It’s no secret that shooting requires accurate use of specific muscles and muscle groups. While competitive shooters will spend many hours at great expense working on their match rigs, we often forget about what has to drive that gear. Exercise is drastically important to vitality, and being in shape will help increase your scores.
About seven years ago, I decided my health needed a major overhaul. Years of bad diet, inactivity, smoking and drinking had me 50 pounds overweight. At my worst, I was barely able to my put socks on, and my lung capacity would be exhausted before walking up a flight of steps. After meeting someone in their 50s who was in better shape than I could ever dream to be in, I made a pact with myself to improve.
After years of exercise coupled with diet and lifestyle changes, I found that life became much easier. Another pleasant realization was that my range sessions did not take such a toll on me that they had in the past. My scores reflected this improvement. Finding the intersection of two life-defining passions, research and experimentation resulted in specific workouts that helped me reach both personal and marksmanship goals. Over time, I determined that fitness for shooting revolved around four specific areas—strength, endurance, stability and flexibility. Strength for support, endurance for continued steadiness and flexibility for comfort in different shooting positions. This article shares what I found worked the best for my particular situation.
Regarding strength, it helps to know which muscles are involved for holding your particular firearm. While we train to reduce muscle use when shooting, it is never completely eliminating. Holding a pistol or long gun requires the use of our shoulders, wrists and forearms. The stronger these muscles are, the easier it is to hold the firearm steady.
Shoulder strengthening can be accomplished with simple plate raises. Grab a 10-, 25- or 45-pound plate at 9 and 3 o’clock. Starting with the plate at waist height, raise the plate in front of you to eye level. Once you get it to the point where you can see through the hole, pause for a moment then return to your resting position. This eliminates any chance to start a pendulum effect, robbing your muscles of the chance to do the work. Pick a weight that fatigues you at rep 8-10. Remember that high weight at low repetitions builds strength, while high repetitions at low weight will build endurance and definition.
Complete three sets of 8-10 with a two-minute break between each rep. Every week increase the weight, and soon you’ll notice that heavy Garand will start to feel like a AR.
Addressing wrists and forearms can be done with wrist curls. These two muscle groups are directly responsible for grip strength. The stronger a shooter’s grip, the better control they will have of the firearm, leading to better accuracy and faster follow up shots. Grab a barbell and kneel before a weight bench. Lay your arms palms up on the bench with your hands hanging off. Slowly curl your hands upwards, towards your body without any other part of your arm leaving the bench. Follow that routine of the same three sets of 8-10 with a two-minute break between each, and after a few weeks that .40 S&W will seem to kick like a 9 mm.
Accuracy also comes from finger strength and the ability to isolate finger movement. This can be developed on the couch, at your desk or even during ceasefires. This will help you to squeeze a trigger without moving any other fingers, something critical for fast shooting where slop will often sneak in.
Grip Master builds this handy device that allows you to strengthen each finger independently.
Endurance workouts can be interesting. Your goal should be to adapt your muscles to a heavier weight than they usually have to support for any given operation. High power rifle shooters, smallbore silhouette shooters and bullseye pistol shooters can benefit from endurance training. My pistol routine is simple.Grab a 20-pound dumbbell, present out in a traditional grip and stance and hold for as long as possible. I repeat 3-5 sets and try for five seconds longer each week. The rifle version is very similar except in place of a dumbbell I use a pre-fab barbell. Simply hold the barbell in an offhand position and institute the same routine.
Above all, proper cardio is critical to endurance. Conventional shooting wisdom teaches you to start squeezing the trigger during that 5 to 8 second respiratory pause. Imagine that pause being a much more comfortable 30 seconds long.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HITT) is one of the best ways to build cardiovascular endurance. This exercise is the rotation of segments of extreme push, followed by active rest. As our friends who compete in the biathlon have shown us, cardio doesn’t have to be boring. Try this routine if you have a private range at your disposal:
Start position: Firearm on bench unloaded with a chamber flag in place, target 100 yards downrange.
At the start signal, run full speed towards the target, tap it and jog back.
Once you return to the firing line, load the firearm with three rounds and fire.
Ensure firearm is unloaded, reinsert chamber flag and repeat.
Repeat for 30 minutes.
Stability is provided by muscles that keep you on target during the respiratory pause, namely your legs and core.
It’s not surprising that leg muscles will keep you on target. However, there is an abundance of shooters that discount the importance of abdominals and lower back. These muscles are the link between your legs and upper body. Think of them as the mortar in the bricks that build the shooting platform. One move is all that is needed to start seeing an improvement in this area, the squat. This versatile move is referred to by powerlifters as one of “the big moves” and it gets this classification because it is just that. Squatting recruits not only the legs but the surrounding muscles as well, just be sure you do it properly. To avoid injury, take the time to study this move or recruit the help of a personal trainer. Most gym employees should be knowledgeable enough to demonstrate the proper technique.
The fourth pillar of my routine is flexibility. In the shooting sports, flexibility equates to how easily you can comfortably hold a shooting position, particularly an awkward one. Being comfortable in a cross-legged seated position or around low cover will help to keep you from rushing your shots. To improve overall flexibility I have found that a seated reach stretch gets the job done the quickest. To perform this stretch simply sit on a mat with your legs in front of you splayed in a V. With your hands together reach as far forward as you can and touch the floor. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds. Each week, work towards reaching further or holding longer, and soon you will be able to navigate any course-of-fire without moans and groans.
This article is not intended to be a complete workout routine, instead think of them as segments that can be incorporated into an existing routine, or use them to get started. In addition, be sure to consult a physician before starting any form of exercise and properly stretch before each session. Stretching alone has a huge presence in today’s fitness world as well. Well-known routines include yoga, pilates and several forms of martial arts. Finally, whatever you decide to adopt, be sure to include a balanced diet and adequate sleep.