Sparring in the Shadows

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Strange Behaviour?

There are many elements to martial arts practice that look strange to the outside world. Despite its widespread and time-honoured use, shadowboxing is one of these elements. Most individuals can understand sparring with an opponent. Most individuals can see the benefit of hitting focus mitts, strike-shields and other hand-held pads. And just about anyone who has felt a massive urge to “let off some steam” can relate to hitting a heavy bag. By comparison, the act of performing fighting moves on thin air seems redundant and can look rather peculiar. Elaborating on this training doesn’t help much either, if anything it can make matters worse. Shadowboxing consists of practising techniques in an improvised sequence against imaginary opponents or foes. Sounds like something a child might do to entertain themselves or the symptoms of someone hallucinating. Thoughts of the Monte Python sketch, where Graham Chapman wrestles himself come to mind.

Perhaps, because of these intuitive and reasonable sounding responses, many martial artists neglect their shadowboxing and practise it quite poorly. Yet the depth and importance of this specific training exercise should not be underestimated. Developing a strong shadowboxing routine can ensure stronger muscle memory, improve reaction timing, go towards maintaining good technique, increase productive workload and provide an extra dimension of reality to other exercises.

Shadowboxing’s Relatives

During my time cross-training in different combat systems I have come across different exercises that closely resemble shadowboxing, but should not be confused. Solo forms and martial arts style aerobics are both more popular exercises than shadowboxing despite meeting similar criticism about their worth.

The popularity of solo forms is probably largely down to the semblance of order they bring to a traditional martial art. The discipline of learning solo forms, especially in a progressive manner that allows for promotion through martial arts ranks, can keep a school together in a systematic way and maintain the interest of an aspiring student. A solo form consists of a series of choreographed movements performed in a set pattern. History appears to reveal that prior to the modern age most traditional martial arts kept to only a few codified forms. One might argue that certain martial arts began and ended with a single form, allowing this particular form to be the defining essence of the school or style. Various debates continue to rage over the reasons for practising forms, especially in response to the way many of them have been altered, reinterpreted and, in many cases, standardised. However, evidence and rationality point towards them being a physical record used to practise certain integral principles and often the specific fighting methods of the martial arts founder. Yes, these movements can seem strange to the uninitiated observer, but you try coming up with a solo way to perform a firearm’s carry throw movement that doesn’t look odd.

Forms by their choreographed nature and set structure are not the same thing as shadowboxing. Forms and shadowboxing serve different objectives. Therefore, despite my defending their relevance and practical function in certain martial arts I am not going to argue that all martial arts should contain forms. However, I cannot think of any form of martial art that won’t benefit from training good shadowboxing.

Likewise, martial arts aerobics, in their many different guises, are not shadowboxing. They might contain shadowboxing, but their main purpose is to increase fitness. To give two examples of the range I am talking about, at one end of the scale we have Billy Blanks’ consumer-friendly Tae Bo routines aimed at a more general fitness community and at the other end of the scale we have Bas Rutten’s Workouts targeted at combat athletes. Both Blanks and Rutten have inspired numerous imitators over time, but many martial arts teachers have independently used these types of routines as part of their class’s warm-ups and finishers. To many of us it was an organic process inspired by specific training demands, the introduction of music in lessons and traditional martial arts line-work. Many martial arts perform solo techniques in repetitions as part of their warm-up. These techniques might be performed in set numbers, which is common in traditional martial arts, or they might be done as continuous repetitions like any other callisthenic exercise. To many the vast appeal of martial arts aerobics as a product on its own – separate from any particular form of martial art – is that it offers an interesting variation or distraction to other training methods. There are clubs that offer such activities as separate disciplines. My view is that although I have no problem with someone using these workouts for this reason, many are severely limiting a good training tool by adopting such a mind-set.

Martial arts aerobic routines come into their own when they are used to supplement fight fitness. To get the most of them the techniques and combinations selected should be straightforward, and the exercises chosen should be as specific as possible. To keep the intensity of the workout going teachers would be advised to look at the way Bas Rutten coaches using shortcut instructions, such as numbering punches or assuming you will add a kick onto a combination. Technique must be sharp before they are trained in these routines; otherwise the student is in danger of reinforcing bad habits. The danger with fitness-focus martial art training is that technique becomes secondary and often sloppy. This becomes especially true as the routine wears on and the emphasis centres on pushing the body. I would always urge technique selection for these routines to be basic and combinations to be restricted. Longer routines should follow the workout rule of tapering the difficultly of movements down towards the end, reducing the likelihood of forming regular repetitions of bad techniques. Some of these aerobic routines play out as if they were fights. For example, the coach keeps the student going over a series of timed rounds and motivates them with a sense of urgency. However, shadowboxing as an art unto itself is still another separate exercise.

Getting the Most out of Shadowboxing

Four people inspired, taught and reinforced my view on how to get the best out of shadowboxing through visualisation. The first person was Martin Lacey Jnr. I knew Martin through our circus connections. Before he went on to become a famous wild animal trainer, Martin was a successful amateur boxer. For a short period he coached me on the focus mitts. We were only doing some basic work, but what made it different was the way he ran his training session. Rather than call out any specific punches, he mentally put me in a boxing match. It was a great motivation tool, but most importantly it put the true training objective in my mind. This would be something that I would revisit in shadowboxing.

The next person who sparked my imagination in that particular direction was Andy Norman (co-founder of the Keysi Fighting Member and founder of Defence Lab). I loved the concept that a fighter should be able to shadow anything. The idea further encouraged me to look more in depth at this most simple of training exercises.

The third teacher that added to my progressing train of thought was the late Muay Thai kru, Tom Ashe. He really brought home the biggest problem most people have with shadowboxing. Most fighters use shadowboxing as an opportunity to practise their favourite techniques and combinations. They don’t visualise a target. They just move around throwing perfect punches and kicks without any thought about their use. Tom explained that fighters should be more honest with themselves when it came to shadowboxing. They should visualise their opponents and think about what their opponent might be doing.

Finally, TVP (Technique, Variation and Prediction) boxing coach Tommy Thompson introduced a novel way to encourage fighters to make the most out of their shadowboxing. He had us each get into the ring on our own and then described the type of opponent we were facing. This improved the visualisation process. Rather than having a combination called out, the fighter now had to think about how he would fight a longer range opponent, a shorter opponent, an aggressive opponent, a defensive opponent and so on.

Shadow Sparring?

When I first heard the term, Shadow Sparring, it set off the same thoughts in my head that I described outsiders often think when they view shadowboxing. Sparring is an opportunity for an individual to test their techniques against a resisting partner. The idea that this term should be applied to an exercise that only involves one person seemed somewhat over the top. I am still not comfortable with the term now, but the more I look at making the most out of shadowboxing the more I realise its inherent challenges. When a person shadowboxes they are sparring with imaginary opponents and, at the risk of sounding pretentious and trite, they are fighting with their inner-self.

All exercises suffer from the human struggle to overcome their natural impulse to conserve energy and to avoid discomfort. This goes across all areas of training and we find ourselves constantly trying to override our survival instincts in order to improve. Training might be described as “forced and mindful adaptation”, as we push against all the natural drivers that hardwired us to stay alive in a savage landscape. There might be strong evidence that our bodies have adapted to agriculture, but we don’t appear to have evolved a strong message between our cognitive functions and the rest of our body that training is beneficial. Unlike a good deal of coaches, I still see strong benefits in some punitive training, but I also accept that we shouldn’t ignore boredom or apathy. Training on your own without even a piece external equipment or the luxury of listening to music requires some resilient motivation.

Shadowboxing, like unrehearsed and impulsive dancing, might have some appeal to individuals who feel a need to express a build-up of energy. Just watch the way children and young people in general physically express their feelings after viewing an exciting activity. They might even shadowbox in some way, visualising their opponents as they replay the action of their favourite film. However, matters tend to change when all of this starts becoming a disciplined exercise. I knew at least one child who left my classes because he hated the shadowboxing element, where he had to stand up in front of everyone and told to imagine the various opponents I was describing for him. The onus, in this respect, goes on the coach to do as good a job as possible to make the student connect with the exercise’s importance. At the time I was at an experimental stage, where I was focusing on linking up all areas of training into a cohesive whole so they would work in a feedback loop of improvement – shadowboxing, proactive focus mitt coaching, sparring and then back round again. Most students – children and adults – who trained with me around that time and immediately afterwards seemed to enjoy the process and understood the objective. Best of all, they began to see benefits. However, the experiences of teaching all of this – and my failure with this particular child student – made me look at the way such training needed to be delivered.

There are two sides to the shadowboxing issue. On one side, visualising an opponent (or enemies if we are discussing self-defence) can tap into those childhood memories when you played or danced on your own. Such unrestrained and genuine enthusiasm is a strong motivator if given the right licence. On the other side, your self-aware tribal instincts might switch off your imagination. A good deal of students seem to get through shadowboxing with a lot of bluster to drown out anything coming from others or their own thoughts that might make them feel embarrassed. This is where we find individuals just throwing out their favourite techniques and combinations with no thought about actual fighting. Good shadowboxing needs to be a happy marriage of these two sides. We need to channel our imagination in a productive way, working on our strengths and weaknesses, actively rehearsing the scenarios of a realistic fight. If we train in a comprehensive martial art that involves both grappling and striking then all of this must be shadowed in our sparring, both in isolation and fluidly through the ranges. We need to plot a synopsis in our head that consists of several different fights, allowing our mind not wonder or switch off from the physical activity.

Improving Shadowboxing

Let’s go back to that child-like feeling you get when you are watching something exciting on the television. Make the television programme be more specific this time. If you are training for a combat sport find a good match and clear yourself some space to shadowbox. Start watching the match and decide which fighter you want to fight. Imagine you are in the match and act each time you see an opening. Such training can start at a very basic level. For example, Gerry Robinson used to advise hanging up a target and hitting it every time an opening appeared. This is a great way to get used to developing your fight reflexes and shortening your response time. However, look at this as a stepping stone to progress to a full-on shadowbox, working from the various positions your opponent gets you into and ensuring you work as much on your defensive techniques as you do on your attack.

When I was in a regular Muay Thai class back in the mid-2000s I used to apply this training idea to whenever there was an odd number in sparring. When my turn came to sit out, I would shadowbox, picking a fellow student who was currently having a real spar and imagine myself fighting him. It served me well as a good time management tactic when I would have normally been sat down for three minutes doing nothing. I later encouraged this in my own club.

The invention of virtual reality and interactive video games might appear to have facilitated better shadowboxing since the mid-2000s. However, be aware that like all areas of training, you will adapt to your environment without knowing. You will probably find ways that will best serve your success in playing the video game that will do the complete opposite to your martial arts training. I have yet to see an interactive video game that successfully facilitates good shadowboxing. At the time of writing, such games appear to be on a steep decline with train-along videos with an instructor still proving the most popular way to train alone.

Another way is to train to a soundtrack. Either have a coach make one up for you or, if you feel you have enough experience, put one together on your own. The commentary shouldn’t mention specific techniques and definitely shouldn’t tell you what techniques to throw. That stuff can be left to the martial arts aerobic workouts or line-work. You should be responding to descriptions of the type of fighter (or fighters) you are facing and whether they are attacking or defending. Outside of this the commentary should sound like your corner-man, helping to maintain the atmosphere of a fight.

As shown by the likes of Bas Rutten and Shane Fazen, shadowboxing can be successfully added to other training routines. Rutten mixes it in with his aerobic workouts. When he is not calling out combinations, specific technique instructions or callisthenic exercises, he tells fighters to shadowbox. This is a great way to improve shadowboxing, as it forces the fighter to switch their mind-set from concentrating on the mechanics of exercising to the psychology of fighting and back again. Switching between mind-sets is a big part of my martial arts training and my interest in developing a thinking fighter, but that is a topic I will explore in more depth in another article. Shane Fazen adds shadowboxing to his heavy bag workouts. When you train like this you are accepting the strong possibility you will miss when you fight. It promotes faster recovery, adaptability and better overall fluidity in your fight game. Furthermore, it keeps visualisation going during your heavy bag routines.

A Couple of Points on Safety

It is worth observing a few safety points before we bring this article to a close. When you shadowbox we sure not to snap out any of your striking techniques at full power. This will damage your joints. Only use full-power techniques on suitable padded training equipment such as focus mitts and heavy bags. Make sure you are mindful of your surroundings, even when you are working hard to visualise your opponent, so that you don’t trip over anything or injure yourself on an obstacle of some description. Make your training area safe, even if it is restricted.


Shadowboxing is the fighter’s solo rehearsal. Time is precious when you train, so train intelligently. Be resolute in your objectives and maintain them throughout your personal workout. Developing good visualisation skills through your shadowboxing will help make you a more independent fighter and not someone who needs a coach to babysit them through everything they do. When it comes to sparring, nothing beats training with a variety of different skilled individuals who will help you sharpen your skills and test your limitations. However, solo training is where you take away such experiences and evaluate them, working to improve certain areas with a mind to test them again in your next sparring session. Create your own fight storyline, be honest about your limitations and weaknesses, strive to overcome them, and then work to make your story become a reality.

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