Top Strength And Conditioning Certifications for 2021, Compared

If there is one thing COVID-19 has shown us, it’s how much we value our health. The global pandemic has changed the way people think about their bodies, including keeping physically fit.

With this comes the increasing need for personal trainers and coaches, including those certified in strength and conditioning. There is no better time than now to pursue your coaching dreams and make money along the way.

Here, we’ll walk you through our top strength and conditioning training certifications and compare each. We’ll include the eligibility of each, course topics, exam information, costs, and career paths you can take with whichever certification you choose.

The strength and conditioning certifications we’ll compare include:

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Eligibilities for Each Strength And Conditioning Certification

Each association’s certification has different suggested or mandatory requirements for obtaining and keeping your accreditation.

PES from NASM

NASM recommends that you have at least one of the following to obtain your PES:

  • NASM-CPT certification
  • Licensed Massage Therapist
  • 4-year College Degree
  • REPs Level 3 or higher
  • NCCA, NBFE, or DETC Accredited Health/Fitness Certification

CSCS from NSCA 

NSCA requires that you possess the following to be a CSCS certification candidate:

  • A Bachelor’s or higher degree or currently enrolled as a college senior at an accredited institution – Candidates in the US and Canada must provide proof in the form of an official transcript or a terminal degree. Candidates outside of the US and Canada can provide a copy of the transcript that shows they obtained a Bachelor’s degree equivalent.
  • A current CPR/AED certification – if you do not yet have this certification, you can still take the exam, but you have to supply proof of certification within one year of your exam date.

SSC from ISSA 

To obtain your SSC, per the ISSA, they mandate you:

  • Are at least 18 years of age
  • Hold a CPR/AED certification

CSC from NCSF

NCSF requires that you have one or more of the following for their Certified Strength Coach certification:

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Associates Degree
  • NCCA accredited fitness certification (such as a CPT)

While each has different requirements for being certified, they also cover their own sets of topics that set them apart.

Strength And Conditioning Certification
Course Topics

The topics covered in each course reflect what the exam will entail as well. While each gives you a different subset of topics, all will give you the framework to succeed in your career.

PES from NASM

NASM divides the PES course into four sections:

  • Section 1: Anatomy and Physiology for Sport
  • Section 2: Sport Performance Testing, Integrated Training, and Programming: 
  • Section 3: Olympic Lifting & Injury Prevention
  • Section 4: Sport Nutrition & Psychology

CSCS from NSCA 

The textbook is laid out into 24 chapters. Some of the topics include:

  • Structure and function of body systems
  • Anaerobic and Aerobic training programs
  • Nutrition
  • Flexibility
  • Weight and Resistance Training
  • Speed & Agility Training
  • Rehabilitation and Reconditioning

SSC from ISSA 

The course contents for the SSC are divided into 23 chapters. Some of the topics include:

  • The nervous, muscular, skeletal, and cardiorespiratory systems
  • Biomechanics
  • General and performance assessments
  • Program design
  • Flexibility
  • Core, Lower-Body, Plyometric, Upper Body and Weight Lifting Exercises
  • Periodization
  • Injury Recovery
  • Nutrition & Supplements

CSC from NCSF

Topics covered in becoming an NCSF Certified Strength Coach include:

  • Athletic Analyses
  • Advanced program construction
  • Athletic-based training
  • Over 300 exercises and drills

Costs Associated With Strength And Conditioning Certifications

Each certification option offers various study courses before a final exam. Below is the cost you can expect from each (pricing and components subject to change):

PES from NASM

NASM offers three packages for their 100% online certification. 

The self-study option is regularly $699. It includes:

  • CEU Value 1.9
  • NASM-PES Digital Textbook with 16 in-depth chapters
  • Online PES Exam
  • 2 Online Practice Exams
  • Syllabus and Study Guide
  • Exercise Library with 64 videos
  • 35 lecture videos, 34 demo videos
  • Exercise Libraries
  • Module Quizzes
  • Certificate of Completion

The Premium Self-Study option is regularly $849. It includes all of the above, plus the addition of bonus content like weight room maintenance and sports lecture videos, as well as a programming toolkit.

The All-Inclusive option is regularly $999 and includes everything the premium version includes with the addition of a hard copy textbook and a live workshop.

The exam itself is not available as an a la carte purchase; you must purchase one of the above courses. The typical completion time is around 8-10 weeks, but you’ll have one full year to complete the course once you enroll. 

Once you pass NASM’s PES exam, your certification never expires.

Fitness Mentors also offers an efficient study guide featuring the best educational materials for the exam. We’ll give you all the test-specific topics that will guide you to read the book’s most pertinent sections. For more information and to purchase, click here.

CSCS from NSCA 

NSCA breaks down the CSCS study packages into three choices, but customizable options are available too.

The CSCS Digital Package starts at $162 and includes:

  • CSCS Study Guide
  • Over 200 practice questions

The CSCS Essential Package starts at $250 and adds in the physical textbook, Essentials of Strength Training. For a starting price of $465, the CSCS Essential Plus Package also offers an online study course and an Exercise Technique manual.

SSC from ISSA

The ISSA offers one online course option, and the course is not required to purchase and take the exam. Regularly priced at $799, the online course allows you to study at your own pace and take the exam at home.

The completely online course includes:

  • Study guide and workbook
  • Online and home study exam
  • Exercise lab
  • Practice exam and section quizzes
  • “Take home” strength and conditioning certification exam
  • NCCPT accredited exam (proctoring fee not included)
  • A free professional website
  • Ongoing educational support

With just 1-2 hours a day, you can expect to finish the course in 8-10 weeks – but the pace is entirely up to you. You have up to 12 months to complete the program.

CSC from NCSF

According to the NCSF site, they offer various packages as well as the a la carte exam. Packages range in price from $299 for the exam alone, or up to $999 for the most in-depth package. They offer two home-study packages.

The first is regularly $799 and includes:

  • Digital textbook: Advanced Concepts of Strength & Conditioning
  • Instructional videos
  • Lesson notes
  • Q&A
  • Review quizzes
  • Online Certified Strength Coach practice exam
  • 8 NCSF CEUs (meets ethics requirement)
  • One year membership to NCSF
  • NCSF Certified Strength Coach Exam

For an additional $100, you receive a physical textbook with the Home-Study Plus package. 

Candidates have 6 months after enrollment to schedule and take the exam. On average, NCSF suggests taking 2-4 months to study the material. The exam may be taken online or at a testing center.

Exam Information for Each Strength And Conditioning Certification

Each certification exam has a different number of questions, time limits, passing scores and allowed attempts. Here is the breakdown:

PES from NASM

  • Questions: 100 multiple-choice
  • Time Limit: 90 Minutes
  • Passing score: 70% or higher
  • Attempts allowed: 3

CSCS from NSCA 

  • Questions: 220 multiple-choice
  • Time Limit: 4 Hours; split into 1.5 hours for Scientific Foundations and 2.5 hours for the Practical/Applied section
  • Passing score: 70 in both sections
  • Attempts allowed: No limit, but you must wait 90 days between retakes. If you fail only one section, you may retake just the section you failed within one year.

SSC from ISSA 

  • Questions: 140 multiple-choice, 15 field items (unscored)
  • Time Limit: Unlimited, Open book (the NCCPT accredited exam is not open book)
  • Passing score: 75% or higher
  • Attempts allowed: Unlimited within six months with fees and a 72 hour waiting period between attempts.

CSC from NCSF 

  • Questions: 150 multiple-choice
  • Time Limit: 3 hours
  • Passing score: 70 or higher
  • Attempts allowed: Unlimited within six months with fees and a 30-day waiting period between attempts.

Strength & Conditioning Certification FAQs

How Do I Get Certified In Strength and Conditioning?

Choose the training you wish to receive and from what organization. Be sure to have all of the prerequisites covered for the course and exam you choose.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Certified Strength And Training Specialist?

Most programs allow the flexibility to work at your own pace, within a specified time frame. Many recommend taking at least 8-12 weeks to allow for material comprehension, but you generally have longer if needed. For example, the ISSA-SSC requires you to complete your course and exam within 12 months from enrollment.

How Much Does CSCS Certification Cost?

While some programs allow you to get the exam a la carte, taking a course will help you to better your probability of passing. For a course and exam, you should plan to spend around $500 minimum.

Where Does a Strength And Conditioning Specialist Work? What CSCCA Jobs Will I Have An Opportunity For?

A Strength and Conditioning Certification, regardless of which one, has the potential to open the door to many career opportunities. These may include personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, sports coach, physical therapist, teacher/researcher/professor, athletic trainer, and more!

So… What Are The Best Strength And Conditioning Certifications?

It’s important to note that an SCCC (Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified) certification from the Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association is one of the most highly regarded in the industry. However, you must already be a full-time practicing strength and conditioning coach or a student preparing to be, and the exam is only once per year with no course materials.

If you wish to coach on a collegiate or professional level otherwise, NSCA-CSCS and NASM-PES are two of the best options. 

All four courses with certifications are similar in cost in relation to what you receive in each package for budget concerns.

Ultimately, which certification you choose depends on your personal preferences and what your goals are post-certification. If you’d like to work for a specific organization, it’s best to check with the potential employer to determine which certification they prefer. 

A Strength and Conditioning Certification is highly lucrative and can open many doors to advance your career and put you on the path to financial freedom.

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