Bow hunting might seem like a primitive skill but that's not slowing down its steady growth in popularity. Part of the surge is due to improvements in technology - this includes not only hunting tech but also the increasing abundance of everyday technology in our lives. Bow hunting has become an escape from all the digital bustle we all deal with daily. With hunting season getting longer and territory shrinking, all of these factors have culminated in a backcountry rush, where bows fill a carnal void in our lives.
And while bow technology is important to a successful hunt, the most important tool you can invest in is your body. You need to be ready for the rigors of hiking and hunting, where building strength and endurance is key. But you also need to reduce your risk of injury. That's the purpose of this article. We'll teach you how to prepare your body to perform at your best and stay injury-free. By combining strength, endurance, and flexibility exercises you can develop a year-round workout plan that will bring the best bowhunter out of you.
Physical Demands and Challenges in Bow Hunting
To prepare for hunting season, your leg muscles need to be prepared to carry anywhere from 50-100+ pounds of pack weight for multiple miles. As for your arms, they need to be strong enough to handle your bow and shoot accurately. And of course, if you have a successful hunt, the upper range of the pack weight you'll need to carry will skyrocket. Taking quarters from a bull elk in addition to its head is neither a small nor light feat - you need to be incredibly strong to haul this out of the backcountry. And that's only covering the strength component of fitness needs, you also need to have an incredibly robust cardio system and range.
Your cardiovascular endurance needs to power you for days on end. On top of that, your joints should be flexible enough to climb over rocks and trees. Make sure your pre-season workouts reflect the challenges that lie ahead.
Preparing Your Body for Bow Hunting Season
Many workout programs build your strength or endurance, but you need something that’s designed for bow hunters; a more functional fitness approach, which is our specialty. Designed by and for mountain athletes, MTNTOUGH is for the dedicated hunter to perform at optimal levels in the backcountry. If that sounds like you, don't skip our 14-day free trial opportunity - you have nothing to lose and everything to gain with it.
We believe that bow hunters and anyone bold enough to take on the backcountry is a serious athlete, and like any other sport, you need workouts that are tailored to your sport. Why on earth would a football player train the same way a marathon runner does? That's the whole reason we've created hunting-specific fitness, and have a wide range of bow-hunting fitness training available.
Conditioning your body for bowhunting is complex because you have to keep a few things in mind. You need to be able to hike, shoot a bow, and stay outdoors for days. Plus, your training has to change depending on the time of year. Your pre-season workouts will look different from what you’re doing in-season, for example.
Why Physical Preparation is Crucial for Bow Hunters
Simply put, preparing your body with strength and endurance training will make your hunt much better. Nuanced within this type of preparation is a vast reduction to your risk of injury. It's not a matter of opinion either - athletes who do more strength training have less risk of injury when they play their sport. That might be because lifting weights strengthens your muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bone.
Hands down, bowhunting in the backcountry is a performance sport. And to perform at your best, you need a blend of strength and endurance.
Strength will improve your hiking speed and allow you to navigate tougher terrain, among many other benefits. Endurance in its simplest capacity allows you to do it for longer. Balancing these two qualities is important in training.
Injury Prevention Strategies for Bow Hunting
The design of your training program should help you avoid injuries, not cause them. Your workouts should strengthen vulnerable areas of your body. For example, the shoulders, lower back, and neck. Strengthening and maintaining flexibility in these joints is important, but there's a fine line between building and overdoing it.
For example, doing shoulder-intensive workouts multiple times per week can cause an overuse injury and ruin your upcoming outing.
Another thing to keep in mind when you’re training is that improper technique can hurt your back or shoulders. Hunting is unpredictable and injuries may occur in the wilderness, but when training, you have far more control over the variables with little to no reason for getting hurt.
The Most Common Injuries Among Bow Hunters
As an archer, your shoulders are your life force. Without healthy shoulders drawing your bow can be weak and painful. The same is true for neck and back pain - with the unfortunate consequence of making it nearly impossible to haul your gear on a hike.
The goal of this section is to help you better understand the root causes of these injuries with the hope that knowledge prevents injury.
This will also help you structure a workout routine if you decide to build a plan rather than use MTNTOUGH. For the added context of this application, it might mean avoiding a shoulder-intensive workout the day before you’re set to go hunting. The same is true for lower-back heavy exercises. So let's first dissect shoulder injuries and then we'll follow up with the neck and back.
Understanding Shoulder Strain from Bow Hunting
If you're an archer, you know better than anyone that you need two healthy shoulders to draw a bow - yet to the outsider they may think you only need a strong shoulder for the arm pulling the bowstring.
The shoulder muscles are pulling in opposite directions, which is where power is harnessed. The arm that pulls the bowstring is using the rear deltoid (shoulder muscle) while the arm holding the bow is using the front, middle, and rear deltoid to hold it in place.
When you draw your bow, you're engaging a ton of different muscles, such as your upper back muscles to pull the bowstring. The arm muscles get involved as well; your bowstring arm is working your bicep, while your arm holding the bow in place is activating your tricep.
Together, your upper body muscles perform most of the work when you’re shooting.
How Bow Hunting Puts Strain on the Shoulders
As you pull the bowstring back, your arm is pulling back in a motion that’s similar to a row. The good thing about this motion is that you’re not rotating the arm very much, which reduces strain on the rotator cuff. However, if you were to jerk your hand higher or lower, the rotation could place excess strain on the rotator cuff.
This means you need strong deltoid to pull the bowstring and hold the bow in place. If they’re not, it’s going to be hard to hold the bow while you aim and keep it steady as you release. Plus, shooting a bow isn't a brute force task either; the strength is needed for control, precision, and a steady shot, not to overpower. If your shoulder muscles are weak your rotator cuffs might need to work harder to compensate, making you vulnerable to injury.
Types of Shoulder Injuries and Their Symptoms
A number of shoulder injuries can occur from overuse or excess strain. Your rotator cuff is vulnerable because the muscles are smaller. There are four rotator cuff muscles and each performs a slightly different action. An injury to any of these muscles or their tendons can cause pain.
Impingement is another common shoulder ailment that causes inflammation at the top of the shoulder. It’s commonly caused by overuse. It's also not unheard of to strain your bicep tendon which inserts into the shoulder - another source of injury. If you have constant pain or discomfort in your shoulder you should definitely get it checked out. It could be the result of any of the ailments above.
Neck Pain and Lower Back Injuries in Bow Hunting
Bowhunters can suffer from neck or back pain at any point. Seemingly benign activities like carrying your pack over uneven terrain, or just hauling a heavy pack can lead to injury. But it doesn't take a marathon hike to injure either area of your body, simply lifting something heavy, like an elk head, can lead to a neck or back injury.
Neck injuries are also possible from lifting weights with improper form. On a hunt, you can hurt your neck from drawing your bow improperly, placing too much strain on the neck. Now, this isn't the purpose of the article by any means, but sleeping on your neck weirdly while camping out can cause serious pain in the backcountry. For recovery from that and other ideas to keep your body in top condition while hunting, be sure to check out our 12 recovery tips while hunting.
Causes and Symptoms
Lower back symptoms include pain in the lower back, hips, and legs. It can cause leg weakness and instability. On top of that, lower back pain can prevent you from carrying your gear. Disc herniations are a common cause of back pain, as well as stress fractures and slippage of a disc.
Neck pain makes it harder to shoot your bow and swivel your head side-to-side. It can be caused by muscle strain, nerve entrapment or inflammation, and herniation or slippage of a disc. In the gym, you can hurt your neck by engaging it too much in a movement like a deadlift or a shoulder press.
Training and Techniques for Injury Prevention
Proper technique is important inside and outside of the gym. Lifting weights improperly leads to injury, as can improperly drawing your bow. The way you carry your pack also matters - a lot. Make sure it’s snug against your back, and use the straps and buckles that come with it to keep it from shifting.
Training year-round is another way to avoid injuries. If you start building strength and then take time off, you can get hurt when you return to training. This is particularly true if you go right back to the weights you were lifting before you stopped.
The Importance of Year-Round Training
The workouts you do for bowhunting should change throughout the year, but you shouldn’t stop training at any point. If you stop training you’ll slowly lose some of the strength and endurance that you worked so hard to build up.
Even if you only work out once per week in-season, you can hold onto the strength gains you’ve made in the pre-season. The same is true for endurance. It might not seem like much, but something is better than nothing. In the off-season, you should have more time to dedicate to making progress in the gym.
Exercises and Stretches for Bow Hunters
Flexibility and strength go hand-in-hand. If you’re strong but stiff you might still have a hard time navigating through the wilderness. If you’re flexible but lacking in strength it can be hard to carry your gear. Not to worry, below are exercises that improve both:
To get stronger for bowhunting, focus on your hip and shoulder strength with these exercises:
- Lateral Step-Ups: Wearing a pack, perform the traditional step-up exercise but from a side angle.
- Renegade Rows: From a push-up position, hold a dumbbell in each hand and row them one at a time.
- Single-Leg Hamstring Curls: Using sliders, lie on your back and slide your foot towards your hips, keeping your butt in the air.
- Weighted Supermans: Perform the classic Superman exercise but with a weight in each hand.
Flexibility and Stretching Exercises
Stretching exercises are perfect for the end of a workout. You can use them to cool down and relax your muscles:
- Behind-the-Head Reach: Take one arm and reach it behind your head, pulling on your elbow with the other hand, to stretch the back of your shoulders.
- Doorway Stretch: Put your hands on either side of a doorway and lean forward to stretch your chest.
- Cross-Legged Toe Touch: Cross one leg in front of the other and thrn reach down to your toes to stretch the hamstrings.
- Figure 4 Stretch: Sit on your couch and cross your ankle over the opposite knee then lean forwards to stretch your hips.
Treating and Recovering from Bow Hunting Injuries
If you’re out on a hunt and get hurt, the first thing you should do is call for help. Emergency beacons are useful if you don’t have cellphone service. Always defer to a medical professional if you don’t know how to treat an injury.
If it's a non-emergency, your crew can help you get off the mountain, but you'll still have to do some of the work.
For lower back pain, try to keep moving. Avoid sitting still if possible or lying down because that can make it worse. If you have neck pain, try not to carry too much weight or ditch your pack if possible. If your shoulders are in pain, it might be best to skip the hunt and go home to rehab them, rather than push through the pain.
Immediate Steps to Take If an Injury Occurs
One of the first things you can do if you’re hurt is to use the RICE method. That stands for rest, ice, compress, and elevate. You might not have ice, but it helps to stop and find a way to elevate the injured area. Carrying a first aid kit with you ensures you’ll have basic medical supplies to perform the quick treatment.
It’s important to recognize when you should stop and call for help. Some injuries can be more severe than they appear. You might even do further damage by forcing yourself to continue on your hunt. If you stop and seek treatment immediately, chances are you can reduce your recovery time.
Recovery and Rehabilitation Process
If you sustained an injury and need to recover to get back to hunting, do your best to develop a plan. That might mean starting with basic rehab exercises to reduce pain and improve your range of motion.
When you’ve healed and can move without much pain it’s time to start prehab exercises that blend rehabilitation and fitness. Finally, you can start slowly regaining strength and endurance to prevent further injury and get back into hunting shape.
All Gain, No Pain
As a backcountry athlete, toughness is in your nature. Your instinct might be to push through the pain of injuries, but that’s often the wrong thing to do. Pain is a sign that something’s wrong, and it’s usually easier to address your injuries when they happen. Or, prevent them by training properly.
Workouts are important for conditioning your body to handle anything that might happen while hunting. Properly-designed workouts will help you avoid injury by strengthening your body and taking care of vulnerable areas like the shoulder and lower back.
The healthier you are going into a hunt, the higher your chance of success. Without pain, you can focus on the important things, like aiming your bow and getting to your destination safely.