Beyond Strength: Why Technique Matters for Shooting Asiatic War Bows

Thumb ring selection for heavy bows

Once you achieve a certain poundage, synthetic and organic thumb rings no longer suffice. They will break and injure you and/or damage your bow. You should invest early in a metallic ring that will provide a comfortable, safe draw experience, no matter what poundage you reach.

A stainless steel Ottoman ring from Custom Thumb Rings with a kulak leather insert. A kulak can help relieve superficial (dermal) tenderness, but is not necessary for drawing heavy poundages given you have proper technique. Photo credit: Blake Cole

Do not use synthetic or organic rings with heavy bows. They will break and injure you and/or damage your bow. Invest early in a metallic ring. Photo credit: Blake Cole

Mind over matter: Why your brain is the most important muscle

It might comes as a surprise that the most important part of your body when it comes to strength is the brain, and by extension, the central nervous system. According to the central governor theory, our brain is responsible for meting out the amount of exertion our body undertakes. Think of it as a safety mechanism. (An oft-referenced example of central governor theory is the desperate mother who is somehow able to lift a car to save her child).

Luckily we can train our brain to allow us to use more and more of our potential. This phenomenon will figure in heavily to increasing poundage and should become a central part of your awareness in regards to progress (specifics on how this relates to training will be covered later in the article).

Note: This is not to say physical conditioning and supplementary exercise are not important. These are key, as is diet, all of which will be discussed later on.

Safe technique and best practices checklist

Now that we’ve covered the key aspects of proper technique, let’s do a quick roundup. Below is a list of best practices that will ensure a healthy journey forward. This list applies across the board, whether your baseline bow is 30# or 100#.

Checklist:

  • Warm up routine
  • Pushdown draw
  • Settled bow shoulder
  • Medial rotation of the bow elbow predraw and during draw
  • Inward bow arm angle predraw and during draw
  • Optimal hook: deep, behind thumbnail, with a slanted thumb (floating single or double hook)
  • Metallic ring

The following topics will be covered later in the article:

  • A dietary plan and supplementary exercises
  • A safe method of stringing your heavy bow once conventional methods (e.g. step through) become uncomfortable or unsafe

Setting up a space for training

In order to train proper technique, you’ll need a safe and (hopefully) quiet space for practice. The ideal way to achieve this is to set up a close-range target (referred to as a gaozhen in Chinese archery) and reserve a window of time for strength training each day. An example of a frequently used target for close range practice is a Rinehart block, which usually has a replacable core. Remember, the primary goal with any bow you’re using is to reach full draw. This is why the bow hand anchor is so important.

Begin your training by ensuring you meet the technique requirements discussed in the previous sections (checklist above) of this article with your baseline bow. Your (ideal) initial objective is to take 3-5 shots daily with your baseline bow, focusing on perfect form. Figure in rest as needed.

Johnny Au trains at the gaozhen. An example of a frequently used target for close-range practice is a Rinehart block. Photo credit: Johnny Au

Chris Lee practices at the gaozhen (offscreen) with a 70# (at his draw of 30 inches) sinew-backed wood bow by Alex Wittenaar of Medicinebows. Photo credit: Chris Lee

Shooting at close range allows you to block out concerns about accuracy and concentrate solely on form and conditioning. This should become a tranquil and meditative process for you as you embark on your journey.

Note: If your living space does not allow for the setting up of a close-range target, do your best to find a range that provides a quiet space for practice, and visit as often as possible to keep up with your regimen.

Warning: Remember to set up your gaozhen in a safe place with plenty of extra backing to prevent pass through. This is especially important when shooting a heavy bow.

(Above) Justin explains the importance of gaozhen (close-range target) practice.

How and when to increase poundage

Now that you’ve chosen a baseline bow that you can draw whilst maintaining proper technique, and have set up your close-range target (or established a practice routine outside of the home if a close-range target is not possible), it’s time to start training up. Once you feel you’ve mastered your baseline bow and are able to perform 8-10 (10-15, ideally) shots with proper technique, you should look to purchase your first goal bow. The ideal increment for each new increase in poundage is 5-10#. Increasing more than 10# will cause undue stress and technique backsliding.

Once you have your first goal bow (congrats!) your primary objective is to reach full draw (using the bow hand anchor as a means of evaluation) whilst maintaining proper technique. If you fail to reach full draw with your goal bow after a few tries, return to your daily shots on your baseline bow and live to fight another day.

Exercise patience in your training. It is always exciting to order a new goal bow, but this is not a process that can be rushed. Remember, only look to upgrade to a new goal bow once you are able to perform the recommended number of shots. We are training our brain to allow us to handle each new goal bow. Progress might be a slog, or it might come in spurts.

Because upgrading bows often can become expensive, affordable fiberglass bows are a good option to fill gaps between higher quality laminate or organic bows. AF Archery (which has both an Amazon and eBay store) offers a good lineup of higher poundage glass bows. If purchasing a new bow isn’t feasible at the time, don’t feel pressured to train unsafe increments. You are only hurting yourself if you veer off the recommended path.

Note: Remember, as you progress on your journey, any new bow should always be measured to ensure the increment of your poundage increase is within acceptable boundaries (5-10#). There is always a chance a bow might be mismarked. If you don’t have an accurate measurement of each new goal bow, you’ll have no quantitative data with which to chart your development.

Training symmetrically and supplemental exercises

Training ambidextrously, even if the bow you use on your off side is considerably lighter, is a great way to balance your muscles and help maximize your chances of drawing heavy bows. Practicing on the off side may feel alien at first. Elements that you took for granted on your normal side will suddenly require renewed attention when training on the off side. One thing is for sure: your normal side will feel even more comfortable after training on the off side. Eventually, as your off side becomes equally strong to your normal side, you may discover technical elements from the off side that will make your normal side shooting even better. All the while, remember to always practice proper form.

When it comes to supplementary exercises, any routine that focuses the same muscle groups we’ve discussed in previous sections will benefit your conditioning. Pull ups and push ups are a great example, as they work many of the areas used for drawing a bow. Push ups and abdominal exercises are also great for providing balance between the back muscles (which will be well trained by the heavier bows) and the front muscles. Just pace yourself and maintain a healthy balance between archery and other exercises.

Note: Dry pulling (drawing the bow without releasing), and/or using exercise bands (including a Bow Trainer or similar device), for conditioning is not recommended. Drawing without an actual release can negatively impact muscle memory and lead to bad habits or target panic. Remember, the only way to pull a stronger bow is to pull a stronger bow.

Bumps in the road: Regression and stalling

Regression

Just as your progress may come in spurts, you may also experience regression. There is nothing more discouraging than finally reaching full draw the night before with your goal bow, only to completely fail at drawing it the next day. This is not cause for despair. It happens to everyone. This is why you have your baseline bow. Whenever you fail to reach full draw with your current goal bow, do not end your session without returning to your baseline bow an increment below in order to perform proper technique and condition.

As we discussed in the previous section, central governor theory describes a process your brain undertakes to convince itself you are ready to exert enough strength to draw your goal bow. Sometimes this convincing must occur over a period of time. Rest assured, you will regain the ability to draw your goal bow soon enough. Remember, conditioning occurs with your baseline bow. If you fail to reach full draw with your goal bow, then throw your arms up and quit, you’ve done nothing for yourself. For this reason, always end on a good shot. Recency bias (the phenomenon that leads us to remember most clearly what happened the shortest time ago) will affect your psychological disposition adversely if you end on a bad shot. You may also want to consider keeping a journal of daily shots to track your progress at any given weight.

Stalling

Just as it is ill-advised to move up too quickly, or in too-high increments, stalling at any given weight for too long will also adversely affect your training. This is NOT to suggest you move up if you have not mastered your goal bow, or if you’re experiencing discomfort. But if you can comfortably perform the recommended number of shots—again, at least 8-10 (10-15, ideally)—with proper technique using your goal bow, it is time to challenge your brain to increase its allowed exertion. If you don’t, you will get overly comfortable at your (mastered) goal bow’s weight.

Now sometimes a new bow just isn’t in the works due to financial constraints. You can always look to borrow a bow from a friend if that’s an option. If a new bow is out of the cards, increase your reps with your current goal bow (which has now become your baseline bow).

Note: The amount of sleep you get at night will also affect muscle recovery, as will your diet (to be covered later in the article). Regression is more likely to occur adjacent to a suboptimal recovery environment.

Taking your war bow into the field

As with any activity, how you train in private will directly inform your ability to perform in the field. There is nothing inherently different about shooting a war bow in the field. The good news is that you have (or will have) dedicated large amounts of time to ensuring you can maintain good technique with whatever baseline bow you’re using. Though it might not be as comfortable to use as your target bow over long periods of time, you are using the same foundational techniques, therefore nothing changes. Pace yourself, remember your training, and perform the shot like you would in any other scenario. Just don’t overdo it.

Haydon Fu, who is journeying up in weight, is shown here at full draw with his 70# (at his draw of 28 inches) AF Archery Han bow. Photo credit: Haydon Fu

Finding the weakest link: Strength limits of various technical elements

The below chart is an exploration by Justin of how much of heavy bow pulling is technique versus strength (inspired by a conversation with Chinese Archery Program instructor Duke Bhuphaibool). It examines poundage ceilings and strength reductions that result from using optimal versus suboptimal techniques, all of which have been discussed in the sections preceding this one. Think of this as a cheat sheet for finding the weakest link in a chain.

(Above) “Finding the weakest link: Strength limits of various technical elements.” Credit: Justin Ma

Food for thought: Why diet matters when training up

Diet is one of the most important components of any strength training, and heavy bow conditioning is no exception. The main reasons for focusing on diet are to 1) repair tissue, 2) produce energy, and 3) avoid chronic inflammation. Federal RDAs for protein (50g per day) are too low to sufficiently promote tissue repair, especially when training for an activity like heavy bow shooting.

The following passage describes Justin’s daily diet, which focuses on the three fundamental goals discussed above:

Justin’s daily protein intake amounts to around 1-1.5g protein per 1 lb of body weight (130g min, typically 180-200g). Your personal requirements may vary. He prefers whole food proteins, largely meat, fish, and nonfat greek yogurt. Animal sources (meat, dairy, and egg) contain a greater concentration of vital amino acids, fats, and micronutrients and absorb more efficiently than plant sources.

The body uses glucose for high-intensity activity, drawn from blood glucose or glycogen stores. If doing high-intensity exercise on a zero-carb or keto diet, you will need more protein to make up for muscle lost via gluconeogenesis. Justin’s own approach is generally low carb (<= 100g net carbs), and most of the time he is fat adapted (fat being an efficient fuel source for low-intensity activity). However, the few carbs he eats are like rocket fuel for those high intensity war bow sessions. His carbs include a small amount of rice, noodle, potato, or sweet potato at dinner to replenish glycogen stores (40-50g net carbs), small to moderate amount of veggies at other parts of the day, and a bit of dark chocolate (85%+) for dessert.

If you do not eat meat, focus on protein-heavy superfoods like chick peas. Beans, tofu, and other non-fried vegetable protein sources are also key. Milk, egg whites, and nonfat yogurt and nonfat cottage remain great sources if they’re allowed in your diet.

Depending on the individual, some might have sensitivities to gluten, grains, legumes, dairy, vegetables, fruits, nuts, etc., which can lead to a “leaky gut,” causing autoimmune conditions (bowel diseases, arthritis, depression, etc.) You can minimize or eliminate certain aggravating foods from diet to observe effect (one example of a baseline elimination diet is the “carnivore diet”).

Below: Examples of meals from Justin’s dietary plan.

Justin’s daily breakfast (after a minimum 12-hour fast). One pound plain nonfat Greek or Icelandic yogurt (54g protein) with Walden Farms syrup for flavor; dry-roasted almonds (salted and unsalted varieties); and celery with salt. Photo credit: Justin Ma

An example of one of Justin’s lunches. Egg, avocado, and smoked salmon over roasted romaine, supplemented with plain non-fat Greek or Icelandic yogurt. Total 59g animal protein. Photo credit: Justin Ma

An example of one of Justin’s dinners. Chicken thigh, broccoli, cauliflower, and purple sweet potato. Photo credit: Justin Ma

A typical week in a whole food, high protein, low carb approach to strength and recovery. Credit: Justin Ma

Mark Stretton’s Diet (All credit to Mark’s blog)

Mark Stretton is an English war bow archer, blacksmith, and scholar. He holds the Guiness World Record for shooting the strongest English Longbow at 200#.

Here are examples of his daily meals from his blog, Warbow Archery Tips, Techniques, and Seminars.

Breakfasts:

  • Venison liver, bratwurst, egg, beans, tinned grapefruit, black cherries, and a large glass of milk.
  • Two slices rye (one topped with black forest ham and potato salad, one topped with tin of herring or sardines) and egg.

Lunches:

  • Full roast ruminant (lamb, beef, venison)
  • Beef or venison steak

Desserts:

  • Fruit pie
  • Fresh fruit with cream or ice cream
  • Two glasses grape juice

Dinners:

  • Venison liver, heart, and kidney cooked with mushrooms, onions, red pepper, and cream. Served with noodles.
  • Two bratwurst or currywursts with potato salad.

Summary of Mark’s go-to foods:

Red meat, organ meat, egg, fruit, some refined carbohydrates (rye or noodles), milk, juice.

Restrictions:

No fizzy drinks, no refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, or rice), no protein supplements, no shakes (e.g. whey protein shakes), and no energy drinks.

Stringing heavy bows

There is no universal weight at which a bow becomes uncomfortable, challenging, or unsafe to string. It all depends on the individual’s capabilities in relation to the bow they’re using. The below method is useful for stringing any bow outside your comfort range. In general, conventional methods (e.g. step through) start to become risky once you reach around 70#.

A kemend is the safest way to string a heavy bow. It consists of soft rope, or a cloth belt-like material, with a fixed loop at each end. The archer wraps the kemend around their waist whilst sitting, then places a loop at the end of each siyah (limb) of the bow. Using even pressure with the feet (my preferred spot is the lower half of the arches of the toes, with the top of the ball of the foot acting as a stabilizer), the archer pushes the bow outward, flexing it, then reaches down to secure the string in the string grooves.

The most difficult aspect of making a kemend is getting the length just right. Kemends tend to range from 100 inches to 150 inches depending on your waist size (loop end to loop end). Experiment with your kemend’s length on a light bow. If it is nearly there, but slightly long, tie conventional knots in the string to shorten it bit by bit. You should need to scrunch your knees toward your chest to get your feet on initially. This will ensure that at full flex the limbs won’t leave your hands too far from the siyah tips, preventing stringing. I recommend using angler’s loops (also known as perfection loops). They don’t need to be overly large.

How to tie an angler’s (perfection) loop. Photo credit: Handy Mariner

There are a number of safety considerations when using a kemend. Foremost of which is to never release tension on the bow before double checking the string is in the string grooves. Remember, we are using powerful bows that exert a lot of energy. Never inspect the string grooves from the front if the bow is strung. If the string pops off, the siyah will slam into your face. Please watch the tutorial below before attempting to use a kemend. And remember, always start with a light bow in order to learn the technique.

Note: Heavy bows should not be left strung for long periods of time. Ideally, you should always unstring them after use.

(Above) Blake demonstrates the use of a kemend to string a heavy bow.

Arrow selection and modification

Finding arrows for heavy bows can be tedious, especially if your draw is long. Most carbons and aluminums can be outfitted with weight inserts, whether they’re full length in the inner shaft, or add-ons. GoldTip has a screw-in weight system that allows you to stack weights behind the insert. Be aware that adding a lot of weight up front will significantly weaken arrow spine, so you will need a stiff enough arrow to balance it out. Likewise, the longer an arrow is, the weaker its spine will be. Plan accordingly if you have a long draw.

Alibow offers custom heavyweight carbon arrows that can also be purchased at longer lengths. Most vendors, however, do not carry spines below 300, therefore wood arrows can be a great resource for heavy bows, as they can be made very stiff. Asking fellow archers in the community is often your best bet to tracking down custom arrows.

Warning: Use extreme caution when constructing arrows for war bows. If they are not properly made (e.g. weight inserts are not secure) the force a war bow exerts may cause the arrows to explode, resulting in injury.

Various arrow weight system options. Photo credit: 3Rivers Archery.

Selections from the vault: Examples of modern heavy Asiatic bows

The journey up in poundage will be chronicled by the bows you pour your hard work into, whether they are affordable fiberglass training bows or custom milestone bows. Different bows will have different force draw curves, which refers to how their weight is distributed throughout the draw. Some designs will have a more difficult initial draw, but stay smooth throughout, while others will start off easier, but stack toward the end. This will also be affected by your draw length. Below are a few examples of modern war bows.

Justin’s heavy poundage bows, measured at his draw length of 28.25 inches (top to bottom): 60# Lukas Novotny Ming Dashao horn bow; 83# Jaap Koppedrayer laminated bow; 93# YMG Korean bow; 100# Tiron (50″ ); and 115# Tiron (60″ ). The Tirons were made by Misko Rovcanin of MR Bows. Photo credit: Justin Ma

Blake’s Tiron war bows. The bowyer, Misko Rovcanin, became a noteworthy ally in the quest to acquire reliable high poundage laminates. The Tiron’s design is inspired by bows from frescoes in Serbian monasteries. It has the added benefit of being available in a 68″ model, which allows for a long draw. Photo credit: Blake Cole

Note the thickness of the 115# Tiron’s limb. Photo credit: Blake Cole

Phil Yang at the 7th Chinese Archery Program drawing 70# (at his draw of 28 inches) on a Tiron bow. Photo credit: Brent Fox

A collection of affordable fiberglass bows by Alibow and AF Archery used to fill gaps between custom bows. These can be lifesavers when it comes to budgeting, and are generally reliable bows. Photo credit: Blake Cole

Conclusion

We hope this guide will inspire fellow thumb draw archers to pursue training up in poundage. It is a great way to get in touch with your body and mind, learn more about technique and equipment, and walk in the footprints of our archery ancestors.

Pull well, pull strong, pull safe.

Works Cited

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