By Mark V. Lonsdale
One of the first pieces of wisdom that I learned in physiology and kinesiology was SAID – Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. In other words, we develop levels or strength, stamina, flexibility, and fitness based on the demands that we place on our bodies. The topic of SAID had come up in the SCUBA diving program that I taught at UCLA, a part of scientific diving and underwater kinesiology studies. This was in reference to the need to develop the correct leg muscles for swimming with fins (flippers) as opposed to the muscles we used for walking or running. Only swimming with fins loads the specific muscles needed to be a strong diver, and individuals who are not conditioned to fin swimming are more prone to leg cramps while diving.
It is also a well-known axiom that the best physical training for any sport is actually doing the specific sport. Using Judo as an example, it is not sufficient to develop strength in the gym and stamina through just running, since Judo requires very specific skills, techniques, and reflexes. Only through a well-structured Judo training program does one advance in Judo. While additional strength training and cardio have benefits, they are not a substitute for duration and intensity in Judo training.
Similarly, with archery, form and technique are far more important than brute strength and stamina, even though it does require a level of strength to draw a bow and stamina to do it 100 to 200 times a day. This also explains why USA Archery have Specific Physical Training (SPT) Drills in their Level II Instructor manual.
Just because an individual can bench-press 300 pounds and run a marathon does not mean he or she will be a competitive archer. But while being an athlete undoubtedly aids in any sport, the specificity of demands in archery are unique to archery. This is one reason we recommend beginning with a lighter draw-weight bow to first learn form and shot process, before moving up to the heavier draw weights associated with championship archery. Keep in mind that the archers who are successful on the national and international stage have been drawing bows and shooting arrows for years if not decades. In that time they have developed the muscles and skills specific to archery.
Two mistakes that novices can make in archery are “over bowing” themselves by getting a bow with too much poundage, and shooting too much too soon. The first is more of a problem with men and male teens who think they need to get a bow suited to hunting and to “run with the big dogs” – something in the range of 50 to 60+ pounds. Big mistake! The other issue is reading that top archers are shooting 250+ arrows a day in training, but not taking into account their years of adaptive training and specific muscle development.
So start light and start slow. A 25# to 30# bow of the appropriate size, shooting 60 arrows per session is a good place to start for an adult. Youths or teens may be better with 15# to 25# depending on their age, physical development, and the recommendations of their coach.
As for the number of arrows and frequency of training to start out, listen to your body. It is important to allow time for aches and pains to recover between sessions. Since a novice archer is using joints, tendons, and muscles unique to archery, it takes time for these to adapt to the new imposed demands. It is also important to get coaching and start out with the correct form so as to avoid painful tendon over-use injuries or tennis elbow.
Hooking the bow string can also result in some discomfort if the draw weight is too high and the fingers have not been given time to adapt. Apart from working with stretch bands at home or on the road, one exercise that can strengthen the three fingers used for hooking is carrying a bucket with those three fingers and matching the weight of the bucket to the draw weight on your bow.
With time and patience the novice archer will soon become a competent competitor and will be able to upgrade equipment and draw weight commensurate with their physical adaptation and development. Keep in mind that it is difficult to aim with any level of precision if you are struggling to hold the bow at full draw.
To conclude, general health and fitness are important in any sporting activity echoed by a common mantra, “athlete first – archer second.” But this can be a little misleading. A target archer does not need to have the strength of a powerlifter or the stamina of a long distance runner, but good general fitness does improve overall performance and stress management. Precision shooting requires management of breathing, heart rate, nerves, and stress – all of which benefit from enhanced levels of fitness. So the path to success is regular practice and competent coaching, supplemented with targeted strength and cardio training.