April 20, 2015 Damon Hayhow

CISSN Exam Review

I am honored (and perhaps lucky) to be the first person in Australia to be awarded the prestigious CISSN (the Certificate of the International Society of Sports Nutrition) – the ISSN’s premier qualification.

The CISSN is not necessary for Recomp Certification and Sports Nutrition Insurance. The SNS will suffice for that. The CISSN is for the prestige of being included among the Worlds elite in Sports Nutrition. So if you are thinking about sitting the CISSN exam, then let me share my experience, impressions and advice.

False Expectations

Before I sat the CISSN, I sat the easier SNS (Sports Nutrition Specialist) exam. Unfortunately, between moving to a new State, selling my business, setting up Recomp and launching Recomposer I wound up with only 1 week to study the ISSN textbook (The Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements) before the exam!

The textbook is written in the language of academics while I had gotten very comfortable talking in the language of humans! 1 week was nowhere near enough time to ‘learn’ over 400 pages of such technical detail! Virtually all of it was material I had learned in the past. But with no practical application for it, I rarely spoke about it in the foreign language of Academic-ese.

I skim-read 70pages per night and went into the exam certain of absolute failure! As it was I finished and had double checked the 100 question exam within 25mins! Because I’ve been doing this stuff for 20years I would’ve passed the SNS without opening the book at all! To me it was very easy.

Going into the CISSN, I was cockily expecting a longer, broader version of the SNS. Even if it was harder, I figured the SNS was so easy there was room to up the ante several notches and still be comfortable. So I reread the textbook in the 2 weeks leading to the exam. I didnt use the study guides and I didnt bother with any of the questions at the end of the chapters. I figured my existing knowledge would get me through comfortably again. I was WRONG!

The Devastation of Misplaced Expectations

As is the always the case with thinking positive, the CISSN wound up being the most crushingly difficult exam of my life! I came away positive that I’d failed and also having no clue how I could possibly study to pass it on a resit? My immediate recollection was that unless you were deeply absorbed in the academic world of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, there was no way to study for it. The textbook wasn’t enough! It was biblically hard!

Reality Ain’t So Bad

Despite my sureness that I’d failed, I passed. Passing means I got over 70% so it wasn’t a fluke either. In retrospect, Im not sure the CISSN was as hard as I believed? Obviously my expectation that it was going to be easy skewed my perception of it.

Thinking back, I realise now that I spent probably 75% of the exam stressing over 10% of the questions that I really just did not know. But 20 questions in an exam setting can SEEM like 100 questions! Fortunately, I must’ve gotten right at least 140 questions that I knew so well I didn’t need to give a second thought to.

The Impossible 10%

There were a number of questions – maybe 10-20-ish, at a guess – in the CISSN, that are not covered by the textbook at all! There are a few questions that had me so stumped I searched the textbook and the internet after the exam and still couldnt figure out the answers! This is an exam intended for people with a high-level Tertiary education in Exercise or Nutrition Science and you really do need it (or equivalent knowledge) for this exam!

What the CISSN Questions Are Like

The vast majority of the CISSN questions come directly from the full breadth of content of the textbook. 200 questions is not nearly enough to ask everything about everything. So the exam is best described as a random collection of very focussed questions. By that I mean that the questions aren’t so general as to cover the entirety of the content from a high level. The questions are often quite pedantic and focussed on a tiny detail within a topic. This means that you do not get asked everything in the book, but you do need to know absolutely everything in the book in order to be sure you can answer any question!

The CISSN definitely gave me new respect for multi-choice exams because even questions I knew, I began to doubt when I saw the alternative answers. Having said that, the CISSN is not like those terrible multi-choice questions where they give you 2 correct answers and you are supposed to have memorised the exact wording of the textbook to know which is “best”. In the CISSN, the questions are very specific so the answers can be very specific. So you really do need to know the answers with absolute confidence. And that means you really need to know the entire textbook deeply!

What the Questions are About

Probably a quarter of the CISSN questions are similar to the SNS questions and focus on the application of the science; though that is a rough guesstimate from my skewed impressions. I recall noting that the majority of questions seemed to be about the technical science of metabolic processes, at some level. This was quite unlike the questions in the SNS. There still weren’t any blatant rote-learning/memory questions like “what is the full chemical name for alpha-GPC?”. But there were questions like “when calcium is released, what is the protein on the thin filament with which it interacts?” This is a question from the textbook, not the exam. But I quote it here to illustrate the language and type of technicality of questions.

There are a good number of questions that come from the sidebars in the book. You also need to know the take-home message of the studies described within the chapters. Fortunately you do not get asked any irrelevant questions like who wrote which study or what study made a particular finding. Similarly, you do not need to remember the different chemical names for any of the supplements nor do you need to rote learn the dosages or effects of the less common supplements in the huge supplements chapter.

You need to know about creatine, but that has its own chapter. And the only other supplements I recall needing to know are the very popular ones backed by a few studies like Beta Alanine, caffeine, green tea and HMB? Amino acids do get questioned but, again, these are discussed elsewhere in the book. I definitely do not recall any other specific supplements being questioned.

Studying for the CISSN

There are 2 study guides for the CISSN. One is 200 open, non-multi-choice questions (eg Describe how Beta Alanine improves performance). The other is a 500+ page workbook that creates an entire education course assessment out of the textbook. I can definitely see how these study guides would be extremely useful to anybody with little to no background who wanted to learn all about sports nutrition and supplementation.

However, nobody sitting the CISSN should be learning the core material from scratch so I struggle to recommend the study guides. Perhaps I would have found the CISSN much easier if I’d worked through the study guides? The reality is, I still would not have done my CISSN if I’d put it off until I’d work through the study guide. And I know this is the case with dozens of others who have bought textbooks from me and still haven’t even sat their SNS.

I really do not recommend using the questions at the end of the chapters either. Most of the questions are very basic. But there are many questions that simply do not make sense and more than a few with completely wrong answers in the back of the book! Many of the questions do not come from the chapter they follow and more than a few that don’t even come from anywhere in the book! I personally found the questions in the book too frustrating and distracting from learning the chapter content.

So my recommendation with the CISSN is simply not bother sitting if you do not have the recommended background. It is a very technically demanding exam and you really should know your stuff before you tackle the textbook. If you don’t have that background, the SNS is much, MUCH more suitable.

If you do have the background, make sure you read the textbook, cover to cover, at least once – preferably twice – and that you really know the content. If you do, you’ll be fine.


In the end, the CISSN exam – like the SNS – is very fair and the questions are really good. It certainly isnt a cryptic exam thats designed to fail you. It really is a good test of whether you know the material. But you REALLY need to know the material!

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Damon Hayhow

Damon Hayhow has been in the body recomposition (Recomp) and bodybuilding industry for 30 years as a coach, competitor, gym owner, teacher, sponsor, show promoter, judge and MC. He has won National competitions in both powerlifting and bodybuilding, set world records, and coached others to the same success in strength sport and physique competition.

Body recomposition diet and training concepts based on logic and reason; not scientism