Bowhunters: The best exercises for your injured shoulder
In 1994, I was lucky enough to draw an archery elk tag in my home state of Arizona. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks before the hunt, I injured my right shoulder (I am right handed), while drawing my bow with a hand-held draw-weight scale. Hoping that all I needed was a little rest, I decided to head out on the hunt.
On opening day, I called a 6x6 bull into 18 yards — thinking it would be an easy chip shot. However, because of my injured shoulder, I could not draw my bow. After trying several times, I realized that I could not get my bow drawn. Eventually, the bull walked off, leaving me frustrated and wanting to toss my bow across the forest. The next day, the same thing happened on another 6x6 bull. I tried, but again, I could not draw my bow back. Needless to say, I went home later that day — empty-handed and disappointed.
After this disappointing hunt, I visited a physical medicine specialist who prescribed me three to four weeks of physical therapy. The PT helped, and I returned to bowhunting for several years. Over time, my shoulder wore down and I reaggravated the injury and eventually ended up back in physical therapy several times over the next two decades.
In 2008, I reaggravated the injury during another archery elk hunt. This time, I visited a sports medicine specialist who diagnosed me with a labral tear that extended into the biceps tendon and a rotator cuff impingement after an MRI. More therapy helped, but my condition did not improve. A final visit to my doctor found that while I did not need surgery, the condition would be something I needed to deal with for the rest of my life. I completed another round of therapy and realized that regular shoulder exercises would be necessary to keep my shoulder healthy and as strong as possible.
Recently, after a several days spent dealing with severe pain, I decided to make a return visit to my physician. A second MRI confirmed that my condition had not improved. The good news was that no surgery was needed. The bad news was that I would have to continue to deal with the life-changing issue. After a long discussion with my doctor and another round of physical therapy, I finally realized that I needed to exercise my shoulder on a regular basis to keep it as healthy and strong as possible.
The road to recovery
Below are five exercises that I use throughout the year to keep my shoulder as healthy as possible, while minimizing flare ups of shoulder pain.
All of the exercises can be done anywhere with an elastic band, which is available at most local drugstores or online at retailers like Amazon. I suggest two to three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions, performed two to three times per week. These exercises keep all of the small muscles of the shoulder conditioned and strong. The following photo show my physical therapist performing the exercises.
Band shoulder rotation — internal
- Secure a band at medium height on your side and grab the handle with the hand closest to your front side, with your upper arm pressed against your abdomen and elbow bent. Place a rolled-up hand towel between your arm and side for separation.
- Pull the band in toward your abdomen and allow it to slowly return after a short pause.
- Keep your upper arm pressed against your abdomen while keeping your elbow bent throughout the exercise.
Band shoulder rotation — external
- Secure a band at medium height on your side and grab the handle with the hand furthest from it in front of you, with your upper arm pressed against your abdomen and your elbow bent. Place a rolled-up hand towel between your arm and side for separation.
- Pull the band out and away from your abdomen and allow it to slowly return after a short pause.
- Keep your upper arm and the angle in your elbow still throughout the exercise.
Band pull apart
- Stand with your arms in front of you, holding a band between your hands.
- Start by keeping the band taut and move your arms horizontally backward with palms facing down.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
- Keep your head neutral and in a comfortable position.
Lateral wall walk (clockwork)
- Tie an elastic band in a circle about 1 foot in diameter or smaller.
- Bend your arms slightly, and place them flat against a wall at chest height.
- Keep one hand still, and move the other in an up/away, side/away and down/away motion.
- Repeat with the opposite arm.
- Take an elastic band and hold it as you would your bow.
- Draw the band to your anchor position and hold to a count of 5 to 10 seconds.
- Repeat with the opposite arm.
A little closing advice
If at any time you experience shoulder pain, especially if you know it stems from shooting your bow, consider the following:
- First, take a break. Take a few weeks or even a couple months off from shooting your bow. After that, if you think your shoulder is better from the time off, ease back into a shooting regimen.
- If your shoulder does not get better with rest or gets worse after you resume shooting, consult a physician. If possible, find a specialist that deals with shoulder injuries on a regular basis.
Above all else, get your shoulder healthy, keep it in good shape and get back to hunting.