Study Smarter, Not Harder

Successful CSCS exam candidates don’t just study harder, they study smarter. They also don’t study everything equally, they prioritize, and this is accomplished by employing the 80/20 principle.

So how should you study?

First evidence from cognitive psychology emphasizes the value of the following 2 principles.

  1. Space your CSCS studying out over time. If you study something such as the sliding filament theory and then study it again right away, it’s fresh in your mind the second time. You’ll probably feel like you’ve learned it well and will move on, but don’t be fooled. Instead of restudying right away, wait a while, such as a day or even a week and then study it again. You’ll retain much more information. Spacing your studying works because when something’s fresh in your mind you don’t learn much from studying it; you learn more when you’ve had time to forget it, which allows you to reinforce the memory. Studies show that some level of forgetting is actually necessary in order to improve the “retrieval strength” of a new memory. As time goes by, each piece of information you can recall becomes more and more bulletproof to forgetting on the exam.
  2. Test and quiz yourself. Candidates test themselves when they study with flashcards, and answer practice questions. When a CSCS exam candidate reads from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, they often neglect to test themselves. This is detrimental. Testing gets us actively involved in the learning process and helps us retrieve information from our own memories. Answering practice questions tests your knowledge, comprehension, and ability to recall key points. Practice questions also clearly identify deficits in your knowledge base, and suggest areas that need further review. Additionally, understanding the rationale behind correct/incorrect answers will reinforce the requisite information of the CSCS exam and aid in comprehension. A candidate should expose themselves to as many CSCS practice questions as they can find before sitting for the actual exam.

Three other techniques have also been found to be successful but not as powerful as the principles previously mentioned.

  1. Interleaved practice. Occurs when bouts of study for one topic are incorporated into bouts of study for other topics. For example understanding the cardiovascular response to a training program designed for a cross country runner, or which muscles are the agonist and antagonist during the teaching of the proper barbell back squat. Both of these examples combined two topics from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning together. Cardiovascular response to training, and program design. Muscle function agonist vs. antagonist, and the proper barbell back squat.
  2. Elaborative Interrogation. Involves generating an explanation for why a stated fact or concept is true. Anyone who has spent time around young children knows that one of their most frequent utterances is “Why?” Humans are inquisitive creatures by nature, attuned to seeking explanations for states, actions, and events in the world around us. For example, if you read that the phosphagen system is the primary energy system supplying ATP for the 100 meter dash, ask yourself “Why is this so?”, and then attempt to generate an answer. Elaborative interrogation enhances learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge.
  3. Self-Explanation. Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving. For example, when calculating the force required to lift a 100 kg barbell during the bench press, you would use the following equation, 100 kg x 9.8 m/s2. You might ask yourself, “Why is force calculated this way?” or “Where did the 9.8 m/s2 number come from?” Like elaborative interrogation, self-explanation may enhance learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge.

The 80/20 Principle

For those of you not familiar, the 80/20 principle–also known as the Pareto Principle–suggests that for many situations, 80% of the effects are a result of 20% of the causes. This rule has many applications, and a common example comes from the business world: 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. As a result, it only makes sense to focus the most amount of your energy and effort servicing that 20% of clientele that are producing the majority of your revenue, profits, etc.

This principle can be applied to a number of other situations, such as exam preparation. For example, 80% of the exam content comes from 20% of the material. Focus on that 20% and watch your scores rise. In terms of the CSCS exam, give review priority to the domains and subcategories that make up a larger percentage of the exam.(This does not mean neglect the other ones)

High Priority Domains and Subcategories

Exercise Science

  • Apply Knowledge of Muscle Anatomy and Physiology
  • Apply Knowledge of Basic Principles of Biomechanics Regarding Exercise Selection, Execution, and Sport Performance
  • Apply Knowledge of Bioenergetics and Metabolism


  • Apply Basic Knowledge of Nutritional Factors Affecting Health and Performance

Exercise Technique

  • Teach and Evaluate Resistance Training Exercise Technique

Program Design

  • Selecting Exercises

Testing and Evaluation

  • Select and Administer Tests to Maximize Test Reliability and Validity

If you have a comprehensive understanding of these 7 topics, then by all means focus your efforts on other CSCS exam topics.

Food for thought, study smarter, not harder.

Don’t cram for the CSCS exam. Space your studying out over time, incorporate multiple CSCS exam topics into your study sessions, always ask “Why?” when you read stated facts, prioritize content, and most importantly………….routinely quiz and test yourself!

Ryan Grella, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E, Nathan, M., Willingham, D. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 2012;14,(1): 4-58.