Let's say you're at the bus stop, in the park or waiting in the supermarket checkout line when, suddenly, someone in front of you starts throwing punches at nothing and skipping around. What do you make of it?

Most people would think such a person must have something seriously wrong with them. Maybe they're on drugs or somehow can't control themselves...

As a boxing trainee, you would recognise those moves for what they are: someone taking that opportunity to shadow box, making the most of what, perhaps, is not the best place to do it.

But that's the beauty of shadow boxing. It needs no equipment or specialised conditions. It can be done anywhere.

And it should be done a whole lot more than most fighters do. So important is shadow boxing for a fighter to build and maintain their skills that they should shadow box just about any chance they can.

So, while it's usually not advised to venture into the shadows, Superprof now strays into the shadow boxing realm to show you why it's so important and how you can get the most out of your shadow boxing sessions.

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What Is Shadow Boxing?

In layman's terms, shadow boxing is punching unseen opponents and practising your boxing footwork. It is unstructured, unformed and unconcerned with meeting resistance or pushback. It is something anyone can do, whether they're training to go three rounds with (insert name of your fav fighter here) or not.

That's the superficial explanation. Now, let's go deeper.

Shadow boxing is a way for you to hone your fighting skills, build speed and endurance, and condition your muscles. It can help you find your rhythm as a fighter, develop your footwork and help you build strength and power.

Some fighters don't shadow box enough according to their coaches
Some boxing coaches maintain that their boxers do not shadow box enough. Photo credit: kate.gardiner on VisualHunt

That's not too shabby for fighting air, is it?

Shadow boxing's simplicity belies its versatility. You get to focus exclusively on how your body feels as it moves, without having to guard against a bag or opponent swinging back. In fact, you don't need any bags, gloves or anyone else to shadow box with you.

You should have them, though. We'll get into that a bit later.

Of course, the downside to that is that it's all so freewheeling. Unlike being in the ring, with the clock ticking and an opponent to contend with, shadow boxing gives you nothing to target, react or adjust to. Unless you deliberately make it so, shadow boxing moves hardly resemble those you would execute during a fight.

So, what's the point of shadow boxing?

Why You Should Shadow Box

Some boxers believe that working the bags, hitting target mitts and sparring are plenty good enough to keep them in fighting form. While these and other training exercises - skipping rope, weight lifting and running belong in the multitude of fitness dimensions fighters must address, each of them omits a crucial aspect of training no fighter can do without.

Every time you perform a physical task, your brain builds new neural pathways to map the signals required for that task. When you make the same moves often enough, you develop what's called muscle memory.

By building muscle memory, your brain and, by extension, your body will learn to make the same moves faster and more efficiently because the signals and pathways needed to execute it are already in place.

Shadow boxing is an excellent way to build muscle memory because you are moving with no distractions. There are no targets to hit, no opponents to avoid and nothing to react to. It is pure conditioning, great for building speed as well as training your body to move like a fighter.

Target mitts are great but don't forget to develop all the muscles you'll need in the ring
Training only with target mitts and the heavy bag doesn't allow you to develop all the muscles you need in the ring. Photo credit: LJWhitmire on VisualHunt

Another reason to shadow box: no resistance and no rebound.

Many fighters think of working the heavy bag as the ultimate in fighter training. They can hit it in a number of ways, hard or soft, and from many angles. They can have a training partner hold the bag still or let it swing freely so they can practise hitting a moving target.

All of that is good but there's a serious flaw to such fighters' logic.

For one, the bag is more of a resistance training tool that limits your range of movement. You can only throw your punch as far as the bag. Once you connect - and especially if someone's holding the bag while you hit it, your arm extension stops. Shadow boxing will offer no such resistance; you can reach as far as you can.

For two, your arm bounces back upon impact, meaning that your recovery muscles, the ones that pull your arm back after you throw a punch don't  get the development (and muscle memory building) they need.

Bag work is great to build strength and power, precision and timing. Shadow boxing complements that work by training the muscles bag work neglects.

And besides, shadow boxing is the perfect way to build hand speed; a quality vital to racking up boxing wins.

Shadow Boxing Strategies

The best way to maximise shadow boxing effects is to have a goal for how to use it. Unlike those examples cited in this article's introduction - suddenly bursting out with a few air punches and fancy footwork, the savviest fighters use their shadow boxing judiciously.

You might shadow box to:

  • warm-up before your workout
    • and for your post-workout warm-down
  • build your sense of rhythm - step-punch, step-punch punch... and so on
  • boost your coordination: change your stance to throw a different punch, punch with your non-dominant fist and so on
  • work on your fighting technique: diversifying your technique keeps you from being a predictable fighter
  • develop fighting strategies

Instinct and muscle memory are two invaluable assets that every fighter must cultivate for the fight - which suggests there is a flipside to those qualities. You already have instincts and muscle memories, such as the ones that tell you to duck when a fist is flying toward you and walking around with your arms at your side, instead of curled up and protecting your face.

You have to overcome those instincts/memories before you can build fighting strategies. The best time to do that is while shadow boxing. For instance, you might practise dodging and weaving so that, when you're in the ring, muscle memory takes over before your instinct to duck a blow can kick in.

If you've not yet addressed that in your private boxing lessons, you might as a Superprof boxing coach to help you get started on separating natural instinct from the ones you cultivate as a fighter...

You shouldn't try to land a blow on your shadow boxing partner
Shadow boxing with a partner means not landing any blows. Photo credit: Gulfu on Visualhunt

Shadow Boxing Techniques

Random as shadow boxing might seem to the casual observer, there is actually some very precise technique behind each move. At least, there should be.

We don't mean that you should work on your fighting technique while you shadow box, but you certainly can. It's a great time to try out new combinations, step up your footwork and practise defensive moves.

One of the best aspects of shadow boxing is its freewheeling nature. You can shadow box anywhere, anytime it won't inconvenience others. However, while it's great to shadow box as much as possible, it's always a good idea to get some notion of what you look like when you do it.

Shadow boxing in front of a mirror - or videoing yourself as you shadow box lets you verify that your form, stance and punches are all in order. Recording your shadow boxing sessions is especially helpful because you can keep track of your progress over time to witness how you develop as a fighter.

A mirror or video setup is only second-best, though. The best way to shadow box is with a partner and/or under the watchful eye of your coach.

Remember that shadow boxing is the most effective way to build muscle memory. Clearly, you want the right 'memories' to accompany you into the ring, not some strange, fluid-but-wrong movement that looks great but could cost you your win. Getting feedback from your boxing coach - or, if they're not around, from a more experienced boxer is the way to improve your boxing abilities.

Earlier, we mentioned practising dodging and weaving. The best piece of gym equipment for that is the slip bag; a smallish bag that hangs from the ceiling that you set in motion and then, well, dodge and weaves to avoid. Actually, the proper term is 'slip', as in 'slip by the bag'; hence its name.

Before using the bag, you should set its height so that its widest part is level with your nose. Besides bobbing and weaving to avoid it as it swings back and forth, it's the perfect tool for mastering head movement. And don't forget your footwork; be sure to work on your pivots, slides and sidesteps.

Similar to the slip bag is the slip rope: a shoulder-height, horizontal band, perhaps tied off on opposing sides of the boxing ring. Here, rather than weaving around something coming at you, you weave back and forth under the band, shadow boxing all the while.

You can use the heavy bag to help you refine your shadow boxing technique the same way you use the smaller, lighter slip bag. Just remember that this bag is much bigger and heavier so, as you shadow box around it, know that you'll have to move faster and farther to avoid getting hit.

In fact, as the heavy bag is so large, you might have an easier time imagining you're boxing around an opponent, not a bag.

All of this makes clear that you must train for boxing in a gym, with the proper equipment and guidance. That doesn't mean you can't learn a few things about how to box at home, though...

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