The modern neighborhood “fitness center” is quite the place. Typically they’re big, often the size of airport hangars, and filled with row after row of scientific-looking machines designed to entice the latest herd of January “resolutionaries” into forking over their Christmas money.
But while all this high tech equipment may look promising, the results it delivers simply pales in comparison to that of the boring old school weight training staples.
The dip is a perfect example. It’s as basic as it gets – two parallel bars, without so much as a padded seat or terminal to hook up your iPad – but it’s second to none when it comes to building a meaty set of triceps. Take that, Planet Fitness.
However, dips aren’t easy. I’ll never forget the first time I attempted a triceps dip on parallel bars.
I’d signed up to take weight training my freshman year of high school and had already been messing around at home with push-ups and some barbell work. I could even squeeze out a few pull-ups by that point, so I was confident that a dip or two would be no big deal.
One day while a couple of the older guys were working on dips, I decided to jump in and give it a go. I grabbed hold of the handles, climbed to the top position and braced myself for my first dip.
Now the great thing about bodyweight exercises (like dips) is that they require a unique type of strength and stability; moving your body through space against a fixed object is different from manipulating weight with your body held in place. I quickly discovered that firsthand once I began lowering myself down.
When I got to the bottom of the rep, it felt like someone punched me in the sternum. Rather than being able to press myself back up, I instead fell to the ground, recoiling in pain.
Everyone in the iron game gets humbled from time to time – that was my first major one. The couple of kids in gym class who could do a dip suddenly seemed like superhuman deities.
Tri, Tri Again
I didn’t let that first pathetic experience deter me. I practiced bench dips, did some triceps extensions, and kept trying. And a few weeks later, I got my first real dip. Success!
Since then I’ve done, let’s say, many dips and learned a bunch of different variations, and there are endless ways to keep them fresh and challenging. (Virtually any time you use your arms to press your body while in an upright position, it’s a dip.) This article will outline a few of my favorites.
A great way to progress towards full dips (and avoid humiliation) is by first practicing with your feet resting on the ground. This is typically accomplished by placing your hands on a bench or other object positioned behind the back, with your hands in a pronated (palms down) grip. Make sure to hold your chest up high and try not to let your shoulders shrug.
Though some coaches decry the bench dip due to potential rotator cuff strain, it’s only unsafe for individuals who’ve had previous shoulder issues, and hopefully anyone who’s been injured in the past has learned their lesson and knows to tread carefully.
Another group that may have issues with bench dips is the severely overweight, so if your waistline is larger than the circumference of your chest, focus on dropping some pounds before you give dips a shot.
For everyone else, I recommend the bench dip to get a feel for the movement pattern, though I’d suggest keeping the range of motion fairly conservative to limit stress on the rotator cuff. Don’t go deeper than 90 degrees at your elbows.
Parallel Bar Dips
The jump from bench dips to parallel bar dips can be a big hurdle. You’ll likely need to be able to do at least twenty bench dips before you’ll manage even one dip on the parallel bars.
Most guys can get their first parallel bar dip fairly quickly, though it can take longer for some. However, once you get that first one, don’t be in a rush to move ahead until your form is near perfect. And there are a lot of subtleties to performing a textbook parallel bar dip.
First, you need to tilt your torso forward a bit to maintain proper shoulder alignment when performing parallel bar dips. Your elbows should stay approximately over your hands, so your shoulders will wind up in front of them.
You can vary the degree to which you do this, and doing so can change which muscles are emphasized – the more you lean forward, the more you’re working your chest; the more upright you stay, the more you’re working your triceps.
Trying to stay totally vertical is not advised, however, as doing so can put unnecessary strain on your shoulders.
Also, remember to stay mindful of keeping your abs engaged and maintaining a tight body throughout the range of motion. You don’t want your hips or legs to swing at all during your dips. Some people will find that keeping a slight bend in the knees and/or crossing the ankles can help maintain stability.
When doing parallel bar dips, you want to achieve a minimum of 90 degrees of flexion as measured along the outside of your elbow, which is deeper than most people realize.
If you have healthy shoulders and can increase the range of motion without discomfort, feel free to go all the way down until the bars are practically in your armpits. Make sure to come to a full extension at the top of each rep, too.
Though people have varying levels of mobility, I’m a big proponent of using as large of a range of motion as is safe and practical. Squeeze the most you can out of every rep.
It’s also worth noting that the distance between the bars and thickness of the grip will affect the difficulty of the exercise. Beginners are better off using thinner bars spaced fairly far apart (20-24 inches), while thick bars and bars that are positioned closer together (anything closer than 18 or 19 inches) will increase the difficulty.
Straight Bar Dips
One of the more challenging dip variations, the straight bar dip, is also one of the most specific precursors to the muscle-up. Don’t start working on them until you can do a set of at least ten consecutive dips on the parallel bars.
As the name implies, the straight bar dip is performed with both hands on a single straight bar positioned in front of the body. Your grip should be within a few inches of the width of your hips, though you can experiment with wider or closer hand positions. Like a bench press, close grips tend to be more difficult.
When you do a parallel bar dip, you dip in between the bars, but when you dip on a straight bar, your body must move around the bar. As you lower yourself down, you’ll need to lean over the bar and reach your legs out in front a bit to keep balance. This causes further abdominal activation while demanding more from the shoulders and traps.
Speaking of which, don’t let your shoulders shrug as you lower yourself down, and pay attention that your arms don’t flare out to the sides. Your elbows should point behind you at the bottom of the rep.
Just like parallel dips, make sure you get all the way down when you dip on a straight bar. You should aim to touch your chest to the bar and achieve the same 90-degree angle outside of your elbows at the bottom of each rep.
A Korean dip is a behind-the-back dip on a straight bar. It’s almost like the bench dip, except with your feet in the air.
As it’s one of the hardest dip variations, I suggest getting very comfortable with the others before attempting the Korean dip. You should be able to perform at least 20 consecutive parallel bar dips first, and be comfortable doing conventional straight bar dips.
Because it is difficult to control your body from this angle, you’ll need to focus on engaging your abs and lower back muscles to stabilize during Korean dips. Also feel free to experiment with both underhand as well as overhand grips.
Having the bar behind you can give your shoulders a deep stretch, so make sure you’re warmed up. It also helps to keep your hamstrings and glutes contracted. The Korean dip is truly a full body exercise.
Dips in Action
To help you connect the dots, here’s a video of these variations:
Less Lip, More Dip
Still too easy? If you’re a dipping machine and can bang out reps with even the toughest variations, there are other ways to challenge yourself, mix things up, and continue progressing.
You can crank up the volume and go for 100+ dips in a single workout, or try doing weighted dips using a dip belt or vest. You could even attempt plyometric variations like clapping dips. Bottom line, you have no excuse to be “bored” with dips, and for the sake of your triceps, chest, and shoulder development, they ought to be a part of your training in one way or another.
Dips may not be cool or exotic looking and they certainly aren’t easy, much less fun – but they work exceedingly well, something we just can’t say about most of those 10,000-dollar machines taking up space on the gym floor.