Pass the CSCS: Study Schedule & Questions Answered

Offered and regulated by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the title of Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) is becoming an increasingly popular certification for many in the health, fitness, and rehabilitation arenas. 

For many physical therapists, the information you learn studying to become a CSCS provides a foundational understanding of basic strength and conditioning principles. This is not only useful for rehabbing athletes after an injury but also preparing them for return to play and optimal sports performance. In addition, this knowledge can just as easily be applied (albeit appropriately prescribed and modulated) to an elderly clientele as well. Whatever the target population, this brief write-up will be meant for anyone genuinely interested in taking (and passing!) the CSCS certification exam. Official information regarding the CSCS and how to register can be found here.

I will be providing answers to some common questions I have received as well as a proposed study schedule at the end to keep yourself on track. This information was helpful to me in studying for and passing the CSCS exam. I hope that it serves a similar purpose for you.

What study materials do I need?

Not much at all. Here's what you will need:

How long should I study before taking the exam?

This will vary from person to person. Readers with an Exercise Science/Physiology background may find much of the information in the textbook to be a review and choose not to spend as much time on certain chapters. These individuals are nonetheless encouraged to fully read through those topics and be honest with themselves regarding their understanding.

That said, take as much time as you need to prepare. There's no need to rush it. Taking (and re-taking) the exam is not at all cheap. Personally I gave myself about 2.5-3 months total while studying at a leisurely pace. 

What chapter is the densest/hardest to study?

Depends. There are a total of 24 chapters of information in the textbook. With my Exercise Science and weightlifting background, I understood most of them fairly well. My weaknesses came out with a lot of the procedural stuff (test selection, administration, interpretation; facility design, policies) so I spent more time studying those areas.

There is also some rote memorization required on a few chapters (specific macronutrient requirements come to mind) so find ways to understand/commit this information to memory (e.g. flashcards, repetition, etc.).

Was the exam itself difficult?

I'm prohibited from discussing question particulars but the exam itself is very passable with good preparation. Remember that ultimately the knowledge you gain from studying for this exam is meant to be applied to real people. So with everything you read about, consider how it might relate in practice to a specific type of athlete with certain goals in mind. Think about what is important to each athlete, what they need to prioritize in their training/preparation, and how they can ultimately succeed in their sport. Thinking this way may help compartmentalize the information you'll be reading about.

For a detailed outline of exam content, jump to page 17 in this handbook provided by the NSCA (PDF file).

What is the single best piece of advice you can give me?

Hit the gym and practice what you read. Seriously. This is why I mentioned earlier that you will need an able and willing body to prepare for this exam. What better way to gain an understanding of program design than to create one for yourself and put it to the test? What better way to understand common lifting technique faults by loading up a barbell (or not) and giving it a shot?

Reading through the textbook may be enough to pass the exam but it does not make you a good applicator of the knowledge. Get up off your butt and get moving!

Study Schedule

The following is a proposed study plan for the CSCS exam. It attempts to group related chapters together in order to help organize and pace your studying. It is simply one way of tackling the dense information that is in the textbook. That said, this schedule won't necessarily work for everyone. Feel free to move things around. Also, if you find some chapters difficult to understand or if life gets in the way, don't at all feel bad in taking an extra week or two to get through it.

Also remember to take some time to hit the gym to practice some of the stuff you read about (and for your health!).

***Click here to download a printable and customizable version of the study schedule (word document)***

***If you're on a mobile device, consider taking a screenshot of the above table for quick reference.***

If you have any further questions regarding this exam, please feel free to reach out to us through social media below. We will gladly try our best to answer them. Take care and happy studying!

The title of Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (i.e. CSCS) and any details related to this certification and its examination is protected and copyrighted by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. None of the information in this article reflects an official stance or message from the NSCA and should not be treated as such.