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.

Here’s the video going over these 5 steps:

What steps surprised you? If you’ve already taken the test, what steps helped round out your study plan?

Self-Experiment Log #1: Hypertrophy Revisited

Throughout high school and college I was extremely skinny. My BMI was in the “Underweight” category and size “small” shirts fit loosely on me-despite being 6’2”.

My first real foray into resistance training was doing four barbell lifts; the bench press, the back squat, the deadlift, and the overhead press. I did 3 sets of 5 reps, adding increments of weight every session (and then weekly as strength gains plateaued). I followed this program for 3 months and saw increases in strength and bodyweight. I thought it was a massive success.

Here is the before and after:

BeforeAfter
Weight: 165 lbWeight: 187 lb
Pushups: 5 reps on 12” boxPushups: 5 reps
Visible “4-pack” of absNo visible abdominal definition

What led to such “massive success”?

To start, this was the first lifting program I ever did with any substantial load (weight). For years I had been a “rehablete”-performing lots of “mobility work” and “corrective exercises” in an attempt to alleviate chronic back, shoulder, and knee pain. Unfortunately, the net effect was still having pain and being out of shape.

Second, I had novice gains. For novices, nearly any training stimulus above their current fitness level will confer benefits. For example, it has been observed that even a walking program promotes strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth) in untrained people (Ozaki, 2019).

Third, I started to consciously eat more. I didn’t track anything. I simply ate slightly past fullness at each meal.

Lastly, I gained a considerable amount of body fat along with muscle. Looking at photos of myself at the time, I had a visible belly, but convinced myself that putting on so much fat was the necessary cost of gaining muscle.

Overall, there wasn’t anything special about sets of 5 reps nor the use of barbells. The “special thing” was that I resistance trained consistently with sufficient volume and intensity. I am confident I could have gotten similar results using machines instead of barbells. I probably would have had better hypertrophy results with higher weekly volumes (>10 sets per muscle group) as has been recommended based on research (Schoenfeld, 2018). For example, I did a weekly volume of 6 working sets for the chest in the form of the bench press. Clearly, this volume caused muscle growth, but there likely could have been more growth later into the program with a higher volume.

Recently, after slimming down to 175 lb, I did a hypertrophy program for 5 weeks. Here is the before and after:

BeforeAfter
Weight: 175 lbWeight: 179 lb
Pushups: 2 count pause pushup, with 20 lb of added weight, 5 repsPushups: 23 reps
Visible “4-pack” of absVisible “2-pack” of abs

Looking at my strength levels after slimming down to 175, I realized I had gained a considerable amount of fat in the first program. For example, following the first program I was doing 5 pushups at a bodyweight of 187 lb. However, later at 175 lb, I was able to perform 5 pushups with 20 lb of added weight-a net of 195 lb. I was stronger at a lighter weight and with better abdominal definition (a rough proxy for body fat).

What was different in this hypertrophy program?

First, I did higher rep work (up to 20 reps per set) and less low rep work (only as low as 8 reps per set).

Second, the volume increased weekly and was higher overall. For example, by the final week I was doing 15 working sets per week for the chest.

Third, I expanded beyond the compound barbell lifts to include isolation movements (like lateral raises and hip abduction). I also used machines (lat pull down, chest press, shoulder press)

Lastly, I calculated a daily target for carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Then I measured my food intake using hand portion estimates for whole foods and nutrition labels for processed foods.

A few reflections and lessons for the future:

  • Measuring bodyweight twice per week is crucial to track progress. Taking the average of two measurements helps focus on the weekly trend, rather than get too hung up on single measurements.
  • It took several weeks to become used to the higher protein intake. It still takes a conscious effort to hit my goal of about 175 grams per day.
  • Consuming tofu, eggs, and dairy (cottage cheese) makes a high protein intake more affordable.
  • Processed foods and liquid calories (i.e. juice, milk) can help to increase total calories since they are not satiating.
  • Barbells are not magical for strength or hypertrophy. I am not bashing barbells, but they have become a sacred cow for some lifters. I still think barbells are one of the best tools out there because of their versatility, ease of use, and relatively low cost.
  • Keeping some sort of food log is important to hit overall calorie and protein goals. Someday I may be able to eat for hypertrophy intuitively, but I’ll stick to logging my intake for now.
  • At the amateur level, your food measurement method does not have to be very accurate, but should be repeatable. I am sure my daily counting of “7 palms of protein” does not exactly correspond to 175 grams of protein. But it doesn’t have to. What matters is that I’m using the same measurement method and eating similar foods. It’s easy then to change food intake as my goals and weight change.  
  • For me, gaining about 1 lb/week of body weight seems to offer an acceptable amount of fat gain. If I had finished this hypertrophy program with “no visible” abs and at a body weight of 187 lb like before I would not consider that level of fat gain worth the muscle built.

What’s next?

I’ll be going through a more strength focused program with lower rep work, which I haven’t done as much of this past year. I’ll continue measuring weight, start measuring waist circumference, and keep food intake at maintenance (but continue tracking).

Self-experimentation doesn’t mean just trying different inputs. You’ve got to measure your response and adjust accordingly.

CSCS Practice Question Preview

A critical part of studying for the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam is practicing test questions. However, just practicing questions is not enough. Every question should be “milked” out for all its worth. Each question is an opportunity to hone in on topics you don’t yet have a good grasp on.

To aid you with that, here is a sample of practice questions. Also, I’ve included explanations and heuristics to help you understand the content, rather than just use rote memorization.

You can grab a free downloadable version below:

1. The lowest myoglobin content is found in which of the following muscle fiber types?

A. I

B. IIa

C. Ix

D. III

2. Activation of which of the following structures causes relaxation of a muscle:

A. Muscle spindles

B. Golgi tendon organs

C. Intrafusal fibers

D. Extrafusal fibers

3. Force output of a muscle can be increased by:

I. Increasing the number of motor units activated

II. Increasing the frequency of firing of individual motor units

III. Increasing the strength of the action potential

IV. Increasing the amount of acetylcholine released, well beyond the minimum

A.I, IV

B.I, II, III

C.I, II

D.II, IV

4. Caffeine supplementation would primarily provide which of the following benefits to a powerlifting athlete?

A. Increased mental alertness

B. Increased maximal strength output

C. Increased hypertrophy

D. A synergistic effect with creatine to increase maximal strength output

5. While a basketball athlete practices free throws, a coach should use which of the following reinforcement strategies:

A. Say “Great job” after each successful free throw

B. Bench the athlete for the first 10 minutes of the next game if they make less than 50% of free throws

C. Assign 10 pushups after every missed free throw

D. Stay silent to let the athlete improve their self-efficacy

Answers:

1. B

Myoglobin is found in muscle and transports oxygen into/throughout the muscle cell. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells and transports oxygen throughout the circulatory system to be distributed to various tissues.

Myoglobin will be found in higher content in muscles that rely more on aerobic energy systems (and vice versa, less myoglobin is found in muscles that rely more on anaerobic energy systems). Type I fibers, or slow twitch fibers, are fatigue resistant, have a high capacity for aerobic energy production, and have a low capacity for rapid force production. On the other hand type IIa and IIx fibers, or fast twitch fibers, fatigue quickly, have a poor capacity for aerobic energy production, and high a capacity for rapid force production. Type I and type IIx fibers are the extreme ends of the spectrum-type I are the most aerobic and weakest and type IIx are the most anaerobic and strongest. Type IIa fibers are a hybrid with qualities of both.

Type I fibers produce high amounts of aerobic energy so they have much more myoglobin. On the other hand, type II fibers do not rely heavily on aerobic energy systems, so they have much less myoglobin.

To remember the difference between type IIa and type IIx fibers, think of “A”=awesome. Type IIa fibers are “awesome” because they have qualities of type I and type IIx fibers and can be thought of as a hybrid of each.

2. B

Proprioceptors are the sensory receptors in joints, muscle, and tendons that respond to pressure and tension. The 2 main types are muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs (GTO’s).

Muscle spindles are a specialized fiber found within muscles. Muscle spindles are considered intrafusal fibers because they are within the muscle. Muscle spindles run parallel to the “normal” (extrafusal) muscle fibers.

Muscle spindles sense lengthening of a muscle, so when lengthened (stretched), they cause a reflexive contraction of that same muscle. An example, is the patellar reflex. By tapping the tendon of the quadriceps, the muscle is shortened which activates this reflex, causing a quadriceps contraction.

On the other hand GTO’s are found at the musculotendinous junction. They sense lengthening of the tendon of the active muscle. When a heavy load is placed on a muscle, the GTO actually inhibits muscular contraction, causing it to relax. Researchers believe that one of the neuromuscular adaptations of resistance training is the ability to override this relaxation response caused by GTO’s.

3. C

The force output of a muscle is determined by: the number of units activated (recruitment) and the frequency of activation of those units (rate coding).  A muscle produces more force when more motor units are activated and/or those motor units are activated at a higher frequency. Besides, the neurological factors ofrecruitment and rate coding, the morphological factor of muscle cross sectional area determines force output. Increased muscle cross sectional area (hypertrophy) means a larger output of force.

The action potential to create a muscular contraction is caused by sufficient acetylcholine release. However, beyond the minimum level required, more acetylcholine release does not create higher force output.

Also, the strength of the action potential does not determine the force output, rather the frequency of the action potentials (rate coding) determines the force output.

To remember the three main ways of increasing muscular force output, we’ll use a car analogy.

You can go faster in car by upgrading the engine of the car. Getting a more powerful engine allows you to go faster-let’s say upgrading from a V6 Toyota Camry to a V8 Corvette. This is the effect of adding muscle cross-sectional area (hypertrophy).

-You can go faster by making the engine more efficient. Maybe you already have a Corvette, but only half the cylinders in the engine are firing. You tighten a few screws and now all cylinders fire. Through training, we can increase the recruitment of MORE motor units, thus increasing the force output (recruitment).

-You can go faster by learning to shift into higher gears. You might be pushing the gas pedal, but if you’re stuck in 1st gear, you won’t be going very fast. Being able to shift up to your top gear lets you access those higher speeds. Through training, we can increase the frequency of activating motor units (rate coding).

4. A

Caffeine appears to benefit both anaerobic and aerobic athletes. The main benefits are increased mental alertness, improved work capacity, and decreased feelings of exertion.

In aerobic events, caffeine increases time to exhaustion. In anaerobic events, caffeine may increase power performance in trained athletes.

In any case, the recommended dosage is 3-9 mg/kg bodyweight taken 60 minutes before exercise or during prolonged exercise. A lethal dose is 5 g. As a reference point, a typical cup of coffee has 120 mg of caffeine.

5. A

In coaching, behavior change strategies can help modify athlete behaviors. These strategies can be positive or negative and are focused on reinforcement or punishment.

In “Positive” behavior change strategies the coach ADDS something. However, this doesn’t mean that it is always something good. On the other hand, in “negative” behavior change strategies, the coach SUBTRACTS something.

Now for the terms reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement strategies focus on promoting the desired behavior (successful performance of the task). Punishment strategies focus on eliminating undesired behavior (errors in performance of the task).

So when we put these together, positive reinforcement is ADDING something as a reward for the desired/correct behavior. In this question, we are ADDING the “Great job” to promote the desired behavior of making the free throw.

On the other hand, negative reinforcement is SUBTRACTING something seen as bad to promote the desired/correct behavior. An example would be SUBTRACTING wind sprints at the end of practice to promote the desired behavior of making the free throw.

Positive punishment is ADDING something bad to eliminate undesired/incorrect behavior. In this question, assigning 10 pushups is ADDING something bad to eliminate the undesired behavior of missing the free throw.

Negative punishment is SUBTRACTING something good to eliminate undesired/incorrect behavior. In this question, benching the athlete for the first 10 minutes of the next game is SUBTRACTING something good to eliminate the undesired behavior of missing the free throw.

Here is a summary in table format:

Generally, coaches should use reinforcement strategies to help athletes focus on what they do correctly. Positive reinforcement strategies tends to promote the athletes focus on task relevant cues such as the ball, hoop, and the motions of the free throw. On the other hand punishment promotes a focus on irrelevant cues which can decrease performance.

To get more practice questions, in-depth explanations, and tips for CSCS preparation, enter your email below to get the full study blueprints e-book when released!

Isn’t this just personal training?-Physical Therapy vs Personal Training

People are often unsure of the difference between physical therapy and personal training. During a clinical rotation, I even had a patient refer to me and my clinical instructor as “the trainers”.

To confuse matters more, many physical therapists (including myself) are also personal trainers.

However, there are key differences in what each profession is trained and licensed to do.

Physical therapists are licensed and trained to diagnose and treat injuries and help those with disabilities or pain improve their level of function. Physical therapists use exercise, and sometimes other approaches, to improve function. Physical therapists are also trained to screen for more serious medical pathologies. They may make a referral to a specialist for further medical evaluation. For example, in rare cases shoulder pain could be related to a cardiac problem. A physical therapist might refer a patient to a physician because there could be a more serious cause of the pain that needs to be addressed.

There are several branches of physical therapy. Orthopedic physical therapists focus on musculoskeletal injuries. Some examples of patients would be:

-A teen who sprained their ankle and wants to play soccer again
-A dad with chronic low back pain who has trouble playing with his kids
-An elderly lady at risk of falling who wants to safely go to the grocery store

On the other hand, personal trainers are trained to help people reach fitness and athletic performance goals, such as building muscle, losing weight, and getting stronger. They often work with people who have an injury, disability, or pain. However, trainers are not licensed or trained to diagnose and treat injuries or pain (despite those online who claim that certain exercises or stretches cure pain). Some examples of clients would be:

-That teen soccer player who wants to get stronger and faster
-That dad who wants to improve his endurance so he can play with his kids for longer
-That elderly lady who wants to maintain her strength

Also, the titles used by each profession are slightly different:

-In the U.S., most physical therapists now have a “DPT” (Doctor of Physical Therapy) degree along with a “PT” (Physical Therapist) license. On a physical therapist’s business card you will likely see “PT, DPT”.
-Personal trainer titles, on the other hand, vary widely since there are many certifying organizations. Some trainers use the title “CPT” (Certified Personal Trainer). And some coaches use the title “CSCS” (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist).
-For more naming confusion, in many countries besides the U.S., “PT” actually refers to a personal trainer and physical therapists are called physiotherapists. 

There is overlap in the types of exercises physical therapists and personal trainers use. And often a client may be seeing a personal trainer and physical therapist at the same time.

In short, physical therapists and trainers both use exercise but usually the goals differ and the scope of practice is different

Staying Slim After Injury

Losing weight and keeping it off can be tough. Compound that with the challenges of dealing with an injury or pain. People often say things like “Since my knees started hurting, I packed on weight” and “After my back injury, I gained a bunch of weight” and so on.

Many people believe that weight gain is inevitable after injury or pain, since one “can’t” exercise anymore.

There are two issues with this sort of black and white thinking. First, there is probably a way to modify and continue exercise. Second, there are many other factors related to keeping weight off. This article will address the second part-the factors related to keeping weight off, also known as “weight loss maintenance”.

With over 40% of U.S. adults being overweight or obese, there has been ample research in this area (1). Varkevisser et al in 2018 performed a systematic review (a study of studies) of over 8,000 articles on weight loss maintenance (1). They examined all the factors that would predict weight loss maintenance (or lack thereof i.e. regaining weight).

They identified these following factors as most predictive of keeping weight off*:

-Monitoring weight

-Self-monitoring eating

-Increased physical activity

-Portion control

-Cutting “unhealthy” foods (sweets/junk food, fried food, fast food)

-Decreased energy intake**

-Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables

-Decreased consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, juice

-Decreased fat intake

Note that only 1 of these factors is related to physical activity. Now this doesn’t mean that exercise and physical activity don’t matter. It simply means that there are other factors we can influence as well.

Also, note that there is no reference to a single “best diet”, rather these are general strategies that work whether or not you follow a specific diet. Many patterns of eating can work to stay slim.

So how do these factors translate into practice? Here are some example tools and behaviors I use with clients:

Example Tools and Behaviors
Recording weight twice per week and taking the average as your weekly weight**
Using hand portions like these or a calorie calculator like this to adjust daily intake**
Keeping a food log like this**
Getting 1 hour of physical activity per day (2).  Logging activity could be as simple as writing in a journal or using an activity planner like this
Having “unhealthy foods” as a treat for special occasions.   An example strategy is not keeping these foods regularly at home**
Consuming whole foods that are lower in fat.  Examples could be choosing leaner proteins (chicken breast, 90/10 ground beef, fish, etc)**
Having alcohol and soda as a treat for special occasions.  An example strategy is not keeping soda or alcohol on hand at home**
Purchasing fruits and vegetables that require minimal preparation.  Some examples include apples, oranges, bananas, cucumbers, carrots etc**


This is a bird’s eye view strategy for staying slim after injury-each person will have unique considerations when applying.

Injury or pain does not condemn one to regain weight. In addition to continuing exercise (in a modified way), we have many other strategies to maintain that hard won weight loss.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

*These were not the only relevant factors. There were other factors, but they had weaker evidence or had insufficient evidence. I’ve focused on the factors with the strongest levels of evidence here. 

**Decreased energy intake is critical and is the net effect of most if not all of these nutritional factors. For example, decreasing consumption of sweetened beverages, decreased fat intake, and cutting unhealthy foods all have the net effect of decrease total energy intake.

References:

1. Varkevisser, R., van Stralen, M. M., Kroeze, W., Ket, J., & Steenhuis, I. (2019). Determinants of weight loss maintenance: a systematic review. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity20(2), 171–211. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12772

2. Brown Medical School/The Miriam Hospital Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center. (n.d.).  The National Weight Control Registry. Retrieved January 04, 2021, from http://www.nwcr.ws/research/