How to Study for the NSCA CSCS Exam

How to Study for the NSCA CSCS Exam

If you have the letters CSCS behind your name as a trainer/coach, then it’s safe to say you’re a designated boss. You’re now almost as cool as John Travolta in Grease. But seriously.


Now you’re definitely a big deal.

With a pass rate of 63%, of course we are all going to be shaking in our boots as we sit for the test. I’ll be honest guys, I feel like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde passing the LSATs, or an accountant who just crushed the CPA, or a future lawyer nailing the bar examination. And perhaps this test IS all of that in the strength and conditioning world. Certainly, it isn’t a cake walk.

*But* that’s not to say you need to wave your flag and surrender your soul to the NSCA. You have to believe in your ability to freaking nail the test. Because, well, YOU. GOT. THIS.

Now for a bit of hope. I like to throw myself under the bus and be totally authentic about my journey to becoming a CSCS and CPT because my character has been built along the way. I don’t have a Bachelor’s in anything even close to exercise science, physiology, anatomy, or nutrition. German and Economics chick over here. Oh, HEYYYYY! So there I was reading the reviews on the exam from Master’s and phD Exercise Science students, explaining how they failed by 2 questions, or have taken the test multiple times and still haven’t gotten certified. A lot of people have put their heart into studying and yet STILL failed the exam. What the hell am I getting myself into?!

Well, I managed to get an 85% on the CSCS and walk out the test center clicking my heels and smiling like a giddy schoolgirl. And you guessed it…there was a celebration.

orange crush

I will say my 3+ years of experience doing training, specifically soccer performance training helped. And as I was studying for the CSCS, I couldn’t help but analyze every move my soccer players were making, what muscles were activated, what energy system was at work, what nutritional advice I should provide them after a session….I was practically going insane! But, despite my nerdiness, applying the material to my life and profession was what helped me prevail.

Now that I’m done celebrating, here are several things that WILL be on the CSCS exam:

1) Exercise Science – know EVERYTHING, especially what happens in a single muscle at the cellular level when it is resting, contracting, or fully contracted. I got a question on what happens to the H-zone when a muscle is at a full contraction (it disappears). Or, you could get something like what happens to the I-band in the eccentric portion of a lat pulldown.
2) Bioenergetics – know duration of each system, what specific events are each system (400m – fast glycolysis, discus – phosphagen). I got a question on how to get lactate out of muscles and the answer was jogging (aerobic recovery). Also, know work to rest intervals (phosphagen 1:12, fast glycolysis 1:5, slow glycolysis 1:3, and oxidative 1:1). For example, they will ask you questions about what the rest time should be for a 60m sprint or a 10K race. Know the limitations to each system (ex: low pH limits fast glycolysis or muscle glycogen limits oxidative). Know the relation between duration and intensity (more intense, less duration). Lots of questions on Type I, II, IIX, and IIa muscle fibers. (IIa fibers have more resistance to fatigue than type IIX. Type IIx have the highest power output. A marathon runner is more likely to have Type I fibers, etc).
3) Endocrine System – I got a lot of questions on how to stimulate Growth Hormone and Testosterone (ex: large muscle group exercises, 85-95% 1RM, etc).  Or what does growth hormone do? Increase collagen synthesis, increase protein synthesis, decrease glucose utilization, etc. You know the deal. Also, what should the rest time be in between sets to stimulate most testosterone production? 30 seconds to a minute.
4) Biomechanics – know all of the levers, not just the examples but what they actually are (ex: where is the resistive force and where is the fulcrum?) Know what exercises stimulate the most bone mineral density. And also definitions of sarcopenia, osteopenia, osteoporosis, etc.
5) Aerobic and Anaerobic Adaptations to training – what happens to muscle power, capillary density, etc during anaerobic and aerobic training? Know ALL of these adaptations. Also, know overtraining symptoms for aerobic training (decreased muscle glycogen, decreased lactate, decreased maximal oxygen uptake, etc).
6) Nutrition – a lot of questions on proper water intake before, during and after competition. Know the symptoms of eating disorders and how to deal with an athlete who has one (ex: refer them, DO NOT do weigh ins or log their food). Know calorie requirements for male and female collegiate athletes. Know how many calories (or grams) are needed for carbohydrate loading for marathon runners.
7) Practical – know all of the muscle groups concentrically involved in the big lifts (squat, deadlift, clean, push jerk) and what is going on during each phase of an explosive lift (ex: second pull in clean is hip and knee extension and trapezius shrugs shoulders to raise bar overhead). Also, I had a TON of questions on sprinting mechanics (braking = eccentric plantarflexion). Also, there are a handful of questions where they list an athlete’s 1RM bench press, body composition, vertical jump score, 40 yard dash, and 1RM power clean. Know the standards for EVERY athlete on these (basketball, football, baseball, volleyball) because they WILL ask what each athlete needs help with (such as lower body power, muscular endurance, upper body strength, etc).
8) Know facility layout – how far windows should be from floor, how much space between Olympic lifting platforms, staff to athlete ratios, definition of litigation for strength coaches, definition of policies and procedures. These questions are “gimmes” so study this portion thoroughly.

The first thing I would suggest you buy is the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning text. The comprehensive study guide CSCS Exam Secrets also helped a GREAT deal.

It also wouldn’t hurt to buy some outside sources as well (if you’re an exercise science geek like myself). All of the books below have kept me up-to-date in the functional sports training world:

Advances in Functional Training – seriously guys, I cannot get enough of the legendary Mike Boyle!
Soccer Anatomy – for a soccer gal like myself, this book laid out the specific muscle groups involved in every movement happening in the game of soccer (headers, direct kicks, holding off a defender, etc.)
Becoming a Supple Leopard – a must-read for strength coaches looking to incorporate pre-habilitation into their programming
Developing the Core – great read to learn more about core musculature development and athleticism through the main pillar of our body

If any of you would like to ask me more on how to prepare for the CSCS exam, feel free to drop a comment. I would happy to help as I know how challenging this test can be for some. The good news is…if you’re PASSIONATE about the material and crave how to train your athletes better, then you will be fine. Sometimes passion and experience (unlike a degree in a related field) is all you really need. Best of luck, ya’ll!

  • stuart campbell
    Posted at 15:12h, 06 February Reply

    Thanks for your time and effort. I am about half way through the book, and will take your advice. Thanks again, stuart

  • Hussain Mirza
    Posted at 10:33h, 03 March Reply

    Thanks for sharing. I’m considering taking the test later this year. Hopefully I’ll pass it. Good luck with everything.

  • Ron
    Posted at 01:51h, 21 April Reply

    Excellent advice! Thank you!

  • Devon
    Posted at 00:32h, 19 May Reply

    Thanks Erica. Hopefully my passion for this field will help me get over the hump as you mentioned. This has me getting more excited about studying. Appreciate the tips.

  • erik
    Posted at 14:06h, 30 June Reply

    very well written, thank you so much for this, I am taking mine in a month!

  • Brian
    Posted at 11:33h, 03 June Reply

    Thanks erika. I too share the same passions. I am a PT and an athletic trainer and have been for several years. I have a great interest in obtaining the CSCS certification. I ordered the study guide and the essential readings today. Thanks again for your tips and encouragement.

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