In the Know

November 2, 2018


There’s no way around it—continuing education is necessary to remain up to date as an athletic trainer or strength coach. However, choosing the right avenue to pursue can make the process much more enjoyable.

By P.J. Gardner

It’s been said that knowledge is power. For athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches, knowledge is also the key to providing the best possible care for athletes.

Acquiring this knowledge requires a lifelong pursuit of education. As the years go by, new research changes the way injuries are evaluated and training is prescribed. If you do not make the time to keep up, your lack of up-to-date skills and techniques will become obvious to your athletes and peers.

Don’t put yourself in that situation, especially with all of the opportunities available for professional development. Options include obtaining multiple certifications; networking; taking courses; attending state, regional, or national conferences; and pursuing advanced degrees.

Some might view continuing education as a challenge, but I find it incredibly rewarding. I enjoy knowing the latest information about sports medicine and sports performance, and I’ve enriched my knowledge of evaluation techniques, concussion management, shoulder therapy, ankle rehab, and sports training and conditioning over the years. These efforts have heightened my self-confidence and made me a better overall professional.

As athletic trainers and strength coaches, none of us knows it all—there’s just too much information out there. Once you embrace that fact, it opens a door to all the continuing education possibilities that can enhance your practice.


For many athletic trainers and strength coaches, the first chance to continue education is obtaining additional certifications beyond what is required by your industry. This can be very informative and helpful for career advancement. However, be very selective about which certifications you pursue. Ask yourself, “Which ones are worth it?” and “Which ones will benefit me the most in my field?”

Before I became an athletic trainer, I was an exercise specialist working in clinics and a part-time strength coach for various high schools. I decided that only certifications specific to weight training were relevant for me, so I pursued the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential from the NSCA. Once I became an athletic trainer, I wanted the Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) and Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) certifications from the National Academy of Sports Medicine to gain further knowledge. The PES deals with training and conditioning progressions, while the CES educates about corrective exercise programs for specific physical conditions. To this day, I maintain all three of these credentials because it shows that I am interested and educated in my fields.

There’s a big debate in strength and conditioning circles about what certifications strength coaches should have. The NCAA requires Division I strength coaches to receive credentialing from a “nationally accredited strength and conditioning certification program” but provides no further guidance. For those unsure of what to pursue, I recommend Michael Boyle’s Certified Functional Strength Coach Certification (CFSC), the CSCS, and, if you’re in the college ranks, the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC) from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association.

For athletic trainers, there are too many additional certifications to choose from beyond the ATC. I believe some of the most useful pertain to massage therapy, dry needling, Positional Release Technique, Positional Restoration Technique, and kinesiotaping. However, check with your state practice act before obtaining any of these, as there can be limitations on what rehab techniques athletic trainers are allowed to use.

Keep in mind that with any certification, there are expenses involved. Most certifying exams come with a fee, and most credentials require a cost to maintain. For example, becoming certified in Muscle Activation Technique costs around $10,000, plus additional expenses to stay current.


Chances are, once you start collecting additional certifications, you’ll encounter many athletic trainers and strength coaches who share the same credentials. These and other peers can be great resources for continuing education in an informal way. You can learn so much simply by talking with them and discovering what works best for them.

To make the most of their insight, be open to different ways of improving the assessments and evaluations you use. This is especially important if you work independently in a school, where it’s easy to always do things the same way.

Personally, I’ve learned a great deal from peers. If I see another athletic trainer practicing a new taping or manual muscle assessment, I may start using it. For instance, in assessing the integrity of the subscapularis muscle, I have always used the Gerber Liftoff test. At a recent football game, an athletic trainer showed me a different method called the “bear hugger” test. Now, I use it frequently as an alternative way to examine the integrity of the muscle.

In addition, I often ask other athletic trainers what evaluation techniques they like and why. At a seminar on knee injuries, I approached a colleague about what technique he liked best to determine possible meniscus injuries. He showed me a standing compression and rotation test that would reproduce pain if a meniscus injury was present. I use that test regularly now.

On the strength and conditioning side, discussions with other strength coaches are vital in communicating what programs work best with teams. Informal meetings with other coaches can also be invaluable for fine-tuning the exact practices that produce the most desired results.

Our school recently hired KC Bonnin, USAW, CES, PES, CSAC, CWPC, IKFF1, as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, and we often discuss which lifts and teaching techniques to use. Since I am more of an assistant strength coach, I want to ensure I am teaching the lifts the same way KC does. Everyone benefits from the consistency of our efforts.


For continuing education that’s a bit more structured, consider taking courses or attending seminars. A number of groups and organizations offer self-paced classes, which I’ve found to be very useful. The number of continuing education units (CEUs) you get from these will vary.

This past year, I took courses in shoulder therapy and concussion evaluation through DSW Human Kinetics. Both were self-paced, so I could either study from a textbook or do the e-course online. I had a full year to complete each one and take the test.

Self-paced courses are convenient because you can take them on your own time and at a relatively low cost. Sometimes, employers will even cover the expense. To get your employer on board with this, meet with them and ask if funds are available for certifications or required continuing education.

If you choose to go the conference and seminar route, the hardest part is making the time to attend. I recommend identifying which meetings are most important to you in any given year. Be particular about where you go—there’s no sense in wasting your time or money on a convention you are not really interested in.

My approach involves planning a year ahead. I pick the slowest times of the year—usually spring break and the summer months—and see what meetings are available. I make it a point to go to my state or regional athletic training conference annually. These are convenient and offer many CEUs at one time. I also attend the NATA Clinical Symposia and AT Expo every five to six years, but I wait until it is held closer to home to reduce the cost.

When you’re at a conference, it can be tricky to decide which presentations to see. One strategy is to pick topics that you aren’t as well-versed in to strengthen any weak areas of practice. For me, that’s anything to do with hip evaluations and rehab.


Probably the most in-depth form of continuing education is pursuing an advanced degree—whether it’s a master’s or doctorate. Although time-consuming, the benefits for doing so are numerous.

For one thing, an advanced degree usually leads to higher-paying positions with more responsibilities. It might also show your initiative and ambition to potential employers. If nothing else, having an advanced degree updates your skills, which is important as rehab and training methods evolve.

I chose to pursue a master’s degree right after my undergraduate years because I believed it would help progress my career. Some of the positions I’ve held have “preferred” a master’s degree, so I think the decision has paid off. I believe that the more education you have going into a field, the more likely it is that you will increase your chances of landing whichever job you seek.

To determine whether you should seek out an advanced degree, ask yourself: “How far do I want to go in my profession—the high school, college, professional, or Olympic ranks?” and “What are my employment goals?” Look at respected peers in the setting you aspire to and see what level of education they have.

For instance, at the high school level, a bachelor’s degree is enough to become a certified teacher and a strength coach. In college, a master’s is preferred but not usually required. And a PhD or other terminal degree is usually necessary for teaching or research at the university level.

Other factors that come into play when pursuing formal education are time and money involved. To manage the investment required, decide early in your career which degree you really need for the position you ultimately hope to obtain and how much education you have the budget to pay for.

Keep in mind, too, that most college courses will count toward CEUs up to a certain amount of credits. Years ago, I completed a bachelor’s degree in business management, and most of my courses counted as CEUs applied to my certifications. The same was true with my master’s degree.

No matter which avenue you select when it comes to continuing education, the most important part is to keep after it. All professionals should seek out the best way to pursue their own growth and enjoy the process!

The author would like to thank KC Bonnin, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., for his input in putting this article together.


P.J. Gardner, MS, ATC, CSCS, PES, CES, is the Athletic Trainer and a strength coach at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has 25 years of experience in sports medicine and sports performance. Gardner can be reached at: [email protected].

This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.




By Kristin Maki

In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of college athletes developing rhabdomyolysis during strength and conditioning workouts. These instances have led some to ask questions about the merits of the strength coaches designing the training sessions. Chief among them is: What makes a strength coach qualified?

The answer to this question is up for debate, as there currently isn’t a standard certification for college strength coaches. Although a 2015 NCAA rule required strength coaches at the Division I level to be certified by an accredited strength and conditioning certification, there are more than 130 accredited programs to choose from—some more in-depth than others.

“A lot of the strength coaches are very well trained,” Randy Cohen, ATC, DPT, Associate Athletics Director for Medical Services at the University of Arizona, told CBS Sports. “The problem is there are certifications that are very good and others that are weekend courses. We don’t have a set standard for what a strength coach should be.”

Two credentials—the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the NSCA and the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC) from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa)—are considered the industry standards. The CSCS requires applicants to possess a bachelor’s degree or be enrolled as a college senior and have a current CPR/Automated external defibrillator (AED) certification. In addition, applicants must pass a two-section exam that covers practical/applied science and scientific foundations. The SCCC requires a bachelor’s degree and current CPR/AED/first aid certification. Along with this, the candidate must complete 640 hours of training and an internship and pass written and oral exams.

Other certifications have less stringent criteria. For instance, the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s strength training certification can be obtained with a 21-hour course that costs $245. An undergraduate degree and CPR/AED/first aid certification is required, and two years of coaching experience is suggested but not mandated.

“Are you going to get a 21-hour class to practice law or medicine?” Jay Hoffman, PhD, a Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Central Florida and past president of the NSCA, posed to CBS Sports. “ ... For most strength coaches, it’s [a four-year degree] plus a two-year master’s program that provides the [necessary] experience.”

The ambiguity over requirements for strength coaches has given schools more leeway when it comes to hiring who they want—whether that candidate is qualified or not. “If that strength and conditioning coach does not hold certification of an appropriately accredited body, the athletic department can come up with an interpretation of the accreditation criteria of an alternate certification to fit their hiring needs until the NCAA further clarifies and enforces their legislation,” NSCA founder Boyd Epley, MEd, CSCS,*D, FNSCA, RSCC*E, now the Assistant Athletic Director for Strength and Conditioning at the University of Nebraska, told CBS Sports.

However, there has been a push to make matters more streamlined. After criticizing the NCAA’s 2015 rule regarding strength coaches, the CSCCa and NSCA jointly sent a letter to the NCAA pushing for strength coaches from all three divisions to become certified. Further, the two organizations suggested that NCAA strength coaches without bachelor’s degrees should be given up to four years to complete an accredited certification. They hope to get to a point where all newly hired strength coaches would have to be certified.

“The pressure for there to be a paradigm shift is going to [have to] be pretty strong,” Brian Hainline, MD, the NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer, told CBS Sports. “It can’t be the NCAA saying, ‘This is how accreditation and certification has to take place,’ but there is going to [have to] be other forces that are essentially going to shine a spotlight on the process.”


Kristin Maki is a contributing writer for Training & Conditioning.