I remember telling a student that any muscles not needed to make a shot needed to be relaxed and he said, “. . . but I would fall down.” I went on to explain that standing did indeed require muscle tension and was also required to make a shot, because “flopped on the ground” is not a solid platform from which to shoot.
Now, I am not sure what I meant back then. I recently saw a golf coach take on the “relaxation mantra” and claim that very little in a golfer’s body is relaxed when swinging a golf club. I tend to think this is true of elite archer’s also, but what do I think now?
And Now . . .
Now I think that it is more complicated that I thought then, but not a great deal more.
We are always talking about unnecessary muscle tension needing to be relaxed away (in golf, too). The goal is always to execute each shot the same way as the previous one and trying to achieve a consistent level of muscle tension is quite difficult. We can only maintain it in our bow shoulder (which is holding the bow up) because the mass of the bow is constant and so is the acceleration of gravity at that locale. So we need enough muscle tension to hold the bow at a particular level and that force is a constant force which creates a constant counter force in your musculature. Similarly the back muscle tension you exert at full draw is based upon whatever your holding weight is, which is a constant because your bow isn’t changing in draw weight (unless something is very wrong).
So, imagine keeping, say, your abdominal muscles slightly flexed. How much muscle tension is involved in doing that? How good are you at setting that level and keeping that level? I suspect not very good, so we . . . in general . . . start from a position of keeping non-essential muscles as relaxed as possible. This is a somewhat identifiable level of relaxation/muscle tension.
If, as an elite athlete, you decide that flexing your abdominal muscles allows you to shoot better (more consistently, more accurately, whatever) then you will have a baseline to work from, which is “as relaxed as possible.”
Whenever we make changes we need to compare the “new” with the “old” to find out if we have made an improvement, rather than just a change. We recommend that when making equipment changes, that you mark everything involved, e.g. clicker position, arrow rest position, number of turns on limb bolts, etc. and document that change in writing in your notebook. The reason for these recommendations is if the change isn’t an improvement you want to have the option to set everything back to that previous arrangement. The “relaxed as is possible” body condition is at least a somewhat findable condition if you want to retreat from some other body condition that was recommended for you.
In archery, we are almost always better off throwing body postures onto our skeletons than our musculatures. For example, Rick McKinney had what he called his “wind stance” (see photo above). In this stance his feet were roughly 80° from a square stance, that is both feet were almost pointing at the target. He then had to rotate his body 90° the other way to get into full draw position. This created a fair amount of torso twist. (I have never been able to even demonstrate this, let alone do it while shooting.) That rotation of the torso creates a very rigid shooting platform that is less susceptible to being blown around by the wind.
How much muscle tension is generated in that twisting? Heck if I know, but it is made regular through the positioning of the feet. Where you place your feet determines how much muscle tension is needed to get into your full draw position. This is what I mean by “loading body postures onto our skeletons.”
The “when” aspect of muscle tension is fairly simple. I argue that the shot actually begins when the bow is raised. Everything preceding that is part of what I call the “pre-shot routine.” All muscle tensions need to be in place before full-draw position is reached. I argue this because if you took a light weight bow and got on target and then flexed a new muscle, any muscle, I think you would see that your aim was affected. I often tell students that I want them to “pause at the top” to see if they have become still. Stillness only happens when muscles are in a fixed state of relaxation/tension. Muscles are to allow you to move. Flex one and you will move. Moving is not being still. So, the pause at the top is to see if you are still (there are signs). You should not shoot until you are still. And then for consistencies sake, you should hold as much of your muscle tension until the shot is over . . . and, boys and girls, how do we know the shot’s over?
The shot isn’t over until the bow takes a bow (as in a theatrical bow).