By Nick Simonson
Pulling the pheasant dummy down from the rafters from under the deck in the backyard, I whipped it twice in a circle before launching it across the greening grass, and it bounced with a clank against the metal fence. On the rebound, my lab jumped up and snared the foam-and-plastic bird and returned it to my hand for the second of four dozen throws. By the time we were done, I could feel the delayed onset muscle soreness from the previous day’s arm workout and realized as my dog sat panting at my feet, cashed in from his workout, that not only had training camp begun for him, but once again for me.
In recent years, I’ve done things backwards. Where I used to use winter and spring to get fit for summer, I find myself focused on fall to get through my early morning workouts, knowing that the activities undertaken in this season will make me better in the field this autumn, where my mileage really gets upped in pursuit of grouse and pheasants. While I rarely find myself doing step-back lunges, squats or calf raises in the grasses of the open prairie or along an old logging trail in the woods, I know those exercises make me better able to overcome the extended challenges of a hike and sometimes sprint behind my bird dog. What follows are some key exercises and muscle groups I focus on in the comfort of my home, with nothing more than a set of dumbbells, that have made me stronger in the field and helped avoid injury, strain and a faster burnout than some of my contemporaries come autumn.
Don’t Skip Leg Day
I’ll be the first to admit, the allure of doing push-ups, bicep curls and shoulder presses that work those glamor muscles which show faster tone and increase in size are part of the reason many people including myself put together a workout program but end up skipping leg day. It’s usually the toughest workout, because it stresses some big muscles, and even when they’re sore and swollen, nobody stops to flex their leg and say, “check out my quads, bro!” But the hamstring, quadriceps and gluteus maximus muscles along the thigh and butt are what power any hunter up and down hills and should be a key consideration in any pre-autumn training, particularly for those venturing into high altitudes or rugged terrain come October or November.
Standard squats and wall squats tax the glutes and build them up and a series of lunges to the front, sides and back hit hamstrings and quadriceps in addition to those butt muscles. Variations on both basic exercises will help spread the workout around each muscle and increase stability, as with any leg-related effort, there is some element of balance involved as well. Add weights and increase them as each move gets mastered. Stay focused on form, keeping abs and lower back tight utilizing the leg muscles without straining those adjacent areas. With all the options, along with some calf raises thrown into the mix, it’s easy to create an engaging leg workout that will help get you on track for fall and any rises in the field, and give you a reason to look forward to the effort.
With mastery of those standard leg exercises, consider something more explosive to further enhance the field power of your lower body. Plyometrics is the exercise process of incorporating short bursts of effort into jumps, foot switches, squats and other quick leaping motions particularly focused on legs but also adding pushups into some combinations. Exercises like the burpee (something everyone loves to hate), jumping lunges and squats where those standard movements are performed quickly with a jump between the apex of each repetition, will build power, quickness, and endurance while providing a great cardio workout. Start slowly and work speed into the equation, staying focused on balance and good form.
While plyo isn’t for everyone, you can feel the difference a month into any training program that incorporates it. Running and walking become easier, hills seem to melt away on a hike, and the experience of chasing down a bounding bird dog on the trail of a running rooster becomes a joy and not a breath-stealing sprint. Start with a shorter 15-to-20-minute workout in a program and build up from there to add to lower body power in the field.
Twist and Turn
Finally, the muscles of the core including abdominals, hip flexors and the supporting cast that surround them are crucial considerations in getting set for fall. Everyone has had that instance where a bird has flushed alongside or behind them requiring a quick twist to catch up with it. Now, add in an angled hill or uneven ground and the process becomes a bit trickier. When worked right, core muscles aid not only in turning the body during a shot in a smooth and stable manner, but also when getting to that point, providing increased steadiness in the field.
While tried-and-true, sit-ups and crunches are a bit out of fashion, and there are so many variations on them that reduce stress on the neck and back over the traditional versions. In addition to these curling methods that flex the traditional abdominal muscles, exercises like on-the-back leg raises and flutter kicks and even standing knee raises, leg lifts and toe touches add variety and have less impact, while targeting every core muscle located from the hips to just below the chest, including the lower back. In conjunction with building power in the legs, a strong core will help provide balance and stability in pulling off a successful hunt, and make a twisting shot a bit easier to pull off.
Incorporate some cardio – walking, running, biking, elliptical or swimming – to increase field endurance; and yes, work those glamor muscles too, giving a day or two to back, chest, shoulders and arms. As with any workout program, check with a physician and talk about your goals to determine what level is right for you, and never be afraid to modify the program when tired or sore, resting as required. But don’t skip leg day if you can help it!
Featured Photo: Hillside Hike. Whether in the uplands, the badlands, or the highlands, preparing for the rigors of fall with the right summer workouts will make hunters more able to deal with the challenges and ultimately, more successful in pursuit of all game species. Simonson Photo.
Nick Simonson is Dakota Edge Outdoors’ Lead Writer, Editor and Managing Member, with more than two decades of outdoors journalism experience.