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By Nick Benhoff
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
Nick is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA and a Pn L1 Nutrition Coach. He has over 10 years in the fitness world, including training, coaching athletes, and working 1 on 1 with clients in the gym.
So, you want to be a strength and conditioning coach?
Being a strength coach s such a fulfilling career, and despite what some long time coaches say, there is plenty of room for us.
Strength and conditioning coaches have been around for a while now. With youth and high school sports becoming more serious, there’s plenty of potential to break into the field.
There’s an importance in training your athletes to be as strong and as fast as they can be. No more, can you just have your team do suicides and push-ups and call it a day.
The strength and conditioning field has exploded in the scientific world, and experts have been giving us the best information out there. However, the teams still need someone to dissect that information and provide an excellent service to their athletes.
This isn’t to say that the path to becoming a strength and conditioning coach is an easy one. Along the way, you’ll encounter quite a bit of criticism from the older heads who will tell you, “this is the way it’s always been, I put in my time, so now you have to!”
Please don’t get scared by their tempers. The gatekeepers love to tell us we need to do exactly what they did or it’s not the same. But, there’s plenty of room for all of us here, but you still need to put in the time and effort to stand out in the crowd.
In today’s guide on how to become a strength and conditioning coach, I want to tackle a few key points to help on your journey.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and there will probably be more that you need to know, but this will get you started.
I don’t want this guide to intimidate you and push you away from this rewarding field. This shows you that being a strength and conditioning coach is much different from being a personal trainer; however, with some grit, discipline, and a little luck, you can create a fulfilling career doing something you love.
Education is significant in the strength and conditioning field. To be considered a college or even pro strength and conditioning coach, you need to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a related exercise field, exercise science, kinesiology, athletic training, etc.
Most college strength and conditioning coaches are required to have a master’s degree.
Education is the main barrier to entry when considering a strength and conditioning coach career. However, education is not everything; since this field is becoming highly research-based, more and more colleges require advanced degrees.
However, if you decide you want to be more of a high school or youth strength and conditioning coach, you won’t need more than a certification and a few clearances. This isn’t to say that a bigger high school won’t require further education, but you have more opportunities if you’re missing this piece.
I still say it’s a great idea to take some anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, and exercise science classes at your local college to understand the human body better if you don’t have this background.
If none of these options are viable for you, try volunteering where you can gain some experience and understanding of the field. Some education is always better than no education!
Besides education, certifications are going to be the best thing for you.
A few companies are not as reputable as the big names, so watch out for big promises. Always makes sure you’re going through a company whose certification is NCCA credited. The NCAA requires all division 1 strength and conditioning coaches to hold a certification that is accredited. Not only does this accreditation ensure that the curriculum is of a high standard, but potential employers will look for this.
When choosing a certification, there are a few things to consider.
1. What is the organization like?
This is not something typically thought of, but you’re buying into an organization when you’re getting certified. Not all organizations are made the same. Some have a higher standard, and some will provide their members with a lot of benefits.
It’s essential to think about the organization you’re paying a few hundred dollars to potentially pass their certification exam. This brings me to my next point.
2. What’s the cost?
Some exams are going to be more expensive than others. Most organizations will provide a membership fee, which is discounted, but you have to pay to be a member as well, so that’s something to think about.
Next, how much of their study materials will you need? All of these organizations offer tiers in which you can have more or fewer materials provided. The bare-bone options are usually textbooks, and the exam cost can be anywhere from $300-600. If you get the most expensive option, sure, you’ll get an in-person workshop on how to pass the test, but you’ll be spending upward of $1,400.
Spending all that money isn’t a guarantee that you’ll pass this exam the first time either, which will cost you extra to retake. Choosing the proper organization at the correct cost is an important decision.
3. What are their continuing education requirements?
This is an important one, and we’ll touch on continuing education later. Still, each organization will have its requirements to stay certified, and not all organizations accept the same continuing education credits.
Some have stricter guidelines, which means possibly more money and more time dedicated every year to continuing education. Don’t get me wrong, in an ever-evolving field, staying in the loop is more than necessary, but if you’re required to spend a few hundred dollars and hours every year, you may want to consider that.
Now that all of that is out of the way let’s look at a few various certifications.
4. Popular Strength Coach Certifications
1. NSCA | National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
The NSCA CSCS is the gold standard of strength and conditioning certifications. They’re a fantastic organization that has had an incredible impact on the field.
Because they’re the gold standard in strength and conditioning certifications, you can expect it to be a difficult one to pass.
Before you can even apply to take the certification exam, you must hold a bachelor’s degree or be enrolled as a college senior. Until 2030 the degree can be in any field, but the company is transitioning their requirements to holding a bachelor’s degree from a NSCA approved program.
This will make it more challenging to get this certification, but the company holds a high standard and wants the best to represent their organization.
Their exam is one of the most difficult to pass as well. It’s a two-part exam split into Scientific Foundations and a Practical/Applied section. This requires you to understand the biomechanics, anatomy, and physiology while also knowing how to coach an athlete.
In 2019 the NSCA recorded a pass rate of 63% for first-time candidates.
Don’t take this exam lightly, and it’s very challenging but gratifying when you walk out knowing you are a certified strength and conditioning specialist!
2. NCSF | National Council on Strength and Fitness Certified Strength Coach
The NCSF is another reputable organization that holds a high standard for its certified strength coaches.
To sit for this exam, you either must hold a bachelor’s degree or be a certified personal trainer through their organization or another accredited organization.
You should expect to put in some serious hours studying, anywhere from 2-4 months with at least 10 hours of studying a week. You will have to pass a 150-question test with a score of 70 or higher to become certified.
Again, don’t take this exam lightly, but you have plenty of resources at your disposal, including in-person workshops.
3. ISSA | International Sports Sciences Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach
The ISSA has been around for a long-time, providing trainers and coaches with high-quality education and certifications.
The ISSA offers a few bonus items when you decide on their certification, including an online exercise library, practice exams, and when you pass, they’ll provide you with a free personal website to showcase yourself to the world and potential employers.
The ISSA provides high-quality education, providing students with information about the science and application to provide their athletes with a high-quality service.
You can even take this exam at home, allowing you more freedom when it comes to scheduling requirements.
Experience is more important than education. You can have every muscle and tendon memorized in the body, know every exercise, and recite a kinesiology textbook word for word. If you don’t have the experience coaching, none of that matters.
The best way to get this experience is through an internship. Internships provide you with the education and expertise you need to start your career. They are a little challenging to come by and may not be paid, but a few months of this and you’ll learn more than you ever would from books and articles.
Internships give you the hands-on experience you need to succeed while being mentored by someone who’s been in the industry and knows what the athletes need.
Unfortunately, there aren’t unlimited internships, but there are a few options to get your feet wet.
You’ll need to have some hands-on experience, but with a little luck, you may end up at the right place at the right time. The only option isn’t college or professional teams anymore. Youth and high school athletes need the expertise that you bring to help them compete at elite levels.
Don’t Stop Learning
The strength and conditioning field is constantly evolving. If you think back to just 20 years ago, you’ll cringe at some of the things we had athletes do.
To succeed in this field, you can’t only rely on your programming ability or exercise selection. You have to continue learning and push yourself to explore additional areas, including psychology and nutrition.
Each of these is a vital field to understand as a strength and condition coach.
You need to understand the psychology of the athletes. How does their sport affect them in the weight room? How does being a 19-year-old starter affect their relationships with things like food and sleep?
Don’t get me wrong, you have to stay in your scope of practice, but having more knowledge on these topics will allow you to provide more value to your athletes and know when you may need to refer out. If you don’t understand these things, you may not think there is anything wrong with your athletes.
Continue to push yourself to learn new techniques and accept other philosophies on training. There isn’t going to be one best way to work with someone, so be open to different training methods.
Be up to date on the latest in rehabilitation and sport psychology. There are endless amounts of education out there, and it’s essential to brush up on your skills.
Education doesn’t have to be all books and seminars. Learn about what your athletes talk about, get to know them more, and build relationships that last.
There’s no reason you can’t know what the topics of interest are in your athlete’s lives. They’re putting their faith in you to provide them an excellent service, but it doesn’t have to stop at your clipboard. Getting to know who your training can make the experience more rewarding for you and them!
So, What’s Next?
You’ve been presented with quite a bit of information. There are a few next steps I would encourage you to take.
1. Think about your education going forward.
Suppose you’re younger, and this is a path you are considering. In that case, you may want to talk to your advisor about changing majors or consider applying to a school with an excellent exercise science department.
If you’re older and already post-college, don’t feel like you need to spend four years and $40k on another bachelor’s degree. There are various ways you can become a strength and conditioning coach, and you don’t need a four-year degree.
You may have to work harder and spend some extra hours studying, but you’ll be able to make your way in this field without that education.
2. Pick a certification.
There are so many different strength and conditioning certifications offered that it can be challenging to choose. You’re safe going with one of the three I listed above, but feel free to research others.
The important thing is to pick an organization that you trust, and that will provide you with the best foundation to build from. You’re going to be paying these organizations a couple of hundred dollars, so you want to make sure it’s worth your money! The organizations above will provide you with great resources to further your career.
3. Apply what you’re learning.
Education without application in this field is nothing. If you aren’t applying what you’re learning with your athletes, you’ll never grow into the coach you want to become.
If you’re just beginning your career, use what you learn on yourself! This will still provide immediate feedback, and you’ll get in great shape!
Being in shape isn’t necessary to succeed, but would you want to move and function as an athlete? If you were being coached, you’d like to see your coach in decent shape, wouldn’t you?
You need to use what you’re learning to continue to become better.
The strength and conditioning world is demanding, but it’s a fantastic career choice. You get to work with athletes in a gym or on a field instead of an office.
There’s so much pleasure in seeing athletes develop and stay healthy. The relationships you build in this industry are undeniable and being able to contribute to an athlete or a team’s success is extremely fulfilling.
I hope you found some use form this article. It seems like a lot but don’t be discouraged. Not everything listed here is necessary, and there’s so much more to being a coach than a few letters after your name.
The first thing to do is get certified. After that, the pieces start to fall into place, and in a few years, you’ll be working your dream job.