How to shadowbox

If you train in Mixed Martial Arts, muay Thai or boxing, you already know what shadowboxing is: A solo-drill in which you practice all your techniques against an invisible opponent. In that regard, shadowboxing is the equivalent of the katas and forms you find in traditional martial arts. I know many fighters won’t like to hear me say this (heaven forbid their training has anything in common with that stupid traditional crap…) but that doesn’t make it less true. The real issue is: solo training works, regardless if you do it in a free-flowing format or in a more structured way.

In this “how to shadowbox” guide, I’ll talk about the things I like to focus on in my own training. As always, if you prefer to do things differently, that’s perfectly fine. But if you can pick something up and use it to your own benefit, then I’m already happy.

Faster than your own shadow...

First, let’s look at the different reasons why you should shadowbox:

  • Warm-up. Common practice in sports training is to start with a general warm-up (loosening up the muscles and joints) and then move on to a sport-specific warm-up (going over the techniques you’ll be doing during the training session). Shadowboxing is a perfect way to do the latter.
  • Increased coordination and technical skills. Because nobody is hitting you back, there’s no adrenal stress and you can focus completely on improving both your body mechanics and the finer points of each technique.
  • Tactical and strategic training. Whatever kind of opponent you might face, shadowboxing can help you prepare for him. As you punch and kick the empty air, imagine defending against specific techniques he likes to throw or taking advantage of an error you know he always makes. Think of it as doing a dry run, a dress rehearsal for the real fight. Playing different scenes over and over until you get them right.
  • Scenario training. Beyond strategy and tactics, you can train for specific situations you might face. Imagine getting knocked down and train to stay out of reach until you can recover. Or you suddenly stun an opponent and then have to pounce on him to finish the job. You’re only limited by your imagination here.

There are even more reasons why you should shadowbox but you get the gist of it: it’s an incredibly practical, useful and versatile training tool.

How not to shadowbox?

Just because we all agree that shadowboxing is “Dah awesomez, dude!”, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it wrong. In fact, when you shadowbox the wrong way, it can detract from your fighting ability.

Here are a few mistakes you should try to avoid:

  • Not warming up. When you punch and kick the air, there’s nothing stopping your technique. That means your muscles and joints have to “pull” the technique at the end to keep your limbs from flailing. This puts a lot of stress on them, even if you don’t feel it. If you aren’t properly warmed up, it can take just one explosive punch or kick too many to cause a painful injury. You might have cumulative injuries you’re not aware off and one too many shocks can cause them to gang up on you. Which is exactly what happened to MMA legend Bas Rutten: he threw a hook punch at the air and his biceps tore off. In combination with other injuries, it ended his career…
  • Ingraining sloppy technique. Just because you don’t have an opponent to punish you for your mistakes, that doesn’t mean you get to be a slacker. If you throw sloppy techniques, they’ll get ingrained into your system and will eventually show up that way when you fight. Instead, focus on perfecting all aspects of your technique so the training time isn’t contra-productive.
  • Always using too much power or speed. The way you generate power and speed in a technique when you land it on a target and when you only hit the air is slightly different. When you land a shot, you have to absorb the impact back into your body. In shadowboxing, this never happens and you need to pull the technique to avoid flailing with it. The body-mechanics are different for both and, to a degree, contrary to each other.  In the long run, this shouldn’t be an issue but when you start training or have limited experience, it can mess up your technique if you go fast and hard al the time.
  • Falling in love with yourself. If you went Huh?” right now, that’s OK. But I’m only half-joking here. Shadowboxing is great and the better you get at it, the more your fighting skills can increase. But it’s still only a training tool and not the fight itself. Case in point: at the first EU Sanshou Championships I competed in, all fighters warmed up in a big training hall right next to the competition area. One of the guys in my weight class was shadowboxing to get ready for his fight. He was just scary. His punches and kicks were so fast and accurate, they looked like lightning bolts flashing from his body. Even though everybody pretended not to notice, I saw the same look in the eyes of all the other fighters. It said “Holy crap!!” Fast forward to this guys first fight: he sucked. All his speed, power and amazing technique was gone as soon as somebody punched back at him. He’d clearly spent a lot of time shadowboxing but desperately needed to spar more. Don’t let that happen to you. Shadowboxing is a tool, not the end itself.

 

In Part two of this how to shadowbox guide, I’ll give you some examples and videos of the different ways to shadowbox. Stay tuned!

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Comments

  1. Liked this post. Shadow boxing is great for developing great footwork and hand skills. I like to put on some good rockin music to set the beat and for me to keep track of time. Nothing like “Jumpin Jack Flash” to get me moving. Great insight about being in love with yourself–seen a lot of fighters who look great until they get in the ring.

  2. Liked this post. Shadow boxing is great for developing great footwork and hand skills. I like to put on some good rockin music to set the beat and for me to keep track of time. Nothing like “Jumpin Jack Flash” to get me moving. Great insight about being in love with yourself–seen a lot of fighters who look great until they get in the ring.

  3. Whoohoo i,m the first one to comment.

    Awesome article and good points.
    for me shadowboxing (and shadowjudo drills) defenitely train muscle memory and conditioning.
    And Wushu Taolu looks cool and is also awesome for conditioning.
    Look forward to part 2.

  4. Whoohoo i,m the first one to comment.

    Awesome article and good points.
    for me shadowboxing (and shadowjudo drills) defenitely train muscle memory and conditioning.
    And Wushu Taolu looks cool and is also awesome for conditioning.
    Look forward to part 2.

  5. Sorry Pieter, hate to break it to you but……agree with you anyway on muscle memory and conditioning. What you do in shadow boxing is what you will most likely do in a fight.

  6. Sorry Pieter, hate to break it to you but……agree with you anyway on muscle memory and conditioning. What you do in shadow boxing is what you will most likely do in a fight.

  7. I try to get people to test stuff out in their shadow boxing/fighting that they can take to their sparring. It’s an excellent opportunity to try stuff and get a feel for it and ‘play’ with that feeling, if that makes sense.

    It’s essential to shadow box/fight in an intelligent manner rather than just plod through mindlessly, it’s a tool to use and as such important to use to it’s potential.

    I like your why’s list particularly the dress rehearsal part, that sums it up for me. It’s then god to take what you’ve learnt and try it in soft and then heavier sparring once you get better at what you’ve been trying out.

    I also like the comparison to kata although the traditional MA’s should be prepared to look to shadow fighting and use it too, IMO.

    • I agree Jon, just doing shadowboxing without thinking things through is usually not very effective. It’s fun though. But if you’re going to shadowbox, might as well get the most out of it and put some planning in.

  8. Hey Wim,

    Good article. I’ve always hated shadow boxing, because I was never told what you just put into this article. I always felt awkward, but next time I’ll try some of the things you’ve mentioned.

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