How to Bowl a Strike

by Brett on April 14, 2011 · 25 comments

in Gamesmanship, Manly Skills

Bowling has a long and thoroughly manly history.

But if you’re like me, then your contribution to this legacy of manliness hasn’t been anything to write home about. Which is to say, for much of my life I was a pretty sorry bowler. I liked going bowling with my friends and reveling in some manly camaraderie, but being a competitive guy, it was hard to enjoy a game while getting trounced by everyone else.

And I rarely got to experience the sheer joy and ecstasy of bowling a strike. There’s nothing like seeing all ten of those pins disappear from the lane. So lately I’ve been trying to up my game. With some practice, reading, and advice from guys who bowl strikes on a regular basis, I’ve been able to improve my strike ball. I’m not bowling perfect games by any means, but I’ll get three or four strikes in a game now.

And so to help my fellow floundering bowlers, I offer a few tips on how to bowl a strike.

Be flexible. Flexibility and the ability to adapt are essential to consistently bowling strikes because every lane you bowl on is different. Why? Well, have you ever crossed the foul line and found yourself on your butt? That’s because bowling lanes are oiled and the amount of oil and the way it’s spread on the lane can differ from lane to lane. Heck, the oil pattern on a single lane can change throughout the game. Changes in oil amount and pattern can cause your ball to break differently. So be prepared to adjust your approach.

If you're right-handed, aim for the ball to hit the pocket in-between the 1 and 3 pins.

The key is in the pocket. The key to consistent strikes is to angle the ball into the “pocket.” For a right-handed bowler, the pocket is between the one-pin and three-pin. For a lefty, it’s between the one-pin and two-pin.

Choose a lighter ball. Yeah, I know. You want to show off your manly strength by hurling an 18 pound ball down the lane like the thunder god Tor. And yeah, it’s fun to see the pins fly in the air when a heavy ball hits them, but if you want to bowl strikes, consider lightening up a bit. To bowl strikes, you want the pins to hit each other, and not just fly up in the air. Heavy balls make pins fly in the air; lighter balls make the pins hit each other. Many pros these days have started using the 14 1/2 or 15 pound balls because of the advantage lighter balls provide. So go ahead. Use that girl ball without shame.

Focus, but not on the pins. The pins are your target, but you don’t want to focus or aim for them. Instead, pick one of the arrows in the middle of the lane and aim to have your ball roll right over it. If you’re a right-handed bowler, aim for the second arrow from the right. Lefties, aim for the second arrow from the left. Because most lane oil is in the middle of the lane, throwing your ball on the outside will give it more traction down the entire lane.

Line up your approach. Before the foul line, you’ll see three rows of dots that parallel the lane–one row right before the foul line and two rows a bit back from it. Use one of these latter rows to line up your approach to the foul line (which one you choose is determined by how many steps you take before releasing the ball). If you’re right-handed with a slight hook, place your left foot just to the right of the middle dot. If you’re left-handed, your right foot should be placed just to the left of the center dot.

If you consistently hit the pocket from that approach, you’ve found your strike ball. Keep approaching from that spot. If you’re missing left, move a bit to your left on the approach. If you’re missing right, move right. Yeah, that seems sort of counter-intuitive, but a righty bowler misses left because his ball hooked too early. Sames goes for a lefty. Moving towards the direction you’re missing and aiming for the same arrow will force the ball farther down the lane before hooking into the pins. Try it. It works.

It's all in the toes.

Make your approach. Start your approach towards the line. The four step approach is the most commonly used approach by the pros, but if the Fred Flintstone twinkle-toes thing works for you, then do it. Keep your eye on your target arrow the entire time and make sure you’re walking in a straight line.

Keep your arm straight. On the backswing, keep your arm straight and close to the body. Your hand should come up to shoulder level.

Step of power! The power step is the second-to-last step in your approach and it gives your body a bit more momentum which adds to the leverage of your armswing, giving you a stronger release of the ball. If you’re right handed, your power step will be with your right foot. Lefties, with the left. Your power step leg should have a nice bend to it which will help you slide on your left foot. Watch that you don’t cross the foul line!

Release the ball at the bottom of your downward swing. You want to time the release just right. Too early and you can lose velocity, too late and you’ll cause the ball to bounce.

Curve it. Remember, to bowl strikes we want the ball to hit the pocket, and to do that effectively, we need some curve to our throw. This takes some practice to perfect, but here’s some general advice to get started. If you’re right-handed, rotate your thumb to a 10 o’clock position as you release the ball. If you’re left-handed, rotate your thumb to a 2 o’clock position. This will give your ball a bit of spin as it hurtles towards the pins.

You want the ball to curve into the pocket.

Follow through. A mistake that many novices make in bowling is not following through after releasing the ball. Failing to follow through reduces rotation on the ball and consequently decreases accuracy. Once you release the ball, keep your arm going in the pendulum motion until your hand is above your head.

Be like Frank. Take it nice and easy. Don’t rush. It’s easy to get in a hurry especially when you get flustered. Maintain a slow and smooth approach and release.

Fist pump/air pistols/Jesus Quintana Dance. Revel in the sweet sound of a strike with a celebratory fist pump. Or you could go with the classic Pistol Pete air pistols and pretend that you’re shooting all the pins down with your fingers. Better yet, do the Jesus Quintana Dance from the Big Lebowski:

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe April 14, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Great article. I’m going bowling next week for the first time in years. I’ll keep these tips in mind.

2 Bryan April 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I wonder how much of this applies to candlepin bowling (for those of us in New England)? I’m guessing most of it, though the physics is somewhat different.

But fifteen pounds, light? Ha! Our balls actually weigh less than the pins. Now that’s a challenge. Nothing like those giant balls and portly pins that can’t help but get hit. ;-)

3 Micah April 14, 2011 at 2:52 pm

I love bowling. I took a class in college but unfortunately the instructor was a student who knew nothing about throwing strikes. It was just a student instructor reading to us from a packet. I learned more in this single post!! The bonus was getting to bowl 2 times per week for a semester. I got really good. My goal was to break 200 and I did! I joke that one day I will be a professional bowler. Still have not perfected the hook though. I can do it if I take my thumb out. I should probably have my own ball fitted.

4 Nathan April 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Having bowled in many leagues throughout adolescence, I would say the best thing to do to be a better bowler is to get your own ball. Get a ball that is quality (i’m not talking several hundred dollars, though they do exist)…anything around $100 should be fine. Get it fitted to your hand by a pro, and if you plan on learning to hook the ball, get it fingertip gripped.

I couldn’t throw a hook to save my life before. Day 1 with a new ball…hook for days.

5 PJ April 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Good tips. I ‘ll try some of them next time. I tend to rush though my shots so that I can sit back down before anyone can see me bowl – I am that good (ha ha). I don’t think I am alone. Maybe there’s a market for lanes that are partitioned for privacy.

6 Zack April 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm

If you want a hook, a fingertip drilled ball is a must. The less of your finger is in the ball, the more accurate you can be. When you get the ball drilled they drill it to promote a hook and they can use several patterns. Fit is the most important thing, if the ball doesn’t fit your hand, you can’t bowl well consistently. Also, some balls hook more than others, a reactive resin ball will hook the most, and a plastic ball won’t move at all. Most bowlers use one of each of those, resin for first shot, plastic for spares. I bowl often and i average 224. Have fun!

7 Jonny April 15, 2011 at 4:06 am

Lets not forget, The Dude Abides.

8 Robert April 15, 2011 at 7:01 am

16 lb is the maximum regulation ball weight for league and tournament play so of course PBA bowlers won’t be using anything higher.

9 Preston Blain April 15, 2011 at 7:17 am

My bowling is so inconsistent as I only play couple of times a year at most. Would love to be able to curve the ball properly as I have never been able to get the hang of it.

@ Jonny – The Dude does abide :-). The Big Lebowski is an awesome film. “Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!”.

10 chris April 15, 2011 at 8:44 am

I was taught a simple tip for hooking the ball with a regular ball. It doesn’t have the 90-degree hook at the end like a lot of people want but it gets the job done. When you have all three fingers in the ball, keep your pinky finger next to your ring finger AND move your pointer finger as far out as you can. This will give you a decent hook/spin.

Also, for a really wild test – start bowling with the opposite hand. I only bowl once a week but after switching to the occasional left hand for about 3 months, I can bowl almost as well as I can right-handed. As a plus, when I throw a left, I tend to put a lot more spin on the ball. It will drive your friends nuts the first time you get a left-handed strike. :)

11 Dustin B April 15, 2011 at 10:13 am

Don’t mess with the Jesus.

12 John R April 15, 2011 at 10:52 am

House/rental balls are ceramic and get slick with oil. They are drilled for a narrow grip (fingers deep in the hole). This prevents it from curving.

To make the ball curve you need a ball drilled with a fingertip grip and has a resin surface (resin sticks to the lane).

Or, you can go with a two finger grip (no thumb) on any ball. This will create a wild hook. However, it’s much hard to control.

13 Faisal April 15, 2011 at 10:56 am

I believe it all takes a good imagination than on hand skills for it. Practice cannot make perfect all the times

14 kevin April 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm

I have been bowling since I can remember and I’m only 22, but I worked at my local lanes for 5 years when I was in high school and go tot bowl for free all the time because of the job, that of course opens up a lot of opportunities that most don’t have but I can say, if you want to get better just keep at it, don’t stop and don’t feel like you are always doing something wrong everyone throws and approaches and does everything different. The basics are the same but after enough time and effort you will progress into your own style.

15 John Rose April 15, 2011 at 3:10 pm

If you don’t have a ball and you’ve only bowled a few times in your life, I would suggest learning how to bowl straight first. Then after a few months, jump up to a reactive ball and start learning to curve it. The reason I say learn to bowl straight first is so you can understand how the ball reacts to the pins and you learn the pin fall. If you notice how the pins fall, you learn how and where to hit the pins. Basically how the ball interacts with the pins. You also will learn better form and timing on your approach. I would suggest a T-Zone ball drilled for your hand and a pair of shoes. Shouldn’t cost more then $125. Always bowl with people that are better then you and that will have the patience and no how to show you what to do and more importantly, what not to do.
There is an amazing amount of instructional videos on the internet from the Team USA bowling team, along with other professionals that show you everything from lane reading to timing, to ball selection. Watch them and take mental notes for your next visit to the lanes. When you start learning to curve the ball into the pocket, the best advice I can give you is that it’s just like throwing a football underhanded. If you’ve ever underhanded a spiral football before, it’s the same motion. You pull your arm strait back, release at your front foot, and follow through into a handshake. Best thing to do is run the ball up the right gutter (if you’re right handed), and if you’re flaring the ball to far right, try to keep your arm straighter. If the ball is running up the gutter but crosses over the pins and you go Brooklyn (left of the front center pin), then start more left and then flair the ball out towards the right gutter. Once you find your position that’s most comfortable, start refining and get consistent. Good luck, and have fun. Also, big TIP: Go to your local bowling alley website, or swing by to see what days they have specials. My local alley has $5 Wednesdays. All you can bowl, including shoes for 5 bucks after 9. They also have other nights of really good deals.

16 Gary April 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm

This is a tip many people don’t know. Always pick the ball up with both hands, cradle it in the crook of the elbow of the non-throwing arm until you insert your fingers, and then support it with that arm while you are lining up the shot.

Novices tend to walk up to the ball return, stick their fingers in the ball, haul it up to the approach, swing the ball up to their chest and then start their shot.

Over the course of three games the fingers will tire, causing a myriad of problems like letting the ball go too early, or on the backswing. Once the fingers tire it’s difficult to control the ball and have a consistent delivery.

17 Brax May 1, 2011 at 4:30 am

How is bowling a manly pursuit? I’d say it’s pretty much a sport for both genders. My Mum was a pretty handy bowler back in the day.

18 T May 6, 2011 at 11:24 pm

my experienced bowling friend told me that custom bowling balls have an off-set weight in them. they have a little bit of “natural” curve when you bowl. HOWEVER lane balls (the kind the alley provides) do not have this off set weight. so, it is easier to bowl straight with them. this is usually why pro-bowlers, or league bowlers have more than one ball with them when they bowl. one is for the initial throw, the second is when they need to be more precise. at least….. that is what my bowling friend told me. (my friend is in a league btw – and really good). just sharing. thanks.

19 Jake Jacobs May 7, 2011 at 12:24 pm

There are trivia sites that claim that the ball hits the five pin when a perfect strike is bowled. However, the ball hits the one-three pocket and the headpin hits the two pin, turns at a ninety degree angle, and hits the five pin, driving it through the pin deck, the ball is the last thing to exit the pin deck. The only pins that are hit with the ball are the one and three pins. Anyone that watched the PBA Bowling tournaments were privilaged to see this in slow motion, as far back as the sixties and seventies. It was televised on ABC TV, hosted by Chris Shenkel.

20 John October 22, 2012 at 3:08 am

The path the ball takes when knocking down pins is 1 pin, 3 pin, 5 pin and 9 pin. If rolled correctly the 1 pin takes out the 2, 4 & 7, the 3 pin takes out the 6 and 9 pins, and the 5 pin hits the 8 pin. The ball finishes its path through the pins by hitting the 9 pin.

21 John October 22, 2012 at 3:12 am

Remember that the narrow line (path of the ball) in the picture at the top of the page is not really the path of the ball. The ball is roughly 9″ wide so the deflection path of the pins is not as it appears bouncing off that imaginary line. The one and three pins are deflected back at about 45 degrees taking out pins along the way. Same for the 5 pin.

22 Spencer February 13, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Hi. I’m Spencer and i’m 12 years old. I’ve been bowling since I could pick up a bowling ball without an adult’s help. I know a lot. And the first thing I know is that some of the information on your how to bowl a strike page is incorrect. First, the weight limit for a bowling ball is 16 pounds. Second, the lighter ball is not for pin action, but for less hook. More and more balls are now made for hook. Pros like to reduce that most times. Third, the arm doesn’t necessarily need to be straight.(Don Carter, for example) You should slide using the sole of the shoe on the last step. Lastly, ho many pros do a dance after a strike? Keep it cool and KEEP CALM. No need to make a scene.
Hope these tips help you with your game, Brett.

Spencer

23 Bill June 17, 2013 at 10:40 pm

I just read this column at the bowling alley and promptly threw a strike on my first try. The manliness is oozing out of me.

24 jonathan September 19, 2013 at 2:47 pm

WOW it works!!!

25 Alyannah Orleans April 11, 2014 at 5:03 am

Hopefully I remember these tips since I’m just a newbie at this.

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