Shooting for Longevity in Archery: Protecting Your Shoulder

Archery and Shoulder Injuries

You’ve probably noticed by now that shooting a high-poundage hunting bow is a very strenuous physical activity. When you’re young, shooting a seventy pound bow is no problem. But like any physical sport, it will catch up to you someday.

I’ve met a lot of older hunters who were forced to give up archery due to shoulder injuries, or just a worn out shoulder. This usually occurs in one’s late 40s or 50s. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than putting the bow down forever! In this article we’re going to explore ways to bowhunt into old age.

Shoulder Impingements

After fifteen years of continuous shooting, I began noticing some stiffness and soreness in my right (draw) shoulder. Fearing the worst, I went to a shoulder specialist and was diagnosed with a “shoulder impingement.” An impingement—sometimes referred to as swimmer’s shoulder—is a condition that causes pain due to a tendon rubbing against the shoulder blade.

Similar to tendonitis, shoulder impingements are caused by excessive strain on tendons over time. The pain is consistent and generally gets worse when a person reaches upwards or moves their arms above their head. Over time the shoulder becomes too painful and/or weak to do even modest work, like pulling a bow back.

Fortunately I didn’t have any tears (or worse) that would require surgery, just a persistent discomfort that worsened with physical strain, particularly after shooting my bow. To sum it up, I was put through several weeks of physical therapy and gradually noticed some improvement.

Reducing Physical Strain in Archery

Ten years later I’m still living with intermittent soreness, but now I’m shooting for longevity. I plan to bowhunt well into my seventies, God willing. I’ve taken several steps to reduce further damage while still shooting on a semi-regular basis. Here’s how.

Reduce Draw Weight

Reducing your draw weight is the first step to saving your shoulder. Unless you’ve already suffered a serious shoulder injury, I don’t recommend going overboard. Reducing draw weight will also affect arrow speed, pin spacing and penetration. I would start with 5-10 pounds.

I reduced my bow’s draw weight from seventy to sixty pounds. This was the lowest I dared go and still retain good accuracy and arrow energy. What I’ve learned since then is that shot placement is far more important than kinetic energy and penetration.

Use a Low-Poundage Bow in the Off-Season

Serious archers shoot year-round in order to maintain good form and fundamentals. If this is you, then consider buying a low-poundage bow. Go as light as you want since you’re only using this bow in practice. You’ll also need some lighter arrows to go with it, especially if you’re shooting in competitions.

For off-season practice I switch to a 45-pound bow that’s set up very similar to my hunting bow. This allows me to shoot year-round without wrecking my shoulder. Serious archers shoot hundreds of shots in practice, but only a couple during the actual hunt. So  a low-poundage practice bow is a great way to save your shoulder.

Reduce Shooting Time

Here’s a simple fix: Shoot less. Now that I’m shooting for longevity, I’ve reduced my practice sessions to an hour or less. During these brief sessions I make every arrow count. It’s a simple concept: quality over quantity.

Before hunting season, I’ll take my hunting bow out for fine tuning. Since I’m limited on shooting time, the tuning process can take a couple days, but at least I’ll still be able to hunt ten years from now.

Draw with a High Elbow

One last tip for saving your shoulder. Never draw with your draw elbow pointing down. Instead, draw with your elbow pointing out level to the ground or just higher than that.

You should always draw the bow with your back, not your arms. Drawing with a low elbow engages more of your arms which puts more strain on your shoulder. A high-elbow engages more of your back muscles like it should.

At-Home Physical Therapy for Impingements

If you’re already suffering from shoulder impingements or other discomfort, you might consider some at-home physical therapy.

There are multiple targeted exercises for shoulder injuries like impingements. These exercises are commonly known as “Jobe’s Shoulder Exercises” and can be found with a quick internet search.

These exercises work by strengthening the multitude of muscles and tendons that support the shoulder. This takes the strain off the affected tendon area. Depending on your level of impingement, these exercises should be repeated 2-3 times per week.

Conclusion

For many of us, bowhunting isn’t just a fun hobby, but a way of life.  Simply dropping archery because of a shoulder injury is not an option. So it just makes sense to adopt some level of protection before it’s too late.

Quality over quantity is the name of the game here: make every arrow count. Your long term goal should be to shoot less and shoot lighter. Shot placement is far more important than kinetic energy, so going lighter won’t be a problem as long as you can shoot accurately.

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