(Above) Justin Ma, co-author and Asiatic archery scholar and instructor, demonstrates the technique discussed in this article while donning zhiduo (直裰), a form of traditional Ming Dynasty attire. Photo credit: Jin Kim
Beyond Strength: Why Technique Matters for Using Thumb Draw to Shoot Asiatic War Bows
by Blake Cole and Justin Ma
Foreword by Blake Cole
The primary purpose of this article is to provide a resource for those endeavoring to use thumb draw to shoot heavy poundage bows. It documents the authors' journeys to—and beyond—100#. Using Gao Ying's Ming Military Archery as a foundation, it offers detailed technical advice on technique and how to develop both the body and brain to handle Asiatic war bows. It also seeks to dispel assertions that thumb draw is ill-suited for heavy bows, as well as concerns that training at high poundages inevitably results in injury.
Throughout history, myriad cultures employed war bows as a means of effective penetration versus armor and big game. Though accounts of historical archers drawing bows over 200# may seem like the stuff of legend, proper knowledge and training provide a window to how these feats were accomplished.
The foundations of war bow shooting are 1) training, 2) technique, and 3) diet, all of which will be covered in the sections ahead. The article will also discuss how to get started on your journey, how to ensure consistency in evaluating progress, when to increase poundage, and much more.
War bow archers throughout history have employed similar draw techniques and form foundations, independent of their geographic location. Credit: Justin Ma
Asiatic archery scholar and instructor Justin Ma released one of the first of his war bow demonstration videos—in which he shot a 75# laminated bow by Jaap Koppedrayer—during the summer of 2018. Ever the monomaniac when it comes to archery, I viewed it as inspiration to challenge myself, so I contacted Justin and put an order in for a heavy bow. I went to work strength training and watched as Justin steadily improved, eventually opening a dialogue on technique and documenting my progress alongside his.
Justin, who along with Jie Tian authored The Way of Archery: A 1637 Chinese Military Training Manual , was committed to transparency. The problem with any strength training is that bravado can often replace a more clinical approach. We’ve all seen videos wherein the subject claims to be shooting a very heavy bow. Unfortunately, without any proof, we’re left to our imaginations when it comes to the veracity of the accomplishment. This is not to say there is anything maliciously untruthful about these types of demonstrations, but there are a handful of variances that can lead to an inaccurate interpretation of a bow’s weight. These factors include 1) the bow’s actual poundage in contrast to its marked weight; 2) the weight in relation to how far the archer is drawing the bow; and 3) the archer’s consistency in their draw—to name just a few.
The method Justin developed was to use a handheld scale to measure the poundage of the bow at a fixed point on the arrow that would touch his bow hand at full draw. Thus, when he used his thumb to draw the arrow to the same aforementioned spot, he would be replicating the exact weight. It left no guesswork. Here was what was being accomplished—cut and dry. It was not merely an evidential technique, though. It was a tool for awareness, a means of charting progress in a fact-based manner—of being honest with oneself about successes and failures.
We must have gone through a dozen scales. There were bulk buys, only to be left with the decision a few days later: “Is Amazon going to ban us if we return more of these?” There were scales that required you to hold perfectly still at full draw until they registered a reading (I failed at this—Justin prevailed). Eventually, we needed a scale that measured over 100#. This would lead us to begin replacing certain parts of scales by hand, or in my case, building my own draw table.
That is to say nothing of the bows. Oh, the bows. To train up responsibly, poundage increases need to be moderated, so there is both a financial and quality control component. Financial in regards to finding affordable gap fillers, and quality control in accepting that in a long run of bows there will inescapably be lapses in accurate poundage. That said, we were fortunate enough to forge bonds with bowyers who have become stalwart in their ability to craft accurately-measuring Asiatic war bows.
People have different reasons for training up. It might be a means of challenging oneself, or of chasing the feats of the historical archer whose training from childhood culminated in battlefield shots of legend. All journeys have ups and downs. Sometimes breakthroughs are met with regression only days later. In the end, the only way to shoot a stronger bow is to shoot a stronger bow. And that means harnessing every fiber of your body—and especially your mind—to draw it true.
As the title to this article states, the thesis of this guide is “technique over strength.” A heavy bow is like a light shone on every shadowy aspect of your form. Either you weed out every defect in technique, or you will likely fail—or worse, injure yourself. But when everything comes together, whether you’re new to the journey and just hitting 30, 40, or 50#, or a weathered archer breaking that 100# mark, there is a harmony that exists between body, brain, and bow that is difficult to match in the world of archery.
(Above) Justin reaches the 115# mark—ambidextrously—using a Tiron Asiatic war bow made by Misko Rovcanin of MR Bows. He confirms the poundage using a handheld scale.
Table of Contents
- Why shoot a heavy bow?
- 勁弓顯實 - Heavy bow reveals truth
- Getting started: Determining your ideal draw and ensuring draw length consistency
- Warming up for the draw: Establishing a stretching routine
- Initial poundage: Choosing a baseline bow
- Measuring up: Why a bow scale is a necessary tool for charting progress
- The pushdown draw: Settling your bow shoulder and maximizing ideal muscle activation
- Predraw bow tilt-down
- Heavy bows and microexpansion
- How bow elbow orientation impacts your ability to handle heavy bows
- How an inward bow arm angle will help you avoid strain
- The linchpin: Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various thumb draw hooks
- Thumb ring selection and modification for heavy bows
- Mind over matter: Why your brain is the most important muscle
- Safe technique and best practices checklist
- Setting up a space for training
- How and when to increase poundage
- Training symmetrically and supplemental exercises
- Bumps in the road: Regression and stalling
- A caution about fiberglass and stacking bows
- Taking your war bow into the field
- Finding the weakest link: Strength limits of various technical elements
- Food for thought: Why diet matters when training up
- Stringing heavy bows: the waist cable method
- Arrow selection and modification
- Selections from the vault: Examples of modern heavy Asiatic bows
- Real-world application: Asiatic war bows versus historical armor
- Works Cited
Why shoot a heavy bow?
The pillars of traditional archery are 1) accuracy, 2) speed, and 3) power. In order to achieve greater lethality in battle or big game hunting, you must increase the force of impact. Increasing force requires a heavier arrow and therefore a stronger bow to launch said heavier arrow at a faster speed. Hence, archer conditioning. Exploring these dynamics both helps the archer gain insight into the inner workings of their equipment and provides a lens through which to view—and retrace—historical and cultural archery.
Constantly pushing yourself to safely handle heavier bows also demands awareness in regards to variables like diet, sleep, and psychological approach, so it has a way of putting the archer in touch with their body and mind. And finally, it has the deeper benefit of achievement through self-discipline.
勁弓顯實 - Heavy bow reveals truth
Training up in poundage forces you to find better technique, which, in-turn, has the benefit of refining your shooting at target poundages.
Our motto—勁弓顯實 (Heavy bow reveals truth)—emphasizes the purity of form required to shoot heavy poundages safely. A military poundage bow will very quickly expose poor technique. These bad habits will either prevent the archer from moving up in weight, or, worse, injure them.
The positive side of this is that a patient discovery process in regards to technique when shooting heavy poundages will yield an ideal form that transcends poundages. If this form holds up under the most rigorous of conditions—preventing injury and facilitating progress—then, by extension, it is the ideal form, period.
Getting started: Determining your ideal draw and ensuring draw length consistency
The first step toward drawing heavier bows is to know exactly how much weight you’re handling at full draw. The key here is consistency. You must draw the bow in a way that maximizes your body’s ability to handle the weight (e.g. activating the muscles in your back), and you must draw it the same distance each time. The brain has a way of tricking you as you move up in weight. A relaxed 28 inch draw with a light bow might regress to a 27 inch draw with a heavy bow. If you don't take a systematic approach, you have no means of gauging progress.
This is where the bow hand anchor comes in. The bow hand anchor is a reference point on the arrow itself that contacts the bow hand when the archer reaches full draw, eliminating guesswork by giving you an objective indicator. Experimenting with a bow hand anchor will help you determine your ideal draw and give you the necessary consistency to ensure concise evaluation and goal setting. You can find a detailed tutorial on all aspects of the bow hand anchor here.
The bow hand anchor takes many forms. Here, it presents as clear tape on the shaft of the arrow. Photo credit: Chris Lee
Warming up for the draw: Establishing a stretching routine
You should always take a few minutes to warm up before shooting, but it is especially important when training for heavier poundages. Develop a stretching routine that targets all essential areas of the body used for archery: fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, chest, back, neck, and core. Your base figures into your draw, as well, so it is recommended you stretch your lower body.
A few examples of exercises you can perform: flex your fingers and tug your thumb. Clench and unclench your hands. Perform windmills with your arms, waist twists, and neck rotations. Arch your back and expand your chest, squeeze your shoulder blades together, roll your shoulders, tighten your core.
Consult outside resources and experiment with stretches to determine what works for you. Do not get lazy and skip this step. Drawing heavy without warming up is a great way to sideline your progress.
Initial poundage: Choosing a baseline bow
Now that you've developed a warm up routine, the first step in training for heavier bows is to determine a good starting poundage. It is essential you have a baseline bow at all times that you can return to in order to practice perfect form. Generally, this will be the bow an increment below your goal bow. The biggest mistake you can make is to start with a baseline bow that is too heavy. As the title of this article suggests, training heavy bows is not about strength—it’s about technique. Choosing the heaviest bow you can manage to draw as your baseline bow will only handicap you on your journey.
From the very start you will be training the proper techniques to draw a 50# bow, a 100# bow, a 200# bow. There is no hard cap on technique. It's either correct or suboptimal. Let go of all the baggage in regards to how "strong" you are. Choose a comfortable weight (it should provide a challenge, but not impact your form negatively) and use the upcoming sections to evaluate your ability to perform the proper technique. If you find yourself falling short at the weight you've chosen, don’t despair. Remember, you are playing the long game.
Note: The article will discuss how and when to increase poundage in subsequent sections.
Measuring up: Why a bow scale is a necessary tool for charting progress
Now that you’ve determined your ideal draw, installed a bow hand anchor, developed a warm up routine, and chosen your baseline bow, you need a means of tracking your progress. As mentioned in the foreword, using a scale to measure the exact poundage of your bow is essential. One of the most reliable handheld scales on the market is the Last Chance HS2 Handheld Bow Scale, which can be purchased at Lancaster Archery Supply.
The CyberDyer 110 Lbs Digital Archery Scale, available on Amazon (look for Justin's review), is a cheaper option than the HS2, and has the added benefit of reading over 100#. The newer model has a hook similar to the Last Chance scale. The older model, however, comes equipped with luggage straps. You'll want to remove the straps and replace them with a short open hook from the hardware store (see below picture).
Note: When purchasing a handheld scale, make sure it has a peak weight setting. Peak weight will record the highest poundage drawn. The Last Chance HS2 defaults to peak weight, while the CyberDyer allows the user to toggle between peak and "hold" weight. Make sure the scale is set to pounds.
Warning: Make sure to confirm the max allowed weight for your scale, and that you do not exceed it. This can result in injury or damage to your bow.
The Last Chance HS2 Handheld Bow Scale is a reliable, sturdy scale that measures up to 100#. Photo credit: Lancaster Archery Supply
The older CyberDyer scale model uses luggage straps. Replace the straps with a hook similar to the one seen here. Photo credit: Justin Ma
You can also use a tillering rig or draw table to measure your bow's weight. Just make sure you are marking off the appropriate draw distance as it correlates to your bow hand anchor. These two options are more expensive and require construction, so the handheld scale is likely your best bet, unless you already have access to a rig or table.
A tillering rig equipped with a scale and draw length markings. Photo credit: Misko Rovcanin
A homemade draw board. An arrow marked with a bow hand anchor acts as a guide for measuring exact weight. Photo credit: Blake Cole
(Above) Justin demonstrates the use of a draw board, measuring the poundage of a Tiron Asiatic war bow made by Misko Rovcanin of MR Bows. This particular draw board was purchased from Lancaster Archery Supply. After verifying it as 118#, he performs a shot on the gaozhen.
Once you've chosen your scale, simply nock your arrow, hook the scale around the string below the nock, and draw with the scale until the bow hand anchor reaches your bow hand. You may need to experiment with how you hold the scale to see what is most comfortable. This first poundage measurement at your bow hand anchor with your baseline bow will become the starting point for your journey.
Note: As you progress on your journey, any new goal bow should always be measured to ensure the increment of your poundage increase is within acceptable boundaries (said boundaries will be covered later in the article), as there is always a chance your new bow could 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.
To measure your draw weight, nock your arrow, hook the scale around the string below the nock, and draw with the scale until the bow hand anchor reaches your bow hand. Photo credit: Blake Cole
Tony Nguyen uses a handheld scale to measure the poundage of his Tiger Tail II Manchu bow. Note the use of a bow hand anchor (yellow tape on the arrow shaft). Photo credit: Tony Nguyen
Warning: Make sure your arrow is securely nocked on the string and you are facing a target when you perform your scale measurement. It is essential your arrow is aimed at a safe place and that you are at a safe distance.
See below for another video demonstration of poundage measurement using a handheld scale. Blake is aiming at a strong foam block (offscreen). There will be more information about setting up a space for training later in the article.
(Above) Blake uses a Last Chance HS2 Handheld Bow Scale to measure draw weight. A bow hand anchor (the yellow tape on the arrow shaft) is the only way to ensure consistency when evaluating poundage. Make sure you are pointing at a safe target.
The pushdown draw: Settling your bow shoulder and maximizing ideal muscle activation
The pushdown draw is a draw style that has been utilized globally all throughout history to draw heavy bows in a safe manner. When combined with good technique it brings to bear ideal biomechanics and muscle activation. The pushdown draw begins with the archer's hands positioned above their shoulders. The arms draw by descending. This style of draw combines the best of the horizontal row and vertical row motions and maximizes the use of both sides of the strongest back muscles (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboid). It also emphasizes a settled bow shoulder, an essential component to good technique and war bow shooting. A non-settled or hunched bow shoulder will activate suboptimal muscle groups, misalign joints, and likely lead to injury. Practice depressing the bow shoulder blade and retracting it towards your spine in order to emphasize a settled bow shoulder.
Note: Using a draw that consists primarily of pushing the bow outward as you draw is not recommended for shooting a heavy bow (this often presents with the archer "sky drawing," or pointing the bow at an upward angle as they begin the draw). Though this method does encourage back muscle activation, and may allow you to draw a bow outside your normal range, it will put undue pressure on the bow shoulder (which will lead to injury) and activate other suboptimal muscle groups.
A diagram portraying improper and proper bow shoulder technique, as well as the muscle groups each activates. Credit: Justin Ma
A step-by-step diagram of the pushdown draw process. Credit: Justin Ma
Justin explains the settled bow shoulder in detail.
Justin explains the pushdown draw in detail.
Predraw bow tilt-down
The predraw bow tilt-down method is a means for achieving a balanced pushdown draw (which uses the latissimus dorsi equally) without pointing the arrow at an upward angle ("sky drawing"), which the authors view as hazardous at the range or in the field, as well as not anatomically ideal.
It provides the below benefits:
- Minimizes bow arm movement to stabilize bow shoulder
- Greater angle of attack to reduce initial bow arm pressure
- Places draw arm close to enable easier draw elbow arc
- Keeps draw hand at/above bow hand to avoid sky draw
(Above) Justin demonstrates the predraw bow tilt-down method.
Heavy bows and microexpansion
Remember, you are not merely trying to pull your heavy bow back. You're striving to shoot it with good form, which requires a clean release. Toward this end, make sure to leave room for microexpansion as you approach your bow hand anchor. Microexpansion is the final phase of expansion that occurs at the tail end of your draw. Once you've fully settled into your back, continue to gradually expand toward your bow hand anchor. When you achieve full draw, release without hesitation to ensure collapse never occurs. This requires a controlled, focused state, but will pay dividends in ensuring an ideal release.
Learn more about microexpansion here.
Below: Diagrams depicting correct and incorrect methods of expansion.
(Above) A diagram depicting an expanding release ✅. Credit: Justin Ma
(Above) Diagrams depicting a collapsing release ❌ (left) and an abrupt release ❌ (right). Credit: Justin Ma
(Above) Make sure you leave room for microexpansion as you approach your bow hand anchor (shown here as yellow tape wrapped around the shaft of the arrow), so that your release is clean.
How bow elbow orientation impacts your ability to handle heavy bows
Medial rotation of your bow elbow—both predraw and during draw—is an essential component to handling heavy bows. It aids in joint alignment and encourages scapular depression (the settling of the bow shoulder) by reinforcing use of the latissimus dorsi and pectoral muscles. Be careful to not hunch your bow shoulder as you rotate your bow elbow.
Below: Depictions of bow elbow orientation as it progresses from lateral to overly rotated, as well as an exercise that will help you practice maintaining ideal medial rotation whilst gripping the bow.
(Above) Lateral rotation of the bow elbow is ❌ NOT RECOMMENDED for drawing heavy bows. Photo credits: Justin Ma
(Above) An unrotated bow elbow is ❌ NOT RECOMMENDED for drawing heavy bows. Photo credits: Justin Ma
(Above) Medial rotation of the bow elbow—both predraw and during draw—is ✅ RECOMMENDED for drawing heavy bows. Photo credits: Justin Ma
(Above) An overly rotated bow elbow will cause tension and is ❌ NOT RECOMMENDED for drawing heavy bows. Photo credits: Justin Ma
(Above) This is an exercise that helps you practice isolating the bow hand from the bow arm and bow elbow. It depicts the bow elbow in the ideal orientation (medial), which emphasizes joint alignment and encourages a sturdy, settled bow shoulder. The palm inward position (instead of down) mimics the bow hand gripping the bow, thus enabling you to "rehearse" the shot process.
How an inward bow arm angle will help you avoid strain
Maintaining an inward angle with your bow arm—both predraw and during draw—will help you avoid straining minor back-side scapular muscles. It also allows for a natural cant. An inward bow arm angle also prevents string slap.
Below: Depictions of bow arm angles. An inward bow arm angle should be your goal.
(Above) The bow arm being too straight in relation to the shoulders is ❌ NOT RECOMMENDED for drawing heavy bows. Photo credits: Justin Ma
(Above) An inward bow arm angle—both predraw and during draw—is ✅ RECOMMENDED for drawing heavy bows. Photo credits: Justin Ma
The linchpin: Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various thumb draw hooks
Hook configuration has the potential to greatly impact your ability to draw a heavy bow. A common misconception when it comes to using thumb draw with war bows is, "Man, you're gonna destroy your thumb." Luckily, your thumb is an incredibly strong apparatus, and using it correctly with heavy bows will result in risk- and pain-free shooting. The thumb tendon will develop as you exert load. As with any exercise activity, if there is discomfort, take a rest day.
A major theme you will recognize throughout this article is that the guiding principle when it comes to proper technique is to achieve relaxation by conforming to the body's natural angles, and the draw hand is particularly important in this regard. For this reason, the common criteria for an efficient heavy draw hook is 1) thumb pad comfort and 2) the ability to reduce effort in the draw hand wrist and joints during the draw.
The first variable when it comes to your hook is depth. Hook depth refers to which section of your index (and middle, if using a double hook) contacts the thumb. With a shallow hook, the primary point of contact is the distal joint. With a deep hook, it is the intermediate segment of the finger. For drawing heavy bows, a deep hook is recommended, as it promotes greater stability, comfort, and relaxation in the draw hand.
An example of a shallow hook, where the distal joint contacts the thumb. This configuration is ❌ NOT RECOMMENDED for drawing heavy bows. Photo credit: Justin Ma
An example of a deep hook, where the intermediate section of the index contacts the thumb. This is the ✅ RECOMMENDED configuration for drawing heavy bows. Photo credit: Justin Ma
Position of the hook
The second variable is the position of the hook on the thumbnail. For shooting heavy bows, your primary hook (index) should contact the thumb behind the nail in order to fortify the hold (see below diagram).
Orientation of the thumb
The third variable is the orientation of the thumb: slanted versus orthogonal (perpendicular). A relaxed, slanted thumb angle provides a more natural resting state for the hand, and therefore a more comfortable draw (see below diagram).
A diagram illustrating the various optimal and suboptimal hook techniques. Credit: Justin Ma
Depending on your anatomy, the ideal goal of a deep hook behind the thumbnail with a slanted thumb may or may not allow for a double hook. If you find your middle finger cannot comfortably sustain contact with your thumb whilst drawing, it is recommended you transition to a floating single hook. The goal of a floating single hook is to retain the stability and comfort associated with a double hook. A floating single hook deviates from the more widely known anchored single hook by untethering the thumb from the middle finger (hence “floating”) whilst maintaining a deep hook behind the thumbnail with the index.
Some may find it most comfortable and secure to use a detaching single hook. For this method you'll begin by anchoring your thumb to the middle finger (as you would with an anchored single hook). As you draw the bow, your thumb will be forced to separate from the middle finger, and at full draw your thumb is fully detached.
In conclusion, whether it's a floating single, detaching single, or a double hook, a deep hook behind the thumbnail and a relaxed slanted thumb will provide the most stability and comfort for drawing a heavy bow.
Below: (1) Depictions of a floating single hook from various angles. (Photo credits: Justin Ma). (2) A video of Gao Ying practitioner Haydon Fu demonstrating the detaching single hook.
(Above) Gao Ying practitioner Haydon Fu demonstrates the detaching single hook.
Thumb ring selection and modification 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 safe draw experience, no matter what poundage you reach. You may also want to make a few simple modifications to improve comfort while drawing a heavy bow. Depending on the style of ring you are using, and your anatomy, that might mean reinforcing different parts of your ring. See below for a few examples of modifications.
Blake's stainless steel Ottoman ring from Custom Thumb Rings with a kulak leather insert, which acts as a resting place for the string. 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
Thin edges on a ring can create pressure points and discomfort. Here, Justin pads the inside of the lip of his Vermil Victory to alleviate that pressure. Photo credit: Justin Ma
Mind over matter: Why your brain is the most important muscle
It might come 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#.
- 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) 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
(Above) Using the pushdown draw and predraw bow tilt-down, Blake performs a form-focused gaozhen shot with a 110#@35" Tiron by MR Bows.
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. You are training your brain to allow you to handle each new goal bow. Progress might be a slog, or it might come in spurts.
Because upgrading bows 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 on the same muscle groups discussed in previous sections will benefit your training. Pull ups are a great example, as the vertical pull closely resembles the pushdown draw. Push ups also provide balanced conditioning for the back, shoulder, and chest 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 shoot a stronger bow is to shoot a stronger bow.
Bumps in the road: Regression and stalling
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.
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.
A caution about fiberglass and stacking bows
Different bows will have different force draw curves, which refers to how the weight is distributed throughout the draw. Some designs will have a more difficult initial draw (a Qing bow, for instance), while others will start off easier, but ramp up toward the end. Draw length plays a defining role in this dynamic.
Be cautious when using a bow that is on the short side for your draw. Some fiberglass bows, for instance, advertise an unrealistic max draw length. When training up using a bow that is being overdrawn—and hence receiving much of its poundage at the very tail end of the draw (through stacking, which is an exponential increase in poundage)—you are creating an illusionary sense of accomplishment. Though the scale might read an impressive number, you are attaining that poundage at the height of back muscle engagement by forcing the bow past its limits. The inevitable scenario is that when you upgrade to a higher quality bow with a more healthy force draw curve, you will likely be unable to draw it.
The key is to find a balance between affordability and dependability. For those archers with a longer draw, this likely means needing to purchase a more customized bow to ensure it won't stack. It will pay off in the end.
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 and currently at 75#, is shown here at full draw with his 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 shooting 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.
- 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.
- Full roast ruminant (lamb, beef, venison)
- Beef or venison steak
- Fruit pie
- Fresh fruit with cream or ice cream
- Two glasses grape juice
- 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.
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: the waist cable method
There is no universal weight at which a bow becomes unsafe to string using the step through method. Generally, though, once you edge above 70# or so, you should consider switching to the waist cable stringing method.
The waist cable stringing method is the safest way to string a heavy bow. The cable itself can consist of materials such as a nylon rope or polypropylene webbing, and will require fixed loops at each end. The archer braces the cable 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, 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 waist cable is getting the length just right. Experiment with your waist cable's length using a light bow. If it is slightly long (and you're having trouble reaching the loops), tie knots in the cable to shorten it bit by bit.
Always make sure to use a rope or belt that is rated to far exceed the poundage of the bow you'll be stringing. These materials are very affordable, so purchase some that is exponentially stronger than you need, for extra safety.
Angler's loops (also known as perfection loops), are a great choice for your knots, as they are self-constricting. A double knots works well, too. See below.
How to tie an angler's (perfection) loop. Photo credit: Handy Mariner
A belt material is also a great option for a waist cable, and will likely be more comfortable than rope, due to its width. Strapworks' heavyweight polypropylene webbing is one example. See below.
Strapworks' heavyweight polypropylene webbing. Photo credit: Strapworks
There are a number of safety considerations when using a waist cable for stringing. 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. And never inspect the string grooves from the front after the bow is strung. If the string pops off, the siyah will slam into your face.
Before attempting to use a waist cable, please watch the tutorial below. 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) Justin demonstrates the use of a waist cable 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. Also, arrow inspection (flexing shaft and checking nock, insert, and tip) has never been more important. A war bow puts a lot of stress on arrows, so remain diligent.
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. 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
Real-world application: Asiatic war bows versus historical armor
In the Warfare Research Series, the authors pit their Asiatic war bows up against historical armors. In an effort to present concise data points, kinetic energy, momentum, and other variables are recorded.
Warfare Research Series (Episode 1): Chinese Lamellar
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.
Draw well, draw strong, draw safe.
Thanks for reading.
- Blake and Justin
- Gao Ying’s Ming Military Archery: Chinese Archery Program - Ma - 2019
- How to Shoot a Strong Bow - Ma - 2019
- Justin Ma's YouTube channel - Ma - 2019
- The "Way of Archery" YouTube channel - Ma and Tian - 2019
- How to Build Muscle & Tendon Strength for Longbow Archery Using Diet - Warbow Archery Tips, Techniques, and Seminars - Stretton - 2014
- How to Tie Knots - Angler's Loop - Handy Mariner - 2014
- All rights of the article reserved to the authors.