How To Study For The NSCA CSCS Exam: Part 2

How To Study For The NSCA CSCS Exam: Part 2

I recently had a friend comb through my CSCS textbook that lay on my desk. He’s an engineer.

“Do you need to know ALL OF THIS to be a strength coach?”

He was referring to the biomechanics, exercise physiology, and functional anatomy chapters that were flooded with lessons on actin and myosin, first class levers, torque, energy systems, work to rest ratios, and prime movers during the olympic lifts.

So, yes. Our jobs extend beyond just liking to be around athletes in sweatpants.

Put simply, the CSCS is like the BAR exam for strength coaches. It is required by the NCAA and other governing bodies to train D1 college or professional athletes.

It is also key for staying afloat in the private sector. Now I’m not saying that chasing a piece of paper is going to have people knocking down your doors looking for training, but it does hold you to the “gold standard” in our industry, and ensures you loads of “bro” respect. Plus, you can pimp out your business card. ;-0

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So if you’ve decided to take the leap to sit for the test, congratulations for completing step one.

But here’s the deal. It’s not a cakewalk. If it were, everyone and their grandmother would be qualified to train professional athletes and strap a kid to a speed harness and go weeeeeeee.

Even worse, I hear the NSCA is updating their text and making the exam more challenging.


With that said, this past month, I’ve received a lot of emails from people in a panic.

And I get it. Keeping our cool during this test is like asking a doctor to maintain a resting heart rate of 65 BPM during the MCAT. Or a virgin to hold back an erection upon opening the Kama Sutra.

My first post on studying for the CSCS received a myriad of “thank you” notes, but still some confusion. So as is this one wasn’t enough, I decided to reinforce 4 critical ways to not be an idiot 4 critical ways to to study for the CSCS.

Note: if you’re going to email me and ask me more questions even after this post, I expect payments in takeout sushi. Delivered on my door step. Chilled champagne doesn’t hurt either.

Without further ado, here are my pointers for nailing the CSCS:

1.) Read the damn book.
I know this sounds obvious, but too often people have told me they’re too lazy to read the entire book. First off, if you want to be a strength coach, don’t be lazy. Second off, there’s loads of information that the NSCA will test you on, especially the business/organization, nutrition, and supplementation chapters. Yes, they will ask you how many inches wide hallways should be in a training facility. And yes, you do have to calculate calories and carbohydrate, protein, and fat percentages. And yes, you do have to know what muscle is the agonist in the first pull of a snatch.

Third, reading the whole book will help you soak in the language of the NSCA, which will be critical when it comes time to understanding the way they word questions. So don’t skip over shit. Suck it up and read the book from cover to cover.

2.) Re-read the damn book.
This is the time to revisit each chapter and summarize in your own words. I found that writing out key pointers improved my memory of the material. One thing to also do here is write out the definitions of vocabulary terms and provide two real life examples on your own. The test involves a lot of real world application, so this strategy is certainly gold.

For example, it’s straightforward what actin and myosin does as a muscle relaxed and contracts. But how about taking this concept and relating it to an exercise? Check this out:

What happens to the actin and myosin during the downward pull of a lat pull down? 

Answer: Since the first pull of a lat pull down is a concentric action, that would mean the actin and myosin cross bridges will shorten as well as the H-zone.

Another example:

An athlete comes to you and wants to start training for the 50M for track. What energy system should she predominantly train?

Answer: creatine phosphate

3.) Apply yourself.
Now that you’ve absorbed the book a bit more, it’s time to continue to apply yourself. The above examples I provided are VERY similar to questions on the CSCS. Sure, it’s easy for us to define simple terms, but how can we apply these to our athletes? Our clients? Ourselves?

Perhaps when you work out, reiterate in your head what exactly is going on as you perform a power clean. Or as you come “out of the hole” in a deep squat. Or when you’re running sprints for your sport, what work to rest times are best? And what energy system are you using? When you are about to practice, how much water should you be drinking?

When I first started studying, I brought my CSCS book to my soccer training sessions and lived and applied the information. Even as my players were doing cone hops, I would repeat the actions of the stretch shortening cycle in my head.

Will I ever need to give my soccer players an anatomy lesson soccer and say their countermovement to a jump was an eccentric action in which their muscle spindles are stimulated to store elastic energy? No.

Don’t be weird. Quietly apply this information in your head as you coach. It works.

4.) Take the practice exams.
And finally, take all the practice tests. I mean the ones at the end of each chapter in the text AND the ones you have to pay for from the NSCA. I know it sucks to pay more money, but it would suck even more if you fail the test and have to fork out another couple hundred for a retake.

I can’t speak enough to how much the practice exams helped me prepare just a few weeks beforehand. By this time, I had a solid understanding of the information and was ready to get used to the wording of the questions. And after that, it was smooth sailing.

Study Time!

Overall, it took me a good four months to study for the CSCS. The first few were spent reading and re-reading the book, then the last few were using what I learned in real life, and polishing off my knowledge with some practice test shenanigans.

I took my test on a Monday and received my passing score right away. You bet your ass I drove myself to the nearest sushi restaurant and did sake bombs and crushed some mango mojitos. Like a boss.

Indeed, it was a monumental day. I wish you all luck in your journey to passing the exam and then thriving as a strength coach. Keep me posted on how you do. 🙂


  • Niel
    Posted at 12:44h, 17 May Reply

    Thank you. This and part 1 were very helpful.

    • erica
      Posted at 13:00h, 17 May Reply

      You’re welcome! Seriously though, apply yourself with those examples I gave. For everything. It works 🙂

  • Emmanuel
    Posted at 17:32h, 18 May Reply

    Hey Erica,
    Great post. This definitely helped. I have a question you may or may not be able to answer. I’m currently on track to graduate very early for my program (either end of junior year, or first semester as a senior). I think from what I saw, it was stated that you can sit for your exam sometime your senior year, but if I were to graduate early, technically my junior year would be my “senior year”. Do I have to wait until my 4th year to be able to sit for the exam?

    Once again thanks for the info!

    • erica
      Posted at 17:37h, 18 May Reply

      Glad it helped! Best of luck. And no, I have no clue! I would contact the NSCA as I don’t want to give you the wrong info. 🙂

  • Devon
    Posted at 00:25h, 19 May Reply

    Thank you Erica. This is definitely need to know information as I plan to take the Exam in August.

    • erica
      Posted at 01:31h, 19 May Reply

      Good luck!

  • Janosch
    Posted at 12:53h, 20 May Reply

    So a shut-up, sit down, and read the damn textbook approach, I like it. Good info!

    • erica
      Posted at 13:23h, 20 May Reply

      Yep! Keep it simple, understand the info, and don’t freak out. If you’re passionate about being a coach, you will thrive on this exam.

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