Passing the NSCA CSCS and Shitty Coaching

The strength and conditioning world is rife with certifications and seminars. Crossfit, USA Weightlifting, Underground Strength, Exos, and the alphabet soup of personal training certifications create a variety of courses of mixed qualities. Overall, it creates a low bar of entry into the field. 

The traditional, professional strength coach seen at the collegiate level often has a certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) in the form of their Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification. 

The test requires a solid understanding of physiology, energy systems, training methods, and periodized programming. I spent 3-4 months studying every night in preparation for my test, while employed as a full time coach and programmer. 

Another highly regarded certification is the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC). It requires a 640 hour internship, a written test, and a practical exam conducted in front of a panel. Here’s the catch - you must be coaching at the collegiate or professional sport level in order to be eligible. 

Regardless, the quality of the final coaching product, even at the collegiate or professional level, can vary.  

The news of the three University of Oregon football players hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis during a winter workout is absurd. For a team that is generally ranked in the top 25, how could the strength and conditioning staff allow this to happen? 

This CBS Sports news report referred to the off-season, when collegiate athletes are mostly in the hands of strength and conditioning coaches, as “the killing season.” 

“Since 2000, 32 NCAA football players have died -- six from traumatic deaths and 26 from non-traumatic deaths. That makes it about 4.5 times more likely a player dies while training for football in the off-season than from a traumatic injury playing football.”

Something smells like shit there. 


I chose the NSCA CSCS because I didn’t have a true, nationally recognized certification. I’ve attended several other seminars and certification courses, as well as teaching the MTI Advanced Programming Course. Across the spectrum of Strength and Conditioning, it seems that the CSCS is the most widely respected certification for those outside of college/professional sports. 

Here’s what the CSCS gives you:

  • A solid foundation in exercise science and physiology.
  • A solid foundation in sport-specific programming methodologies as promoted by the NSCA.
  • A solid foundation in the psychological aspects of coaching an athlete.
  • Lots of other stuff that doesn’t really apply unless you’re working with collegiate athletes.

What it doesn’t give you:

  • Coaching reps - It’s a textbook oriented, pen and paper test. Not once are you required to be on the floor, coaching athletes.
  • Programming experience - You can spout off about linear and undulating periodization methods, but you don’t have to actually write out a full cycle for a group of athletes. 
  • Any exposure to training methods outside of the NSCA approved model. 

That last point is significant. For all of the mixed emotions surrounding Crossfit, it has brought high intensity conditioning to the mainstream. Just like the University of Oregon example, Crossfit has plenty of bad coaches. It also has lots of good ones whom I admire. The NSCA provides one framework for working with athletes… there are plenty of others who work within a specific sport and should be studied. It’s all applicable. 

How I studied

1. Read the textbook from front to back. When I decided to take the test, I sat down every night and read one chapter. I highlighted parts that seemed important, and took the mini-tests at the end of each chapter. The 3rd edition text has 30+ chapters, so this took me a bit over a month.

2. Purchase the NSCA CSCS Practice Test Bundle and take the tests. This was invaluable. It’s expensive as hell, but I’ll credit the practice tests to my success on the real thing. The test will tell you which questions you got wrong, and where to find the information in the text.

3. Use the practice test results to refine your studying. From here, I went in depth into the material I wasn’t getting. I made flash cards galore… the stack of notecards was about 6 inches high. I went through these every day, and repeatedly referenced material in the text that I wasn’t grasping. 

4. Once confident, re-take the practice exam. At this point, I was scoring in the 80-90% range. I felt pretty confident, but decided to take another two weeks to hammer down a few topics. For me, this was mostly in exercise science. Shockingly, an educational background in Political Science didn’t help me any. 

Its as simple as that. Its a time-intensive undertaking, especially if you don’t have a degree in Exercise Science. Don’t waste your money on other practice tests outside of the NSCA… they write the test, so you should work on the study material they have for purchase.

Note: The textbook doesn’t do a great job of explaining some of the theories of the exercise science material. Do a search on Youtube on the topic you’re struggling with… a professor somewhere has uploaded a video that will make it much easier to understand.

The Test

I won’t go into the nitty gritty details of the test… Click here for a in-depth explanation from the NSCA. 

The test resembled a slightly harder version of the practice tests. Its in a multiple answer format, which often meant two potential answers that could be right. Your task is to figure out which one is ‘more right'. 

For anyone who has coached and/or programmed for awhile, the practical application portion is fairly straight forward. Understand energy system demands and how that translates to the design and implementation of a cycle. Understand what the strength, speed, and agility standards are by sport (which is covered in depth in the text). Understand proper form and proper spotting techniques for all exercises. 

The exercise science portion gets a bit nerdy. Beta-oxidation, the Krebs Cycle, elements and actions of the sarcomere. You need to understand how these work, and how they play into the overall actions of the body in movement. 

A passing score for each section is 70%. That doesn’t sound too hard, but only half the folks who take this test actually pass. I gave myself a 10 point buffer from the practice exams. If you’re not scoring in the 80’s on those, keep studying. Over 80? You’re probably good.

The nice thing about this test is that you can do it at any testing center… I drove three hours to Idaho State University to take mine. You’ll get your results immediately, which is a beautiful thing. 

I passed. High 80’s on the practical application, high 70’s on the exercise science portion. 

Final Thoughts

I needed a certification, and because the NSCA is the most respected one out there, that’s what I went for.

It will not make me a good coach or programmer. 

My athletes won’t know the difference between this and the personal trainer certification that takes 3 hours to study for. 

Its not particularly applicable to the kind of training I do with tactical and professional outdoor athletes. 

I do have a marginally better understanding of what’s going on inside the body during training and competing. 

I will be able to get a better deal on insurance when I open my own facility. 

The certifications within strength and conditioning is an industry in itself. This one cost me $500. When I took the Crossfit Level 1, it cost me $800 (including a military discount). All of the things you learn in these seminars can generally be learned from a book you pick up on Amazon for $7. 

Don’t get wrapped up in certifications… coaching will make you a better coach. Programming will make you a better programmer. Get what you need to get started in the field,  identify those whose programming theories you most agree with, and then study them.

Don’t be the asshole that rhabdos (or worse) your athletes like the guy from University of Oregon. That is negligent and unacceptable. Continuing education and coaching skills don’t need to be expensive or in the form of a shitty PDF certification. Test your programming on yourself, make sure its safe and works, and then apply it to your athletes.