Back tension is a technique used by many archers to shoot with improved accuracy. Back muscles are the main group of muscles archers use to hold at full draw, making it essential for new archers to understand the importance of properly using these muscles when shooting. Once you learn how to use back tension properly, you’ll increase your accuracy and consistency dramatically.
Using your back muscles keeps you focused on using large muscle groups vs. many small muscle groups, i.e. forearm, bicep, shoulder. This helps reduce tension across smaller muscle groups that can introduce errors into your shot.
What Is Back Tension?
Back tension is an archery term that describes the process of properly using your back muscles when shooting. When you hold your bow at full draw, the main back muscle groups you should be using are the rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and teres major/minor muscles. Since these important muscle groups allow you to correctly hold your bow when at full draw, there’s no need to use additional muscle groups and instead, focus on using these four larger muscle groups while aiming.
Many new archers hold a lot of tension in their forearm and hands when holding a bow in the shooting position, practicing is key to shift that tension away from smaller muscles groups into larger muscles groups. This transfer of tension is called, “transfer to hold”.
Why Is Back Tension Important?
Shooting with proper back tension allows archers to shoot with consistency. It also helps prevent overuse injuries that may occur with smaller muscle groups. While archery injuries don’t happen very often, one of the more common types of archery injuries is rotator cuff injuries. Archers who experience this type of injury may not even be able to participate in the sport, as it usually takes many months to recover from a rotator cuff injury.
NOTE: Improper use of the back muscles is a top reason why new archers can’t establish proper form. Shooting poorly is also a consequence of not understanding the importance of back tension. Archers must understand that most of the drawing power of their shot doesn’t come from arm muscles but from using their back muscles.
How To Shoot With Back Tension
Understanding how to practice this technique correctly is your first step. Since the last thing you want to experience is an injury, it’s essential for you to carefully follow the steps listed below. And remember, practice makes perfect so be sure to set aside a certain amount of time to practice shooting while keeping proper back tension in mind.
1. Proper Shot Setup
Every new archer needs to understand the importance of a proper stance, nocking, hook & grip, set, set-up, draw to load, and anchoring before setting up their shot. While it will take some time for new archers to master the shot process, it’s essential that the previous steps are done correctly for effective back tension.
2. Move Elbow Back
An archer’s elbow should be in line with or slightly behind the arrow to support proper back tension. This allows the elbow to rotate behind the head, which in turn moves the shoulder blade closer to the spine. A great tip for keeping one’s elbows in their proper place is to raise their release hand elbow up and back as you pull through the shot.
3. Transfer To Hold
This essential step requires archers to transfer their draw weight away from their forearm, biceps, and shoulders into their back muscles so as to align with their skeletal frame. Since the drawing process is for the most part a rotation around the archer’s spine, correctly engaging the back muscles while drawing is extremely important. Once an archer is properly anchored, they’ll need to transfer any weight in their forearm, biceps, and shoulders to the large muscle groups in their back. This is the strongest holding position an archer can have, making it essential for new archers to properly learn this movement so they can shoot more efficiently.
4. Expansion & Aiming
Once in the transfer to hold position, it’s now time to start the expansion and aiming process. This step involves the continual moving back of the upper arm in order to gently apply pressure to the release. If you’re shooting fingers, you will begin letting your fingers relax while increasing back tension. This steps is essentially starting the shot process, aiming and expanding as you begin the process of releasing your arrow.
5. Release/Follow Through
As expansion increases and focus is held on target, it’s time to release the arrow and follow through. The release process requires archers to keep their bow arm shoulder still, expand their chest, and release the bow string while keeping your sights on target. Upon release, your elbow drops back, the arrow clears the riser, and you stay on target to minimize any user error.
Back Tension Practice
Practicing at home is not only an option, it’s highly recommended. New archers must learn how to use back tension properly if they want to be the best shooter they can possibly be. Using a back tension trainer can help. Simply take two stretch bands and stand in front of a large mirror. While looking in the mirror, use the stretch bands as you go through your shooting sequence. Now look closely at your form. What does your form look like? How does it feel? Is most of the resistance located in your arms?
While the difference in using your arms vs. using your back may look minimal, there are differences. For example, only using your arms often causes a forward collapse, which will cause major inconsistencies on recurve/longbows. Using proper back tension allows you to pull through and expand on the shot with consistency. Stretch bands also help archers strengthen the right back muscles, making it easier to hold and aim with less fatigue.
If you happen to be suffering from any target panic issues, you may benefit from using a back tension release when practicing. Back tension releases offer a calm, relaxed way to shoot, making new (and experienced) shooters more accurate. Learning how to use back tension release means you’re using your back muscles to fire the shot vs. pulling the trigger with your finger. If you’re curious about this option, there’s an article about why you need a back tension release.
Issues to Avoid
There are a few issues you may come across when first shooting with back tension. Understanding these issues allows you to avoid them, saving you lots of time and the ability to avoid experiencing any possible injuries.
Weak Back Tension
If your arm doesn’t drop back after release and instead just stays in place, this means you’re not applying proper back tension throughout the entire shot. In turn, this results in an unstable shot due to it collapsing, ultimately resulting in a weak shot. Remember, you need to control the bow vs. the bow controlling you.
Back tension should apply gradual pressure to your trigger release until it fires. Be sure not to intentionally pull the trigger using your finger muscles. Instead, focus on locking your finger/thumb around the trigger and using back tension to make a surprise release.
Pulling Too Hard
There’s no need to pull hard into the back wall of a compound bow, which tends to happen often to archers who are taking back tension too far. Instead, focus on applying constant tension in order for you to properly release the shot.
With all of that said, I have done all of these before, so it’s not always easy. I have been at full draw with my compound bow when all of a sudden the string lunges forward because I didn’t use enough back tension to stay in the valley. I have had major issues with punching while using a caliper release, severely impacting my accuracy. I’ve also pulled too hard into the back wall, creating too much tension and a bad release.
The point is to be aware of what you’re doing. If you notice anything that negatively impacts your accuracy, it’s something to work on and work through.
Now that you understand the importance of back tension, following the above steps ensures you’re learning how to use your back muscles correctly when shooting. Once you’ve put in some hours practicing you’ll start to understand what it should feel like when using proper back tension. The fact that your back muscles offer more stability when shooting makes it an extremely important part of becoming an accurate shooter.