And a good question it is!! Within the strength and conditioning profession, this seems to be a question that has continually been asked since the establishment of the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential in 1985. The question has become even more prevalent in recent years as positions in the profession have expanded from a relative handful in the collegiate and professional ranks and are now becoming readily available at the high school level across the country.
A Brief History of the Profession and the Certification
Although the roots of strength and conditioning coaches go all the way back to coaches like Alvin Roy and Clyde Emrich in the early 1960s, the profession as we know it today was brought to light by a group of collegiate strength and conditioning coaches led by Boyd Epley, John Stucky, and E.J. “Doc” Kries in the 1970s. In 1978 a group of 76 strength coaches from across the country founded the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a non-profit educational organization to network, collaborate, unify, and promote the profession. Over the years the organization has grown to more than 30,000 members in 72 countries. In the mid-1980s the association leadership created the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification as a means to recognize coaches who had demonstrated an understanding of the basic scientific foundations and practical application of strength and conditioning techniques by successfully passing an extensive two-part exam. The purpose: to set a minimum standard that would give credibility and recognition to the profession.
As the profession grew in numbers, the certification became an almost absolute necessity for strength and conditioning coaches at the collegiate and professional level. Attaining entry level positions became more competitive, so the credential (and eventually an advanced degree) became a prerequisite for employment consideration.
In the 1990s, the NSCA membership grew rapidly and the fields from which members were employed diversified greatly. Personal trainers, physical therapists, athletic trainers, scientific researchers, and high school coaches began to far outnumber the collegiate and professional strength coaches. As a result, the focus of the association changed along with the varied professional fields of the growing membership. In May of 2000, a group of full-time strength and conditioning coaches from across the nation, many of whom were instrumental in founding and organizing the NSCA in 1978, met in Las Vegas to organize a new professional organization. This new organization was named the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches association (CSCCa) and was designed to represent and promote the collegiate strength and conditioning coach. The CSCCa established a certification process, and the exam was developed by many of the same coaches who had developed the CSCS over the years. The Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC) credential is only available to full-time strength and conditioning coaches on the collegiate and professional level.
To Get Certified or Not
The question is, “Why should I get certified? And if I decide to do so, which certification is the best?” I decided to write on this topic after recently seeing several threads discussing it on Twitter. One thread turned into a good discussion/debate with a high school strength coach from the southeast. We never did come to an agreement, which is fine. He feels strongly about his thoughts on the topic, and I feel just as strongly about mine. I am pro-certification.
I had joined the NSCA as a senior in college in 1984. I read each journal from cover to cover and took notes on different articles and programs shared by the top college strength and conditioning coaches. During those early years, information from quality sources was extremely difficult to come by and scientifically researched material was very scarce. When the NSCA first established the CSCS in 1985, there were no existing strength and conditioning certifications of which I was aware. Since the field has seen exponential grown over the past 30+ years, now certifications are like convenience stores; there seems to be one on every corner, which is good and bad. Good because scientifically based training information has become readily available to coaches within the field, but bad because the umpteen certifications have watered down their collective credibility. However, I believe so far as strength and conditioning certifications go, the CSCS is still the gold standard. I say this for a couple of reasons:
- It has stood the test of time. It was the first created, has evolved over the years, and is still going strong 35 years later.
- Unlike most every other certification that I am aware of—except the SCCC, which was developed by the same group of coaches, with the same purpose in mind—its purpose is to qualify a minimal standard for strength and conditioning professionals who work primarily with athletes.
- Also unlike all other certifications that I am aware of, except the SCCC, the candidate must successfully complete an extensive two-part examination and must hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university before they can be awarded the CSCS.
So, back to why a coach should get certified. One word: credibility. Does holding the CSCS mean you are a good strength and conditioning coach? Not necessarily. Is EVERY board-certified doctor a “good” doctor? Absolutely not!! However, they are proven to have the requisite education and to have passed a certification exam showing mastery of the minimal established standards within their field. They have credibility!
In today’s litigious world, credibility and being considered an expert in your field is beneficial if you find yourself in court. Obviously, it is not a guarantee of innocence by any means, but it does give you professional credibility. Some will argue that having a Physical Education degree and/or state education licensure is sufficient to coach and teach strength and conditioning courses at the junior high or high school levels. Yes, to get hired for a teaching position you must have state licensure; however, that does not give you the additional credibility of having professional knowledge specific to the field of strength training and conditioning. It does not show that you have met the minimal standards to teach/coach the technical and scientifically founded field of strength training. In many states, I can pass the state-mandated licensure exam in a degree area (mine is history), then can become licensed to teach whatever classes for which I pass the licensure test. There is a big difference between passing a P.E. licensure test—that, because of its wide scope, asks questions on everything from bowling, to team sports, to square dancing—and passing a two-part (2-3 hours each) exam that solely tests knowledge on scientific foundations and practical applications of strength and conditioning.
I, by the way, did not take the CSCS when it came out in 1985. As a matter of fact, I “boycotted” doing so until June 1994. Why you ask? At first, I would say pride, but when you really get down to it, I was scared. From 1986-1990 I worked in one of the top comprehensive sports medicine facilities in the country in a completely new field. Muscle rehabilitation was an extension of, or the beginning of, the evolution of today’s physical therapy, and I worked as a Muscle Rehabilitation Specialist. Basically, we were applying strength training to physical therapy and developing new protocols to make people more “field or work ready” post injury. One of the guys I worked with was a certified athletic trainer (ATC) with a master’s degree in Sports Medicine. He was really smart and a great ATC but knew little to nothing about strength training. He took the test in 1987 and passed it. I told myself that if he passed it, I was not wasting my time on it because with my ““vast knowledge” at 26, I knew way more about strength training than he did. It was a “joke” test, and I was a college strength coach, so I “didn’t need it anyway.” Well, that is what I kept telling myself (and all who would listen) for the next seven years. In reality, I thought to myself, “What if I can’t pass it?”
In the spring of 1994, I quit making excuses and prepared to take the exam at the NSCA National Conference in New Orleans. I bought the exam prep kit (mimeographed copies of old journal articles) and a list of college exercise science (which wasn’t even a term yet) textbooks they recommended, made myself a study guide based off their extremely vague explanation of what would be tested, and started my test preparation. In mid-June I walked out of the test completely bewildered. I was second-guessing my answer to every question I could remember and was just sure I had failed miserably. Then the next day the NSCA released the first edition of the textbook, The Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, from which they said the “new updated” exam was derived. I was done now for sure!!! Back in 1994 it took 5-6 weeks to get test results. That was the LONGEST 5-6 weeks EVER! In early August, the results arrived, and I had passed both parts successfully. I have heard that the failure rate around the country for that first updated exam was as high as 60%. I do not know that to be fact, but I am going to hold on to that number forever (LOL). Needless to say, I have always acquired more than the required number of continuing education units every reporting period and never let my certification lapse in 25 years.
Back to the question: does a coach whose responsibility it is to develop programming and implement a strength and conditioning program for high school and possibly junior high school level student/athletes need to possess and maintain a certification such as the CSCS? For the reasons discussed above, if your job description is primarily focused on teaching/implementing strength training and conditioning programs in weight-training-focused physical education classes and/or athletic team training, I believe the answer is a resounding yes. Some coaches do not like the test because they feel the content is too deep. However, I know many who feel it is not deep enough. Regardless of which side of that fence you stand on, the fact of the matter is the CSCS is and has been regarded by those in the profession as the gold standard for 30+ years, and the prerequisites for attaining it are firm and consistent. From bottom to top, our profession needs a strong minimal standard that is consistent and lends credibility to what we do as strength professionals.