I recently became a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), otherwise called a Strength Coach or Strength and Conditioning Coach. Perhaps you’ve wondered what the difference between a personal trainer and a strength coach is, or maybe you’re a personal trainer (CPT) wondering how the education for the CSCS differs. We will discuss those differences here.


The CPT program educates personal trainers on general anatomy, including bones, muscles and their attachments, intramuscular make-up and basic function, how these anatomical components can change over time, how to improve those changes through various activities, and the importance of educating others on how to perform those activities safely and effectively on their own. It also goes into some detail about how our body utilizes basic macronutrients, such as fats, proteins, carbohydrates and water, the importance of consuming nutrient-dense foods, how energy balance controls our bodies performance and composition, and how differences in persons of varying age, sex and ability level can dictate fluctuations in the effects of various foods.

CPT courses are outstanding for educating trainers on proper warmup, stretching, exercise based on ability level and overall objective, and how nutrition plays a crucial role in the process. Trainers learn techniques specific to things like weight loss, muscle hypertrophy, identifying and addressing muscular imbalances or other postural dysfunctions, targeting muscular force production (strength), and emphasizing acceleration (power). For more than 99 out of 100 clients a trainer may encounter, a CPT program will prepare you for how to guide someone from where they are now toward where they want to be in a swift and effective fashion. In my opinion, however, a Strength and Conditioning Coach would likely be able to do it better.


I went through the National Council of Strength and Fitness (NCSF) to become a CSCS. I was pretty nervous about the exam, it was a lot of material, but much of my experience as a CPT made the exam easier, especially when it came to identifying bio-mechanical errors, muscle imbalances, technique corrections and other form-related scenarios a coach needs to be able to control in clients. It was a surprisingly wide range of educational information. Intramuscular and musculoskeletal anatomy, biochemistry of energy systems and nutrition, exercise modality, training strategies for performance adaptations, performance enhancing supplementation, and most importantly, injury prevention.

There’s no way to describe all the detail NCSF goes into for the CSCS program, but I can say that it will likely change the way you train your clients if you are personal trainer. The CPT program (which I did through the National Academy of Sports Medicine; NASM) focuses less on maximizing performance and more on making people fit, healthy, and helping them formulate diet and exercise into their lifestyle to accommodate their fitness goals. It makes sense because personal training clients are not exactly obligated to train with you. It’s their money, their decision, and they can and will quit any time they want to. Learning how to make exercise and proper nutrition more enjoyable and easier to incorporate into one’s lifestyle over time is much more important for the average person than is trying to make them run their fastest, lift their heaviest, or win season MVP.

Athletes, while still able to quit if they want to, are much more dedicated to their sport, their team, their performance, and therefore their training. This makes retention less of an issue, allowing coaches and trainers to worry less about how much the athlete enjoys the work, and more about how well the athlete is progressing. This means the programming for athletes of all ages and abilities can be dedicated to a continuous cycle of maximizing clients’ mobility, stability, endurance, strength, power and speed (usually in that order, then back again). Having the freedom as a strength coach to decide and execute the activities most suitable for an athlete’s progression is unquestionably liberating compared to the average personal training client who wishes to be entertained just as much if not more than exercised.

Regardless, learning the process of maximizing athletic performance for various sports will most likely alter any personal trainers strategy when it comes to delivering better results for their clientele. More specific injury prevention techniques, performance-oriented programming, and a larger exercise library proven effective in professional sports will expand any good trainer’s potential for delivering an outstanding service with superior results. Trainers will be able to blend their ability to make clients enjoy their workouts with more specific strategies that are proven to boost performance. What client wouldn’t love to see their strength, speed or ability level go up more than it would otherwise?


The CPT and CSCS programs complement each other very well, and I think all trainers and all strength coaches should earn both if they are serious about their career. Emphasis on various components of nutrition, human anatomy, aerobic and anaerobic adaptation and training strategy make each worth effort to learn, and I’m very excited to see how this year differs from the last with my new area of expertise!