Exercise Essentials, Part 6: Dip

In this series of posts, I am outlining several of the most basic lifts with which every lifter should be familiar.  I consider them the cornerstones of intermediate and advanced exercise programming.

See also – Part 1: SquatPart 2: DeadliftPart 3: Chin-UpPart 4: Overhead Press, Part 5: Row

What is a dip?

The dip, also referred to as the parallel dip or parallel bar dip, is performed using a set of parallel bars or similar handles.  Hold yourself above the bars with arms fully extended.  Lower body between the bars until upper arms are approximated parallel to the floor.  Press back up.  Like chin-ups, dips may be performed with bodyweight only or with external loading via a dip belt, weight vest, or weight held in the feet.

Arnold doing weighted dips

Arnold doing weighted dips

Why do dips?

The dip is a monster upper body exercise which recruits the chest and triceps as prime movers and many others as stabilizers and accessory muscles.  Due to the near vertical nature of the force, the dip reduces the action of the front delts (shoulders) in the push, putting more stress on the pectorals (chest).  The dip may be the best overall chest AND tricep builder, depending on the amount of forward body lean used.

Types of dips

Like rows, dips are more easily categorized by variables than discrete exercises.  Here are some of the possibilities.

  • Angle of forward lean – The more upright the body is held, the less emphasis is placed on the chest (and the more stress is put on the shoulder joint).  Very upright dips are often called “triceps dips” for this reason.  More forward lean increases the chest recruitment and usually increases the amount of weight can be used.

    triceps dips

    Triceps dips - note upright torso

  • Width of Grip – The wider the bars, the more chest involvement in the exercises.  Some dip equipment have handles which rotate to increase or decrease the width.
  • Alternative Equipment – In place of parallel bars, other equipment may be used for a similar action.  Certain assisted-dip machines (which support some of your body weight to make the exercise easier) may be used for people working up to real dips.  Bands may also be used for this purpose (wrap them around the bars and under your feet to support some of your weight).  Finally, parallel rings may be used to turn regular dips into ridiculously hard dips.  Seriously, these things are killer.  The free movement of the rings requires  huge amount of chest and stabilizer involvement.

    ring dips

    Ring dips - killer!

  • What about chair or bench dips? These are very popular for some reason (I think it’s because they’re easier…), and they focus heavily on the triceps. Unfortunately, they also are very tough on your shoulders. I do not recommend. Perform on parallel bars with a more upright torso if you must emphasize the triceps.

Performing dips correctly

  • Use a full range of motion – Each repetition should begin with elbows at nearly full extension (but not quite locked), and scapulae (shoulder blades) protracted (not pushed together).  Lower yourself until upper arms are parallel to the floor, but not lower.
  • Respect your depth – Don’t go much below parallel (as noted above).  Get too deep and you run the risk of pulling a pec (I’ve done it.  It sucks.)  My general coaching cue here is: “Don’t hang on your chest at the bottom.”  If you relax at the bottom and allow your chest muscles to stretch as they passively support you, you may be in for trouble.
  • Tuck your chin – At higher difficulty levels, lifters tend to want to stick their head and neck forward.  Keep your head back and neck in neutral position.
  • Hold your body angle – You may be prone to alter your torso angle as you tire, which changes the nature of the exercises.  Be conscious of maintaining your chosen torso angle throughout.

Summary

Take home points on overhead pressing

  • The dip may be the best chest and tricep builder.
  • Depending on your torso angle, you can emphasize the chest more vs the triceps.
  • For a true challenge, try dips on parallel rings, rather than bars.