When the bull bugled from the other side of the deep canyon an hour before dark, reaching him during legal shooting light seemed like a tall order. Nonetheless, I shimmied down the tree I was posted in that overlooked a wallow as fast as I safely could. When boot rubber met earth, I scurried down to the canyon bottom, then climbed the vertical opposite side, not stopping to catch my breath. I was breathing hard and my mouth was dry, but I had no time to waste.
With 15 minutes of legal shooting light remaining, I slowed my pace as the bugles surged in volume. I was getting close — really close. I carefully picked my way through the quaking aspens. The evening was calm, so each leaf I stepped on made a Crunch! I did my best to walk like an elk, cow calling softly as I made my final approach.
The bull was in an opening outside the quakie patch, and just as I was about to see him, I realized he wasn’t alone. A cow I didn’t know existed exploded, and the rest of the confused herd bolted, too. I hurried forward, and as the bull stopped to round up the stragglers, I spotted him. He was a giant bull for Idaho, likely approaching the 340-inch mark. My rangefinder read 120 yards, and I knew the evening was over.
If not for that pesky cow, I believe I would have had a legitimate chance to arrow him. But, when he moved away, I could tell the herd would go only a short distance and hold up for the night, which is what they did, because I easily got on them the following morning.
Why did I share the story of an unsuccessful hunt? Simple. Many bowhunters – if I hadn’t been in shape, myself included – wouldn’t have gotten that encounter. With the time available and the terrain conditions, it just wasn’t doable, aside from being fit to tackle it. It was grueling and difficult even though I was in shape. When I say the descent and climb was intense and vertical, I mean it. So, I pose this question to all bowhunters who don’t work out or exercise: How many encounters/opportunities do you miss out on by being out of shape? Ponder on that.
Regardless of the type of hunting you do — treestand or spot and stalk — I’ll argue that every archer can benefit from bowhunting fitness. Let’s review five reasons why.
Cardio Augments Lungpower, Shooting Control
Any type of exercise that instantly speeds your heart rate does more than burn calories. Each time you engage in said exercises, your lungs condition to the sudden jolt. Don’t kill yourself the first time you sprint, ride bike or get on the elliptical. Start out with what you can handle, then gradually add more challenges. Each time you increase the intensity and duration of your cardiovascular exercises, your lungs will become more powerful, allowing you to control your breathing rather than become breathless and unable to function.
Of course, the obvious benefit of cardio is that you’ll be able to keep after a traveling bull elk or caribou. However, even treestand bowhunters will benefit. When your breathing and heart rate increase because of buck fever/adrenaline, you’ll be able to shoot more accurately because you’re used to the changes that happen in your body from the adrenaline rush.
A good practice is to sprint, stop and pick up your bow, then try to “kill” your deer target. This cardiovascular exercise mimics buck-fever effects, and is an excellent way to improve your performance for a real-life bowhunting shot scenario,
Strong Legs Reduce/Eliminate Soreness
During my first western hunt, a South Dakota antelope hunt that required miles of hiking, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus when I woke up on morning two of the hunt. The first day’s hiking had plumb worn me out — my legs, my back … everything. After experiencing those crashing effects, my enthusiasm and confidence plummeted. I was a wreck. And, I missed two antelope that week.
Since that hunt, I’ve resolved to always be prepared for any hunt that is physically demanding. I mean, why would I want to string a bunch of money on the line – fuel, lodging, nonresident license, etc. — only to be worn out after a day or two of hunting? I don’t know about you, but when I pay that kind of money, I want to give myself every opportunity to succeed, and if I’m not in shape, I’m not set up to win.
Beyond the usual running and biking I do, I also regularly work out my legs at the gym, squats being my go-to routine. Squats not only create strong legs that can withstand harsh terrain, they also create explosive power that will make you say yes when that bull bugles a mile away with less than an hour of legal shooting time left. And, if and when you kill him, that explosive power will also serve you well for packing out your trophy.
Strong Core Equals Steadier Aiming, Better Backpacking
Think about it: your core — abs, low back and obliques — holds up the rest of your body. Think of it as your central support system. Without a strong core, everything suffers, posture included. If you attempt activities with a weak core that require a strong core, perhaps hauling 70 pounds on your back, you not only get really sore, but you also risk sustaining an injury because you’ll be unable to keep good form as you lift and maneuver the weight.
Likewise, shooting form suffers in most shooters who have weak cores. It’s easy to identify, too. These shooters tend to arch their low back and push their stomach out to hold at full draw. The result of this sloppy form in shakiness and inconsistent shot execution. The longer you hold at full draw, you’ll feel your form literally collapsing, which also instigates the sudden urgency to shoot, ultimately resulting in target panic. Believe me, it’s a losing proposition.
To strengthen your core, do plenty of plank holds and lateral back and oblique raises. Do these and similar workouts (consider utilizing the services of a personal trainer for best results), and your core will tighten up, as will your ability to haul a heavy pack or hold at full draw steadily for long periods.
A Strong Back Promotes Muscle Memory
One of good shooting form’s most critical components is muscle memory. When you repeatedly engage your back muscles to pull your bow to full draw and hold there, it becomes natural to do it the same way each time. This is muscle memory, and it will help you shoot more consistently. Additionally, a strong back means you can shoot longer sessions without muscle exhaustion, which would cause you to form sloppy shooting habits.
My favorite back exercises are the seated row and the lat pull-down, but there are certainly others that will benefit you as well. Strengthen your back, and you’ll be able to do everything more effectively. And while the back does the brunt of the work of shooting a bow, keep your body/muscles balanced by also doing bench presses, pec flies and other chest workouts.
Fit into Athletic Hunting Clothing
In my opinion, nothing is worse for a bowhunter than baggy, cumbersome clothing. It presents potential for sleeve/bowstring interference, and hinders your ability to move quickly while chasing after a traveling elk or other animal. It can also create problems with negotiating tree pegs or a ladder to reach your treestand.
Clothing manufacturers are now creating clothing designed with athletic characteristics. I love it because it doesn’t present the problems I just mentioned. It thwarts them. But, do you fit this style of clothing? I’m not here to bash anyone; we all have different body shapes and builds, but if you can help it, whip yourself into shape so you can fit clothing from brands like Sitka Gear, Kuiu, Badlands, ASAT and the like. It will help you hunt more fluidly and effectively. It certainly has for me.
Complete the Program with Supplements
Now that I’ve presented the reasons why fitness can improve your bowhunting game, I have one more suggestion. Working out literally damages your muscles. Fortunately, God designed our bodies to recover and to repair muscles after a period of resting. But, to speed repair and recovery, your body must ingest the right things after a killer workout.
Wilderness Athlete offers everything to optimize your fitness results. Its Focus and Energy formula boosts your concentration to tackle tough workouts or hunt the backcountry with the right mindset. Hydrate and Recover helps you remain hydrated during your workout, plus it’s laced with amino acids, which helps repair your muscles. Finally, Brute Strength gives your muscles the protein to grow and more amino acids to further boost recovery so that you can work out more often without becoming so sore.
It also counters inflammation. Of course, these products will help you when hunting in grueling conditions, because, let’s face it, a tough hunt is basically a workout. Finally, Altitude Advantage helps prepare your body for a sudden change in elevation with its natural ingredients so you don’t battle elevation sickness. I highly recommend these and other Wilderness Athlete products if you want to perform optimally in the backcountry.
In my eyes, the body is the most important piece of hunting equipment you have. You wouldn’t hunt without first sighting in your bow, would you? I look at fitness the same way. Don’t attempt a tough hunt without first conditioning your body. Incorporate fitness into your hunting program. You’ll look, feel and hunt better. Like me, you won’t walk away from a bugling bull when you have some daylight to work with. That could mean the difference between punching your tag or going home empty-handed.