so panicky during the entire test, I probably could have done better, thus erasing the notion that I couldn't afford to miss a single question. Being panicky just doesn't feel nice. It also complicates digesting your post-test celebratory meal, leaving you with a stomachache for the rest of the night and making you wonder if the chicken was undercooked. Even just thinking about the exam leaves me feeling a little jittery.
6. Know how to take the exam.
There are two sections in the exam: practical/applied and scientific foundations. You HAVE to pass both. The two sections are not averaged. Every question consists of three answers, so if you can eliminate one with certainly, you'll increase your chances of finding the correct answer. If you also understand questions that contain extraneous information and questions that don't, it'll save you from having to do unnecessary calculations. For questions with excess information, you need to find the main point of the question.
For example, you're presented with an athlete who wants to lose weight. His macronutrient ratios are presented as 15% protein, 60% carbs, and 25% fats. He eats about 3500 calories. The three answers might look something like this:
A. Decrease carbs, fats. Increase protein.
B. Keep the current ratios. Decrease overall calories.
C. Decrease fats. Increase carbs and protein.
You might be tempted to start doing some math to figure out just how many calories of each macro he is consuming. Or you can understand that no matter the ratios, as long as he's in a calorie deficit, he'll lose weight. You'll then understand that excess information is there to trick you and has no bearing on the actual question. Thus, the real question looks like this: You're presented with an athlete who wants to lose weight. What should he do? By finding the real question, the answer becomes much more obvious.
A lot of the questions on the exam also present many answers that are correct, but there is only one best answer, generally with the questions containing keywords like "most likely" or "the best way." For questions like this, you can't go off what you think the best answer would be. You have to go off with what the NSCA says. The book is explicit about what the NSCA believes. There's arguably nothing tricky about these questions.
7. Don't rush the test.
You're given four hours to take the exam. Some of you will need the entire time. Some of you won't. I finished the exam in two hours. When I completed the first section, I had enough time left over that I could go through every single question again. Same with the second section. So if you finish early, that doesn't mean you should immediately submit it. That just means you need to go back through the questions, reread them, especially ones you felt iffy about, and feel absolutely certain you chose the best answer.
Make sure you also arrive early to your testing location and that you know exactly where it is. I arrived a little over an hour early, parked at a riverwalk, and walked to the testing center; I didn't want to waste my time trying to find parking near the center. In any case, the testing directions told me not to park in the parking lot, as it was reserved for guests of the hotel next to it. So make sure you read the instructions emailed to you after you've registered. I'm also glad I did this because I was unaware that the testing center itself was inside a bigger building filled with various other businesses. As a result, I was able to start my test at 2 PM rather than the scheduled 2:30 PM. Of course, there were open computers for testing, so that may not be the case for every testing center. Sometimes you'll have to wait until a computer opens to begin your exam.
The CSCS exam is far from easy, but it's the gold standard for a reason. If you earn this certification, you have the right to feel like you know what you're talking about more than someone who doesn't have this credential. And you'll understand why when you actually take it and come away in tears of relief that you passed it when you weren't even certain you would.
Make sure, either before or after your exam, that you submit your transcripts to prove you have a Bachelor's and that you also submit your proof of your CPR certification. If you didn't do it before your exam, you have an entire year to do it after. But I submitted mine a month before the exam. I don't want to wait any more than necessary to get my certification in the mail.
If you have any questions for me, feel free to email me at email@example.com or even leave them in the comments below! I'll answer them as soon as I can.
ACE Certified Personal Trainer, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, nutrition coach, young adult author, moody ballerina.
I help people perform without pain.
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The views expressed on this blog are entirely my own. Any advice I offer is not to be taken as medical advice. If you think you have contraindications to exercise, please see your physician before implementing any sample workout plans I present on this blog.
All images are either my own, from Canva, or Creative Commons