What’s the secret to great head movement?
It has to do with understanding what good head movement is and how to do it. You’ll need to learn the different styles of head movement and how to train the skill. Even with all the tips I’m give you, you’re still going to get hit a lot.
For the serious fighters, you don’t really have a choice. Head movement is a standard boxing skill you need to be competitive. Your head can only take so many shots from trained opponents. But I promise you, there’s no greater feeling than being able to completely avoid a punch (besides a KO).
It’ll take you a while to master the art of head movement, but here’s what you need to know:
The Art of Boxing Head Movement
The first time I saw REAL head movement
I remember the first time I fought a really slick guy. To begin with, I didn’t even know he was slick…THAT’S how slick he was—that you couldn’t see it from the outside. He looked like a lumbering middleweight plodding around the ring lazily and throwing potshots at random intervals. He didn’t look particularly skilled or dangerous except for that he seemed very relaxed in the ring. Looking back, I should have known that anybody that’s really comfortable in the ring should be feared. It’s ok, I’m much wiser now. 🙂
It wasn’t until I stood face-to-face with him in the ring that I realized how good he really was. This wasn’t no run of the mill “speedy guy” who whips his head all over the place when you throw combos. This was a guy who he kept his head on the INSIDE of your punches and evaded every single one of them with nothing more than subtle movement. He slipped entire combinations, without moving, without taking his eyes off of me! It didn’t even look like he moved and yet I was missing every single time. The whole time I was thinking to myself, “So THIS IS WHY he’s state champion!”
The Magic of Head Movement
Head movement is possibly one of the greatest and most unique arts of boxing. I’ve never seen it in any other fighting art. Not in wrestling/BJJ/judo, in muay thai/kickboxing, kung-fu. So many of these other fighting arts are fantastic and creative at attacking but none offer anything as beautiful as the art of head movement.
The idea of head movement is basically to move the target. Instead of trying to defend the target (your head) all the time, you just move it. This way, your hands are free to attack. The art of head movement is so misunderstood that to the untrained eye, people think boxing is brutal and raw and mindless because the fighters on TV don’t seem to be defending themselves.
Real head movement,
doesn’t always look like movement.
What makes it even more difficult to understand is that the best head movement doesn’t even look like head movement. The more subtle, the better! This is why I don’t expect people to understand boxing in the first few years. You can’t learn it until you are exposed to it in the ring. You’ll never find it if you go looking for it; you have to feel it.
The Benefits of Head Movement
The greatest benefit of head movement is to free your hands so that you can counter immediately.
- Your hands can fire back sooner if they’re aren’t needed for blocking.
- You’ll always be one step behind if you have to defend before you counter.
The next best benefit is to make your opponent more vulnerable.
- Opponents are left wide open or can fall off balance when they swing at the air.
- Opponents also get more tired when they miss completely.
- Faster opponents can only be countered with slipping.
Head movement is a requirement
at the highest levels of boxing.
At the highest levels of boxing, head movement is not a benefit, it’s a requirement. The faster, more mobile, and more skilled your opponent, the more head movement you will need. You can block all you want against faster opponents but they’ll definitely be gone by the time you come out of your shell to counter. The really skilled guys will always be closed up. You can wait all day for the opening and you’ll never find it.
The only time you can guarantee that an opponent will be vulnerable somewhere is when he punches. And how will you take advantage of that if your hands are used up for defense?
You need to slip punches to make him miss and make him leave himself wide open. Against faster opponents, you might have to slip multiple punches so that he swings wider each time until you see the opportunity to counter. If all you do is block, he’ll keep attacking you and you’ll feel like if YOU open up to counter, YOU will be hit first.
The Common Misconceptions about Head Movement
Myth #1 – Head movement is for defense
The real goal of head movement is offense.
You defend with head movement so that your hands are free to counter back. If all you wanted to do was defend, you can just back step or move away entirely. Unless you plan to fire back, there is little reason for you to use a defense that leaves you in range.
Myth #2 – Head movement is a special technique
Head movement is an awareness.
The real trick to head movement is really head awareness. You have to feel where your head is positioned and feel how it affects your movement and your opponent’s movement. Your head position affects your balance and ability to throw or defend against certain punches. Your head position can also communicate your intentions or cause your opponent to react a certain way. Even a slight tilt of the head can telegraph (or help fake) your next move.
You have to know if your head is too close or too far, you have to feel around for an easy and safe place to put your feet. Head awareness tells you when and where to move your head.
Focusing on just head movement (rather than head awareness) will waste time and energy because you’ll be moving your head all over the place without knowing where to place it. You’ll only end up moving a lot more because none of it is working, you’ll get tired, and you’ll still get hit anyway.
I think of head movement the same way as I would with offensive awareness or balance awareness.
For example with punching…at first, you learn how to throw punches. In that early phase, technique is your pure focus, where you end up worrying so much about the elbow and the wrist, and the foot and all that. But then after that, you start focusing on accuracy and timing. You work the mitts more and see them as being more important than the heavy bag. And finally, you no longer focus on technique or timing, but you just get in the ring and look for targets in your opponent.
Same with balance. At first, you learn how to strengthen your legs, and do all these footwork drills. But in the end, you develop better balance because you know where your axis is and you know how to adjust your body during a fight so that you don’t fall off balance.
And now same with head movement. Most people learn head movement as some kind of secret technique or pattern as how to move the head so that it can avoid jabs, crosses, hooks, etc. And then you start practicing this movement in the mirror or on the slip rope, right? And then you get in the ring, and the technique goes out the window because your goal is just to get the hell out of the way. The way you slipped in practice doesn’t always resemble the way you slip in a real fight.
At the end of the day, what matters most is that you become more aware of your head position. You develop a sense of awareness for where your head is during a fight, and you become intuitive as for what punches are coming next. And you develop a natural reflex of where to move your head and by how much and where to move it after that, and so forth. You realize all the slipping techniques in the world don’t matter because everybody throws different punches from different angles. And that effective head movement actually requires very little movement.
The skill—or rather—the AWARENESS of head movement is all that matters. It’s not about back muscles, not about speed, not even about knowing the exact secret technique to slipping. If you can see the punch, slipping it will be easy.
Boxing Head Movement Technique
*** See how I move my head. See how subtle head movement looks up close.
Don’t think of head movement as defense technique
So now we start with the beginner phase of learning head movement, which is the technique part.
Just remember that the focus is on HEAD MOVEMENT. Some of this could be called slipping, or rolling, or bobbing & weaving, etc…but I don’t want you to think of it as boxing defense. The moment you start thinking of head movement as defense, you start to worry about the opponent’s punches and get distracted from your movement rhythm.
I prefer that you think of head movement as simply a way for you to change your body position so that you can find a new stance from which to attack from. The head movement is to change your stance to take you out of danger into a new position where you can threaten the opponent.
Use head movement to move you
into a better offensive position.
Circular Head Movement
Circular head movement is the first style of head movement to teach because it’s easy to do. Circular head movement often goes with the flow of movement making it easy to conserve energy and makes it less punishing if you get hit.
Circular head movement
is good for flowing and relaxing.
Imagine a circular path of moving your head.
- It’s possible to roll your head through completely as you go over and under punches and come back around with counters.
- But it’s more likely that you only use half or a quarter of the circle with each movement.
- You can use circular head movement to roll WITH the punches (staying inside of them), or slipping AGAINST the punches (going outside of them).
I can divide this circle into the top half and bottom half.
- If I move my head along the top half, it becomes a circular slip. It can also be a shoulder roll if I bring shoulders more sideways.
- If I move my head along the bottom half, I can roll under punches. Some of you might call this the “bob & weave”.
I can divide this circle into a left and right side.
- I can move down to either side to slip or roll punches.
Angular Head Movement
Angular head movement is faster and more surprising to an opponent but also harder to do. Angular head movement is more about speed and quickness rather than rhythm because you’re often moving your head against the punch.
Angular head movement
is good for making quick movements.
Imagine moving your head along 2 triangles.
- Notice how all the movements are straight lines.
- You’ll be quickly and suddenly pulling your head through these lines to cut around your opponent’s punches.
- Angular head movement can be used to slip as quickly as possible.
I can move my head along the top triangle.
- From the top, I can slip my head straight down to the sides.
- From the sides, I can slip right back to the top again, or I can cut my head right through the center to the other side (very daring).
I can move my head along the lower triangle to get under punches.
- From the sides, I can cut to the other side or slip to the bottom to get under punches.
- From the bottom, I can pull my head up to any side I want.
Head Placement and Hand Placement
You may have noticed that I place my head SLIGHTLY off-center.
- This allows me to move my head down to my right side, up to my left side, or down to my left side. From here, I feel like I can move in 3 directions whereas if I had my head perfectly at center, I would feel like I could only bring it down one side or the other.
- It’s a small detail but makes me feel like I have many more options.
- You can use other positions. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the front or the back or the side because you will always be moving throughout all positions in the fight anyway. The best tip is to move your head and hands to wherever needed to land the counter you want.
“Where do I put my hands?”
Many fighters are still confused about where to put their hands while slipping. Many have been taught to keep their hands up even while slipping like Mike Tyson’s peek-a-boo style. And while this technique is logical, you should know that the ultimate goal of slipping is to be able to counter immediately, sometimes even simultaneously as you slip a punch. Which means you should be more focused on throwing counters than to be focused on 100% avoiding a punch. If you’re looking to avoid 100%, you might as well use footwork or just block. No point in wasting energy by slipping as you block.
There’s also a matter of purpose. You can keep your hands at home if you don’t want to fire back just yet. Maybe you’re still out of range (like Mike Tyson) or maybe you’re still waiting for a specific counter-punching opportunity (because the guy is too fast, or you’re looking for a KO). Allowing your hands to come down from your chin a little can help you move faster since your hands won’t weigh down your head. This allows you to be more slick because the hands can counter-balance or your upper body as you tilt your head. Not relying on hands as you slip will give you the ultimate goal of being able to throw punches as you evade your opponents.
Place your head and hands wherever you need to land the counter you want. It’s all about the counter. Decide what counter you want to throw and move your body into that position when you slip. If you want a counter hook, then your head might have to be on the inside and your front hand loaded a tiny bit. If you want a counter right, your head might have to be towards the center or even the rear a little bit, and your right elbow ready to give you the angle.
Look at it this way…the best defense is offense. It doesn’t matter how good your slipping is, your opponent will keep firing until he hits you or until you hit him. Anytime that you throw a punch, you’re basically open somewhere. Instead of thinking of it like “throwing punches as you slip”, think of it as “using head movement as you throw punches”. Sometimes you’ll need more head movement, sometimes you’ll need less movement. Your hands should be focused on throwing punches, not blocking them.
You’ll eventually eat punches if you don’t throw back.
Countering with Head Movement
As I’ve said before, the real benefit to using head movement is that it increases your ability to counter. And so now you have to add some counters with it, otherwise, you’re just wasting energy by bending all over the place and wearing out your back.
The simple rule of countering with head movement:
Throw a punch from the side you just slipped from.
- If you’re SLIPPING FROM RIGHT to left, THROW A RIGHT.
- If you’re SLIPPING FROM LEFT to right, THROW A LEFT.
You should be able to throw a punch anytime that you move your head. Sometimes you might prefer to keep your arms in or throw lighter punches so that you can slip faster to wait for the bigger counter opportunity. Other times, you’re pinned on the ropes and want to fight back immediately as you move your head. Other times, you prefer to be more one-sided, for example: only throwing right hand counters as you slip and leaving your left arm at home as you slip on the other side.
It’s up to you. You decide when it’s worth it to throw. The important detail is that you always try to move in a way that allows you to counter. Avoid doing the awkward slips that leave you in weird positions that don’t allow you to fire back.
Avoid slipping in ways
that don’t allow you to punch back.
Countering from the top positions
- I can throw jabs to the head or body when I slip down to my right side.
- I can throw right hands to the head or body when I slip down to my left side.
- I can throw a nice up-jab when I go from the left side back up to the center.
- I can throw a counter right when I bring my head from the right side back to the center.
- Combining the previous two, I can throw a counter-jab as I slip down to my right, and then a counter right as I slip back up to the center.
- I can also throw uppercuts or hooks (head or body) anytime that I cut from the sides to the middle or across the middle.
Countering from a fast cut across the center
- I can throw a counter jab or left cross or left hook when I cut my head to MY RIGHT.
- I can throw a counter right when I cut my head to MY LEFT.
Countering from circular movement off the sides
- I can roll down to my left to dig left hooks to the body.
- I can roll down to my right to shoulder roll into an uppercut counter.
- I can also stay low and then roll up the left side with a left hook counter on top. Or roll up the right side for an overhand right.
Countering from the low positions
- I can throw jabs or crosses (especially to the body) when I slip from the sides down to the center.
- I can throw hooks or uppercuts (especially to the body) when I come up from the center.
Common Head Movement Patterns
In case some of you are starting to feel overloaded by all the new possibilities of head movement, I’ve made a simple list of the more common head movement patterns below. If you don’t understand some of these, don’t worry about it for now. I can explain it later with more images and video.
Stay at the center
I can’t say this enough. You’re not supposed to be yanking your head all over the place. The reality is: your head is still very much at center. You don’t need to move much to avoid a punch. Your opponent’s glove is maybe 6 inches in diameter and probably not aimed right at the center of your head. Which means you only need to move your head a few inches to slip a punch.
A skilled fighter needs only a simple twist of the shoulders and a little flick of his head and he’s completely in the clear. A beginner fighter will probably swing his entire body off balance from one side to the other and STILL not be able to avoid the punch.
I’m not asking you to be slick in one day, but just know that slick is better. Slick is subtle and more effective. It’s better because it takes less muscle, less energy, and less effort. If you want to be faster, you have to find ways to move less. Moving more will always make you work harder and get more tired. Moving more always loses in the end because you’re working harder than the other guy. It’s impossible to be faster by doing more work.
The key to effective head movement: BE SUBTLE.
All the fancy diagrams and arrows I drew in Photoshop are simply for demonstrative purposes. When I’m fighting, I do my best to keep my head at the center (moving as little as possible from the center). It’s the most balanced position and gives me the best options in terms of mobility, and opportunity to attack with the other hand. I move only enough to avoid the punch and then I put my head right back in the center.
If anything, I try to force my opponent’s head off the center. Because I know that affects his ability to fight back. The more he has to move his head, the more off-balance he gets. And the more off balance he is, the harder it is for him to move, the longer it takes for him to counter, the more one-sided his counters become, and the more tired he gets. It’s harder to fight when you’re off balance.
Evasive Head Movement Patterns
Time to learn some ways to shake off the aggressive opponents. Try to do all this with as minimal movement as possible. Practice on the mitts first before you shadowbox and try it in the ring. I don’t recommend for you to do first in shadowboxing (if you can help it) because that’s how unrealistic movements are created.
Slip down RIGHT, slip over LEFT, ROLL UNDER to the right
- Slip RIGHT under the jab
- Slip LEFT outside the right hand (you can think of it as slipping OVER the right hand)
- Roll under the left hook
Slip RIGHT, slip LEFT, COUNTER 3-2
- 2 quick slips to get past his fast 1-2
- then fire back with a left hook and right hand
Slip RIGHT, slip LEFT, ROLL UNDER to the right, ROLL UNDER to the left
- 2 quick slips to get past his 1-2
- then roll under his left hook swing
- then roll under his right hand swing
1-2, ROLL UNDER to the right
- throw a 1-2 combination
- then roll under his counter hook
1-2-3, ROLL UNDER to the left, ROLL UNDER to the right
- throw a 1-2-3 combination
- then roll under his counter right and roll again under his counter hook
Get low, cut RIGHT, cut LEFT, come up
- Drop your head level just a few inches
- slip to the right sharply
- slip to the left sharply
- then pull your head back up to normal level
Creating Your Style of Head Movement
There’s no rule saying you have to use common head movement patterns. It’s natural for everyone to come up with their own defensive style. It’s natural because everyone’s body is different. And every opponent is differently.
A faster opponent opponent might force me to use more angular head movement, whereas a volume puncher will cause me to use more circular head movement. I like to use angular movement against straight punches and circular movements against wider punches. I also tend to be more circular when I’m trying to engage guys in a brawl, whereas I like to be more angular when I’m trying to potshot them and not give them any chances to touch me.
Mix everything up. Cut to one side, but roll to the other, and then cut back and forth and maybe roll over and under again. It all depends on the situation. Every skilled fighter has his favorite patterns for shaking off aggressive fighters. For me, it’s two cuts side-to-side, and then I come right back up top with hard counters. Another favorite of mine is to cut down to one side, roll under, pivot with my feet and escape or counter.
3-Dimensional Head Movement
Who’s to say you can only go UP-or-DOWN and SIDE-to-SIDE? You can also go NEAR & FAR. By moving your head along a 3-dimensional sphere, you give yourself that much more room and opportunities to evade punches. You can do it using all the head movement techniques and patterns I shared above, but with this visualization:
- Imagine that GOING UP can also be the same as PULLING BACK.
- And that GOING DOWN can also be the same as TILTING FORWARD.
So for example: instead of pulling your head up and over a right hand. You could pull it back out of range as the right hand misses. You could also pull your head back to avoid a hook instead of going under it. You can apply all these conversions for both the circular and angular head movement.
A tall guy might prefer the NEAR-&-FAR movement over the OVER-&-UNDER because it’s harder for him to get under punches. A short guy likewise might also make the same preference because it’s harder for him to get over punches. Besides a shorter fighter might prefer to get closer to get more in range, rather than going under which makes it harder for him to counter. If he’s short enough, getting close is more than enough to make an opponent miss. Personally, I like the NEAR-&-FAR type of head movement because it allows me to be tall and use my reach.
Boxing Head Movement Drills
These are my favorite ways to practice head movement. After you get the technique down, it’s time to work on that flow…and that awareness. It’s not about speed or reflexes. It’s about making it natural and comfortable. Because it’s hard to use new technique if it’s not natural.
Be prepared to spend years of your life to master this art. Anybody can throw punches…getting out of the way of them, that’s a whole other world of skill.
Check yourself in the mirror and FLOW. It’s not about jerking your head around. If it feels like a jerk, it’s probably not going to work in a real fight. It should feel like a release, not a pull. Kind of like how snapping punches should be a release, not a push. Same theory applies here. You should feel like you’re simply releasing your head from place to place.
After a while, you’ll find a natural rhythm in your body where your head will naturally bounce around or slide to different spots easily without you having to force it there. I accomplish this by knowing how to relaxing my upper body and legs in a way that gives it this flowing movement.
Slow sparring is the best way to develop head movement for the more experienced fighters. There’s nothing as exciting as getting in the ring with new opponents and seeing all the new ways that they throw punches. It’s a game for me to spar somebody new and have to find new ways to slip around his punches.
The only reason why I didn’t list slow sparring first is because beginners need to learn a little technique first or else they’ll start doing weird things in slow sparring. Or even worse, they don’t know how to spar with control. (Btw, if you have no control in slow sparring, you probably won’t have any control in fast sparring either.)
If you’re going to slow spar, focus on seeing the punches. Don’t worry about trying to slip everything. What’s important is that you expose yourself to the new angles. After you can maintain 100% eye contact and become aware of every punch, you can start by trying to move your head to a rhythm. And then AFTER YOU establish a head movement rhythm. Then you can finally start trying to move it in a way that actually avoids punches.
So there you go…. MAINTAIN EYE CONTACT, then ESTABLISH RHYTHM, then try to AVOID PUNCHES. Too many beginners do the opposite. They go straight to trying to avoid punches that they end up breaking eye contact, breaking their rhythm, and getting into weird awkward positions.
It’s really the rhythm that protects you in a fight. Because boxing is a combination attack. Getting hit every now and then is ok, but it’s not cool to get hit by 2-3 shots in a row. And the only way to avoid those is to catch your opponent’s rhythm. Once you’ve got the rhythm, you’ll be ok even if you do get hit.
Establishing a fighting rhythm,
will help you attack and defend in combinations.
Mitts are great for practicing the common head movements. You’ll learn the basics to head movement like how to slip a jab or slip a right, or how to roll under punches. A great thing about the mitts is that your trainer can force you to work your defense at the same time as your offense. You can also use mittwork to simulate and focus on evading specific punches (like the southpaw left cross, hooks to the body, etc).
The problem with training on the mitts is that you always end up doing more work than is necessary. It always happens that hitting the mitts becomes a game of showing off. The harder you hit, the louder the sound, the more people look, the mightier you feel. And the slipping becomes a race to beat the punch as fast as possible rather than to develop the skill of being comfortable around punch.
The biggest tips I can give to training on the mitts is to focus on being relaxed and natural. When I train a fighter on the mitts, I stop him right away if he’s not being relaxed or if he’s not being natural. If you’re jerking your head all over the place to avoid the punch, it’s not going to work in the ring. It might work for the first 30 seconds, and then after that you get tired and you won’t be fast enough to use head movement anymore.
Try to relax and focus on getting that rhythm. If it means hitting with less force, then so be it. If it means slowing down the speed of your combinations so you can develop a steady rhythm of simultaneous offense and defense, do it! You might have to get hit a few times because your relaxed movement is not as fast as your herky-jerky movement.
Practice being relaxed on the mitts so that you can relax later in the ring. Relaxed doesn’t mean being lazy or less effort. It means being more effective, and moving your the body way the it was meant to move. If you feel like you can only move your head 5 inches comfortably, stick with that. Find a way to make that 5 inches effective. Make a technical adjustment so that it stays an easy movement. If you make it a physical adjustment and try to slip extra or use more movement, it will always be difficult especially during a fight.
Slip Rope, Slip bag, Double-end Bag
I like these boxing tools because they force you to be aware of attacks coming your way. Even if they don’t force you to slip faster or move better, they at least keep your eyes alert as you throw punches. As I’ve already said before: half the work of avoiding punches is being able to see the punch itself.
At the end of the day, there is nothing better than having a live opponent throwing real punches at you. The best is still slow sparring and mittwork.
I don’t know why some people think it’s effective to practice slipping on the heavy bag. At best, it improves the body coordination to move your head around. But it won’t develop your reflexes and won’t teach you how to develop a fighting rhythm against different opponents.
You can still slip imaginary punches on the heavy bag but do know that it’s practically worthless in terms of developing fighting reflexes. If anything, it’s a good way to get you used to throwing punches from different stances. But then again, great head movement shouldn’t alter your stance too much.
Genius Head Movement
What is great head movement?
Great head movement is so subtle, so clever, unexpected, almost magical. It’s so much more than just trying to avoid a punch. It’s about being able to do so much using so little movement.
Boxing head movement is an art.
I wish, oh how I wish so badly, to be able to teach you how to have great head movement. In fact, if I could teach you how to SEE great head movement, that alone would be enough to eventually get you there.
At the lowest level, head movement is simply avoiding the punch without having to use your hands. And better head movement not only avoids the punch but also delivers the counter at the same time. But then it gets even more precise, you not only setup counters but you can start setting up SPECIFIC counters. And then finally, you can bait a specific punch so that you can deliver specific counters from the position you want at the time you want. (This is how you get knockouts by the way—by landing hard counters when your opponent is turning into them.)
At a higher level, head movement not only messes with the way the opponent punches, it messes with the way he feels. A slick fighter can make you feel like his head is really far but yet he’s able to reach you. Or vice versa, he can make you feel like he’s very close but he’s never there when you try to hit him. He can find holes in your stance where he can place his head close to you without any fear of your counters. You become more afraid as he keeps finding new positions to attack from and you feel like you have no defense from him.
Great head movement can make you second guess yourself as you pull back on your punches or make you trip over your own legs. You want to throw, you’re about to throw and somehow you don’t. You see the guy in front of you but you don’t know where the hell he is.
There’s the kind of head movement where the guy feels slick and hard to hit. And then there’s the kind of head movement where it feels like the guy knows exactly everything you’re about to do. Or maybe that he’s making you do everything he wants you to do. He’s not only controlling his head movements, he seems to be controlling yours too!
Great head movement confuses your opponent and frustrates even the spectators! Great head movement, baits, teases, takes your opponent off balance, delivers the counter, and sets you up in position to do it all over again.