I wrote the following information in the hopes that it will help others who are interested in taking the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). The CSCS certification is one of the most respected certifications in the fitness industry, and it has a higher barrier to entry than most personal training certifications (namely because a bachelor’s degree is required).
I tried to share the type of information that I was looking for as I prepared for the exam. If you already know all the basic information about the exam, and are interested in the actual exam experience or how the results and score reports are given, you can jump to those sections below.
You can find all the information about the exam format, prerequisites, etc on NSCA’s website, but here is a very brief overview:
There are two main sections on the exam – Scientific Foundations and Practical/Applied.
The Scientific Foundations section is further broken down into Exercise Sciences (71% of the questions) and Nutrition (29% of the questions). [Note: Beginning July 1, 2014, this section will be 74% Exercise Science and 26% Nutrition, and will contain 80 scored and 15 non-scored questions.]
The Practical/Applied section is made up of Exercise Technique (36%), Program Design (36%), Organization and Administration (10%), and Testing and Evaluation (18%). [Note: Beginning July 1, 2014, this section will be 35% Exercise Techniques, 36% Program Design, 12% Organization and Administration, and 18% Testing and Evaluation. It will contain 110 scored and 15 non-scored questions.]
The unscored questions help the NSCA develop future exam questions. You can access the updated NSCA Certification Handbook (effective July 1, 2014) here.
I wrote the following immediately after taking the CSCS exam on December 19th, 2013:
I took the computer-based CSCS exam at H&R Block office in Fort Worth, TX. My appointment was scheduled for 1:30 PM, but I got there 2 hours early because I was driving from out of town (if you are more than 15 minutes late, they won’t allow you to take the exam). I talked to the staff, and they were able to let me start early because they had testing rooms available. This was incredibly nice because I would have just sat around and gotten stressed out for the next 2 hours until the exam started.
I was alone in a video-monitored room with several computer stations. I was the only student taking the exam that day, so it was a fairly calm environment. I did take advantage of the free earplugs they provided (they had flames on them – how could I pass that up?). The computer interface for the exam is very intuitive, but there is a short tutorial before you begin the first section that was helpful.
As I went through the exam, I would read the question and answer carefully and mentally double check my answers as I went. That way, if I was sure about an answer, I wouldn’t need to waste time double checking it later. If I wasn’t confident about my answer, I would select my best guess but mark the answer to come back to later (there is an icon on the screen that you can click to mark a question – you’re then able to cycle back through all marked or unanswered questions at the end of the exam).
I think that spending a few extra seconds to mentally double check your answers as you go through is a good idea for this exam. I didn’t want to “run though all the questions again” like I sometimes do on normal lecture exams. There were just too many questions on the exam for that.
There were a couple questions (probably 1 or 2 per section) that I honestly had no idea on – the terms used didn’t sound familiar in any way. For those couple questions, I made my best educated guess, but didn’t mark the question to come back to. In case I got tight on time, I didn’t want to come back to a question that I wouldn’t definitively know the answer to, no matter how much I stared at it.
Time didn’t turn out to be too much of an issue. I finished answering all the Scientific Foundation questions with about 35 or 40 minutes left. I took a water and restroom break (you’re allowed to do this at any time, but the exam timer doesn’t pause) and then double checked all the answers I had marked to review. I submitted the section with about 10 minutes left. I had marked about 25/90 questions that I thought were worth a second look.
For the Practical/Applied section, I finished answering all questions with about 40 or 45 minutes left. I reviewed all the questions I had marked and submitted the section with about 10-15 minutes left. I had marked about 20/110 questions to come back to and look at.
One unique feature of the Practical/Applied section was the video questions. The video questions were mostly straightforward, but a few were odd stretches or drills that weren’t covered in the NSCA exercise technique videos or the textbook. It is important to remember that you can only watch each video once.
The exam should warn you of this, but if you click elsewhere on the screen while the video is playing, it can stop the video (and you won’t be able to watch it again). This only happened to me once, and thankfully I had already recognized the answer by that point.
Overall, there were a lot of questions that were similar to practice exam questions, but none were identical (as far as I can remember). There were quite a few that were similar to the practice exam questions, but “harder.” They were questions that, if you only had the surface-level of understanding of a concept, appeared to have two correct answers.
On many questions, it wasn’t difficult to immediately recognized the correct answer (simply from having the right material memorized or the right concepts in mind). On the questions that I didn’t immediately know, it was nearly always possible to narrow it down to 2 answers fairly quickly. This 50/50 point is where I tried to go into some deeper thought and either justify or eliminate one of the answers. These were typically the questions I marked to look at again.
As you can see on the score report, you will receive the information about passing your specific exam (you always need a scaled score of 70 or better, but how many correct questions are equal to a 70 scaled score varies based on your particular exam).
For my exam, 52 correct answers were needed to pass the Scientific Foundations section, and I got 73 correct (21/23 on Nutrition and 52/57 on Exercise Science).
For the Practical/Applied section, 78 correct answers were needed to pass, and I got 100 correct (36/39 on Exercise Technique, 37/40 on Program Design, 8/11 on Organization and Administration, and 19/20 on Testing and Evaluation).
How you prepare for the exam and which study materials you should use are largely based your background and current knowledge.
There are many different materials that you can use to study for the CSCS exam. However, there are only a couple that are pretty much essential:
1. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. This is the official NSCA textbook for the CSCS exam. It covers all the major areas on the exam in an appropriate amount of depth. One downside is that the chapters have different authors, meaning that some chapters seem to flow much better than others. Overall, it is a very solid resource, and I have definitely used it outside of just preparing for the CSCS exam. While this book is available from the NSCA, it is quite a bit cheaper from Amazon.com.
2. Practice Exams. While these are a little bit pricey and you typically have to buy them directly from the NSCA, these are a very valuable study tool. There are currently 3 different practice exams available. While you don’t necessarily need all 3, you do receive a discount if you buy them all together. Depending on your educational background and personal preferences, you can determine how many exams you want to purchase.
Beyond those two resources, there are is one main resource that can be very helpful. Whether or not you want to purchase it may just depend on your background, experience, and access to available resources.
Exercise Technique Manual for Resistance Training. This manual comes with a DVD that has step-by-step explanations of each of the major exercises covered. The NSCA has some specific ideas about exercise techniques that they communicate through this manual and the DVDs. Since the NSCA writes the CSCS exam, these ideas seem to show up on the actual exams. The DVDs also include some of the most common errors with each exercise technique. This manual is available from the NSCA, but it quite a bit cheaper from Amazon.com.
The amount of time you need to spend studying for the exam can vary widely. If your bachelor’s degree is in an unrelated field, you will likely need to spend more time studying than if you have already been immersed in exercise science, nutrition, anatomy, etc.
I was fortunate enough to be taking a strength and conditioning course the semester before I took the CSCS exam. Because of this, and my previous academic background, I mainly focused on chapters that weren’t emphasized in my course. Also, I spent a good amount of time the month leading up to the exam taking practice exams and reviewing all the questions (both those I got correct and incorrect).
The CSCS exam isn’t a breeze, but if you prepare thoroughly for it, it is definitely passable. After examining my score reports, I realized that there is a much greater margin for error than I had previously thought.
If you have any questions about the exam, feel free to ask them in the comments section below.