Exercise Increases Archery Accuracy

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Shoot regularly and exercise to keep muscles in shape and increase accuracy

Muscle memory is arguably one of the most critical aspects of proficient shooting. With the 2013 fall hunting season right around the corner, many of us are picking up our bows for the first time in several months.

Have you ever drawn your bow after a hiatus, only to have every muscle ache, and bones or joints feel like they’re cracking under the strain of the now unfamiliar weight? Sadly, I have. If we’re honest, most of us have, at some point, experienced this. If we want to avoid this discomfort, regular shooting and exercise is in order.

Archery demands that our bodies employ specific muscles, those that are seldom worked in the same way during everyday activities. Likewise, archery, as a precision shooting sport, requires the training of not only our muscles, but also our brains to follow a repetitious process. If you follow my column, you know I frequently mention the draw, anchor, aim, release, and follow-through steps of shooting. From start to finish, this sequence is all about repetition and consistency. Just like any athletic activity, archery involves a rigid, biomechanical process – it’s about moving from a conscious, step-by-step motion requiring muscle strain to a natural, kinesthetic sequence where muscle memory takes over without discomfort and minimal expenditure of energy.


The challenges

If you are a competitive archer, you are probably committed to a regular shooting schedule. You already understand the importance of repetition and muscle memory. The limitations most of us face, especially living in a cold climate, have to do with weather and opportunity. As soon as the snow comes and the mercury drops down into sub-zero temperatures, shooting outside becomes less appealing. Indoor shooting is preferred and that means either driving to a range or setting ourselves up to shoot at home. So many barriers confront us that we have to find alternative practice and workout opportunities to facilitate muscle memory year round. Often the barriers are too plentiful and many of us hang up our bows for a time.


Perfect practice is imperative

From spring through summer and on into the fall, opportunities to shoot are plentiful. As long as we can find a place to chuck a few arrows, all we need is a safe place to shoot and a portable target.

Equally important, though, is perfect practice. With repetitious, biomechanical movements, our bodies remember the motions, regardless of whether they are done correctly or incorrectly. For this reason, it is imperative that we work hard at maintaining proper form with each and every shot, and this includes everything from our stance to our back tension, and the sequence of drawing, anchoring, aiming, releasing and following through until the arrow hits the target.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a range nearby, nothing beats 3D shooting. For me, going through a 3D course a few times each week seems to work. I also like to throw five or 10 arrows in the back yard each day to sustain muscle memory.

On the other hand, leave your bow alone for more than a week or two and it takes that much longer to regain fitness and re-establish that muscle memory.

The amount we practice is a personal thing – I know guys that shoot once a week and for them it seems to be enough. For me, it has to be at least a couple times each week if I want to stay in shape.

Over the years, I’ve experienced both the benefits of regular practice as well as the consequences of slacking off. When I noticed it most was during the fall hunting season. When practice was consistent, the process of going to full draw, aiming, anchoring, releasing and following through on my shot was so natural and comfortable that I rarely experienced muscle strain. Alternatively, when my practice regimen was less stringent, my accuracy suffered and my muscles sometimes got sore. Where muscle memory is most notable is when you have to hold at full draw for any length of time.

A great firsthand example of this occurred last fall when I rattled in a mature white tail. As the buck approached, I pulled back my bowstring and held at full draw. The buck had only two more steps to take and his vitals would have been exposed for an ideal broadside shot. As luck would have it, he stopped short with his chest blocked by two large trees. Thankfully, I had been practicing consistently and throughout the season to ensure that my muscles where in shape. I held at full draw for three full minutes, at which time I began to shake! To be honest, this was a new record for me. Thankfully, the buck turned, allowing me to let down. Unfortunately, he never did present another opportunity and slowly meandered out of my life forever.

My point here is that year-round practice is beneficial because it helps us maintain muscle memory. I know several bow hunters who practice shooting in their basements each winter. Seldom can they get more than 10 metres at best, but it’s really about maintaining muscle fitness more so than shooting distance.

One of the best strategies I know to motivate and encourage regular shooting practice, when going to the range isn’t an option, is to keep your bow and target accessible in a location that makes flinging a few arrows easy. I know one fellow who stores his bow in the garage. Each morning before work he launches two or three arrows. He does the same when he returns home at the end of the day. As single practice opportunities go, it may seem trivial. Cumulatively, however, this can add up to over 2,000 arrows each year. In other words, his muscles get that much practice and exercise annually.

Indeed, not everyone has the ability to shoot in their garage or yard, but think about your own opportunities or how you might modify this simple example to suit your own needs. For me, I can shoot off of my deck in the yard. The only legitimate limitations relate to the extreme, deep freeze cold temperatures we often face in a typical prairie winter.


Important muscle groups

To understand the muscle groups most relevant for archery, it’s imperative that we understand what muscle memory really means. In layman’s terms, it refers to the process that the neuromuscular system goes through as it memorizes motor skills. Muscle memory is established over time, through repetition of both gross and fine motor skills, and the brain’s activity to remember those skills. As we shoot repeatedly, day after day, the neural system learns those fine and gross motor skills. Ultimately, our bodies perform kinesthetically.

Specific muscle groups are used each and every time we draw and shoot. Strengthening these muscles enhances our form and accuracy. Most important are the rotator cuff and deltoid muscles that surround the shoulder, the biceps and brachialis, which are the arm muscles, the trapezius muscles of the upper back and finally a variety of forearm and hand muscles are used to hold the bow string and grip and work a mechanical release.


Exercise options

So, what do we do when shooting is not an option? If we can’t get to a range or don’t have the ability to release arrows at home, we can certainly continue to work out with weights.

Resistance training is helpful, but it’s important to work the precise muscle groups with the exact motions and similar draw weight that you pull with your bow. Exercises like rowing, pull-ups, shoulder shrugs, forward dumbbell fly movements and back presses can be good for working the trapezius, deltoid and rotator cuff muscles. Bicep curls and pull-ups are suitable exercises to develop the arm muscles. In terms of working the hand muscles, grip flexors are a good option, as are a range of other activities that require repetitious hand strength.

In the end, to be a consistent archer requires fitness. Only by practicing and maintaining muscle memory can we hope to achieve excellent results in the field.

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