CSCS Certification - [A Complete Guide]

Looking to become a certified strength coach? Start your research process by reading this guide on CSCS Certification.

Strength coach with a clipboard standing in front of a smiling female athlete tying her shoes

How Do You Become A Certified Strength Coach?

If you want to become a strength coach, you'll need to start by attaining a respected certification.

The allure of becoming a strength coach and working with athletes has grown tremendously as colleges observe their value.

In 2020, the highest-paid strength coach in the NCAA, Mickey Marotti of Ohio State made $787,798.

(That includes a pandemic pay cut)

On April 24th, 2014, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted a standard of certification for Division I strength and conditioning coaches.

"A strength and conditioning coach shall be certified and maintain current certification through a nationally accredited strength and conditioning certification program."

Previously, two certifications were recognized as the standard for certification:

  1. National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA-CSCS) certification.
  2. Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa) Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC) certification.

The NCAA stopped specifically recommending the NSCA and CSCCa because of "legal considerations".

While there are several alternates, CSCS certification is still recognized by coaches. The CSCS is also much easier to get than the SCCC.

An SCCC requires a 640-hour CSCCa approved internship.

Let's talk about the NSCA CSCS certification process.

After a short aside on internships, this article will cover the following:

  • How long does it take to become a certified strength and conditioning specialist?
  • Can you get a CSCS without a degree?
  • NSCA CSCS requirements
  • Is CSCS certification worth it?
  • How much does CSCS certification cost?
  • How to get your CSCS certification
  • Is the CSCS Exam Hard?
  • What score do you need to pass the CSCS exam?
  • How long should I study for CSCS?
  • Can I work while waiting for my CSCS card?
  • How long does a CSCS certificate last?
  • How do I maintain my CSCS certification?

Should You Intern for Free? Yes, if necessary.

Recognition and social currency are vital to getting your start as a strength coach.

This became apparent to me after hearing so many of my coaches at the University of Missouri constantly refer to their connections.

Dr. Pat Ivey was my head strength coach from 2010-2013. named him its National Strength Coach of the Year in 2013. He's currently the Associate AD/Student-Athlete Health & Performance at Louisville.

After a stint in the NFL, he started as a graduate assistant in 1998 at MU and went on to coach and work with:

Many coaches get the opportunity to work in the field based on who they know. You'll likely begin working as a graduate assistant or assistant and work your way up.

If you're reading this as a student looking for paid exercise science internships, you might want to consider working somewhere for free.

Dr. Mann told me, to become a strength coach at a major college or university, you have to go somewhere that has name recognition.

Don't pass up the opportunity to develop a network of great connections for a couple of months of income (if you can afford it).

How Long Does it Take to Become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist?

Depending on experience, it may take you from 3 weeks to 9 months to study and become a certified strength and conditioning specialist.

The exam contains two focuses:

  1. Scientific Foundations (Exercise science, nutrition, and psychology)
  2. Practical/applied content (Exercise technique, programming, testing, and administration)

If you have a background in exercise science, you'll likely fall closer to the 3-6 month range.

Can You get a CSCS without a Degree?

No. You must have or be on your way towards a Bachelor's degree to sit for the CSCS exam.

NSCA CSCS Requirements (Prerequisites):

  1. Candidates must have at least a bachelor's degree or currently be enrolled as a college senior.
  2. Have a current CPR/AED certification.

The NSCA is going to make attaining a CSCS more difficult in the future;

"Targeted to take effect beginning in 2030 – to be eligible to take the CSCS examination, candidates must hold a Bachelor’s degree from a program accredited by an NSCA-approved accrediting agency.
This degree will have specific requirements that focus on strength and conditioning. The current degree requirement for the CSCS exam will remain in place until December 31, 2029."

For now, any degree will do. You might consider bumping up your timeline if your degree is not strength specific.

Is CSCS Certification Worth It?

If you plan on working with an athletic population as a coach or trainer, a CSCS is worth it (and likely required).

As mentioned above, the NCAA requires a nationally accredited certification. Private facilities and gyms may accept other certifications.

That being said, almost any gym will hire you if you hold a CSCS.

To learn more about becoming a trainer at a gym, read the guide to doing so.

CSCS Certification Exam Cost

(As of 1/13/2021)

Member Rate: Non-Member Rate:
Registration Fee $340 $475
Retake Fee for Both Sections $340 $475
Retake Fee for One Section $250 $385

(Check the NSCA for the latest pricing here)

How Much is a NSCA Membership?

There are three different options for an annual NSCA Membership:

  1. Student membership - $65
  2. Professional membership - $120
  3. CPI membership - $378.08

Student membership is meant for full-time undergraduate and graduate students. It requires verification. Professional and CPI membership are aimed at professionals in the field or those who aspire to be.

NSCA membership benefits include:

If you're going to spend money on testing and continuing education opportunities with the NSCA, membership pays for itself several times over.

CSCS Exam Prep:

This section covers the specifics of getting ready for taking your exam. Recommendations vary.

(As of this writing the NSCA handbook and website disagree on how long it might take to prepare)

How to Get Your CSCS Certification

To get your CSCS, the NSCA recommends the following 3 step process:

  1. Step 1: Planning - Choose a certification, plan how you'll need to study, and set a target test date.
  2. Step 2: Get your study materials - Essentials of Strength and Conditioning (4th edition), the text that exam content is based on.
  3. Step 3: Study - Read the text, brush up on areas of weakness, and sign up for the test.

You have 120 days to schedule and complete the exam following registration.

Is the CSCS Exam Hard?

Yes, the CSCS exam is objectively harder than most certified personal training certifications.

In 2019, the pass rate for first-time candidates taking both sections was 63%. This number was a bit higher than in 2018 which was 58%.

For comparison, in 2018, the NSCA-CPT pass rate for both sections was 78%.

The exam covers a broad amount of content across domains including:

  • Exercise science
  • Sports psychology
  • Nutrition
  • Exercise technique
  • Program design
  • Organization and administration
  • Testing and evaluation of selected tests

You'll be expected to know how to write programs for sports that you may or may not have participated in yourself.

What Score Do You Need to Pass the CSCS Exam?

Per the exam day handbook, a passing score for all NSCA certifications is a scaled score of 70.

The NSCA scales scores to allow for comparability across different exam forms, which may vary slightly in difficulty. Test questions are rotated often to keep people guessing.

The NSCA offers additional resources to help you prepare including:

Note: Most in-personal NSCA events have been canceled following coronavirus COVID-19 updates.

It may be some time before the hands-on clinics return. For now, it seems like the NSCA is leaning heavily toward virtual events.

How Do I Prepare for My CSCS test?

You might study anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months or longer for the CSCS.

The NSCA recommends different study plans depending on two factors:

  • Do you have an exercise science-related degree?
  • Have you taken part in an internship or other practical experiences?

Based on the answers to the above, here's how long you might study for the CSCS:

How Long to Study for the CSCS Exam:

(Based on the NSCA Certification Handbook)

Exercise Science Related Degree: Internship or Practical Experience: How long you might study:
Yes Yes 2 to 6 weeks
Yes No 3 to 6 months
No Yes 4 to 6 months
No No >6 months

CSCS Study Guide

How do you study for the CSCS test? Get the study guide for people who make flashcards, or feel like they don't test well.

Can I Work While Waiting for My CSCS Card?

Yes, you can work while you work to attain your CSCS.

It's common practice for a gym to allow a new trainer to work for up to 6 months while pursuing certification.

If you take a position as a graduate assistant at a college or university, you'll spend time working under a qualified staff member.

How Long Does a CSCS Certificate Last?

CSCS certification may last up to three years. The NSCA recertifies all its professionals at once so this largely depends on when you complete your exam.

How Do I Maintain My CSCS Certification?

You can maintain your CSCS certification by completing the equivalent of 2.0 continuing education units (CEUs) per year for 3 years.

CEU requirements are based on when you are certified.

You can earn CEUs towards recertification in one of four ways:

  1. Category A - Live educational events (conferences, clinics, workshops, etc.)
  2. Category B - NSCA quizzes, presenting as a speaker at clinics, getting published, and volunteering in NSCA leadership.
  3. Category C - Certification or recertification in First Aid, post-certification college courses, internships, and passing the USADA's Coaches Advantage quiz.
  4. Category D - Personal development, home study courses, completing additional NSCA certifications, and earning an NCCA-accredited Certification.

Various activities are worth differing numbers of CEUs. Some are based on clock hours while others are not. 1 contact hour is assumed to equal 0.1 CEU.

Be sure to review CEU program guidelines to make sure you're meeting the standard for recertification.

Recently another option for recertification has been offered. You may now choose to retake and pass your exam in place of reporting CEUs.

Here's How to Study for the CSCS:

  1. Be sure that you meet exam prerequisites - The CSCS requires that you have or be on your way to a bachelor's degree.
  2. Plan on studying for at least 3 weeks - If it's been a bit since you've studied exercise science, it may take longer.
  3. Consider purchasing an NSCA membership - you can save significantly on the exam and materials.
  4. Purchase additional study materials as needed - the NSCA offers several resources to help you prepare.
  5. Set a date and pass the exam - Be sure to study well, the exam boasts a 63% pass rate (2019).
  6. Be sure to maintain your certification - CSCS recertification comes every 3 years, depending on when you got it.

Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.