Surgeons are famous for their steady hands, but archers require a zen-like stillness to hit their targets. Part of that calm comes from breathing and mental strength. Another factor is balance. Perhaps nothing is more important than strong muscles that can pull against the force of the bow and hold it in place with complete control.
Strengthening your back, arm, shoulder, and core muscles will make your draw smooth and steady. Target these muscles in your workouts to make the muscles bigger and stronger. Exercises like rows, hammer curls, and shoulder raises will strengthen your draw and help you hunt.
Most athletes want to spend the bulk of their spare time strengthening their abilities by practicing their sport. Shooting arrow after arrow will make you better in many ways, but like any athlete, dedicating time to the gym will pay dividends in your next hunt.
This article is meant for all bow hunters - from those planning their first trip into the backcountry to those who've lost count. Much like mastering any skill in life, it begins with deeply understanding the intricacies of how it functions. So we'll start by looking at how the muscles are used during a drawing motion and how they work together. Then we'll single them out and give you ideas on how to strengthen them, including how to structure your workouts to maximize progress. Whether you're looking for the foundations of draw strength or a simple refresher, this guide will lead you to improved accuracy and range for your next outing.
The Importance of Draw Strength
Many factors determine how your arrow will fly. The wind, the strength of your bow, your arrow's spine, your form, etc. - and they all matter. But even if those are in perfect condition, you need the strength of your upper body to maximize the potential of every factor.
Strength Improves Accuracy
It's so important that Olympic recurve archers rank draw strength as one of the top three factors for improving accuracy. Stronger athletes scored higher, on average, in competition. Other factors included the amount of sway after shooting and clicker reaction time.
In other words, if draw strength matters to Olympic archers aiming for a gold ring, then it certainly matters to mountain athletes aiming for a bull's boiler room. Accuracy isn’t the only thing you need strength for though.
Strength to Handle the Right Equipment
You need strength for obvious reasons - to lift heavier things. Handling heavier bows requires stronger muscles, and heavier bows are necessary for hunting bigger game. For deer, the minimum is about 40 pounds of draw weight. For elk, that number is closer to 50 thanks to incredibly thick layers of muscle and fat, that can absorb weaker shots and protect the chest cavity. To handle a bow with heavier draw weight while maintaining accuracy, you need to strengthen a few key upper body muscles.
Strength Increases Range
Drawing back the string increases tension and power, the further you draw the further the arrow will travel. This requires some horsepower. Going from a distance of 25 meters to 50 with your shot significantly increases the amount of work your muscles need to do, so if you want to shoot at medium to long range, hit the weights.
Let's take one quick step back and level set on draw strength. Sure, you most likely have an idea of what it means already, but many new hunters use it interchangeably with similar terms - so let's fix that real quick.
What Is Draw Strength?
Draw strength is the human element of archery. It’s your ability to pull on the bow using the strength in your arms and back, not a measure of how hard the bow is to draw. Greater draw strength improves both range and accuracy. Drawing a bow requires incrementally more strength as you pull further.
To have a strong draw, you need to train the proper muscles. Lifting weights is helpful, but if you train the wrong muscles, it won’t help. Targeting the back, biceps, and obliques with your workout will increase draw strength. Those are the muscles responsible for pulling the bowstring.
Bodyweight exercises can be helpful, and may even be enough if you choose the right ones. For example, pull-ups and inverted rows work the back and biceps. But weight training is the gold standard for building draw strength, thanks to the wider variety of exercises and the ability to select weights. Ideally, your workouts would be flexible enough to your schedule to help you consistently build your hunting fitness all year, meaning you can dip into bodyweight exercises when you can't make it to the gym.
What Is Draw Weight, and How Does It Affect Draw Strength?
Draw weight is the amount of force your string exerts on the arrow upon release; it’s the amount of pressure exerted on your fingers as you draw. When you pull the string back further, the draw weight increases, requiring greater draw strength to pull.
As you draw the bow, the arms bend. The stiffness of the bow determines how much resistance the arms have as you pull them. More stiffness means more force is required to pull the string. For each inch that you draw the bow, the arms exert more force in the opposite direction, resisting your pull.
The bow is then held in a very tense position, with the string drawn back, waiting to be released. Upon release, it snaps back to its original position to fire the arrow. Compound bows use a pulley system to help you exert more force with less strength, but you still need to draw the string and control the bow until you can make an accurate shot.
Draw Strength and Performance
Higher draw weight requires more draw strength. For example, if your bow has a draw weight of 65 pounds, you’ll need roughly 65 pounds of force to draw the string to its full length. This is different depending on the person because longer arms mean more distance is required to pull. Another factor is how hard you want to shoot.
When you shoot a bow with a higher draw weight, the arrow released will travel faster and further. Bows can shoot up to hundreds of yards. You’ll also need more strength to shoot heavier bows with accuracy.
In fact, you should avoid using a bow with too much draw weight if you don’t have the strength required to properly aim it. When hunting, you need to shoot accurately to avoid maiming the animal. That means if you want to shoot long-range, you’ll need enough strength to properly handle a bow with more draw weight.
Draw Strength Is About Control, Not Max Power
Building your muscles to increase draw strength is less about how powerful you are and more about how you can control your power.
It's the ability to draw to the perfect point rather than going maximum every time. This will keep you steady, which is the key to unlocking draw strength. It's a bit like a pitcher in baseball. The aces have a wider arsenal of pitches than 100mph fastballs. That may be one in the mix, but they'll also have a few solid pitches that use different techniques and allow for better placement and varying speeds to do so. They need the strength to throw a fastball, but they need to be able to control that strength to achieve all the other pitches that make them great.
The Muscles Involved in Drawing a Bow: An In-Depth Look
Understanding which muscles you’re using to draw a bow can help you prioritize the correct exercises and movements in the gym. This is functional fitness at its best.
Your body activates several muscles to draw a bow, but it does so at varying degrees. There are bigger muscles that produce most of the force and smaller muscles that play a stabilizing role. Let's dig into both, then examine how they work in unison to draw a bow.
What Muscles Do You Use to Draw a Bow?
You use your back, shoulder, arm, and core muscles to draw a bow. Since each arm performs a different action, the muscles on either side of your body work differently. Primary muscles, like the latissimus dorsi, do most of the work. Smaller muscles are still important but considered secondary.
Primary muscles tend to be bigger muscles that exert more force but are less fine-tuned. They produce a lot of force but don’t provide much stability to your joints. Secondary muscles stabilize the force of the major muscles and are used to provide security to joints.
Anatomy and physiology might make your eyes glaze over, but if you're someone short on time (like everyone else) then you need to maximize your time in the gym. If you want to build draw strength, learning the muscles involved and how they work together to get the job done is the best way to approach it. Let's get started.
Primary Muscles Involved in Drawing a Bow
One of the largest muscles in your upper body, the latissimus dorsi (lats), helps you draw a bow. This muscle is on either side of your back, running from your lower back up to your shoulder. It helps you pull with either arm, as well as twist your body.
Other muscles used in the back include the rhomboids, teres major, and trapezius, which collectively help you pull your arm and shoulder blade back. In your shoulders, the anterior and medial deltoid stabilize the arm that holds the bow. The arm that draws back uses the posterior deltoid.
Your arm muscles also work, but in different directions. Your forearms have to be strong to both hold the string and grip the bow in the other hand. Your biceps work to pull the string back, and your triceps help you hold the bow with the other arm. Don’t forget about the core muscles either, like the obliques, which cause your torso to rotate and remain steady as you pull.
Secondary Muscles Involved in Drawing a Bow
The rotator cuff muscles help stabilize both shoulders as you draw the bow. They’re known as the SITS muscles, which is an acronym for their names (subscapularis, infraspinatus, teres minor, supraspinatus - you can see why they use an acronym).
The rotator cuff is a perfect example of stabilizer muscles, which holds your shoulder joint in place and help it move smoothly. Another example of stabilizers are the muscles in your lower back that give your spine stability, which allows your stronger core muscles to move the trunk at will.
Don forget about your hand muscles - they're small but pivotal to fine motor control, which is the lynchpin to controlling the string as you draw, improving your aim, and creating a clean release.
How the Muscles Work Together to Draw a Bow
Primary and secondary muscles work together to control and guide the bow. Each side of your body does its job to steady the bow and string while you line up your shot. The overall strength of these muscles is critically important for hunting performance.
The unsung hero of the whole anatomical equation is balance, which is the result of many muscles coordinating together to keep you steady. While strength is more important than balance for a good shot, you need all of your muscles to communicate properly to steady your bow.
You now know how your body draws a bow, let's look at several exercises to strengthen your primary and secondary muscles simultaneously.
How to Strengthen the Muscles Used in Drawing a Bow
As you'd imagine, there are hundreds of exercises to help you get stronger and improve your bow draw. But we like the following exercises because of their dual ability to work primary and secondary muscles across your back, arms, and core. This is ideal for building strength, balance, and stability efficiently and effectively.
1. DB Bent-Over Row - 3-Point Stance
Few exercises can mimic the drawing of a bow like a bent-over row in a 3-point stance. To do this exercise you’ll need a supporting arm that stabilizes, similar to the arm that holds the bow, and another arm that pulls, which mimics the drawing of a bow. Plus, you’ll use your core to stabilize and rotate your body.
- Step 1: Grab a dumbbell, face perpendicular to a bench, and put the weight on the ground between your feet
- Step 2: Set your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and walk them back slightly
- Step 3: Put your left hand on the bench and lean forward, bringing your heels off the ground
- Step 4: Reach down with your right hand and grab the dumbbell, lifting it a few inches off the ground
- Step 5: Flatten your spine, then lift the weight with your right arm until the dumbbell touches your ribcage
- Step 6: Lower the weight back towards the ground until your arm is straight to complete one rep
Check out the second exercise in the video above for a TRX alternative to the dumbbell bent-over row (3-point stance). If you have access to TRX, give both of the movements in the video a shot - they're exercises every bowhunter should be doing.
This movement works your back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius muscles. Those are the big, bow-drawing muscles. It also uses the biceps to pull the weight up, and the obliques to stabilize and slightly twist the spine.
2. Renegade Row
This advanced row variation uses the push-up position to increase the overall intensity of the movement. It puts more pressure on the supporting arm than the 3-point stance row, ideal for any archer since drawing a bow requires strength in both arms. Plus, it works your arms in opposite directions, which mimics the drawing of a bow.
- Step 1: Get into a push-up position, holding a dumbbell in each hand
- Step 2: Optionally, you can start this movement with a push-up
- Step 3: Lift one hand up, holding the dumbbell, until your wrist hits your rib cage on the same side
- Step 4: As you lift the weight, avoid twisting your hips
- Step 5: Return the weight to the ground, then lift the other hand
- Step 6: Return the other hand to the ground to complete one rep
This movement might not look similar to the 3-point row, but it works similar muscles. The arm that lifts the weight works the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major, and trapezius. It also works the biceps.
The arm on the ground works the front and middle deltoid, plus the chest muscle. It also works the triceps. As you lift your body becomes unbalanced, and you need to stabilize your core to prevent rotation. That means your obliques will work to steady your body.
3. Pack Hammer Curls
While curls are typically thought of as an aesthetically-driven exercise, they’re actually quite useful for archers. We like the functional and practical component of using a pack, but feel free to substitute dumbbells for your hammer curls. The curl motion has some similarities to the drawing of a bow, and the bicep often needs specialized attention to get stronger since most movements don’t target it directly. Aside from strengthening your bicep, hammer curls will improve your wrist stability and strengthen your grip.
- Step 1: Start by connecting the chest strap on your pack. Grip one strap in each hand while standing, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. Your grip should have your palms facing each other
- Step 2: While keeping your upper arms stable and wrists directly in line with your forearms, bend at the elbow and lift your lower arms toward your shoulders
- Step 3: As you lift, avoid swinging the rest of your arm forward
- Step 4: Once the weight reaches shoulder height, hold it briefly, then lower it to return to your starting position
- Step 5: Repeat
You know that hammer curls target your biceps, but did you know they engage a few other muscles as well? Your forearm muscles, specifically the brachioradialis, are also working in this movement, as well as the brachialis (located near your elbow joint).
4. Standing Lateral Raises
Your shoulders need to be strong to hold the bow steady as you draw the string. This movement isolates the shoulder muscle in a motion that’s similar to drawing the bow.
- Step 1: Start standing with a dumbbell in each hand
- Step 2: Your hands should be by your sides, with your palms facing your body
- Step 3: With your elbows slightly bent, lift your arms out to the side
- Step 4: Continue to lift your arms until they’re parallel to the ground
- Step 5: Lower your arms back to your sides to complete one rep
This exercise is rather specific and targets the deltoid muscle (shoulder). It’s mainly focused on the middle deltoid, but also slightly works the front and rear portion of the shoulder. You’ll also strengthen some of the shoulder muscles, particularly the supraspinatus, although that’s not the main goal of the exercise.
How Often Should I Work Out Before Hunting Season?
You should begin training at least 12 weeks before the season starts, or before your first planned trip. Aim for at least 3 workouts per week, two strength and one cardio. You can do 4 or 5 workouts per week as well if you have the time. Avoid exercising every day because your body needs to rest.
In a perfect world, you don’t need to worry about getting in shape for hunting season because you’re always training properly. Staying physically prepared is the best strategy because you won’t feel the need to push your body too hard to prepare to hunt. But without discipline and the right mindset, this is difficult to achieve.
Keep in mind that you need enough time in the week to do strength and cardio training. Carving out time to stretch is also important. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends weight training for each muscle group 3 times per week. On top of that, you should do about 60 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (high-intensity interval training) per week.
Strong Muscles, Steady Bow
You wouldn’t go hunting with a flimsy bow or damaged arrows. Similarly, you shouldn’t go hunting without preparing your body. Bowhunters have specific physical demands that they need to prepare for by strengthening the correct muscles.
Lifting weights to improve your back, arms, shoulders, and core can help you shoot further and with more accuracy. It’ll make you feel more comfortable with a heavier draw weight. Make sure your workout routine correctly targets those muscles by incorporating rows, curls, and lateral raises.
Rather than scrambling to get ready for hunting season, check out our Backcountry Hunter Series. It’s a full-year physical preparation guide. And you don't have to go it alone either. Instead, leverage the MTNTOUGH+ community and our years of experience to stay in peak condition. Get started now with a 14-day free trial.