A few weeks ago I took the CISSN exam and passed — thank goodness. And I did well, so that’s pretty awesome. I want to share my experience studying for it and lay out what to expect. But first, I will talk a little bit about what the CISSN is. The CISSN is a sports nutrition certification with the International Society of Sports Nutrition. They have two certifications you can choose from: the SNS (sports nutrition specialist) and the CISSN (certified sports nutritionist.) The SNS is their beginner level certification, whereas the CISSN is their advanced version. I chose to get certified with the CISSN for three reasons:

  1. The ISSN as an organization is extremely reputable and respected. The ISSN as a whole is comprised of some of the best scientists and researchers around the world. The CISSN is easily the most “sciencey” sports nutrition certification out there currently.
  2. The CISSN test is notorious for being very difficult. I know many who have failed it, multiple times. So, of course, I wanted to get it. Go big or go home.
  3. I wanted to have accreditation that stood well in academia but also physique sports. CISSN fits the bill here. I work full time at a university as well as train competitors, so this certification allows me to speak on nutrition from both platforms in my career.

I want to dive into preparation for the test and what it entails, but before I get into that I would like to preface this article with a question for you. Why do you want to have the CISSN credential? I ask this, because like I mentioned above, a lot of people fail it. A lot. And it is not cheap. This test is $999. So my biggest word of advice would be to make sure you are taking it for a legitimate reason that will help you in some way. Do not attempt to take this test “just to have the cert.” Definitely don’t take the test without a solid science background either. Also, do not assume if you are a registered dietician that you can simply take it without studying and be fine. That could not be farther from the truth.

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As an RD, how many exercise physiology classes did you take? How many sports nutrition classes did you take? How many supplement classes did you take? Probably one to two if you are lucky or the university you attended was more sport-focused. So don’t get cocky here, RD’s.

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First, buy the book and read the entire thing.

Buy the book and read it front to cover. Start with what you know best first, and what you know least last so you remember it. The book doesn’t read like a traditional textbook. It references a lot of science and studies throughout with specifics. As you are reading, really pay attention to the studies they reference and the target population in those studies. They will definitely ask you questions such as, “During x study, ____________ saw an increase in overall strength…” and you will have to name the population they used in that specific study. Was the population untrained males? Females? Cyclists? You will need to know. Also, read the notes and sub-articles on the side of the main chapters. There is important information here that you will be asked to speak on.

If you don’t have an extremely solid grasp on exercise physiology, you will fail.

Again, keep in mind that this is a nutrition certification based around athletes and training. I have my Master’s in Exercise Physiology and their material was very in-depth even from my lens. Granted, it has been a few years since I graduated, so some material I had forgotten, but even with a solid foundation, I am happy I still read through it all. I would say some major things to focus on here would be metabolism, energy systems, and hormone function. With that being said, even if you are extremely knowledgeable in this area of study, learning their terminology will be important. There were some terms I was not familiar with because they called things by a different name than how I learned it. Remember, this test is internationally based, so not just American terms or standards will be referenced.

Know everything about creatine, caffeine, and amino acids.

Personally, I felt I had a million questions pertaining to these three topics. Luckily, these are a few of my favorite things so studying them was enjoyable and a good refresher. Had I not known much about these three things, in particular, I would have been in trouble. They get into very specific detail here, so don’t assume your knowledge of “creatine makes my muscles strong” is going to be enough. What forms of these are best? When are they best consumed and at what dosages? What is essential and what is non-essential? Are there any side effects? How are they metabolized? Get into the nitty-gritty.

Some questions are incredibly easy, and some are off-the-charts difficult.

One thing that threw me off when taking this test was that I felt like it was a rollercoaster ride. Some questions were a no-brainer to me, and others had me stumped and were super confusing. It would literally go from something like, “What is the primary function of protein?” to, “Okay, let’s talk about mTOR now.” What?! It tripped me up not so much because I didn’t know the material but more so because I felt like my brain was being pulled in multiple directions. So by the time I got to an “easy” question, I would second-guess myself because I just came from a question regarding the Krebs cycle. 

Let go of your current beliefs and learn what they want you to know.

I feel like this is the hardest part for me and a lot of others. We go into an exam or certification with a preconceived notion of the topic at hand or a current philosophy. But like with any test, you need to learn what they want you to know, not what you already know. What you think you know might not be wrong, but it still might not be their specific standard or belief as an organization. For the most part, nothing in the text was completely unfamiliar to me, but it was super helpful to recognize what their focus was, what details they pointed out, and what the ISSN found to be important. You are taking their test, after all, so you better know what they find to be important and essential. Don’t just go off your current knowledge base.

All in all, I definitely thought the test was challenging but felt confident throughout. That being said, I also read the entire book, took notes, bought the study guide, etc. So I prepared as much as I possibly could and didn’t take the test lightly, even with my current background. If you do your due diligence to buckle down and study your ass off, I definitely think the exam is passable. I would just suggest being honest with your current knowledge base before taking the exam and preparing accordingly. Good luck!

Photo courtesy of  Krasimira Nevenova ©