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SSC vs. Exercise Physiology Master's Degree/CSCS/SCCC

by Amanda Sheppard | February 12, 2020

At this point in my career, I am Amanda Sheppard M.S. Ed., SCCC CSCS CPR/AED/First Aid certified. There are people out there who will pay for any certification that exists just to add more letters after their name, but in reality they are artificially filling their tool box and never becoming great at any one thing. We all know Rip’s opinion on the state of collegiate Exercise Science degrees and their effectiveness, but I think it might be appropriate to share my first-hand experience as to why he has a point. 

To do this I am going to take you on a hopefully brief journey into my experience that led me to a career in Strength and Conditioning. You don’t have to hang on too tight, mainly because it’s not drenched in excitement, but also because it’s going to prove what most of you reading this already know. Let’s get this out of the way now. I have not yet attained the level of SSC, so I would assume half of you are wondering why I have the right to write this article and the other half of you are cussing me out because you think I didn’t spend nearly enough time in collegiate strength and conditioning to carry such a jaded opinion. To the former I say, it’s coming. To the latter I say, don’t be mad at me because I recognized a glitch in the system and got out sooner rather than later.

amanda coaching the press

High School

First, I’ll quickly take you back to my high school experience and my introduction to strength training. Sophomore year, as an athlete, you were allowed to enroll in a more advanced Physical Education (P.E.) class that was tailored towards introducing weight room and conditioning activities. It was a slow progression towards Junior and Senior year that consisted of the ever famous BFS (Bigger, Faster, Stronger™) Program. In this class we were programmed to lift Monday, Wednesday, Friday, with conditioning or PE-type games on Tuesday and Thursday. To sum it up, with little guidance and teachers working only from their experience as collegiate athletes, my love for strength and conditioning began. 

College 

Following high school, I was fortunate enough to receive a softball scholarship to Northern Illinois University (NIU), and I knew there was going to be a heavy investment in strength and conditioning. I was originally set to major in PE, grades 6-12, because, to be honest, I thought prior to college I wanted to be a teacher and a softball coach at the high school level. That was quickly negated during a teaching internship I had when I was a senior in high school. With that in mind I spent my first semester in college with an undecided major, and no thought on what I wanted to do when I was “really an adult.” 

I was fortunate enough to have a solid strength coach, Chad Pearson, my first year and a half in college. He sparked my interest in the weight room even more as I trained for softball. Chad was an aspiring Head Strength Coach for football, but as an assistant he was required to work with a few more teams. From the outside looking in, I think any silly sport coach in the game would say that Chad trained us like football players – which shows just how sport coaches fail in the understanding of training athletes at any level. In my opinion, Chad did exactly what he was supposed to do: training us as human beings with actual loaded human movement. Throughout the year Chad had us squat heavy, clean heavy, and even did heavy upper body movements (Gasp! Yes, even as softball players!). Needless to say I was convinced this is what I wanted to do, and as a general education course in college we were to interview someone in the career we aspired to be in. It’s easy to see who I chose to interview at this point.

chad pearson

Chad Pearson – Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Akron Football

The Interview 

Depending on who you ask, this interview didn’t have nearly as much satire as the Seth Rogan movie, but I will try my best to give it to you straight. The purpose of the interview was to understand the necessary steps it would take to obtain a position in the career desired. Questions consisted of educational background (required and preferred), required certifications, experience in the field, salary at entry level, and pros/cons of the specific industry. During this interview Chad was very candid, and at the time I think I was so set on following all the steps appropriately that I was willing to overlook all the drawbacks in what he was describing. 

To sum up the interview, here is what I gathered:

  • Declare Kinesiology/Exercise Science as my undergraduate degree.
  • Get an internship where you could get practical experience in a collegiate weight room.
  • Receive a Master’s Degree in … Something.
  • Try for a graduate assistant position where they could pay for me to obtain the Master’s degree.
  • Take the NSCA: CSCS Exam to obtain certification (In Chad’s words the “Gold Standard” of the industry).
  • Be prepared to work long hours for very little pay. 

After the 30-minute interview concluded I was ready to walk into my adviser's office to declare my major and set out on my journey to become a collegiate strength coach. My journey mirrors the very one Chad spoke about, because in my head I had already determined that those were the things that were going to make me a tremendous coach in the Strength and Conditioning industry. 

Bachelor’s Degree 

I wish I could spend more time explaining to you all of the wonderful things I learned in my undergraduate classes, but the only conclusion that makes any sense to me is that I learned how much I do not want to participate in a Yoga or Aerobics Class. I was so enamored with my softball career that regretfully little attention was paid to my classes and academic endeavors. Somehow I graduated Cum Laude. 

There are really only two individuals that I will always remember and have the utmost respect for: Dr. Daniel Olson and Dr. Amanda Salacinski, who were my Anatomy and Exercise Physiology professors, respectively. These are the two classes that deserved not only my respect and attention, but hard work. The only other readings worth noting at this time were Anatomy without a Scalpel by Lon Kilgore, which was recommended by Chad, and Practical Programming for Strength Training 2nd Edition

After my undergrad and softball came to a close I was forced to look at my future more closely and make a decision. Do I somehow force myself into a career as a softball coach, and artificially prolong my “career” by not letting go of the sport that meant so much to me, or do I continue on my journey to becoming a strength and conditioning coach? I was offered an internship in the weight room by the Director of Sports Performance at NIU, Brad Ohrt. Following that internship, I was offered continued work in the weight room while pursuing a Master’s degree. 

So many of the things Chad mentioned were being crossed of the list. Obviously, this meant I was well on my way to being an amazing strength coach. 

Master’s Degree           

At the time I was applying for my graduate degree I was in between two choices: Sports Management and the more rigorous Exercise Physiology and Fitness Leadership degree. I sought the advice of my Ex. Phys. Professor Dr. Sal about my career and which one she thought I should choose to pursue. Her answer was that I could declare Sports Management and blissfully walk through my graduate program to a Master’s Degree. Or I could declare Exercise Physiology and have to work much harder and learn a great deal more. 

I can’t help but laugh at the parts of SS:BBT and PPST where Exercise Science/Physiology departments are criticized for their lack of correlation to strength training, because it's true. I spent hours/days/months nailing down the steps of Glycolysis, the Kreb’s Cycle, the Electron Transport Chain, and Beta Oxidation. I did countless 20+ page lab reports that included data analysis of lactate concentration, SpO2, body temperature, and more. I volunteered for “Cold Labs” to receive extra credit points. I could go on, but I’ll save you some time: I received a Master's Degree diploma and a few letters after my name, yet I was no better a strength coach. I have never once had to tell an athlete about the rate limiting step in glycolysis.   

Certifications 

At the conclusion of my grad school adventure I was enrolled to take two exams. First was the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC) offered by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa), which I guess had stolen the spotlight as the “Gold Standard” from the NSCA (possibly due to the fact the name had the word “Collegiate” in it). This certification’s requirements were harder in that you must do a 9-month internship under a Master Strength Coach (I’ll explain what this is later), complete a 180 question comprehensive exam, and a practical exam in front of 3 Master Coaches at the annual conference. 

The practical portion consisted of a station where you taught the Back Squat, Bench Press, and Power Clean, as well as a station where you defended a 3-week program for a team that was determined a few months prior to the conference. After the conclusion of the testing you wait 6-8 weeks to receive the email on whether or not you passed and officially carry the SCCC. (Quick side note here about this certification: I worked with a guy who is one of the smartest coaches I know, that taught the Low-Bar variation of the squat in the practical – and failed. Draw your own conclusions.) 

After that weekend, I was scheduled to take the CSCS exam, because of course I needed a backup plan if I didn’t pass the SCCC. The test consists of a two-part, four-hour limit, computer-generated exam with immediate feedback on pass-fail. I did it! Whether or not I passed the SCCC, I was officially a certified strength coach because, well, the computer told me I was. 

The spring and summer of 2015 consisted of editing and rewording cover letters to send to every strength department across the country that had openings. Early to Mid-June I finally found out that the Master Strength Coaches I tested with determined that I was worthy of the SCCC, and I could edit my resume and cover letter to include these letters. So according to Chad back in 2009, I had done everything on the list I compiled that could make me a strength coach. 

Now what in the world is that “Master Strength Coach” I mentioned, and how do you become one? Is that the next thing to add to the list? In order to become a Master Strength and Conditioning Coach one must be a full time collegiate/professional strength coach for a minimum of 12 years, and then meet these additional qualifications: Active CSCCa member, hold the SCCC credential, pay a $175 application fee, and attend the CSCCa Conference Dinner/Ceremony. 

Let me break down the difference between what I just obtained and the people who granted it: 12 years and $175. In essence, if I don’t get fired and save up $175, I am a Master Strength Coach. Now, I will not neglect to thank the CSCCa for a couple things: 1) they brought me out to Nashville to test and pass, to have the potential to start my strength coach career, and 2) they introduced me to Jared Nessland and his assistant Tom DiStasio. The second thing changed the course of my career in strength and conditioning. 

Jared Nessland SSC – Head Coach at Starting Strength Denver

A Strength Coach Meets Starting Strength 

Jared Nessland was in need of a coach for his staff at Sacramento State, and it was said he wanted to fill it with a female. I took advantage of that, and was able to get an introduction. Long story short, I was able to convince Jared and his staff that I was right for the job, and he offered it to me before I took off for the airport to head back to Chicago. There was one task that I was to take care of before arriving in Sacramento. I was to read Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd Edition as well as Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd Edition from cover to cover. After completing the “Blue Book,” as people call it, I ran the Novice Linear Progression.  Breaking down the progression and trying it out for myself initially, and then getting on campus at Sacramento State allowed me to receiving direct coaching from two SSCs. 

My conclusion as a question: why is this not a more widely utilized methodology across collegiate athletics departments? These books demonstrate convincingly that very rarely would an athlete surpass the Intermediate level, due to the practice and training hours spent on a specific sport. Their approach to strength training will remain general in comparison to those choosing a strength sport. 

I learned the most in my short career as a collegiate strength coach under the guidance of Jared and Tom. I soaked up as much knowledge as I could before I moved back to NIU as the Olympic Director of Sports Performance. Cool title, huh? I made sure to ask the Director, who at the time was still Brad Ohrt: if I do accept the position would I be able to utilize the Starting Strength methodology with my teams? He told me that the only obstacle would be convincing the sport coaches of my teams. Easy enough, Right?

Tom DiStasio SSC – Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Morgan State University

Why the SSC?           

What hasn’t changed throughout this journey was my desire for one thing: to be a great strength coach. My education gave me the ability to recite bioenergetics and physiology terms, but it didn’t help me correctly teach, analyze, and correct loaded human movement for the increase of strength. My certifications require that every CEU period I accumulate the mandatory number of credits and pay the annual dues. Yet neither of them enhanced my ability to coach on the platform. 

I know coaches who find the easiest and cheapest CEUs, because it is more an annoyance than a learning opportunity. I have learned more about the process and progression of training an individual in these two 300-page books than I have from any other source. Some might say I haven’t tried them all, but when you find the thing that works for everyone, every time, you don’t go searching through more silly bullshit. Biomechanically, you can’t argue against the Starting Strength model of the lifts. 

The Starting Strength Seminar is the most useful tool offered in the strength and conditioning industry, in that the quality of the contact hours you spend learning, coaching, and performing the most useful movement patterns known to increase strength is unmatched. It is a weekend long, 25-contact-hours event that doesn’t just throw the information at you, but requires that you participate in both coaching and performing the 5 basic barbell movements. This doesn’t just include the individuals that have opted-in to be evaluated to become SSCs – every attendee will coach a different person through the lifts to ingrain what you learn in the lecture portion of the lift. 

This instruction method is superior in a way that neither the CSCS or SCCC are able to compete with. Even in the practical portion of the SCCC, I just hit a few talking points with each lift, and I was considered competent without them ever seeing my ability to coach an actual athlete. It didn’t seem lacking at the time, but when you make the comparison the differences are rather stark.           

If you have decided to opt in to the evaluation aspect of the seminar the stakes are obviously higher for you, in that now you will be evaluated on your ability instead of taught to coach each of the lifts. This means that you are expected to be able to get your lifter as close to the movement model possible. You don’t have 6 weeks to walk them through your mobility and stability programs, or your corrective exercise routine to prevent their “knee valgus,” or to get their “glutes to fire” – you have to coach the squat correctly now

If you are successful in the platform evaluation, you get to move to the next step that happens post-seminar: a 2-hour Oral Board with a very prestigious group of examiners armed with questions to test the knowledge and understanding of the Starting Strength Method. Everything from movement patterns to programming will be tested. It is a no-holds-barred review of your ability to convey the why of everything we do. 

A question was posed recently as to why strength standards among college sports aren’t shared and compared. The short answer is that numbers are shared, but they are bullshit numbers. The truth is that you cannot compare what occurs in different schools because no strength coach follows the same model and the data are not equivalent. Most coaches settle for less than full range of motion squats, some don’t deadlift anything but the Trap Bar, because it is “safer” for their tall basketball players. Some coaches only front squat their athletes because “it’s safer for them to dump if they can't perform the rep” – that is an actual quote from a collegiate strength coach. Some use machines only. Some use dancing and light dumbbells 

This is important because the beauty of Starting Strength is that it standardizes the basic barbell strength movements across the population, so that data can be compared

Another glaring reason to choose the SSC at this point in my career was blatantly pointed out to me recently. Over the years that I have had my SCCC and CSCS certifications, never once – not one single time – did anyone contact me for coaching or programming because I had these two “gold standard” certifications. I was able to hold onto a job because the NCAA got a little smarter in 2015 and decided it should probably cover its ass from the liability of hiring non-certified individuals to run a human performance department that relies heavily on pushing the envelope of stress. But in the real world, these certifications are essentially meaningless. 

Starting Strength Coaches are frequently sought after for their knowledge and credibility across the world, to help individuals across all demographics perform the natural loaded human movements we should all be accustomed to. After all, “Humans are not physically normal in the absence of hard physical effort.” Everyone knows that the better friend is the more useful individual that can help you carry the couch and the dresser into the new house, not the one who brings in the candle and the “New Home” picture frame after all the moving is done.           

When I look back at my journey from high school kid to now, I will not say that I don’t regret any moment. I enjoyed the hell out of my college experience, I graduated with two degrees (the first in my family to do so), I met tremendous people I am thankful to have in my life, and I did, at the time, exactly what I wanted to accomplish. But I now know that time was wasted. 

I was fortunate to work with some amazing athletes who wanted to be strong, who trusted me to get them there. I can’t thank them enough because they made me a better coach and even though I am not in the college setting anymore they helped me reach for something more. Also, the CSCCa conference is where I met Jared Nessland SSC, now at Starting Strength Denver, and he introduced me to the method and guided me through my start as an assistant in the field. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that introduction. I am glad he is still okay with me bothering the hell out of him and continuing to learn to this day. The process thus far as a Level 2 at Starting Strength Denver has been nothing short of amazing. The people I have met and their willingness to listen and adjust during their hopefully lifelong journey to be strong is an honor to be a part of. I can't wait to see what happens next. 

Oh, by the way, the rate limiting step of Glycolysis is phosphofructokinase. But really, who gives a shit?

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