This week at Cressey Sports Performance Massachusetts, we received an email from an athlete looking to pursue a career in fitness when his playing days are over. This is a common scenario and one to which many athletes-turned-coaches can relate. Here’s the email (edited slightly to protect privacy):
To the Guys at CSP,
My name is Mike, and I came in to see you guys roughly a month ago. First off I wanted to say thank you and I appreciate all the help. Secondly, as a 23 year old I am looking into my future past baseball, and I am working on studying to get the CSCS certification from the NSCA as I think that might be a good route for me to take. Knowing the knowledge and success your staff and programs have had, I was wondering if any of your staff members had advice for me on how to attack this exam and understand the complexity of exercise science? I know that is a broad question, but I figured in order to learn I might as well ask the best to try to pick any of the staff’s brains that have gone through the process. Any information, advice, practice/study material or references you might be able to pass along would me more than appreciated.
This spurred some great discussion among our staff because we’ve all come from different backgrounds and took different career paths to eventually arrive at CSP. We’re fortunate enough to coach at a facility that’s developed an outstanding reputation as one of the best in the industry, so hopefully we can pass on some wisdom that’s rubbed off on us.
So what’s the best path for becoming a strength and conditioning coach? Do you need a certification? An advanced degree? An internship? The answer, of course, is that there’s no singular answer. As evidenced by our staff, there are many paths in this industry, all of which can take you where you want to go if you have the right attitude and work ethic.
Without further ado, here are the CSP staff answers to the above email:
Degree: B.S., SUNY Cortland
[Editor’s note: Tony G is a founding member of CSP and runs the gamut of having a degree, a certification and over a decade of experience. He’s pretty much the Gandalf of our staff and has seen the fitness industry evolve as a coach, writer and presenter, so he’s got a unique career perspective on what it takes to make it as a strength coach.]
Exercise science IS a complex thing; and something that no one will ever truly get a feel for by just reading out of a book and studying for the exam.
My suggestion to him would be to seek out a mentor or internship and immerse himself in that culture. If he really wants to learn there’s no better way than to see things in action and gain hands-on experience. I’d encourage him to take at least a year to get a better understanding of what he’s reading (interning). You can read the material all you want, but unless you’re actually putting things into practice and building context, it won’t really stick.
I [don’t] mean to imply NOT to read the [NSCA] book. Read it, take notes, etc. But I also feel he’s not going to actually KNOW how to apply those principles and methodologies without putting them into actual practice.
He mentioned he wanted to learn the science. He’s unable to do that by ONLY reading the book. That’s like me saying I want to know how to make a movie by only watching Lord of the Rings on a rainy weekend. Alone. On the couch. With my cat.
Degree: B.S., M.S., SUNY Buffalo
Certification: CSCS, Pn1, LMT
[Editor’s note: Chris was hired in 2010 after interning at CSP in 2008. He’s got two degrees, interned with the Buffalo Bills, is a Licensed Massage Therapist and handles our nutrition consultations. Chris is a great example of how pursuing LOTS of experience and education at the same time makes you a versatile coach and builds you a beefy resume.]
It’s obviously easier to give advice on the complexity of the exercise science if we know the background of the person to which we are giving the advice. Regardless of background, my advice has always been to purchase the study materials from the NSCA and read the textbook cover to cover. It might then be helpful to refer to any of the references in the chapters that are more difficult for additional study. So, if you want to get better at squatting, you squat, if you want to pass the CSCS, you study the CSCS. Simple, but effective.
While I do think that interning is a requirement to being a better actual coach, I’m not sure how much it carries over to actually passing the exam. In my experience as an intern and otherwise, I found that a lot of what I learned in internships was very different from the “textbook” answer to a question. The CSCS is an exam that looks for “textbook” answers, whereas most strength and conditioning facilities have a system that has been developed over years of “in the trenches” experience. Sometimes learning from someone else’s experience makes the “textbook” answers less obvious and leads to second guessing.
So… Do both, but make sure you are able to come up with the answers the CSCS people are looking for (at least until you pass the exam), then move on to the stuff that actually works.
Certification: Pn1, RKC
[Editor’s note: Anyone on our staff will tell you that Greg is a true leader and tremendous coach, yet he doesn’t have a college degree or mainstream certification. An active member of the Army National Guard, he’s proof that dedication and work ethic are far more important than letters after your name if you want to be a strength coach. He’s also the only non-founding CSP staff member that wasn’t an intern, which speaks to the reputation Greg built as a coach prior to coming to Hudson.]
Here are my two cents, granted they are coming from someone who has found some success without a college degree or taking the CSCS.
First off, I think the key to any standardized test is to know the test. In other words, what are they testing you on, in their words? Many things in exercise science fall under the “it depends” umbrella. Therefore, make yourself very familiar with what the NSCA answer is for the scenarios they will be quizzing you on.
I personally find taking as many practice tests as possible as the best way to prepare.
In a similar sense, to answer the question of how to go about understanding the complexity of exercise science, take as many practice tests as you can.
Here’s what I mean by this.
In a real world scenario these practice tests may include anything and everything from self-education via hands on experience, books, seminars, and consults. Then applying that information to the populations you are working with. Finally, evaluating the effectiveness of that application.
Then going through that process continually for many, many years. The real world practice is what most furthers your understanding.
As I stated above, my situation is unique in that I didn’t formally study this in school. Which of course meant that I could not sit for an exam such as this. Had I been allowed to, I would. After all, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Furthermore, the NSCA is a great organization that does a lot for our industry.
Making my way through various positions in this field has given me an appreciation for what matters most. I have never felt limited by my schooling or not holding a certain certification. Information is all around us, and so are opportunities to apply this knowledge. Keep seeking them both out.
If you want to be successful, be consistent. Consistently learn, apply, and evaluate. Accept the highs and lows, just keep going and have fun.
Degree: B.S., Temple University
Certification: NSCA-CPT, Pn1
[Editor’s note: Andrew was hired in 2013 after completing the CSP internship program and has both a degree and certification, yet anyone who knows him will tell you that the coaching skills he built over many years in commercial and corporate fitness are what set him apart. You can’t build Andrew’s people skills by reading a book or taking a test. ]
First off, if he wants to start out in “general fitness” I do not believe it is necessary for him to go after a CSCS cert. Most establishments just want a nationally recognized cert.
Regarding the exam, I think he needs to set up a schedule where he devotes a certain amount of “study” time so he does not deviate too far from the task. Our schedules get busy and unexpected things arise. However, if he puts “reading time” or “study question time” in his calendar, he’ll be able to stick with that without allowing anything else to takes its place.
Upon finishing each chapter, attack the study questions in the book as well as the DVD set. There’s nothing better than having reinforcement at the end of each chapter. Precision Nutrition does a phenomenal job with this.
If he gets a question wrong in the book or DVD set, make sure he writes it down then goes back to look for the correct answer.
Lastly, have him talk to other industry professionals who have passed and/or failed this exam so he can get their point of view / perspective.
All of you are accurate regarding what the book teaches and what we teach — vastly different. He has to go into this knowing that he’ll have to adhere to the “book’s” way of thinking versus the CSP or other reputable facilities way of thinking.
Degree: M.B.A., Southern New Hampshire University
Certification: ACE PTC
[Editor’s note: George runs our group fitness classes, which has proven to be a perfect fit with his military background and business education. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, George was also hired after completing the CSP internship program and has proven that motivating others and leading by example are two of the most valuable assets you can possibly have as a coach.]
As someone who is relatively new to the industry and has experienced an internship and currently studying for the CSCS, here is my take:
Buy the book/materials and study. Simple as that and here is why.
Internships are great, but as Chris mentioned, the book is very particular. While we may teach something one way, the book will have another way of teaching it, and from what I am getting at by studying, it’s the NSCA way or the highway.
The book and certification is not a be-all, see-all for the industry. While I’m still learning everyday (which I think/believe we all are) there is no one way to coach in order to deliver effective results. Each individual delivers a unique approach from a combination of backgrounds and experiences and that’s what makes this industry so kickass to work in.
Degree: B.S., Temple University
Certification: CSCS, ACSM HFS, TRX Level 1
[Editor’s note: Miguel’s unique background as a dancer, combined with the coaching skills he built as an intern at CSP and Endeavor Sports Performance, made him a valuable expert on human movement when he was hired full-time at CSP in 2014. Miguel’s education hasn’t stopped with a degree and a few certifications – he relentlessly immerses himself in continuing education to make sure he’s always learning, applying and thinking critically.]
Success does not stop at a certification. Since “success” is a qualitative factor, and not a quantitative number per se, you can set your own standards.
Passing the test does not equate to professional success – it just means you pass the test.
The next question after this is, “Do I need a Master’s degree to work with athletes?” And down the rabbit hole you go…
In order to pass the test, just memorize what the test is asking of you – so buy/rent/borrow the book from someone (I’ll give him my copy if he needs it) and take the test. If you don’t pass, learn why you didn’t pass (it tells you the results of the test when you take it).
If you want to achieve success outside of the certification, then that is a different discussion on its own. Then we can talk about your background, who you know, what kind of things you bring to the table, so on and so forth.
If you want to flesh out the complexity of exercise science, then there are tons of avenues to pursue as well, in the form of online resources, books, visiting physical locations and professionals to talk shop, and not to mention the tons of continuing education that everyone seems to be pursuing these days.
I think one thing that will be echoed unanimously from everyone is that this is ultimately a professional journey, and it doesn’t stop after obtaining one certification or working with one star athlete. The question that should be asked instead should be, “What’s next?”
Degree: M.S., Adelphi University
When I hear aspiring coaches ask about certifications before they’ve even really started their career, it reminds me of where my head was when I was younger – get the letters instead of getting better.
This isn’t to say certifications won’t make you better (they probably will), but I pretty much did everything backwards and, looking back, it would make sense to get more experience sooner. I went and got certified, then got a Master’s degree and then got an internship because I didn’t develop my coaching skills while getting my degree. If you can do both, that’s the best of both worlds. Many academic programs offer internships and graduate assistantships that provide coaching experience and education, and many will even pay for you to sit for a certification exam.
Out of grad school, I was told I wasn’t qualified for many jobs because, despite having the letters, I lacked experience. Yet some of the industry’s best coaches don’t have a degree or certification, so what does that tell you about the importance of experience versus credentials?
Regarding the CSCS exam itself, I agree with my fellow coaches who suggest getting the official study materials. You’ll study exact questions in the exact format of the actual test. It’s worth the extra cash to buy the study guides or worth the effort to befriend someone who has the materials. That said, I firmly believe that if you’ve gained substantial experience by coaching and lifting, the entire practical portion of the exam will be second nature. And if you’ve studied exercise science in school, the scientific foundations section will also be familiar. So education and coaching experience prepare you for the CSCS, but the CSCS does not prepare you to coach or go to school.
I’m certainly glad I got an education and certification, but I wasn’t able to put them to use without the mentorship of the coaches at CSP. Keep this in mind as you pursue coaching as a career: if you’re missing any of these three elements (education, experience, certification), you’d better be really strong in the element(s) you possess if you want to be successful.
Degree: M.B.A., Babson College
[Editor’s note: Pete offers perhaps some of the best insight of all because he’s NOT a coach, but rather the vice-president and co-founder of CSP and has successfully established the facility as an industry leader. He’s hired a handful of full-time coaches and over 100 interns, so he knows how to spot good coaches and good PEOPLE regardless of what’s on their resume.]
Here’s my two cents from the perspective of a non-coach who happens to review a lot of resumes:
Don’t get too caught up in collecting the perfect combination of acronyms on your business card if you haven’t specifically identified the coaching opportunities you are interested in. While I consider the CSCS to be the “gold-standard” in certifications listed on resumes submitted to CSP, I can tell you that it is not a mandatory credential for participation in our program. Greg Robins has managed to evolve into one of the biggest contributors on our team while doing so without a CSCS. I hire people, not resumes.
I should also note that the only reason I think highly of the CSCS is that it requires an undergraduate degree simply to sit for the exam. This, at the very least, shows me that the individual has allocated considerable time, energy and money toward acquiring their degree.
So there you have it – insight from eight CSP staff members on how to arm yourself with the knowledge, experience and certifications to further your coaching career. We hope it was helpful. Make sure to share your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter and in the comments section below!