How I Prepared for the CSCS exam

Here is an outline of how I prepared for the CSCS exam back in 2002. When reading this please keep in mind that we all come from different academic and professional backgrounds. We also bring different life circumstances that may benefit or serve as a disadvantage when studying for this exam. Study tactics that work for one candidate might not for another. What might be overkill of information for one candidate might be grossly inadequate for another.
When I prepared for the CSCS exam in 2002, I had already received my undergraduate degree, taken and scored very well on the Graduate Record Examination, the Graduate Management Assessment Test, and completed my first year of physical therapy school. This all occurred without a layoff from my academic pursuits, so it would be fair to say I was a well oiled machine when it came to preparing and taking multiple choice exams. I was not a rusty athlete entering training camp to prepare for the upcoming season.

Another advantage came from my first year of physical therapy school. I had just received instruction in graduate level basic sciences which included gross anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and neuro-anatomy. These classes went into greater depth than the content of the CSCS exam

To summarize, I was highly conditioned when it came to preparing and taking multiple choice exams, and graduate level basic sciences were fresh in my mind as I had just completed a year of physical therapy school.

However, with all these advantages I still needed to read the NSCA material and set forth a defined study plan to meet my individual needs.

The first things I did were:

Just like today, NSCA members in 2002 paid significantly less than non-members for the CSCS exam and study materials. An added bonus was subscriptions to the NSCA’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and Strength and Conditioning Journal which are both included with membership. These journals helped further introduce me to the NSCA as well as familiarize me with key terms and concepts. Joining the NSCA is a no-brainer if you are taking the CSCS exam. I joined the NSCA in July of 2002.

After becoming a member of the NSCA I was able to purchase Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, the CSCS exam content description, and the CSCS practice tests at reduced rates. With the study material in hand I was now able to set out on a defined study plan.

The first thing I did was glance over the CSCS exam content description. This allowed me to become familiar with what information was presented on the exam, and what knowledge a successful candidate was expected to possess. From the content description I was able to see that half the test was going to come from the practical/applied section, meaning my strong exercise science background would only help me so much.

I then set out and read Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning cover to cover, making sure I took the small multiple choice quiz at the end of each chapter. Given that I had a strong exercise science background I paid particular attention to the chapters that could be considered specific to the NSCA.

This is a key point to remember, human anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, etc, are essentially the same no matter which organization or textbook you read. Some may go into greater depth or detail but they all grow from the same root. What varies between organizations and textbooks is how this information is applied and labeled. Testing procedures, exercise techniques, and names can all vary between organizations. The NSCA develops the CSCS exam; therefore it is imperative that you are familiar with their guidelines and procedures. You can have years of experience in the gym, but this will not help if you are not on the same page as the NSCA.

After reading Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning it was clear that my study efforts should be focused on the practical/applied section of the exam. The exercise science portion of the textbook just hit the surface as compared to the detail in my physical therapy coursework.

I went back over the CSCS exam content description and looked with greater detail at the practical/applied section to outline a targeted review. The CSCS exam content description broke the practical/applied section down into 4 domains. (Program Design, Exercise Technique, Organization and Administration, and Testing and Evaluation) Inside each domain are subcategories, and each subcategory has tasks in the form of questions associated with it. An example of a question is, “How are work and rest periods prescribed for interval training?” If I did not know the answers to these questions it indicated an area that needed further review in the textbook.

I made note of each question I did not have the answer to and then found the corresponding information in Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. I’ve always memorized best when I write information down, so I attempted to answer these questions on paper.

After I reviewed my weak areas, I then began taking the CSCS practice exams that I purchased from the NSCA. The first practice exam consisted of 65 questions. I scored a 31/35 on the scientific foundations section, the passing score was 25. In total I missed 4 questions on this section, 3 dealing with exercise sciences and 1 with nutrition. I scored a 24/30 on the practical/applied section, while the passing score was a 21. I missed 6 total in this section, 1 each in the testing/evaluation, program design, and organization/administration domains, and 3 questions in the exercise techniques domain. I was satisfied with the results but made sure I reviewed the questions I missed.

I then took the second CSCS practice exam from the NSCA and had virtually the same results, 31/35 on the scientific foundations section and 24/30 on the practical/applied section. I performed 1 question better on the exercise technique domain, but 1 question worse on program design. Again, I was happy with my results and reviewed the questions I missed. I was now ready to sit for the actual exam.

I took the CSCS exam in November of 2002, and it was the paper/pencil format. I had to travel to Florida Southern University in Lakeland Florida to take the exam. This was about an hour and a half away from my house at the time. It made for a long day as the test began early. There were about 30 people present to take the exam. I found the actual exam to be similar in content and difficulty as the CSCS practice exams, even though there was more pressure as this was the real thing.

After taking the exam I was confident that I passed the scientific foundations section, there was some challenging questions on the practical/applied section so I did harbor some doubts about that section. All in all I was cautiously optimistic about my chances.

I received my score report in December of 2002.

Scientific Foundations

  • Scaled Score 88, Passing Score 70
  • Correct Answers 85, Passing Correct Answers 62
  • Total 85/100
  • Practice Exam 1 88%, Practice Exam 2 88%, Actual Exam 85%


  • Scaled Score 76, Passing Score 70
  • Correct Answers 67, Passing Correct Answers 61
  • Total 67/90
  • Practice Exam 1 80%, Practice Exam 2 80%, Actual Exam 74%

At that moment I was elated that I passed the exam to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As predicted I easily passed the scientific foundations section, and had a much more difficult time with the practical/applied section. These results were also similar to the scores I received on the practice exams, although I did do worse on the actual test in both sections. Further analysis of my practical/applied score revealed that I missed 9 questions in program design and 10 questions on exercise techniques. Again, I want to stress this point, make sure you know the exercise techniques and labels according to the NSCA.


  • Joined the NSCA
  • Purchased Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, CSCS exam content description, CSCS practice exams.
  • Read Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning cover to cover and answered the multiple choice questions at the end of each chapter.
  • Reviewed the CSCS exam content description to identify weak areas which I subsequently reviewed in the textbook.
  • Took 2 CSCS practice exams, passed both, then reviewed questions I missed.
  • Took and passed the actual CSCS exam
  • I joined the NSCA in July 2002, took the test in November, and got my results in December. Total was 4 months preparation and study time.