Here's what you need to know...
- Many lifters consider squats to be the best exercise for building up the legs. Similarly, many lifters consider dips to be the best exercise for building up the front side of the upper body and their number one chest exercise.
- Going to or just below parallel on dips (upper arm parallel to the floor) will work the muscles effectively while sparing the joints.
- To progress the dip, use ring dips, countdowns, dead stops, and constant tension dips.
Dips are the upper body equivalent of squats, both for better and for worse.
Many lifters consider squats to be the best overall lower body exercise, and rightfully so. Many massive thighs have been built by squats. Similarly, many consider dips to be the best exercise for building up the front side of the upper body and consider them to be their number one chest exercise, and rightfully so. Many massive chests have been built via tons and tons of dips.
Many other lifters, especially those with pre-existing injuries, don't feel squats all that much in their quads and instead find that they piss off their knees and/or lower back. Similarly, many lifters find that dips piss off their shoulders, especially those with pre-existing injuries.
So are squats and dips good exercises or bad exercises? The answer to that question depends on who you ask. Ask a guy with a good squatter's build, good hip mobility, and healthy joints if squats are good and he'll give you two thumbs up. But ask a guy with long femurs or tight hips, or someone with a significant lower back or knee injury, and he'll probably mumble a curse and change the subject.
Similarly, ask a guy with jacked up shoulders or poor shoulder mobility, or a coach who primarily works with overhead athletes whose shoulders are delicate, and he'll probably give dips an emphatic thumbs down. It's likely, though, that you'd get the opposite response from a lifter with healthy shoulders and good shoulder mobility. If you have shoulder problems, poor shoulder mobility, or participate in overhead sports, I'd recommend cutting out dips in favor of different pressing variations, push-up variations, and landmine presses. But if you like dips and they don't bother your shoulders, here are some ways to make them safer and even more effective.
The form issues that often arise with dips are actually very similar to those that arise with squats and pertain mostly to depth and rep speed. We all know the depth issues with squatting. On one hand you have the guys that go way too heavy and end up squatting a mile high, while on the other hand you have the "ass to grass" zealots who feel that anything less than leaving an ass print on the floor is somehow cheating, even if going that low means jeopardizing your knees and lower back. The same goes for dips. Some guys will do partial reps and barely come halfway down in the name of adding more weight or cranking out more reps, while others will say you're a pussy unless you're burying your hands deep into your armpits on every rep.
A little moderation goes a long way with both exercises, and going to (or just below) parallel – meaning the top of the thigh parallel to the floor for squats and the upper arm parallel to the floor for dips – is probably the best recommendation for the majority of lifters in regards to working the muscles effectively while sparing the joints. As for rep speed, again, a little moderation goes a long way. With squats, people tend to experience knee pain when they dive bomb the eccentric and bounce out of the hole. With dips, people tend to rush the reps and end up with their shoulders coming too far forward as the set goes on, which puts them in a precarious position. Control each rep.
The Devil is in the Dose
Bodyweight squats are very different from heavy barbell squats. Even people with lower back and knee issues may be able to tolerate bodyweight or even light squats just fine, but when the load gets heavy, it's another story altogether. The game also changes as you get stronger. Your joints might feel fine doing five rep squats when your 5RM is 185, but as you get stronger and your 5RM starts creeping up, you may find that your joints start to revolt and you need to start lightening the load and using more moderate rep ranges.
The same goes for dips. I used to do heavy dips in the 3-5 rep range and loved them, but I found that as I started getting a lot stronger at them they started to bug my shoulders. If I keep the load moderate and work in the 8-20 rep range, my shoulders are just fine. The same can be said for volume. Someone may be able to tolerate doing an exercise once a week but find that if they increase to 2-4 times a week, it starts to be a problem. If some is good, more isn't necessarily better. This should be common sense, but the fitness world is often very black and white and likes to label exercises as either good or bad when most of the time it's really more a matter of programming.
So rather than doing heavy weighted dips at the start of your upper body workouts, try doing them near the end of your workout after you've already done your heavy pressing. That way, you ensure that your shoulders are sufficiently warmed up. Additionally, you won't need to use as much weight as if you were doing them fresh.
Cool Dip Variations
I've already recommended that you should save dips for later in your upper body workouts and use moderate rep ranges. That's not to say you can't add weight, but keep the weight at something you can handle for at least eight reps rather than working in lower rep ranges. There are, however, a few different ways to up the ante beyond just adding weight.
If dips are the upper body equivalent to squats, then I consider ring dips to be the upper body equivalent of front squats. Many lifters struggle at first holding the bar on front squats and consequently write off the exercise without giving it much of a chance. If they stick it out and practice front squatting for a few sessions, they quickly realize that the learning curve is actually quite fast. And once they get the hang of it, they can still handle sizeable loads (usually about 80-85% of what they can back squat). Better yet, they find that front squats target their quads better while also being easier on the lower back and knees.
Rings dips are much the same. I don't care how good you are at dips, the first couple of times you do ring dips is going to be humbling. You might not even be able to do them at all and you'll be quivering like you've got Parkinson's. Most people who are good at regular dips, though, will quickly adjust to ring dips within three to four sessions of consistent practice. And once they get used to the rings, most people will end up being able to handle nearly as much weight and crank out nearly as many reps as they can do on the dip bars. Moreover, many people find that ring dips are far easier on the shoulders and they feel them even more in their chest: a win-win. The key to learning ring dips is to practice them at the start of your workout when you're fresh because trying to adjust to the instability of the rings is exponentially harder when you're already fatigued.
Start by performing five full-range reps followed immediately by a five-second iso-hold in the bottom position with your upper arm approximately parallel to the floor. From there, go straight into four more reps followed by a four-second iso-hold. Then three, then two, and one. After the last rep, lower down as slowly as you can.
Once you can complete the countdown from 5-to-1, either add weight or try starting at six reps and working your way down.
Dead-Stop Kneeling Ring Dips
If you have rings, try setting them low so that when you're on your knees, the rings are even with your armpits. This will allow you to perform each rep from a dead stop while still using a full range of motion. Pausing each rep definitely makes the exercise harder, but I also find that it feels better on my shoulders. It also forces you to control the eccentric portion of the rep so you don't slam your knees. It helps to have a pad for your knees. As an added bonus, logistically this also ends up being the perfect ring height to perform inverted rows, which makes for an awesome pairing at the end of an upper body workout.
Get into the bottom position of a dip with your upper arms approximately parallel to the floor and hold that position for as long as you can. Once you can get 45 seconds or so, add a little weight. You can use either regular dip bars or rings, but know that rings will be significantly harder.
Ring Dip/Pull-up/Inverted Row/Hip Thrust Combo
Pairing ring dips with pull-ups/inverted rows/hip thrusts is a combination exercise I created to work the back, glutes, and hamstrings simultaneously.
For people who like to do full body workouts, this pairing works really well after doing a heavy knee-dominant exercise like squats or Bulgarian split squats to finish off the rest of the body in a hurry. From a muscle-building standpoint, this pairing works well because the two exercises focus on different parts of the body so they don't negatively impact one another. From a logistical standpoint, it works great because the ring height ends up being the same for each exercise so you don't have to fumble around with adjusting them.
You can do both exercises as straight sets, or if you really want to punish yourself, you can try a countdown as I showed in the video above. Start by doing 10 reps of each exercise, then 8, then 6, then 4, then 2, all in succession with minimal rest in between. In total, it comes out to 30 reps of each exercise. If that's too much, start at six or eight and work down from there.
Constant Tension Reps
Here you'd just do regular dips, only you stop just short of locking out your elbows at the top to keep constant tension on the chest. This method works great at the end of a session where you'd use higher rep ranges and perform the reps with a little faster tempo than normal without getting sloppy. I don't have a video of these because I'd rather not have the YouTube form-police start giving me grief for not doing dips correctly, but trust me, they work incredibly well!