Get Ready to Hunt in Big Game Boot Camp
Is three months enough time to get in shape for that dream elk hunt? Can you be a lean and fit whitetail fanatic by September? Heck yes. The key is to have a plan, and mix in a little motivation and a lot of commitment. We are going to help with the plan--the rest, well, that is going to be up to you. The toughest part is just getting started. Coming up with a productive, well-rounded workout routine can be overwhelming. Should you lift weights, jog, bike, or hike? There is no right or wrong answer because everyone is different, and most important, anything is better than nothing. Let's start with why you need to get off your butt and get ready for fall.
Motivation: The key to most hunters’ in-the-field success is the ability to push with a full effort all the way through the hunt. Have you ever noticed how often a focused and dedicated effort pays off with a kill toward the end of the hunt? By hunting consistently hard and having a student-of-the-game mind-set, you’ll be gaining an edge on your quarry by the hour. I’ve found that toward the end of an elk hunt in the mountains, if I am still giving as full an effort as when I laced up my boots on the first morning of the hunt’s first day, the noose is invariably tightening on a big bull. But the advantages of fitness aren’t limited to improving hunting odds out West. I believe physical conditioning and the work required to get into fighting shape breeds mental confidence, even if you’re sitting on your tail in a treestand. The biggest mistake, for both a hunt and a fitness regimen, is to ignore preparation and go out from day one with both guns a‑blazin’; after a few days, you’ll be mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted, and ready to quit. This plan is designed to build slowly throughout the next three months, so by this fall you’ll be at your hunting prime.
The Schedule, Weeks 1 – 4: Let’s build that base. When I’m getting started for the year, I don’t want to rush into it. Initially, I just want to get out the door and win the day, so to speak. I load up a few new songs on my iPod and head out for a slow jog for at least 30 minutes a day, four days a week. Sometimes I can only find time during my lunch break, early in the morning before work, or after the kids go to bed. Just get out there. Start lifting, just going through the motions.
Exactly how much doesn’t really matter as long as you are taxing yourself. It doesn’t take much to get sore. Focus on good form and building a foundation. Be smart about what you eat. I have as many weaknesses and vices as anyone, but I know that eating junk will sabotage all the work I’m doing in the gym and in the mountains. In general, eat whole grains, like oatmeal and whole-wheat bread or pancakes. Throw in some good protein, like venison, turkey bacon, fish, nuts, peanut butter. Eat fruits and vegetables. Make sure you drink a lot of water. Try to stick with this diet throughout the 12-week training camp.
These five lifts are some of the toughest but are especially well suited to building the kind of strength that pays off in the field. I’ve given particular focus to your legs and core, since everything you do in the woods begins and ends there. Squats: Squats**** build strength in your quads, hamstrings, lower back, and core. Guys who do them are the worst nightmare for big mountain bull elk. Get in the squat rack and get that 45-pound Olympic bar positioned up on your shoulders at the top of the trapezius muscles. Lift the weight off the rack and step back into the open area of the rack. Feet should be slightly wider than shoulder width, facing straight ahead. Do not point your toes outward too much. Once your base is set, with back straight and weight on your heels, lower your butt down until your hamstrings are exactly parallel with the floor. Your lower leg and hamstring will form a 90-degree angle. With squats, lunges, and cleans, form trumps everything. Do them right and you will transform your body. Do them wrong and you might end up hurt.
Military Press: This is an important lift for the mountain backpack hunter. Seated on a bench, pick the weight up off the floor and set a dumbbell on each thigh. One at a time, lift your leg upward quickly–essentially getting the dumbbell started–as you lift the arm on the same side. Between the leg movement and arm strength, get the dumbbell into starting position at shoulder height posthaste. When both dumbbells are at shoulder height, perform a synchronized lift with each arm, extending them upward straight above your head. Lightly touch the dumbbells together, then slowly lower back down to your shoulders.
Lunges: Lunges focus mostly on the quad but also benefit the hamstring and core. The bar sits on your shoulders, behind the head. Begin with your feet shoulder width apart and take one longer-than-average step forward, keeping your torso erect. Bend your front leg until the rear knee touches the floor, then use the forward leg to push up and backward until you reach the starting position. Try to do this in one fluid movement. Repeat with the other leg. Start with just the bar and add weight from there
Pull-Ups: Everyone hates doing pull-ups. It is tough to fake them. Begin by hanging from the pull-up bar, and in one smooth motion pull yourself up until your chin is even with or slightly above the bar. Lower yourself back to the starting position and repeat. Your arms should be straight when in the lower position, no bend at the elbows at all. For starters just try to do 3 sets of 3 reps. Work your way up from there. When you can do 3 sets of 10 you are at the top of the curve. Alternate hand positions between a wide grip and a narrow grip to target different muscles. Or, for another hardcore variation, touch the back of your neck to the bar, as shown.
Cleans: If I could only do one lift to get in hunting shape, this would be it. Start off with a weight you know you can lift to your chin–45 pounds, say, which is the weight of an Olympic bar without collars. Stand with your toes under the bar, shoulder width apart. Grasp the bar firmly. With your back kept straight, your butt low and your head up, explode up using mostly your legs. Pull the bar upward as fast as you can, and in one motion snap your wrists and get under the bar as it reaches your chin.** Continued next slide.**
Lower the bar in a controlled fashion. As soon as the weight hits the ground, repeat, exploding upward again for another rep. I try to do 4 sets of 10 reps not counting my warm-up sets. Be certain to build up into this lift gradually. Always add weight cautiously. With improper technique, it could be real easy to get hurt.
Schedule, Weeks 5 – 8: At this point you’re a month into boot camp, so let’s start ramping it up. When running, start to work in some intervals. Intervals are increases in speed for a shorter duration. Jog at your normal pace for, say, 10 minutes to get warmed up, then for 3 minutes increase your pace to where you are really striding out. Dial it back down to your comfortable pace for about 5 minutes, then ramp it back up for 3 minutes, etc. This increase in intensity will increase metabolism. Another thing I like to do is incorporate some hill work in my routine. I am not running any longer than normal, but my 30 to 40 minutes will be on a hill instead of on the flat. This is much different and much more intense. Do this once or twice a week, and the fat will start melting off. Or, one day of the week on the hill, instead of running, throw on the hunting pack with some weight inside. For guys with knee issues, an old trick is to fill up a couple of gallon jugs with water, haul them up the hill in your pack, then dump them out for the trip down to save wear and tear on your knees. With weight training, it’s time to increase what we’re asking of our bodies. The base is built. I start adding a little extra weight and maybe do fewer reps. For the first four weeks, I’ve been doing all my lifts with weight that allows 15 to 20 reps per set, which is fairly light. Now, I throw on more weight and do each move 12 times. My goal is to build a five-set “pyramid” of reps: You warm up with light weight and do 12 reps, add weight and do 10, add a little more and crank out 6 or 8. Then you subtract weight and add reps on the next two levels of the pyramid. So the pyramid looks something like this: 12-10-8-10-12. During this stage of my training camp, I follow this routine for each exercise.
Schedule, Weeks 9-12: It feels good now, real good. We are on the home stretch to hunting season and have a lot of confidence thanks to all the hard work and dedication to self-improvement. Running is more of the same, only now at least one time a week, I throw in a long run on the weekend. A long run doesn’t necessarily need to be 100 percent running. But what it does need to be is a long time on your feet–around an hour and a half, or depending on your fitness level, maybe even two hours. Remember, our goal is to be in prime hunting shape. When I hunt elk, I am on my feet most of the day, sometimes for 12 hours a day, seven days straight, with weight on my back the entire time. I expect a lot of myself on the hunt, which means I need to expect a lot of my body in training. The problem hunters get into is this: If you never push your body prior to the hunt, how can you expect it to perform at its peak on the mountain? It won’t. So, while I am not saying you need to go on a 12-hour hike, I would suggest doing something outside your comfort zone. During this part of training camp, I am loving the gym. I can see the results. My body has responded. I am more toned, muscle definition is increased, veins are popping when I lift, my waist is tighter, my neck is bigger, and my legs stronger. I am ready to hunt.
The Payout: Over the years I’ve known a number of guys who wanted to get in hunting shape. They started pushing themselves, expecting more of themselves in all facets of life, and not surprisingly this carried over to the hunting woods and resulted in a tag-punching epidemic. My own success has been off the charts since I stepped up my commitment to being the very best I could be. I killed eight animals on nine bust-your-hump hunts in 2008, including Dall sheep in Alaska. Last year I finished my first 100-mile mountain ultramarathon, the Bighorn 100. I’ve arrowed a 6- or 7-point bull elk for six straight seasons. Not bad for a public-land hunter with a full-time job. It all starts the same: with a desire to get better and the first step in a plan.