Hello, and welcome to Trainer Academy’s best strength and conditioning certifications shootout.

In this article, we’re going to put the spotlight on 5 of our favorite strength training certifications and provide some insight into what they can offer you as a trainer.

This will include a breakdown of the best strength and conditioning certifications process, from prep material to the exam itself as well as what follows once you’ve qualified.

The goal is to help you decide on the best option for you based on your circumstances and career aspirations as a certified strength and conditioning coach.

So with nothing further to say, let’s dive right in.

What Is A “Strength and Conditioning Coach”

A strength and conditioning coach is a fitness expert who administers adaptive training designed either to enhance performance, correct dysfunction, rehabilitate from injury, or prevent future injury by optimizing biomechanical effectiveness, and improving joint stability.

Strength and conditioning protocols are mostly reliant on resistance training with a prominent inclusion of flexibility/ROM methodologies as well as balance/stability-based exercises.

Strength and conditioning are important for normal human function but are especially pivotal in serious athletes’ success.

For this reason, S&C experts often have roles in the professional sports industry, which can be a very lucrative career path.

How to Become A Strength and Conditioning Coach

Becoming a strength and conditioning coach requires a more in-depth practical and academic understanding of the techniques and principles that govern good exercise instruction.

That’s because successful strength and conditioning hinge on having a precise grasp of biomechanics from a general perspective as well as the ability to identify individual movement profiles and plan how to enhance those accordingly.

It’s also because, in the case of professional sports, the high stakes demand meticulous attention to detail since billions of dollars are on the line as well as entire livelihoods in some cases.

Incorrect administration of S&C protocols can lead to harmful situations such as exacerbating dysfunction or even severe injury.

That’s why a strength and conditioning coach certification often comes with a demanding list of prerequisites compared to other fitness certifications. 

Let’s take a look at the four steps to S&C success!

Read Also: How to Become A Personal Trainer

Step 1: Determine Your Prerequisites

As mentioned, the prerequisites for strength coach certification are a little more stringent than the standard CPT certs you’d usually get.

Many of the certs you’ll encounter in this article require some form of extensive experience and/or other existing qualifications such as a college degree or a preliminary certification.

Aside from these extra prerequisites, your standard ones apply in that you need:

  • to be of age (18+ years old)
  • have current first responder certifications (First Aid, CPR/AED)
  • have a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Produce a government-issued photo ID

Step 2: Find the Best S&C Certification for YOU

There are 5 S&C certs we will be touching on in this article. These are:

  • ISSA Strength and Conditioning Certification
  • NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
  • NCSF Strength Coach
  • NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist
  • CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning Coach

Each has its own merits and drawbacks, which we will take a deep dive into to decide on the best choice for you.

Your circumstances and career objective will influence which certification plays best towards a successful career.

An interesting read: The Best Nutrition Certifications

Step 3: Prepare for Your Exam & Pass!

Once you’ve settled on a choice, it’s time to grab the bull by the horns and take on the exam.

With adequate preparation, good time management, and the elimination of distractions, exam success is guaranteed.

Trainer Academy prides itself on providing the best third-party study resources available, so when it comes time to prepare, you know where to find us!

Click on this link to unravel these study materials and kick off your learning journey.

Step 4: Start Working with Strength and Conditioning  Clients

The strength and conditioning market is a tad different from your run-of-the-mill fitness clientele.

People who seek S&C coaching have precise and sometimes high demands, and that’s not even considering the professional sports market.

What that means for your career as a strength and conditioning specialist is that the setup will have to be much more planned out. Marketing and sales won’t be as “shoot from the hip” as it is with a regular PT career.

You will need to network and interact with industry peers a lot more since S&C work required more depth of practice and a reputation that goes with it.

Once you do get the ball rolling, strength and conditioning can be quite lucrative. We’ve already mentioned a few times how you may have the opportunity to work with elite athletes.

Before we proceed, we also have some top strength and conditioning certifications that comes highly recommended if you are just starting as a personal trainer.

Click on the links below to read more about them.

An educative piece: Best Group Fitness Certifications

Accreditation

A big consideration going in with any cert is accreditation. This stamp of approval assures that what you’re paying for is nothing short of a top-tier educational service.

Accreditation is a certificate for a certification, letting you know that it is up to code when it comes to:

  • Quality and relevance of the content
  • Meeting industry standards
  • Having the correct recognition and acceptance
  • Administering the training and certification within approved and standardized protocols.

Accreditation is also a good way to avoid scams since most opportunistic courses wouldn’t have passed the standard assessments that an accrediting commission would put across.

In that way, accreditation helps you identify which certs are good and helps you identify and avoid the bad ones.

As far as accreditation goes, there are two major bodies concerned with that sort of authentication.

Those are the NCCA, short for National Commission of Certifying Agencies, and DEAC, short for Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

CertificationAccreditation
ISSA Strength and Conditioning CertificationDEAC
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning SpecialistNCCA
NCSF Strength CoachNCCA
NASM Performance Enhancement SpecialistNCCA
CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning CoachNCCA

As you can tell, pretty much all of these sports performance certification courses are accredited by the NCCA except for ISSA SCC.

In any case, you’re in good hands with these or any other certifications as long as anyone of these seals of approval is on them.

Learn more about: Exercise Science Careers

Study Materials Rating

A big consideration when it comes to selecting a certification is the study materials they come with.

This is what’s going to help you prepare for the coming exam, and your success pretty much hinges on the course material as you would imagine.

We’ve taken a look at the materials on offer and given them a rating out of 10 based on our educated opinion on what good perp material should constitute.

We would know since putting together second to none study packages is kind of our thing, so let’s take a look:

CertificationStudy Material Rating
ISSA Strength and Conditioning Certification7
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist6
NCSF Strength Coach8
NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist8
CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning Coach5

The study materials from these certs range from excellent to lackluster.

Let’s start with the lackluster, which is the case with CSCCa. 

The first thing we realized was how difficult it was to locate the relevant study materials, and once we did, all we could find was about 20 sample questions and a random assortment of textbooks. 

All the textbooks were S&C-based, so it wasn’t clear which specific one was important for exam prep, or if all of them were required reading.

Next up are the NSCA prep materials. Now, these weren’t bad, but also not that amazing. 

At least it was easy to navigate and locate when searching for the prep packages, but one caveat regarding NSCA is that the study packages exclude exam registration.

You’ll need to purchase them separately. This isn’t such a bad thing, since the total cost is pretty much on par with what the other certs present, but we’ll get into cost later in the article.

There are three options, each priced according to the available materials. The complete package, Essential Plus, includes:

  • CSCS Study Guide
  • Essentials of Strength Training, 4ed
  • Exercise Technique Manual, 3ed
  • 200+ Practice Questions
  • And More!

Check out: The Best Personal Trainer Certifications

Squeeze quote

ISSA brings us a simple but effective online strength and conditioning certification

study package. 

Unlike most other certification courses that bring an array of choices, packaged in different tiered options, ISSA provides one complete study platform.

The materials included are:

  • An online study guide and workbook
  • Official course textbook
  • Online exercise lab
  • Practice exam
  • Section quiz

The only shortcoming when it comes to ISSA is the lack of variety. While the study package on offer is more than adequate, having options is always a benefit.

NCSF and NASM shine the brightest with the widest breadth of options. Within these options is quite a bunch of stuff to get you well prepared.

NCSF, for example, comes with the following in their basic package, the Home Study Course:

  • Advanced Concepts of Strength & Conditioning (Digital Edition)
  • Instructional Videos
  • Lesson Notes
  • Online Certified Strength Coach Practice Exam
  • Questions and Answers
  • Review Quizzes

Their all-inclusive option, the Workshop Plus Package includes:

  • 2-days of workshop instruction (16 hours)
  • Advanced Concepts of Strength & Conditioning (Digital Edition)
  • Instructional Videos
  • Lesson Notes
  • Membership (One Year)
  • NCSF Certified Strength Coach Exam
  • Online Certified Strength Coach Practice Exam
  • Questions and Answers
  • Review Quizzes

There are four packages available in total for the NCSF Strength Coach cert, including an exam-only option.

Not to be outdone, NASM also offered a generous amount of prep material, packaged in various options.

NASM’s most basic study package, the Self-study option, comes with:

  • NASM-PES Digital Textbook
  • Online PES Exam
  • 2 Online Practice Exams
  • Syllabus and Study Guide
  • Application Videos
  • Lecture Videos
  • Exercise Libraries
  • Module Quizzes

The top-tier, All-Inclusive package comes with:

  • CEU Value 1.9
  • NASM-PES Digital Textbook
  • Online PES Exam
  • 2 Online Practice Exams
  • Syllabus and Study Guide
  • Application Videos
  • Lecture Videos
  • Exercise Libraries
  • Module Quizzes
  • Bonus Content 
  • Programming Toolkit 
  • NASM-PES Hard Copy textbook
  • Live Workshop 

This is also a four package option coming from NASM; however, unlike NCSF, the lowest tier package isn’t an exam-only package, it comes with a pretty decent bundle of prop material.

Because of that, we’d say NASM is the winner when studying material quality, despite NCSF just managing to obtain a similar score.

At Trainer Academy, we have premium study materials that are end-products of research and years of experience helping students to prepare for and pass these exams effortlessly.

For each certification, any of these MVP packages will help you achieve a 99% pass rate and likewise reduce your study time if you are a busy person.

Whether you click on the ISSA MVP package or NSCA MVP package or NASM MVP package, our time-tested study techniques are more than adequate to help you ace the final exams.

Quality and variety are all well and good, but you will need to buy the stuff at the end of the day, so having a feel of the price can tell you if the juice is worth the squeeze.

Let’s take a look.

Certification Cost

How much a certification costs will have an impact on which one you’ll consider opting for.

Firstly, the cost is a value indicator, when you weigh it up against the quality of the certification and its industry reputation.

It will also be influenced by your financial circumstances, because many times, what we can acquire in life, simply boils down to affordability.

In this category, we’ll only be dealing with the cheapest cert options and not necessarily the best or most complete packages.

CertificationCost (cheapest option)
ISSA Strength and Conditioning Certification$799
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist$475 (non-member) $340 (member)
NCSF Strength Coach$299
NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist$699
CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning Coach$175

The  CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning Coach cert comes out as the cheapest option. Of course, that’s because it’s an exam-only purchase.

However, the NSCA and NCSF prices we’ve listed are also exam-only options but are substantially more expensive.

An interesting thing about NSCA is its membership option. As you can see, two pricing models hinge on whether or not you’re a member.

But what does membership entail?

Read more on: The Best Health Coach Certifications

The membership is an annual subscription that gives you insider access to discounts, student support resources, and career growth resources.

The basic membership package, known as the Student Membership, goes for $65.00/year.

Moving, we have NASM at $699 for its cheapest Self-study option. The materials included in this are pretty solid, as we’ve already mentioned, making it worth the spend, in our opinion.

NASM’s All-Inclusive package comes in at $999, making it the most expensive option possible of all we have in this article.

Since we’re not dealing with the more expensive packages, we won’t count that in this analysis.

What we will count is the fact that ISSA comes in with the most expensive option at a value of $799.

With all that said, it’s important to mention that these certification package prices often change quite significantly and frequently. 

Discounts and promos are standard. So common that the actual market value is rarely what you will pay for in many cases.

Keep your eyes peeled for discounts since it is the name of this game.

Use the links below to update yourself on current prices and ongoing promos.

An important read: The Best Fitness Certifications

Average Study Time

The average study time depends on two factors. How much time your course runs for, and how much time you have available.

The ideal scenario is to have enough time available in your individual capacity to complete the course within the enrollment period.

The enrollment period is the time from the moment of purchase to the exam deadline.

Looking at this first will help you determine how much time you can and should reserve for your learning and exam prep activities.

CertificationEnrollment Period
ISSA Strength and Conditioning Certification12 months
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist4 months
NCSF Strength Coach6 months
NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist12 months
CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning Coach12 months

The NSCA CSCS has quite a strict time frame, as you can see. This is probably a contributing factor towards the relatively low pass rate synonymous with this cert.

NCSF brings in a 6-month timeframe, which is more in line with standard certifications such as PT certs.

Other than that, all the other S&C certs allow an entire year in which to complete the course and take the exam.

ISSA, however, claims you’ll be exam-ready within 10 weeks of a 2 hour per day study schedule.

One shining feature of ISSA’s study packages across all their certifications is the fact that they provide a guided study plan which allows you to work with a pre-managed study program.

At Trainer Academy, we’ve taken it a step further to bring you an adaptive study blueprint. It’s a time management system you can scale up or down according to your own availability.

With our premium blueprint, you can play the long game or do a last-minute cram and still have a significant shot at success.

Click on the links below to have access to them.

Exam Layout and Passing Grade

So you’ve studied your butt off, and now it’s time actually to write the exam. 

It’s great to understand what content will be in the exam, but it’s just as crucial to understanding how it will be structured, presented, and administered.

It’s kinda like knowing how to drive but having no idea where to go to. Sure, you’ve studied, but learning how to navigate the test is the final key to success.

CertificationNumber of QuestionsPassing Grade
ISSA Strength and Conditioning CertificationN/A75%
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist12570%
NCSF Strength Coach15070%
NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist10070%
CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning CoachN/A61%

ISSA and CSCCa have varied approaches to their exams. ISSA, for one, is done completely online; however, its questions include written portions as well as an S&C video practical.

CSCCa is quite similar, with their practical portion, but rather than a submission video, you are required to perform the practical tasks in front of a live assessment panel.

Not much information is provided on the actual breakdown of the CSCCa exam beyond that, but it’s fair to note that it is pretty tough.

NSCA, NASM, and NCSF are more or less in line with what you would normally expect from a cert exam in terms of the number of questions and passing grades. NASM PES vs. CSCS is a common comparison owing to the similarities of these certs.

The NSCA CSCS is notorious for being one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult exam of the lot. Pass rates fluctuate; right now, the pass rate for the CSCS is 63% for candidates. This is considerably high compared to 54% at one stage.

To really be successful with the exams, you will need to take note of the actual exam breakdown, section by section, or domain by domain.

You can gain more insight into that information when purchasing the exam as they often provide it at check-out.

Remember to focus on the sections which are more heavily scored.

And as a rule of thumb, the sections with the heaviest score towards the final grade typically deal with the more practical aspects of S&C.

The more theory/principle-based sections are worthless in general.

To get yourself familiar with the exam format, structure, and questions, you can use our free CSCS practice test or NASM practice test to see if you are truly ready.

Try out our NASM study guide too; it has been known to greatly improve the technical understanding candidates have about the cert., helping them to pass the final exams in flying colors.

Continuing Education Requirements

As with most certifications, there is an expiration date and a renewal policy attached to your S&C credentials.

Renewal occurs to maintain your practical knowledge in the field and keep you abreast of trends and discoveries in research.

To recertify, you will need to submit the required amount of CEUs along with a recertification fee if applicable.

Let’s take a look at the re-cert conditions for each of these.

CertificationRequired CEUsCertification PeriodRecertification Fee
ISSA Strength and Conditioning Certification20 hours2 years$0 – $99
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist60 hours3 years$65 (member) $90 (non-member)
NCSF Strength Coach10 hours2 years$75
NASM Performance Enhancement SpecialistNONENONENONE
CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning CoachNONENONENONE

NASM and CSCCa offer lifetime certifications. Concerning the CSCCa certification, this is quite understandable considering the incredibly strict prerequisite requirements.

This is great since these are the two biggest names in S&C.

NSCA CSCS is also a big-league institution when it comes to strength and conditioning. This cert, however, does require recertification after 3 years along with 60 hours worth of CEUs, the most required out of the bunch.

ISSA comes in with a standard certification period of 2 years, as well as the typical 20 hours worth of CEUs you would normally encounter.

Depending on how you obtain your CEUs, you may pay between absolutely nothing to $99.

If your CEU’s are obtained through ISSA, there is no fee attached.

Last but not least, NCSF comes in with a requirement of only 10 hours of credits over the course of two years as well as a recertification fee of $75.

Click here to find these study materials and get closer to your dream career.

Popularity and Recognition

The popularity and recognition of certification have an impact on the career prospects you can actually hope to enjoy.

Popularity amongst candidates proves that the cert is consistently satisfying trainers and fitness professionals with the best skills, business, and educational resources.

Recognition within the industry shows that the certification will open more doors and have a higher chance of landing you the job you want than not.

Now without any solid figures in terms of enrollment, we will just provide some context on what the popularity and recognition look like for each certification.

The first thing to note is that all of these are accredited certs, which means they are recognized to an adequate extent within the sports and fitness industry.

As far as popularity is concerned, NASM definitely rules the roost when it comes to certifying agencies in general.

ISSA comes in second of the bunch with a high interest amongst fitness professionals.

When it comes to prestige, NSCA and CSCCa are the two most valued strength and conditioning certifications.

They represent the pinnacle of academic and practical prowess in the field.

The  CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning Coach cert is especially revered. It is considered the most reputable qualification in the field of strength and conditioning anywhere in the world.

To get more info on these certifications, click on the links below:

The Average Income for Strength and Conditioning  Coaches

How much you can earn should really be the primary consideration when deciding on a fitness career, or any career for that matter. It is your livelihood and means of survival at the end of the day.

So when it comes to earnings, it’s important to have an idea of what you can earn, and perhaps shoot a bit higher than that.

Cert by cert figures on salaries and income aren’t readily available, so we’ve taken a general approach and found out what S&C coaches tend to make on average in the US.

For a US-based S&C coach, the average salary is around $44k, according to statistics by salary.com.

Factors that influence income potential include:

  • Location
  • Years of experience
  • Other credentials
  • Recognition of credentials.

With the prospect of working as a professional sports coach, a strength and conditioning expert’s earning potential shoots up dramatically.

But such jobs are as rare as they are lucrative.

A more elaborate piece: Personal Trainer Salary

Pros vs. Cons

CertificationProsCons
ISSA Strength and Conditioning CertificationSimple but effective study package completely online flexible study and exam processThe most expensive option lacks variety with regards to prep material
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning SpecialistHighly regarded and prestigious3 years before recertification is requiredOne of the toughest examsHefty recertification CEU requirements
NCSF Strength CoachVery lenient CEU requirements reasonably priced great study material optionsProbably the least recognized
NASM Performance Enhancement SpecialistThe most popular certifying agency recertification required great study materialsRelatively pricey
CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning CoachThe pinnacle of strength and conditioningDifficult to figure out in terms of required reading and study materials extremely stringent entry requirements

Our Top Picks

Best For:Certifications
Top tier sports science and S&C workCSCCaNSCA
Best for beginnersISSANCSF
Best for seasoned professionalsNASMNSCACSCCa
Best for physical educatorsISSANCSF
Best for higher learningCSCCa
Best for general practiceISSA
Best for special populationsNSCACSCCa
Best for business and entrepreneurshipNASMNCSFISSA
Best for CEUsNCSFISSA
Best for International CertificationISSA
Most RecognisedNASMISSA

Certification Takeaway

ISSA Strength and Conditioning Certification

ISSA is a great certifying agency. With over 30 years in the game and being a leader in the online, distance learning spaces, they’ve learned to get a lot right.

Their S&C certification may not be as hyper serious as others such as CSCCa and NSCA CSCS, but the quality and relevance of the knowledge contained are definitely on par.

This one is great if you want to work with general population groups as a supplement to normal PT work.

ISSA S&C certification is the best choice in terms of value, especially if you opt for the elite trainer package which means you’ll get a personal trainer cert, a nutritionist cert with the Strength and Conditioning cert at only $999.

Having the 3 certifications will certainly make you a better Personal Trainer in the long run.

Click on the link here to enjoy the elite trainer package from ISSA.

NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

One of the most prestigious strength and conditioning credentials out there, the NSCA CSCS, is a great investment for big-shot career aspirations.

The recognition courted amongst seasoned fitness professionals means that you will have access to some great job opportunities.

The NSCA is better suited for trainers with some skin in the game. Experience within the field helps unearth much of the wisdom required for you to know how to become a CSCS.

Enjoy great deals always on NSCA CSCS by clicking on the link here.

NCSF Strength Coach

NCSF is a well-recognized certifying agency with a great reputation amongst peers in the industry.

Their Strength Coach certification is a great value for money approach to the S&C field, which will allow you to work with a range of clients from pro athletes to physique competitors.

Stay updated with the latest info about NCSF by clicking this link.

NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist

NASM is by far the most well-known certifying institution here. We’ve already covered that.

But this notoriety is not unearned. NASM has such a stellar reputation because it delivers on a promise of top-notch education.

The NASM PES is not just a great cert; it’s also a convenient one. The lack of recertification means you have one of the most accepted S&C certs for life.

The latest NASM review has more than enough info to get you started.

CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning Coach

The CSCCCa MSCC is the big kahuna when it comes to S&C credentials. It is revered, recognized, and accepted almost everywhere.

It’s also the most difficult to obtain, requiring, amongst other things, at least 12 years of full-time experience in the strength and conditioning field before you can even think of applying.

This one is definitely for established pros, but you just might be one, ready to take your career and credentials to the ultimate level!

Conclusion

That wraps up our round-up of our five favorite strength and conditioning certs.

We hope you found this insightful and that it helps you decide on how to chart your career forward.

If you’re already stuck into exam prep, make sure to check out our awesome packages here, so you can get a supreme edge on your prep mission!

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