Fitness / HIIT

Shadowboxing 101: Punch Your Way to a New Favorite Workout

Learn the basics to string together an aerobic barn burner.

For a fighter, shadowboxing is an essential tool for warming up, practicing rhythm and technique, and refining the finer points of a TKO. Punching at the air, when performed properly, is a high-intensity cardiovascular exercise for non-fighters, too. New York City boxing coach Nicco Diaz of Church Street Boxing Gym is here to break down the basics of shadowboxing and get your round started with a few basic combinations.

Why Fighters Shadowbox

It may look like a hurricane of fists and fury. But a skilled fighter’s shadowbox is in fact a purposeful series of punches and steps meant to ready him or her for the ring. “It’s a good warm-up and warm-down,” Diaz says. “It’s basically just a way to get the body moving. For a fighter it’s a way to get our head in the game and make sure our punches are sharp.”

Shadowboxing also refines balance. Without a bag to lean on, a fighter must be properly planted. This means weighting the ball of the rear foot, while the front foot facing the target with the knee slightly bent. “It’s not like hitting a heavy bag,” Diaz says. “There’s nothing in front of you, so it’s all about balance and form.” You’ll fall forward and expose yourself if you lean too far into your jab, for instance. So shadowboxing allows fighters an opportunity to critique their offense and defense without risking a shot to the face.

Why You Should Shadowbox

Diaz teaches his students to shadowbox in three-minute rounds—just like everything else in boxing. A three-minutes-on and one-minute-off routine constitutes a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout. These are known to improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness, lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol profiles, and burn fat, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

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It’s also a killer core exercise, if done properly. “I teach people form and proper torso and hip movement while shadowboxing,” Diaz says. A simple jab-cross combination, for instance, requires your torso and hips to twist to the right (the opposite if you’re a southpaw) and then quickly to the left. Do that for three minutes, and you’ll feel every neglected abdominal at work.

Learn the Basics

If you don’t know the basic punches—jab, cross, hook, and uppercut—your best bet is to find a boxing gym and get some professional instruction. Your next option is to look them up online. There are plenty of YouTube tutorials to get you started. Diaz recommends watching the real thing. “Watching pro fights is a good idea just to see what a fighter is supposed to look like,” he says, also noting that a quick Instagram search yields shadowboxing clips from the sport’s top professionals.

If your goal is to learn a proper punch, hands-on instruction is highly recommended. But you don’t have to be perfect to get a great workout in. “I’ve seen people getting a great workout without any type of real technique,” Diaz says. “You’re going to get a good effort in regardless.”

String Together Some Combinations

Without getting too fancy, the basic combinations can yield a multitude of variations. “You can use that jab-cross in a plethora of ways,” Diaz says. “With a jab-cross alone, you can get your hands moving really nicely.” For added core activation, work the inside punches. They’re closer to your body and therefore require more core work than arms. “Throw four uppercuts in a row for a nice shoeshine effect,” Diaz says.

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Practice setting your feet and throwing the punches and combos without much lower-body movement to learn the muscle memory. And take your time. “It depends on the student. I could tell you how to throw a jab-cross and you’ll get it in one round. But with someone else it might take three rounds,” Diaz says. Once you nail the balance, practice movement. Take a few steps in any direction without crossing your feet and ruining your fighting stance. Set up another combination as soon as you regain your balance.

Find a Mirror and a Partner

A mirror is a must for beginning and advanced shadowboxers. “A mirror helps a fighter pinpoint where the punches should go,” Diaz says. “You can also see your form and where your feet are.” Plus, shadowboxing while facing a mirror teaches head movement. If you’re throwing punches at yourself, you’ll get used to seeing them coming and getting out of the way.

Better still is shadowbox sparring. There’s no mouthguard required as long as both parties have adequate depth perception. “You and your partner stay more than an arm’s distance away from each other, you don’t want to touch,” Diaz says. “You throw punches. The other person has to react defensively or attack.” The added movement required to attack and defend ramps up the intensity. But try to relax and remember you’re not going to get hit.

Get Started

Despite the fact that shadowboxing requires no equipment, Diaz sees a common barrier to entry. “A lot of people have real issues shadowboxing because they feel shy or awkward,” he says. The best cure is, of course, to begin anyway. For an added motivator before the first punch, just imagine something punchable. “Let’s be completely honest. Everybody has that one person they want to go ahead and punch in the face,” Diaz says. “Just envision that person or that situation and zone out on that. Make sure your form is right, and beat the hell out of it.”

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