Tips and Tricks for Passing the CSCS Exam
by Zahra Asif, SPT, CSCS
July 2, 2022
So you would like to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)? The beauty of adding those four letters to your name is that anyone can be one, as long as you are a college graduate and have a passion for exercise and performance. You don’t have to have a background or degree in healthcare, exercise, or athletics. You just need to have an interest in strength and conditioning training, improving athletic performance, and the ability to work hard and lead others to practice and perform at their best.
For many people a large barrier to becoming a CSCS is passing the exam. It’s a long and extensive exam that tests your knowledge in anatomy, physiology, nutrition, exercise selection, testing and evaluation, programming, etc. In this two part endeavor, you will spend 1.5 hours in the scientific foundations section and 2.5 hours on the practical/applied section. Having taken this exam earlier this year, I personally came across some “do’s and don'ts” when approaching a way to study. Before going further, I want to mention that these are things that I have experienced and tips that I came up with and found useful, some may work for you and some may not. I wanted to write this article in hopes that it helps someone who is struggling to study or unsure of how to start preparing, as I was at one point.
- Buy the book! The NSCA “Essentials of Strength and Conditioning” textbook is a must to have. The entire exam is based on the information it contains and is the most up to date book in regards to strength and conditioning. Once you’re done studying with the textbook, it doesn’t just collect dust on your bookshelf for the next couple of years. You’ll probably reference it very frequently since it has all the normative values, tests to conduct, and exercises with pictures and descriptions of correct form.
- Figure out how to use the book to your advantage. Great, you got the book! And now you are feeling overwhelmed staring at 700 pages of what may seem like gibberish. The sheer size of the book can be a lot to take in and the fact that you have to get through all of it can be very stressful. But, there is a way to study and retain the information in a more productive way than blindly reading cover to cover. I believe the best way to go about it is to take a practice exam before doing anything else. This can be beneficial because it’ll help pinpoint the areas that you are weak in and need to focus on the most. Once you take the exam and figure out your sticky points, start off by reading those chapters and outlining the information yourself. You of course need to go over the entire book and read every chapter, but now you know the parts you should really focus on and the parts you don’t have to spend as much time with.
- Create a study schedule. The NSCA has a great outline of how much you should study based on your background and current knowledge in the field. This is also not a hard and fast rule that you have to follow, more of a guided suggestion. I mentioned before how you don’t need to have a degree related to exercise, but it does provide an advantage. As a current physical therapy student, I was fortunate enough to have been learning this information for quite some time, so I felt I was able to retain it much easier and take the exam earlier than most. This shouldn’t discourage you if you haven’t had any classes or experience related to this topic, it just means you might have to spend a little extra time with it. After taking the first practice exam, find your weakest topics and focus on those first. Then work the other chapters and topics into your schedule. Also, don’t try to make things hard for yourself by scheduling 4 hours of studying after an 8 hour shift. When creating your schedule, first put in the hours you need to work or go to class, then time for activities like going to the gym or hanging out with friends (it is super important to have stress relieving activities scheduled, it’ll help you focus better when you study and prevent burning out), then work in the times you will dedicate to study.
- Utilize other resources to help study. Personally, I am a very visual learner. It’s hard for me to read a textbook and understand the topic instantly. If you’re the same way, try watching YouTube videos on topics that you can’t seem to grasp by reading them. Something about having someone explain it to you just makes it click better than accidentally zoning out in the middle of the paragraph only to realize that you forgot to understand anything till the end of the page. There are also some study courses out there that may help but I can’t speak on those since I didn’t use any. Before signing up for one make sure they have some good reviews and teach in your preferred style of learning. If you have found other sources that have helped you study in the past, use them as well! Treat this exam like any other major exam you’ve taken before so you know the best way you can study for it.
- Take practice exams. I mentioned taking a practice exam before you start studying, but that should not be the only practice exam that you take. In my opinion, you should take at least 3 practice exams. One in the beginning, one in the middle of your study schedule, and one after you’re done studying / right before taking the actual exam. The exam in the middle of the study schedule can be taken at different points and whenever you prefer. You can take it after you covered all the tough topics or after going through all the chapters but before reviewing the information again. If you decide to take it according to the first part, it’ll provide you with information on if your study schedule is working for you, how much you’ve improved in the tough areas, or areas that you still need to focus on and go over. Taking the second practice exam after reviewing all the information can help you figure out areas that you still need to improve and where you should guide your focus when reviewing the information again. The last practice exam should be taken before you sit for the real deal. I took mine a week before the actual test and tried to replicate the testing scenario as much as possible. I went to the library and booked a quiet room, wore a mask to get used to taking an exam with it on (since COVID was at one of its peaks), gave myself a snack break in between with the exact amount of time, etc. Just like athletes need to train their endurance levels for sports and competitions, we should train our endurance levels for taking an exam by replicating it as much as possible.
- Keep reviewing the information. Just because you have gone through the book once, doesn’t mean that you remember and understand all of the information. The first time you go through the book, you should outline it (either on your computer or hand written notes), make flashcards, anything that you can use to go over the information again. When it’s time to start reviewing the information, you should only refer to your notes and reference the book if you need more information. Don’t read the entire textbook again, unless you love to torture yourself. Review the information and relate the topics to one another because you’ll find everything has a correlation. This will help make the information easier to understand and remember when the time comes. The material should be reviewed at least 1-2 times after going through it once. The more repetitions and exposure to the information, the easier you’ll retain it.
- Find a study group or a mentor for advice. Having someone or a group of people to go on this journey with can help a lot. Even if you don’t know anyone personally, I’m sure there are some study groups on Facebook that can be super helpful. If you’re like me and not a fan of studying in big groups, joining one online can be beneficial. The posts of people’s experiences will encourage and motivate you and some groups will post study questions or quizzes! Getting in contact with someone who has already taken and passed the exam will help in other ways. They can provide some tips or advice on things that worked for them and may help you get some experience to further increase your knowledge.
- Perform the tests yourself. When going over the tests and how to execute them properly you’ll find that it’s a lot of information and some of it is the same with very minute differences so it’s easy to get confused. The biggest thing that helped me with this is setting up and doing all the athletic testing on myself. By doing it and following the correct procedure, I was able to recall the specific parameters when I approached a question about it on the test. It was also cool to categorize my results and see where I fell in relation to the normative data. This advice can also help when learning about correct form and execution with the exercises (especially the power and lifting exercises).
- Volunteer or intern to gain experience. If you have the time and want to know what to do / how to be a strength and conditioning professional, find someone to intern with. If you played a sport in the past, try contacting your former coach. Since you already know them, it’ll make it easier to ask questions and volunteer in an environment you may already be familiar with. If that’s not possible, try emailing a few coaches wherever you are and tell them about your interest in becoming a strength and conditioning specialist. Or, remember those study groups I mentioned before, reaching out to some people on there could get you in contact with someone. Nothing beats getting hands-on experience. Being exposed to the environment can help you gain practical knowledge when it comes to being a coach. It’ll help you figure out how you want to approach your future clients and how to be the best strength and conditioning specialist possible.
- Specific tips for physical therapy students. All the information you have learned in school will actually help you with this exam… go figure. With that being said, I wouldn’t take the exam until you have taken some specific classes or their equivalents according to the courses your program offers: Anatomy, Physiology, Exercise Physiology, Biomechanics, Exercise Principles and Prescription, and Gait and Movement Analysis. These courses provide the foundation and majority of the information needed to do well on the exam. So pay attention during your lectures (and all other classes not mentioned cause they’ll help your future as a PT!). Another big advice I have is to not take the exam during only a 3 week break between semesters… trust me. Yes, I was able to study and pass the exam, but I was very burned out by the end of the next semester because I never gave myself a sufficient break and mental rest. I did have a couple days in the beginning of the break and a couple after taking the exam, but it was not enough.
For more information on the CSCS exam, you can visit the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) website. If you have any questions, are looking for advice, or just want to reach out, please feel free to contact me at [email protected]. I wish you the best of luck on your journey!