CSCS certification review - Tyler Read showing the NSCA NCSCS textbook

This article overviews my experience earning the NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification (NSCA-CSCS).

In this review, I break down the following components of the CSCS certification:

  • CSCS content coverage
  • Certification requirements, costs, and difficulty
  • NSCA CSCS pass rate and NSCA CSCS exam difficulty
  • Salary and career prospects for CSCS-certified coaches
  • Explanation of my expert review process

I’ve personally taken and passed the CSCS exam. I’ve also worked with many other CSCS-certified coaches in the context of gyms and athletic performance. I know how other people’s experiences taking the CSCS went.

By finishing this CSCS review, you’ll be ready to decide if becoming a certified strength and conditioning specialist is the right move for your career.

If you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of fitness certifications available, I highly recommend you take the quiz to determine the best CPT for your career goals.

What type of Certification are you looking to get?

Let’s do this!

Emoji Tyler Read from PT Pioneer Thinking about the CSCS Certification Review in 2023

What is the CSCS certification?

What is the CSCS certification?

The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification (CSCS) is among the most respected certifications in the entire industry.

The NSCA has high requirements to sit for the difficult CSCS exam.

I can say from experience that the CSCS is the best strength and conditioning certification.

CSCS certification breakdown

  • Exam cost: $470+
  • Study material cost: $200-$550
  • Prerequisites: Bachelor’s degree, CPR/AED certification from a qualifying provider
  • Exam passing score: 70%
  • Exam pass rate: 54%
  • Average completion time: Approximately 6 months

The NCCA (National Commission for Certifying Agencies) issues accreditation to the CSCS certification. The NCCA is the professional fitness industry standard for certification accreditation. This accreditation further drives home the credibility of the CSCS.

To be clear, the CSCS credential is specifically a strength and conditioning certification tailored toward working with athletes.

As such, I do not personally consider it a candidate for the best personal trainer certification simply because it is not aimed at general fitness training.

However, the CSCS certification still gives you a leg up on trainers with only a CPT certification. So don’t rule it out just because you want to train general fitness clients.

If you are looking at personal training certifications, I recommend you take the quiz to determine the right personal training certification for your goals.

NSCA credibility and reputation

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is a premier non-profit educational provider focused on improving athletic performance.

NSCA certifications ‌range from sports and tactical performance coaching to personal training.

The NSCA is the best source of no-nonsense scientific strength and conditioning knowledge.

The organization is non-profit and dedicated to research over sales, which is something I appreciate from an integrity perspective.

The CSCS exam itself is NCCA-accredited, meaning subject matter experts have vetted the content.

The NCCA stands for National Commission for Certifying Agencies and is the gold-standard accreditation for certifications both inside and outside the fitness industry.

Most professional strength and conditioning jobs have the CSCS certificate as a requirement for applicants. Passing the CSCS exam is the first major step toward becoming a strength and conditioning coach.

The NSCA is an accredited institution founded in 1978 and is dedicated to advancing the strength and conditioning and overall sports science professions across the globe.

cscs-professional-coaching

In addition to the certifications themselves, the NSCA conducts a wide range of research across all aspects of strength and conditioning.

The NSCA has a large network of professional coaches globally, with over 60,000 members and certified professionals worldwide.

These professionals drive the strength and conditioning industry as researchers, performance coaches, educators, personal trainers, and related professionals.

I’ve found the network of coaches through the NSCA invaluable for networking and career advancement.

The NSCA is also well known for the NSCA CPT certification, which is targeted toward general personal training and is among the best online personal trainer certifications.

The NSCA name carries weight; it is the most respected organization for strength and conditioning certifications.

Is the CSCS worth it?

Is the CSCS worth it? Tyler read deciding if the NSCA CSCS Certification is worth it

Passing the difficult CSCS exam is worth it if you plan to become a strength and conditioning coach. In fact, it’s effectively a requirement that all strength and conditioning coaches have a CSCS certification. 

To put it mildly, even if you do land a job without a CSCS, it may hinder your career.

I’ve seen trainers land amazing strength and conditioning coach jobs without a CSCS. But eventually, ‌their lack of the CSCS ends up hindering their careers.

If you want to train general fitness clients, the CSCS might be a more optional tool.

The CSCS curriculum applies to general fitness clients.

However, the CSCS goes beyond what is necessary for training non-athlete populations. It’s also more difficult than all certified personal trainer certifications.

CSCS certification pros and cons

Pros
  • World-class exercise technique and program design
  • Deep knowledge of exercise science
  • Skillset development across all domains of athletic performance
  • Heavily respected across the fitness industry
Cons
  • Lack of corrective exercise programming
  • No behavioral change skills
  • Very difficult exam relative to general fitness training needs
  • High prerequisite requirements

NSCA CSCS vs. other strength and conditioning certifications

The NSCA is the best strength and conditioning certification in the industry.

However, other strength and conditioning specializations are less difficult to obtain but focus on athletic performance. These include:

While these are easier than the CSCS, keep in mind that they do not carry the same weight or credibility.

I do not think that these certifications are worthless, though.

If you want to focus on improving performance in general fitness clients, then the non-CSCS strength and conditioning certifications can be a good option.

Who is the CSCS meant for?

The CSCS is meant for individuals who want a career in strength and conditioning or professionals who want deeper knowledge of the human body from a performance standpoint.

If your goal is to coach athletes or have a career as a strength and conditioning coach, then I recommend the CSCS certification.

The CSCS is beneficial for regular personal trainers as well.

I often find that trainers with both a CPT and CSCS certification have better knowledge of programming, progression, and alternative training modalities.

However, it does not contain corrective exercise or behavioral change for fitness clients, which are very important skills when dealing with the general population.

The exam is also far more difficult than every other CPT exam I have taken, and you have to have a bachelor’s degree or be currently enrolled as a senior in a bachelor degree program to sit for the exam. These factors make ‌CSCS far less accessible. If you want to become a personal trainer and cannot get a CSCS, that’s okay.

In fact, beginning in 2030, the NSCA will require you not only to have a bachelor’s degree, but specifically a bachelor of science from a program approved by the NSCA, which means the program will have specific strength and conditioning components in the curriculum.

Great for:
  • General fitness coaches
  • Aspiring personal trainers
Not Recommended For:
  • Strength and conditioning coaches
  • Group exercise instructors

CSCS certification cost and course options

CSCS certification cost and course options. NSCA CSCS textbook with gold coins on table.

Regardless of whether you purchase a course package from the NSCA, you must pay the exam fee.

The fee for non-members is $475, but an NSCA membership brings that down to $340.

Since an NSCA membership is $130 per year, it’s worth purchasing it in all cases.

There are also cheaper student membership options for current college students. (It’s $70 per year for students).

The NSCA does offer the following study package bundles, which do not include the exam fee:

  • CSCS Essentials Package – $249.40 (member), $302.40 (non-member)
    • CSCS study guide
    • 200 practice questions
    • Essentials of Strength Training, 4th edition
  • CSCS Essential Plus Package – $463.50 (member), 526.50 (non-member)
    • CSCS study guide
    • 200 practice questions
    • Essentials of Strength Training, 4th Edition, and Online Study Course
    • Exercise Technique Manual, 4th Edition
  • CSCS Digital Package – $161.50 (member), $215.65 (non-member)
    • CSCS Study Guide
    • 200 Practice Questions

The NSCA membership also gives you access to the NSCA strength and conditioning journals, which are invaluable resources for personal trainers.

Note that if you fail both sections of the CSCS exam, the retake fee is the same as the initial exam fee.

If you happen to fail just one section, you can retake that section for $250 or $385 for members or non-members, respectively.

If you want to start your CSCS studying before paying for any materials, you can check out my free CSCS study guide and practice test.

I recommend purchasing third-party study materials for a premium study package to prepare you for the CSCS fully.

Purchasing third-party materials also reduces the total cost of your CSCS certification prep.

One great option is the Trainer Academy CSCS MVP Study Guide.

This study package offers an excellent combination of price and value.

It includes a full informational study guide, over 1,000 practice questions, and an exam pass guarantee to confidently walk into the exam room.

Additional materials in the Trainer Academy materials include:

  • NSCA CSCS flashcards
  • Multiple versions of the NSCA CSCS practice exam
  • Full guide on how to study for the CSCS

Of course, if you want to buy the full-priced official NSCA study materials, you are free to do so.

Be sure to check the NSCA website for the latest pricing on their CSCS study materials.

CSCS prerequisites

The requirements to sit for the CSCS exam are the most difficult out of all the certifications I have reviewed.

Like most certifications, you must have a CPR/AED certification from an organization like the Red Cross.

However, the CSCS requires a bachelor’s degree from a University, unlike most CPT certifications that only require a high school diploma.

In 2030, the NSCA will require candidates to have a strength and conditioning degree in an adjacent field, such as exercise science or kinesiology. 

Overall, the CSCS prerequisites are:

  • Adult CPR and AED certification
  • Bachelor’s Degree in any field until 2030
  • Bachelor’s Degree in S&C-related field starting in 2030
CSCS Certification Review ([year]) - CSCS Cost vs Value 3
CSCS Certification Review ([year]) - CSCS Cost vs Value 4

CSCS certification review – strength & conditioning content coverage

cscs certification review - strength and conditioning content coverage. NSCA textbook table of contents

The CSCS strength and conditioning certification content coverage is broad in scope and has a high level of difficulty.

The exam questions come from across the text, with certain subjects weighted more heavily than others.

If you want to start studying the material directly, you can dive right into the free PTPioneer CSCS study guide.

The main CSCS book has a massive section, roughly a third of the entire curriculum, dedicated to exercise science, anatomy, biomechanics, nutrition, and sports psychology.

The rest of the textbook content focuses on practical aspects of improving sports performance, including exercise techniques for resistance training, aerobic training, and programming guidelines for various sports.

In this next section, I’ll take a deeper dive into the coverage of each of these topics in the CSCS curriculum.

Out of the gate, I will say the best and worst part of the CSCS curriculum is how deep it goes on exercise science.

If you pass the CSCS exam, you will have a very strong foundation in the key knowledge points in exercise science.

However, this section of the exam is pretty difficult.

The knowledge is overkill for much of the actual coaching job – but you must know this information to obtain the certification.

Another major downside of the CSCS for regular personal trainers is the lack of client screening and behavioral change coaching.

I’ve rarely met general fitness clients who do not require some form of corrective exercise, which is not part of the CSCS curriculum.

That said, you must supplement your CSCS knowledge with an additional movement assessment and correction exercise skills.

There also is not much discussion of running a personal training business, and certainly no coverage of social media for personal trainers or personal trainer marketing ideas.

If you plan to use the CSCS as a general fitness coach, you must learn additional corrective exercise training and behavioral coaching skills to serve your clients properly.

Additionally, if you want to open your own personal training studio, you will need far more than just a certification.

1. Exercise science foundations

The exercise science coverage in the CSCS is essentially a college degree-level course on the various subtopics of anatomy, bioenergetics, biomechanics, nutrition, and sports psychology.

cscs certification content coverage. NSCA cscs textbook skeletal system diagram.

The anatomy section has in-depth breakdowns of the following systems:

  • Skeletal system
  • Muscular system
  • Cardiorespiratory system
  • Endocrine system

I highly recommend doing many practice test questions on these topics when taking any CSCS practice exam, as the details on the page get very granular and require excellent memorization skills.

CSCS certification curriculum diagram of muscle tissue diagram

You also learn the phases of muscular contraction and the different phases of heart contraction and respiration.

Another big emphasis is the endocrine system, which is key for strength and conditioning professionals to understand, given its massive role in beneficial performance adaptations.

cscs certification review hormone diagram

Moving forward, the curriculum covers the adaptations to anaerobic training programs, which is truthfully the biggest focus of most strength and conditioning programs.

The adaptations covered include neurological, muscular, enzyme,

Tyler Read - Certified Personal Trainer with PTPioneer

Tyler Read


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20 thoughts on “CSCS Certification Review (2024) – CSCS Cost vs Value”

  1. Hey! I am interested in doing the NSCA CSCS certification. I’m getting a little confused between looking at the NSCA site, trainer academy, and your site.
    Exactly what materials do I purchase? I was thinking the Trainer Academy MVP package, then the cost of exam, then I need an online CPR cert, then what textbook do I get? Is there anything else I would need?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hey, all of the materials you mentioned should be perfect for the NSCA CSCS certification, especially since TA will simplify the studying for you. The primary textbook you need will be the current version of the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. This can be found online from many locations, but I suggest getting it directly from the NSCA website.

      Reply
  2. Hi! I am a PT (got my degree 20 years ago in Europe). Also have a Ph.D in Exercise Science from Ohio State University. I live in Japan and would like to get a strength and conditioning certificate. Can you please advise? I have been trying to find something here in Tokyo but no luck. CSCS sounds great for me but I don’t think I can do it online, right?
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hey Maria, If you can get a physical version of the text wherever you are, you should be able to study for the CSCS exam. They may or may not require you to be present in an in-person testing center, but the NSCA does function internationally.

      Reply
  3. I have been considering the CSCS certification. I am OT with 20 years experience, treating more patients in the work comp area so more functional type exercises. I would like to expand on this but I am a little torn if the CSCS or perhaps the NASM PES would be the best fit. Your thoughts?

    Reply
    • Hey Jason, the CSCS is the gold standard in strength and conditioning certifications. If you are looking for the best, most respected, and most challenging certification, this is the one to go for. If you are wanting a good certification with the NASM PES, it would be good, but it is often accompanied with a NASM CPT certification, as the PES is a specialization certification.

      Reply
  4. Hi Tyler,
    I am 33, an MBA in marketing with 10 years of corporate experience. I have with no academic background in kinesiology or sports training. I just love this field of bodybuilding/training but haven’t really got a push from anyone to pursue this as a career. Although I read and follow exercise routines and strength training a lot, couple of my questions are – should I go ahead with CSCS/NSCA ?
    Will my lack of academic experience and age be a hindrance if I want to pursue this as a career ?
    I am from India and have a Canadian PR too – Will CSCS/NSCA be valid and helpful in Canada ?

    Reply
    • Hey Ritesh, sounds like you have a solid amount of education and experience outside of exercise science studies, but also a good amount of personal interest in the field. I think going with NSCA is a good idea, as they are one of the best in the industry, especially if you desire to pursue strength and conditioning. Your lack of experience won’t hinder you, if anything your level of education will only help. The NSCA CSCS is valid and helpful in the US and Canada, and other countries.

      Reply
  5. Hi,
    I have two quick questions.
    How long is the prep time for CSCS and what is the standard range of preparing?
    Another one is that do you recommend to purchase study material on the NSCA website because it is little bit pricy.

    Reply
    • It really depends how much studying you have done in the past. I typically recommend people study at least for three months especially if they are just starting out learning the material. A good alternative to the NSCA study materials are those from trainer Academy.

      Reply
  6. Hey Tyler,

    I am currently trying to figure out if getting the CSCS certification is worth it for me. I currently have a bachelors degree in biology and have committed to a Master’s program in Biokinesiology with a Sports Science Emphasis. The certification would likely be used to help get an internship while I am in the Master’s program and something to help bolster my resume (and maybe get a part time job if I can). Although I am uncertain of what job I want in this field, I know I want to work with athletes doing performance enhancement/injury prevention/performance analysis and likely using technology such as force plates, wearable sensor technology, etc. Would you say it is worth the cost of getting this certification (~$600+ with cost of registering for test and purchasing study materials)? Thanks!

    Reply
    • I definitely do recommend you get the certified strength and conditioning specialist. It is definitely the most recognized personal training certification in the industry. Especially if you are trying to work with athletes and improving performance, this is the certification to get.

      Reply
  7. Hey Tyler, I appreciate your dedication to building a site that allows for an efficient route to make these decisions. Here’s my question and I thank you in advance. I am torn between the c.s.c.s. Cert and acsm cpt. I have a b.a. in psychology, but took many credits in kinesiology and nutrition also. Not enough to earn a double major, but I’ve been a student to the strength and power aspects since I was 17. I read on the NSCA website that it will be changing back to requiring a kinesiology degree at the end of the year.
    Here’s the problem: I would love to get the c.s.c.s and get grandfathered in before the change takes place. As I say that, it’s important to know I’ve used multiple job hunter sites to find jobs requiring the c.s.c.s. Cert AND at least a bachelor in kinesiology or related field. A huge majority even require a masters in one of those fields. What is your opinion on my employment opportunities. What have you seen personally what employers demand?
    Am I setting myself by getting a much more prestigious credential only to not find employment?
    Thanks,
    Mike K.

    Reply
    • Hey Mike,
      This is some very important information you have discovered. I did not know that they were switching back to requiring a kinesiology degree. Honestly, I think that’s a good idea. I don’t think anybody with a four-year in business should have any advantage over somebody that does not have a degree. It really depends on what type of client you want to train. If you want to who work with athletes oh, I definitely suggest going with the CSCS. If this is the case, I would definitely take advantage of your psychology degree and get the CSCS now play that you don’t have to go back and get a second degree in kin.

      Reply
  8. Tyler,
    I see there is a new version of the CSCS test, I have been studying for the “old version” for the past month. Do you know how different it will be? I think I can still sign up for the old version today if there is going to be significant changes. Your thoughts? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hey Sean,
      the biggest differences in the exam are what percent of questions come from each domain of study. Honestly, it did not change that much and if you have been studying up until this point using this study guide or another one, it should not affect the outcome of the exam. As long as you have an in-depth comprehension of each domain.

      Reply
  9. How much overlap would you say there is between the CSCS and the NASM’s CES (Corrective Exercise Specialization)?

    I am currently employed as a Personal Trainer and Physical Therapy Aide, looking to long term attain a Doctorate in Physical Therapy.

    Reply
    • Hey AS,
      To me they are pretty different certifications. the CSCS ddoes not talk nearly as much about corrective exercise. It’s great to hear that you are already a personal trainer. Good luck with your doctorate.

      Reply

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