Over the course of the last few years I have got dozens of DM’s asking a similar question about how to best prepare for the CSCS exam. This appears to be a common question amongst coaches that are either going the Strength and Conditioning only route or by sport coaches who also run their teams training. It will be much easier to write about many of the general questions I get about it rather than answering each person individually.
What will you actually learn from obtaining your CSCS
The answer to this is highly dependent on your timeline in terms of taking the test and your background in the exercise science field. I will start by saying this however, does passing the CSCS guarantee that you will be a good strength coach? NO, it can not guarantee that. It can however greatly reduce the chance that you would be a bad strength coach. There are great strength coaches out there without it, there are bad strength coaches out there that have it. While I didn't learn a lot about what to do in my study for the exam I did learn and large amount about what NOT to do. My undergrad background was in social studies education as I wanted to be a sports coach and teach history. I learned a large amount about exercise science through my preparation for the CSCS exam. Someone who came from an undergrad in exercise science may not learn nearly as much. Passing the CSCS greatly helped me in my masters of exercise science however because a large portion of the program was geared towards the passing of the CSCS so this made a large chunk of my work more review type busy work rather than actual work that required a lot of my time.
What are the benefits to pursuing your CSCS exam
I see a lot of posts about how administrators do not even know what the certification is so it doesn't really matter. Rather or not they actually know 90% or more of strength and conditioning opportunities in terms of jobs that I come across require it. It was not required at my current job when I was first hired however you can bet that when I leave (a long time from now) that it most likely will be. Most schools that have these S&C openings may honestly not know what it means they do; however, they see that most other schools require it now so they are going to do the same. Also if you are a sport coach who wants more say in your teams training in the offseason and in season then it is a perfect way to get more responsibility. This is especially easy if you've already been assigned to run your teams training as many sport coaches are. It also helps create buy-in with all other sports if you are wanting to develop a universal training system district wide for all sports. Understand many sport coaches have been doing their teams training for years and have been successful so simply handing over that responsibility to you is often hard for them. By obtaining your CSCS they will view you differently in terms of your ability to help their program.
To give yourself the best shot at passing you need to break it down into a year-long timeline of prep. Could you pass it in a shorter amount of time? Sure but to give yourself your absolute best shot it requires about a year. The test is split into two parts, scientific foundations and an applied section. In other words the science behind training and program design and how to best actually implement this on the floor. Here is my biggest drawback on the exam itself. It is designed around fantasy best case scenarios. Some questions literally ask how far mirrors should be off the floor, ideal weight room temperatures or things of that regard. I don't know a single person in this field who has actually measured or cared how far their mirrors were off the floor or had much they could do about the temperature of their facility. Our air conditioner was out all summer this past summer training cycle and it was routinely 90 degrees inside. It sucked yes but we still trained and we would again if we had to. Now for the actual preparation. The NSCA essentials of strength and conditioning book is 100% needed for the successful preparation of the exam as most of the test is based directly off the book. Understanding terms is important but understanding concepts behind the terms is also greatly important. Don't just memorize and regurgitate information but actually understanding the information is critical. The essentials book is one book in itself but to successfully prepare treat each chapter as its own individual book. Outline key concepts and terms in each chapter and break it down from there. If you've been on the floor coaching for some time then you are going to find the applied section much easier than the scientific foundations section compared to someone who has not been on the floor coaching. Another great tool for test preparation is the CSCS pocket prep app. While it does have familiar test questions to me its best feature is it will break down by category what areas and concepts you are proficient in and what areas and concepts you struggle with. This will greatly cut down on what you need to cover as you lead up to the exam. I wouldn't begin using the pocket prep app until a few months out from exam time after you've already covered everything on your own however. I have not attended the NSCA sponsored exam prep that they host at several events but I have talked to many who have and have great things to say about it.
Hopefully this covers a lot of questions young coaches getting into the field or coaches currently in the field and looking to advance their knowledge may have. Also remember going forward that in a few years the exam will require an exercise science background to sit for it. While I dont think this is the best rule It will be what is required so if you don't have this background it is best to get certified now.