The Ultimate Guide to the CSCS Exam

A useful guide to help you pass this challenging exam

Charles Poliquin was one of the first strength coaches to take the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. This was nearly over three decades ago. Funny story about that.

At the time, the exam consisted of two parts. The first was a written exam on exercise theory and the second was a practical exam. Unlike Charles’s seminars where the students were often required to demonstrate their skills to an instructor, the practical exam involved watching a video of people lifting and answering questions about the performance. A possible question would be to point out errors in a training partner spotting a squat.

Charles’ primary goal in taking the exam was to pass it, so for several questions he had to turn off his brain and answer the questions he thought those who designed the exam wanted it answered. After he passed the exam, he contacted the NSCA and had them change several questions!

One of the challenges in taking the exam in the 80s was there was no study guide, just a list of suggested readings. Unfortunately, seeing suggestions like the American Journal of the American Medical Association and Gray’s Anatomy was not very helpful. Of course, Charles had a photographic memory and was a speed reader, so many he did read Gray’s Anatomy cover-to-cover? Others were not so lucky, and the results showed in the scores as evident by the high number of failures.

Eventually, the NSCA came up with their monstrous textbook, Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, along with study guides and practice exams. If you go, you’ll find three types of “study packages” to help you pass.

Just as there are study guides called SparkNotes to help students get through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and other academic challenges, there are independent writers who have published material that will help you pass the CSCS exam. One such study guide is The Ultimate Guide to the CSCS Exam. It was written by Julian Corwin, CSCS, and the book’s subtitle is: “An Engineer’s Approach to Understanding Strength and Conditioning.”

First off, the book is entertaining. It took the author three years to pass the CSCS exam, so he feels your pain. In fact, his first piece of advice is that you need to commit to passing the exam and establish a support group that includes your friends, your spouse, and your dog! Oh, and he also includes an “About the Author” page for no apparent reason.

From here, Corwin gives an overview of what the exam and the support materials cost. All totaled, Corwin says a non-NSCA members will invest $938.40 to prepare and pass the exam and non-members pay $1,126.20. However, Corwin’s book was published in 2017 and the various fees have increased.

Next, Corwin explains how the exam is broken down to help your plan of study. For example, 30 percent of the exam is devoted to exercise sciences and 20 percent to program design. (Those who have taken any of Charles seminars on training know what he thought about how well strength coaches and personal trainers understood program design!) What’s interesting is that 12 percent of the exam is devoted to nutrition – why does an exam for evaluating strength coaches have questions about nutrition? Do nutrition exams have questions about weight training?

Corwin proceeds to break down his book into two parts:

Part 1: Scientific Foundations

Part 2: Practical and Applied Knowledge.

Part 1 summarizes a lot of dry material and makes it fun, such as a mnemonic device of a smiling man named HAZIM to understand the sliding filament theory and one called FLE123 to remember the types of levers in the body. There are also many clever and useful charts, tables, and drawings to dumb down complicated subjects and presents the material in creative manners.

Part 2 begins by showing what chapters in the Essentials book emphasizes regarding exercises technique. Chapters 14 and 17 are the most significant, for example. He does such a breakdown with other sections in this part of the exam. Program design? Focus on Chapters 14 and 15. And as with Part 1, the material is presented creatively.

Is this book a good investment? At the very least, it will give you a basic understanding of the material covered in the Essentials book, making it easier to grasp when you go back to it, and help you identify what sections of the Essentials book you need to focus on. So rather than looking at this book as the only study material you need to pass the CSCS exam, consider The Ultimate Guide to the CSCS Exam as an alternate textbook, but with humor.

Corwin concludes with a pep talk about not giving up and a link to his blog for more advice, resources, and practice test questions. Good stuff!

If you don’t have an academic degree in exercise science and need help preparing for the CSCS exam, consider picking up a copy of Julian Corwin’s The Ultimate Guide to the CSCS Exam. You’ll learn a lot and have a few laughs along the way! (TSS)

[The Ultimate Guide to the CSCS Exam by Julian Corwin, CSCS is available at]


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