Dips Done Right
Aside from ass to grass squats and overhead presses, has there been an exercise as wrongly vilified as dips? Usually, dips serve as one of the great divides between the hardcore strength athletes and the folks they’d deem as the pencil-necked corrective exercise geeks.
Bodybuilders have credited dips for armoring their chest and triceps with dense layers of muscle while some powerlifters and Strongman competitors have boosted their pressing strength by incorporating dips as assistance exercises. Taking a gander at heavily muscled male gymnasts, you’ll note their immensely developed triceps. Think they’re camping out at the cable stack at your local commercial gym performing endless sets of press-downs? Nope. Instead, they’re performing an array of dipping and pressing movements throughout their lengthy practices each day. What about folks who don’t have access to weight rooms but often have a set of parallel bars at their disposal, such as prisoners, members of our armed forces, and bodyweight extraordinaire, Hannibal the King of YouTube fame? They all share one commonality—incredible triceps development.
Conversely, the mesh Polo shirt wearing, clipboard toting, Bosu ball bouncing, hyper analytical, pseudo physical therapist personal trainers have demonized parallel dips, arguing that they destroy the shoulder and elbow joints. While there’s some credence to their argument because parallel dips aren’t advised for individuals such as throwing athletes, those with anterior shoulder instability, and pre-existing elbow pain, they shouldn’t be entirely steered clear of, especially by healthy lifters and athletes.
Performing dips with an extra wide grip should be avoided because they predispose the shoulder to injury by forcing it into near maximal external rotation. This is akin to bench pressing with a really wide grip. Also, performing dips with an extended range of motion in which the biceps and forearms make contact will increase rotation at the shoulder, perhaps contributing to impingement over time. Going really low also overstretches the pectoralis, increasing the likelihood of tearing it.
The triceps (primarily the lateral and medial heads), sternal and clavicular heads of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, scapulothoracic, and core musculature, all work in accord during the movement. The scapulothoracic muscles collectively stabilize the scapulae during the movement, especially as the descent is commenced. The core resists any movement, specifically lateral sway, which occurs right off the bat in lesser experienced lifters and weaker individuals or late in the set when fatigue begins to set in. The pectoralis and anterior deltoids provide the initial push at the bottom while the triceps, along with the aconeus, take over the movement when the elbow approaches 90 degrees of flexion, helping to lock the elbows out to complete the movement. The pectoralis will again be called upon if the parallel bars are spaced apart at shoulder width or if the lifter is executing the dip with a forward torso lean.
How to properly perform dips
Dips, like squats, deadlifts, and seemingly every other movement, can invite injury when the movement is botched. Ideally, before attempting a dip, you should be able to bang out fifty push-ups with strict form consecutively. You should also be free of any pre-existing shoulder or elbow pathology.
First, assume a shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width grip on the parallel bars. Some wall mounted parallel bars flare out at the ends. Avoid grasping this part. Selectorized assisted pull-up and dip machines will typically have handles that rotate and lock into place, allowing you to go wide or narrow, depending on your preference. Flip the handles inward to keep the hand placement narrow, at least initially.
If there isn’t a foot plate or step attached to the machine or located below the parallel bars, situate a low plyometric box, stack of plates, or aerobic steppers beneath the bars. Alternatively, you can grasp the parallel bars and jump into place.
Once you’re atop the parallel bars with your elbows locked out, perform the following before descending:
- Inhale while simultaneously bracing the core and locking the hips into extension. If the parallel bars are high off the ground, you may keep your knees extended. If not (or if you’re freakishly tall), bend your knees, crossing one foot over the other, to keep them from hitting the ground.
- Keep the chin tucked and squeeze the shoulder blades together. This will prevent any scapular elevation or excessive shoulder extension from occurring.
- Using the handles, pull yourself down slowly, as if you’re rowing the handles to your chest. Do not drop down.
- Keep a slight forward lean. Allow your torso to “drift” away from the handles slightly. This helps balance the stress imposed on the shoulders and elbows equally because now they’ll be stacked atop each other.
- Descend to the point of a stretch, not pain. Ideally, you should feel a slight stretch of both heads of the pectoralis major as well as the anterior deltoid. You should not sink below where the elbow achieves 90 degrees of flexion or where the back of your arm is parallel with the ceiling.
- Exhale while driving with the heel of the palm to initiate the push of the anterior delts and chest. Focus on pushing the bars down and away from you as if you’re scaling a fence.
- Continue to exhale while you extend the elbows. There isn't any need to forcefully lock out the elbows.
- It should be noted that maximal elbow extension torque doesn't occur near full extension. Instead, it takes place when the elbow is at 90 degrees of flexion. Multi-joint pressing movements such as the dip suggest that the length of a muscle, not leverage, determines the point in the range of motion where elbow extension torque naturally occurs (1). For the bodybuilders and lifters seeking hypertrophic development of the long head of the triceps, it should be noted that the long head doesn't possess an optimal length/tension relationship during 90 degrees of elbow flexion with minimal shoulder flexion. Instead, it occurs at close to 90 degrees of elbow flexion and full shoulder flexion.
- If you aren't strong enough to perform dips, don't use the platform attachment of assisted pull-up and dip machines. They don't optimally accommodate the strength curve of the exercise. Instead, wrap bands around the handles and position yourself inside the bands. The contribution of the machine is continuous whereas the bands will provide you a boost from where you’re generally the weakest—the bottom.
- Alternatively, you may use the bands to overload the movement by wrapping them over your shoulders behind the neck.
- With regards to loading, vests are a better option if your shoulder integrity isn’t up to par. Having plates attached to a belt will actively pull you down, pushing your shoulders into extension and forcing them into internal rotation while stretching the joint capsule and forcing the upper back to round a bit more. As you get stronger, it’s best to balance the load with a vest and a belt.
- Firmly grasping the handles, which are typically thicker than barbells, will not only bolster your crushing grip but will also prevent lateral elbow pain and increase neural drive to the muscles of the rotator cuff, which dynamically stabilizes the head of the humerus allowing for smoother articulation of the shoulder joint during the movement.
- Dips should not replace bench pressing variations, which include board presses, pin presses, floor presses, and presses with variable resistance in a powerlifting training program. However, they are awesome as an accessory movement, during a deload, or as a great finisher when performed with body weight only. For bodybuilders, dips are safer when wanting to move heavy loads while training alone and may be used as a main pressing movement within one’s program temporarily or permanently.
Dips, when performed correctly, are one of the most potent movements for developing the chest and triceps and boosting pressing strength. Adhere to the aforementioned guidelines and watch your upper body grow and your bench numbers soar.
- Neumman DA (2002) Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.