October 28, 2011 Damon Hayhow

UPDATED: Everything you need to know about the ISSN SNS Exam


The Sports Nutrition Specialist (SNS) exam is one of the three assessments for Recomp Certification; the only Personal Trainer qualification in Australia that leads to full insurance for prescribing body recompositioning diets and training to both competitive bodybuilders and the general public. And one of the only PT qualifications that is based purely on proving practical competence; not for paying $1000’s to sit in a classroom.

The SNS qualification is the entry-level certificate from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). It was designed specifically for Personal Trainers and Coaches who do not have a related degree qualification.

Note that the SNS is not an insurable qualification in of itself. It is only Recomp Certification that expands the base Recomp PT insurance to also cover diets.

Also note that any qualified Personal Trainer in Australia can register with Recomp and take out the only PT insurance that covers bodybuilding coaching, in both competitors and the general public. No other PT insurance covers bodybuilding coaching in the general public.

Getting SNS Certified

Anybody can sit the SNS exam, any time, online.

The SNS Certification is awarded simply for achieving 70% or greater in an online, 120 multi-choice question exam.

There is no course, because the SNS was designed to recognise the existing expertise of people who have already studied, used and applied sports nutrition. Beware of any organisation running a course to pass the SNS.

If you do not have a background using sports nutrition in yourself and/or your clients, then the ISSN is not for you; yet. You will need to do some study and develop some experience first.

Very occasionally I get a large discount from the ISSN for a group of PT’s to sit the exam together. To have your name added to the list, please contact Recomp.

How to Study for the SNS

The content of the SNS exam is self-studied from one (or all) of the ISSN’s textbooks, plus, importantly, the official ISSN Position Stands.

The SNS exam tests understanding of how to APPLY the latest science described in the textbook. But there is not a single question in the SNS requiring the memorization of biochemical processes, names of chemicals or details about research studies. The questions are not cryptically designed to trick, confuse or baffle. The SNS questions are the sorts of things a good Sports Nutritionist should know in order to correctly advise their clients on what to do. For any Trainer who has been competently advising their clients on diet, the SNS is not hard.

Which Textbook(s)?

Of the textbooks, I personally recommend the original ISSN Textbook: the Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplementation (ESNS). It is a fantastic reference book, logically broken down into sections, chapters, sub-sections and side-bars, with practice questions and references at the end of each chapter. The content is generally very academic and technical in it’s wording. But the way it is broken down into bite size pieces makes study manageable to anyone with a decent existing knowledge of sports nutrition

I personally find the latest book (Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements) to be virtually unreadable! Unlike the ESNS, it basically treats sports nutrition as a single topic. It is like the worst novel you have ever read, needing to be read linearly from start to finish. Looking up specific topics is virtually impossible, because discussion of any topic is typically spread throughout the book, and each mention is buried in long pages of text on other topics.

The ISSN states that either book can be used to study for the SNS, as the general physiological information is the same. Whichever book you use, make sure to study the official ISSN Position Stands for the latest important information.

The Essentials of Sports Nutrition & Supplementation Textbook

Despite being significantly more readable than the new textbook (Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements), the average coach studying for the SNS will find  the ESNS textbook overwhelmingly technical! So much that many competent coaches have been scared off sitting the SNS when they actually had more than enough knowledge to pass.

The thing is, the ESNS textbook was written for the much, much more technical and difficult CISSN exam; not the SNS! And this is why the textbook goes so far beyond the depth required for the SNS.

The ESNS textbook is divided into 5 sections. The first 2 sections cover Exercise Science and are relevant only to the (significantly harder) CISSN exam; but not to the SNS. Only the last 3 sections of the book need to be studied for the SNS. They cover Sports Nutrition, Supplementation and Special Topics.

The 5 sections of the ESNS are further divided into chapters and at the end of every chapter are 30 multi-choice questions. Again, these questions are designed to help with studying for the CISSN; not the SNS. Though a few of the easier chapter-end questions reappear in the SNS, mostly they are much more difficult (and confusing) than the questions in the SNS. In some cases, the questions at the end of the chapter cannot be answered from the chapter in which they appear. And in a few cases, the questions cannot be answered from anywhere in the textbook! It is further proof of the ISSN’s expectation of pre-existing knowledge before you sit the CISSN.


If you follow my recommendations below you will have barely 200 pages of textbook to read; which is only 15 pages per day for 2 weeks. That is only 30-45 minutes per day of reading.

Given that there are only 120 questions in the exam, there is barely more than one question per 2 pages of relevant content. Obviously this leaves no room for highly technical questions or irrelevant questions to pad out the exam. It really is a very fair exam that any good coach with an interest in sports nutrition will not find hard.

My personal recommendations for a busy coach who understands nutrition and wants to do the minimum study to pass the SNS exam are:

  1. Read the Official ISSN Position Stands
  2. Ignore the entire first 2 sections of the book (the first 237 pages). There are no questions from them in the SNS (assuming you know your muscle fibre types).
  3. Ignore the study-guides. They are aimed at developing the deep technical understanding required for the CISSN but are way beyond the SNS.
  4. Ignore the almost 100 pages of references. Again, it is a tremendous resource to have available; but there are no questions in the exam about study names or their authors.
  5. Ignore the almost 100 pages of the Supplements section that describes the biochemistry behind numerous supplement ingredients. It makes an exceptionally good reference guide. But for the purposes of the exam, you do not need to memorise all the different names, doses and chemical processes described.
  6. Do not dwell on the complex biochemistry or chemical pronunciations. Focus on understanding the outcomes and the relevant action points – if there are any – as that is what is being tested.
  7. Do not dwell on the America-centric content.
  8. Make sure to read the Sidebars! Not only are they fascinating; many of the questions come from the sidebars.
  9. Make sure you know the ratios/doses of carbs, proteins, fluids, creatine, beta alanine and their timings that studies have shown most effective for athletic performance. These are the sorts of practical prescription issues that you do need to know.
  10. Possibly ignore the questions at the end of the chapters. They seem to do more to sap confidence in sitting the SNS than help understanding. They are mostly far more difficult than the exam itself.
  11. Do not put the exam off for several months. The people who should be sitting the SNS already advise people on nutrition and already understand the principles questioned in the exam. Spending more than 4 weeks studying the textbook will only result in getting bogged down in the scary biochemistry you do NOT need to know. If you need to learn nutrition from scratch then you should not be sitting the exam. You probably need to get some experience and practice dieting for your own sport or body composition before doing so.

Specific Recommendations

  1. Most of the SNS is concerned with the basics of nutrition and nutrition for athletes, broadly covered by chapters 11-17 of the ESNS. Read those chapters particularly thoroughly.
  2. The next largest portion of the SNS is concerned with pre/post workout nutrition. So make sure to know chapters 27 and 28 very well.
  3. Another significant portion of the exam can best be described as basic physiology that should be known by any PT anyway (ie basics of energy systems and muscle fibre types). These are not so much part of the ESNS but are basic Cert 3 Fitness.
  4. There are several questions on the most prominent and researched supplement ingredients (eg creatine, hmb, beta alanine and anything in the latest ISSN Position Stands). So, know chapter 20 and the Position Stands well too.
  5. A few questions come from the remaining chapters, but not chapters 1-10; and most of the supplements in chapter 22 can be ignored, except the more popular ones mentioned in point 4.

Personal Feelings

Having sat and passed both the SNS and CISSN exams, I cannot overstate the difference in difficulty between the two. The SNS is basic. The CISSN is biblically hard! Having passed both exams I can also reveal that I could not easily answer many of the questions in the textbook itself. Some were so obscure I failed to find the answers even by searching the Internet! So do not be put off by the questions in the textbook.

Final Words

The SNS is a fair test of relevant knowledge. An inexperienced Personal Trainer who has only been exposed to the nutrition taught in Cert 4 will struggle tremendously with the content and test. Even a degree-qualified dietician would probably not pass without study as the latest science discussed in the ISSN Position Stands contradicts university curriculums. In fact, just over 25% of the people I have put through the exam have failed! But for any experienced trainer who has, for example, prepared figure or bodybuilding athletes for competition will find the textbook interesting and the exam simple.

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.

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