The Practice of Shadowboxing And Its Purpose

Boxing in one form or another is roughly as old as human civilization. There exists a plaque in the Iraqi museum in Baghdad, which depicts boxers and wrestlers and dates back nearly 3000 BC. We don’t know how old shadowboxing is but it’s old enough that St. Paul may have mentioned it in the bible. Boxing was certainly centuries old even by then and widely practiced before the rise of the Catholic church.

Shadowboxing has likely been going on as long as boxing has. It is a drill every champion in history has done. It requires no equipment or supplies. It costs nothing to start. All you need is a clear flat space and the ability to visualize an opponent. Before we go into the actual hows of shadowboxing, it’s just as important to know why fighters shadowbox.

The ultimate goal of shadowboxing, is to impose as much order and efficiency into a fighter's most basic movements as possible. Boxing is the sweet science and science is repeatable. In essence, shadowboxing drills all the fundamental little movements that make up a fighter’s game. So in the heat of a fight or even just friendly spar, you are still moving in the same ways as you do during solo drills. Mike Tyson once said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. There’s an old military maxim that makes a perfect counterpoint:“Troops don’t rise to occasions or expectations. Troops rise to their training.”. 

STANCE, THE FOUNDATION

When you inevitably get hit, you want to be doing the right things, whether or not you have time or sense to  think about it. The most basic thing of all and the first thing any coach will teach is the proper stance. The stance is the key to developing power on strikes. It allows the best leverage for weight transfer and offers the best balance for changing direction. There is going to be some level of personal preference between each individual. But here’s some of the basic rules for stance.

Stand square with your feet about shoulder length apart. Take half a step forward with your non-dominant side. How you hold your hands is up to you. The textbook dictates they be about chin or cheek high. Now sink your weight down to the point where you can move fluidly and explosively in any direction. But not so deep that your thighs start to burn just standing there. This point of balance usually takes time and a bit of coaching to truly find. But it’s the key to agility and power in just about every striking art.

Every training exercise should be done for 3 or 5 minute intervals with a 1 minute rest. The 3 or 5 depends on your striking sport of choice. Your training should be broken up into the same length as a round. So you go from gym to fight with as little change as possible.3 rounds of shadowboxing makes a perfect warm up for a training session. Here’s a basic round by round breakdown of what to focus on while shadow boxing. 

ROUND 1: THE FIGHT IS IN THE FEET

Nobody ever tells you this until it’s too late. It could have saved me time focusing on the wrong aspects of shadow boxing. So I’m telling you. Forget your hands. Or your weapons, for the Muay Thai inclined among you. Fighting is largely a game of distance and positioning. Controlling the range is done first with the feet. Because if you are closing and creating distance faster, getting off on angles better and generally getting to the spots you want... Well. You’re probably winning that fight.

Shadowboxing doubles as a warm up. It’s to wake up the muscles and get them used to what they are going to need to do for the rest of a training session. For this reason the first round of shadow boxing you do should include virtually no punches. It should be focused on improving mobility and drilling good technical footwork. 

The textbook way to move for striking means staying in stance as much as possible, while also having the balance and mobility to evade and counter as needed. Crossing your feet is a cardinal sin. If you get hit with your feet crossed, you are off balance, and easily knocked down. So a fighters movement is deliberate and systematic to prevent this habit..

The foot that moves first, is the foot that is closest to the direction you are moving in. Your lead foot goes first when advancing or stepping to that side. The rear foot goes first when retreating or stepping that side. Practice stepping in on one angle and out on another. After the basic steps, then double up on them in every direction. At the end of the round focus on pivots and direction changes.  

Note the word STEPPING above. Dragging your feet is another cardinal sin. It’s wasted energy spent fighting the friction of the earth. Pick those feet up and always bring them with you.

ROUND 2: DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

The second round of shadowboxing is all of those same movements, with a defensive movement along with it. You want to visualize an aggressive opponent trying to hit you. So we want to be stepping then parrying. Or stepping, slipping, weaving, bobbing and rolling imaginary punches off the shoulders and guard. Run through your defensive move set while stepping around. It’s much easier to not get hit than it is to hit somebody. Because most strikes thrown in a fight don’t land. Taking punches is never plan A.

 When you can step and slip, move defensively  and still maintain that proper stance, then you can start to think about offense. Because when it comes time to spar, and you can make an opponent miss a punch, it means they are probably in range to punch back. If you are in the proper stance we talked about, it means you are in range and on balance to counter cleanly and with power. If you feel yourself coming off balance when throwing these counters, double check your footwork. It’s a common error you see in new folks, it’s as simple as getting off stance.

So it’s only toward the end of the 2nd round of shadowboxing that offense should start popping in. It should be added at the end of the sequence. So we’re stepping, then defending, then throwing to land a counter. Please keep in mind you should NEVER be throwing haymakers in shadowboxing. It’s a great way to mess up your back and shoulders.

You just want to follow through a direct, basic counter punch. Make sure your pretend counters are aimed at both the head and body. Make sure you are using both hands when throwing them, to avoid becoming a headhunter or one-handed fighter. Make sure that your non-punching is raised in defense and in position to absorb a shot or be thrown as a follow up.

ROUND 3: FREEING THE BEAST

Finally the third round is offense focused, but not offense dominated. Technique is king. To start the round, simple movement and defense but with a focus on just the jab. Start adding the jab, then the double jab, into all the previous footwork and defense. Step in each direction and jab. Double step and double jab. Start mixing in the power hand with a 1-2. When you throw the straight 1-2, it is essential the back foot takes the same step in as the lead foot. If you notice you are falling forward or can't really follow through on the power hand, you are probably leaning in rather than stepping in. If you can’t throw a fluid lead hook after the power hand, it’s probably because you are leaning in. Not stepping in.

From here you start adding to the length of the sequences. Mixing offense, defense and footwork all together. A classic is Floyd Mayweather’s pull counter sequence. He jabs, fades away from a counter jab and comes over the top of the jab to counter with a straight right. When you start to see boxing this way it becomes, chess. A tournament of competing if/then statements. A great series of branching paths each possibly boobie trapped by an opponent. All the mistakes are there, waiting to be made and capitalized on for each man. It’s just chess with an extremely short timer and grievous bodily consequences. 

Finish off the round with a high pace flurry focusing on short, balanced direct punches. Don’t overextend your feet or fall into the trap of forgetting your defense. Don’t throw full punches and don’t fully extend at the elbow. Keep that non-punching hand high. And make sure your punches are returning straight back into the same position they came from or even just  a bit higher. Don’t forget to feint when setting up combos.

Work up a good sweat. Punches should come in combinations of around 2-5 at a time and end with a strike off the lead hand. This lets you end a combination behind your lead shoulder. Getting you back into your stance more naturally. Generally there should be a defensive move or step to an angle in the sequence somewhere too. This is the time to turn it on and get a sweat going for the rest of class or training.

So we’ve broken down the science, how about the instruments? 

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

You need nothing to shadowbox and have it be an effective training tool. Once a coach fixes your early mistakes, it’s something you can do at any time, pretty much anywhere. However there are few tricks and bits of equipment that fighters have found useful to make the most of their shadowboxing.

The first and cheapest is tape. If you have a ring or space, put a strip of tape running down every 45 degree angle. So all the strips meet at the center point of your space. This gives you a visual representation of the straight lines you are moving and punching on. You should generally be trying to step off the lines rather than going back and forward on them. Seeing it helps you notice and minimize the bad habit of hanging out on the line of attack before and after an exchange.

Another classic is using weights when shadowboxing. This can be good to force you to transfer your weight in a controlled and balanced manner. Anything over 5lbs is too much, even for a heavyweight. Keep it very tight and very technical if you intend to hold weights while shadowboxing. It’s easier to hurt yourself doing this than doing it without the weights. Assess the risk/reward accordingly and go light.

A modern addition to a shadow boxers tool kit is the leg band. The leg band is made of  a stretchy material and goes around the outside of your knees or ankles. As you shadowbox your goal is to keep this band tense with your legs while moving, defending and doing everything else. These are good for preventing you from overstepping and force you via resistance to bring you back foot along. Old school trainers used to tie your shoelaces together to correct this. By using bands it  builds muscle in the legs and hips at the same time.

Then of course is the man in the mirror

PUGILIST’S PUZZLE

When you get good enough to run through a shadowboxing routine on muscle memory, it becomes a self imposed puzzle. A hypothetical to be carefully approached and examined. Every fighter you watch becomes a question of what you can learn from them and what you could possibly do to beat them. You start to pick apart technique. You try to emulate them. Some of it works for you and some of it doesn’t. You keep what works and incorporate it into your game.

Once you start wondering what you can do to beat the greats, once you start picking apart their habits, it gets addictive. You start to do strange things. Like talk about a pull counter sequence on a Jiu-jitsu blog. That’s the difference between a casual fan and a hardcore fan. The tip of the iceberg of combat sports is the violence and chaos. What lies beneath the waves is a game so deep and ancient it boggles the mind. Your own style becomes just another puzzle to solve. 

So when you see a fighter, moving in the mirror, lost in the act of shadowboxing. It might be completely without conscious thought. Know that it’s not without a purpose. You see them lock eyes with themselves in their reflection. They’re just trying to solve the puzzle in the mirror, so it’s more difficult when somebody else tries to. 

Thanks for reading. 

Until the next one,

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