Hey everybody, and welcome to yet another Trainer Academy certification review.

Today we’re going to be looking at the NSCA CSCS.


This review is going to provide some insight into exactly what the CSCS is and how it can benefit your career aspirations if at all.

We will be going through some descriptive insight as well as some statistical data so that you can gain a well-rounded picture of what you’re dealing with.

So with that said, let’s jump straight into it.


If you don’t already know, NSCA is one of the longest standing certifying agencies around.

Unlike many of the ones you’ll encounter, the NSCA, short for National Strength and Conditioning Association is a non-profit organization.

That means their entire operation is based on furthering research and education in the fields of sports science, health, and fitness.

It was founded in 1978, at a time where sports science was beginning to tap into new levels of research and knowledge.

Today it is one of the gold standard certs and has an impeccable reputation amongst qualified trainers and the industry as a whole.

As for the CSCS ( Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) program, it is one of the most highly regarded specialist qualifications in the industry.

This isn’t your typical PT cert, it is aimed at equipping top tier trainers with the knowledge, skills, and tools to take unique and challenging situations.

This usually means working in the high-performance field with elite professional athletes.

To this end, the CSCS doesn’t have your standard prerequisites.

You will need to have a bachelor’s degree in a sports science program or related program in order to qualify for entry into the CSCS program.

If you are considering this as an option, we can assume that you’re no mere fledgeling trainer and are dedicated to a serious commitment in the field of elite fitness science.


Accreditation is an essential consideration when looking at what cert to get.

You want to have a certification that has been approved by a recognized national authority.

When it comes to health and fitness certifications, there is one gold standard, and that is the NCCA or  National Commission of Certifying Agencies.

It is essentially a certification for certifications. 

Run by a panel of experts and leading organizations, NCCA helps you determine the authenticity and quality of a cert through its seal of approval.

Other than providing a show of quality, accreditation also helps you avoid many of the scam courses floating around.

You may have stumbled upon ads and banners on the internet and social media. Ads that advertise online fitness courses with a guaranteed pass and certification within 24 hours in some cases.

These are simply cash grabs, and even in cases where they might provide a reasonable degree of fitness-related knowledge, they typically have no industry recognition.

That means you’re simply wasting your time and money when you go for a non-accredited course.

With that said, the NSCA is indeed accredited by the NCCA.

Cost of Study Packages

The next important aspect you will need to consider when registering for a cert is how much it costs.

In the case of the CSCS, the cost can be a bit tricky to figure out.

Firstly, when it comes to NSCA programs, you’re only paying for the exam registry. This excludes any and all study materials which you will need to buy separately.

Secondly, the cost you will ultimately deal with depends on whether or not you are a member, which itself comes with an additional annual fee.

Let’s see how it all breaks down:

 Member FeeNon-Member Fee 
Registration Fee$340$475
CSCS Essential Package$258 $313
CSCS Essential Plus Package$472$532
CSCS Digital Package$162$215

From this, we can see that NSCA CSCS has some very competitive pricing on its complete packages.

The most you can possibly pay for an exam registry and top tier study package (essential package) is $788.

Competitive pricing

To put that into perspective, NASM CPT on its lowest tier would go for $799.

You’re paying less for a qualification that allows you to train athletes than you would pay for one that just allows you to be a gym trainer, pretty sweet.

The three study package tiers come down in price when membership is at play.

Let’s see what being a member actually costs:

Type of MembershipCost Per Year
Student Membership$65.00
Professional Membership$120.00
CPI Membership$349.00

Note that these are annual fees, so membership can be a great deal if you consider the savings as well as the access to awesome resources.

Quality of Study Materials (1-10)

Now that we know how much the stuff costs, let’s look at the nuts and bolts of the study materials.

With the exam registration out of the way, you will have access to three study packages, available separately.

Let’s look at what each one includes.

CSCS Digital PackageCSCS Essential PackageCSCS Essential Plus Package
CSCS Study GuideEssentials of Strength Training, 4edExercise Technique Manual, 3ed
More than 200 Online Practice QuestionsCSCS Study GuideEssentials of Strength Training, 4ed
More than 200 Online Practice QuestionsCSCS Study Guide
More than 200 Online Practice Questions
And More! 

We know what you’re thinking, that these study packages are pretty bare bones.

The first tier doesn’t even include the textbook!

But what you have to remember is that this is a cert for established trainers, ones who have college degrees and a few years under their belt.

The need for a hefty suite of support materials should not be necessary once you’ve achieved the level and credentials that even allow you to take this exam.

And the price you will pay is reasonable considering all this, especially with membership perks included.

In any case, we can objectively say that the study material options you can get for the NSCA CSCS are a bit lackluster in terms of quantity and variety.

We would like to imagine there would be a bit more academic support, even without membership privileges.

As you will soon learn, the CSCS is one of, if not the hardest exam you can take for certification.

Exam Layout and Passing Grade

The CSCS exam is structured in a sort of unique way.

It has two sections which you have to pass individually in order to achieve an overall pass.

This essentially makes it two exams in one, or rather, two subtests that makeup one exam.

The exam’s sections represent the two fundamental aspects of being a professional fitness coach, Scientific Foundation, and Practical/Applied.

The scientific foundation assesses a candidate’s knowledge of the theory and concepts that govern human physiology as it relates to physical or athletic performance.

The total amount of questions is 220.

110 of these are found in the Practical/Applied section, while 80 are in the Scientific Foundation Section.

The remaining 30 are non-scored questions spread evenly across both sections. 

These questions are included to assess their viability for future iterations of the CSCS exam. They are not easy to identify, so you best answer all the questions if you want to ensure success.

As you would expect, the exam sections each have areas of focus, and these are weighted according to relevance. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Section 1: Scientific Foundation
Domain  Weighting  
Exercise Science55%
Sport Psychology24%
Practical side
Section 2: Practical/Applied
Domain  Weighting  
Exercise Technique36%
Program Design35%
Organization and Administration11%
Testing and Evaluation18%

As you can see, the two sections deal with the two halves of the fitness prescription whole.

In our opinion, the most important aspect to grasp is the practical side of things. The scientific theory is important too, but can easily be back referenced and brushed upon as you work in the field.

The CSCS has decided that the best approach towards proper assessment is to address both areas of learning, but they have placed priority on the Practical/Applied section and rightfully so.

The entire test is 3 hours long and runs through a PSI test facility of your choice upon registering or via remote live proctor if you choose to do it online.

Exam difficulty and Pass Rate

Now here’s where things get interesting. The NSCA CSCS exam difficulty is one of infamy. It is known as the toughest test in fitness certification.

Aside from being tough to prepare for, with the skimping on offered study resources, it is long, intricate and tricky.

It is designed to separate the wheat from the chaff and does so effectively.

That’s why CSCS certified trainers are amongst the most sought after in the industry.

In spite of its notoriety as a difficult cert, it has bumped up in pass rates as of writing.

From a pass rate that hovered in the mid 50% range, we now have a pass rate of 63%.

This still makes it pretty tough, but much more manageable.

We find the overall difficulty to be necessary since the aim of a CSCS certified instructor is to work with very sensitive population groups. 

The barrier of entry, therefore, translates into good quality professionals entering the field.

Retake Fee

Since failing the CSCS exam is a very possible reality, you will need to strongly consider your options in case you do fail.

Luckily, just like any other certification, the CSCS has a retake policy.

If you fail, you will need to wait 90 days before you can retake the exam.

This cool-down period is set in order to allow you to prep for the exam retake adequately.

As we mentioned, the CSCS exam is divided into two individually scored sections. That means you might pass one section and fail the other.

You will need to pass both, but if you happen to fail just one, the passed section will be maintained as successful, meaning you will just need to retake the failed section.

The retake fees are quite prices compared to what most certifications charge for retakes.

Below is a breakdown of what you will need to fork out should the situation arise.

Cost for Two Sections$340$475
Cost for One Section$250$385

So in conclusion, you really don’t want to fail this exam, the odds are fairly high, so your best bet is to make 100% sure you’re ready.

Here at Trainer Academy, we’ve got you covered with some premium study materials that will give you a serious edge in passing this challenging paper. 

It’s totally your call, but given the bare-bones nature of what NSCA provides in terms of study materials, we strongly recommend you get yourself some expert assistance from fitness pros who’ve already conquered this beast.

Certification Popularity

The NSCA CSCS is a very sought after certification for top tier trainers or those with lofty career aspirations.

This however doesn’t translate into massive popularity.

That’s because the majority of personal trainers are just that, personal trainers.

The CSCS is aimed at and designed for fitness practitioners in the realm of elite performance prescription.

The prerequisite of requiring a college degree also limits the enrollment pool quite considerably.

In comparison to other certs such as NASM and ACE, with yearly enrollments in the tens of thousands, CSCS comes in with just 1344 candidates according to 2019 figures.

You also need to remember that the NSCA CSCS is a specialist cert, it’s not a generic PT certification, so the popularity will be much lower regardless of the entry barriers and difficulty.

This places the cert in a unique position of being super famous and reputable within the industry, but also relatively unpopular with trainers seeking credentials.

We say go for it! If you have all the prerequisites in place and have a passion for focused sports science service delivery, it will certainly place you head and shoulders above most of your peers.

Expected Study Time

The amount of study time you will realistically need and the amount you will be allowed vary in most cases.

What you are allowed is squarely based on the enrollment period.

This is the amount of time from registration that you are allowed to prepare before you actually have to sit and take the exam.

In the case of the CSCS, the enrollment period from exam registration is 120 days. That’s roughly 4 months!

4 months is much lower than many certs will allow, which typically ranges from 6 to 12 months.

In any case, with adequate preparation and good time management, it shouldn’t take you more than 3 months to be test ready.

This of course depends on your time management skills and study dedication.

Many factors can affect this including ongoing commitments and emergency situations.

That’s why we’ve developed a full-proof Study Blueprint that you can use to structure your study commitments around your existing schedule and any unforeseen events.

You can grab your Trainer Academy CSCS study pack here, select the MVP package to gain access to the Study Blueprint and cram guide, guaranteed to shorten your study time considerably.

Average Income

As you might imagine, with the level of experience, the career angle and nature of credentials a CSCS certified trainer would carry, the average income figures are considerably high.

The annual average income for a CSCS certified coach is $57,866/year.

The income stats go up as high as $90,000.00 and as low as $40,000.00 annually.

This means that even at the lowest end, the income figure of a CSCS trainer contends with the annual average of a NASM or ACE CPT certified trainer.

This high-income stat could also have something to do with the fact that CSCS trainers hold a college degree by default.

Having a degree has been statistically shown to boost trainers’ potential income. In fact, trainers with degrees are the top income earners.

The CSCS income statistics we’ve presented might simply be a reflection of this, but having this certification is certain to open up more doors for a higher earning potential in our estimation.

Another potential reason behind these stats is the fact that a college degree typically means the financial resources a trainer has in order to obtain that level of education, are also inputs towards accelerated career growth.

Primary Focus Of Certification

Every cert has a niche, even if the end goal is generally the same when it comes to providing health and fitness.

When it comes to it, the name kind of spells it out. Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist is pretty self-explanatory.

But let’s just take a quick second to go into what it’s all about so you get a better picture.

The CDC’s primary goal is to equip trainers with the capability to enhance performance, recovery, and injury prevention in athletic population groups.

This may be at an amateur or professional level, but as long as elite performance is involved, CSCS serves to provide adequate training.

Direct impact

This is the main reason why a degree is required as a prerequisite. Unlike your run-of-the-mill CPT cert, this specialist field has you dealing with people’s livelihoods and careers.

The way you train them directly influences their ability to make a living.

And when it comes to big sporting leagues such as the NFL or NBA for example, there is a lot more at stake than athlete salaries.

Your ability to deliver effective performance-enhancing protocols can have an impact on entire businesses, and even affect the culture and pride of an entire nation! Just let that sink in.

But that’s the focus of one certification. What about the NSCA as a whole? How do they position themselves?

NSCA seems to have a strong leaning towards the fundamentals of exercise, both from a theoretical and practical perspective.

That means the organization is focused on providing meaningful insight into sports sciences as it applies to fundamental biomechanics.

As an NPO, they are a research forward institution which is why the NSCA network is comprised of leaders in the field of sports science and sports medicine as it relates to exercise mechanics.

This take is aimed at enhancing general lifestyle goals such as corrective exercise, injury rehab, and independent longevity as well as more specialized goals such as athletic performance.

CEU Requirements

As you might know, getting certified isn’t a one-off affair. Your certification kicks in the moment you pass your exam, but from there, the clock starts ticking towards its expiration.

You will need to recertify every couple of years or so.

This is done to ensure you keep ahead of the curve in terms of best practice as a trainer as well as research and trends.

As mentioned, many certifications require renewal after a period of two years.

In the case of the NSCA CSCS, renewal happens after 3 years, giving you enough time to prepare for the recertification.

Another standard consideration with recertification is the CEU requirements.

Continuing education units are time-measured credits that indicate that you have kept up with training and educating yourself in the relevant field.

The CSCS CEU requirements are 6.0 credits, which amounts to 60 hours.

This is a considerable amount of credits to have to rack up compared to other certs which ask for 20 hours in most cases.

It does however make sense considering the specialist nature of the NSCA CSCS.

NSCA provides plenty of CEU opportunities through approved credit providers. You can check them out on their website.

Certification Take Away

The NSCA CSCS is a prime example of shooting for the top.

It is designed and designated for elite trainers who want to deal with elite athletes. The principles you will learn can be applied in a general sense, but what would be the point?

Before taking this course, it is advisable that you clearly map out your career objectives. We would imagine you have based on the entry criteria and prerequisites.

It’s totally worth it if you are looking at an illustrious career in athlete management which will take you through some unique and interesting milestones.

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