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How to Improve Your Fighting Reflexes

Fast reflexes are the standard of being a fighter. If anything, boxing is little more than a battle of reflexes. One man’s reflexes versus another’s.

Sure there’s skill, there’s strategy, strength, and all those other qualities. But without the reflexes to utilize those abilities, you won’t survive the round, let alone win the match.

Now there’s a difference between just being fast and having TRAINED fighting reflexes. It’s the difference between jerking your head back instinctively versus slipping and countering with a knockout punch.

It’s a long road to developing knockout counters as second nature. But I’ll show you how to get there.

What are fighting reflexes?

A fighting reflex is a physical response to a fighting stimulus.

A fighting stimulus could be:

  • an opponent’s punch
  • a discovered opening in your opponent’s guard
  • any movement in your opponent
  • a sudden opportunity created somehow during a fight

Is it possible to improve your reflexes?

What percentage of reflexes are genetics?

But what if I’m naturally slow?

What if I’m the slowest person in the gym?

What if I can’t even see the punches?

This is a sad issue I have to address because of all the people with insecurity problems. I will explain it like this:

We are sensory beings. We have intricate nervous systems, bones, muscles, and all sorts of highly evolved physical functions to facilitate reactive movement. We are not plants that wave in the wind. And we’re not stationary rocks in the landscape. We see, we hear, we smell, we touch, we taste, and we think. Our bodies were made to respond to stimuli.

And genetics has less to do with trained reflexes than our amount of exposure to sense stimulation over the years. A kid forced to think critically throughout his or her life will grow up smarter. A kid that’s played sports his whole life will be more athletic than one that’s watched TV his whole childhood. Genetics still matters but nowhere near as much as your upbringing and all the stimulus that’s happened to you AFTER childbirth.

  • If you can play video games, you can improve your fighting reflexes.
  • If you can send rapid fire text messages on your iPhone, you can improve your fighting reflexes.
  • If you can scream when you touch a hot pan, you can improve your fighting reflexes.

As long as you have the instinctive ability to react,

you can train your fighting reflexes.

The Secret to Developing Fighting Reflexes

The goal is to develop TRAINED REFLEXES!

A reflex could be ANY reaction.

  • a punch
  • a flinch
  • a duck
  • a panic maneuver


  • a counter-punch
  • a defensive move

This is why I could care less if someone was ‘genetically fast” or not. Without the skill training, a fast person wouldn’t have that much of an advantage. If you pit two total beginners together, the one with faster reflexes would win. But once you pit two experienced fighters together, the one with the better TRAINED reflexes would win.

And what is a TRAINED REFLEX?

Did you see the big secret? STIMULI, then REACTION! The stimuli first, the reaction second. Better yet, let me say it this way…





And say it one more time with me really loudly….TRAIN FOR THE STIMULI!

If you want to get good at reacting to punches, you need to train by looking at punches!

That’s all it is. The better you get at sensing the punches, the better you will get at responding to them. You want to get better at seeing punches, hearing punches, feeling punches, sensing punches even before they’re thrown. The focus should always be on the stimuli.

Common Reflex Training Mistake #1 – not training with the right stimuli

And you have to train with the RIGHT STIMULI. If you want to get better at slipping punches, you need to have punches thrown at you. There’s no other way. Playing pingpong is not going to help. Dodging tennis balls as your friend throws them at you is not going to help. Sure, having fast reflexes in ANY activity is a physical advantage, but ultimately the guy with better trained BOXING reflexes will win the BOXING match.

Focusing on anything other than defending punches is going to be a giant waste of time! At best, you’d improve your coordination and instinctive reflexes, but you wouldn’t get any better at sensing punches or develop any effective reflexes. More on this later.

Common Reflex Training Mistake #2 – focusing on the reaction

So many boxer waste their time by doing the wrong kinds of drills for reflex training:

  • practicing the defensive motion (slipping in front of the mirror or under the rope)
  • practicing the counter punches (on the bag or in the mirror)

I’m not saying these drills aren’t useful (they are certainly essential for boxing training). My point is that they’re terrible for developing fighting reflexes. It’s common to see a beginner practice slipping motions in front of the mirror for a whole week, and then get destroyed in the ring, because he STILL CAN’T SEE THE PUNCHES COMING. What did he expect? How can you slip a punch if you can’t see it?

Just because I spend time slipping in front of the mirror and throwing punches on the bag, doesn’t mean I’m trained to see counter-punching opportunities. Shadowboxing and bag work has more do to with technique and conditioning. If I want to develop reflexes, I need to have punches thrown at me. Having a partner throw punches at me (even without contact) while I move around the ring will be far more effective for my reflex development because it exposes me to the stimuli (punches being thrown).

The secret to reflex training,

is to focus on the stimuli!

Boxing Drills to Improve Fighting Reflexes

At last, we have arrived at the reflex training process!

1. Slow sparring

If you’ve been reading my website for a while, you’ll know I’m one of the biggest proponents of slow sparring. I’m not saying all sparring should be slow. I’m saying slow sparring is an incredible tool for fight training to speed up your fighting skill development. Sure you can spar fast, but make sure you still do slow sparring. Slow sparring gives you time to relax, feel, think, and come up with new creative responses.

Most important of all, slow sparring really gives you a chance to take in all the sensory information from your opponent’s movement. How does he move? Where does his power originate from? What’s the first giveaway of his left hook? Where does his jab come from? Slow sparring gives you time to absorb all this and process it. Fast sparring forces you into a “move or die” attitude where you only remember how to avoid punches but you never actually get to see the punches you’re supposed to be responding to. Hard sparring fails the moment it becomes so hard that you no longer want to “sense” the punches.

I’m pretty sure 80% of you reading this are not going to try slow sparring. Either because A) you’re already comfortable enough with fighting that you don’t need to. Or B) You don’t even fight much and care more about the technical/strategic aspects about boxing rather than the actual execution ability itself.

But I will say this…the ability to absorb stimuli is what makes you great in anything that you do. The ability to see, and sense, and feel everything coming your way…that’s what makes you great at responding to it.

And in boxing, the fighter that can respond to his opponent intelligently yet instinctively, THAT’S THE REAL FIGHTER. Real fighters don’t need to think, don’t need to remember anything. They only respond and they do it naturally. And the best fighters have more fine-tuned reactions because they can sense more things. So having a great defense has more to do with being able to sense different kinds of punches, rather than to knowing many ways to slip punches.

Great fighters can sense more things

than lesser fighters.

2. Focus Mitts

If you don’t have a sparring partner or for whatever reason can’t get someone to throw even slow-motion punches at you, focus mitts will be the next best thing. Now I’m not talking about the mindless full-blast mitt punching where you throw all your power and get tired in 2 minutes. I’m referring to controlled mitt drills where you simultaneously attack and defend against punches and learn how to adapt to your partner’s movements.

This is how I work the mitts with a new fighter:

  • I lift the mitt quickly to give him a jab, and then I take the mitt away after a second.
  • I don’t say anything, I don’t directly “teach” him anything per say. I just lift the mitt momentarily and then take it away. And I keep doing this as we move around each other in the ring.
  • After a while, he gets smart and learns to jab the mitt as soon as it pops up. He learns to be more responsive and to watch for the opportunity.
  • Next I show the mitt and right after he throws the jab, I flash him the other mitt for a right hand opportunity. He’ll probably not see it because he was too focused on the jab, but at least now he knows to be more aware of other opportunities.
  • I go back to only offering surprise jabs. I wouldn’t want him choreographing the combination in his head. I want to teach him how to respond!
  • Finally, I flash him the 1-2 opportunity and this time he gets it!
  • Now I give him some jabs and 1-2’s in random intervals. I don’t move on until he learns to respond perfectly to both.
  • Now I give him a 1-2,

    and follow up with a 3-2 opportunity. Eventually he understands how to throw a 1-2-3-2 combination without me saying a single word!

  • Now I give him a 1-2-3-2, but now after he throws the last right hand, I slap him with my left mitt high on the side of his head. He quickly learns to watch for the left hook after throwing a right hand.
  • Then I give a 1-2-3-2 combo, swing a high left hook for him to duck under, and then I give him a 2-3-2 combo.
  • As the rounds go by, I give him different opportunities to throw and evade.

This takes time but eventually I’ve trained a fighter to look for punching opportunities while staying defensively alert. I don’t say anything and I correct him very little if at all. I’m careful to move in ways that create effective BUT NATURAL habits in his response. It won’t be long before he can throw entire combinations while defending simultaneously…and all without thinking!

This might sound like magic to some of you, but it’s really not. A good trainer can teach you how to fight without making you remember anything, without making you feel unnatural, and even almost without making you think! It’s like all you have to do is stand in front of him and he will make you respond like a boxer.

3. Shadowbox Sparring

Get a partner and shadowbox in front of each other as if you’re sparring except only you don’t make any contact. It sounds like a silly drill but it’s deadly effective. You learn how to look at real punches and how to respond to real movements.

Just the fact that you’re spending time looking at a real human being in front of you will do you a lot of good. You are being exposed to realistic fighting stimuli! The probably with training alone on the heavy bag or shadowboxing alone is that it doesn’t challenge your eyes, doesn’t challenge your mind, and doesn’t give your body anything to sense. You just kind of stand there and throw punches like a robot. And then you get in the ring and can’t hit your opponent because you can’t tell where he’s going to be next.

4. Double-End Bag

Last but not least, the double end bag. It’s not as good as having a live person throw punches at you but at least you’re forced to hit a moving target and be defensively aware at the same time. At least you’re forced to adapt and respond to something.

This is why many higher level fighters don’t bother with the heavy bag too much. Their punching technique is already good and they’d rather save their bones for crushing skulls. The double-end bag keeps their eyes sharp and senses alert.

The Goal of Fighting Reflex Drills

1. Learn how to SEE punches

It’s ALL about the eyes!

That’s the beauty of reflex drills. They force you to react honestly. Sometimes, we want to slip like Mike Tyson or Floyd Mayweather but then we get in the ring and react differently. This is BEAUTIFUL! Because you DON’T want to react like Floyd Mayweather (trust me), you want react NATURALLY…the way your body lets you react. Maybe it’s ugly or awkward or ineffective or doesn’t feel good but at least it’s an honest reaction. With time and training, your reactions will become more effective.

The first step of improving your fighting reactions is to respond honestly to the fighting stimulus. And you cannot respond effectively if you’re so busy trying to slip a certain way or counter a certain way.

You can’t defend a punch you can’t see.

What does a punch look like? It’s a funny question but believe me A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T KNOW! (Because if they did, they would have seen it and avoided it easily!) What does a right cross look like? If you had to wait until the right arm was fully extended, you are WAY TOO LATE. Too late to block, too late to counter, too late to do anything.

You have to be able to “see” the right cross BEFORE it becomes a right cross. This means being able to see the shoulder twitch that becomes a right cross. This means being able to see a sudden rotation in the body that generates power for the right cross. If anything, the hand itself should be the last thing you should be looking for.

Again, don’t rely on the heavy bag so much because it doesn’t give you anything to see. Your eyes become lazy and dead because they’re not being used. If you’re going to do bag work, at least try the double-end bag so it sharpens your eyes.

2. Learn how to FEEL punches

You won’t have to look for punches,

if you can feel them coming.

After you know how to detect and see incoming punches, the next thing you’ll want to do is develop your ability to feel them coming in. I’ll break it down for you. When I first started boxing, I got hit with everything because I couldn’t see the punches coming in.

After a few months, I started to notice when jabs were being thrown, when right hands were coming, when a left hook was about to launch, etc. I knew exactly what every punch looked like and where it was coming from and all that. But this wasn’t good enough. Being able to see a punch only allows you to defend it. You need something more if you want to be able to counter it.

What took me to the next level was being able to FEEL the punches coming. So just from one tiny little slip that my opponent made, I could feel his feet gripping the ground, I could feel his core tighten and chest loading up, and I visualized him throwing the left hook. And this all happened in my head before he actually threw the hook. But once that left hook came, I was ready, and I slipped and I countered easily.

Now how the heck was I able to FEEL his punches? It’s part training, part experience, and part magic. It’s beautiful that we boxers can reach a level of instantaneous reactions.

I’m not 100% sure how I slipped a 4 punch combination without thinking about it. But what I’m sure of is that I couldn’t have done it without paying complete attention to my opponent. I can feel when he wants to move, I can tell when he wants to punch, I can tell if he’s really hurt or not. Somehow, I know what he’s going to do. I’m totally in-sync with his body and mind. And this magical ability to “feel the punches” can’t be developed on the heavy bag or shadowboxing. You have to work with a live person to develop it.


This right here is the truth!

The ability to do something is pretty much the ability to do it without thinking. If I ask you to show me a jab, and you have to think about it, remember it in your head, warm up a few times, and then finally throw it…it’s obvious you can’t jab. Being really able to do something means you can do it without thinking.

To be a fighter,

means to be able to fight WITHOUT THINKING.

Michael Jordan doesn’t have to think about his arm when he shoots a 3-pointer! Cheetahs don’t think about running form when they’re chasing down their dinner! I don’t think about what my legs are doing when I walk to the bathroom! I just do it. We sometimes don’t even know what we’re doing until somebody asks us the question. Most of the time, we just do things as we feel—naturally, instinctively, and without thinking.

The problem with beginners – they have to think too much

That right there is the problem! If you have to think, then it’s not a reflex anymore. The moment you have to think in order to do something, it becomes a process that requires mental preparation and therefore you’ll never be able to do it automatically.

But then some people go, “WHAT. But I can’t do it if I don’t think about it.” And that’s where I answer, “THAT’S WHY YOU HAVE TO SEE AND FEEL!” And “seeing” and “feeling” can only be done with a live opponent. Now if you’re purposely avoiding the fight in the ring because you don’t want to “SEE & FEEL” punches because they’re painful, that’s a whole other story.

You cannot have fast reflexes,

if you have to think.

I used to spar as a beginner and not remember anything that happened in the ring. My hands and feet were everywhere and much of the action was too fast for my brain. Sure enough, my body responded instinctively and not at all like what I had practiced in the mirror. Little did I know, that was probably the best training I could have ever had. My body was learning how to see and feel, and bypassing my brain, in order to help me learn faster!

Which brings me to another point. The brain isn’t as helpful as you think when it comes to learning. Sometimes, the brain gets in the way, it plays tricks on you, and prevents you from performing at your natural best. Sometimes the best moves you’ll ever make are when you let go and simply enjoy the fight for what it is.

Real fighting knowledge lies deep in the muscle memory of your body and its ability to adapt to “combat impulses”. All the analytical thinking in the world doesn’t mean anything in a physical sport. This is why spectators who’ve watched boxing for years still can’t outbox a kid that’s only been training for six months.

Want to have great reflexes? Learn how to fight, learn how to punch and defend, master the movements, build a strong body, and then just let go. Let yourself feel the fight and develop natural habits and instincts. Train with a focus on the stimuli and you’ll quickly develop TRAINED FIGHTING REFLEXES!

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