NSCA’s Coaching Podcast Season 6, Episode 2: Cristi Bartlett

by Eric McMahon, MEd, CSCS, RSCC*D and Cristi Bartlett, CSCS
Coaching Podcast April 2022


Hear from Cristi Bartlett, Assistant Athletic Director and Director of Olympic Strength and Conditioning at North Carolina State University, about her path through the professional ranks from student to department head. Bartlett talks to NSCA Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager, Eric McMahon, about making moves in the field, seeking opportunities for growth, the current state of strength and conditioning coach salaries, and other areas that can be improved in the profession.

Connect with Cristi on Instagram: @bartlettc42| Find Eric on Instagram: @ericmcmahoncscs or Twitter: @ericmcmahoncscs

Show Notes

“But it's something that if you can see continual progress, that is a pretty good self-check for you that you're doing some things well and making good decisions. And it's not all about salary, sometimes it is about just that quality experience. And in giving up salary for a period of time to get that.” 18:06

“If you never have a seat at the table nobody's going to know what strength coaches do for the program. And so now you get to give some input or some insight as to how we play a role in the department holistically. I think that's important because if you want the industry to grow, you have to have somebody in that seat as a strength and conditioning coach.” 19:50

“Just the overall development of the athlete, the physical piece is one thing. However, I think the mental piece is even bigger. They see that they can push to do what they're actually capable of.” 23:46

“I think it's super important that you actually have some practical experience from applied experience for your own personal stuff too. You cannot tell an athlete to do something that you've never done. I mean as an athlete, I wouldn't respect you at all if you told me to squat and you haven't lifted a bar.” 26:48


[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]

[00:00:04.35] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast season 6, episode 2.

[00:00:09.51] If you never have a seat at the table, nobody's going to know what strength coaches do for the program. And so now you get to give some input or some insight as to how we play a role in the department holistically. And I think that's important because if you want the industry to grow, you have to have somebody in that seat.

[00:00:32.34] This is the NSCA Coaching Podcast, where we talk to strength and conditioning coaches about what you really need to know, but probably didn't learn in school. There's strength and conditioning, and then there's everything else.

[00:00:43.06] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast, I'm Eric McMahon. Today we're joined by Christi Bartlett, the assistant Ad and director of Olympic strength and conditioning at NC State University. Christi, welcome.

[00:00:54.54] Hey, hey. What's going on? Thanks for having me up here.

[00:00:56.97] Yeah, absolutely. Excited to talk to you today, learn a little bit about your background and path to NC State. So if you would, kick us off. Tell us your story. How did you get into the profession?

[00:01:08.94] I will go way back. I guess it kind of started back in-- I was like six years old doing push ups in my living room with my mom and dad. Arm wrestling my mom and doing stuff like that. But like you'll fast forward to high school and I went out for the basketball team, my freshman year and didn't make it.

[00:01:31.87] So I went into the coach's office as an arrogant 13, 14-year-old and I grew up in right outside the Outer Banks in a small rural town, one stoplight. And I thought I was the best thing in the County and obviously I was not.

[00:01:47.60] So I went into the guy's office, I was like I didn't make the team, my name's not on the list. What's the deal? And he's like, basically you're not good enough. And I was like, all right bet. What I'm going to do is come back next year and make the basketball team. And I won't stop there. I'm going to get a Division I scholarship to go play ball. And he's like, yeah, OK.

[00:02:07.52] And so that summer, that entire season all I did was train. I started reading muscle mags, started working out with the football team and the Fieldhouse at the high school, started running, doing a suicides and just trying to get in shape and doing all the things that I needed to do there was. I was on a Slimfast diet with Special K.

[00:02:33.41] I bought the shoes the jump trainer shoes with the platform on the toe. I was like we're getting after it. Playing all the pickup that I can get my hands on. And the next year I came back ended up making the basketball team.

[00:02:46.67] Fast for four years I end up getting a scholarship to go play basketball at Winthrop University. And so while I was there, my then strength coach was Chip Pugh and I'm like, dude you get to hang out in the weight room in like Nike Gear, and sweatpants. And like coach kids all day? He's like yeah, it's much. I was like, I need to do what you do.

[00:03:06.48] And I was like, what do I have to do? And he's like, yeah, I was an athletic training major to start. And they were always trying to persuade me not to do it because of the hours that are involved with athletic training and that major.

[00:03:18.38] He was like, you need to switch your major exercise science. I was like, all right, great. So I did it then I started reading all the things about strength and conditioning and that whole job. My first internship in strength and conditioning was at NC State actually, back in 2004.

[00:03:35.93] So I was here with Charles Stevenson and Chris Moreland. And I asked them, I was like, what do I got? What do I got to do? He's like go get your master's. So I had Winthrop University and then I ended up transferring to Catawba College. I love that whole area of North Carolina, so I was like, I can't leave this area. I need to get my master's here.

[00:03:55.79] So I went to UNC Charlotte, got my master's there in clinical exercise first. And I was also volunteering in their strength and conditioning department and Davidson college's strength conditioning department while I was getting my master's.

[00:04:12.32] And started reading like these elite FTEs when that was a huge thing. And Jim Steele had written a article that-- he wrote an article and I read it and I was like I got to go work for this guy. I have to go work for him. So I emailed him. And I was like, hey, man. This was probably back when I was a sophomore in college in my second year.

[00:04:37.97] And I had told him, hey man, I want to come work with you. He's like, who is this? And what's your experience? I'm like, I'm Christi. I'm playing basketball down here in North Carolina, but I want to be a strength coach. He's like I got an internship available for you for the summer. And I was like, all right, all right cool.

[00:04:54.20] So obviously I didn't do it because I had basketball workouts and all that kind of stuff during undergrad. But I ended up fast forward like four years got my masters, got my degree, and then I started applying for jobs. Applied to everything. Have zero experience, but then turned experience and I'm applying for AD jobs, I'm applying for head jobs. I didn't care what it was. I was like, I got to get into the department.

[00:05:18.91] So I get my first pay job at Morehead State University over in Kentucky. And that was a culture shock if I've ever had one coming from Charlotte. It was a rolled into town that day. And well, first of all, I did an on the phone interview, and then I was like, when do you-- and then the next day he calls he's like you got the job.

[00:05:39.67] And it was a graduate assistant job, but I told him I said, hey man, I just graduated with my master's. I don't need another master's and I really don't want to go to school. And he's like, I'll see if we can turn it to a part-time gig. I was like, great. Calls me, he's like, yeah, we can do that. So from there, I was like when do you need me here. He's like a week and a half.

[00:05:59.65] I pack up all my stuff and I rolled to Kentucky. Made this blonde move and I get there. And there's like it's January in Kentucky. And it's dark out, it's cloudy. The sun is hiding. There's a barren mountain in the background. The school hadn't been updated and I don't know how long.

[00:06:18.16] There was like a bunch of trailer parks and then in between them, were like Meth labs. There were Meth labs everywhere. And I was like, Oh my God, where am I. What am I doing. I call my parents like freaking out and they're like, you're there for a job, you want to coach. It's going to be temporary. You'll move on quickly. Get your experience.

[00:06:38.57] So I was there for a year and then you pin the dream job with the dream coach that I had been admiring from afar. I was like they post it. They opened up a job, I applied for the full time gig, didn't get it. And then he called me, he offered me a part time gig.

[00:06:56.41] And I was like yeah, for sure. I'm yeah, Philadelphia sounds great much better than here. It was like a $10,000 job to a $13,000 job. And I was like mom, dad, I'm moving to Philly. They're like you got a job? I'm like, yeah, yeah. I got a job how much $13,000. It's a raise. I got a $3,000 raise. This is cool.

[00:07:18.31] Jim Steele is there. I got to do this. And they're like OK. Do your thing. So I get to UPenn, and I was there for a year. And I had been applying for jobs and I had been on a few interviews during that year. At the end of it, James Madison calls me and they're like we got a full time Benny no Benny position for you. I was like, great, Yes, making money now. A cool 20,000 a month. I'm like, let's go.

[00:07:49.86] And so I'm happy, and still in the meantime, he's like don't leave. We're going to get you a full time gig here. And I just need a couple of months we're going to get you one full time benefit that we're going to have you sit up. And I was like I got to go with what's in front of me. I can't. I need that on paper.

[00:08:04.76] He's like, don't worry about it. We're going to get you. I was like, all right. I left went to James Madison. I was there for about four months and still calls me. He probably called me three weeks into me being with James Mad. He was like, all right you're coming back. It's in the works. We're going to post it on this date, blah blah blah, blah, blah. I'm like, cool.

[00:08:23.15] And I'm like, man, I've been here for four months so then I go back to UPenn. And I was there for nine years. And then we all get let go like May 2019. And then from there-- what was it? I started, I needed to stay in coaching.

[00:08:41.12] So there was one more college which is about 30 minutes outside of the city in Philly. I started doing a part time strength and conditioning there. And I did that for about two months and then went to Roger and Dino called me from-- he was with the Colts and the Browns for a long time. He's like you want to do the XFL. And I'm like, yeah. Let's go.

[00:09:05.36] Then I get in the XFL. I was up in New York, did that until COVID came and like smashed that all up. It was like game 5 and they were like, we're done. And I said, all right, cool. So then I'm back home on the couch. What's next? What's next?

[00:09:20.75] And I had Tracy Zimmer who I worked with at UPenn. She had a fellowship position with the Atlanta Falcons and she had spoken to a bunch of coaches, obviously there and a couple of higher ups. And there was a Scott Pioli had asked her if she would be interested in taking a job or doing-- knew anybody who would be interested in NFL.

[00:09:45.24] And so she calls me and puts me in contact with Scott. Scott's like there's a position, I can't tell you what team yet. But would you be interested? I'm like hell, yeah. So I was a training camp, intern and off season intern for a little bit. Went out to Nashville, did that and then at the end in the training camp, he was like you want to stay on for the season?

[00:10:07.51] So I stayed on for the season. And then fast forward to like February I start-- they're finishing up interviews for the NC State position here and then we're here now.

[00:10:20.32] That's awesome.

[00:10:21.46] That's the gig.

[00:10:22.69] So just going back through your journey, you started in North Carolina, you threw yourself into the fire with taking any opportunity you could get. You're willing to go really anywhere, wherever opportunity led you, you got.

[00:10:39.22] I don't know a lot of strength coaches that have worked in the XFL or had that experience and that led you to an opportunity to work Tennessee Titans for a little bit. And now you're back in this assistant AD role at NC State.

[00:10:55.84] And so you've really seen a lot of the field. And I think one thing that coaches in this profession all can resonate with is this path of you go to school, you get your bachelor's, you get your master's. It might be a GA position or an internship. And then you seek out a assistant coach job.

[00:11:19.54] That doesn't mean it's a full time job. I remember those early stages like, all I wanted was medical benefits. If something were to happen, I could get-- I didn't have to pay all get out to get like my knee scoped or whatever it would be. Those are the things that go through your head.

[00:11:35.86] You had to be very careful. Like looking both ways. You had to be careful.

[00:11:41.17] Yeah. It's challenging. It speaks to a lot of the challenges. I do love your enthusiasm of just how you tell your story and that big pay raise from 10K to 13K. I think that's so cool. If you would.

[00:11:57.10] Where do you see strength and conditioning education just from your experience but how it leads into career progressions through those roles that we're talking about up to where you're at today. I mean, how well are we preparing coaches for this career and what are some of the areas that maybe we could do a little bit better.

[00:12:20.06] Within the school system, it's not. I graduated in 2008 and then 2000-- 2008 from my undergrad and 2010. So I don't know if it's changed or not. But like most of my information was I didn't get an NSCA textbook. There was none of that and it was all very physiology based. And then all the research studies were endurance based-- off of endurance athletes. So hopefully that's changed.

[00:12:52.63] But you've got places like Springfield College and stuff like that, and you have a bunch of schools now. I remember there was like probably like two or three schools that had a minor in strength and conditioning. I think FIU is one of them. And I was thinking about doing that.

[00:13:09.85] Hopefully, it's gotten better to where there's a bigger piece of the practicality like coming in, knowing how to correct or command a room or learn how to set up flow of a weight room and a workout and stuff like that, hopefully.

[00:13:24.73] But if we're just doing endurance based research studies and things like that, you're completely unprepared coming out of that. I mean, you have no other choice but to do unpaid internships, volunteer stuff.

[00:13:40.41] I think that's a great point. I've seen a lot of growth in education programs, since the early 2000s when we're talking about where-- it was challenging to find education programs that really suited the needs of coaches or aspiring coaches.

[00:14:01.26] And I've said this before where, I didn't have a true mentor in strength and conditioning until well into my first or second job in the field, just because your professors are exercises or physiology professors a lot of times, or endocrinology or one of those subject areas.

[00:14:19.93] So those are the scientific foundations of our field. But I think just thinking of the CCS exam there's a whole other section. There's a whole other applied experiential component to strength and conditioning that maybe well, it's interesting today because of all the online education that's becoming available.

[00:14:41.48] But we do need to be careful in such an applied profession, not to get too far in away from applied experience. Because there's a lot of value to those early internship curriculum that we get exposed to, GA positions where you essentially do get thrown into the fire and you're leading teams and coaching. And a lot of times a good recommendation comes out of those for what becomes your full time position.

[00:15:08.49] It really is obviously a relevant topic for us at the NSCA, and I'm really glad you spoke to that a little bit and your journey with so many stops, both long and short really, really connects with that. I want to ask you about-- I mentioned it before your willingness to go anywhere and seek opportunities.

[00:15:33.91] Is that something that you would give as advice to young coaches that you've got to take the plunge and go for it wherever it takes you because opportunities are hard to come by or what's your what's your advice on that?

[00:15:47.38] No, I definitely think that you need to go. Especially as a young coach out of college, you have no other choice. You don't get to be picky. You don't get to sit there and say, well, I want to be a basketball guy, well, you're not a anything guy right now. So what exactly are you? What do you mean?

[00:16:01.84] And I think as young you have to find your edge. You have to push and go, because as a 20-year-old, you may have-- you're going to have less responsibility than compared to a 30-year-old or 35-year-old who may be married, having kids and stuff like that.

[00:16:15.50] So find out where you can push. I can work 80 hours a week and then live off of tuna and saltine crackers and stuff like that for-- I can do that for a solid year. Be good to go. You doing that as a grown man or a grown woman with a husband or a wife, that may not fly. You know what I'm saying? You've got other things you have to take into account.

[00:16:39.34] But yeah. I mean, there's a couple of ways that you're probably going to get a job. You're going to get grandfathered in. You intern, you're part time, then your full time in that organization. Or you're bouncing around and going from here to there, to here for short bouts or long bouts like me.

[00:16:56.38] There's probably a couple other ways, but I think it's necessary that you seize the opportunity and go and go and expect nothing. Expect nothing. You're thinking you're going to go and get a $30,000 job. This pay sucks. The pay sucks. I mean, $10,000 grand it. I'm in the middle of Kentucky and it was 10 grand. I did not have a problem whatsoever with money. I live like a queen so it wasn't.

[00:17:24.43] I was able to go buy like chicken breast instead of tuna. You know what I'm saying? So it just kind of depends. The pay sucks, but it's going somewhere. You should find joy in that process of where you're at and to where you're going.

[00:17:41.92] Yeah, I think that's a great perspective. You find your situation wherever you start. Whether, you start at 5k 10k, 20k. You want your situation to continually get better and it's never going to improve at the rate you want it to especially when you're looking at salary in pretty much any profession, that's probably the case.

[00:18:06.40] But it's something that if you can see continual progress, that is a pretty good self-check for you that you're doing some things well and making good decisions. And it's not all about salary, sometimes it is about just that quality experience. And in giving up salary for a period of time to get that.

[00:18:26.17] I like that you spoke to really mentorship and just seeking out people that you wanted to work with. That you saw value and in seeking out and working with them. That's another piece of this mentorship. And I want to bridge that to what your current role is now with this assistant AD title.

[00:18:50.56] And this is obviously new. I think a lot of us could speak to what a head strength and conditioning coach job description might be like. But adding the assistant ad element to it, what are the additional layers that comes with and just where do you see that position in the field right now.

[00:19:12.56] Well, here so head strength and then slash assistant AD. We have seven full time people on staff. So oversee these guys and then we have over 600 athletes. And so just overseeing the Department in that sense. As far as an assistant AD, you just-- you're obviously head strength and the conditioning coaches get to have those. You're managing the facility the budget and things of that nature.

[00:19:39.67] But as an assistant AD, you get to be a part of those higher level meetings. You're looking at growth of the university as a whole. You get to be a part of those. You have a seat at the table to give your input, because obviously nobody really knows. If you never have a seat at the table nobody's going to know what strength coaches do for the program.

[00:20:03.59] And so now you get to give some input or some insight as to how we play a role in the department holistically. And I think that's important because if you want the industry to grow, you have to have somebody in that seat as a strength and conditioning coach.

[00:20:26.52] You know it makes me think there was a time in this field where you develop your staff and your program. Maybe it's a football staff, traditionally where well staff gets let go now we're going to take the program to another university and just embed that there.

[00:20:44.16] Whereas what you're talking about is in training, what you're doing in the weight room into the university culture. And part of the university as a whole is that an area we can be better as a field of realizing our roles at our institutions?

[00:21:01.54] I think at small colleges it's pretty evident where you see coach/instructors or teaching a few courses and things like that. But at the top Division I level, do you see that as an area for improvement?

[00:21:17.96] Yeah. I mean, I guess it would depend on the school that you're at. Depending on how ingrained it is or how integrated the university is with the athletics. And then you have your certain pods within there. But I think that the more that everybody's involved with the student athletes, the better off that we can all be. So yeah, there can be improvement there.

[00:21:43.76] I think that's a tough question. And I might have put you on the spot a little bit with that one, but I think it is something to think about as we see these more leadership level positions. You talk about having a seat at the table and it really is.

[00:21:58.79] When I have these conversations on the podcast a lot of it goes back to having value as a strength and conditioning coach, but also being able to communicate and show that value to our institutions. And just by being involved, it really leverages how impactful we can be as strength and conditioning professionals.

[00:22:21.13] And how that skill set can scale or translate across into other areas to support the institution as a whole. A common example that would be recruiting of athletes. And there's obviously academic advisement that goes on with athletes as well, and just getting a bigger picture view of where athletes are at within the program. Can set them up for success. So things don't come and sneak up on you eligibility wise.

[00:22:51.22] It's just something I think about and I think with these new rules, there's definitely a conversation there. And we may not be there yet, but I appreciate you taking a stab at that one. I had to laugh. We've talked about tuna, saltines, jump shoes. We had Slimfast shakes.

[00:23:13.84] The strength and conditioning profession, we all have a lot of fun stories and things that kind of made us who we are. Like I said, I really like your energy and enthusiasm towards the profession. And it's exciting to just hear that, because I think sometimes we can get caught up in the negative. I just want to ask you, what do you love about this profession. And what's the biggest area that you'd like to see improve in the next few years?

[00:23:46.59] Just the overall development of the athlete, the physical piece is one thing. However, I think the mental piece is even bigger. They see that they can push to do what they're actually capable of. And having a kid come in on week 1 as a freshman, and you can tell body language is like they're a little bit scared. They're like I've never lifted before things like that. And then by week 8, they come in chest is out a little bit more.

[00:24:14.76] The girls are excited like, oh, I dead-lift it 80 kilos a day or whatever that is. They just need a lot. Of I love the encouragement piece of it. It's just, you can do way more than what you think you can do. Way more than what you think you can do.

[00:24:31.30] You're not quite who you could be yet and that's good because you always have something to build on. That's the best part of the job. The best part. And I think that the lifting stuff, I love it. I love the lifting piece. Because after they leave college, I always tell them I said you guys some of them they end up like oh, I'm so annoyed with lifting. They I come to lift and I'm like--

[00:24:56.31] So when you're 35, and you're 36 years old, 30 years old, and you get you're like oh, wow. I used to be a lot more in shape. I'm going to get an email, that says, hey coach I think it's time for me to start lifting again.

[00:25:10.77] And I'm going to say, I'm just going to write back. I told you so. I told you you'd be back. You took like a little hiatus and all this. But teaching them actually processes when how you build programs and how you lift. And you can take that with you for the rest of your life. So that's a big piece too.

[00:25:27.63] Yeah, I agree with that 100%. And on the other side of that question, what's the biggest area our profession can improve? What would you like to see in the next few years?

[00:25:39.66] That's a good question. I'd like to see--

[00:25:43.11] It might go back to that 10k or 13k that you were making.

[00:25:46.26] Yeah. I was about to say, it might be a little short come in there would be like pay for those entry level jobs. But it's OK. In my mind it's OK that if your first job or your first year you're working two jobs and you're making 15k from one of them. It's OK. It's not going to be forever, I promise you it's only temporary unless you just get complacent.

[00:26:09.19] But I think some of these entry level jobs need to be a little bit more. A little bit more, a little bit more. They need to be able to live. It's hard to live off a $15,000 really, really, really hard. You can do it, but it's really difficult.

[00:26:30.11] I also think that with sports science and all that, making a big splash and strength and conditioning, now I think that we should make sure that if you're going to have a sports science coach in here coaching, that they're not just locked in behind a computer doing all the data.

[00:26:48.67] I think it's super important that you actually have some practical experience from applied experience for your own personal stuff to-- you can't tell an athlete to do something that you've never done. I mean as an athlete, I wouldn't respect you at all if you told me to squat and you haven't lifted a bar.

[00:27:05.23] You barely work out and things like that. But you can tell me why my load is too high and all this kind of stuff. But I just think that we can't be-- we can't shift to where we're all. A lot of us are a bunch of theorists.

[00:27:20.69] We can recite how things is going to affect the body, how certain workloads are going to do this. How certain workouts are going to play out, and then you've never done anything. So I hope that it doesn't shift to that far.

[00:27:35.96] Yeah. I see a lot of layers to that onion, where you have more knowledge and more information being delivered from the weight room setting, from the sports science, performance science setting.

[00:27:52.61] But I've said before, coaches are always the delivery mechanism of this information. And maybe on a higher level, it's practitioners being someone. If you're going to influence training, if you're going to instruct athletes, if you're going to oversee athletes using technology, you really should have a strong practitioner understanding of that weight room or field environment where you are.

[00:28:24.75] So the experiential aspect, especially when you're coming in from a highly analytical or research background, that doesn't mean they can't be great practitioners too. But just as coaches need to upskill in research and technology at this time, those professionals need to upskill into coaching science, coaching education instructional practices.

[00:28:48.35] In medicine it's always the bedside manner, well that's something coaches do pretty well for the most part. But that's not the reputation necessarily coming from academia and maybe the technology fields that are entering the field. So it is expanding.

[00:29:07.58] I know at the NSCA this is an area that we talk about a lot in terms of continuing education. How are we going to expand our pool of continuing education opportunities into some of these new spaces. What extends beyond where we're currently at with strength and conditioning.

[00:29:26.38] I think that's a great place to leave it today with just a lot to think about around the integration of strength and conditioning, sports science, your progression from-- all the way up through into a senior leadership role within your department. Christi, I really appreciate you taking the time today.

[00:29:45.56] Oh, thank you for having me. I've had fun.

[00:29:48.37] Yeah. So for anyone listening in who wants to reach out, what's the best way to do that?

[00:29:54.45] You can check me out on Facebook, just Christi Bartlett and then my Instagram handle is Bartlettc42. And then if you want to email me, it's on the NC State website.

[00:30:06.08] Great. Christi Bartlett, Assistant AD, director of Olympic strength and conditioning at NC State. Great conversation. Really enjoyed this today. To everyone listening in, thank you. We'd also like to thank Sauna exercise equipment. We appreciate their support.

[00:30:22.01] Hi. This is 2022 NSCA professional strength and conditioning coach of the year Dan Dalrymple. Thanks for listening to the NSCA Coaching Podcast, the top resource to hear relevant stories and insights from great coaches like you.

[00:30:34.88] To always get the latest episodes delivered right to your phone or computer, subscribe to on iTunes or look up the NSCA Coaching Podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Also go to NSCA.com to join the NSCA at an upcoming conference or clinic.

[00:30:54.75] This was the NSCA Coaching Podcast. The National Strength and Conditioning Association was founded in 1978 by strength and conditioning coaches to share information, resources, and help advance the profession. Serving coaches for over 40 years, the NSCA is the trusted source for strength and conditioning professionals. Be sure to join us next time.

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Eric L. McMahon, MEd, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D, RSCC*E

NSCA Headquarters

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Eric McMahon is the Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager at the NSCA Headquarters in Colorado Springs. He joined the NSCA Staff in 2020 with ove ...

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Cristi S. Bartlett, CSCS

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