Tension trials in archery

by Jeff Kavanagh | August 23, 2023

Getting and maintaining back tension while drawing, aiming, and shooting your bow is the most important fundamental to learn in archery for success and consistency.

The term “back tension” in archery simply means engaging the correct muscles in your back to draw your bow and effectively load its limbs with stored energy until released. To achieve this, significant movement and power comes from the rhomboid muscles on your upper back, between your spine and scapula. This muscle group is responsible for retracting your scapula toward your spine, the motion associated with driving your elbow backward and drawing your bow.

The misconception with many archers is that a bow is drawn with your arm. Your arm should only act as a lever and not be the power source for the movement. If you are engaging your forearm, bicep or shoulder muscles to draw your bow, you are doing it incorrectly. This can easily cause instability and inconsistencies in the movement. Having to coordinate many muscle groups for a single motion generally results in a collapse of your shot. The larger back muscles are more natural to activate consistently.

Where do you start?

Just as a house needs a proper foundation before the walls go up, your shooting form needs a correct shooting frame to be able to engage your muscles correctly. Starting off with proper posture and alignment of your bones and muscles is critical. By proper position, I mean standing upright with good posture in a ‘t’ frame, balanced, feet comfortably apart and perpendicular to the target, shoulders back, not slouching. This creates solid bone on bone contact throughout your shooting frame and sets the stage to be able to engage your rhomboid muscles correctly. You cannot do that while hunched over or contorted out of alignment because it will inhibit the movements required for the task.

Get tension at the start

It is important to think about obtaining your back tension at the very beginning of your draw cycle and not trying to settle in at anchor and achieve it there. Keeping back tension ensures that your shooting frame will not collapse during your shot. Many archers will sky draw their bow using their arms and shoulders and then try and settle into an anchor position at full draw. 

Or they will start off with a very high elbow and use while drawing, aiming, and shooting your their deltoid muscle to draw. First, this is very bad bow is the most important fundamental to for your shoulder and a common way to damage your rotator cuff. Secondly, we are not machines and cannot transfer a workload from one muscle group to another without first collapsing the weight and losing strength. In archery, this is known as a collapse in form and always happens at the worst possible time, during the release of your arrow. Having this problem means you will never shoot consistently. 

The draw

Standing with your bow arm up toward the target, the elbow of your drawing hand and forearm are held on the same horizontal plane as the arrow. Now as you contract your rhomboid muscles, your elbow is driven straight back behind you until you hit anchor, where you maintain tension on the string. There should be no muscle engagement in your arms or shoulder to pull and hold the force. If you are having difficulty drawing your bow without the aid of your shoulder or arm muscles, it means you are overbowed and need a lighter draw weight.

While at anchor, maintain the tension in your back muscles while you aim. Once you have acquired the target, your release should happen naturally as you relax your fingers allowing the string to slide away from the force you are holding. Then Newton’s first law of motion takes place with your follow through as your elbow, forearm and release hand continue their movement back naturally to their final resting place, or as I like to call it, your second anchor point.

Feeling the muscles work

It can be difficult when learning something new like this to actually feel the muscles we are engaging, especially with a muscle group like our rhomboids that we don’t normally focus on. A great trick I like to do with my students to help is, once they have their bow up, but before they draw, I will poke their rhomboid muscle with my finger. That feeling of the poke on the tissue automatically directs their mind to focus on that muscle group. Another good exercise is to have someone stand behind you and place their hand on the end of your elbow creating some resistance. That will force you to activate your back muscles to simulate the movement of drawing your bow.

Back tension is a universal fundamental in all types of archery. Understanding how it works and then applying it to your own shooting form will greatly benefit your overall shooting ability and consistency. When I see people struggling with their shooting, the majority of the time it’s because they are having problems with maintaining back tension and collapsing their shot when they release their arrow.

Originally published in the August 2022 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS

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