Posted on August 3, 2011
The best way to stay in shape as a bowhunter is to cross-train. Here’s how to do it.
By Dan Staton M.S., P.E.S.
Why stay in shape as a bowhunter? The answer is simple: So you can hunt harder and longer and with greater effectiveness, meaning that you won’t be so prone to fatigue and losing focus. Besides, staying fit usually means enduring a longer bowhunting career, and that’s something we all want to do—hunt well into our senior years. I know I do.
But how do you do it? The market is full of “proven-to-work” exercise routines; some are certainly worthwhile, others are not. However, based on my expertise and experience, a bowhunter’s routine should focus on general physical preparedness (GPP) and not specialized training. Basically, the concept of GPP involves cross training, which is a way of working out that involves nearly all your body’s muscles, rather than pinpointing specific groups. This type of training improves strength, flexibility and endurance—all key to becoming better at this sport.However, just like any workout routine, it will take time and devotion, which means less couch time. With that in mind, let’s look at maximizing your workouts using this technique.
Eliminating Weak Spots
Are you a decent runner but can’t seem to do a pull-up? Can you bench-press 200 pounds but then can’t run a mile under 10 minutes? If so, you’re lacking balanced fitness, and that’s the purpose behind cross training: to get you strong for many things and not just one.
It’s all about eliminating those weak spots, so you can adapt well to a variety of hunting demands. And boy, don’t they seem to vary!
You may be thinking, Yeah, this is all good and dandy, but this workout stuff applies mainly to the “Western” guy who likes to hump the hills for elk, mules or blacktails. This isn’t for the whitetail, treestand guy.
I couldn’t disagree more. Even the Eastern hunter gains immensely from being in better shape. After all, hanging stands, shimmying up and down trees and walking in and out of treestand spots without sweating much is no walk in the park. This is especially true when you’re wearing three layers of clothes, as well as a pack loaded with deer goodies and maybe even a decoy in tow. Whitetail hunting is still a highly physical endeavor, and those in better shape will hunt more effectively, period.
Exercises That Work
Western-type bowhunting can be challenging: You have to walk a lot, and your pack gets heavier with each hunting day; short-dragging game to your truck or tractor usually isn’t an option. Instead, you’ve got to haul it out on your back, usually as fast as possible to avoid spoilage. Talk about serious work, strain and sweat! It really does take on a whole new meaning.
However, the more cross-train-ready you are, the better you’ll be at handling these chores. You could even excel at them if you train hard enough. But what does “hard enough” mean? Does it mean more gym time?
No, it does not. It means less time on machines and more time doing “real-life” stuff like squatting, picking things up off the ground, placing heavy items overhead, running, jumping and throwing. These are the organic movements of life and, done with intensity, they prepare us for the demands of the outdoors. Exercise machines isolate muscles, nature doesn’t. Machines are manmade, mountains are not.
Of course, a little bit of time weight-lifting is good to keep all those muscles surrounding your joints strong, but lift both light and heavy items to keep those muscles guessing and well prepared.
A Typical Workout Plan
Time is the big problem for most people, but working out doesn’t have to be problematic that way. Here’s a routine you can do a couple of times a week to achieve great conditioning. It’s suitable for either the Western or Eastern bowhunter, as well.
A good workout drill I recommend involves climbing a hill and doing some simple strength exercises along the way. I call this exercise the “assassin.” I like to perform three rounds and then time myself at the completion.
To perform it, strap on a 20-to-40-pound backpack, find a hill (or some type of slight incline) and do the following:
Hike for 100 yards, and then do 10 perfect push-ups. Remember, a perfect push-up means you have zero sway in your back, your abs are tight, your chest touches the ground at the bottom, and your hips/thighs stay off the ground. Make sure to finish the push-up with full lockout of your arms.
After the push-ups, hike another 100 yards —but this time do 20 squats (still wearing your pack, of course). Be sure to execute the squat properly. Keep your weight on your heels, maintain a natural curve in your lumbar (lower back) and strong posture in the torso, and make sure that at the bottom of your squat, your hips are slightly below your knees. Then, time the round. Do the round two more times after that, timing yourself on each round.
If you want to make this exercise a bit more challenging, carry your bow, and after completing all three rounds, shoot 10 arrows at a target. This will create a good scenario to practice under, allowing you to master your adrenaline and shot-control while your blood is pumping.
Be creative and think of exercises that are practical for the type of hunting you do. Change them up every few weeks for maximum cardio and strength-building benefit. You’ll be amazed at the results.
Things to Keep in Mind
Effective cross training means shorter workouts but with greater concentrated effort. Basically, you get a bigger menu of exercises to choose from, and you have to test your limits on each one.
The most important component is to focus on doing the mechanics of each exercise correctly and with the right amount of intensity and consistency. If not, you won’t benefit from the workout as you should. Every workout should be treated as potent medicine: Too much too soon, and you can hurt yourself severely. Luckily, the body adapts relatively fast, and before you know it, you’ll be hitting each workout with maximum intensity and receiving maximum return.
As I said earlier, we like doing what we’re good at, but this gives us less balance and less overall physical prowess. The key is to shy away from this tendency and focus more on growing in those weaker areas. For example, if you’re already an accomplished runner, do a little more strength training to balance things out. The same applies to the yoked guy lacking cardio ability—he’ll need to increase endurance through hiking the hills, mountain biking or swimming.
This practice will keep you more fit all around and prevent injury, which happens easily when you tend to strengthen one leg or arm muscle more than the other, thereby setting up the joint for failure. Trust me; you don’t want to do that. It will set you back, big time.
Thoughts on Stretching
The more flexible you are, the more efficiently you’ll move through the woods. This is where stretching becomes a big benefit. I prefer doing dynamic stretches prior to an exercise, as well as after my workout is completed. Dynamic stretches are like football drills such as running with high knees and/or “butt-kickers” (running while kicking your butt with your heels).
After you’ve completed a workout, feel free to do some static stretches on your hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, etc. Hold each static stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.
Use a Stop Watch
While doing your various workouts, be sure to compete again the clock. This will up your intensity, forcing you to train a little meaner. Every time you repeat a workout, you can compare the result and see if you’re improving. No longer do you have to spend 20 minutes on the bench press and 40 minutes on the elliptical machine. You can gain just as much strength and conditioning by doing both of these workouts in half the amount of time by following an intense cross-training exercise, like the “Burpee” (see sidebar), which demands full-body agility, strength and endurance. Try it and you’ll see.
Get a Partner
One way to make the most of your workouts is to do them with a good friend or anyone who will get you motivated and hold you accountable for doing things right and fast. It’s a win-win situation, because you can help each other this way. Remember this: Individuals press harder and peril further alongside a trustworthy comrade.
If you love to bowhunt, don’t ruin your chances for success by being in less than great shape. By incorporating some basic cross-training in your off-season plans, I have no doubt you’ll hunt better than ever before. There’s no money involved with this stuff, only time and willingness. Do it and watch your abilities soar.
Visit my website (www.TrainToHunt.com), at which you’ll find all kinds of workout routines and advice geared with hunters in mind. You can also watch us perform some workouts and exercises.
Editor’s Note: Dan Staton is an avid bowhunter who owns and operates two CrossFit gyms near his home in Spokane, WA. Dan has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and an undergraduate degree in exercise science.Â
The Burpee: A Great Exercise
This exercise is simple, challenging, highly effective and points to what effective cross training is all about. Here’s how it’s done:
From a standing position, “hit the deck” quickly, allowing your chest and thighs to hit the ground as fast as possible. Then, just as quickly, push yourself back up to your feet.
Once you’re back to an upright position, add a small jump (just high enough to get your feet off the ground). Then, clap your hands overhead while in flight. That’s it.
Another workout idea is to try to perform 10 of these and then run, walk or jog a quarter mile (400 meters). You’ll begin to feel the “gasping for air” effect—the same way you’ll feel hiking on an elk hunt. Do this entire combination four times for one potent workout.
If you’re battling knee problems, consider fast walking instead of running. If the workout seems too easy for you, try wearing a light pack during the workout. If you’re currently out of shape, you may want to consider two combinations instead of four. Again, focus on doing the exercise correctly. –D.S.
Four Workout Myths
1. Slow Lifting Builds Muscle: Lifting super slowly is not the way to go (unless you have an injury). All it does is produce longer workouts, all without maximum gain. Do your workouts fast but correctly, and you’ll get more out of them in terms of strength and endurance.
2. Sore Muscles Need Rest: This just isn’t true, unless you’re so sore that your joints do not function properly.
According to Dr. Milesky, Ph.D., the director of Human Performance at Indiana University, “If your muscle is sore to the touch or the soreness limits your range of motion, it’s best to give the muscle at least another day of rest.”
However, if your muscles are just generally achy, it’s best to loosen up by engaging in light aerobic activity. This will alleviate the soreness and still get you exercising again. Light activity stimulates blood flow and begins the repair process of restoring your muscle cells.
3. Exercise Machines are Safe: Only if these machines are adjusted properly and the weight is manageable for your body. If not, injury can occur. With weight machines, be sure a professional gets you started to ensure proper form and weight control.
My personal opinion: There are no machines in the woods, so stay off them! Simply lift free weights or somewhat hefty items around the house. Do things that simulate real-life hunting scenarios, like dragging a bag of cement across your backyard lawn, which is similar to dragging a deer out of the woods.
4. Squats are Bad For Knees: A recent study in Medicine & Science found that machine leg exercises—those in which a single joint is activated (i.e., leg extension), are potentially more dangerous than closed-chain moves—those that engage multiple joints (such as the squat and the dead lift).
To squat safely, hold your back upright and keep your weight on your heels. Then, lower your body until the crease of your hips is below your knees. The basic squat is vital to your wellness, athleticism, and injury prevention.—D.S.