I was a runner in college. I sprinted five miles a day every day cross-country like some sort of Dutch-German T-1000. I ended-up paying for it in full this year, during months of physical therapy. Turns out breaking and spraining your ankles over and over again isn’t so great for your overall health. Even minor workouts resulted in painful pulled muscles and tears. It came to the point where I was unable to carry a gun because my lower back was so bad. Bear in mind that I’m only 26.
What I discovered in physical therapy wasn’t that I had a disc problem or a bad back. I had spent absolutely zero time building up the little muscles that control fine function and — here it comes — balance. Many of the muscles in my back and thighs were so strong from overcompensating that they were capable of tearing small muscles away, thus preventing me from healing and gaining the ability to balance naturally.
I never thought I’d see a day when I would have no back pain, but that day is here and I owe it to a device that has also become a huge part of my rifle practice: a rocker board. The board pictured in the following photos is one that me and my dad made in a couple hours out of scrap wood and skateboard tape. What it is designed to do is make it difficult to balance.
So what does my busted-ass lower back have to do with shooting? Well, for one, this device has allowed me to absolutely destroy in my offhand shooting. For those of you that don’t know, accounts for a full third of the rounds fired in CMP competition.
Shooting prone with a sling is easy. Anyone can do it and it takes only a little while to learn. What most people, my former self included, lack is the proper structural stability needed to shoot well from an unsupported standing position, where the game is won or lost. If you’re planning on shooting at Camp Perry next month, you should already have your accurate combo all settled and should have your practice underway, so what follows here will only serve to help you in your current practice.
I’ve found that by spending an average of one hour a day on the board has had a massive impact on my overall scores. CMP is a game of averages, and I was averaging about 8.8 points per shot, which would translate to a 264/300 at Camp Perry. My average since beginning offhand balance practice has increased to an average of 9.65, or about 290/300, which is a potential first place finish at Perry.
I practice several ways for building stability. Firstly, I always do all my workouts and actual shooting barefoot. Say what you will about it, but shoes are no friend to stability. Being barefoot allows you to feel the ground more intimately and gain minute bits of information on your foot placement and balance. The most obvious workout is simply standing upright with a straight spine. I’d recommend starting with this, as the rest gets advanced and should be worked up to.
From standing I get my rifle and begin stability practice. I place a round black sticker on one of my walls and then try to hold steady on it for as long as possible while breathing in counts of five. This is literally the whole workout and it is insanely difficult to master. This can also be used as dry-fire practice as well, just, you know, unload the gun first.
The next workout is all about the lower back and spinal stability. It is far more difficult than you’d imagine and involves sitting on the board while I play Star Wars Battlefront. Yes, you can still fight the Rebels and get a workout at the same time. In fact, putting blaster bolts into Han Solo is a critical part of the workout because it distracts you from what your body is doing and your lower spine essentially goes into autopilot. You want to build up the small motor muscles that will keep you subconsciously balanced when your mind is elsewhere.
This workout is one that is better to do when you have lots of time as it is most effective when you can make the muscles work for over a half hour at a time. Eventually you’ll just get on the board and balance naturally, just as if you were sitting on the floor.
Now, here’s where we get a little advanced. You will want to build up your pelvic rotator muscles with this stupid looking workout. Just get on some yoga blocks or stairs and step up sideways for fifty reps a leg. Try to lift with your ass muscles, better known as glutes, and try not to spring up using your opposite foot. You should just go straight up and down. Ideally, you shouldn’t feel it in your quads. If you do, just keep at and try to activate your target muscles through practice.
Upper body and core are critical for stable shooting. Repetitive exercises like sit-ups are good for making beach-quality abs, but do little to build the core you’ll need for offhand. For core building, just plank. I also plank while playing video games. As soon as a match ends, I usually have one minute or so before I need to kill Rebels, so I alternate planking on my hands and elbows. After an hour of play, you may have as many as ten solid minutes of planking and well over fifty on the rocker board under your belt in addition to some mad killstreaks.
For arm and shoulder strength training I use a pair of 25 pound kettlebells. The most effective use is to simply lift them straight out to your sides and hold for one minute. Do this in place of planking every other day. It may not seem like much, but it is a bitch to do and will give you steel-like neck and upper back stability after a couple weeks. I like to follow this up with getting back on the rocker board for offhand dry fire practice.
For additional fine motor control you can do Russian deadlifts using the kettle bells. This will help build strength in both the back and arms as well as building your endurance up for long strings of offhand fire.
If you really want to go insane, you can do Russian deadlifts while on the rocker board.
All of these things combined will give you excellent stability for offhand shooting. Other things you can do that will improve your balance are yoga and live fire practice. I highly recommend practicing your live fire offhand using steel targets at reduced distance. I use a 10” gong at 100 yards three times a week. I fire fifty rounds per session without a rest between shots. You will get tired and fatigued, but you will gain insight into where your weak areas are and those are what you will want to work on more than anything else.