NSCA CPT vs CSCS - Which Certification Is Best To Start With?

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    This the most balanced review of the NSCA CPT and CSCS certs on the planet.

    I’m going to compare them on the following strengths:

    Focus, Scope, and Recognition
    Study Materials available
    Cost, and so much more!

    At the end, you’ll know all about them and which to choose, thanks to my 10+ plus experience in this industry.

    Let’s get going.


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      Hey everybody, welcome to my comparison article of the NSCA CSCS vs NSCA CPT certifications.

      The National Strength and Conditioning Association or NSCA is one of the most reputable and trusted certifying agencies around.

      They’ve been around since 1985, so you can bet they have built up a strong database of well-researched knowledge.

      That’s why I’m going to be looking at two of their main certifications, the CPT or certified personal trainer and the CSCS or certified strength and conditioning specialist. 

      Both are at either end of the spectrum of complexity and depth, but let’s see what each has to offer so you can decide which one would be right for you.

      And since we’re on the topic of decisions, I strongly advise you to check out my quiz here. It will help you decide which certification would be best for you and your career objectives.

      If at the end of the article, you decide one of these certifications is for you, make sure you check out the greatest premium study guides over at trainer academy.

      Also, make sure to check out our free study guides here at PTpioneer!

      So with that said, let’s take a deep dive into the NSCA certs.

      CPT vs CSCS Quick information

      This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is NSCA-CPT-Quick-Info-copy.png

      Did you know that both NSCA CPT and CSCS are accredited by NCCA and are reputable in the fitness industry?

      Let’s find out more below.

      The NSCA CPT is the general approach to fitness as offered by this agency.

      It’s a solid certification to have in terms of what you will learn and the recognition it gives you.

      The CSCS is where things get more in-depth, some would say the most in-depth.

      That’s because this is considered the golden standard in certification and largely because of how elusive it is due to the difficulty of passing the exam.

      In both cases, the certs are accredited by the NCCA and quite reputable in the industry.

      The Focus, Scope and Recognition CPT and CSCS

      CPT and CSCS Focus

      Here, I’ll take a brief look into the focus, scope, recognition of NSCA CPT and CSCS.

      It’s gonna be worth your while, I promise!

      Because these certs are coming from the same agency, the NSCA, you can bet they will have a similar vibe in terms of theme and focus.

      And that theme and focus are, of course, strength and conditioning protocols that encourage safe practice and correct form.

      In other words, NSCA certs promote the quality of exercise over quality. NCSA personal training is considered the highest standard in delivering safe and effective fitness.


      What is the NSCA CPT exactly?

      The CPT (Certified Personal Trainer (if you were wondering “what does CPT stand for?”) from NSCA is a popular choice for people with a more in-depth passion for exercise science.

      This cert gives its trainers a general well-rounded approach to fitness and exercise science.

      It’s all about teaching the client rather than simply instructing them. NSCA CPT training protocols encourage clients to gain a practical understanding and comprehension of the training methods administered.

      A key aspect of the CPT cert is safety. Knowing how to handle emergencies and sports injuries as well as protocols necessary for optimal rehab.

      The tenets of sports medicine are a large influence on this certification.

      This is why trainers with the NSCA CPT are considered to have the best safety record when working with general population groups.

      Make sure to check out my free study guide and practice test for the NSCA CPT here.

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      The CSCS or certified strength and conditioning specialist (in case you were wondering what CSCS stands for)  is a powerhouse when it comes to credentials.

      Considered the best certification in the US when it comes to the fitness industry, the CSCS has a stellar reputation and a community of trainers that prove that.

      The CSCS is designated for top-flight professionals, and to make sure only the best are awarded this certification, one of the entry barriers is that you complete a college degree in a field related to sports science or sports medicine.

      As if that’s not enough, gaining the certification is notoriously difficult.

      With an annual pass rate of just 55%, you’re almost as likely to fail as you are to pass.

      Those aren’t great odds, but in a way, it’s a good thing.

      Such a high entry barrier serves as good quality control.

      So when it comes to training methodology, the CSCS certification is, as it suggests, a strength and conditioning certification.

      It is focused on special population groups such as elite athletes.

      That’s where the prestige comes from because this certification is a gateway to the world of professional sports, a multi-billion dollar industry that eclipses general fitness.

      Make sure to check out my free study guide and practice test for the CSCS here.

      Study Materials

      CPT and CSCS Study Materials

      In this section, we’ll be reviewing the different study packages available for both certifications.

      Ready to hit the books?

      Which study material is best for each of the certifications?

      Let’s find out!


      The study material for the CPT  is available in 3 premium tiers.

      NSCA-CPT Essential Package, NSCA-CPT Essential Plus Package and NSCA-CPT Digital Package.

      The essential package comes with the bare minimum you would need to prepare and pass the exam.

      This includes:

      • Essentials of Personal Training, 2nd edition
      • NSCA-CPT Exam Content Description E-Book
      • 200+ Practice Questions

      This package is great if you already have experience or a firm grasp of fitness fundamentals.

      The essential plus package includes:

      • Essentials of Personal Training, 2nd edition
      • Exercise Technique Manual, 3rd edition
      • NSCA-CPT Exam Content Description E-Book
      • 200+ Practice Questions

      This package has all of the required prep material for the exam plus some online resources and the exercise technique manual. This one is great if you’re new to fitness and exercise science as it guides you through all the fundamentals.

      Lastly, we have the digital package which is basically the digital version of the exam prep material.

      In it you will find:

      • NSCA-CPT Exam Content Description E-Book
      • 200+ Online Practice Questions

      All these materials come at different prices which we will get into later in the article.


      The CSCS study materials are structured in pretty much the same way with a 3 tier package offering that encludes Essential, Essential Plus and Digital.

      The recommendation is pretty much the same.

      I suggest you grab the Essential Package if you already have experience in high-level strength and conditioning training.

      The Essential Plus package will come in handy if you haven’t delved deep enough into the world of elite performance.

      Lastly, the digital package is there as an online source of the same supplemental material you would get with the CPT course.

      The course text, in this case, is the 4th edition of the Essentials of Strength Training.

      CPT vs CSCS Cost Breakdown

      CPT and CSCS Cost Breakdown

      Which one costs more: CPT or CSCS?

      I’m going to do a cost-analysis below. Let’s crunch some numbers.

      As I just mentioned, both the CSCS and  CPT are available in 3 packages each, priced according to materials available.

      The CPT is priced as follows:

      • Essential: $290.70
      • Essential Plus $511
      • Digital $193

      The CSCS is priced as follows:

      • Essential: $313
      • Essential Plus $532
      • Digital $215

      You also have the option to be a member of the NSCA, this brings the price down across the board for all packages.

      For the CPT exam, you’ll pay:

      • Essential: $240.30
      • Essential Plus $455
      • Digital $144

      And for the CSCS, you’ll pay:

      • Essential: $258 
      • Essential Plus $472
      • Digital $162
      NSCA CPT vs CSCS Cost Breakdown

      Aside from a reduced course price, membership also allows you special access privileges.

      These include:

      • Discounts
      • Exclusive journal access
      • Inclusion to the NSCA community and events therein
      • Exclusive online content.

      Membership also comes in 3 different tiers with pricing to match.

      These are:

      • Student membership $65.00
      • Professional membership $120.00
      • CPI membership $349.00

      For more information on what membership entails, check it out here.

      Information on the Test and Recertification

      This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Info-on-test-and-retest.png

      Below is everything you need to know about the test and recertification processes.

      It’s a loaded segment, so brace up!

      As I’ve already mentioned, NSCA’s exams are known for their difficulty. The chances of you not hitting the mark on your first sitting are relatively high.

      In the possible event that you do fail, you can, of course, re-sit the exam.

      Let’s take a look at what the information and criteria are for each certification’s exam and retake.


      The CPT exam is designed around the principle of Knowledge, Skill, and Ability (KSA).

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      The NSCA CPT requirements are simply that you have a high school diploma as well as current First Aid and CPR/AED certs.

      This in-depth, practical approach has safety as it’s cornerstone and challenges candidates to instill a high degree of care and awareness in the field of professional fitness.

      It’s this reason that the exams tend to be so difficult.

      However, NSCA has study clinics that are available to assist you in your endeavors.

      These clinics are basically platforms which allow you to interact with industry pros, so you can get an expert edge when taking the exam.

      I strongly suggest you sign up for these clinics, they seem like they would be a massive help.

      You will need to register for the exam. Registration is $435  for standard candidates and $300 for members.

      The exam needs to be taken within 120 days of registration.

      The exam itself consists of 140 scored and 15 unscored questions.

      These questions are spread across the following domains:

      • Client Consultation/Fitness Assessment 23%
      • Program Planning 32%
      • Techniques of Exercise 31%
      • Safety, Emergency Procedures and Legal Issues 14%

      The NSCA CPT exam also comes with some video and image-based competency assessments. There are between 25 to 35 of these.

      The non-scored questions are there in order to pretest their viability in future iterations of the exam. You won’t be able to tell which of the questions are scored or non-scored, so you should answer every question.

      The entire exam is 3 hours.

      Now let’s get to what happens if you fail.

      When this happens, you will have the chance to take the test again. The site has no details about a retake fee.

      You will have to re-register after a 90 day period. You can retake the exam as many times as you need.


      The CSCS exam is of course, way more difficult. It focuses on scientific foundations and practical/applied areas.

      If you want to know how to get the CSCS certification, the answer is lots of prep and studying, provided you’ve met all the CSCS requirements of course.

      These two concepts form the only two sections in the exam.

      The CSCS contains a total of 220 questions. The scientific foundations’ section has 80 questions and 15 unscored questions, while the practical/applied areas section has 110 questions that are scored and 15 unscored questions.

      Just as with the CPT, the CSCS unscored questions are hidden in the paper, so you’re better off answering everything to the best of your ability.

      The scientific foundations’ section contains two domains:

      • Exercise Science 74%
      • Nutrition 26%

      The practical/applied areas section has 4 domains:

      • Exercise Technique 35%
      • Program Design 35%
      • Organization and Administration 12%
      • Testing and Evaluation 18%

      The exam is four hours long in total.

      If you happen to fail the exam, you can retake it based on the section you failed, or based on both sections if you didn’t pass either.

      In order to retake, you will have to wait 90 days and re-register with the standard rate of $300 and $435 for members and non-members respectively.

      The retake fee for a single section is $250 and $385 for members and non-members respectively.

      The pass rate as of writing this article sits at 56%.

      Those aren’t the best odds, but they are good enough if you make sure you’re adequately prepared.


      Conclusion on CPT and CSCS

      There you go, folks!

      Now you’ve got all the information you need to understand both certs.

      Which of the two caught your fancy? Let me know in the comment section.

      Both the CPT and CSCS are great certs to have. The CSCS credential is obviously superior in terms of what you need to put in and what you can get out of it when it comes to career potential.

      The exams are hard. For a CPT exam, NSCA is one of the harder ones out there, but most people mane=age to get by.

      The CSCS, on the other hand, is a real battle, you will need to pull all the stops when prepping for this big one.

      Make sure to check out the best premium study materials for these certifications is for you, make sure you check out the greatest premium study guides over at trainer academy. They have a pass guarantee, which is extremely helpful for these challenging exams.

      Also, make sure to check out our free study guides here at PTpioneer!

      At the end of the day, you need to decide what your career path is but rest assured, whether it’s the CSCS or CPT, you’re getting an amazing cert.

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