Deep Dive Review: The NSCA-CSCS Certification
5 minute read

Deep Dive Review: The NSCA-CSCS Certification

NSCA CSCS Certification

If you’re considering the NSCA’s CSCS, but want more information before you commit the time and energy it takes to complete the certification, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to cover the history of the CSCS certification, key prerequisites, what to keep in mind when preparing and much more.

NSCA CSCS Background

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1978. When the NSCA was first established, sports medicine was just starting to delve into new levels of knowledge and research. Today, the organization has come a long way and now is one of the gold standards for personal training certifications.

The NSCA puts emphasis on the fundamentals of exercise from both a theoretical and practical perspective. In short, this means the organization focuses on providing meaningful insights into sports medicine as this applies to fundamental biomechanics. This perspective aims to enhance general lifestyle goals including corrective exercise, rehab for an injury as well as specialized goals such as athletic performance.

The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) program was first established in 1985 with the primary purpose of recognizing individuals who have the skills and knowledge needed to implement safe and effective strength and conditioning programs for athletes participating in a team setting. In short, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists primarily apply scientific knowledge to train athletes, so they can improve their athletic performance.

Compared to other standard certifications, the CSCS program places a strong emphasis on power training for athletes. If you’re looking for a frame of reference, the CSCS is similar to NASM’s PES (performance enhancement specialist) certification, however the CSCS is the gold standard when it comes to strength and conditioning. Think about it this way: individuals who are CSCS certified can go on to train professional athletes. A CSCS certified trainer and their ability to provide effective performance enhancing results for players can have a tremendous impact on an entire business and the skills of highly influential athletes.


Why is the CSCS program one of the most highly regarded specialist certifications in the industry? This certification is not a standard PT certification. If you earn a CSCS certification, you’re likely going to be working in the high-performance field with elite professional athletes. Because of the certification’s sophistication, the typical prerequisites won’t cut it. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree to qualify for entry into the program.

Part of what makes the CSCS program so elite is its accreditation standard. The NSCA is accredited by the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA) which, yes, is essentially a certification for certifications. While this isn’t the most glamorous aspect of your certification research, it’s a crucial aspect that you don’t want to overlook. Ensuring a certification is accredited and has quality accreditations can help you avoid any scams posing as real courses.

Prepping for the CSCS Exam

As we covered before, the CSCS program is highly regarded in the industry and requires, at minimum, that you have a four-year degree to even take it. The NSCA offers two exam options: a pencil and paper version and an electronic version. You can visit NSCA’s website to find a testing location near you. Once you have fulfilled the prequestisites and have been approved to take the CSCS exam, you have 120 days to complete it. If you take the exam electronically, you will receive your results immediately. This time frame is much smaller than other exams in the industry. If you manage your time well and remain committed to setting aside time to study, it shouldn’t take you more than three months to get prepared for the exam.

In total, the CSCS exam totals 220 questions and takes about three hours to complete. The exam consists of two sections: scientific foundations and practical/applied skills. The first section lasts for 1.5 hours and contains 80 score multiple choice questions in addition to 15 non-scored multiple-choice questions that were created to assess a candidate’s knowledge in the areas of exercise science, sport psychology and nutrition.

The practical/applied skills section is 2.5 hours in length and “consists of 110 scored multiple-choice questions and 15 non-scored multiple-choice questions pertaining to program design, exercise techniques, testing and evaluation, and organization/administration.” While both sections are important, the CSCS has put more weight on the Practical/Applied section, so keep this in mind when studying. The remaining 30 questions are non-scored and spread evenly across the exam. They’re not easy to identify, so it’s best to answer all of the questions to help ensure you get the highest score possible.

The NSCA exam is known as being one of the most difficult tests in fitness certification. For this reason and the costs associated with the exam, you should make sure that this certification is a good fit for you and your career plan. If you decide this is the certification for you, you’ll need to study hard and be disciplined in your preparation. Once you set aside time and invest in quality study materials, you’ll set yourself up for success and be on your way to a robust career path in personal training.

Exam Retake Policy

Fortunately, if you don’t pass the exam on your first try, you have the opportunity to retake it after 90 days. This time frame just helps ensure that you have an adequate amount of time to prepare for the retake exam. Below is a breakdown of the cost associated with taking the CSCS exam again.

  • Cost for Two Sections
  • Member Fee: $340
  • Non-Member Fee: $475
  • Cost for One Section
  • Member Fee: $250
  • Non-Member Fee: $385

CSCS Exam Cost

Another important factor to consider before deciding on a certification is the cost of the exam and study materials. For NSCA programs, your registration fee does not include the cost of study materials, so it can be a bit tricky to calculate. For non-members, the registration fee is $340 and for members, the cost is $475. Here’s a breakdown of study packages:

  • CSCS Essentials Package
  • Member Fee: $258
  • Non-Member Fee: $313
  • CSCS Essentials Plus Package
  • Member Fee: $472
  • Non-Member Fee: $532
  • CSCS Digital Package
  • Member Fee: $162
  • Non-Member Fee: $215

You’ll notice a pretty clear difference between the cost for members and non-members. If you’re serious about the NSCA and are considering other certifications, it might be worth it to look into the annual membership costs.

Student Membership: $65/year

Professional Membership: $120/year

CPI Membership: $349/year

CSCS Program Key Takeaways

The NSCA’s CSCS program is a great option for trainers looking to take a big step for their career. Individuals who become CSCS certified can go on to work with professional athletes. This program is prestigious and requires a lot of hard work and preparation.

Given the cost of the exam and its difficulty, it's important to map out your career and think about whether or not this program makes sense for you based on your career trajectory. If you have a four year college degree and already have a general certification, the CSCS certification could be your next big challenge and a great way to help advance your personal training career.

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