Strength and Conditioning Certifications: Which is Best?

strength and conditioning certifications

The aim of this article is to assist campus rec professionals with understanding strength and conditioning certifications.

The health and human performance field is an industry that continues to grow in popularity.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), there are 279,100 job opportunities for fitness professionals and instructors. So, students and exercise professionals looking to begin their careers in this field have a multitude of employment options to choose from:

  • Private training
  • Strength and conditioning
  • Rehabilitation
  • Research

After identifying a concentration and population, professionals often look for education to make themselves more knowledgeable and marketable to employers. Certifications are also a standard component of the fitness professional’s resume.

Recognizing which certifications and organizations most effectively prepare professionals for a job is difficult due to large differences in cost, educational requirements, examination format and perceived prestige of these certifications. The aim of this article is to assist campus rec professionals with understanding certifications. As a result, it examines specialties of interest, education, recertification requirements and the cost of many highly recognized associations. The strength and conditioning profession is dynamic and complex. So, it is critical both employers and potential candidates understand differences amongst the various certifications.

Table One — see below — summarizes a brief description of each certification. Twelve of these certifications, in order of when they were established include:

  1. United States Sports Academy (USSA)
  2. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
  3. American Council on Exercise Fitness (ACE)
  4. National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)
  5. International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)
  6. National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA)
  7. American Fitness Professionals and Associates (AFPA)
  8. International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA)
  9. Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Association (CSCCa)
  10. International Sports Sciences Association (IYCA)
  11. Certified Physical Preparation Specialist (CPPS)
  12. Certified Functional Strength Coach (CFSC).

Specialty of Interest

As with any profession, developing an area of expertise is important to career development and advancement. Fitness professionals need to decide what population of athletes they wish to train in order to move forward to the next step of choosing which certification is best.

The two most common specialties in the strength and conditioning profession include recreational athletes and elite level athletes:

Recreation Athletes

Those looking to create and implement programs with recreational level athletes work with athletes who are less knowledgeable about training as well as the general population. Associations whose material specifically focuses on this target population include the following: ACE, AFPA, CFSC, CPPS, IFPA, ISSA, NASM, NESTA and USSA.

The emphasis of these certifications is to teach fitness professionals proper training technique and how to design an overall training program. These certifications will enhance knowledge of training methods and how to create a safe, adaptable program and environment, thus increasing marketability.

Elite-level Athletes

Professionals who will be working with the more advanced level athlete — high-school, college, professional — on a daily basis find the focus of strength and conditioning certifications from the following associations best serve their needs: CSCCa, IYCA and NSCA.

The impact of these certifications go into further depth by applying scientific knowledge to program design, and may be considered as more advanced than those certifications geared to the general public. Most professionals seeking the certifications listed above want to enhance their expertise by focusing on how to assist in long term-athletic development and the sport-specific needs of the athlete.

Education

Most employers recognize and value the educational requirements of different associations in the strength and conditioning field. Often, these requirements establish credibility and quality within certifications. The educational requirements of the top strength and conditioning certifications are broken down into three categories, as shown on Table Two:

  1. The certifications that require a bachelor’s degree are CSCCa, NASM and NSCA.
  2. Associations that require a high school diploma or an equivalent education are ACE, AFPA, IFPA, and IYCA.
  3. Lastly, the certifications that specific no educational requirements include CFSC, CPPS, ISSA, NESTA and USSA.

The educational requirements of certifications tend to correlate with the reputation and impact of the certification (Table One).

Cost

One of the most frequently asked questions about certifications is the cost. The initial cost required for each strength and conditioning certification has been categorized in Table Three:

  • Certifications under $500 include: ACE, AFPA, CSCCa, IFPA, ISSA, IYCA, NESTA and NSCA.
  • Those costing more than$500 include: CFSC, CPPS, NASM and USSA.

There are often additional expenses to be considered. Other financial considerations easily overlooked include membership fees for associations, CEU costs with recertification fees, as well as travel costs to conferences aimed at continuing education and recertification.

Recertification Requirements         

Another important component that will aid professionals to identify which certification they would like to obtain are the recertification requirements. Recognizing the amount of continuing education units (CEUs) and the length of the certification will determine the longevity of the membership. Typically, strength and conditioning certifications do not expire or require a certain amount of CEUs to maintain the certification.

  • The following certifications do not expire: ACE, CPPS, NASM, NESTA and USSA.
  • Among the certifications that do require CEUs or additional criteria for recertification include the NSCA, AFPA, CFSC, CSCCa, IFPA, ISSA and IYCA.

Professionals looking to obtain a higher-level certification should choose an association that requires more education. In a field that is constantly changing, CEUs allow professionals to gain additional knowledge and experience while maintaining their certification. Continuing education ensures professional development. It also creates a quality candidate who will continuously grow within the field of strength and conditioning.

Information on the requirements to re-certify and maintain credentials once the length of the certification is over can be found in Table Three. It is important to note the value of CEUs is defined differently based on each individual association and can be attained in a variety of ways. For example, the NSCA states that 0.1 CEU is equivalent to one hour of development, and each individual must meet 60 hours of professional development in a three-year span. How to attain these requirements can also be achieved in a multitude of ways:

  • Webinars
  • Online practice tests
  • Attending conferences
  • Course work and much more.

It is best to research a specific certification to gain a better understanding of the recertification requirements.

Reputation/Impact

Evaluation of reputation may be somewhat subjective in nature. However, educational prerequisites, rigor of testing, recertification criteria and the duration of existence by an organization are important factors. Therefore, based upon these criteria, NSCA, CSCCa and NASM stand out.

  • The NSCA certification targets professionals looking to advance their careers in the field of exercise science while working with more advanced level athletes in the high school, collegiate or professional level. The NSCA requires the highest level of education and recertification criteria. These criteria are among the most stringent in the industry. They make the NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification credible and reputable in creating the best return on investment.
  • Although the CSCCa has only been around for 15 years, it is viewed as a highly credible certification for professionals looking to work with advanced level athletes in the collegiate setting. The CSCCa also requires a bachelor’s degree. However, the one distinct difference is the CSCCa requires 640 hours of internship experience. The educational requirements and practical internship requirements make the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certification (SCCC) a quality certification for professionals desiring to work with college level athletes.
  • The NASM targets professionals looking to work with beginner-level athletes or the general population. Of the associations targeting beginners and the general population, NASM is the only one that requires a bachelor’s degree. Also, it’s overseen by an organization that has been in the strength and conditioning field for approximately 30 years. The educational requirement and distinct reputation of NASM makes the Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) a valuable option for professionals working with the beginning level athlete.

Conclusion

There are factors to look at before selecting a career in the fitness and strength and conditioning industry. A college education in a relevant field is an important foundation, however, additional certifications enhance an individual’s qualifications. Fitness professionals can focus their search with regard to certification by analyzing components such as specialties of interest, education, recertification requirements and cost.

After reviewing these variables in Tables One, Two and Three, it is clear professionals looking to attain a quality certification should pursue an association that is well established and requires high levels of education. These factors — independent of certification cost — appear to be more relevant to reputation of a certification, and likely to the ability of an individual to be employed in the industry.

Authors

Kendra Trudo is a graduate from Aurora University in Fitness and Health Promotion and recently earned a Master’s of Science in Education in Exercise Science at the University of Dayton. She is currently working at Aurora University. 

Dr. Jon K. Linderman is an associate professor of Exercise Science at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. He has more than 25 years of experience as an educator and researcher in the field of exercise science. He speaks and writes on areas of human performance and muscle physiology.

Dr. Peter Titlebaum is a professor of Sport Management at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. He has more than 25 years of experience in management in the profit, nonprofit, private and public sectors. He speaks and writes on areas of networking, organizational and personal development, educating audiences to be their own advocates.

Main image courtesy of Shutterstock

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