As you might know I recently took and passed the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam and reviewed some helpful or not-so-helpful resources. I will share my experience with the exam in my next blog, but just before doing so I wanted to talk about the preparation process and the resources you might use for it. I would like to start with the scope of work that lies ahead and the resources available and then I will proceed with the exam preparation timeline and strategies.
The resources and the scope of the exam
1. The first items on my list are the CSCS Exam Content Description Booklet and the NSCA Certification Handbook: Just a quick review of these documents will help you to understand the scope and the expectations of the exam. There is also a short self-assessment tool in the booklet and a decent list of resources that you might find useful.
2. The Essentials of Strength and Conditioning Textbook is the most important source of information, period. This book covers almost everything you need to know. In fact, since it’s the reference book for the exam and the exam itself seems to be almost completely based on it, I suspect that memorizing everything in this book might give you a pass on the exam. The book is large and heavy, and it will take a while to read it thoroughly, but, again, this is your main source of information and the major determinant of your exam success.
3. NSCA CSCS Online Course: I found it to be almost completely useless except for exercise videos and the final test. Very low yield as it completely relies on the textbook and doesn’t add much in terms of content.
4. Exercise technique videos provided with the book and/or the online course were extremely helpful. They outline the technique really well and show you some errors, which, in my understanding are very likely to be tested on the exam.
5. Exercise Technique Manual for Resistance Training: I found it to be a great standalone resource, but effectively it duplicates the information in the textbook, so you don’t need it for your exam.
6. Live clinics: I attended one and to be honest I had mixed feelings. They cover all the material in a very short period of time (2 days in my case) and they can’t do an in-depth review. Effectively, if you know the material already you simply don’t need the clinic and if you don’t know it - they won’t cover it well enough for your exam anyways. On the other hand, the clinic might serve as a nice refresher before the exam.
7. NSCA Strength and Conditioning Symposia: There are several sets of these symposia available, and they are a bit outdated (the ones I used were from 2005 or 2006). Essentially these are the sets of lectures by experts in the field. The good thing is that you can simply put them in your car’s CD drive and listen them while commuting. They are a very good resource for passive learning in my opinion.
8. Quizzes: I used the app called CSCS Prep and found it to be very useful – it doesn’t have video questions, but it has good content otherwise and it prepares you well for the format of the exam. It has around 800 questions and different testing modes – you can customize it. Extremely helpful in the end of the day.
9. Strength Training Anatomy: As I mentioned in my previous reviews neither the textbook nor the online course cover the musculoskeletal anatomy at acceptable level (pretty much no information at all). So, you can review this short book for the basic knowledge of the main muscles and applied biomechanics.
10. Various study guides: I found them mostly redundant and though I had one, I didn’t have time to use it.
The timeline and preparation strategy
Now, when we know what we must study and what resources we can use, let’s outline the preparation strategy and its timeframe.
The key things to do:
1. First of all, let’s set the preparation time period – I would say that it might take 6±3 months to prepare for this exam. It took me almost a year though I knew a lot prior to starting the preparation. It took me longer to prepare mostly due to professional obligations and time constraints but still – there is a lot of material to cover and I think that the timeframe of approximately 6 months is reasonable.
2. As a start of your preparation I would review the certification handbook and the content description booklet and do the self-assessment. This will let you identify your weaknesses and strategize accordingly.
3. The next step will be to start studying the Essentials textbook: this will take 70-80% of your preparation time and will determine 50-60% of your success. The book has 24 chapters and I would say that if you could read a chapter per week, you would be able to study everything in 6 months or so. One suggestion would be to try to read 2 chapters per week initially as some chapters (program design and exercise technique) will require much more time than others and you will need some time for revision.
4. The second most important aspect of the exam prep is doing questions – I would purchase an app and start doing the questions soon after you start reading the book. Just go along with your reading and customize the quizzes in terms of the content – test yourself on the items that you have been reading about, so you’ll memorize them better.
5. Keep in mind, that you might need to digress a bit to study exercise technique and anatomy using the exercise videos and the strength training anatomy textbook respectively or you can check them as you go as there is a lot of material involved and it would be difficult to go over it all at once.
6. The live clinic: if you have time and feel that you would benefit from such an event – do it! I would suggest booking it 4-6 weeks prior to your exam (or taking the exam several weeks after the clinic). The clinic would allow you to go over all the material in an intensive fashion and will highlight some important items.
7. NSCA online course: Likely you don’t need it, but it won’t hurt to take it. Given that you have prepared for your exam using the textbook, the whole course would likely take a day to go through. Take the end of course exam – it helps. One word of caution, this course will give you some CEU credits and if you take it before your exam and certification you won’t be able to claim them (you may only claim the credits you received after your certification).
8. Get a copy of the NSCA Symposia and listen to them while commuting. I found them very helpful and you will remember a lot via passive learning.
9. Preparation guides: As I said, I found them to be redundant. At this point you are supposed to know a lot and these guides won’t add much, but they might shift your attention away from your main learning process.
10. Using other resources: Some topics will not be covered well in all the main sources of information, so you might need to do your own research. I also took some private classes for exercise technique and did a short course on weightlifting at the university of Guelph (it was close) to bolster my practical/applied section preparation.
So, overall, there is a lot to do, but in my opinion the 80-90% of your exam success will come from the textbook, doing lots of questions and using select additional resources such as the exercise videos, the anatomy book and the symposia. The rest is very optional and will only bolster your prep if you are already prepared well.
So, that’s it. I hope that it was helpful and if you are planning to take the exam – good luck! I will talk about the CSCS exam itself in one of my next blogs, so stay tuned – subscribe to my newsletter, to my YouTube channel, ask questions and make comments. All kinds of interactions and constructive criticism are always welcome!