What Is the CSCS Certification?
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If you’re an aspiring trainer looking for a place to learn your craft, or a fitness enthusiast in search of a qualified trainer, you’ve probably noticed a sea of letters trailing the names of the fitness pros you encounter. One of them being CSCS.
Many of the top folks in fitness — including people who train pro athletes, write fitness books, and consult on articles in top fitness sites and magazines — carry the CSCS, or Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist credential, offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, or NSCA.
But… what is a CSCS? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? We’ll dive into all that below.
Full disclosure — I’ve been a CSCS for about 10 years. Though I’ve let some other certifications lapse since, I’ve made sure to keep my CSCS current. As objectively as I can, I’ll go into why.
What Is a CSCS?
According to the NSCA website, “Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists are professionals who apply scientific knowledge to train athletes for the primary goal of improving athletic performance.”
CSCS qualifies you to assess an athlete’s needs, address their weaknesses, and create training programs to help them perform optimally, one competitive season to the next. It also allows you to help someone reach their general fitness goals, like improved body composition, better day-to-day functioning, flexibility, mobility, and muscle mass.
The CSCS credential is the most widely recognized and respected one among the alphabet soup of credentials available to aspiring fitness pros. “It really is the gold standard in the industry,” says Trevor Thieme, CSCS, who currently serves as director of fitness and nutrition content for Openfit. “That’s why I originally pursued it, and why I continue to maintain it.”
Why is this? “It’s likely because of its difficulty,” says Thieme. “If you aren’t serious and passionate about fitness, you won’t have the motivation and drive required to endure the hours, days, weeks, and months it takes to absorb the knowledge and pass the exam, which has a shockingly high fail rate.” More on that in a moment.
That’s not to say there aren’t great coaches who don’t carry the CSCS title. But if you’re looking for someone who’s serious about what they do — and not just training a few friends to pick up extra cash on weekends — checking their bio for a CSCS is a decent filter.
How Do I Get My CSCS?
Well — you study. Hard.
A hefty amount of the science-based, nerdy minutia is covered mostly (but not entirely) in the NSCA’s textbook, the intimidating 752-page Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. If you haven’t already spent four years boning up on exercise science in college, prepare to spend a pretty good chunk of time doing so now.
The NSCA doesn’t care if you’re built like Venus or Adonis, if you can run 40 yards in four seconds, or if you can motivate a pile of bricks to complete a Tough Mudder. They care if you know actin from myosin, what heart rate reserve is, what muscles comprise the rotator cuff, and the acute effects of cardiovascular training on cortisol levels.
In addition to reading the textbook, there are also study guides, online prep courses, a Facebook group, and live exam prep courses (about $300 for a two-day course) available through the NSCA.
When you feel confident that you’re all studied up, you’ll sign up for the exam, which is administered by computer at testing locations all around the world, and will set you back about $350.
Once you pass the exam, you’ll have to complete a certain number of continuing education credits (in the form of live seminars, published books or articles, and other activities), and show proof of completion every two years.
The CSCS exam
The CSCS exam is comprised of two parts: Scientific Foundations and Practical Applications.
The first is a one-hour-and-a-half, 95-question segment on exercise science (anatomy, physiology, cardiovascular functioning, endocrinology) and nutrition (food choices and performance, signs and symptoms of eating disorders, effects of different micro- and macronutrients).
The second segment is two and half hours and contains 125 questions on practical applications (exercises, program design, evaluation, exercise form).
Within those sections, there are scored and non-scored multiple-choice questions. The non-scored questions do not count for or against your results, but instead, they’re used to vet questions for future exams. Each section includes 15 non-scored questions.
And again, it’s not easy. According to the NSCA website, the passing rate in 2018 was 56 percent for first-timers attempting both sections.
How long does it take to prep for the CSCS exam?
That depends on your background. To start, you need a college degree (in any field). After that, it’s just how much time you need to fully understand the all the information.
“I devoted three solid months to studying for the exam back in 2009,” says Thieme. “It was a hell of an undertaking — but worth it since I passed the test.”
I didn’t have three months solid to spare, so I did it piecemeal — and it took me almost a year.
Is the CSCS certification worth it?
The information you learn in order to pass the CSCS exam is solid and science-backed — so what you learn will be effective for training nearly anyone. But what you’re really paying for is that stamp of approval: No mere fitness dilettante will summit the CSCS mountaintop, so you immediately distinguish yourself as a serious pro by becoming a CSCS. And you’ll never have to certify anywhere else again.
On the other hand, if you’re considering sitting for the test, Thieme says, “It’s worth doing a cost/benefit analysis, and to be realistic about your career goals.”
Interested in working with professional athletes? If so, he says, consider jumping on it. On the other hand, if your goal is to become a personal trainer,“consider shifting your sights to becoming a CPT,” or certified personal trainer — a credential offered not only by the NSCA, but also by many other reputable organizations recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, including NASM, ACE, NCCPT, ACSM, and a small handful of others. “The CPT path is shorter and less rigorous, and will give you the knowledge you need to help non-athletes achieve their fitness goals,” he says.