by Randy Ulmer
For any archer to shoot well, consistently, a few fundamentals must be followed and a very important one is the proper use of your back muscles.
Put simply, back tension refers to using your back muscles to hold a bow at full draw while you aim and release. Back tension is the contraction of several muscles in the back, the most important of which are the rhomboid muscles between the scapulas (shoulder blades). When the rhomboids contract, the scapula rotates slightly and moves toward the spine.
One way to demonstrate back tension is to imagine you’re trying to pinch a dollar bill between your shoulder blades while at full draw. Another is to come to the full draw position (without a bow in your hands) and have a buddy stand in front of you, grab your elbows and try to pull them together, towards the front of your body. Try to resist him. Because you’ve removed your arm muscles from the equation, your back muscles are the only things preventing your upper body from collapsing. This also demonstrates how your arms and hands can remain relatively relaxed during a well-executed shot.
Those exercises serve only to illustrate which muscles should be used. You must not overdo back tension by forcing your rhomboids to be unnecessarily tense. I really don’t like the term “tension” because it implies a tense attitude and that’s actually what we’re trying to avoid. If you use your back muscles properly, you’ll be much more relaxed than if you use your arms to hold the bow at full draw.
If you’re too aggressive with back tension your release elbow won’t move directly backward — in line with the arrow’s path — at the release, but rather it’ll move toward your back. The same is true with your bow arm. If it moves left (right-handers) you have too much back tension.
Two things might help you achieve solid back tension. Roll your release hand counterclockwise (viewed from behind) and raise your release hand elbow up and back. These two maneuvers tend to roll your scapula into the right position and recruit the correct muscles for proper back tension.
Once you’ve learned what it should feel like, using back tension is fairly simple. When aiming, make a conscious effort to hold the bow at full draw using only your back muscles. Let your arm, shoulder, and hand muscles become as relaxed as possible. In fact, the purpose of back tension is really to minimize tightness in all the muscles of your upper body.
Back tension is important because it stabilizes the shot. Your back muscles are more stable than arm and shoulder muscles because they’re short, strong, and positioned closer to the spine. They have the proper geometry to lock your bow arm back more solidly than the arm and shoulder muscles can.
Besides adding stability, back tension prevents the collapse of your form, so you don’t creep forward prior to the shot. It’s also easier to achieve a surprise triggering of your release.
You’ve probably heard of “back-tension release aids,” which don’t have triggers. They fire as you pivot your hand while pulling through the shot using your back muscles. Back-tension releases are great training aids for bowhunters, but nearly every style of release aid performs better when you’re using back tension.
If you incorporate back tension into every shot, I think you’ll be impressed with the results.