T Nation

CSCS Exam Thread


#1

I just took the CSCS exam. Literally, just took it. I wanted to get down some of my thoughts in case people are interested in taking it. I'd be happy to answer any questions people might have about preparation etc.

First of all, the test is extremely hard. Not for the reasons that it should be however. I studied very hard for it. Probably 4 months, with the last 3 weeks being nearly full time. This seems to be about average for people who don't have a degree in the field. Everything you read on line tells you to just "know the book" which is true however the wording of many of the questions had me shaking my head.

Specifically, there were questions in which of the four possible answers, 3 of the 4 options were reasonable. In many, it was a toss up between 2. Overall it is very challenging, at times, pointlessly so.

First some facts:
The test is the NSCA-CSCS. It's for trainers/coaches who want to work with athletes and is generally regarded as the gold standard of certifications. I'm not here to argue for or against that fact. Many will tell you that other certs and organizations are better, but from everything I've read, if you want to work with high level athletes at the university or even pro level, you have to have this just to get your foot in the door.

In the same way that passing the bar exam doesn't make you a good lawyer, this cert doesn't convert a crappy coach into a good one overnight, BUT, it gives you a foundation of knowledge that is pretty darn solid to start that path.

The pre requisites for this test: You must have a four year degree. You must be certified in CPR/AED. There is talk that eventually they will require that degree to be in a related field but for now it can be in anything at all. They require transcipts and a photocopy of your CPR card before they release your scores.

The test itself is slated to be 4.5 hours long. It is broken into 2 parts. The first is Science/nutrition and lasts about 1.5hrs. Mine was 80 questions. The second part is the Practical and applied portion. It was 2.5hrs long. It was comprised of 120 questions, the first 40 of which show videos of various exercises and ask questions about it. I took the test on a computer at a local HR block.

The advantages to the computer based are that you can take it basically whenever you want. I actually rescheduled it once. You can also get your scores much sooner. If you've submitted your prereq's you can get the results that day. If you take paper, you will have to wait 6-8 weeks.

The test was based off the "Essentials of Strength and Conditioning 3rd Ed" textbook, a monstrous 600 page tome that is broken up into two halves that correspond to the test roughly. The material in the book and on the test ranges from Bioenergentics, functional anatomy, Biomechanics, Endocrinology, Adaptations and program design for both Aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Facility Management, Plyometics, speed and agility training, testing and evaluation, nutrition, psychology(one question only on the test)and exercise form and instruction.

It's a ton of material. If you did get a 4 year degree in EXSci or Kinesiology then it would likely be much easier but even friends of mine who had that, struggled with the test itself.

I purchased the 3rd edition of the text, if you buy it online make sure you don't buy an earlier edition. I also purchased the Symposium CDs and you get a book with which goes over all the major exercises in detail. Many get away with only the book. I found the CDs helpful in drawing out some of the main themes, bc in many instances the depth of knowledge required was unclear. I also purchased the 3 online practice exams.

One annoying feature of this was that the those tests are geared towards the 2nd edtion of the text book so the information is "slightly" different and the "handy" post test references correspond to the old textbook. For this reason it may be best to buy the paper practice exams. Another disadvantage to the online tests is that you only get to take each of them twice. I kept a notebook next to me while I took each of them the first time and wrote down any topic or area that I felt uncomfortable with and then used them to backstudy the book.

The videos cds also contain 10 question tests and the ends of each chapter have those too. IMO it is absolutely essential that you take these practice tests. The more the better. If you have a four year degree in this stuff then this may be the most important part for you b/c it gives you a chance to see how the NSCA tests. Even with the book, studied and memorized I think I would have been sorely challenged by this.

In many instances the test is decidedly NOT intuitive or common sensical. Particulary in the science part you have to have rotely memorized certain things. There was one person online who said that their professor in Kinesiology gave them one of the practice exams for the CSCS in their final semester and everyone in the class failed. This b/c of the test style and not the information base.

The method I used to study which seems to be the most common, is to read the book through once with a highlighter with the understanding that you will only be getting a limited amount of comprehension in certain areas. Then I took each of the practice exams once. Failed all of them. Took the notes. Then I took a week off. With three weeks out. I went at this full time. I was particularly week in biomechanics and bioenergetics.

You must be able to apply what you read in the book. For example, while you may know the basics of say the sliding filament theory, what you are asked is something like: Which of the following is lengthened during an eccentric bicep extension? A)hzone b)myosin actin crossbridge c)I-bands D)zl-line. So for those three weeks I devoted myself entirely to two chapters each day. Sometimes 3 depending on the difficulty. I watched the corresponding symposium lectures before to cement this home. Then I took as many tests as I could.

Overall, this can be done in 2 months depending on how good you are with studying. The book has some chapters that are just so badly written. The biomechanics one in particular was awkward. As was the bioenergetics. I also had to go off and study anatomy on my own for an afternoon to get all the basics. Nowhere in the book is this explained. AND don't underestimate the "gimme" common sense chapters, like the facility layour or organization.

While some of the questions are common sense, others will ask: how many inches are required between window and floor in an S&C facility? You either read that or you didn't in the book.

Ok, the test. as I said, it's hard. I have a graduate degree in an unrelated field and am a "decent" test taker but this test had me scratching my head in frustration at times. In many instances, I thought "where in the book was this?" I'll offer an example there was a video of the lat pull down and in the video the athlete was pulling the bar behind her neck.

In the book and in the videos the NSCA mentions this as a "common technique error" on this exercise. Yet the question was how can this person improve their technique? The possible answers didn't mention the behind the neck option. Meaning the NSCA used a wrongly performed exercise as an example. Other things that come to mind.

You must be rock solid on agonist/antagonist muscle actions in a practical sense. You must be rock solid the sliding filament theory and muscle anatomy. Tons of questions on facility layout and organization, most of these were fair. NUTRITION is huge. And I don't mean nutrition... I mean the horseshit NSCA version of nutrition.

BTW if you want a laugh, check out the prof who does the symposium lecture for nutrition. He is obese. You need to know Kcal requirements for athletes, eating disorders and performance enhancing drugs. Even this stuff, which seems common sense was phrased in a very challenging and awkward manner. Know plyometric technique well, and how you progress from one exercise to the next in intensity. Know work rest/ratios for both aerobic and anaerobic training and what adaptations they cause. Also a TON of questions on sprinting technique and training.

There are charts and tables on normative data for athletes in different tests. You need to have a reference for this. You don't have to memorize them. A very very common and reasonable question that kept coming up in different forms was that they would mention an athletes stats: bodyweight, bench, squat, 40yd run and you need to pick what the athlete should focus on based on that. The only thing I'll say about this is that while it may seem like common sense, some of the tests are not common knowledge.

For example, I didnt know the norms on the hexagon agility test or the wingate test etc. This part of the test tended to be the most reasonable.

I would say that in general, for about a 3rd of the test the answers were clear if you studied. For another 3rd there were two answers that both looked pretty good. And for the last 3rd there were 3 answers that looked good, even when you studied. The computer format allows you to "mark" questions you want to return to later.

When you answer the last question it cycles you back through the ones you marked. I marked about half the questions for review on part one of the test.

The funny part is that I haven't even gotten my results yet. My feeling is that I passed the applied/practical part and that I've got about a 50/50 chance on the science. I'll let you know the results when I get them. Like I said, if you fail one part only then you don't have to retake the part you passed. But you do have to pay to take it again.

All in all, my opinion of the CSCS is that it greatly increased my knowledge of exercise science. Things like advanced plyometrics and Sprint training, as well as facility design and layout were actually quite interesting and not something that an average trainer is likely to know.

In the final analysis, if I had a 4 year degree in this field, then I probably wouldn't even need this test for anything but the paper it's printed on but if you want to "begin" the process of working with athletes this will give you a base to start with.

I spent lot's of time online reading about this test and was helped by many who shared their experiences about where to focus. I hope this helps someone who is either taking the CSCS soon, or is contemplating it in the future.

JS


#2

interesting stuff, thank you for posting.


#3

I PASSED!!

Cannot say how relieved I am. I just got the news today. It turns out that I did better on the science part than the applied which surprised me frankly.

A couple of things. For the sake of time, make sure you send in your CPR results and your transcripts at least 5 days before you take it. I ended up having to wait 10 days for my results due to a database issue.

the test uses a type of scaling system called the angoff method. Basically what this means is that all versions of the CSCS exam are not created equal. Some are harder than others and there is no way of knowing which you will get obviously. They use a panel of experts who go over each question and rank them. So a passing grade on one test may very well be different % score than the next.

I would just reiterate that the bottomline is knowing the book inside and out. But this test, understandably demands that you can apply that information too.

again, if you have a degree in this field, a month of brushing up on the NSCA version of the information and taking a couple practice exams will suffice. There are a few people online who have called this test easy and my hat is off to them. I put a tremendous amount of repetitive effort into this.

Anyway…the joke is…now I’m “qualified” to do an internship. Haha. Just excited to be done with this and to start learning how to work with athletes.

If anyone has any specific questions about the test, I’d be happy to answer.


#4

JS, congrats on passing the exam!!
i’ve been seriously considering taking this exam and after reading your thread i finally hit the submit button in my amazon.com mailbox.

now that you passed what are your plans for your cert??


#5

Hey Marsh,

Thanks man. You definitely won’t regret getting the CSCS especially if you didn’t do this stuff in college. Just give yourself enough time to study and you’ll be fine.

WRT your question: I think my very first priority will be to get at least one, maybe two internships with solid and experienced coaches. While the CSCS gave me a good foundation and filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge base, I need to be realistic about walking into a Div1 strength facility or even a private performance gym and programming for athletes. So I consider the CSCS to be my gateway into building a solid foundation of experience. There are tons of great S&C coaches in my area for me to learn from. Also, given that this community is rather insular, I hope to make some connections as well. In the meantime I will most likely continue to train regular folks for money, something that I was already qualified to do before I got this cert.

A couple of things to consider. You do need to do a minimum of CEUs(continuing education units) each year to maintain the CSCS. While this may look annoying, which I’m sure it is, there seems to me an upside in that it keeps you on your toes in some ways. For example, there is a strong cross-correlation for this with other organizations like NASM, ASCM etc. So lets say that next year I want to get a NASM-CES(corrective exercise specialist) or a USAW coaching cert, then those can go towards my CEUs for the CSCS. Just something to consider.

It also seems that having a niche in this field helps. For example, Eric Cressey specializes in elite baseball players and is considered one of the best in that specific area, likewise there are guys that focus on basketball or track and field etc. I’m not sure where I’d wanna go with that but I think specializing, to a degree, down the road is important.

One thing that most the high end S&C guys say is that you need to be willing to volunteer or work on the cheap for a while. So for me, it’s time to explore that option, get some experience and make a few connections.

Let me know if you have any specific questions about the test prep, happy to help.


#6

A follow up on my post CSCS experience:

I’m working as a personal trainer at high end commercial gym. I took this job for one reason only, to get experience working one on one with all different types clients. I’m entering my fourth month. I made a promise to myself that my first year of working in fitness would be exclusively devoted to learning. And like most starting trainers, I’m making next to nothing. Since this thread is ultimately about the CSCS, what I noticed is that in commercial gym world, the CSCS is given plenty of respect but it’s not really any more important to employers than any old CPT. In the gym that I work in. 2 of us have CSCS. 2 have ACSM CPTs. 2 have lapsed NASM CPT certs. And one has no cert at all but a Degree in the field. The MGR has no active certs but also has a degree in the field.

As you would imagine, clients could care less about your cert. The thing that matters the most by far is the results that your clients are getting. On one occasion I was asked by a client what I was certified in and when I told her about the CSCS she seemed intrigued but never really asked again…luckily I work in an area near harvard medical school and all of my clients are Drs and Scientists, they make great clients. I have also been fortunate enough to get two regular clients who are serious athletes. One a female rugby player, another is a competitive roller derby player. Working with these two confirms that I really want to be working with athletes almost exclusively. The hour fly’s by and have gotten to see legitimate results in the time I’ve worked with them.

about a month ago I was accepted to do a 5 month internship with a performance gym in MA that I have a great deal of admiration for. It begins in January. I will be there full time. This gym trains professional, olympic and high level college and high school athletes. I couldn’t be more excited. In my phone interview the business manager told me that they generally only accept applicants who have their CSCS. All of the coahces there have the CSCS as well. The end of this internship will coincide roughly with the one year anniversary getting the CSCS and I’m hoping that at that point, I will be comfortable starting to write articles and building a legitimate S&C practice of my own…More to learn…I will keep everyone posted.


#7

Hey JohnShade,
Was curious how your career is going since haven taken the CSCS. I’m looking for a career change and eventually I will need to go through something similar.
Cheers


#8

I’m a month into my 5 month internship at the aforementioned performance gym. The experience thus far has been truly incredible and humbling as well. 80% of the clients each day are professional athletes. We are hands on coaching these guys for 7 hours a day.

I learned more in my first week there than in the entire two years prior. The owner is a well known coach and a corrective exercise ninja. I have also already made connections that could lead to future employment. The cscs helped me get this but it did little to prepare me for this type of setting and it probably would have taken me five years to learn what I’m learning in 5 months…

I didn’t officially quit my commercial gym job, its waiting for me in june but highly doubt I could go back to that setting after this.


#9

Not to shit on your parade or anything but, how much of this exam and books will you actually use in a real world setting.

Each athlete is his or her own person, different to everybody else so you determine the ideal plan for them.

This plan would be

  • Exercises, movements
  • Dietary intake
  • What they shouldn’t do
  • Warm-up/warm-down techniques
  • Rest periods
  • Intensity
  • Volume
  • Additional work to improve weakness in certain areas.

How much of that book can be applied to a typical athlete program?


#10

I can’t believe I let this thread slip by during the summer last year! Hope everything is going well for you in the S&C path and THANK YOU for such a detail account on the exam and your thoughts. I just graduated this past December with an Ex Sci degree and I’m looking to get the CSCS while everything is still “fresh” in my mind. It sounds like a really hard exam and something I could do right now while I’m working and not going to school anymore.

Only problem is I still don’t have a regular CPT certification. I’m trying to save money to get that under my belt asap, then try and gain some experience as a CPT in a commercial gym setting, which I’m absolutely dreading at this point but I understand it’s necessary to get the experience of training somebody one on one. My end result would be to work with athletes same as what you described.

Keep us posted on how it’s going for you, I know I’d love to hear more about it.


#11

[quote]jldume wrote:
I can’t believe I let this thread slip by during the summer last year! Hope everything is going well for you in the S&C path and THANK YOU for such a detail account on the exam and your thoughts. I just graduated this past December with an Ex Sci degree and I’m looking to get the CSCS while everything is still “fresh” in my mind. It sounds like a really hard exam and something I could do right now while I’m working and not going to school anymore.

Only problem is I still don’t have a regular CPT certification. I’m trying to save money to get that under my belt asap, then try and gain some experience as a CPT in a commercial gym setting, which I’m absolutely dreading at this point but I understand it’s necessary to get the experience of training somebody one on one. My end result would be to work with athletes same as what you described.

Keep us posted on how it’s going for you, I know I’d love to hear more about it.[/quote]

Glad you found the thread useful man. If you have any questions about the exam or otherwise, I’d be happy to share my experiences.

That said, you DONOT need to have a CPT first to get your CSCS. The CSCS will cover all your bases. If you’re just out of school and its in the field then I would just sign up to take the CSCS in a few months and get it done. ultimately a four year degree in the field is going to be more respected anyway. I also wouldnt say you have to work at a commercial gym. There are a ton of performance gyms sprouting up, even chains like Velocity where you could get experience. Applying to grad school is another option, then you could be a grad assistant and get paid to work…lots of options.


#12

I’ve heard that before from other people as well about not needing a CPT certification. I’ve got to see what performance based gyms are in my area, good idea.

I was looking at grad school, but I personally found it a little redundant, maybe I should reconsider my options again. It just sounded funny saying it in my head, I’ve got a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science and I’m going for my Masters in Exercise Science.


#13

Gearing up to take the CSCS this month…kinda intimidated by everything, I did start to minor in athletic training in college but never finished the minor. I graduated college in 2007 and trained athletically minded people for four years or so. It was just recently that I decided to start training people again and get a CSCS cert, before I had a regular ISSA cert. OP, your review of the test itself was very helpful, it has definitely made me want to crack the book open again, instead of relying on notes and answers from the NSCA study guide.


#14

Thanks, going to be digesting this topic when I have a little more time. I’m working on NSCA’s CPT right now hoping that it will be a good warmup for moving on to the CSCS, since I went to school for engineering and have been out of school for a long time anyway.


#15

I was fortunate because my professor in college(just graduated last year) is the NSCA director here in Washington. Our curriculum was pretty much set up so we could excel at the test as well as understand things such as FMS and other related topics. CSCS was still tough, but definitely must more manageable than people who are not in the field would find it.


#16

Haven’t checked in on this thread in a while. Glad to see it’s still helping a few people.

I just completed the aforementioned internship at a high end performance gym. Half our clients were professional athletes. 6 month’s of hr days coaching, in house weekly staff seminars…truly an amazing experience. Not to mention the networking that I was able to do. I literally feel confident training, cueing and programming for pretty much anyone at this point. If you can possibly do something like this financially, I would highly recommend it. I am in the process of starting my own practice/gym and working part time at my old gym in the interim…

It has been 1 year since I took the cscs. Seems like ages ago. All of us at the performance fym had the cscs. Coaches and interns alike. It was not considered prestigous but rather the minimum requirement to show youve done some work. The guys who had degrees in the field universally found this test easy. Those of us who don’t all found it hard. If I were to take the test now, with just this one year behind me, I’d find it pretty easy as well.

In short, its only in the application that you really get this craft. You can’t learn to cook from a cookbook. My advice is the same…get the cert bc its what most gym’s and facilities require. In order to get that cert, know the book. Period. Then get out there and start paying your dues.


#17

John,

This thread pops up on the radar at an interesting time for me. I just put up a thread here in GAL about strongly considering a move to colorado and pursuing jobs/internships there for athletic training. My question for you would be a) was the internship paid (obviously worth its weight in gold, but did it let you make ends meet) and b) if not how did you plan financially for the internship draining your otherwise open work-time.

I probably have another question or two later, but it’s late and I am dead tired. This was a great read btw regarding your experience with the test as well.


#18

[quote]Aragorn wrote:
John,

This thread pops up on the radar at an interesting time for me. I just put up a thread here in GAL about strongly considering a move to colorado and pursuing jobs/internships there for athletic training. My question for you would be a) was the internship paid (obviously worth its weight in gold, but did it let you make ends meet) and b) if not how did you plan financially for the internship draining your otherwise open work-time.

I probably have another question or two later, but it’s late and I am dead tired. This was a great read btw regarding your experience with the test as well.[/quote]

I was fortunate to have support and resources from family and savings. My internship was long, 5 months and I know that some of the other guys struggled near the end. The internship was entirely unpaid, Most are I’m afraid.

I’d like to tell you that working another job concurrently would be great but there was no way this wouldve worked at our gym. Just not enough time and energy.

The way I would think about it is that this will probably end up saving you time and money in the long run. It would have taken me five plus years to learn this on my own. Not to mention the networking opportunities. Also I now have two of the most respected strength coaches in the US as my mentors, friends and professional references.

The timing needs to be right for you to do this though. Many internships do turn into paid jobs but I wouldnt go into it expecting that.


#19

[quote]JohnShade wrote:

[quote]Aragorn wrote:
John,

This thread pops up on the radar at an interesting time for me. I just put up a thread here in GAL about strongly considering a move to colorado and pursuing jobs/internships there for athletic training. My question for you would be a) was the internship paid (obviously worth its weight in gold, but did it let you make ends meet) and b) if not how did you plan financially for the internship draining your otherwise open work-time.

I probably have another question or two later, but it’s late and I am dead tired. This was a great read btw regarding your experience with the test as well.[/quote]

I was fortunate to have support and resources from family and savings. My internship was long, 5 months and I know that some of the other guys struggled near the end. The internship was entirely unpaid, Most are I’m afraid.

I’d like to tell you that working another job concurrently would be great but there was no way this wouldve worked at our gym. Just not enough time and energy.

The way I would think about it is that this will probably end up saving you time and money in the long run. It would have taken me five plus years to learn this on my own. Not to mention the networking opportunities. Also I now have two of the most respected strength coaches in the US as my mentors, friends and professional references.

The timing needs to be right for you to do this though. Many internships do turn into paid jobs but I wouldnt go into it expecting that.[/quote]

Were you at Cressey Performance?


#20

[quote]Steel Nation wrote:

[quote]JohnShade wrote:

[quote]Aragorn wrote:
John,

This thread pops up on the radar at an interesting time for me. I just put up a thread here in GAL about strongly considering a move to colorado and pursuing jobs/internships there for athletic training. My question for you would be a) was the internship paid (obviously worth its weight in gold, but did it let you make ends meet) and b) if not how did you plan financially for the internship draining your otherwise open work-time.

I probably have another question or two later, but it’s late and I am dead tired. This was a great read btw regarding your experience with the test as well.[/quote]

I was fortunate to have support and resources from family and savings. My internship was long, 5 months and I know that some of the other guys struggled near the end. The internship was entirely unpaid, Most are I’m afraid.

I’d like to tell you that working another job concurrently would be great but there was no way this wouldve worked at our gym. Just not enough time and energy.

The way I would think about it is that this will probably end up saving you time and money in the long run. It would have taken me five plus years to learn this on my own. Not to mention the networking opportunities. Also I now have two of the most respected strength coaches in the US as my mentors, friends and professional references.

The timing needs to be right for you to do this though. Many internships do turn into paid jobs but I wouldnt go into it expecting that.[/quote]

Were you at Cressey Performance?[/quote]

yes, are you a former intern there?