Exercise Tips for Becoming Mountain Strong

The Mountain West teems with bowhunting opportunities and adventures. Is your body up to the challenge?

Exercise Tips for Becoming Mountain Strong

The plank hold is a great core and shoulder exercise you can do virtually anywhere with just your body weight.

I was patrolling an uneventful elk wallow via treestand when it happened. Way across the canyon at eye level, a bull bugled. I tuned my ear in his direction, and soon, another bugle thundered throughout the canyon. Only 30 minutes of daylight remained and the bull was a mile away by foot. I didn’t hesitate; I just went.

I reached the canyon valley in no time. Though difficult, that was the easy part; everything was uphill from there. An overwhelming thirst impended, but I ignored it and briskly ran uphill, pausing only for a few seconds here and there to avoid cardiac arrest.

With 5 minutes of legal shooting light left, his bugles were blasting loudly. I was close. The air was calm and the walking crunchy, so I squeaked subtle cow and calf mews as I made my final approach through the aspens. The outcome would be all or nothing.

That’s when the aspens erupted just ahead. Shoot! He was a herd bull out in a meadow, and his cows had been at the edge between him and me. I ran ahead to the opening, and when the herd stopped 120 yards away to assess the threat, I saw a bull; he was a monster.

No, I didn’t kill that bull, but I chased an opportunity most wouldn’t have, given the circumstances. I accepted the 1-mile, last-light challenge because I knew my body could do it. You can too, if you’re up to the challenge.

Find Your Inspiration

Fitness has gained serious traction in the bowhunting community in the last 5 to 10 years. Athlete hunters such as Hanes, Staton and the Bowmars have gained followings for leading fit lifestyles and hunting stronger as a result. I guess you could say, bowhunting fitness is the “in” thing to do these days.

Beyond popularity, I believe it’s necessary for anyone looking to measurably improve their archery and bowhunting game. This is especially true for those who hunt the mountains, but even Midwestern whitetailers can benefit from a fitness routine.

Now, if you haven’t been inside a gym, buying a membership and committing to use it can be intimidating. Consequently, the important first step in adopting a fit lifestyle is to be inspired by someone or something.

If you follow the bowhunting-fitness “bigs” I referenced above on social media, perhaps they inspire you. Or, maybe you’re sick and tired of getting your butt kicked during the middle of a mountain hunt. Whatever it is, identify something that inspires you to find your muscles. Then, adopting a fitness lifestyle will seem reachable.

My inspiration, 9 years later, is the bull I mentioned above. When I don’t feel like going to the gym, I imagine him bugling nearly a mile away with daylight draining. And then I tell myself I won’t kill him unless I go to the gym right now. I imagine the same thing when I’ve finished my repetition sets and am exercising until failure. If I quit before failure, I won’t reach the bull and get my shot. Silly? No. It’s my inspiration.

My wife’s inspiration is thinking back to when she was unhappy and carrying around 45 extra pounds. Back then, she ate junk food to feel happier. She didn’t go for walks. Nothing. And one day, she woke up with the resolve to change. And change she did. She lost those 45 pounds in a matter of months by working out and eating healthy. She hasn’t looked back.

The bottom line: Finding inspiration is an important first step to year-round bowhunting-angled fitness. And once you find it, don’t hesitate. Just go.

Precautionary Words

I fully understand that everyone who reads this article varies in skill, build, health and physical capabilities — among other things. That said, the exercises I outline in this article aren’t for everyone. They’re just a few of the many that help me hunt and shoot better.

I suggest scheduling at least your first few workouts with a certified personal trainer. He or she can help you develop a personalized workout program designed specifically for your goals, condition, body build, physical limitations, etc. A trainer can also suggest ideal weights and repetitions for various exercises. Further, a certified trainer can teach you correct form and provide modifications when you reach an exercise you can’t do.

I regularly see folks using poor form or lifting too much weight. They don’t know it, but they’re practically asking for injuries. Not only can injuries halt your fitness progress, but they can also jeopardize your hunting season. Who’s willing to take that chance? Not me.

Now, let’s review just a few of the workouts I do to improve my archery accuracy and bowhunting strength and endurance.

Author’s note: Because I’m not a certified personal trainer, do not attempt any of the workouts mentioned without seeking professional advice/help/coaching from a certified personal trainer. This article is meant only to inspire you, share muscle groups relevant to bowhunting, and to list a few workouts that help me be the most effective bowhunter I can possibly be. 

Building the Platform

Your legs are your platform. Weak legs will inhibit aiming stability, especially after the long hikes in varied terrain often needed to orchestrate a shot opportunity. Strengthen them, and your aiming stability will improve.

Hiking and meat-packing in the mountains are incredibly difficult. The steeper the terrain, the more difficult they become. It’s so hard, in fact, that I absolutely cannot imagine the hell it would be to do them with weak legs. Strong legs might not make things easy, but you’ll be able to go farther in less time and with less pain.

The author believes squats are the most beneficial for building strong legs.
The author believes squats are the most beneficial for building strong legs.

While there are many different types of leg workouts that target specific muscle groups, I’ll argue that squats are the most beneficial. Squats can be done in various ways. The most obvious is to use a weighted barbell inside a squat rack. The bar rests across your shoulders, and your hands grip the bar on both sides. From behind, your arms and elbows look like a “W.” Using approximately a shoulder-width stance, I lift the weight from the rack, squat down until my upper legs are parallel to the floor, and then stand back up, pushing with all my legs can give. 

I sometimes mix things up and do the same motion with a dumbbell in both hands at my sides. Or, I add an endurance slant by doing jump squats. I jump from the lowest point of the squat for the best plyometric effect. I either jump up onto a platform, squat and then jump back down, or I jump in place, then squat when I land.

Regardless of the type of squat you choose, form is key, especially as you add weight to the mix. I tighten my core and keep my back at a proper angle to avoid injury. Knees also become susceptible to injury with poor form or too much weight. If you’re just beginning, hire a trainer to instruct you. Also, I highly suggest using a belt designed for squatting to protect your back.

Deadlifts are another favorite. They, too, work the major leg muscles, but they also work both upper and lower back muscles. Deadlifts can be done with a weighted barbell. The barbell begins on the floor, and I bend over with chin up and eyes looking upward to keep my chest open and shoulders back.

Next, I grab the barbell roughly a shoulder’s width apart. With core tight, I begin the maneuver with a pose that resembles sitting in a chair. This evenly distributes the weight throughout my legs. I then push upward with all the might my legs can muster, and then squeeze my glutes when I reach the peak of the maneuver, which is the standing position. I tighten my trapezius muscles to avoid overextending and injuring my arms. Now, I reverse the motion I just made, allowing my legs to do the brunt of the work as I lower the barbell back to the floor. Wearing a belt not only protects my back, but also promotes good form. Deadlifts can also be completed with dumbbells using the same basic motion. This is good to know, because other weightlifters could be using the barbells when you get to the gym. You can be flexible and get the same results, even in a crowded gym.

Plyometric exercises like the jump squat can strengthen legs and raise your heartrate — good things for bowhunting improvement.
Plyometric exercises like the jump squat can strengthen legs and raise your heartrate — good things for bowhunting improvement.

Strengthening the Core

I believe the core is equally important to fitness, archery and bowhunting. Many folks focus on chiseling the upper body and forsake the core. Your core connects your legs to your upper body. A weak core can cause your posture to suffer, and ultimately, stability won’t transfer from your legs to your upper body.

Consequently, core strength is central to good shooting form and aiming stability, especially when shooting on sloped ground. It’s also a must when packing out meat or even just negotiating rugged terrain. Core strength helps you do everything better. Without it, you’re susceptible to injury and pain. And, a weak core will impede your lower- and upper-body strength, too.

Core weakness can typically be identified by doing plank holds (if possible). If your back tends to sag or arc, your core is likely weak. While holding the plank, your back should remain table-flat from start to finish.

From basic sit-ups to plank holds to balancing the cat (see photo), dozens of exercises can target core strength. A quick Google search can yield dozens of unique exercises, and I believe diversity is beneficial. In other words, don’t limit yourself to sit-ups alone. A diverse mix can evenly work all of the core muscles. Core exercises, such as plank holds, double to work the shoulders, which is also helpful for improving your shooting skills.

Balancing the cat is a core-strengthening exercise where you put one arm forward and the opposite leg backward, then switch to the other arm and leg. It requires a tight core and good balance. A powerful core transfers leg stability to your upper body, thus improving aiming and hiking stability.
Balancing the cat is a core-strengthening exercise where you put one arm forward and the opposite leg backward, then switch to the other arm and leg. It requires a tight core and good balance. A powerful core transfers leg stability to your upper body, thus improving aiming and hiking stability.

Building the Back

For shooting archery, back muscles are king. While training beginners to shoot archery in my family’s archery shop (2002 to 2010), most were blown away when I instructed that correctly drawing a bow means using your upper back muscles. Most believed that arms were meant to do the work.

With the upper back being the engine for drawing a bow, I dedicate a day each week specifically to target my upper-back muscles. My favorite upper-back exercises are the seated row and the lat pulldown (see photo).

In both, a straight back and tight core constitute good form. In the seated row, you sit on a flat bench or seat and pull a weighted cable with a seated-row grip attachment. The grip attachment is pulled toward the core using primarily the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. Various other muscles will naturally tighten to support and help you pull the weight, but the back muscles do most of the work.

In the lat pulldown, the focus is on, you guessed it, the latissimus dorsi. Using a wide-grip lat pulldown bar attached to a cable machine, you pull the bar down with your back basically upright — you’ll tend to lean way back if you’re using too much weight. You’ll pull the bar down until it contacts your sternum and focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together, which will help you use the correct muscles. If you must use your arms as the primary muscles, you’re doing it incorrectly or lifting too heavy.

Enhancing Endurance

Dozens of cardiovascular (cardio) exercises exist. From burpees to treadmill running, cardio exercises improve endurance and lungpower. Cardio is designed to elevate your heartrate. Over time, it helps you gain endurance and stamina — key attributes of successful mountain hunters.

One of my go-to cardio exercises is inclined treadmill running. Unfortunately, a treadmill’s maximum degree of incline isn’t as steep as the mountains. But, the idea is to add difficulty. In other words, running on a flat treadmill won’t prepare you for the ups and downs of the mountains. In the cold months, an inclined treadmill will. And, you can take it next level during the warm months by hiking and running in steep outdoor terrain.

On the treadmill, I vary my speed multiple times during a 20- to 30-minute period, both running and power-walking until I finish at a slow walk to gradually reduce my heartrate back to normal. It’s solid practice for the real thing.

Thoughts On Stretching

I believe one of the biggest mistakes newcomers make is stretching incorrectly, not at all or not enough. Some fitness gurus stretch before they workout. Some stretch after. Some do both. We find that our muscles perform best if we wait until after our workouts to stretch. We combine foam rolling with our stretching. This post-workout business will keep your muscles loose and joints mobile, which will speed recovery.

Once success is had, fitness is key to surviving laborious meat pack-outs.
Once success is had, fitness is key to surviving laborious meat pack-outs.

Do Everything Better

My wife and I push ourselves hard. We do it to feel better, look better, and to take care of the bodies God gave us. We also do it because we love pursuing elk in the mountains. Elk hunting happens to be one of the most demanding and active bowhunts one can do given the terrain elk inhabit and their ability to cover a mile in minutes. Year-round fitness can make elk hunting — or any mountain hunting — far more manageable.

Now that I’ve outlined a sampling of the exercises that help me be the most effective bowhunter possible, it’s up to you to meet with a certified personal trainer who can help you develop a complete workout program specifically for your goals, body, health condition and physical abilities. Commit to it for a year, and I believe your archery and bowhunting game will improve measurably.

Sidebar: Fuel Up

Folks argue that you need this bow, that sight, or this broadhead to become a better hunter. Few realize the bowhunter is the most important piece of equipment. You’ll only go as far as your body allows, and if you drink soda and eat fast food, you’re setting up to fall short on your next mountain hunt. Nutrition is everything. My wife and I eat healthy — lots of wild game and veggies here — 6 days a week.

We don’t binge on everything we want during our “cheat day,” but a donut or homemade pizza is welcome.

We daily consume minerals, vitamins and supplements. We dig hard into the MTN OPS line for energy and nutrition supplements that target hydration, muscle recovery and other aspects that enhance our bowhunting-fitness lifestyles. Find pricing, product specifics and supplement facts at www.mtnops.com.


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