How to shadowbox, part 3

In Part 1 of “How to Shadowbox“, I covered the basic reasons for this type of training. Part Two gave you some examples of how to apply them. But that still doesn’t tell you how to begin shadowboxing. There are so many different things you can do, it can be difficult to find a starting point. Especially if you’re new to MMA, muay Thai, boxing or whatever art you practice.  As you know by now, I like a structured, progressive approach in my training. So here’s an example of a shadowboxing workout.

First, a couple of things:

  • After the warm-up, you’ll work in 3 min. rounds with 1 min. rest. I use my wristwatch, which has a good timer, to sound the alarm in cycles of 3 and 1 min.
  • Be extremely careful about not snapping your joints completely. Don’t open up your knees and elbows at 100% as that can lead to tendinitis, hyper-extension, muscle tears, etc. I usually stay in the 95% extension range.
  • Focus on staying in balance. It’s easy to allow yourself to take a step when your punch drags you off balance, simply because there’s no opponent to punish you for it. But it’s a bad habit to get into, one that’ll cause you pain in a real fight.
  • Train on a stable surface. I sometimes like to train on a slippery surface but that shouldn’t be the standard way of training because it makes improving your techniques more difficult. Find a good floor to train on and wear the appropriate shoes to get the most out of your workout.

OK, here’s the actual work out:

  1. Warm-up. Loosen up all your joints, do some light stretching, make sure your body is ready for your workout. Take about 5 min. for this.
  2. Round one and two. Despite having done the warm-up, your body has not fully transitioned into “fight”-mode just yet and needs more time to adapt. Remember what I said about Bas Rutten in Part 1; it can happen to you too… Do some free-style punching and kicking at 50% power and 50% speed in round one and then at 70% in round two. After that, both your body and your mind should be ready to start some intense training.
  3. Round three. The actual workout starts now. Work in sets of 10 reps per technique for the jab, cross, and both hooks. If you finish all sets before the round is over, start over. As you punch, step forward, and right after you land the blow, take a step back into your on guard position to break distance. Don’t use footwork though, you only step in and out on a straight line when you punch; you can only do footwork for a few seconds (5-10) in between sets. Also, don’t rush the reps: punch as you step forward, step back into your fighting stance and then wait for a second or two before you punch again. This prevents you from becoming sloppy and avoids telegraphing the technique.

    How to shadowbox for self-defense using footwork

    Step in and out with the jab.

  4. Round four. Same sets and reps as in the previous round but add one thing: before you step back, throw the same punch from a stationary position. It looks like this: on guard position, step forward and jab, bring the arm back in the on-guard position, fire the jab again without moving your feet, take a step back. Repeat ten times and then do the same for all the other techniques.
  5. Round five. Same as round four but now you add one more technique: fire the punch again as you take that step back. So for the jab that means: on guard position, step forward and jab, jab again from a stationary position, step backward and jab at the same time, resume your on-guard position. Wait for a second, then do the next rep.
  6. Round six. Same format as in round three with one addition: add the same punch with the opposite hand to make it a one-two combination. That means you’ll do a jab-cross, cross-jab, lead hook-hook, and hook-lead hook combo for ten reps each.
  7. Round seven. You can spread this out over two rounds like we did in rounds four and five but I prefer to do it in one go: same deal as in round six but now do each combo three times: as you step forward, stationary, as you step back. That’s one rep. Do three reps before moving on to the next combo. Start over if you have enough time before the round ends.
  8. Round eight. Same as round five but now you add footwork: move freely while you imagine your opponent in front of you. When you’re in a good position, step in with the jab, fire it on the spot, and jab again as you step back. Immediately after the third jab, start moving again. Do this three times and then move onto the next technique. Keep going until the round is through.
  9. Round nine. Same as round eight but use the combinations from round six. Make sure you start moving around again as soon as you finish the combo while stepping back.
  10. Round ten. Free sparring. This round, use all the different ways of throwing the four basic punches and the four combinations. But do them totally at random, mixing all those different possibilities without thinking about it: try to go by feel and instinct. Imagine sparring an opponent and he’s open for the lead hook: step in and throw that hook as fast and accurate as you can. Or the guy moves in on you with a sloppy right hook: step back to make him miss and fire a lightning-quick jab before his punch is halfway through. Use your imagination to create endless scenarios where you apply everything you practiced in the previous rounds.

    Free sparring: experiment with something different. E.g.: grab the back of his neck and pull him down into a rising knee technique.

  11. Round eleven. Cooling down. Repeat any part from the previous rounds that you felt needed more work. Especially now that you’re tired, the mistakes and technical errors will show. So go at 50% speed and power again to correct them while you lower your heart rate.
  12. Stretching. End the work out with some stretching to loosen up your body again.

Now let’s look at this sample through the information I gave in Part Two of this guide:

  • Warm-up. In rounds one and two, you warm up, focusing on technical aspects, getting every minute detail as right as you possibly can. It’s OK if there isn’t much speed or power in your techniques, as long as they’re done in the perfect form you’re good. A key point is to strive for a good flow when you do combinations: look for the most fluid way to transition from one technique to the next. The work you do there makes will speed up your combinations when you go all out.
  • Increased coordination and technical skills. Round three to seven are mostly about just this: improving your technical skills and coordinating your body so you throw the best punch or combination possible. As you do the reps, try to discover mistakes and errors in your form and then correct these.
  • Scenario training. The whole work out is actually meant to drill tactical decisions: stepping forward with the punch means you’re taking the initiative to engage, stationary punching is staying in the firing zone and continuing to engage your opponent, stepping back is suppressive fire (moving to a better position/out of range while still striking the opponent) or countering (making him miss by stepping back and then hitting him.) But it’s only in round ten that you do full scenario training by mixing the techniques and combinations freely. That said, I believe the gradual approach is necessary to ensure your punches are at their best by the time you throw them in a more random manner in this last round.

Just to be clear: this is just an example of a shadowboxing work out, one possible plan out of millions of others, just as valid as this one here. You can pick and choose from it, change things, do them in a different order, etc. Here’s how you can customize this work out for your own training goals:

  • Make the rounds longer or shorter. For technical work, I like to do 4-5min. rounds in which I take more time between techniques/combinations so I can concentrate more. For more anaerobic training I sometimes do 1-2 min rounds with almost no rest between each punch or kick and the speed goes way, way up.
  • Mix different types of rounds. For instance: start the work out with 4-5 min. rounds while you work on technical issues. Then, do a few 3-min rounds to simulate being in a competition. In the last part of your session, do several 1-2 min rounds to get your heart rate up big time. Or mix things up in a different way, the choice is yours.
  • Combine two rounds. In this sample work out, I spread the workload over eleven rounds to make things clear and avoid confusion, but you don’t have to do it this way. For instance, you can combine rounds three and four or even add round five to it. That means fewer reps of individual techniques but more reps with the linear footwork; your choice. The same goes for combining rounds six and seven. If you do that, you can add a few extra sparring rounds and still keep the work out in the same time frame.
  • Change reps and sets. Increase or decrease the reps and sets per technique/combination for whatever you feel you need to work on the most. I just gave some examples here, they’re not set in stone.
  • Change the techniques. Substitute the jab, cross, and both hooks with techniques from your own style: traditional karate punches, palm heels, and elbows from WWII Combatives systems, use kicking techniques, it doesn’t matter. Use whatever you like.

    How to shadowbox for self-defense using hammer strike

    I like hammer strikes instead of uppercuts when an attacker leans too far forward. Give them a try…

  • Make longer combinations. You don’t have to stick to one-two combinations. You can make them a lot longer if you like. The only caveat is making sure you don’t become sloppy and start flailing around or dropping your guard because of the volume of strikes. Doing so will ingrain bad habits that will cost you when you actually fight.
  • Change the scenario. In this example, I worked on striking as you move forward, from a stationary position and retreating. That was the theme of the scenario. But there are plenty of others: staying close to the opponent, focusing on countering, working off the parry/block/evasion before each punch, etc. Change the scenario and you’ll change the way you throw the techniques. Once again, you’re only limited by your imagination here.
  • Isolate topics/techniques. I like to combine things when I train. Instead of doing endless repetitions of the exact same punch or kick, I work in sets and reps. But every round or every other set, I’ll change something: add another technique, change the footwork, do a variation of the same technique, change the rhythm of the combination, etc.  That’s just how I like to train, but you don’t have to do that: you can isolate one or two of specific things and work on nothing else.

There’s tons more I could write about shadowboxing but for now, I hope this guide can help you improve your own training.

Have fun shadowboxing and feel free to drop a comment here to tell me how it goes.

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, Wim. I especially like the “Change the scenario” section. It’s important to be able to (for example) throw a jab when moving forward, back, side-to-side, and while changing the level of the head, etc.

    Shadow boxing is a big part of my training routine at the gym – either for a warm-up or the core of my training. My coach is always telling me to ‘visualize your opponent in front of you.’

  2. Thanks, that was really informative.

    I’m visiting family overseas for a month and this will probably be all the training I’ll be able to do, if you like I can drop you a line in two months (when I’m back to training) and let you know how it affected me :)

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