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Strength and Conditioning Specialist Education, Schools and Career Overview

A strength and conditioning specialist is a professional who is educated to design and implement training and conditioning programs for athletes. These programs are designed to maintain the health of the athlete, as well as improve their overall speed, power, strength, and flexibility. All of these functions are accomplished with the overall goal of preventing injury and improving sport performance. This field is different from a personal trainer who works with non-athletes, and different from a traditional coach who teaches sports skills or strategy. Instead, the strength and conditioning specialist is coaching the athlete to physically become more capable to compete and succeed.

A strength and conditioning specialist, or athletic trainer as they are referred to by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is typically required to have a bachelor's degree in strength and conditioning or a related field.

Strength and Conditioning Specialist Duties

Strength and conditioning professionals work under the direction of a licensed physician and/or an athletic director to provide treatment for injuries, as well as develop programs to improve athletic performance and prevent injury. According to the BLS, some of their daily tasks may include:

  • Applying devices that protect against injury, such as tape or braces
  • Giving first aid care in case of an emergency
  • Identifying and evaluating injuries
  • Developing rehabilitation programs for injured athletes, and implementing them
  • Performing administrative tasks, such as writing reports on injuries
  • Developing and implementing injury-prevention programs

Strength and Conditioning Specializations

There is a variety of employment settings you might see yourself working at if pursuing a career as a strength and conditioning coach or specialist. Here’s a snapshot:

  • Collegiate level: These individuals are employed to improve the sport performance of teams not just during the sport season, but in off-season times as well. Sometimes a coach will decide they want the strength and conditioning specialist to focus specifically on one area of improvement.
  • Professional and club sports teams: For professional sports, strength and conditioning specialists work to condition athletes and improve their speed, agility, and overall performance.
  • Sports performance clinics: Some of these clinics are franchised and others are privately owned or owned by a hospital. In these settings, individuals, small groups, and teams pay for training sessions. The strength and conditioning specialist at the clinic then designs a program for the client. These programs may focus on speed development, gaining muscle mass, losing weight, or any other goal an athlete has set to become more competitive at their sport.
  • Physical therapy/sports medicine based clinics: Strength and conditioning specialists are employed in these settings to work with more of the general population, rather than strictly athletes.
  • Self-employed: Some strength and conditioning specialists work sports training camps or are hired to work with athletes independently.

There are also a variety of names for professionals in this field including the following:

  • Strength and Conditioning Specialist (S&C Specialist)
  • Strength and Conditioning Coach (S&C Coach)
  • Performance Enhancement Coach/Specialist
  • Sports Performance Coaches
  • Sports Enhancement Specialist/Coach

How to Become a Strength and Conditioning Specialist

In addition to the more general classes, each of these degrees will have their own set of specific curriculum. For example, those studying to be strength and conditioning coaches can expect to take classes in:

  • Program and routine development and design
  • Meal planning
  • Methods of injury avoidance
  • Exercise science
  • Anatomy

Strength and conditioning degree programs

The following science-based and related degrees would be compatible for a job as a strength and conditioning specialist:

  • Exercise science
  • Kinesiology
  • Physical education
  • Physiology
  • Nutrition and fitness
  • Sports medicine
  • Anatomy
  • Communication
  • Psychology
  • Professional ethics

Your degree program will depend on your personal career goals. For example, someone whose goal is to work at a health club, fitness, or recreation center may pursue a degree in exercise science. Those interested in working as athletic trainers for a university or professional sports program may find that a bachelor's degree in kinesiology most closely aligns with their goals.

Practical training in the applied methods of strength and conditioning will give these aspiring professionals a unique mastery of the various approaches to exercise. These classes may cover the principals and applied uses of:

  • Resistance training
  • Strength and weight training
  • Flexibility training
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Anaerobic exercise
  • Circuit training
  • Isometric training

Strength and conditioning coach certifications

According to the BLS, athletic trainers need at least a bachelor's degree, and though the requirements vary by state, nearly all states require athletic trainers to have a license or certification

To license athletic trainers, most states use the standard certification examination offered by the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer (BOC). Certification requires graduating from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education and completing the BOC exam. Athletic trainers must adhere to the BOC Standards of Practice and Disciplinary Process and take continuing education courses to maintain their certification.

Skills and Qualities for Strength and Conditioning Specialists

When it comes to learning how to become a strength and conditioning coach, degree and formal training requirements are only part of the equation. Effective coaching demands a number of skills and qualifications. Some can be learned in the classroom, while others come with experience. Here are just some of these skills, as reported by the BLS and O*Net:

  • Teaching skills, including an understanding of various learning styles
  • Communication skills, both written and verbal
  • Good judgment and critical thinking skills
  • Inductive reasoning skills
  • Problem sensitivity
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Interpersonal skills

In order to succeed in this field, it is essential to be an effective communicator, since you're working closely with coaches, athletic trainers, team physicians, and the athlete. It is important to be able to relate well to a variety of types of people, as each athlete has a different background. Being disciplined and a good motivator are also important traits to have.

Formal degree programs can certify strength and conditioning coaches' technical abilities, but may fall short in other aspects. This is where professional certification can be helpful, especially for new coaches without extensive experience and references. The NCSA reports that candidates seeking its entry-level Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certifications must have at least a bachelor's degree (exceptions are made for college seniors) and successfully pass an exam that assesses both scientific knowledge and applied coaching skills.

Career Outlook and Salary for Strength and Conditioning Specialists

As with any career, pay and job outlook can vary based on a number of factors, from location to experience to education level. Here’s an idea of what athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches might expect to see in terms of salary and job growth in the coming years:

CareerTotal EmploymentAnnual Mean WageProjected Job Growth Rate
Athletic Trainers25,010$48,63022.2%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Sources:

  1. Athletic Trainers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes299091.htm
  2. Athletic Trainers and Exercise Physiologists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/athletic-trainers-and-exercise-physiologists.htm
  3. Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer, http://www.bocatc.org/
  4. Coaches and Scouts, Occupational Outlook Handbook, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/entertainment-and-sports/coaches-and-scouts.htm
  5. Fitness Trainers and Instructors, Occupational Outlook Handbook, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/fitness-trainers-and-instructors.htm Coaches and Scouts, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/entertainment-and-sports/coaches-and-scouts.htm
  6. Summary Report for: Coaches and Scouts, O*Net OnLine, 2011, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/27-2022.00
  7. Alternate Occupation Titles, Coaches and Scouts, O*Net OnLine, 2011, http://www.onetonline.org/find/score/27-2022.00?s=Swimming%20Coach#anc1
  8. Coaching Strength and Conditioning Program, National Strength and Conditioning Association, http://www.nsca.com/Education/Programs/Coaching-Strength-and-Conditioning/
  9. CSCS Certification, National Strength and Conditioning Association, http://www.nsca.com/Certification/CSCS/

Strength and Conditioning Schools