How to shadowbox, Part 2

In part one of “How to shadowbox” I talked about the different reasons to shadowbox and which mistakes to avoid. Lets take a closer look at those different variations.

Disclaimer: you can shadowbox any way you like. There are no limits to what you can do. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I mean, sure, you can do three rounds of jump spinning back kicks and pretend you’re sparring a tough opponent but why would you? Fun as it may be, it’s not all that realistic.

Now we have that out of the way, how should you shadowbox?

I see shadowboxing as a way to increase my martial and self-defense skills, so I train with that in mind. That means I usually have a specific goal when I shadowbox or several goals. I believe that having a plan for each round is a more productive way of training than just winging it. That said, I invariably shadowbox for a few rounds where I just flow and go by feel, nothing planned about it. That’s OK too. In fact, that’s the whole idea: working towards the point where you can pull it all off without thinking. But you don’t get there without some planned training first, so I like to do a lot of that.

One more disclaimer: Don’t look at the technical details of what you see in these videos. If you do a technique differently, that’s fine. These clips are just illustrations of how you can shadowbox and not instructional material on specific techniques. Substitute with whatever works for you if you disagree with how certain things are done.


In this clip, you see a boxer warming up by shadowboxing:

Some key points:

  • Relaxed punching. Warming up means you don’t use explosive movements to avoid pulling a muscle. There’s plenty of time to be explosive once your body is ready for it.
  • Flow. Notice how the punches form one long combination. Together with the relaxed punching, this is a great way to warm p gently before an intense workout. It also reinforces the proper way of making combinations (punching with the next hand as the previous one returns) as opposed to just throwing your arms about.
  • Variation. He goes through all the basic punches and some variations too. That way, all the muscles, and joints you’ll use in your workout get warmed up correctly.
  • Technique. He’s not flailing around with his punches. He uses his body to move his arms and covers up nicely with his non-punching arm. Again, this ingrains good technique and gets you ready for the workout on a technical level: reminding yourself not to drop your guarding hand is a good thing when you’re about to spar…

In the next clip, he’s moving around a bit.

  • Still relaxed. Even though your body will be loosened up by the stationary punching, it’s still a good idea to stay relaxed when you add the footwork. Simply to give your legs a chance to warm up completely too.
  • Defense. Notice he adds defensive techniques (blocking, ducking, etc.) to the shadowboxing. Warm-up with those too as you’ll need them in your training session right after.
  • Footwork. A static fighter rarely wins so you should incorporate footwork in your shadowboxing too. You can see our guy here moving around a lot. Not just stepping forward and back but also pivoting and changing directions.

Increased coordination and technical skills.

Take a look at Fedor doing some technical shadowboxing:

  • Slow pace. Notice how Fedor often just stands there or slows down between techniques or combinations. When you’re working on technical issues, you don’t want to go fast and hard. It’s better to take plenty of time between each technique so you can concentrate on those finer technical points.
  • Repetition. You don’t just throw a punch once and move on. Notice how Fedor repeats the specific technique or combination a few times before he does something else. The video doesn’t show it but he’s mostly working by feel here. When a specific detail doesn’t feel exactly right, he starts over.
  • Emphasis on the initial movement. In most techniques he throws, he’s not worried about the end stage of the punch, there’s no real follow-through or impact. What he’s doing is focusing on the initial movement, the very beginning of the punch. This is the hardest part to get right. But once you do, it makes your techniques more powerful and less telegraphed. By using hand-weights, Fedor can emphasize working on that initial movement in each technique.

Training like this is not sexy or flashy. In fact, it’s sometimes boring as hell. But you’ll make leaps and bounds in your progress by doing technical shadowboxing.

Scenario training

Perhaps the single most important reason to shadowbox is scenario training. Because you don’t get hit, it’s the perfect opportunity to try different strategies and techniques for very specific situations you might face. Basically, you play a “What if?” game and try to solve specific problems certain fighters might give you. Here’s an example from one of my shadowboxing sessions:

Shadowboxing for self-defense: one possible combination

  • The above is just an example, nothing more. Imagine some guy rushing you, just like you see so often in street altercations. Circle to your left to evade it and as you do so, push his head down with your left hand. Throw two quick hammer fists to his exposed back of the head. Grab his head and drive a rising knee through it. You could have done so many other things, so don’t get stuck on the techniques I chose. The point is to visualize a specific context and then work on possible solutions.
  • Technique first. Before you can attempt working on strategy and tactics, all the other components need to be there first. By that I mean, good technique and conditioning. If you lack proper technique or are out of shape, you won’t be able to pull off any strategy. In the first rounds, the boxer works his technique. Only when that’s good enough does his trainer let him work scenarios.
  • Start simple. Don’t go for complex strategies right away, keep it simple. In the video, you see the fighter focus on head movement during one round, making sure he slips imaginary punches. This isn’t too difficult and should help you later on when you try more complicated scenarios.
  • Progressive difficulty. The coach does something I always use when I train students: increase the difficulty in a progressive manner. I believe this is the key to fast progress. The way he does it here is by making his boxers first work stationary, then they practice head movement while going forward and putting pressure on an opponent. Next, the same thing but going backward. And so on. This increases the challenge for your student in smaller stages, so he is never in over his head. Only then can you go to specific, difficult scenarios.
  • Specific strategies. The coach makes his fighters imitate famous boxers, using their specific fighting style. This helps you not only think in a more strategic manner but also implement that strategy in training. But the best part is that he asks students to find an answer to that strategy, forcing them to drill in solutions for when somebody uses that exact strategy against them.

Scenario training in shadowboxing is an amazing tool. It isn’t an easy one to use correctly but it gives you a limitless playground to experiment in. You can literally find millions of different things to work on. All you need is some knowledge, patience and creativity. I’ve shown mainly clips from boxing as examples but you can use these ideas just as wel for muay Thai, MMA or self-defense.

That’s it for the second part of this how-to guide. In the third part, I give you a sample shadowboxing workout, incorporating all the previous information.

Check out my book “Boxing for Self-Defense: Taking the Sweet Science from the Ring to the Street” for more on how to use the Noble Art to keep yourself safe.

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  1. Great stuff.

    Quick question – What’s your opinion on kata/form work?

    I train in Xingyiquan as well as MMA. So, I do a lot of shadowboxing but I feel that form work really helps my technique if my “internal mechanics” start to get sloppy. I think of it kind of like restoring the default settings or something like that.

    I know you train Tai Chi so I’m really interested to here your thoughts on the matter.

    • I think form work is essential to have lifelong progress in MAs or SD. Some people will disagree and that’s fine. I know forms work well for me and my students. Those who don’t do them always seem to have problems with certain aspects. Those who do forms also tend to pick up solutions to these problems faster than those who don’t.
      That’s just my experience/opinion.
      That said, I know a bunch of awesome martial artists and hellaciously good fighters who never do forms. So I’d say, do what works best for you, regardless of what anybody else says.

  2. Hey Wim

    Verry good articles, really make me thinking.
    I practice wushu taolu and some tai chi, und i really like it.

    However i also practice judo.

    And shadowboxing is (the word says it boxing) about training your strikes and movements.
    I now do bridging and balance drills to improve my judo.
    Do you have some advice for solo drills to improve judo(shadowthrowing/grappling)?

    or perhaps some solo drills from Shuai Jiao you recommmend?

    Look forward to your reaction.

    Again great articles.

    • If I recall, Mr. Zumou has some solo drills in his video but I’m not sure, it’s been too long since I saw them.
      Most SJ schools will teach solo drills, so you might want to go check out a class and see what they do.

      • Oke thanks.
        Found some nice stuff from mr Zumou and some solo drills.

        Funny is that the solo drills look kinda similair to wushu taolu drills.
        perhaps because it,s from the same culture.

        If i can i wil go try some SJ, crosstraining with other martial arts have proved rewarding for me.

        Thanks anyway.

        Look forward to future articles.

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