There’s a lot of detail on the internet about how to use certain types of boxing equipment. However, one area that’s a little bit lacking and one that I hope to solve with this article is the art of shadowboxing. Shadowboxing is such a crucial part of one’s boxing training, and it’s something that all the great champions do. However, it’s a little bit neglected in amateur/novice boxing circles.
Put simply, shadowboxing will do amazing things for your boxing technique, and if you aren’t already doing it, you should start now. But what exactly is shadowboxing, and why is it so great?
What is shadowboxing?
Shadowboxing, put simply, is where you throw punches into the air at nobody, or to an imaginary opponent. It’s used for a variety of reasons - for warming up the muscles before a fight or before heavy training, or for analysing and correcting mistakes in one’s technique.
The easiest way to explain shadowboxing is literally to demonstrate it - so here’s a few clips of Canelo Alvarez shadowboxing.
You can see that he’s moving around the ring, throwing punches, stalking his imaginary opponent - literally everything he would be normally doing in a fight against an opponent, the only difference being is that this opponent is in his head.
Shadowboxing can be done in a ring like this, but for novices and beginners you may get more benefit doing this in front of a mirror, for reasons that we will elaborate on later but put simply, it allows you to analyse and change aspects of your technique that otherwise you would not have known they needed changing. This is particularly important if you’re training solo, without a coach.
The benefits of shadowboxing
We’re going to get more into exactly how shadowboxing can improve your technique later in the article, but there are a few reasons why you might want to get into shadowboxing even before you know what it might do for your technique.
You can do it anywhere
Shadowboxing is one of those things that you don’t need to be in the gym to do. If you have fifteen minutes at the office, if you’re cooking dinner or even if you’re in an elevator, shadowboxing can be done anywhere. It’s one of those things where all you need is a space and yourself, and you can start training. This is a big plus for those who can’t get to the gym very regularly, or for those who live in apartments or small homes where it’s difficult to have boxing equipment.
You don’t need any equipment (except maybe a mirror)
Following on from the previous point, you actually don’t need anything to shadowbox - no gloves, no boxing boots, nothing. All you need is a room and yourself. There is a caveat here, that it’s definitely more beneficial (particularly if you’re a beginner) to have a mirror with you, as that will allow you to pick holes in your technique and correct mistakes, but if you don’t have one, it’s just as easy to get a decent workout in wherever you are.
It’s an excellent workout
Shadowboxing for twelve rounds is basically the same kind of physical workout as fighting for twelve rounds. Of course, your body is going to be a lot more taxed in terms of taking physical punishment in a real fight, but shadowboxing is an excellent way to improve your conditioning and endurance.
How does shadowboxing improve your boxing technique?
We’ve been through some of the more general benefits of shadowboxing training. Here, we’re going to zone in on some specifics and show you how shadowboxing will help individual areas of your boxing technique.
Shadowboxing really comes into its own when you do it in front of a mirror. When you do this, you can analyse and pick apart every single aspect of your boxing technique - as you can see yourself fighting right in front of you. This allows you, providing you’re paying enough attention to what you’re doing, to correct mistakes that you might otherwise have not picked up on. For example, I’m willing to bet that a significant proportion of those who have never shadowboxed have developed at least two or three negative habits that would be easily corrected by a session of shadowboxing in front of a mirror.
By mistakes, I mean - do you drop your hands? Are your feet more square than they should be? There are a million slight errors that you could be making, especially if you aren’t working with a coach or trainer. A heavy bag, as great as they are, isn’t going to help you with correcting this aspect of your technique. And if you get into the ring and spar with someone, and they spot errors in your technique that they can take advantage of, you might end up on the canvas. Shadowboxing allows you to isolate these mistakes and correct them prior to a fight or sparring session.
Footwork is an absolutely key part of any fighter’s arsenal. All you have to do is look at one of Ali’s fights, and you’ll see how he was able to outsmart his opponents and force them to miss, all with his feet. If you want a real masterclass in footwork, you should look at Pernell Whitaker, who was not only a master of footwork but also a master of counter punching - meaning his feet would put him in a position where he would always be able to come back with a shot after making his opponent miss.
Take a look at this - this is Ali vs Williams in 1966 when Ali was close to his peak. Probably one of the best displays of footwork ever caught on film.
Shadowboxing is the perfect way to improve your footwork - because it allows you to focus on your footwork in a situation similar to a real fight. For example, how often do you move your feet? Do you move left and right or do you stay in one place? Are you changing the angles from which you throw punches, allowing you to move away from your opponent’s punches and creating opportunities for counter punches? If you don’t shadowbox, you won’t know. Your opponent will know, and if your skill is lacking in any of these areas, they will take advantage.
Footwork is a habit that’s difficult for a lot of beginner fighters - they’re so focused on their hands, that they forget to move their feet. Footwork is a habit, and habits take time to develop. You want to make sure you’re developing this habit in the right way, and not falling victim to bad habits. Without shadowboxing or proper instruction from a coach, this is difficult. And footwork is important, because if you get it wrong, you can end up off balance and end up vulnerable to a KO.
It kind of goes without saying that boxers are some of the most conditioned athletes out there. Boxing eight, ten or twelve rounds is physically a tall order. It’s not uncommon for beginners to have trained up on mitts or bags to step into the ring for the first time and be absolutely exhausted after only a few rounds - because they don’t have the conditioning required for a fight.
The problem with a heavy bag is that there’s a lot of rebound force when you hit it. The harder you hit the bag, the faster your hand is going to come back to your face, and you may find that if you just train the heavy bag, you get used to this and you get lazy. This is a problem, because your hand isn’t going to bounce off someone’s skull in the same way it will bounce off a heavy bag, meaning that you’re potentially going to leave yourself open to a knockout blow.
Shadoboxing fixes this because there’s no external feedback - you’re just punching the air, meaning there’s nothing to help return your hands to your face. You’re fully in control and responsible for the movement of your body, and as such it will help you identify and improve areas where you may have been using the bag as a crutch.
What’s more is that shadowboxing is effectively a simulated fight, and therefore can help get you more used to the kind of conditioning and endurance you’ll need to actually step into the ring.
Head movement is another area of boxing that is critically important in a fight. Beginner boxers can sometimes get fixated on their opponents and lock eyes with them, never moving their head or looking for other opportunities to punch. This usually means that when they leave themselves open, their opponent knows exactly where their head will be, and the first left hook they throw, the beginner is out on the canvas.
A lot of this is about developing habits, and like we discussed with footwork, those habits are hard to develop at the beginning. What you need is to be moving your head after every combination - which will make it much more difficult for your opponent to hit you. Again - shadowboxing will lay bare the deficiencies in your head movement, and allow you to correct them before you get into a fight. All you need to do is look at some of the great fighters and see how often they move their head - Tyson, Ali, Lomachenko, Duran, Mayweather - all of them move their head constantly and it makes it hard for their opponent to hit them.
Shadowboxing will reveal to you almost immediately whether you move your head enough. If you find that you’re not moving your head almost constantly or at least after every combination, you’re not moving it enough. Shadowboxing helps you recognise and correct this before you fight for real.
One of the things that makes a great boxer is habit and instinct. The only way to develop good habits and instincts is through repetitive practice. However, how do you know whether you have good habits or bad ones? Just because you might have won a few sparring matches, or can hit the heavy bag with decent force, doesn’t mean that when you step up against an opponent with a decent ring IQ, they won’t expose flaws in your technique and put you on the ground.
This is why you need to shadowbox - because it’s one of the only training methods that allows you to correct mistakes and develop them into habits. A boxer shadowboxing even just 15 minutes per day is far more aware of how they move and how they throw punches. Correcting these mistakes, if done often enough in front of a mirror, means that the corrections will become second nature and habitual - replacing potential bad habits that could leave you vulnerable to your opponent’s counterpunching.
Shadowboxing is one of the only methods of boxing training where you have no feedback. It’s you and your mirror - that’s it. You have no distractions. In order for you to benefit from shadowboxing, you need to be in the zone, so to speak - you need to not be worried about anything else going on around you and you need to be looking in the mirror, actively looking for and correcting any mistakes that you see.
If you’re simply throwing punches at the air and thinking about what you’d like to have for lunch, shadowboxing won’t help you. You need to be focused, mindful and mentally aware to benefit from shadowboxing.
Is shadowboxing more beneficial than other types of training?
Depending on your goals or your boxing ability, you may get more out of shadowboxing versus any other type of boxing training. However, shadowboxing, heavy bag work, sparring, etc - they are all geared towards improving different things. None of these things exist in isolation - they’re all part of the successful boxer’s training arsenal.
If you want to be a successful boxer, you will need to take advantage of all these different types of training methods. Shadowboxing isn’t better than heavy bag work, or mitt work, or sparring, or anything else - it’s complementary, and is designed to train certain things. For example, you won’t improve your punching power with shadowboxing, but you will with a heavy bag. If that’s something you recognise as a deficiency with your technique, then you need to work more at the heavy bag.
Conversely, if you find that when you spar, you leave yourself open, there are holes in your technique that need to be resolved with a shadowboxing session in front of the mirror. All these different types of training need to complement each other. It goes without saying, however, that if for whatever reason you can’t get to a heavy bag, shadowboxing is going to be a cheap and easily accessible way for you to start boxing training, and something that every beginner should try before they start investing significant money into boxing equipment.
How to shadowbox
There are hundreds of guides to shadowboxing on the internet, so I’m not going to go into specific drills or techniques here. However, what I have done is put together a few pointers that will help you along the way.
What are your goals?
Shadowboxing to warm your muscles looks different to shadowboxing because you want to improve your footwork. You need to know exactly what it is you want to get out of your shadowboxing session before you do it. If you’ve never shadowboxed, your first session will be simply gauging what you need to improve. If you know there’s something you need to fix, that needs to be part of your goal for that session.
Shadowboxing needs to be just as much about what’s in your head. You need to be constantly looking and analysing what might have happened to you in a real fight had you let your guard down like that, or moved your feet in that way, etc. When you practice a fight in front of a mirror, it becomes a lot easier to replay that fight against a real opponent.
All I’m going to say here is keep moving. When you throw a punch, move. When you duck or dodge, move. Move towards your opponent. Move away from them. Move your head. This will stand you in much better stead for any kind of fight you have, because shadowboxing is the only place you can practice this type of movement outside of a real fight, and it’s the only place you can practice it where you have visual feedback of what you’re doing and are able to correct it.
Don’t go crazy
Shadowboxing isn’t about trying to punch the air with as much force as you can. In fact if you do this, you’re going to injure yourself as you’re likely to strain something. Keep your punches fast and light, and don’t over exert yourself. Keep the power shots for the heavy bag.
If you’re interested in some more of our articles on boxing technique, check out some of our latest below.