Welcome to Trainer Academy’s information page for the NSCA CSCS exam, where we will cover all of the basics you need to know for this Personal Training Certification.

The NSCA CSCS exam is one of the hardest exams in the fitness industry, so it is a great idea to know everything about it, so you do not have any surprises and can maximize your study time.

In this article, we will be going over these items:

  • The basic exam requirements for certification
  • The difficulty of the certification exam
  • NSCA CSCS certification exam breakdown by domain
  • The answers to all of the most frequently asked questions

As you are going through this article, you will get more prepared for the NSCA CSCS exam and should know all of the information to get your studying and ready for taking the final certification exam.

Check out our premium study materials if you want to guarantee that you pass the CSCS exam. It comes with an exam pass money-back guarantee with a 99% pass rate.

Let’s dive into the article and take a look at this challenging certification exam.

Don’t forget to download our 22-step NSCA CSCS exam preparation checklist to ensure that you pass the test.

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CSCS Exam Breakdown

The CSCS, or the certified strength and conditioning specialist, is the most challenging certification exam in the fitness industry based on its pass rate, certainly harder than all the personal training certifications.

It comes from a great company called NSCA, which is short for National Strength and Conditioning Association.

The material covered the NSCA CSCS certification will cover a vast array of information in the realm of exercise science, but dealing specifically with athletic training versus the exercise science careers exclusively devoted to clinical research.

In short, it explains the much of the material needed when learning how to become a strength and conditioning coach or athletic trainer.

NSCA makes use of Pearson Vue computer-based testing to allow for the best experience with education testing. Testing is often done from testing centers, with the option for online instructor-proctored tests for some scenarios.

The exam is made of two different sections that test the candidate’s skills, knowledge, and ability.

The first section is on Scientific Foundations.

Section 1: Scientific Foundation
Domain  Weighting 
Exercise Science55%
Sport Psychology24%

There are 80 scored questions and 15 non-scored questions in a multiple-choice format.

The length of the scientific foundations takes about 1.5 hours to complete and looks at the areas of exercise science, sports psychology, and nutrition.

The Exercise Science portion of this section is about 55% of the exam and about 44 questions in total. This is the most critical portion of the scientific foundations.

This portion will include these things:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Bioenergetics and Metabolism
  • Neuroendocrine Physiology
  • Physiological Adaptations
  • Differences among athletes
  • Knowledge of scientific research and statistics

The Sports Psychology portion of this section is around 24% of the exam and about 19 of the 95 total questions in the section.

The portion will include these things:

  • Psychology foundations of performance
  • Motor Learning and skill acquisition techniques
  • Mental Health issues in athletes

The Nutrition portion of this scientific foundations section is 21% of the exam and comes in at about 17 questions out of 95, which is the lowest of the graded exam parts.

The portion will include these things:

  • Nutritional factors that affect health
  • Nutrition to maximize performance
  • Common supplements and performance-enhancing substances

The last is the 15 questions from the non-scored questions. So, there will be 15 that aren’t counting, but you will not know which ones these will be.

The second section is the Practical and Applied section. This is around 2.5 hours in length and it will look at a person’s knowledge of program design, exercise testing, evaluation and testing, and organization.

Section 2: Practical/Applied
Domain  Weighting  
Exercise Technique36%
Program Design35%
Organization and Administration11%
Testing and Evaluation18%

The Program Design portion of this second section is 35% of the total and around 38 questions out of the 125 in the practical and applied test.

This portion of the second test section will include:

  • Needs Analysis
  • Training Modes and Methods
  • Exercise Selection
  • Exercise Order
  • Exercise Intensities
  • Training Volumes
  • Work and Rest Periods
  • Recovery and Unloading
  • Exercise Progression
  • Periodization Models and Concepts
  • Programming in times of Athlete Injury and Reconditioning

The Exercise Technique portion of this section is 36% of the exam or around 40 questions in total. This is the longest portion of this second part of the test.

This portion of the second test section will include:

  • Movement prep
  • Technique for Resistance Training
  • Olympic Weight Lifting and Plyometric exercise
  • Speed and Sprint technique
  • Agility technique
  • Energy Systems Development
  • Recovery Technique

The Testing and Evaluation portion of this exam is 18% of the test and around 20 questions of the entire 125.

This portion of the second test section will include:

  • Selecting Appropriate Evidence-Based Tests
  • Administer Testing and Implement Monitoring Procedures and Protocols
  • Evaluation and Interpretation for Test Results

The Organization and Administration portion of the Practical/Applied section is 11% of the total exam and about 20 questions of the total 125. This is the smallest portion of the second section of the test.

This portion of the second test section will include:

  • Organization Environments
  • The Design, Layouts, and Organization for Strength and Conditioning Facilities
  • Professional Practice
  • Common Issues with Litigation

And then, this section also has 15 non-scored questions that won’t count toward anything.

An important note on the 30 total multiple-choice questions that are non-scored is that they are being used and evaluated for future testing use. So, their data is evaluated to see how it compares with existing test questions to change the future NSCA certification exams.

When starting your journey to become an NSCA-certified strength coach certification, you must remember some of the prerequisites needed to get certified.

You must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher or be currently enrolled as a senior in college at an institution with accreditation. The second prerequisite is to have a current CPR and AED certification, which is just like when you’re becoming a personal trainer.

It is unlike an NSCA-CPT, certified personal trainer program, which has the typical prerequisites of having a high school diploma and/or the equivalent.

The focus on athletic performance leads to the need for showing higher levels of knowledge and mastery in schooling.

The NSCA CSCS is on of the NCCA accredited certifications, which is the gold standard for fitness professionals and training programs.

The NSCA CSCS Strength and Conditioning Specialist exam needs to be taken within 6 months of purchasing a package from the NSCA. It also comes at a price of $475 for non-members, and the same price to retake both sections or one section for $385.

This makes it the most expensive certification when it comes to retaking fees, as it is the same cost as the registration fee for the exam initially.

With membership, the rate goes down to $340 for a registration fee and retake fee, while the one-section retake fee is just $250.

Still, it is a very expensive option, and you definitely need to make sure you ace this strength and conditioning program exam on the first try!

The retake fee definitely rivals the higher prices out there in other organizations versus the cheapest personal training certifications retakes.

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CSCS Exam Difficulty

We have stated this a few times and it can’t be understated; this is the most challenging fitness certification you can go for.

That is due to the amount of material that it requires you to master, and the requirement for getting 70 percent of these questions right.

The strength and conditioning coach responsibilities are vast and there’s a lot to learn, much more complex than the personal trainer job description.

The certification is considered to be harder than other certs, like the NASM CPT exam, ACE Trainer, ACSM, and NASM nutrition certification, to name a few. To be honest, basically, all strength and conditioning certifications will be harder than any number of other licenses in fitness.

The pass rate has hovered in the range of 59 – 64%, with 63% being the average in 2019, where the most recent data is available.

This means that you have a 63% chance of passing and a 37% chance of failing. Those are not the best, odds, so it is a good idea that you study well in the 6 months total you can have with the program.

How long to become a personal trainer takes usually half that time, but remember this is a specialization certification.

In order to lower the difficulty of the questioning and ensure you get a passing score, you should try to get as much practice as possible with practice questions, and other forms of CSCS exam prep like flashcards, CSCS study guides, and other materials.

NSCA does produce some of their own study materials that will benefit you greatly on the exam, and we will look into each of these in the next section.

We also recommend considering third-party resources to help with the amount of information in this CSCS test such as the Trainer Academy CSCS practice test and CSCS study guide.

CSCS Study Materials

The NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist test is usually sold on its own with the registration fee, and then the study materials are purchased separately as a member or non-member.

Take a look at the different study package options offered by the NSCA in the table below:

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! 

NSCA offers 4 total study materials, one of which we consider to be absolutely fundamental.

This fundamental piece of study equipment is the Essentials of Strength Training 4th Edition textbook, and it is an excellent resource for students and those who are practicing physical training or strength and conditioning certification jobs.

The textbook works to explain the key theories, concepts, and scientific principles of conditioning and strength training as well as direct use of athletic performance. The textbook from NSCA also has all of the answers you could possibly need on the final exam.

Another great feature that NSCA offers for studying is the Exercise Technique 3rd edition Manual. This is a book that has links to online videos that show the proper performance of many free weight and machine exercises.

The NSCA also offers its own CSCS study Guide which will give the user a better understanding of the exam, the development of the exam, format questions, and the recommendations which will help with passing the exam. This is sort of a certification handbook for you to use.

The last piece of study materials offered by the NSCA is the CSCS practice questions. This helps the users become familiar with the difficulty and type of questions that are on both sections of the CSCS exam. You can purchase both sets separately, or as a bundle.

They also offer packages that include various bundles of these four study materials from the NSCA, like the CSCS essential plus package, which is going to have all four materials in one, for a member price of $465, or a non-member price of $523.

For a look at what we consider to be the Pros and Cons of the NSCA CSCS certification and study materials, take a look at the chart below:

What we liked:

  • Highly respected certification
  • Great certification for working with athletes
  • Great NSCA membership benefits
  • Opens the door to a very lucrative career
  • Opportunities to earn CEUs
  • Online options
  • NCCA accredited

What we didn’t like:

  • Pricey retake fee
  • 63% pass rate
  • A college degree required for most higher-paying jobs

We also think it is a good idea to look at outside sources to help with passing your exam. For example, here at trainer academy, we have a premium NSCA MVP study system that includes many of the exact same study materials and even more, like an audioguide, mnemonics, and much more to help you ace the exam.

CSCS Exam Study Tips

Once you have your study materials, you will be ready to get into your studies to master the material within the NSCA CSCS.

You should review the content online within the NSCA CSCS website, as this gives you a good idea of what you will need to know for the exam.

Then, make use of your study guide by reviewing it, whether it is the NSCA study guide or if it is a third-party guide. This again allows you to get an idea of the main concepts the guide will focus on.

Next, the primary thing you need to do is to make a schedule that you can follow which will emphasize the topics you are weak with.

To get an idea of what you need to focus on, you should take a good amount of practice testing to properly prepare yourself.

The online practice questions will help in three ways; you will be able to identify areas of weakness the first time, after a second time going through testing you can review content to test understanding, and the third time going through testing should be shooting for a minimum 85% passing score.

Open-ended questions also help to solidify your knowledge by making you think of the answer on your own, instead of choosing between 4 different questions.

Some other important study tips/materials would be webinars, articles, and other offerings from NSCA and associated companies.

You can also make sure that you find a quality third-party resource that can help you by giving materials like audio guides, mnemonics, flashcards, and other proven study methods.

CSCS Exam Retake

The retest fee for the NSCA CSCS is high in comparison to the rest of the fitness industry. It is the same price as the exam registration fee if you are with or without a membership.

This means if you need to retake both sections of the exam, it will be $475 for non-members to retake, and 340$ for members to retake. But, it is also possible to just retake one section of the exam, if that’s all you happen to fail.

For retaking just one section of the exam, it will cost you $385 for a non-member to retake, and $250 for a member to retake. This is a relatively pricey option when it comes to even retake just one section of the exam for that price.

This is why we need to make sure that there is no need to retake the exam at all with a solid study routine and making use of practice testing to fully prepare.

If you need to retake your exam, you will need to set a new exam date and make sure you stay well-prepared in the days prior to testing, just as you did with the first test. A practice test or two can go a long way in helping.


This wraps up the basics for the NSCA CSCS certification.

This is one of the best strength and conditioning certifications you can get in the fitness industry, and you will have no problem when it comes to eligibility for jobs or standing out in your application.

This should lead to more prospects as a trainer/coach and ideally a higher fitness trainer salary or strength and conditioning coach salary.

The CSCS exam is challenging and needs to be properly studied for, and you can’t go wrong if you decide to make use of third-party resources.

We hope that the page has assisted you wherever you may be in your fitness career journey, and we hope it has helped shed some light on the complicated NSCA CSCS test.

While the CSCS cert is very valuable, we always recommend adding a nutritionist certification along to your strength and conditioning cert so that you can assist athletes on the types of calories to fuel their workouts, and there are some really good specific sports nutrition certifications out there.

We have info on some of the other organizations available to you such as our ISSA review and our NASM review, including coverage on different types of certs, like group fitness certifications, the best yoga certifications, and best pilates certifications.

If you’re comparing certification organizations like ACE or NASM, ISSA vs NASM, or NASM vs NSCA we have articles to help you decide.

In addition, Trainer Academy has free study help for you: a NASM CPT practice exam, NASM study guide, ACE guide, and ACE study test, so no matter which cert you pick, you are covered.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is NSCA nationally accredited?

NSCA offers accredited exams done through the NCCA, which has the highest reputation in the industry and should be considered a great certification.

How many questions are there on the NSCA exam?

The NSCA has two parts to the exam, the first part has 95 total questions, and the second part has 125 total questions. Keep in mind 30 of these are going to be non-scored questions.

What is a passing score on the NSCA CSCS exam?

You need to get 70 percent on each part of the exam in order to pass. It is possible to only pass one test and need to retake the other.

Where are NSCA practice exams?

Practice exams can be purchased through the NSCA, or through third-party resources, like here at Trainer Academy. They are vital to giving you the best chance at passing the final exam.

Is NSCA a valuable cert?

The NSCA is one of the most respected companies in the fitness industry and will allow you to get an excellent athletic trainer salary or work in many places in fitness like clinical settings.

How does CSCS Salary compare Vs a Personal Trainer Salary?

The salary of a strength and conditioning coach, or CSCS, is going to be a lot higher on average than the average personal trainer salary. Strength and conditioning coaches will have higher prerequisites when it comes to education, and thus, they should be making more money. Personal trainer jobs do have the ability to reach just as much with salaries, but it is simply rarer. These two career paths will potentially train the same types of clientele, but PT jobs will have less focus on training athletes at the collegiate level. But it may still involve the use of a strength test or aerobic test and things of this nature.

Is the NSCA CSCS exam an open-book test?

No, the NSCA CSCS is not an open-book exam like other fitness certifications, such as the ISSA, which does have some open-book testing. This means you need an even more thorough job done when it comes to studying. Make sure to know every definition and main concept in the text, at least well enough for a multiple-choice test.

Do gyms accept NSCA certification?

Gyms do accept the NSCA as a certifying agency. They will not turn down one of the best companies in the fitness industry, and especially not this excellent CSCS certification.

What third-party study materials do you recommend?

Our paid study guide in Trainer Academy is thorough and of excellent value.

What NSCA specializations are popular with the CSCS?

There are many certifications that NSCA has in addition to their CSCS cert, and you should definitely check them out and continue to educate yourself throughout your career. Some examples of specializations would be the TSAC, CSPS, CPT, and CPSS. These are their other popular fitness certs. Make sure to contact them online or by phone if you want more information on these specializations or the certification on this page:

(719) 632-6722

If you’ve decided to jump into fitness or are already on your way in and ready to certify, feel free to make use of our excellent study solutions that guarantee success!

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