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Last Updated: Feb 22nd, 2007 - 18:37:03

Strengthing Your Shoulders For Bowhunting
May 23, 2006, 12:03

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Shoulders play a vital role in drawing and holding a bow.

As all of us know, preparation is the number one key to success especially when it comes to bowhunting. The difficulty of taking a game animal, especially a “trophy animal” with a bow necessitates a lot of time and effort before the hunt. Now, we aren’t going to pretend to be bowhunting experts. Many of you reading this have more bowhunting experience then we do. But with extensive experience in weightlifting, power lifting as well as medical practice, we can give you very good advice on how to safely strengthen the muscles you use bowhunting and how to avoid common muscular injuries.

Speaking of expertise, when you have transmission problems and need it repaired you take it to an expert who has lots of experience. Transmissions are complicated and can cause a lot of trouble including personal injury if not repaired correctly. That is the very same scenario with modern bows. If you are not an expert in bow selection, tuning and set-up, we highly suggest making an appointment with your regional archery pro-shop. They can suggest the right equipment for you in the correct size with the proper poundage and the necessary accessories. Their advice will not only save you a lot of money in the long run but also reduce your chance of injuring your shoulder. In and around the midlands of South Carolina, we trust the advice of well known archer Mr. Tom Jeffery of Jeffery Archery (803 776-3832). They have been expertly equipping archery enthusiasts for decades. We got our 2006 Bowtech Allegiance bows outfitted there.

We can make a case for overall fitness to enhance your bowhunting success. We plan on just such a column later on. What we want to focus on here is the muscles used in drawing and holding a bow on a target; the shoulder musculature otherwise known as the limb girdle area. Unfortunately, this area and more specifically the rotator cuff of the shoulder is very prone to injury as many of you have already found out.

Listing all the Latin names for all the muscles involved in drawing a bow gets us the restroom key at the local medical society, but really isn’t helpful here (we like to go outside anyway). So rather then bore you with all of that, you need to know that there are five major muscles or groups of muscles involved in pulling a bow (correctly). The most obvious is the Deltoid. This roughly triangular shaped muscle (hence Deltoid like the Greek letter Delta) is the big boy of the upper limb girdle.  This is the source of shoulder strength and shape. The Deltoid needs three divisions (heads) to accomplish its job of elevating and pulling your arm up no matter what the direction, be it toward the front, the side, or the rear. 

The second muscle is actually a group of muscles called the Rotator Cuff. This is made up of four smaller muscles that serve the purpose of holding your arm in its socket. Sometimes it rains and gets cold in South Carolina so we may need that bathroom key after all, so here are the names of the four muscle that make up the rotator cuff; Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Subscapularis, and Teres minor. These four attach on one end to your scapula (shoulder blade or wing bone) and the other end to the upper end of your arm. The rotator cuff muscles are not designed for doing the heavy work of the upper limb girdle, hence they are frequently injured. In addition to holding your arm in its socket, they assist in lifting the arm (a deltoid job) plus they help rotate your arm backwards and forwards. The supraspinatus muscle is the most susceptible to injury in this group.

The third muscle is another big one; the trapezius (AKA traps). How big this muscle is can be misleading. The trapezius goes from the base of your skull to the edge of your shoulder; it also goes at an angle from the top of your shoulder to the low-middle part of your back and all the way up the spine back to the base of your skull thus forming a large triangle. It sticks up prominently in football players especially the ones that look like they do not have a neck. This is the muscle that allows you to shrug your shoulders. In bowhunting, it plays a major role in pulling your shoulder and arm backwards when drawing the bow.

The fourth muscle is again a group of smaller muscles that work as a group. For simplicity we’ll just call them the Scapula Muscles. They secure your scapula to your back bone. These are also critical in pulling the scapula backwards which caused it to wing out thus the name “wing bone”, when you draw your arm backwards. 

Lastly, in drawing the bow you need to use your upper arm muscles. These are easily found. The Bicep muscle does the lion’s share of work in this group. It is helped by the brachialis muscle that lies underneath the bicep. When they contract, your hand is pulled toward your body otherwise known as flexion of the upper extremity. These are the “make a muscle” muscles of the arm.

Now that we have named all the parts, we can move on to the task at hand, namely enhancing your ability to draw your bow and doing it safety. Please note it is not necessary to join a gym or invest in expensive equipment to accomplish your goals here. A simple trip to any sporting goods store can yield the stuff you need. Feel free to buy used equipment, as weights weigh the same shiny or tarnished.  What you need to buy are hand held dumbbells. Remember, we are not looking to turn you into the “Hulk” or Arnold Schwarzenegger so forget the 80 pound dumbbells. Also, if you are even thinking about anabolic steroids (without a real serious medical need and medical direction) lose that thought.  In four simple easy to do exercises you can train all the muscles described above and do it well. Remember to stretch and warm up first. Most of us are not teenagers anymore so injuries can occur easier and take longer to heal.

Exercise Group One:

The first and most important exercise to do is the combination Front, Lateral and Bent Over Arm Raises. This will build and strengthen the deltoid muscle but more importantly the rotator cuff. Remember to go slow, start light, and be consistent with long term goals. DO NOT try to accomplish getting into shape a week or two before the season starts. This is more than the common sense you could get from your mom. The rotator cuff is prone to injury and is the focus of most shoulder surgeries that we all want to avoid. 

Front Raises: Standing upright with your arms down at your side and light dumbbells in each hand, alternate raising one hand at a time front wards to a height just above the top of your head then lower slowly and repeat with the other hand. Keep the dumbbells level to the ground and your palms facing the ground. Do this 8 to 10 times with each hand then rest a minute or two. Gradually build up to 3 sets of 12 raises with each arm.

Front lateral raises start
Front lateral raises end

Lateral Raises: Next, start again standing upright with your arms down at your sides. This time raise both arms at the same time but laterally (sideways) away from your body up to the level of your eye and then back down. It is critical to keep your thumbs pointing down. This is a variation of the standard lateral raise and is much harder to do. Start light; macho is a bad idea! Repeat this 8 to 10 times then rest again. Gradually build up to 3 sets of 12 raises with each arm.

Laterial side raises start
Lateral side raises end

Bent Over Arm Raises: Stand upright then bend over so that you are facing the floor and your arms are hanging down next to the floor with dumbbells in each hand. You do not need to be perpendicular to the floor and be careful not to injure your back with carelessness. Now raise both arms at the same time sideways or away from your body. Again your thumbs need to be pointing downwards all the while you stay in the bent over position. Raise the weights to the level of your shoulders and then back down slowly. Repeat 8 to 10 times and rest. Gradually build up to 3 sets of 12 raises with each arm.

Bent over raises start
Bent over raises end

Exercise Group Two:

Exercise two is called Bent Over Rowing. It is simple, easy and done one hand at a time. Bend over again facing the floor with a heavier weight in one hand hanging next to the floor but this time make sure your other hand is on a chair seat or bench to balance yourself. Now just pull the weight straight up to the edge of your chest which requires you bending your arm. Slowly go back down and repeat 8 to 10 times then do the same with the other arm. Gradually build up to 3 sets of 12 raises with each arm. This exercise is critical in building strength in the trapezius, scapula muscle group and the bicep and brachialis muscles. This replicates the action of drawing a bow. Start lighter than you think, and pretty soon you can be using weights way heavier than you thought you could use.

Bent over row start
Bent over row end

Exercise Group Three:

The above two exercises will definitely suffice but nothing excels like excellence so there are two others to do for maximal benefit. The Military Press is next and it really builds the deltoid muscle. The starting position is sitting all the way back in a chair with a straight back and dumbbells in each hand that are resting on your shoulders . Begin by simply pressing them up one hand at a time over your head to full
extension and then back down. Repeat 8 to 10 times per side. Gradually build up to 3 sets of 12 raises with each arm.

Seated military press start
Seated military press end

Exercise Group Four:

Lastly, is the Bicep Curl which will greatly enhance your upper arm strength. There are numerous ways to do this but we will keep it simple. Starting position is sitting in the chair with the straight back and the dumbbells in each hand hanging down. Begin by simply curling them upwards to your shoulder and then back down slowly alternating arms as you go. Try to do it with your palms pointing upwards. Repeat 8 to 10 times with each arm and you are now done. Gradually build up to 3 sets of 12 raises with each arm.

Seated bicep curls

Time for exercise is always an issue. Recovery time from a shoulder injury can last through several bow seasons. You really want to be careful and start slow and be consistent. The more you exercise the better the result obviously, but you can show real improvement with a minimal schedule. If you really don’t have the time to work up to the 3 sets per arm per exercise, then you can make a substantial difference by doing each exercise above with only one set three times per week. This would only take approximately 15 minutes three times per week which is a small amount of time to invest to greatly strengthen your shoulders and your bow draw. Heavier poundage (that you can comfortably and safely draw), a longer period that you can hold at full draw, and a significantly decreased risk of tearing your rotator cuff is worth 45 minutes per week isn’t it? 

Surfing the site we came across an alternative to the dumbbell investment, so we tried it. This product can be packed up virtually anywhere including your luggage when you travel.  It is extremely light weight and portable and replicates the action of drawing a bow very precisely. This product uses the concept of both isometric and non-isometric exercises for your shoulder and arms . We found that drawing it like a bow either with grasping both opposing handles, or placing your bow hand on the inside frame of the unit, was a smooth process with an even increase in resistance being experienced. The booklet that came with the device clearly showed its versatility for over 40 exercises and we concur that it really does what it says it will do. You can strengthen your shoulders and arms safely and dramatically with this fitness tool. It is called the ROTAFLEX and was developed by Dr. Bill Connelly who also invented the Venom Peep Sight, which is on both our bows. It is available from Rotaflex Fitness from Arizona at : 1-928-757-9328.

Rotaflex strength builder start
Rotaflex using both handles

Another product that replicates the actual draw motion of a bow is the BowFit and is certainly worth consideration.

Inventor of the BowFit Dave Cole

We can’t stress enough to stretch and warm up first before exercising or you will eventually tear/strain something that you wished you didn’t. Also, when you can do 8 to 10 repetitions of a particular exercise easily then it is time to go up on the weight of the dumbbells. Remember: Macho = Doctor’s new Lexus!

We hope this helps you understand the importance of flexibility and strength in preventing shoulder injury and enhancing your bow hunting abilities. One last word of advice; this is a specific exercise program aimed with one goal in mind. Rotaflex, BowFit or dumbbells should not and will not replace a general strength training program and/or an aerobic regime aimed at improving your heart or cardiovascular system.

As always, enjoy the outdoors and be safe. Visit our website ( for other medically related hunting articles. Now go out there and get the Edge!

 All products mentioned in this article are available at; The BowhuntingStore.

Questions For The Hunt Doctors?  This is your chance to get free medical advise for outdoor related injuries, illnesses or practical medical information.

Paul A J Plante M.D. and Stephen I Merlin M.D.

The Hunt Doctors 

Copyright – The Hunt Doctors


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