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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
October 18, 2021
Push-ups are a great exercise, and we love them. However, if we could only choose one bodyweight movement for pushing, it would definitely be the dip. In fact, even when compared to weight-based movements, the dip still reigns as one of the top upper body pushing movements. If that wasn't enough, there are actually numerous dip variations that make it the perfect pushing exercise for anyone. Beginners, advanced, elderly; even variations that make it possible to train the dip at home (If anyone ever told you that you can't train dips at home, they're wrong)
"When you dip, I dip, we dip". No, the dip exercise is not the 1996 hip-hop classic by Freak Nasty (but you can listen to "Da Dip" when you train if you want). Traditional dips are a bodyweight exercise that involves lowering your total body (feet off the ground) downward while your hands hold onto two parallel bars. This movement includes flexion at the elbow and extension at the shoulder while the core and other back muscles stabilize the body. Dips are generally performed with hands just outside the body and elbows kept tucked in. However, numerous variations of this alter this position slightly and may have your legs supported or even out in front of you.
Either way, the defining trademark of a dip is that your hands are pushing down the side of your body. Compare this with a push up which has you pushing horizontally and away from your body.
When comparing its functional capacity, let's pretend you're running from the cops. If you trip and fall, push-ups will help you push off the ground and get back up. You continue running, but you get to a fence you need to get over. To do that, you grab the top, jump, and then push your body up so that you can swing your legs over. That's where the dip helps you.
Dips are one of the best upper-body pushing exercises. Therefore, the main movers are going to be your pushing muscles. This includes your pectorals, deltoids, and triceps.
The triceps muscles are the primary movers in the dip exercise. This is due to the huge range of motion. Further, the pectorals are worked to a higher degree during horizontal abduction (as in a push-up). This means that the triceps are working more to compensate for the loss of activation. In fact, some studies have shown the triceps have close to 2x the activation of the pectorals in dips.
Related: Best Lateral Head Tricep Exercises
The primary job of the pectorals in the dip exercise is shoulder flexion. Even though the pectorals have higher activation during horizontal adduction, dips still give your pecs a serious workout. Still, there are several variables that you can change, such as grip width and body posture, to get greater activation in the pectoral muscles. In fact, the same study above shows the pectorals getting slightly more activation than the triceps during wide-grip dips (however, activation of the triceps was still greater than the pectoral activation in the traditional dip).
The deltoid muscles are also used for shoulder flexion. As your body goes down, the humerus will move upwards behind the body. To come back up, as the triceps extend the elbow, the deltoids will flex the shoulder, driving the humorous back down and forward. The shoulder's involvement can be affected more or less depending on keeping the elbow stationary during the movement (see below).
Dips bring a slew of awesome benefits. In fact, every one of their benefits alone is enough reason to make them a normal part of your training. However, you're lucky enough to get all of them. Here are the top benefits of dips.
1) Highly Scalable With Numerous Variations
Obviously, dips are a fantastic exercise to improve your upper body strength and put on muscle mass. However, its effectiveness evolves from the fact that you are lifting your total body weight. Unfortunately, this means that the traditional dip can be quite challenging. However, as you'll learn below, this isn't a problem as there are plenty of variations and progressions that you can use to meet your skill level.
In fact, if you're one who can already knock out 10+ reps easily, there are plenty of versions that are actually harder! All in all, there is a variation of dips for every skill level.
2) Awesome Exercise To Build Muscle And Strength
Performing dips regularly are going to be a massive asset to any program and result in impressive gains. They are a multi-joint exercise that uses a serious amount of muscle mass. In reality, dips are a full-body as they require every muscle in the body to execute.
First, you have the primary muscles that are responsible for moving the body. Because you are lifting your entire body, this means a considerable load is placed on your musculature. This massive weight results in higher muscle activation and force output.
Secondly, you have your stabilizing muscles that include your upper back. These muscles fire isometrically to primarily stabilize the scapula. As mentioned above, this is required to provide a stable base to push from.
Third, you have virtually every other muscle, including the core, firing to stabilize the rest of the body and minimize movement. These muscles will keep your body from swaying and enable you to perform the exercise.
All of this muscle activation results in a serious mass builder,
3) Easy To Do Wherever You Are
While you need a bit more equipment than you would with push-ups, dips are very easy to do just about anywhere, as long as you continue reading below to see the multiple variations.
Traditional dips will require two parallel bars to perform correctly. However, some variations only need one, and you don't HAVE to have parallel bars. For example, if you find a tree with a fork in the branches (assuming it can hold your body weight), you can use that.
However, there are also versions that you can perform with a home workout as they only require everyday household items such as chairs or a soft. Even further, there is a variation that doesn't need anything! Read below to find out!
4) Improve Your Athleticism
There is something about seeing someone who is able to perform body-weight movements with ease. It shows that not only are they strong, they are bit and have high levels of neuromuscular control. Being able to do body weight exercises with high reps probably has a higher correlation with the body type most guys want to have. Fast, strong, muscular, and athletic.
5) The Most Important Cues For Dips
As you continue below, you're going to learn variations of dips. Many of these differ to a degree so that they have specialized instructions. However, there are a few key points that apply to every dip variation you do. These are very important to maintain healthy joints and muscles, so we want to take the time to discuss them now.
Obviously, you just grab the bar and rip out 20 dips, right? Well, you could but you might be at the risk of damaging the tendons and ligaments of your wrist. Knowing where to hold the bar during dips is not only going to help save your wrist; it's going to give you a much more solid base to push off of.
Eluded to above, many trainees will naturally grab the bar without thinking. When doing this, the instinctive place to put the bar is near the palm of your hand. Let's do an experiment real quick to see how this will play out.
Stick your arm out straight in front of you and look at your hand. Now imagine that the bar is near the palm of your hand. As you will need to be pushing from this, you will need to bend your wrist backward for the bar to support your weight. Take two fingers of your other hand, place them near the palm of your hand, and push back until there is enough tension to push from. You were most likely able to bend your wrist to about a 90-degree angle, yea? Now imagine your wrist in this position but supporting your entire body; not good.
Placing the bar in the palm of the hand will cause extreme flexion at the wrist with a hefty load. If you continue to do this for an extended period, you will destroy your wrist joint and cause damage to the ligaments and tendons there. Further, the flexion will not be easy to generate force from as it is not stable.
Instead of doing that, you want to place the bar in the crook of your thumb so that the bar lays across the lower meaty section of your hand. Stick your hand up again except now place your other two fingers in the curve between your thumb and pointer. Here, you can pull back, and there's no flexion of the wrist. Why? Because you are ultimately placing the bar directly below your forearm. Instead of the pressure being placed on your hand, which requires flexion before you can push from, the pressure is going straight up into the bones of the forearm, the radius, and the ulna.
When you go to grab the bar for dips, first have your wrists extended so that your hands are straight out and thumbs out. Next, have your palms facing the bar and start by putting your fingertip on the bar. Then, allow your hand to push straight until the bar catches in that crook. Lastly, simply wrap your fingers around the bar. Many trainees will notice an immediate improvement of stability before they even put any weight on it. This position may feel odd at first as if you are over-reaching, but it'll feel more natural the more you do it.
To fully benefit from dips, you want to ensure you perform them with an optimal range of motion. Going down until your triceps are slightly below parallel will suffice for the vast majority of people. While some recommendations can have people going significantly lower, the reward vs. risk ratio begins to drop. As you begin to go lower than parallel, stress on your shoulder joint will begin to increase significantly, increasing the risk of injury.
While some people can go extremely low, your best bet is to stick to a more conservative range of motion. Descend until your triceps slightly pass parallel and then come back up.
Keep your forearms vertical during dips! OR Keep your elbows stationary!
This piece of advice is true for any version of the dip you do. A common error during dips is when an individual comes down, their forearm will angle backward, thus moving the elbow backward. What this does is essentially make your body drop straight down. This will effectively take the stress off the triceps and transfer it to the shoulder. Now, instead of having flexion only at the elbow, there is more movement at the shoulder joint.
Instead, what you want to do is keep the elbow stationary the entire movement. To come down, the humerus (upper arm bone) will be the only section of the arm moving. The humerus will come forward thus bringing your body down. More importantly, flexion only occurs at the elbow, meaning that elbow extension (the triceps) is the primary movement to bring the body up. So when you come down, you want your forearm to stay vertical and the flexion to occur because the humerous comes down.
There are two main variations of a dip - a chest dip and a tricep dip. While both types of dips target your chest, delts and triceps, certain dips emphasize the chest and certain dips hone in on the triceps. In the simplest sense, dips that involve keeping your torso upright and your hands at your sides or behind you will hone in the triceps, while dips that involve you leaning your torso forward will emphasize your pectoral muscles.
With that understanding, bench dips are mainly for your triceps and front delts, whereas parallel bar dips can be tricep or chest emphasized depending on how you position your body.
This will be clear as we go through the dip variations below.
One thing about dips is they are challenging. Very challenging. Think about doing a push-up and then realizing your feet are off the ground and you're lifting your entire body weight. Therefore, many trainees can't actually perform a full dip when they first start training. No worries, though; we got you covered. Just remember that these variations are only the beginning as you will want to implement progressive overload to progress to more challenging variations.
As mentioned above, there are numerous versions of the dip, which include variations for beginners. The main component of these is that your body weight will be supported to some extent.
Here are the best beginner dip variations.
Bench dips are performed on a bench (clever name). However, there are actually two different variations that you can perform.
Bench Dips Using One Bench
Using one bench is usually the way this exercise is performed. This version requires you to first sit on the edge of a bench with your feet off to one side. You will then place your feet out on the floor and place your hands on the edge of the bench so that your fingers can wrap around. The most important aspect is to have the meat of your hand on the edge.
You will then push your body up and move your butt off the edge. Next, lower your body straight down, keeping your elbows back. Your forearms should be straight up and down the entire movement. Lower your body down as far as you can go comfortably and come back up. Ideally, you want to come down far enough so that your upper arm becomes parallel with the ground.
Bench Dips Using Two Benches
When using two benches, set them up so they are parallel and the edges flush with one another. Again, place your hands on the edge of the bench. Next, you perform the same movement as with one bench but instead of having your butt forward in front of your hands, come down so that your butt comes down in between your hands.
This version may be more comfortable for some trainees who have issues with shoulder mobility.
For both of these versions, you can alter the intensity with the placement of your legs. Having your legs closer to the bench, resulting in bent knees, will be easier to do as you won't be lifting as much bodyweight. On the other hand, placing your legs out further will become harder, with the hardest position being having your legs fully extended.
Chair dips are virtually the same as the two bench variations except for one major difference...you use chairs! While this may seem trivial, chances are you have two chairs at your house, making this the perfect option for a home workout!
To perform chair dips, ideally you use two chairs of the same model. This is to ensure that the seat height is the same. If you don't have two of the same model for some reason, use two that have a similar seat height. Also, using chairs without armrests is definitely the way to go as they can get in the way of the movement.
Set the two chairs so they are even and slightly wider than your body width. Next, you will get in between the chairs and kneel down so that you can set up your hands on the edge of the seat. Again, the meat of your palms should be on the edge of the seat.
Once in position, perform in the same manner as the bench dip.
Assisted dips are dips done with assistance (again, very clever name). In reality, there are multiple ways to perform assisted dips. We will go over three versions ranked from good to best (none of them are bad!)
Machine Assisted Dips
Machine assisted dips are done using the pull-up/dip assistance machine. These machines will have a pad that can be pulled out which will support your knees. However, the pad is also attached to a weight stack with numerous weight settings, similar to other machines. However, instead of being the resistance that is pushed, the weight is the force pulling the pad up. What this means is that when you get on, the machine will make you lighter. For example, if you weigh 200lbs and the weight stack is set to 40lbs, you must generate 160lbs of force to come up.
While the support pad makes dips possible for beginners, it's also the one negative in that it does what it's supposed to and gives support. Doing so takes away the requirement of stabilizing muscles to do their job. Therefore, the movement will never truly mimic the movement.
However, it's a great option for trainees who are just starting to be introduced to the movement IF they plan on decreasing the weight used. Machine-assisted dips are only a temporary stepping stone to help you do unassisted dips. That is the ultimate goal so as long as you continue to decrease the assisting weight, machine-assisted dips are fantastic.
Dips With Resistance Bands
Dips with resistance bands serve the same purpose as machine-assisted dips but are a bit more challenging as the extra support they offer is not very stable. While the bands will lift you up vertically, your body can still sway back and forth as well as side to side. This means those stabilizing muscles will have a better chance at learning how to fire correctly to perform the dip.
Using a high-quality set of elastic resistance bands makes it easy to adjust the desired level of help they give. These power bands from Set For Set are what you're looking for. Simple, highest-quality, and friendly on the wallet. Buying the set will give you more options to use to implement progressive overload. In the case of dips with resistance bands, progression means using a smaller band. Again, the goal of these is to do dips unassisted.
Partner Assisted Dips
Partner-assisted dips will require a partner as their job will be to use their hands to support your feet. These are perhaps the most complicated as you're working with another person (Set For Set loves people BUT more people can complicate anything) and the load won't be consistent. However, this challenge can possibly make them more productive as you'll need to compensate for them. Still, if you choose to use a partner, be sure they are skilled and familiar with the exercise so they can actually help you.
In our opinion, jumping parallel bar dips are the best beginner dip variation as they mimic the movement best. Jumping dips consist of jumping to help lift your body up and extend your elbows, followed by a controlled eccentric. You will then let your feet come down to the ground and repeat.
We like jumping dips because there is zero support from anything, thus requiring your core and stabilizing muscles to take control. Further, the eccentric portion is exactly like that of a normal dip. This makes it the ideal choice to prepare for a full dip.
However, jumping dips are also easily scalable. This can be done two ways;
Regardless of how high the bars are OR how much effort you use when jumping, always use maximal effort in pressing up. If you just jump with no forceful arm extension, you are not going to train the extensor muscles (triceps, pectorals, deltoids)
Another significant benefit with jumping dips is you must perform the eccentric with no resistance. This will train you to control your own body weight.
This will apply to both bench dip variations as well as the chair dips. The first progression of this exercise will have you do bench or chair dips but with your feet elevated off the floor. When setting up this exercise, everything will be exactly the same as the original variation, except now you will need an extra object to support to elevate your legs. Place the chair out so that you can place your heels on it when your legs are fully extended. However, you want your heels to be near the edge of the seat so that your legs can angle downwards as you descend. When performing this exercise, you want your hips to flex so that your butt can touch the floor. However, you want your back and legs to make a "V". Descend and then come back up.
After you master this progression, you will then place weight on your body to increase the load. Anything will work, but something flat, like a weight plate, will work best. Place the weight on your lower abdomen, just above your hip crease. This will allow your hips to still flex while also acting as a "shelf" when you go down.
Triceps dips are what most of us think about when we say dips and can be done on any two parallel bars. So what makes a triceps dip a triceps dip? It has to do with positioning your body to put the most stress on the triceps.
From being fully extended at the top of the movement, you will flex your arms to allow your body to come down. While ensuring your forearms stay straight, you will allow your torso to lean forward just enough to allow flexion at the elbow. Again, keep the forearm straight and the elbow stationary. The movement should occur above the elbow.
Further, keep your elbows tucked in close. Remember above we said that the pectoral muscles will become more active with horizontal abduction if you allow your elbows to flare. You don't want that to happen. Therefore, keep them tucked in as you come down until your upper arm is parallel with the ground.
The Gironda dip is a variation of the dips that will place more emphasis on the pectorals. This movement is named after a famed bodybuilder active in the late 1940s and 1950s Vincent Anselmo "Vince" Gironda. Not only was he successful at bodybuilding, his gym "Vince's gym' was famous for attracting celebrities and other successful bodybuilders whom he coached. This included the king of bodybuilding Arnold Schwarzenegger who actually claims to have used Gironda Dips to build his chest.
Gironda had unique ideas for training and diet at the time, such as claiming the bench press isn't the greatest chest developer and trained with what we now call "Guillotine Presses" as the barbell comes down to the neck with elbows flared. Un-oh, that's the number one rule-breaker when benching!
What he knew intuitively at the time was the pectorals have higher activation levels during horizontal adduction. He used this same principle with dips which led to this version, the Gironda Dip.
Instead of being erect at the top of the movement, you will have moderate flexion in the hips and your chin tucked to your chest. As you come down, you will allow your upper back to rotate forward so that your chest is facing towards the ground more. As you go down, you will allow your elbows to flare out, which will create horizontal abduction to activate the pecs.
Now, that being said, this is an advanced version and should only be trained by those who have sufficient strength for body control. Further, start the movement with minimal flare until you become more familiar with the exercise.
Any movement you do on rings is instantly going to be more challenging. Push-ups, row, planks, and of course, dips. The reason is that while the ring itself is stable, it hangs from a rope or strap, meaning that it can sway. This ability to swing freely requires your muscles to fire even harder to maintain control. For instance, not only do you need to provide a downward force to propel yourself up, you must also fight the ring's movement from moving forward, backward, or out to the side. These other forces require the higher activation that is seen in instability work.
When using rings, you still need to pay attention to your grip. Many trainees (even those who are skilled with dips) have the tendency to wrap their hands around the rings too much. You still want to have the ring sit tight in the crook of where your thumb and hand meet so that your wrists can point downward with minimal flexion,
If needed, you can perform ring dips in the same manner as the chair dips or two bench variations from above.
Wide-grip dips are performed with parallel bars, but they will be separated more than normal dips. This extra distance will prevent you from keeping your elbows tucked in, which will result in you to allow your elbows to flare some. As mentioned several times above, this is going to recruit more muscle activation from the chest. Wide-grip dips can be very challenging and can place more stress on the shoulder. Therefore, only advanced trainees should attempt these, and you should also gradually use wider and wider grips.
Note: Most dip/pull up machines at gyms have parallel bars that can be made wider or more narrow. Set them to the wider position to do wide-grip dips. It's that simple!
Side-to-side dips are going to get you massive gains as they will essentially mimic one-arm dips, or at least as much as possible. The setup is precisely the same as normal dips with the variation occurring during the descent. Instead of coming down evenly, you are going to let your body drift towards one side. This is going to transfer a greater percentage of your body weight to that arm. Once you are down, you will push back up. While you won't have much choice, focus on using that arm, pushing with that arm more.
There are two ways you can do this with one variation being slightly harder.
Around the world dips is a progression of side-to-side dips. Everything is exactly the same, except when you get to the bottom of a rep, you will push your boy over to the other side. Once you're over to the other side, you will push yourself up thus, doing a circle. Again, you can alter the direction of each rep or go the same way.
These are very difficult and require significant levels of strength and total body control to be able to complete. This is an incredible variation to set as a goal that you can progress to.
L-sits aren’t necessarily a dip but there’s a reason we are including them. L-sits are the only variation in which you can do with literally no equipment meaning you can do them anywhere. Plus, they’re a killer core workout. L-sits are performed by holding your body up and then bringing your legs up to make an “L”. While these are normally performed on rings or dips bars, you can perform them merely by pushing your hands into the ground or finding any type of object to place your hand on. The lower you are to ground will make these significantly harder as they require full extension of the arms and allow a very small room for error with your leg height.
Further, if you do have dip bars or rings, you can then perform an L-sit followed by doing dips in the same position.
Weighted dips simply refer to using some type of external loading mechanism to increase the intensity of dips. The most common and convenient method is to use a dip belt. A dip belt isn't actually a "belt" as it consists of a soft waist strap with a chain attached to one end and a metal loop attached to the other. This allows you to thread the chain through a weight plate and attach it to the metal loop. You want to place the waist strap around your waist above your hips as that when the weight lowers, it will catch. Once the weight is settled, you can then go ahead and mount your dip station.
If you don't have a belt, you can use your feet to hold onto a dumbbell. This method is more challenging but will get the job done if needed.
Weighted dips are amazing and will build some serious mass and strength. When strength training, stick to the 4-6 rep range with these. You can use this method with any form of dips as well.
A straight bar dip is rarely seen but if you can do them, do them. The most obvious difference with these is that you only need one bar as opposed to two. Now, instead of having your arms out to the side, they're going to be in front of your body, drastically altering your body's biomechanics.
The first effect you will notice is that these require an insane amount of stabilization from the core. This is because the bar is acting like a pendulum that your body wants to rotate under. You're ok (relative) at the top of the movement with arms fully extended; you're ok (relative) since your shoulders can be directly over the bar with vertical arms. However, as you come down, your shoulders must come out slightly as your arms flex to lower the body. Since the weight is off-centered now, physics will correct it by having your body swing under the bar.
The second major effect the difference in biomechanics will have is your arms will be out in front of you. As you come down, it will be much more difficult for your elbows to come straight backwards due to the pendulum effect above. Therefore, your arms will flare out to the sides more so than traditional dips. While there are no studies, we can safely assume that this will cause higher activation in your chest.
The best way to begin learning this movement is using a Smith Machine to set the bar, which will allow you to choose the height. You can start with the bar between your chest and belly button. Here, the bar will be low enough for you to perform a dip with your feet on the floor.
Muscle-ups are the granddaddy of upper-body weight movements. Technically, the muscle-up combines two movements; a powerful sternum pull-up which transitions into a straight bar dip.
However, we want to include it as it requires a significant amount of power to "muscle yourself up" and over the bar. For most trainees, the most challenging part is during the transition between the pull-up and straight bar dip as it requires you to be able to do a straight bar dip from a very low position. Therefore, it requires advanced abilities to perform the straight bar dip. Still, once you get to the top, you can continue to come back down and perform another muscle up OR stay up top and perform straight bar dips.
To do muscle ups, you'll first need to master the straight bar dip. At the same time, you're practicing straight bar dips, you'll want to practice sternum pull-ups. Sternum pull-ups are pull-ups where you basically pull your body up as high as possible and try to get the bar to reach sternum level at a minimum. Once you feel ready, you will want to start with jumping muscle ups that use a lower bar that allows you to jump to help propel yourself up. If possible, you will raise the bar height so you're able to contribute less and less from the jump. Do this until you feel ready and give it a try.
The optimal frequency to train a muscle group seems to be twice a week. To be clear, the main driver of increasing muscle hypertrophy is load. This means that when the volume is equated, it doesn't matter if you train once a week or four times a week. However, in real-world situations, you can produce a greater quality volume when you train more frequently. While three-time might be beneficial, you have other muscles to train so stick to twice a week!
Still, this needs to be addressed. Training a muscle group twice a week doesn't mean only using the same exercises. For example, training dips and the incline bench group count as the same muscle group. However, dips are an effective exercise for muscle mass and muscle hypertrophy; they should definitely be involved in every session you train your pushing muscles. Further, you can use different body dips, weighted dips, wide-grip dips, or straight bar dips.
You should train dips across a wide rep and loading spectrum. First, the load will be a combination of your weight and any type of external loading or assistance you use. Therefore, we really can't give you a load as dips rely on relative strength, which is different for everyone AND your body can change. Therefore, depending on how many reps you can do, below are what to do for two sessions. Notice one session is heavier while the other lighter.
1. For trainees who need assistance Or can only do 1-3 reps
- Session A w/ assistance: 4-6 reps
- Session B w/ assistance: 8-12 reps2.
2. For trainees who can <8 reps-
- Session A w/ assistance: 10-12 reps
- Session B w/ body weight: 80-90% max
3. For trainees who can do 8-15 reps
- Session A w/ external load: 4-8 reps
- Session B w/ body weight: 80-90% max
4. For trainees who can do 15+
- Session A w/ external load: 4-8 reps
- Session B: Train a more difficult variation (wide-grip, straight bar, down to one side, around the world)
All of the groups should use 3 sets using approximately 2:00 of rest.
Lyrics from another 90's classic really hits the mark, this time coming from the 69 Boyz. Above, you have learned why you should dip, how you should dip, different ways to dip, and how training looks with dips. Now you just need to dip!
Get ready to put on incredible mass, increase your strength and increase your overall athleticism.
Related: 9 Best Alternatives to Dips
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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