How To Study for the NSCA CSCS Exam

**UPDATE (10/03/2011)!!!** I’m now offering tutoring for this exam. Click HERE for details! (Ok, now you can enjoy this post.)

I typed this up for Chris Smith over at Train Better Fitness who is also studying for his CSCS exam, but I thought I had better wait to post this until I knew for sure if I passed since I wrote this 4 days ago. But since I’m posting this, it should give you a little hint….


But who really cares about that, right? It’s just a piece of paper. I still need to be a good trainer guy, and that piece of paper doesn’t guarantee anything. But I digress…this is the strategy I used for studying for the CSCS exam…

Items you’ll need:
– Certified Strength and Conditioning textbook (the one they suggest on their website)
– 3 practice exams they sell on their website
– Notebook
– 2 different colored hilighters
– Something to keep you awake and focused (coffee, tea, coke, etc. etc.)

The first thing I did was study the textbook enough to where I thought I was “ready”. This took approximately 1 hour a night for a week. I knew I was nowhere near ready, but I also know my study preferences. Even in school I could NOT, for the life of me, sit down and read a textbook. In 5 years of college, not once did I ever read a textbook. Didn’t need to. Didn’t want to. YUCK!!

Getting back to this hurr… After my feeble attempt of studying, I took the first practice test. I used the notebook so that I could take the tests multiple times without seeing what I had previously answered or what the correct answer was. I marked off the ones I got wrong, but I didn’t write down the correct answers.

I went through the test question by question (even the correct ones). If I got it correct and knew why it was correct, I just went on to the next question. If I got it correct but it was a guess, or I was unsure as to why it was correct, I found the chapter it was in and searched for the correct answer (even though I still didn’t know what the correct answer was cuz I didn’t look in the answer key). Obviously, I did this with all of the incorrect answers as well.

Now, errytime I’d find the answer to a question, I’d hilight it in orange (cuz that’s what color I had). If I read anything along the way that I thought might be important while searching for the correct answer, I’d highlight it in yellow (cuz that was the only other color I had).

After I got through all of the questions in the first test, I did the same for all the chapter review questions in the textbook: answered them all, corrected, searched, and highlighted.

By the time I got all that done (which was several days worth), I had forgotten many of the practice test questions (which was by design so that I could go back and re-take the test to see how much I improved). And that’s what I did. I went back and just kept retaking the 1st practice test until I was only getting 3 or 4 questions wrong and I felt comfortable knowing WHY the answers were correct as well. Then I moved on to the 2nd practice test, and repeated the entire process again. After doing all that sh*t, the 3rd practice test was no different.

As I mentioned on facebook and twitter, by the time I got through all 3 practice tests and all the chapter review questions, I knew WHY the answers were correct for 339 questions.

The knowing WHY is absolutely the most important part of it because there were hardly any questions on the real test that were identical to the 339 I had just memorized. However, knowing WHY those 339 were correct is what got me through it. It’s kind of what got me through engineering school as well.

You see (figuratively, of course), in the later years of engineering school, the professor writes an equation that runs the length of the board, which doesn’t actually contain any numbers. The following weeks, you learn how to pick and choose parts of the equation that you can get rid of and don’t apply to your specific engineering problem. Therefore, that huge, long-ass equation could really be interpreted multiple multiple ways. Some people would get so hung up on which simplified version could be used for which exact application. But in reality, if you just know HOW to apply it, you don’t need to worry about memorizing all the billion different simplified equations, you just derive it every time.

** That last paragraph was mostly me bragging about how smrt I used to be, but it is still applicable to this test as well. Rather than equations, you have fundamental program design, responses to, and application of. **

And that’s about it, bizznitches. That’s how it done. THAT’S how you debate!

Anyone else take the CSCS exam? Did you do anything differently?


**Now that you’ve read how awesome I did, don’t you want to save a bunch of time getting a tutor? I thought so.**

Don’t Miss Your Chance

I was stuck in Corporate America for 9 years. I was miserable.

Then I took control.

You can too, and it starts right here.

36 responses to “How To Study for the NSCA CSCS Exam

  1. Congrats! I am with you, understanding why is the key. Once you are comfortable with the concepts, then you can apply them to multiple situations…and exam questions. Congrats again!

  2. Thanks, fellas!

    It is definitely a huge weight off my mind, Cameron. Even as far as 3 months away from the test I had this looming feeling of, “you know, you should really be studying for the test right now instead of ________ (insert ANYTHING that I was doing other than studying).

    I’m gonna take the next couple weeks and really focus on my training, and try figure out what I do next.

  3. Nice job, congrats!
    What’s the layout of the exam, i.e how many questions, short answer, multiple choice, etc?
    Are there different levels to the exam?
    Nice accomplishment.

  4. Billy, there’s two parts: the scientific/nutrition and then application/programming. The scientific part is 90 questions, the application part is 110. They’re all multiple choice.

    There’s not different levels, but NSCA does offer a more general CPT cert too. The CSCS is more focused towards athletes.

    Thanks for the comment!

  5. Awesome..thanks for the feedback.
    when you say more focused towards athletes, does it deal with group training only or individualized programs too?
    how detailed is the nutrition section? lastly, other than materials costs..what’s the cost for the exam…
    really could look this all up i’m sure…but figured hey..u did it already! ha!

    1. There’s no focus on “group training” at all. It’s just specific to athletes rather than “regular people”. They have different needs than the average Joe.

      The theme throughout the text is that everybody is highly individualized and that an individual program should be developed to fit their goals, needs, and defficiencies. Of course, I’ve been doing that all along anyways. 😉

  6. It actually took me about 8 months to study for the exam. I read the Essentials book and make 3 different outlines for it. Yes, I read it cover to cover! But along the way I got interested in endicrinology and the CNS. So I got 4 other text books on those subjects and read them too. It’s funny, the Essentials book closely mirrors Supertraining. Most of the popular books we read cover all the material. Secrets of Russian Sports Fitness, Block Periodization, Build a Better Athlete, Supertraining, etc.

  7. @JR

    Ha! 8 months?! Well, I can definitely see how it would take that long if you get sidetracked with all those other awesome topics, but if you’re someone that “just needs to get through it”, studying the textbook (while having a good base knowledge of real world application) for a month or two is probably good enough.

    Again, all the good trainers are ones like yourself that actually take the time to continue to educate themselves.

  8. thats pretty good advice and a good way to study…

    iv never really studied much in school… could always get by with minimal work.. but dont consider myself smart lol

  9. Hey…i just came across your blog after taking my CSCS yesterday. I didnt pass the practical/applied portion and missed it by one point. (im really bummed). Anways, I used the practice exams but studied the 2nd edition. Is this where I may have gone wrong? Do you think the material is really that different? I have to admit there were many questions on the exam that def were not in my book (as i thought i knew the chapters in and out!) Any advice?

    1. Kathy, I honestly couldn’t tell you if there’s that much of a difference between the 2nd and 3rd edition. Since this is my first and only time taking it, I only studied the 3rd. However, if you used current versions of the practice exams and knew them inside and out as well as the chapters, I would venture to say that the 2nd edition is “good enough”.

      As far as any advice….hhmmmm…..for me it just goes back to knowing *why* an answer is correct on the practice exam. If you can retain the theory and logic behind the questions and answers, you should be able to apply it to different scenarios. Other than that, I’m not much help. Sorry! (That’s why I ruled out being a teacher long ago.)

  10. haha no its helpful. I got the 3rd ed just to compare. I knew the 2nd ed pretty well and it seems the 3rd has less chapters? Guess we’ll see! Tx for the reply!! =)

  11. Thanks for this advice on the CSCS. I have a bachelor in exercise science and am wondering how much I should study for this exam. I have the second edition of the practice and textbook.

    I am considering getting the 3rd edition instead. Do you still have yours and do you plan on selling the material?

    1. I would gladly sell it for $100! :-p

      Haha! Only because I plan on keeping it as a reference when it comes time for re-certification.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  12. $100? Haha I cant tell if you are being serious. If you are though, I’d love to buy the material you have.. im trying to study for the test myself.

    Anyway, good post btw. I found it very funny that the way you study is exactly how i used to study in college. Like down to the T.

  13. Dude, congrats! Cup-o-questions:

    – I’m interested in doing this in my free time for both purposes of continuing my education and improving my strength/flexibility/fitness, but also to be able to give sound advice confidently with a stronger scientific knowledge/cert to back it up. I saw on the NSCA site you need CPR/AED training as a pre-requisite, any recommendation on where it’s good to get it? I’m thinking local Red Cross?

    – are there any other certifications you recommend?

    Thanks man

  14. Here’s a different approach to taking the test:

    1. Take random chapter tests (included in the textbook, did like 7). Get used to format.

    2. Take practice test. See where you’re at.

    3. Take more random chapter tests. Find answers, like Dave the WHY helps…but meh…whatever.

    4. Take 2nd practice test…or if you feel ready, take NSCA-CSCS test.

    5. Hope for the best.

    Total study time? 8 hrs TOTAL.

    PS. Don’t try that unless you’re really sure on what you DO know.

    1. @Vin
      I think that approach should work for someone going to school, majoring in an exercise science-type degree. In that case, the knowledge should be there, and as you mentioned, it’s just about being comfortable with the format.

      For those of us not (or didn’t) go to school for this, I think we need to be more familiar with the subject matter. That said, 8 hours does sound better than 2 weeks.

  15. @Andy
    NSCA lists accredited CPR organizations on their website…I think. They’re mostly all the same, so look for the cheapest. If you go directly to, say, the red cross website, I think certs are around $50-$65. I found that hospitals, community colleges, and/or tech colleges offer certified classes much cheaper. I got mine for $25.

    As for other certs, I think this is the best, as a starting point, but there are other credible one’s too. I really like this one because it requires you to have a bachelor’s degree before taking the test.

  16. Dave,

    Congratulations on passing your exam!

    I was wondering if you plan on obtaining or already have your CPT license? And if so, are you going through NSCA or elsewhere? I am going to start studying to get the CSCS, and I would like to get a CPT too, and I saw high recommendations in getting it through NASM. I would think it would be most convenient to just stay with NSCA for all of it to get the CEU credits. I just wasn’t sure if you have been through this process and have a preference? Thanks.

    1. Mario, I’m really not sure about a CPT license? What does a license get you that a cert doesn’t?

      And of course, thanks!

  17. Dave,
    Loved reading about how you applied the same principles of engineering school to studying for the CSCS..
    I have been procrastinating, though I know I am good at preparing for tests.
    In your opinion , whats the cheapest way to take the test?
    Get one of the training ‘packages’ on the website(I think thats inclusive of the test).. also it gets cheaper if you sign up for a membership of NSCA.

  18. Pradyot,

    The “cheapest” way to take the test is just to register for the test and take it. However, if you still need to study for it, just buying the text book should be “good enough” if you’re comfortable with the content. I would avoid their offered training packages.

    Not surprisingly, the difference of taking the test as a non-member is exactly the same price as a membership. Might as well get the membership and the benefits that go along with it for the same price. :shrug:

    I’m still a youngster so the computer-based was easier for me. It’s also a lot more flexible. The paper exam is held on specific dates at specific locations. The computer exam can be taken at a lot of different locations around the country and can be taken whenever it fits your schedule (most of the time).

    Thanks for dropping by!

  19. Congratulations on passing on the first try!

    I have been studying for the past two months. Read the entire text, cover-to-cover – word-for-word. I also have a degree in exercise science and I studied very similarly to you. I left the last practice text to take a few days before I take the actual test.

    I am surprised to hear that the questions on the test are not similar to the practice exam and chapter questions O_o. That spoils one of my strategies — memorizing questions and answers! That’s how I passed my real estate exam. Oh well, better really know the WHY. Thanks for this post.

  20. @E

    It’s hard for me to remember as well as try to guess the total time when I was slack-off studying. I would say that I could have gotten those results with 3, fully concentrated weeks for 3-5 hours/night.

  21. Dave,

    thanks for all the great info. I wish I could afford your tutorial thingy but it was a stretch for me just to get the Materials. Was wondering how well we need to the now the testing tables for different athletes at the end of part two? Am I going to be expected to know Vo2 max numbers and bench press means for this test? Hoping its more info to refer to rather than to memorize.


  22. There is no way you can study 8 hours, 2 weeks, whatever, and have ANY realistic grasp or understanding of the concepts in this book, regardless of you prior “experience”.

    A lot of these responses remind me of people who too the CPA (accounting) exam and would say “I didn’t learn anything. It’s just another couple letters after my name to get me an interview”. I knew within the first week I began to study for that exam that those people were complete idiots, and they’d never be more than subpar accountants or businessmen.

    The question you need to ask is whether you want to learn or fully understand how the human body works, or whether you want a couple “letters” by your name. I guarantee I could pull up a random topic from the CSCS book right now and 90% of the people that passed the test couldn’t explain it, couldn’t apply it to real life, and have never used it or contemplated how to use it while studying.

    You don’t want to be one of those people.

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