Articles


Performance Shooting and Strength

by Justin Nazaroff | January 01, 2020

From a practical standpoint, as of 2019, there are nearly 20 million people in the United States with a license to carry a concealed pistol.  However, choosing to carry a weapon in public is also very serious business – and unfortunately, it is a decision that is often not taken as seriously as it should be. After all, being fast and accurate with a firearm is a learned skill, the same as catching a football while running at full speed, sinking a three-pointer with a defender in your face, or performing a complex violin solo in front of a crowd of music aficionados who are intently listening for every minor aberration. If you haven’t put in the training time, you will not magically turn into John Wick in the event you are placed in a life-or-death scenario. 

Practicing your shooting technique is the most important aspect of being a high-performing gun handler. This is something most serious competition shooters, special forces “operators,” and tactical trainers know. As a result, there is an ever-increasing number of videos and training programs being developed to help inexperienced shooter build the proper muscle memory to operate under less than ideal conditions. 

What is “Performance Shooting”?

Simply put, performance shooting can be defined as “hitting what you aim at, and being able to do so repeatedly.” 

For competition shooters, each “stage” or round of shooting is scored by a formula that considers the total amount of time required to complete the course of fire as well as the accuracy of their hits on the target. Some targets require only a single hit, while others may require four or more. So, shooters must balance the speed of their shots and movement between shooting positions with the time required to line up accurate shots.  

For your average armed citizen, the same holds true, except the consequences of failure are potentially life-threatening. When confronted with a situation that warrants the use of deadly force, the decision to fire a weapon must be made with the awareness that being too slow, or missing the target, can have disastrous results for shooter (and, potentially, for innocent bystanders). 

What’s This Got to do With Starting Strength? 

An often-overlooked aspect of performance shooting is the benefit provided by being strong. After all, what possible benefit can weightlifting provide to an individual that will enhance the ability to center-punch the bad guy quickly and accurately under stressful conditions?  

Go to any pistol competition and you’ll see plenty of people who are too fat, or too skinny – and in both cases weaker than they should be – but who are able to post impressive times with high levels of accuracy. These folks are highly skilled individuals who have put in thousands of hours practicing all the mechanics of drawing, firing, and moving from target to target. However, it is indisputably true that they would be even better shooters if they increased their overall strength. 

Principles of Recoil Management   

Recoil – or what untrained folks commonly call “kick” – is the equal and opposite reaction created when an ammunition cartridge is fired. When you pull the trigger, the firearm’s firing pin strikes the primer in the end of the cartridge, causing the smokeless powder inside the cartridge case to ignite and burn rapidly – an “explosion.” This forms a large amount of hot pressurized gas which pushes the projectile (the “bullet” itself) out of the barrel at a high rate of speed. 

This gas pressure and force pushes the firearm back toward the shooter as it exits the barrel, the degree to which is based on several variables:

  1. The amount of smokeless powder used and the energy density of the powder itself. Larger, more powerful calibers use more powder with more energy to propel a heavier projectile at a higher rate of speed. Calibers with a higher chamber pressure produce more gas, and therefore more recoil.
  2. The speed at which the powder burns (pistol-caliber powders must burn more rapidly than rifle-caliber powders due to the shorter barrel length available to build pressure).
  3. The height of the firearm’s barrel above the wrist of the shooter.  The higher the barrel relative to the arm of the shooter, the longer the ‘moment arm’ between the recoiling firearm and the shooter’s wrist joint.  This is the reason that recoil causes the barrel of the firearm to “flip upward” as opposed to pushing straight back toward the shooter.

Simply put, recoil is an inevitable and unavoidable result of a firearm's discharge. We cannot eliminate recoil, but we can damn sure work to manage and control it.  

The best way to think about managing recoil is to think of your body as a lightning rod – a grounding rod in an electrical system. We must position the body in a way that allows recoil to be transferred through our hands, forearms, shoulders, back, hips, legs, and feet all the way down to the floor. Any weakness, flex, or other instability that exists in this chain will result in lower overall performance. Let’s explore the major components of proper recoil mitigation – Grip, Arms, Stance, and Mass – and how barbell training can play a role in building better shooters. 

Grip 

Without a doubt, practicing and developing your “master grip” on a firearm is the foundation upon which you build proper shooting mechanics. This is especially true for pistols, where your grip is the only contact your body has with the tool. Without a proper strong master grip you lack the ability to properly aim, fire, control recoil, follow moving targets, and place shots accurately. We won’t delve too deeply into the specifics of hand and thumb placement, but it is universally true that the ability to grip a firearm more firmly for a longer period will make you a more accurate shooter.  A weak grip allows the firearm to move around in the hands of the shooter, preventing him from keeping the sights on target as shots are fired. The more shots you fire, and the quicker your cadence, the more obvious this becomes. Watch any number of YouTube videos where an untrained shooter fires a fully automatic rifle and this becomes easy to see. The barrel climbs farther and farther upward, which in turn loosens up the shooter’s grip further, which in turn makes recoil even more difficult to fight. 

When drawing a firearm from the holster, a master grip is taken with the shooter’s dominant hand wrapping around the grip frame. The thumb stays high on one side with the middle, ring, and pinky fingers curling around the opposite side – the index or trigger finger has a different task (firing the weapon) and therefore does not contribute to the master grip. Once the master grip is taken and the firearm is drawn from the holster, the non-dominant hand fills the leftover space between the heel and fingers of the dominant hand, crushing the grip frame of the pistol securely between the two.

close up open grip

close up side shot grip

right side grip

The placement of the master grip higher toward the barrel axis of the firearm is a key component to mitigating the effects of recoil, but this is constrained by the mechanical design of the firearm. Modern magazine-fed semi-automatic pistols have a slide which must reciprocate unobstructed in order to chamber the next round and prepare the weapon to be fired once again. There is a limit to how “high” your grip can be on a pistol before your hand prevents the slide from moving, or before the slide slices a bloody line into the webbing between your thumb and forefinger (a common phenomenon known as “slide bite”).

back side of firearm

Once a shooter has optimized the hand placement on the firearm, and thereby limited the length of the moment arm between the barrel and the wrist, the resulting recoil must be managed by the strength of the shooter’s fingers, forearms, biceps, traps, and shoulders. All of these contribute to the squeeze imparted upon the firearm, keeping the sights level, and transferring recoil through your hands, forearms, and shoulders as it moves down your body to the floor.  

The less space the pistol has to move around in the operator’s hands, the better recoil can be transmitted through the hands, down the forearms, and into the rest of the kinetic chain. As a result, it is practically impossible to squeeze a pistol too tightly – the more grip strength we have, the tighter we can grip, the longer we can maintain that grip without tiring will ultimately result in better accuracy on target. 

Arms 

Proper arm and elbow position assists in the management of recoil through the elimination of moment arms. Starting Strength followers know the importance of moment arms all too well – we have all failed enough overhead press reps to be well acquainted with the effect of even a small moment arm underneath a heavy load. The recoil of a typical 9mm pistol can generate around 338 ft-lbs of energy back toward the shooter, plenty of energy to exploit the moment arms created by improper arm, elbow and wrist placement. 

Many new shooters have the tendency to pull their elbows in toward each other, creating a bend in their elbows as the firearm is raised to eye height.  This creates a large moment arm as the recoil is occurring at eye level while the elbows are almost a foot below. 

elbows in position from the side

Some shooters take the opposite approach by locking their elbows out. This can help to reduce upward movement at the barrel, but it places higher levels of stress on the elbow joint which is now required to transmit the force of the recoil through the elbow joint. It also results in the “tactical turtle” shooting position which we will discuss shortly. 

Instead, the elbows should be raised as high as possible, and pushed outward but unlocked, allowing them to be in the same plane as the firearm. This greatly reduces the moment arm at the elbows and allows the elbows to move naturally as the firearm moves directly rearward toward the shooter’s face. 

elbows in position from above

elbows out position from above

elbows out position from the side

Stance 

Once recoil passes through your arms and shoulders, it must continue down your back to your hips and legs, and finally through your feet into the ground. Proper shooting stance is crucial to maintaining this chain, which is enhanced greatly by understanding which muscles must be tight through the shooting sequence. 

A typical problem with many shooter’s stance is what’s known as the “tactical turtle” – a tendency to round the back, raise the shoulders, crane the neck forward, and tilt the head slightly downward.  This causes the spinal erector muscles to be very loose, preventing recoil from continuing its movement downward to the hips and legs. To make matters worse, tilting the head downward forces the shooter to look “upward” in order to maintain the sight picture, and limits the peripheral vision above the target.

shooting stance error tactical turtle

Another common stance issue is leaning too far backward – commonly found with new shooters who are not quite comfortable placing their faces only a few inches away from a firearm. This creates a balance problem during any rapid-fire shooting as the recoil pushes the shooter further and further back, forcing him to eventually take a step backward to keep from falling over.

shooting stance error backward lean

Instead, the proper upper body position is much the same as what’s assumed during the squat – shoulders squeezed tight, chest up, and lower back contracted. Like many novice barbell practitioners, many shooters are wholly unable to feel which muscles to tighten and contract without the proper verbal/tactile cues. 

performance shooting stance

performance shooting stance

For the lower half of the body, foot and leg position is just as important. Proper shooting position uses a split stance where the leg and foot of the shooter’s draw hand is dropped back approximately 12-18 inches. This knee is kept locked stiff to allow recoil to travel down the back, through the hips and leg, and finally through the foot into the ground. The front leg (on the non-dominant side of the body) is flexed with the knee unlocked and the weight firmly planted through the ball of the foot. The feet are approximately shoulder width apart with the toes pointing toward the target or slightly outward, depending on the proportions of the shooter. 

performance shooting stance full body view

Mass 

One of the best ways though which recoil can be controlled is by adding mass.  A common problem expressed by many brand-new firearm owners is the amount of recoil produced by the tiny little pistol the guy at the gun store advised you to purchase, because it was “easy to conceal.” That may be true, but it is also true that smaller, lighter pistols will have more “felt recoil” than a larger, heavier pistol in the same caliber shooting the same ammunition.  This is for two reasons: 

  1. Smaller pistols may not allow the shooter to fit her entire hand on the grip frame, reducing the amount of contact with the hands and limiting the amount of grip force that can be applied.
  2. Pistols designed to be small and concealable – especially of the polymer plastic variety – do not weigh as much as the full-size firearms carried in the holster of a police officer. Heavier objects require more energy to move, and thus, a heavier firearm will impart less recoil to the shooter by absorbing some of the energy. And it requires more energy to properly cycle and reset the heavier slide on larger firearms, which means there is less energy transmitted into your body when it is fired. 

This produces four possible combinations, the worst of which is a small, light, “cute” sub-compact sized pistol shot by a small, light, and equally cute woman. Unfortunately, the firearms industry primarily targets women when they design marketing campaigns to sell these types of pistols (which is why they typically come in a variety of fun colors, ready to match any outfit), making this a problem which is likely to exist for eternity. The best combination would be a larger, heavier human firing a full-sized pistol which allows the entire hand to grip the frame. 

Application to Barbell Training: The Squat 

The squat serves as the foundation of a well-designed barbell training program. The hamstrings, quads, spinal erectors, abdominals, hip flexors, and groin muscles are all major contributors to a properly performed squat. Squatting under progressively heavier loads will result in increased muscle mass, better balance, thicker and stronger tendons/ligaments, and increased cardiovascular capacity.

For performance shooters, these adaptations contribute directly to recoil mitigation. Especially important is the ability to maintain a tight contraction in the lower back, tilting the hips forward and down, and allowing recoil to travel down the back and into the hips/legs/feet.  

The muscles trained by the squat also allow a shooter to better mitigate recoil in less-than-ideal shooting positions – for example, squatting down midway to shoot underneath a solid barrier at eye level, or leaning out from behind cover to take a shot without exposing too much of the shooter’s own body. Stronger muscles and better balance contribute to a more stable position when a perfect stance cannot be assumed.  

When considering scenarios likely to be encountered in the real world, the squat trains nearly every muscle required to be a useful human being in the event of an active shooter, a robbery, or any other situation where the defensive use of a firearm is warranted. Strength is required to move casualties, barricade doorways, and of course, to fight for your life. 

Deadlift 

If the squat is the #1 exercise of a well-designed barbell training program, the deadlift is #1A.  Deadlifting requires the lifter to maintain a contracted lower back throughout the entire range of motion while moving heavy loads. The deadlift trains many of the same major muscle groups as the squat with the addition of the lats, trapezius, forearms, hands, and fingers.  

For novice lifters, an initial hurdle to overcome once they reach moderately heavy loads is a lack of grip strength which must be developed over time. The benefit of the additional grip strength developed by the deadlift cannot be emphasized enough – it contributes directly to a better master grip which is the foundation upon which all performance shooting is built. Sticking with a double overhand grip and avoiding the use of lifting straps for as long as possible during novice linear progression (NLP) will develop your grip strength much faster than any other method. 

Outside the arena of competitive shooting, developing the deadlift is important to many other tasks that may arise, depending on the situation and environment. For example, an armed citizen in an active shooter situation may need to move injured people out of harm’s way, or drag a heavy desk in front of a doorway to barricade himself inside a room in the event escape is not an option. 

Press 

Balance, stability, and precision are all vital aspects to developing the overhead press. Despite its appearance to outsiders as a “brutish” lift, the press actually requires more focus on proper technique than any other lift. An error of only an inch or less – pressing the bar away from the face – can result in a failed rep as the weight increases.  

The press contributes directly to strengthening the pectorals, deltoids, triceps, trapezius, forearms, and abdominals.  These allow a shooter to “press” the pistol toward the target at the end of the draw stroke, keeping the firearm level and true during extended strings of fire. 

Bench Press 

A classic staple of even the most common gym routine, the bench press is a valuable tool for training the upper body including the pectorals, triceps, forearms, and deltoids. 

For pistol shooting, strong triceps and forearms transmit recoil force to the shoulders and allow the shooter to keep the firearm steady and level. When utilizing rifles with a buttstock, the buttstock is placed between the pectoral and the deltoid with the shoulder rolled forward, effectively trapping the stock between these two muscle masses.  Larger, stronger pectorals provide a more stable surface as well as a larger surface area across which recoil is transmitted. 

A powerful bench press is also beneficial to real-world defensive shooting scenarios where an armed citizen may be required to create distance from an attacker before drawing the firearm.  

Power Clean 

Quick, explosive moments may not seem like an important part of high-performance shooting at first glance. However, the ability to coordinate large muscle groups into a fluid motion is a fundamental aspect of the “draw stroke” – simply put, getting your firearm out of the holster and on target as quickly and efficiently as possible. Watching a highly-trained weightlifter perform a heavy clean or snatch movement is like watching poetry in action. Every part of the movement happens in sequence with no wasted effort. Watching a well-trained performance shooter clear a cover garment, obtain a master grip on the firearm, draw the firearm out of the holster, present the firearm straight and level with sights on the target, and squeeze off a shot in the same amount of time (or less) as power clean is just as beautiful. 

The old saying “speed kills” has real-life implications when it comes to firearms training. In the unfortunate event of a gunfight, the shooter who gets the gun on target the quickest has an obvious advantage. Often this must occur with little or no preparation by the defender and little or no warning on the part of the attacker.  

Learning and practicing the coordination of large muscle groups to move a heavy weight quickly through space not only provides the strength necessary to perform the task at hand, but also supplies the confidence that it can be done under very stressful conditions. 

Adding Mass 

Do your fives, drink your Gallon Of Milk A Day, and this will take care of itself! Starting Strength has been proven to build muscle mass for those who follow the program as designed. Simply adding mass to your body – regardless of whether it’s lean mass or excess adipose tissue – will provide more resistance against both recoil and a bullet wound.  

Obviously, our goal with Starting Strength is to add lean mass, which is useful for activities outside performance shooting. As we build muscle, we not only enjoy the benefits of additional strength to better secure our grip and “lock in” our stance, but the simple fact that we are now heavier means our body will be moved less by the recoil energy of the firearm.  This is further evidence to suggest the current US Military disposition toward running as the basis for their fitness standard is antithetical to the goal of producing better “combat athletes.”  We actually want soldiers who are physically larger and heavier and capable of producing as much force as possible. 

Conclusions 

Performance shooting is a learned skill, the same as any other athletic endeavor, and therefore it can be enhanced through a properly designed and programmed strength training routine. Controlling the firearm’s recoil is key to maintaining accuracy, and recoil must have a solid path of transmission through the body to the ground. Strong hands, forearms, shoulders, spinal erectors, hips, and legs allow the shooter to maintain posture throughout the firing sequence. Additionally, general strength as an attribute provides a distinct advantage for other tasks that may be required in the event of a defensive shooting scenario. 

As Rip has often said, “Strong People Are Harder to Kill.”  This adage could not be more relevant to citizens using a firearm for self-defense.  Stronger people, it turns out, also make for better performance shooters.


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