What is shadow boxing? Why do pro boxers shadowbox so much?

More importantly, how could YOU be shadow boxing differently to improve your fighting abilities? Shadow boxing is not just punching by yourself. Shadow boxing is one of the oldest, most pure, and versatile exercises for improving many aspects of your fighting ability.

Learn how to shadowbox to become a natural fighter.

Shadow boxing is when a boxer or fighter moves around by himself throwing punches at the air. Shadowboxing is a popular exercise for fighters to hone their fighting techniques, condition their muscles, warm-up or warm down during their workouts, or even to mentally prepare themselves before a fight. Done properly and with the right goals in mind, shadow boxing can improve your boxing technique, strength, power, speed, endurance, rhythm, footwork, offense and defense, and overall fighting abilities.
Shadow boxing is incredibly versatile because of its freestyle nature and simplicity. You can practice anything you want without any distraction (of a bag moving around, or an opponent trying to hit you), and take instant feedback from a mirror, coach, or camera. You don’t need any equipment or anybody. Shadowboxing is quite harmless as you aren’t punished for making mistakes. All you need is an imagination and you can practice virtually any movement you want.

The drawback to shadow boxing may be that it isn’t always realistic of a real fight. There is
nobody for you to adjust to. Even if you’re fighting an imaginary opponent, there’s a good
chance this imaginary opponent is moving the way you would move and with too much
predictability. Fighting a real opponent is always harder because he’s unpredictable and requires you to change your thoughts and react on the fly.

The reason why I say this is because most fighters don’t have good movement. They may have good power and good speed but their movement isn’t natural and or relaxed. As athletically impressive as they may be, it simply doesn’t look coordinated. I see a guy huffing and puffing, sweating and grunting, simply to move his own body.

You should not be getting tired when you shadowbox!

Shadow boxing is all the movement. There are no distractions about having a target in front of you to punch or an opponent in front of you to make you uncomfortable. The main focus of shadow boxing is to get used to boxing movements. Nothing else!

Before you try throwing a thousand punches on the heavy bag, you should first do it in shadow boxing. Your arms need to get used to the movement. There are so many guys with weak back muscles because they’re so used to punching at the heavy bag every day. The thing is the heavy bag bounces you hand back at you so your recovery muscles aren’t being trained. And then when you fight a live opponent, your arms get tired quickly when you miss punches. I’ve also noticed a lacking of “calmness” from boxers that don’t shadowbox enough. There’s something different about a fighter that shadowboxes regularly. He looks very comfortable moving around and throwing punches, as if that’s his default movement…it’s as natural as breathing for him.

On the other hand, a fighter that doesn’t shadowbox always looks like he has to be “switched on” to fight mode. This is a guy who needs to be pumped up before he gets in the arena.

Then he gets in there and he appears to be a bit too much “ON”. He’s moving around too much, he’s all over the place. He’s too excited, too anxious, perhaps even too nervous. It’s clear that it isn’t natural for him to be fighting. And sure enough he eventually gets “switched off” in the ring. He gets tired and he gets beat down and then he goes into panic mode because fighting is fun but it isn’t yet natural for him.

Shadow boxing is the practice of committing repetitive boxing movement to muscle memory.

Forget about power, or speed, or endurance, strategy, flashy moves, etc. It’s simply the raw
exercise of moving your body like a fighter. You might be too tired to spar or hit the heavy bag but you can always have energy to practice moving. It’s this constant practice of developing this coordination that truly makes you a boxer and makes you a natural. It’s this supreme ability to move your body that develops naturalness, allows you to relax, to be efficient, to be balanced, to feel comfortable in your own body.

You need a goal

The goal is not to showoff for everyone else in the gym, throwing as many punches as you can, and jerking your head back and forth. That’s a terrible goal and if anything, only leads to you getting tired in under 5 minutes. Which is pretty sad if you’re getting tired fighting the air.

Common reasons for shadow boxing:

  • Warm-up – Move around. Use your legs, move your head, relax the shoulders, throw some punches, move move move.
  • Shake your limbs out. Repeat! Breathe and put some purpose to
    your movements. Breaking a sweat is OK if your goal is to warm-up. You want to put your body into motion.
  • Technique – Are you working on a certain punch? Or a defensive move? Go slow, take your time, and check out your form in your mirror. Instead of working on the entire movement, maybe you can pick out 1 or 2 key points to focus on. Once that part feels right, you can move on to another detail or try the movement in it’s entirety. Repetition is important but only after you know for sure that you’re practicing the right thing. This is where having a coach helps.
  • Coordination – Being able to do a move perfectly doesn’t mean you can do a move NATURALLY. Perhaps you’ve got your jab technique down right but can’t seem to land it in a real fight. You can improve this by throwing jabs from different situations. Instead of always setting yourself up in the same stance, you can try throwing the jab from different stances. Also try moving around
    and throwing the jab at different points in your footwork. Instead of trying to force the jab out, try to find a way for your body to allow a movement to feel natural.
  • Rhythm – Sometimes singular movements feel good but you lack the flow during a fight. You can work on your rhythm while shadowboxing by making many movements. 3-4 punches, 3-4 slips, 3-4 steps, repeat. Here you’re working on rhythm so it’s okay to minimize the movements to help you find a natural “fighting dance” rhythm in your body, rather then fully extending all your
    punches and putting 100% power on every movement. Develop some rhythm by focusing on the SHAKE-SHAKE-SHAKE!
  • Strategy – Shadowboxing is perfect for working on key strategic moments during a fight. Maybe you’ve got a bad habit of always running away. Or maybe you’re working slipping the right hand to land the left hook to the body. Or maybe you just got out of a sparring match where a guy kept landing his jab.  Shadowboxing with a strategic mindset is great for developing new strategies to beat opponents and then developing NEW HABITS to fulfill these strategies. It’s all muscle memory.
  • Warm-down – Move slowly, relax, breathe. Reflect on the sparring you just had earlier in the day. Think about different techniques or movement strategies that could have helped you and work on them. You’ve already done the hard work for the day. This is your time to enjoy the moment rather than to squeeze one last workout out of your body.

The worst thing you can do for developing technique is try to work on everything all at once.

I’d say my biggest complaint about shadowboxing is not so much that fighters are doing it wrong but rather that they’re not doing it enough. If you’re a serious fighter, you should be
shadowboxing a minimum of 30 minutes a day. Pros will do more like an hour. That shouldn’t be hard at all considering you already use shadowboxing for warm-up/warm-down and also when developing new techniques.

A general shadow boxing workout would be about 15 minutes of shadowboxing. You do it
straight through, no rest. Keep your body moving and your muscles warm. If you’re getting tired too easily, simply slow it down. Shadowboxing can be done anywhere anytime. You should never have any excuse for sitting down and doing nothing at the gym. You can shadowbox, even as you’re watching a sparring match, or waiting in line for the bag, or talking to a friend.

Shadowboxing can be your default “rest workout”.

When to shadowbox during your workout:

  • Warm-up – use shadowboxing to get warm and start loosening up your joints.
  • Technique Drills – use shadowboxing to work on new moves like punches, defensive techniques, or footwork.
  • Conditioning – use shadowboxing to condition your hand and leg endurance. Work on the common repetitive movements that you use during a fight.
  • Warm-down – use shadowboxing to close out your day and loosen whatever muscles that may have tightened from your workout. Take one last look at your technique in the mirror to recap on the techniques you’ve learned that day.

Different shadow boxing workouts:

  • Alone with your thoughts – Shadowbox anywhere, anytime when you’re alone. Try using a mirror and see what happens when you change different things. Or try shadowboxing in a ring when it’s not in use and get yourself used to moving around on the canvas and touching up against the ropes.
  • With a slip rope or slip bag – Shadowbox as you practice your slipping, bobbing and weaving, and head movement techniques.
  • Around a heavy bag – Push a heavy bag so it swings and then move around with it as you throw punches but don’t connect so it stays moving. It’s always good to have a moving object to your senses alert.
  • With a partner – Don’t all ways shadowbox alone. Have a friend shadowboxing with you so it’s like you’re fighting each other except you keep a distance so no punches connect. This is a great way to ensure that you’re keeping senses alert and not developing lazy eyes or bad movement habits that don’t help you in a fight.
  • With a coach – Shadowbox under the supervision of a boxing coach and take in the feedback. Adjust on the spot and see what happens. You can also have him move around you and hold his arm out or throw slow motion punches for you to practice working from different situations. If I know my fighters will face a southpaw in their fight, I’ll stand in a southpaw stance in front of them with my right arm extend to get them used to moving around the southpaw’s jab.

You need feedback This is one of the biggest reasons for training in a gym and having a boxing trainer. You need a way to know if what you’re doing is helpful. You need a way to critique yourself and look for opportunities to improve. It is very hard to improve if the only feedback you get comes from yourself.

How to get feedback while shadow boxing:

  • HAVE A TRAINER – have a trainer oversee your movements and make little suggestions here and there. There really is no substitute for having the resource of someone more experienced than you. Even if you don’t have a mirror, you could have a fellow boxer (preferably one more experienced) take a look and adjust what he sees.
  • USE A MIRROR – look at your form in the mirror and see if you can find areas for improvement. It also helps to compare your form to other boxers in the gym. See how certain aspects of their technique look different from yours.
  • PAY ATTENTION TO HOW YOU FEEL – if something feels too difficult, you’re probably doing it wrong. Your shoulders shouldn’t be hurting during the hook. Your back shouldn’t be aching when you slip. You shouldn’t be falling off balance when you move around. If you’re getting tired shadowboxing, how can you expect yourself to have much endurance during a high-stress fight with an opponent?

You need to think:

This should be a rule that you apply to every minute of your training. Don’t ever let the brain go dead. THINK! Be alert. See if you can notice your own vulnerabilities before your opponents do.

What to think about while shadow boxing:

WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS? – What are you focusing on? If it’s speed, then work speed. If it’s strategy, then work strategy. Pick one thing and focus on it. One thing at a time.

WHERE IS THE PROBLEM? – This is the hardest part of learning. It’s very hard to improve if you don’t know what the problem is. Again, this is why you need to work with trainers, coaches, and people more experienced than yourself.

TRY SOMETHING NEW – Instead of throwing the same jab everyday, trying finding new ways to change it up. At first you try throwing it from different positions. Then maybe you can try it with a different emphasis on the muscles used (shoulders vs lats). Maybe you can try it with your weight more over your front foot or your back foot or in between. Maybe you try it with a 1 inch step, and a 3 inch step. Applying this theory in every way to every technique will get you very far! Paying attention to the more experienced fighters can give you a clue as to where to vary your technique.

Common questions about shadow boxing:

Can I shadowbox with weights or gloves on? – I do not recommend it. It distracts from the purity of the shadowboxing exercise. If you want to add resistance, it becomes resistance training. And even then the weights do not help your punching speed/power very much because they apply force in the direction of gravity rather than the direction that your punch travels. It might be a good conditioning exercise and even then, the pros that shadowbox with weights do it at a VERY SLOW speed. High speed shadow boxing with weights may damage your joints!
Should I shadowbox as a left-hander? – No it’s not necessary. Maybe every now and then you can mess around as a left-hander but it’s not necessary as part of your regular boxing training. In my opinion, if you want to try something new, weird, or different…you should try something new from your regular stance. That would make more sense to me than using a switch stance and doing the same thing you’ve always done.


Shadow boxing – a great way to solo train
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