5 Steps to Pass the CSCS

Annoyed. Caught off guard. Surprised.

These are common reactions of candidates who take the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam. I’ve known candidates with exercise science degrees and even physical therapists who have not passed the exam.

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), only 58% of candidates pass both sections of the CSCS exam (the exam has 2 sections-“Scientific Foundations” and “Practical/Applied”). At the time of this writing, retaking a single section costs as much as $385. Besides the money spent on a retake, consider the time wasted studying again and retaking the exam. It’s fair to say that you probably want to pass the whole exam on the first attempt-saving money and time.

You can pass the exam with the right strategy. I’ll show you the exact steps I took to pass the CSCS exam on the first attempt.

1. Read AND Understand the Textbook

The “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning” textbook houses the foundational content for the CSCS exam. However, the textbook includes a lot of research and information that may not be directly applicable to the exam.

While reading, focus on deeply understanding these areas:

  • Charts, graphs, and diagrams/images. These graphics synthesize much of the relevant content from each chapter.
  • Bolded vocabulary terms. You should understand these terms with respect to human physiology and real world coaching. Simply memorizing definitions is of little use for the exam.
  • Understand the cues and technique corrections for each exercise. Many candidates are gym goers and have a false sense of confidence with respect to exercise technique. Unfortunately, the NSCA has specific, detailed cues for each exercise that you may have never given much thought. Also, the corrections for technique errors might vary from your personal experience as an athlete or coach, so you’ll need to understand the NSCA’s corrections.

2. Apply the Information Practically

Too often, candidates only understand the CSCS information intellectually, without knowing how it relates to the real world. Applying the information to real athletes makes the information stick better and improves you as a coach.

Start by applying the information to your own training. For example, I experimented with some of the plyometric progressions; squat jump > tuck jump > single-leg tuck jump. This gave me a kinesthetic understanding of the increasing intensity of each exercise.

Besides your own training, apply techniques to your clients. For example, I learned of the 2-for-2 “rule” (if the athlete performs 2 more reps than planned for a given weight, for 2 workouts, then it’s time to increase the load). I started applying this to training clients as a conservative way to increase load.

3. Test Yourself with Practice Questions

Test taking is a skill and practice questions are the most specific way to improve that skill.

Practice questions help you:

  • Simulate exam conditions. Studying with calming music, snacks, and coffee breaks is significantly different than sitting in a quiet exam room for 4 hours straight. Practicing questions in exam conditions builds the mental endurance needed to pass.
  • Experience the format of exam questions. Having experience with exam question format means you’ll spend less time reading and analyzing questions and more time answering questions.
  • Practice rusty math skills. Many candidates forget that calculators aren’t allowed on the CSCS exam. There will be basic math on the exam like calculating percentages, multiplying, and long division. You want to do be able to do these calculations effortlessly-save the mental exertion for the tough questions.

4. Understand the Content Outline

A major mistake candidates make is only reading the textbook and ignoring the content outline. The content outline lists topics that are not heavily covered in the textbook (such as deceleration drill technique). These topics are still relevant and can appear on the exam, even if they are not emphasized in the textbook.

5. Use Flashcards

While, you should prioritize understanding the content and its application, certain pieces of information simply have to be memorized.

For example, it’s great to understand that pre-exercise carbohydrates help athletes. But you need to know the specific recommendations in terms of timing, quantity, best sources of carbohydrates, etc.

Studying with these steps will help you pass the CSCS exam on the first attempt. Passing the CSCS exam depends on studying hard AND studying smart.

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