What’s shadow boxing?
Shadow boxing is a training technique that boxers use to improve and perfect their pugilism. For many boxers, shadow boxing is a form of meditation where, in their own world, they can focus fully on the technical application of each punch, each combination, and each defensive move.
But some boxers use shadow boxing as a visualisation exercise: they might imagine what it will be like to fight an opponent. Also, the boxer might use shadow boxing as an opportunity to practice specific defensive manoeuvres, or drill counter attacks.
Typically, though, boxers shadowbox as a pre-training warm-up exercise. Shadow boxing is a non-impact activity that enables the boxer to loosen up and prepare their body for the demands boxing training places on the practitioner.
In addition, shadow boxing allows the boxer to prepare psychologically for the workout ahead. Every boxer – even the seasoned professional no doubt – has experienced those low motivation days, when going to the gym is a painful drag.
However, usually after a 10-minute skip and 5 good rounds of shadow boxing, the boxer has a lick of sweat across their brow, they’re loosened up and raring to get stuck in.
Related: learn how to skip in 7 simple steps
Can shadow boxing get you in shape?
The answer to that question depends on how you approach shadow boxing workouts. For example, if you focus on controlled movements, slowly going through each technique, then no, shadow boxing won’t help you get in shape.
But though taking the controlled approach won’t improve your fitness, it certainly can help you to improve the technical application of your punches.
It’s good practice to begin your shadow boxing sessions by taking the controlled approach. Once you begin warming up and you find your groove, you can progressively increase the tempo and intensity of your punches and combinations.
This more intense approach to shadow boxing will, over time, develop your fitness.
Is shadow boxing a good workout?
Following on from above, if you maintain a high output, throwing between 30 to 60 punches per minute, bobbing and weaving, ducking and diving, shadow boxing can make for an excellent workout.
There’s a couple of methods that increase the intensity of shadow boxing.
One simple method to develop the endurance of your shoulder muscles is to hold a pair of dumbbells while you shadow box. The dumbbells shouldn’t be heavy, if they are the quality of your technique will deteriorate. A pair of 1- to 2-kilogram dumbbells will more than suffice.
Shadow boxing with dumbbells not only improves the stamina of your shoulder muscles, but it also strengthens your guard and enables you to keep your hands up longer. This is a perennial mistake made by beginners and amateur boxers: dropping their hands during pad work and sparring. Shadow boxing with dumbbells helps reduce this potentially dangerous mistake.
Another great way to turn up the intensity of your shadow boxing sessions is to use a resistance band. While a resistance band won’t strengthen your guard as dumbbells do, they are one of the best ways to improve explosive punching power.
As well as improving the power of your punches, shadow boxing with a resistance band also develops both the stamina and strength of your shoulder muscles. Unlike dumbbells, where the weight remains the same, resistance bands become ‘heavier’ – that is, the resistance increases – the more they are stretched.
So, at the final stage of the punch, the resistance band will have reached is maximal resistance. This will help you develop power across the full range of your punch.
What is shadow boxing good for?
Shadow boxing can benefit you in many ways. For example, if you can’t train with a coach, shadow boxing in front of a mirror is really the only way to improve your technique. As you engage in imaginary fisticuffs with your boxing idol, you can assess and appraise your performance in the mirror. This provides you with instant feedback which you can then use to make corrections.
Shadow boxing enhances the endurance of your shoulder muscles and, if you use dumbbells or a resistance band, it will also develop the power of your punches and the strength of your guard. But shadow boxing will do more than merely improve your shoulder muscles.
If you move your feet and dance around as though you are in a contest, shadow boxing will build strong leg muscles. And in so doing will enable you to keep light on your feet from the first to the last bell.
But then there’s the fitness side of shadow boxing. All those Ali shuffles help get the heart rate up which improves cardiovascular performance. Thus, if you incorporate shadow boxing into your training routine, ensuring to vary the intensity of your workouts, you should notice an increase in stamina.
Benefits of shadow boxing
Improves the technical application of the pugilistic skillset that you practice (of course, this is dependent on whether you analyse your technique and strive to improve it)
Can sharpen the speed of your punches
Improves footwork and agility
Enhances coordination and the synchronicity of your skillset
Can develop punching power (if you shadow box with dumbbells and/or a resistance band)
Quickens reaction time
Serves as a perfect warm-up for all types of boxing training
Also, can be used as post-training cool-down
Related: discover 10 benefits of boxing
Can shadowboxing teach you how to fight?
Yes . . . and no. Let me clarify.
Shadow boxing certainly can help improve all aspects of your boxing ability. From footwork to fainting, and from punching to parrying, shadow boxing can enable you to polish your performance.
And, as I’ve attempted to convince you throughout this article, shadow boxing also helps develop ring fitness.
But, we must not forget that, as a method of improving pugilism, shadow boxing has its limitations. The most obvious limitation is the fact that you must become your own coach. Regardless of how seriously you take it, you will miss technical mistakes, mistakes that a coach will (should) quickly identify and rectify.
Also, shadow boxing in the absence of a competent coach can breed poor technical application. If, as an amateur boxer, you are not aware that you are dropping your hands, or telegraphing (that is, giving away your next move to your opponent), or making any one of a million possible mistakes, shadow boxing will only enforce and cement the flaw.
The last limitation of shadow boxing, before we move on to the tutorial and training methods, is that it is no substitute for heavy bag training, working the pads with a coach, or controlled sparring. Shadow boxing is first and foremost a supplementary training method that serves a couple of important functions: warming up, embedding skills, visualising contests, and cooling down.
The real boxing, the training that makes brilliant boxers, is all the stuff that takes place after shadow boxing. This stuff includes working the heavy bag, drilling combinations on the focus mitts, and putting it all to practice in the ring with an opponent of similar ability.
How to shadow box
The first mistake beginners make when they start shadow boxing is throwing punches. But that’s understandable because in the eyes of a beginner that’s all boxers do.
Yet, though this may come across as counterintuitive, punching makes up only a relatively small part of the boxer’s skill set. To achieve basic boxing competency, you’ve got to develop proficiency in the following skills:
Evading the opponent’s punches
Controlling the ring
Slipping and parrying
All aspects of footwork
Reading the opponent
Fainting and misleading
Maintaining work rate
And that list isn’t exhaustive. Great boxing coaches like Freddie Roach and Teddy Atlas would double, even triple, the length of that list. Also, I’m sure they’d have a few criticisms about those skills that I’ve identified.
The plethora of pugilistic competencies outlined above cannot be honed and developed until you establish a solid base. So, when you start shadow boxing, the first thing you should focus on is your stance.
How to adopt the correct boxing stance
Adopt a neutral stance, feet shoulder-width apart, hands hanging by your sides, eyes front.
Keeping the foot of your dominant leg planted, step the other foot forward.
You’ll probably feel a little awkward in this position. Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal.
Next, rotate your feet slightly so that your toes are pointing at a 45ᵒ angle across your body.
To improve the comfort and stability of your stance, widen your feet a touch and bend your knees a bit. But when you do this be careful not to narrow your stance.
Now that your feet are correctly positioned and you’ve established a solid foundation, you’re ready to progress on to the basics of footwork.
How to move like a boxer
Before we cover the teaching points of footwork, you ought to bear in mind that it takes years of dedicated practice to develop the effortless grace of a pro. When moving in your boxing stance as a beginner, it is best to take slow deliberate steps.
If you rush the process, you’ll certainly embed poor technique which will result in a faulty foundation. And you know what happens to structures that are built on poor foundations!
So, to conclude this impromptu lecture, just take your time and think baby steps.
The footwork rule of thumb is as follows:
When moving forward – advancing – step off with your ‘lead’ foot.
When moving back – creating space – step off with your rear foot.
When moving laterally – left or right – lead off with the same foot as the direction of travel. If you’re stepping left lead off with the left foot.
Why follow this footwork formulae? The simple reason, it stops you from narrowing your stance. Arguably, it’s better to elongate your stance slightly than it is to narrow it. A narrow stance is not as stable, it makes you more susceptible to being knocked off balance, and it is neigh on impossible to throw a meaningful punch from a narrow stance.
Before thinking about punching it would be wise to work on your stance and basic footwork drills first. Dedicate a couple of shadow boxing workouts solely to these two skills. When you feel confident and you can move without having to focus too much on the technique, come back and learn the basics of the guard and straight punches.
How to adopt a boxing guard
The guard is a boxer’s fortress and it acts as both a defence against invasion and platform from which to launch an attack. Shadow boxing provides you with an opportunity to develop your guard and iron out any weaknesses in your defensive structure.
Assuming you’ve spent time developing your footwork, and you can now move somewhat like a boxer and not an inebriated crab, it’s time to sort out your guard. So, firstly:
Get in your stance!
Now hold your hands up so that your fists are floating on either side of your chin (it’s best to study your posture in a mirror). Also, bury your chin into your chest and ‘look through your eyebrows’.
The left hand should be further out front than its counterpart.
Your forearms aren’t exactly parallel but slightly splayed. If your elbows are considerably spaced, you will inadvertently expose your torso which opens you up to body shots.
The tips of you elbows float around your floating ribs.
Adopting a guard as described above will provide you the best possible defence. Thus, it is well worth working on.
How to punch like a pro
Finally, I get to throw a punch! Yep, you’ll be elated to learn that you have reached that stage where you can start to incorporate punches into your shadow boxing routine.
However, instead of producing a detailed overview of how to execute a proper punch, I have outlined the most important dos and don’ts of punching. In truth, there are many technical aspects to punching which would require a thousand more words to cover.
For those who are only seeking an elementary introduction into the art of shadow boxing, the following dos and don’ts will more than suffice to get you going. But if you want to take the sweet art of pugilism to the next level, you could skip straight to our other article – The Basics of Boxing – where you will discover a comprehensive step-by-step guide to all the foundational skills of boxing.
The dos and don’ts of punching
Do remain relaxed.
Don’t throw full-power punches as you will likely hyperextend the elbow
Do throw punches in bunches (aka combinations).
Don’t be sloppy; granted, shadows don’t hit back, but you should still imagine that they could.
Do throw from the guard and follow the line of your shoulder: if you are shadow boxing in front of a mirror, aim to hit the chin of your reflection.
Don’t drop you hand before throwing or on the way back – the fastest way from A to B and then back to A again is a straight line!
Do focus on straight punches: lead left (or lead right if you’re a southpaw), right, and 1-2 combination.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.