Focus Mitts in VR is an Awesome Workout

By on October 8, 2021

One of the promises of VR fitness is that it can make fitness not only fun, but addictive. On the whole, this hasn’t quite happened yet.

There are plenty of fitness apps available on the standalone Oculus Quest platform, as well as PSVR and SteamVR. The problem is that most of these apps fall into one of two categories:

  • Genuine fitness apps that aren’t that fun
  • Games that have a fitness “element” that really isn’t very intense

The former are games that challenge you to punch glowing orbs or perform squats on cue. These tend to be quite good for working up a sweat, but they lack the true gamification, satisfaction, or immersion that marks the very best video games. These experiences often grow dull quickly and you might even find you prefer running, after a while!

See also: The Future of Fitness 2021 Edition – Humanity 2.0

Then you have games like Beat Saber; amazingly fun and addicting experiences that only burn a few more calories than regular gaming. Some people try to turn these experiences into workouts by putting in more effort, but there’s only so far this can take you.

Virtual Reality Brain Training

Even those “true” fitness apps have their limitations. In particular, they tend not to offer many benefits beyond simple calorie burning. The intensity is still quite low, and there’s not much in the way of meaningful muscle building, improvements to proprioception, etc.

There are one or two exceptions, however, and they come from some unlikely places!

The Benefits of Focus Mitts

Focus Mitt drills are often used by real boxers and martial artists to develop power, speed, reaction times, and technique.

The idea is simple: a coach holds up one or two padded gloves and then calls out a sequence of movements. For example: “jab, cross, left hook.” Or “left hook, right hook, right upper cut.”

Sometimes the names of the strikes are substituted with numbers. Jab, cross, left hook, becomes “1,2,3” and “left hook, right hook, upper cut” is “3,4,6.”

Your job, as the trainee, is to throw out those strikes as quickly as possible without forgetting the sequence or letting your technique breakdown.

Sometimes you will also be tasked with ducking under blows, or bringing up your guard to block. There are plenty of drills available.

There are lots of things that make this an excellent workout. For one, it’s very intensive. Even if you try and relax it’s hard not to get caught up and throw some powerful punches. This is less like a gentle jog and more like a fast run, and you will really feel it inside 10 minutes. You’ll burn a solid number of calories and you’ll ton your shoulders, triceps, and pecs.

The other great thing about this, is that it lets you work on your technique. If you’re at all into boxing or martial arts, then you can focus on twisting the hips properly, keeping your guard up, rotating your fist on impact. You can even film yourself and watch it back. These aren’t junk miles, but an opportunity to work on a useful skill while burning a lot of calories.

On top of all that, it also serves as brain training. You’re effectively playing Simon Says in a high-stress scenario, and potentially using a form of code that adds an extra layer of abstraction. There’s even an element of impulse control, as you must try not to throw a punch before you know what you’re doing.

See also: How to Train Reflexes, Focus, and Decision Making

Knockout League Training Mode: Focus Mitts in VR

Knockout League is an arcade boxing game available for most VR platforms. While a lot of fun, it gets some flack for being less authentic and less of a workout than games like Thrill of the Fight (or even Creed).  

But ever since its “Fitness Update,” Knockout League has had something those games don’t: a full-fleshed-out training mode (Creed has a more basic option).

This is an excellent showcase for what VR fitness can be.

One of the options in this new training mode is focus mitts (how did you know I was going to say that?). And it’s actually really good. After you’ve completed some basic drills, you’ll be able to unlock a survival mode or a timed mode. The mini-game will adjust to your height and there are modifiers you can  select from to get everything just how you like it (you can remove body shots and dodges, or you can switch hands). The game uses the number system, and includes everything from jabs and hooks to body blows and dodges.

focus mitts in VR

This is a great workout for all the reasons I just explained: you’ll burn a lot of calories and you’ll actually have fun doing it. It’s engaging, engrossing, and requires a lot of focus. Use the timed mode for 20-30 minutes and you can easily expect to burn 300 calories while also improving your performance on actual focus mitts.

My last performance with Grant was shocking. I’m hoping I can surprise him by getting regular training in this way!

And if I want to get some mid-to-high intensity cardio in quickly, this a lot more convenient than going outside for a run. There’s even automatic calorie tracking included. Though I personally prefer to use my Apple Watch for that.

The downside is that your technique goes out the window in VR. There’s the fear of smashing something (ever present, even if you are in a clear space), there’s the fear of damaging the controller, and then there’s the fact that you can’t see your own hands. I doubt this would harm your technique, but I don’t think it’s as useful for improving it.

Closing Thoughts

Knockout League is actually a surprisingly comprehensive fitness tool. There are plenty of other drills and modes worth your time, including a heavy bag workout that’s similarly effective and fun (and actually better for burning calories). I also liked “Reflex Alley” which gets you to react differently to different items launched at you. It’s great because it requires reflexes, visual awareness, and actually breaks a sweat.

It’s not perfect, mind you. I wish the aesthetic was a little cooler and less cartoony. That’s a personal preference, for sure, but I would find that more motivating. This is one of the reasons I find Beat Saber so appealing.

See also: REAKT Performance Trainer Review (for Oculus Quest)

The trainer character, Doug Johnson, can also get a little irritating as he only has a few lines of dialogue that you will hear a lot.

Either way, though, it’s great. And it’s definitely one of my favourite VR fitness apps (alongside the excellent Sprint Vector). I wanted to feature this as I don’t think it gets enough attention. You see so many lists of “top VR fitness apps” with all the same culprits that are hardly more taxing than couch gaming. This one is different.

Oculus Quest 2 Brain Training

(There is another VR game that offers focus mitts, that being The Fastest Fist on SteamVR. This one only supports Valve headsets and seems very limited in scope, but the reviews suggest it is a very good workout.)

Mostly, I think this is an excellent showcase for what VR fitness can be. I want to see jogging, crawling, and more implemented in genuinely fun ways. I think VR is going to change fitness forever, and especially when foot tracking and proper pass-through become standard.

So, what do you think guys? Is this something you’re likely to try out? What’s your favourite VR training game?

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Tony says:

    I picked up both this, and Reakt by your recommendation recently. Honestly I’ve been using Knockout’s training mode more than I’ve been playing Thrill of the Fight, which was one of the games that sold me on getting into VR.

    I’m terrible at the focus mitts, I get about 3 callouts in before my eyes glaze over and I forgot what I just heard lol. Unfortunately the same is true for Reakt, I’m constantly losing focus of the bomb pads and just dodging on reflex, we gotta start somewhere though.

    Do you have any thoughts on Stride?

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