UPDATED ON: May 8th, 2015
When it comes to preparing for the upcoming season, a lot of bowhunters begin by shooting a few arrows in the backyard, attending a couple of 3-D shoots, and maybe hanging a stand or two. And while those things are definitely on the list of “things to do” before opening day, there is a different kind of training that you may not have even considered, but will likely affect the outcome of your season nonetheless. I’m talking about preparing your body.
Now, I understand that for a great deal of hunters, the otherwise flat terrain of the mid-west doesn’t seem so ominous. But, for those of us bowhunting in the east or west, tough terrain is part of the deal. Likewise, our inability to handle it can significantly lower our chances of success. That is, unless we prepare our body for the rigorous demands a typical hunting season can throw at us.
This preparation should include a good dose of cardiovascular conditioning, as well as weight training. However, like a lot of guys, weight training typically means upper-body workouts. You know what I mean, the kind that makes the T-shirt fit a little tighter in the chest and arms. Well, that’s all fine and good, especially for the beach or lake. Not to mention, upper-body conditioning is good for balancing heavy backpacks, drawing back the bowstring in cold weather, and climbing up and down trees in the pre-dawn darkness. However, when it comes to “mountain” hunting, the legs feed the wolf!
If you’re searching for an exercise that develops muscle strength for the mountains, the Squat is hard to beat.
Let’s start with a great all around, mass building leg exercise, The Squat. Often referred to as the “mother” of all compound exercises (the squat) is great for developing tone, power, and muscle strength. However, if you’ve never performed the squat before, it will take some time to master the movement safely and effectively. And, as always, check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.
Executing the Squat
Start by getting under the loaded bar (with a weight that is safe and comfortable) and placing your feet flat on the floor. Next, take a foot stance that feels comfortable. This usually means your feet should be about shoulder width apart.
Keeping your feet shoulder width apart will provide a strong stable base in order to execute the exercise safely.
Remember to point your feet and toes forward in order to help stabilize your body, and make sure your knees remain over your toes at all times! This stance of pointing the toes forward and keeping the knees aligned over your toes throughout the range of motion will help emphasize your thighs and not your knees during the lift.
Never place the weight of the bar directly on the neck. Let the large Trapezius muscles handle the load.
Next, let the bar rest on the trapezius muscle, not the neck! The bar should be placed as far back as possible on the” traps” for the weight to be safely distributed. Next, place your hands around the bar and take a grip that allows you to keep the weight balanced and stabilized. Now, lift the weight by extending your legs and NOT your back! Thrust your hips forward but do not stick your butt out. Pulling with your abdominals, keep your lower back in a near neutral position. However, a slightly arched back might be unavoidable, but try as much as possible. Be sure to tighten your whole body when you perform the squat. This will ensure that your chest, abs, arms and back assists in lifting the weight, in addition to the legs and hips.
Now, take one small step back, and then another in order to clear the top catch pins. Align your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart.
Proper execution of the squat will involve more than your leg muscles. It is a total body effort for sure.
With your feet evenly spaced take a deep breath. Start the descent by shifting your hips backward and NOT with your knees bending. Slowly, in a controlled manner, lower the weight as if you are sitting down in a chair. The weight should be distributed on your upper thighs and the heels or balls of your feet, but not your toes or your knees. Do not dip below parallel when performing the squat. Explode through the bottom portion of the lift by driving your heels into the floor. Also, extend your chest outward and keep a close eye on the ceiling above you to keep your head and heck in the right position.
Once you have lowered yourself to a near or at parallel position, push up off of your heels and lift the weight while maintaining proper and safe form: this means using your upper thighs, calves, hamstrings, lower back, chest, back, arms and abs–every part of your body except your knees. Your back should be between a 90 and 45-degree angle throughout the entire movement for safe execution.
When you reach the top of the movement be sure not to lock out the knees. Stop just short and repeat the motion for a second rep. If you must rest during the set then by all means do so. But try to keep it short because stress will begin to build on the knees and back as you are standing there, catching your breath. Repeat for 8-10 reps depending on your goals.
The way a lunge works is pretty simple. You will start with a normal stance, holding two dumbbells at your sides. The weight of the dumbbells will vary depending on your current strength levels.
Proper form, rather than heavy weights, will yield better results when performing the lunge. Be sure to not to let the rear knee touch the floor, but instead, remain parallel.
To begin, step forward in a position that mimics that of a fencer’s lunge; one that places your rear knee about an inch or two above the ground. Then, by pushing off of the extended foot, you will return to the original starting position. Your dumbbell lunges are then performed by either alternating your legs or doing one side at a time.
In addition, you can remain in the same spot (stepping out and then back) or you can perform “walking” dumbbell lunges where you simply walk across the floor (stepping in the same manner).
Essentially, the lunge works all the muscles in the lower legs in a manner similar to the squat. However, unlike a squat, a lunge can really burn up the hamstrings (back of leg) and the Gluteus Maximus (buttocks). This is good for climbing over logs, rocks, or anything else that might be in your way.
The Smith Machine is a great tool, in addition to dumbbells, for performing the Lunge. The same movement and principles apply.
The Leg Extension
Sitting in a leg extension machine, place your legs behind the roller pads and grasp the machines handles (if available) or the sides of the bench.
Your knees should be bent at 90 degrees with the seat or bench pressing against the back of your legs (knees). Point your toes out in front of you.
Avoid the temptation to “rock” the weight up and down by swinging your upper body. This will only create stress on the knees and lower back.
Slowly extend (lift) your legs by raising your toes towards the ceiling. At the same time you should be contracting your quadriceps until your legs are almost straight out in front of you. Be sure not to lock out your knees at full extension. Hold that position for a split second, while flexing your quadriceps, and then slowly lower the weight in a controlled manner back to the starting point. That’s it.
Total body conditioning should be the goal of any bowhunter. But for those of us who hunt tough eastern and western terrain it is really a necessity. And, while bench presses and bicep curls will do wonders for the summer, remember come fall, it’s the legs that feed the wolf!