How to Drastically Improve MMA Striking Skills: Part I

Co-authored with Dr. Alex Edmonds, Sports Psychologist

As the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) continues to evolve, so do the training methods employed.  There is a wealth of research that supports a variety of techniques regarding various aspects of fighter preparation for improving performance.  Combat sports-specific articles related to nutrition, strength & conditioning, psychology, bio-mechanics, and performance analysis can, in some cases, be found in volumes.  Absent from the academic journals, that have provided the foundation for many of the modern training techniques, are investigations of two of the most fundamental techniques used in combat sports for more than a century–shadow-boxing and bag work. Not only is a study of the benefits of these training techniques absent from the research, but both techniques are applied scarcely in modern day MMA.

Deliberate Practice

While research specific to MMA may not exist, there is a plethora of research on the benefits of deliberate practice for building fluency (i.e. performing automatically and accurately) with any skill.  The key to becoming a proficient striker is through high-quality practice known as deliberate practice. That is, to engage in each aspect of striking, become proficient with that aspect through coaching feedback and high reps, then progressively putting it all together and expanding and building upon these skills.

Training to become a better striker includes many types of practice scenarios including one-on-one practice with a coach or sparring with a partner. However, the focus of this article is to highlight the importance of other training aspects of striking we contend are not emphasized and utilized enough in MMA (i.e. shadow-boxing and bag work).

Fluency and Conditioning

Why is bag work and shadow boxing critical to becoming a better striker? The simple answer – it’s all about the repetitions. Shadow-boxing and bag work are two ways to gain more and more repetitions, which in turn enhances fluency and conditioning.  Shadow-boxing and bag work is like the batting cage for striking. The striker doesn’t need coaches, rings, or even a partner to engage in this practice. The most important aspects these afford the striker are that they: (1) provide high reps and (2) provide functional conditioning. Regardless of how technically sound a striker is, if he or she isn’t properly conditioned in the specific skill, the technique will suffer.

In fact, emerging research on neuroplasticity is finding that these high repetitions with deliberate focus on specific skills also serves to build or strengthen neural pathways in the brain.  The result…habit.  But it doesn’t take a brain scientist to tell us that that the more you practice something, the better you will get at it.  However, the research does help us become more precise in our common knowledge about practice.  The old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.”  But this is flawed.  The research actually tells us that “practice makes permanent.”  It is deliberate practice that makes perfect.  This is why shadow-boxing and hitting the bag are so vital for developing boxing skills in MMA as these methods give fighters the opportunity to rehearse, if you will, their striking repertoire with high frequency. The result is clear.  Simply go watch any great boxer.  In combat sports, his or her punching ability is unmatched in terms of timing, speed, accuracy, and volume.  Let’s take a little bit of a deeper look into both training techniques.

TipA component of deliberate practice is to continually receive performance feedback. So film yourself shadow-boxing and working the bag. Spend some time with your coach reviewing the video to make any necessary corrections and receive appropriate praise. Accept the feedback and integrate it into the practice, then get back to shadow-boxing and bag work.


Akin to a kata in traditional martial arts, shadowboxing is a more fluid and less scripted training technique for building fluency with boxing skills.  Shadowboxing entails the fighter rehearsing all aspects of his boxing repertoire as he imagines an opponent defending and throwing punches.  The beauty of shadowboxing is that it can be done virtually anywhere, at any time.  The gym, the beach, the hallway at work, the parking lot, and while limited, aspects of shadowboxing can even be done from your seat!  Fighters who regularly shadowbox have striking that is aesthetically pleasing.  Like Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing, they use precision movement in a way that appears fluid and effortless.  And because they have done it enough, it literally is fluid and effortless.  They are not pretending.

Shadow-boxing and Feedback

Fighters love many aspects of training…especially sparring.  Unfortunately, many fighters are missing out on the most important tool for learning–feedback.  Feedback will be a topic for another article, but suffice to say, all learning requires feedback.  Here’s the beauty of shadow-boxing—instant feedback can be received from the mirror!  You won’t find a respectable professional boxing gym without a mirror (likely spotted with sweat) somewhere for boxers to hone their craft through direct observation and adjustment.

A word of caution: self-assessment is only as good as a fighter’s knowledge of the skills under observation.  If they don’t see there’s a problem, that can’t fix it.  Or perhaps they note somethings wrong, but they are unsure how to improve.  This is why it can be extremely beneficial for fighters to shadowbox in front of expert coaches, or at least use video to review with these coaches at a later time.

Different Types of Shadow-boxing

There are benefits to different types of shadow-boxing.  Fighters and coaches can get highly creative with how they use it.  What’s important is that concepts of deliberate practice are applied based on the primary purpose of the shadow-boxing in that moment.  The focus of shadow-boxing will vary based on a variety of considerations like a fighter’s skill level (e.g. novice vs expert) or perhaps strategic preparation for an upcoming fight.  Below are a couple of common shadow-boxing purposes with some focuses to consider.

Shadowboxing to Warm Up or Cool Down

It is no secret that warming up prior to training can reduce injury. But in addition, shadow-boxing as a warm up reduces fatigue and increases fluidity. The important thing here is to focus on relaxation. Specifically, natural body positioning, relaxed shoulders, and controlled breathing.  You will notice expert strikers are able to “roll” their shoulders.  This is the result of countless hours of relaxed shadowboxing.

TipFluency comes with relaxation. Controlled effort or relaxed exertion.  The 100-meter sprinter runs his best time when he’s pushing himself as hard as he can, but at the same time he’s relaxed. Relaxed exertion! Find that balance through practice to keep the tension out of your shoulders and use the energy of your body efficiently to become of fluent striker. This will also extend your endurance capabilities.

Before one can become truly fluent, it is important fighters learn the most appropriate striking style based on the fighter’s physical attributes. One of the most common mistakes novice and even some professional fighters make when shadowboxing and fighting is the use of body positioning that is unnatural, or not applying shadowboxing using the offensive and defensive strategies inherent in their style.  Can you imagine Mike Tyson shadow-boxing like Muhammad Ali?  This would be wasted effort. It’s important to determine the most appropriate style, because styles make fights, which then allows fighters to focus on proper stance, hands and overall body positioning.

Shadowboxing for Speed and Conditioning

Strength and conditioning coaches in MMA have really introduced some amazing regiments to the sport.  In fact, boxing, which had remained in the dark ages in many aspects of training, is now progressively adding to their training approaches.  While their approaches have moved MMA’s strength and conditioning beyond the dark ages, there is one training technique rarely visible for pushing the fighters cardio, speed, and muscular endurance to the next level for striking.  That’s right…shadow-boxing.  Now, for strength and conditioning purposes, focus here should be on throwing tight, high-volume punches as hard and fast as possible for set intervals.  A word of caution.  Initially, technique will likely suffer during this type of shadow-boxing.  This is okay as it will only be temporary.  As the technique improves through deliberate practice routines, the improved technique will generalize into this type of shadow-boxing.  If you are wondering what this looks like, check out the video of Mike Tyson showcasing how it’s done.

Stay tuned for Part II of this article on the benefits of hitting the bag!