Shadow boxing is so much more than just punching air. It tends to be an underestimated and underrated component of training. For some, punching air can feel awkward and weird and I can see how it might seem pointless if you don’t know what the purpose is, but there is plenty of purpose, I promise. Shadow boxing is an important component to training: on par to bags, pads and sparring. It definitely shouldn’t be overlooked, and if it is, it’s big loss to your game.
I’ll explain. Below are five reasons why shadow boxing is so important. The first one is obvious but has an accumulative effect over time.
1. Practice Specific Movement Patterns
Besides warming up to increase blood flow and lubricate joints, warming up by shadow boxing allows you to practice specific and relevant movement patterns that, over time, add up.
If I had to choose between warming up with shadow boxing or running, I’d choose shadow.
I think it’s way more efficient. Why? Both shadow boxing and running elevates the heart rate to similar heart rate zones, having the same effect and benefits to the cardiovascular system. The main difference is activity: one you’re running and the other you’re practicing Muay Thai.
Which activity would be more efficient? Imagine over weeks, months and years how much more (focused, and if done right) movement practice you would have accumulated that you otherwise wouldn’t have. Running has its own benefits, like visualizing while you run, entering the right head-space, or sucking in fresh oxygen outside, but if I had limited time and had to choose between the two to warm up, I’d do shadow boxing over running instead.
In my first five years of fighting I ran 5 km a day before training as my warm up. After 5 years I felt my joints wearing out from all the impact. I stopped completely and shadow boxed instead for the next 5 years. Mind you I was the only fighter who didn’t run.
Did I lose fitness? Did it affect my training? I was worried and doubtful too as I was conditioned to believe that fighters RUN and to not run, god forbid, my legs would be weak. So, did it effect my performance? Nope. It did not affect me at all. In fact, I felt stronger, fitter and faster! I’m not saying that it’s totally from replacing running with shadow boxing but it definitely didn’t set me back! As long as you shadow box explosively with power, and for a decent duration, you’ll get the same benefits as if you did your warm up run, plus more.
Shadow boxing is your time to practice movement patterns specifically to YOUR style and needs. Analyze technique, strategy and footwork and make adjustments and tweaks. Recap what you’ve learned in your previous session or what you’re working on that week, and use that time to figure out answers to questions you have regarding missing gaps in your game. Remember, the answers you figure out yourself are the ones you will remember most. That’s when it “clicks” and that’s why good teachers ask questions to elicit answers, because when the student/ fighter gets the answer himself, he’ll more likely integrate it as his own style with conviction, and never forget. Makes our job as coaches that much easier.
This is one of the most important reasons to shadow box: it’s your time to use that all-powerful imagination of yours, while at the same time integrating movement to create and simulate any scenario you choose! The impact this has on your performance and overall mental training cannot be overstated.
Visualizing is a form of mental training that creates neural pathways in specific patterns that will either support you or bring you down, so best you pay full attention!
All fighters will learn sooner or later to come to appreciate the effects and power of visualization. Everyone visualizes whether he or she knows it or not. I knew how the fight would play out before stepping in the ring, whether I was conscious of it or not. What I’m saying is whatever is going on in your head, is most likely going to play out in practice or the ring. If you don’t pay attention to what it is you’re consciously or unconsciously visualizing, then good luck come fight time. You will be in default state, whatever that may be.
During shadow boxing, slow down time and develop a strategy; establish the way you are going to fight including the outcome. Break movements apart, analyze them, self correct and join the dots. This is your time to iron out creases in your game, to go through scenarios and think them through so when fight time comes you’ve been “there” already. Also start establishing go-to rules for when you are too exhausted or beat up to think. For example, one rule-of-thumb I drilled and used to say to myself was, “When my opponent is on the ropes, unload kicks (he can’t move back, I’ll land them) and when we’re in center ring, initiate with fakes or punches until he freezes or is immobile, then unload kicks (so I don’t miss my kicks if he was to move back).”
Devise your rule-of-thumbs now so when the time comes in the ring when things get tough, you can still fight somewhat smart on auto-mode and maintain good fundamentals and fight conduct. Visualizing also helps prepare you mentally for the session or fight ahead. As you move around, your focus narrows and the mind enters “the zone”. The body feels strong and excited, which sets you up for a good training session or fight ahead.
3. Technique Exposed in its Purest Form
This might be the LEAST obvious but to me one of the best-value benefits that shadow boxing offers that bags and pads DO NOT: your technique is exposed in its purest form. Shadow boxing is a chance to observe your balance without the resistance from bags or pads to counterbalance you. Are you balanced and land correctly when you throw kicks? Are you overreaching or overstepping on punches? Are you pulling back all your punches, knees and push kicks? Lots of people look great on bags but when they miss a shot in sparring they fall all over the place and look messy.
Training on heavy bags can give you a false sense of good technique.
To look clean in a fight, you must be able to shadow box HARD and FAST, while maintaining posture and balance. Shadow box as if you are fighting, pulling your punches back, counterbalancing, moving smoothly in rhythm and with no resistance to distort technique. This is your default state of fighting– if you miss while sparring or fighting your shots come back just as fast as they went out.
Rule-of-thumb: punch exactly the same way whether there is a head in front of you or not. Whether you hit a heavy bag or hit air… strike the same! What I mean is don’t overreach when a bag or head is in front of you; stay the same balance, the same force, the same power, drive through the same, and pull back the same. Your technique should not change from shadow boxing to sparring.
Train your shadow boxing, pads, bags and sparring to be CONGRUENT. I see students balanced when shadow boxing but then get all crazy and lose composure when they hit bags, or worse still, when they fight. On the other hand, unless you are working on specific movements and breaking them down, shadow box hard. I see a lot of students shadow lazy and soft. There is no benefit to that and it’s a waste of time. Don’t waste your minutes. Train the body and technique to be sharp, balanced, powerful, and clean at all times. Don’t waste your time striking soft unless you’re breaking down and analyzing movement patterns
Shadow boxing is the missing element, the part of training that simulates missing targets that bags and pads don’t provide; it’s your technique in its purest form. All this is self-work and self-correction as opposed to having a coach or partner in front of you.
4. Inward Reflection
The majority of training has you taking in input from the EXTERNAL environment to the internal. In other words, you are focusing on what is happening on the outside: your opponent, the bag you’re hitting, your trainers instructions or hitting pads. You are responding to the environment (outside). Shadow boxing is a break from all that and an opportunity to go inwards or inside. It’s a chance to tune in with how you’re body FEELS and how your body moves.
Most of us are visually dominant when it comes to learning. This is great but we can speed up our progress by integrating more of our senses to make bigger connections and the next best thing to learning techniques and strategy is to break it down and FEEL the movement.
Let’s take for example, the right punch. You start off initiating the technique in slow motion, identify where the punch begins, “Oh I feel the weight on the ball of my back foot, and then pivot my foot, oh my weight feels too heavy here,” self-correct and balance your stance and so on. When you do that it’s easy to program technique to be second nature and when you fight you don’t have to be so conscious about technique, it’ll just come out. It’s just practice: perfect practice as they say.
Instead of just knowing what a technique is supposed to “look like”, know how it is supposed to FEEL like.
Train to know how movement “feels” and looks so when the mirror isn’t in front of you, you can still perform. Inward reflection is an opportunity to be creative, to move how YOU want to move and to develop YOUR own style. Look in the mirror and observe and analyze yourself; be your own teacher and feel your own strength. Self reflect, set your intentions and remind yourself why you do what you do, what all this means to you. As you shadow box, connect that meaning with your movement and breath and use it as a powerful source of inspiration for your mental game.
Shadow box at the start and at the end of every session. Warm up the body, focus the mind, visualize what you want to achieve, practice movement and polish up technique: then train. At the end of a session cool down with shadow, enjoy moving around and stay sharp, especially after a hard training session when you’re tired. Add this ritual of shadow boxing before and after training and watch it fill in your gaps and progressively improve your mental and physical game to new levels!
Ronnie Najjar is head coach of 8Tribe Muay Thai in San Diego, CA. He has been involved in the fight and fitness industry for almost 20 years, and has trained Muay Thai fighters, Mixed Martial Artists, Boxers, Krav Maga practitioners and the general public since the early 2000’s. Ronnie’s fight experience includes 20 Professional Muay Thai fights in Thailand and Australia, and 1 Pro Boxing bout. He moved to the U.S. from Australia in 2015. To learn more about Ronnie, check out his site Muay Thai Talk or catch him on Instagram and Facebook.