Today I would like to wrap up the discussion about my National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification journey. I took the exam in September 2019 and already spoke about various aspects of preparation in my previous blogs. I recently received my certificate and I think it’s the perfect moment to talk about the exam itself. Probably this is my last entry in this series.
First of all, just to recap everything I was talking about previously, I’d like to mention the key elements of preparation process, then I will talk about the exam day and testing facility, and then I will talk about my main impressions from the exam itself.
Exam preparation highlights
I took me around 10 months of on and off studying to prepare for the test. I studied the textbook (Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning), which, in my opinion, is where the most of your knowledge will come from. I took some courses and the NSCA clinic, which while not being critical improved certain aspects of my preparation. I also studied exercise techniques and musculoskeletal anatomy separately, which I think is important for future work anyways, but also helps with the exam. One of the most important aspects of preparation is doing lots of practical tests. There are several good sources of the multiple-choice questions that resemble the ones on the exam, and I would highly recommend getting access to at least one large exam question bank. I used an app, but you might find something more suitable for your needs. Two important remarks are:
1. None of the question banks that I used had video questions and you will have some on the exam. Watching technique videos on NSCA affiliated website would be helpful as they show some technique errors that are likely to be tested on the exam.
2. Try different modes of testing – doing questions with immediate feedback is good for learning, whereas doing multiple questions in a row with feedback after you have completed the whole block of them will better prepare you psychologically for the exam testing style (you won’t know the results until you’re done and it raises anxiety while answering questions).
Exam scheduling and testing facility
I want to talk about administrative aspects and the logistics of the exam as they might affect your performance – you want to be at the peak of your knowledge and ability to answer lots of questions and dealing with uncertainty on the exam day.
I would recommend scheduling your exam when you have completed around 80% of your preparation and in such a way that you have 4-6 weeks to read the things that you feel you’re deficient in and do lots and lots of questions in the last 2-3 weeks. One really good thing about the exam scheduling is that you can pick your test time. It can be of great help – I, for example, do not like being tested early in the morning as I perform better after 10-11 am, so I scheduled my exam for 12:30. Thus, I was able to arrive to the exam site well-rested and I had and opportunity to review my notes, to refresh certain critical facts and to do practice answering questions just before the exam.
Finally, the testing facility might also affect your performance and I would suggest checking it out prior to scheduling your exam. I didn’t and I regretted it as the environment wasn’t favourable at all. I took my test in Mississauga, ON and if I knew how the facility looks like and operates beforehand, I would likely pick some other site. First of all, they were surprisingly hard to find, and I had to circle around to find them. Then, when I was checking in, they forced me to sign some waivers and to leave certain items in their safety box. I am talking about my mechanical watch, which was suddenly not allowed to take with me, but at the same time I was allowed to take my phone with me as long as it was turned off. It doesn’t make any sense and I felt that these rules were rather arbitrary and unfair. Also, for some reason, they made me provide them with my biometric data (infrared scan of my palm), which was unexpected and unnecessary. Overall, the check-in process was quite disorganized and weakened my mental focus as I was really annoyed by that.
The exam room was not ventilated properly – it was quite humid, and I could smell body odor and some food scents, which was not contributing to performance. Also, it was not soundproof, and I could hear the receptionist talking to people arriving to the facility. To make things worse they had a doorbell that was ringing every time their main door was opened (quite frequently) and at some point, somebody brought in a crying baby to the reception area, which at this point was just infuriating. On top of that, one of other examinees was mumbling everything he read on his screen and it was annoying as hell as it was hard to focus on my test.
In the end of the day there was nothing I could do about it other than taking a deep breath and to try to focus on my exam, which I did, but I would still recommend choosing the testing facility wisely and also preparing for minor adversities in advance. During my last week of exam preparation, I was practicing in a rather noisy environment with multiple distractions, so that things like that wouldn’t affect me much on the real test.
Now it’s time to talk about the test – there was nothing unexpected as I prepared well. The test has two parts – Scientific Foundations and Practical / Applied – with 95 and 125 multiple choice questions, respectively, which includes 15 non-scored questions in each section. I must say that it’s been quite a marathon as after going through first 20-30 questions you start getting tired and it takes an effort to keep yourself focused. So, practice answering questions in large blocks.
Based on what I’ve seen I can strongly recommend focusing on several specific topics (on top of knowing the material in general of course):
1. Nutrition data – amount in calories in protein, fat and carbohydrates as well as the best sources of macro- and micronutrients such as vitamin D, calcium etc. Also, it’s important to know the MyPlate dietary recommendations. There will be questions that will require you calculating nutritional intake values and assessing subjects’ diets. Also, know the serum cholesterol reference values.
2. Exercise technique – quite a few video questions with the expectation that you would be able to show technique errors and make suggestions for improvement. Notably, there were questions not only on resistance training, but also on running, use of various machines, plyometrics etc. Study them well.
3. Testing techniques and normative data on exercise performance – they tend to present cases of athletes with information on their performance test and your job is to identify the areas in which these athletes need improvement. I find it to be excessive as normally you’d use a reference table and most of the people simply don’t have to remember all these tables for all kinds of tests by heart.
4. Calculations – this part was rather annoying. I really don’t understand why they don’t let people have a calculator on the test. There were questions requiring multiple mathematical calculations that had to be done by hand and they were getting rather tedious. Just be prepared to do math, maybe practice doing simple calculations here and there.
5. Several key / fancy concepts such as EPOC, overtraining, HIIT, OBLA, anatomical levers etc. I feel that they had some questions on them just because these concepts are trendy and a CSCS should know at least something about them.
After the test
The very good thing was that they give you the results right after the test (unlike all my previous medical testing – they normally tend to give you the answers in 6-12 weeks of painful waiting). Here, I received the printouts as I stepped out from the testing room – my scores were well above the passing scores (86 and 80 for the two sections, respectively). It looked like I answered lots of non-scored questions right and they were not counted towards the final scores. In any case, I felt relieved as I passed the test on my first attempt, which apparently happens only in 56% of cases. I had to do some paperwork in the following several days and I received a notification of certification within a week and the hard copy of my certificate several weeks later.
So, now it’s done and over with and I must say it was an interesting journey that just came to its end. I’m finishing this series and from now on I can focus on other subjects, my favorites – science, nutrition, exercise physiology and dieting of course. There will be more of this kind of blogs in the next several weeks, so subscribe to my newsletter, to my YouTube channel, ask questions, post comments – your input is always welcome.