Shadow Boxing: The Art and Purpose of the Warm Up Ritual
I shadow box. All the time. At home, in front of the mirror, at the boxing gym, and yes, at the regular gym. We’ve all seen that guy shadow boxing in the mirror in the weight room and honestly, I’m that guy. I’m really not trying to look cool when I do it. I am actually acutely aware that to the casual observer it’s probably the opposite of cool looking. If I were looking at me shadow box at the gym, I’d think, “What a jackass!” However I’m not looking to impress or annoy, I simply do it out of habit. Shadow boxing is part warm up, part dance, and part ritual. It’s one that is ingrained in my daily routine. I’m also damn glad I do it, because more than anything, shadow boxing is simply one word - practice.
By rituals and warm ups, I am not talking about dynamic warm ups. I do arm circles, crosses, and stretches to warm up my shoulder before boxing, but none of these movements help me throw a better punch. Shadow boxing does. These past many years every trip to the boxing gym and martial arts studio for me began with this ritual. I also have my students start every session and class in the same way. If I expect to do it right at full speed, I have to first do it at half or even quarter speed. This is the thought process behind the ritual of shadow boxing. Most other athletic endeavors also have a similar type of warm up ritual associated to their sport.
We all know the old adage that practice makes perfect (or even pretty good). Even those blessed with infinite amounts of natural talent practice to hone their crafts. Here in Denver, Peyton Manning, the world-class NFL quarterback, is known for almost an almost obsessive work ethic on and off the football field. I am guessing it isn’t just throwing tight spirals and studying routes that Peyton practices. Like all athletes, football players too have warm up rituals. In football, one of these rituals is the walk through. One might wonder how walking through anything might make someone a better football player, but it’s here where you see it and feel it in slow motion. Making it faster is only a matter of physics.
My parents are avid golfers and through them I have spent plenty of time around the sport. While I never got the golf bug, I have come to appreciate it more and more in recent years. Being out on the course has given me more time with my dad, and it’s also given me a different lens with which to look at sport and fitness at as a coach. On the driving range and around the clubhouse, the word that I hear and see over and over is tempo. I hear golf instructors telling it to their clients, I see it in the proper golf swing, and I also hearit in the proper golf swing.
I also know this word from boxing and the martial arts. You know when you throw the correct punch because you can hear how it lands on the mitt and the bag. It’s a matter of tempo, and tempo is developed through timing. Like a golf ball being hit perfectly, there is a crisp whack when something is struck with the correct tempo. Other ball sports such as baseball and tennis are the same way. Again, the bat and the racket are just tools, and the arms are just an extension of those tools. The energy in our body, connecting to the movement and developing speed, is what creates the power.
It’s counter-intuitive, but this speed comes from a relaxed place. It makes no sense, and that’s why we have to practice it. My coach used to talk about the punching arm being like one of those medieval weapons, a mace. Another analogy used is a whip. Whips by themselves are limp and floppy, as is the chain on a mace. These ‘relaxed’ weapons become lethal if used correctly though. It’s the same way in throwing a punch or a ball. The correct swing, punch, or throw comes from a relaxed tempo. Relaxation comes from doing it slow, over and over and over again.
Another word for tempo is rhythm. Indeed the rhythm of boxing is what hooked me on it years ago. It’s intoxicating. But you can’t do it right until you do it slow, as it is with anything. That is why golfers practice their swings at slow speeds. Batters in the on-deck circle do the same thing. Basketball players do this at the free throw line - slow practice shots without the ball.
As a boxing coach, my students are always amazed at how when I slow them down to practice something like a left hook at a slow speed, when they throw it correctly slowly it lands much harder than when they throw it quickly incorrectly. It doesn’t make sense but again, you can hear this truth. Same thing with golf - you can hear the compression when a ball is struck correctly.
When we shadow box or take our practice swings, we’re perfecting motion, rhythm, and tempo. There’s a poignant scene in the film Million Dollar Baby where the character played by Hillary Swank moves her feet while working as a waitress as if she is hitting the speed bag. In essence, she is shadow boxing. She’s ingraining the motion into her body. That’s kind of how I do it too - at work, at the gym, in the mirror, and even on the dance floor. (Yup, I’m also that guy who throws punches on the dance floor.)
My coach John would always say, “Be half asleep,” as he would watch me shadow box. “Relax!” he would bark at me in a not so relaxing manner. John’s point was that you cannot have any tension in your body to find the correct movement. This is because if we start with tension, this will only become exacerbated and compounded in the actual moment of competition. In sport and in life, when stakes are high, the body has a way of alerting us, with adrenaline, fear, and tension. These are warning signals produced in our body by messages originating in the brain. In order to override these signals it takes years of practice and, even then, sometimes fear and adrenaline win.
So what about simply hitting the bag at full speed, shooting real free throws with a ball, or hitting real golf balls at full speed? Clearly this is a vital part of practice as well. The point is, though, you have to do these things correctly at a slow pace first before you can do them proficiently in real time.
The other point is that it’s not about the ball, club, or boxing glove. The movement comes from us and from within us. It’s about our ability to connect to the ground and transfer weight. The club, the ball, and even the arm that punches are just tools. If you want to land the perfect punch, winning shot, or perfect a killer swing, you’re going to have to slow your roll and learn your own shadow box first.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.