7 Exercises to avoid as a bowhunter

And 7 exercises to replace them and make those shoulders and rotator cuffs stronger.

Public land whitetail in Wisconsin's north woods.


I have seen the gambit of injuries that can hamper the string and stick enthusiast. As hunters, we need to stay in shape year round, and strength training plays a major role in our game. While there are a few sites out there that discuss the exercises that you should perform to increase archery strength, there are not many authors that talk about the exercises you should avoid. Especially in regards to bowhunting.


Before we move on, let's discuss shoulder impingement syndrome or SIS. SIS is a condition when the tendons as well as the bursa can get inflamed in the shoulder. The risk increases with overhead activities that include repetitive movements such as painting, swimming or any other overhead motion. However, the motion does not always need to be directly overhead to cause SIS. When the upper arm bone (humerus) gets above level (90 degrees of flexion or abduction) you can experience SIS especially with repetitive movements.


Now you're not suddenly going to place your shoulders in jeopardy hanging your tree stand above your head. The shoulders are meant to go above 90 degrees. However, it is the repetitive motion or use of heavy objects consistently above 90 degrees that sometimes causes issues.


The reason I mention SIS is that you should be aware of what it is as it relates to bowhunting injuries. As bowhunters, our shoulders are one of the components that we have to make sure are in great shape and in proper working order. So you will see a reference to what SIS is in the upcoming points and why I have selected some of the exercises that should not be part of the bowhunters workout.


Let’s get started.


1. Upright Rows - Upright rows are one of the worst exercises for the shoulders. Placing the shoulder into internal rotation along with lifting the weight is just setting the shoulder up for disaster. This exercise is the poster child for SIS, impinging the tendon under subacromial arch as well as putting pressure on the nerves.


Perform this instead - Shoulder shrugs. Shoulder shrugs are a much safer option to help strengthen your shoulders and in particular your upper traps. Try to bring your shoulder blades together as you perform shoulder shrugs and do not roll your shoulders when performing the exercise.


2. Close Grip Bench - The close grip bench places a lot of stress on the wrists, especially if the trainee brings those hands well inside their elbows. As you increase weight, the forearms and the wrist do not keep up strength wise to the pectoralis major and minor (chest muscles), which creates more stress on the wrists. As bowhunters the wrist is an integral part in our shooting form.


Perform this instead - Dumbell presses with hands facing one another and dumbbells together. This takes the wrist out of that severe angle and allows you to still work the middle of your chest.


3. Side planks - When performing a side plank we apply a lot of stress into the glenoid socket. This can create discomfort and issues with the shoulders. Over time, this exercise can cause pitting of the cartilage that protects the humeral head (the top of the arm bone) and the Glenoid socket (where the humeral head articulates with the scapula).


Perform this instead - Elbow to knee crunch. This is a much safer alternative to the side plank as there is little to no stress placed on the shoulders and it still works the obliques.



4. Behind the neck pulldown - This should be a given for all gym goers by now but you will be surprised at how many people I still see performing this exercise. It places a lot of stress on the rotator cuff muscles and contributes to SIS. Another issue is that the exercise places a lot of stress on the cervical muscles and can cause neck discomfort.


Perform this instead - High rows leaning back (Approx. 20 degrees). Leaning back away from the cable, even slightly, will take the undo stress off those vulnerable joints.



5. Smith Machine - The Smith machine and the concept of natural movement do not go together. The problem with the Smith machine is that it stays on a fixed plane and our shoulders do not, causing friction of the tendons and within the joints. For instance when we perform a bench press our shoulders do not go in a straight line. Some prefer the J path while others will use a slight diagonal path from overhead to chest. We move in dynamic planes and the Smith machine is anything but dynamic. The Smith machine moves from A to B and nothing in between.


Perform this instead - Fairly simple fix. Use dumbbells or a weight bar for whatever you were trying to accomplish with the Smith machine. However, try to keep the shoulders in external rotation over internal rotation when possible, when performing an exercise.


6. Tri-cep Bench Dip - Once again we are placing those shoulders into SIS territory. The further down we dip as well as adding weight to this exercise only increases the odds of SIS as well as rotator cuff problems.The exercise does mimic a bit the treestand climbing motion. While this may seem like an ample reason to add this exercise to your repertoire it should still be avoided as the tricep bench dip is a different angle on the shoulders than the treestand climbing motion.


Perform this instead - Tricep kickbacks. Be sure to keep the elbow up and concentrate on proper form. Keep the weight reasonable, as too heavy of a weight will cause your elbow to drop and you will be working more posterior shoulder instead of your triceps.



7. Kettlebell Swings - Kettlebell swings are not something you hear much about in regards to unsafe exercises. In reality, the concentric motion along with the weight is not the biggest issue. It’s the stopping motion or eccentric component of the exercise that causes people some trouble as the shoulder sometimes cannot stop the momentum of the weight. For example when people “swing” the weight upwards, the muscles, ligaments and tendons have little to no issue with that motion. However, something has to stop or put on the brakes of that motion, especially with heavier weights (besides gravity). The braking or where the individual tries to slow the weight down is when the injury sometimes occurs.


Perform this instead - Medicine ball throw with both hands. The primary reason that people utilize kettlebell swings is to increase their power, balance and core strength. These same attributes can be addressed in a safe manner utilizing a lightweight medicine ball when both hands are being used. Use of a small trampoline, ball slams, or using a buddy for a game of toss with the medicine ball is a better option.



There is a common theme here and that is to protect those shoulders. The “not so ideal” exercises I listed here are not the best bang for your buck (pun intended). Remember, that these are just suggestions and obviously you can choose to perform these exercises if you want. However, through my work in rehab/personal training, I would say that the odds are against you the longer you perform these exercises. Please find the alternative exercises listed as a way to keep your shoulders strong throughout the bowhunting season.


-Clint Ward



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