Dips: You're Doing Them Wrong

13 Tips for Healthy Shoulders and Better Gains

Here's what you need to know...

  1. You need to learn to hinge. The hinge position allows the hips to set back, which tilts the torso over to an optimal 45-degree angle.
  2. Get tall. Focus on getting tall and having your torso in front and over your hands rather than in back of them.
  3. Concentrate on the eccentric or lowering part of the dip. Go slow when dipping and the concentric (raising part of the exercise) will take care of itself.
  4. Don't dip past 90 degrees. Most make the mistake of going far too deep on dips, which actually takes stress off the working muscles.
  5. Don't overstretch. Excessive stretch has little hypertrophy-stimulating benefits because it makes the muscles relax and go limp.
  6. Dorsiflex the ankles. This creates greater stretch on the hamstrings, further emphasizing the hinge position.

Some people swear by dips, saying they're one of the best strength and mass builders for the upper body. Others claim dips are counterproductive due to the strain they place on the joints and connective tissue. Sure, many lifters experience pain when doing dips. However, suggesting that dips are bad simply because a lot of people suffer inflammation from them is like saying that squats are bad for your joints. In reality, it's all about the quality of the movement pattern.

It's important to first understand the basics of human shoulder mechanics. The glenohumeral joint must be centrated, or packed into its ideal position, in order to achieve optimal stability, mobility, joint integrity, and force producing capabilities. For a majority of upper body movements, especially during shoulder extension, this requires a few basic maneuvers:

  1. The shoulder joint and scapula must be retracted or pulled back posteriorly.
  2. The shoulder complex must be depressed or pulled down toward the hips while maintaining the retracted position.
  3. Finally, the shoulders and scapula must medially rotate (pull in rather than out) toward the spine, which produces external rotation.

So, dips are more pre-disposed to producing dysfunctional mechanics than most upper body exercises. When performed incorrectly, dips will wreak more havoc on the shoulders than just about any other movement. However, when executed with perfect technique and appropriate body adjustments, they're actually therapeutic on the shoulders. It's imperative to master the correct form in order to reap the worthwhile benefits while avoiding the potential drawbacks.

All of the following cues and training prompts complement each other. As you fix one, the others will become easier to adhere to as each piece fits together like a biomechanical puzzle. The end result is a perfect dip.

Tutorial for Proper Dips

1. Learn to Hinge

Too often lifters either try to stay excessively upright to target their triceps, or they lean over improperly to emphasize the chest by flexing and rounding the spine. Neither of these is ideal and places the shoulder joint into an internally rotated position. The hinge position allows the hips to set back, which tilts the torso over to an optimal 45-degree angle.

Once the torso is set to a moderate incline, the glenohumeral joint can centrate and lock in while allowing a natural unencumbered motion to occur throughout the shoulder joint. As you move into the bottom of a dip with a proper hip hinge, the elbows will be free to drive back toward the sides of the torso along the lats (similar to a neutral grip dumbbell chest press), rather than moving upwards toward the ears, which elevates the shoulder girdle.

One of the best dip variations to learn the hinge/torso tilt is weighted dips done with chains hanging around your upper traps and neck.

How to Do Chain Dips

The chains literally push the torso over, giving you the appropriate kinesthetic sense of what a proper torso tilt feels like.

2. Hollow Out the Core

Hollowing the core and hinging at the hips work together. In fact it's nearly impossible to hollow the core until the hips hinge. Similar to the what gymnasts do when they're suspended on rings and parallel bars, focus on pulling the stomach in, tightening the abs, and setting the hips back while creating tall posture. You should literally feel the spine set into a stable position with a hyper-activated core. In fact, when relearning proper dip form, core strength will probably be more of a limiting factor than upper body strength. This will change once technique is mastered.

3. Don't Sag

Too often lifters will allow their bodies to sag on dips with little to no core activation. Similar to the "core hollowing" cue, focus on getting tall and having your torso in front and over your hands rather than in back of them. Get as "tall" as possible over the dip handles rather than sitting below them. One of the best dip variations to nail this cue is straight bar dips.

How to Do Straight Bar Dips

If there's any sagging, lack of hip hinge or failure to hollow the core, the lifter's stomach will run straight into the bar, thus minimizing any significant movement. If performed perfectly, the movement pattern will be identical to standard dips, including the same optimal range of motion. Just be prepared to fire your core to the max.

4. Eliminate Kyphotic Posture

It's crucial that there's no significant kyphotic posture in the upper torso during dips. When the body sags or there's a lack of hip hinge position, the most common compensation pattern that occurs is spinal flexion, or rounding of the spine, especially in the thoracic and lumbar regions. This immediately sets the shoulders up to elevate and protract as well as internally rotate during the eccentric phase, all of which should be avoided. Although there won't necessarily be a noticeable lordotic curvature in the spine, the lifter essentially needs to feel as though he's creating an arch to counteract the force vectors that want to push the spine into flexion.

5. Flex the Lats

The more you activate your lats while keeping a tall posture, the better your spinal alignment will be. The better your spinal alignment, the more likely it is that your shoulders are properly positioned, resulting in correct dip mechanics. Flexing the lats will also help keep the elbows tucked to the sides rather than flared out – a critical factor when it comes to shoulder health.

6. Focus on 3D-Shoulder Mechanics

The shoulders need to do three things as you move into the eccentric or lowering portion of a dip. This includes scapular retraction (shoulders pulled back), depression (pulled down), and medial rotation toward the spine in order to create optimal scapulohumeral rhythm. Too often lifters do the exact opposite during dips.

7. Accentuate the Eccentric

Rather than approaching a set of dips with a mindset of achieving as many reps as possible or as much weight as possible, focus on body mechanics. Concentrate on the eccentric component by going slow and performing eccentric isometrics – pausing at the bottom. If you master eccentric positioning on dips, the concentric or lifting phase will inevitably take care of itself as a result of grooving the proper neural pathways in the stretched position.

8. Don't Dip Past 90 Degrees

Many advanced lifters make the mistake of going far too deep on dips, which actually takes stress off the working muscles as the tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue are forced to support the load. By following the above cues, the body will naturally want to stop at approximately 90 degrees. To get deeper, the lifter would literally have to abandon every cue previously listed.

Furthermore, when going beyond 90 degrees, the shoulders will be forced into internal rotation rather than external rotation. In general, a 90-degree elbow bend on dips ends up being the most biomechanically and neurophysiologically sound position, not just for joint health but also for strength and size gains.

9. Don't Overstretch

One factor that contributes to faulty dip mechanics is having the mindset of achieving as large of a stretching sensation as possible at the bottom of the movement. This is one of the most counterproductive cues because you're essentially stretching the tendon insertion point rather than the belly of the muscle. Such a maneuver can create extreme soreness in the joints and surrounding connective tissue.

Contrary to popular belief, this excessive stretch has little to do with growth as the muscles relax and go limp in order to allow this large amount of slack to occur. In contrast, the 90-degree dip represents a lengthened, yet tight and highly activated position. If you're looking to tear a pec or ruin your joints, then go for excessive stretch. If size and strength are more your thing, then 90 degrees is best.

10. Pull Your Toes Up

In order to create a hollowed core and hip hinge you have to flex at the hips, which means stretching the glutes and hamstrings. Dorsiflexion of the ankles creates greater stretch on the hamstrings, further emphasizing the hinge position. As the toes pull up, the lats and upper back will further tighten, making the hinge more pronounced. This further reinforces a neutrally arched spinal position while simultaneously pulling the scapula down and back for a more centrated shoulder joint. In fact, it's nearly impossible to have kyphotic posture when you combine hip hinge and ankle dorsiflexion.

If you have trouble here, try the dorsiflex weighted-dip variation. Besides being an immediate fix for ankle dorsiflexion, this method forces the lifter to use very strict form. Any kipping, shifting, jerking, or wiggling will literally launch the weight off the feet.

How to Do Dorsiflex Weighted Dips

In addition, activating the feet and ankles increases tightness and stability throughout the entire body through a neurophysiological phenomenon known as "concurrent activation potentiation." This is just a fancy term describing a state where every muscle in the body from head to toe is activated so fiercely that neural drive is increased to the primary muscles, thereby enhancing force production. In addition, this technique eliminates energy leaks as there's no weak link in the body.

11. Keep a Tall and Neutral Head Position

Head position is critical for dips. The goal is a tall and neutral head while keeping it in line with the rest of the spine. If the head drops down too low, it produces cervical flexion, which leads to kyphotic posture of the upper spine. If the head is pulled up, this creates cervical hyperextension, which produces tightness in the upper traps and neck. When the upper traps become tight, you'll find it nearly impossible to properly activate the lats and your ability to centrate the glenohumeral joint will be diminished.

Notice my head and neck simply follow the same path as the rest of my spine in any of the videos. The natural gaze of your eyes should be down and slightly forward. If you're looking straight ahead, then your neck is most likely hyperextended. Closing your eyes can help eliminate this issue.

12. Mimic a Semi-Bent Over Row

One of the best technique cues for dips is to think about mimicking a semi-bent over row. Just as you'd never perform a bent over row with a flexed spine or rounded shoulders, the same principles apply to the dip.

How to Do Semi-Bent Over Plate Rows

If you took a snap shot of the bottom of a proper dip and another during the contracted position of a 45-degree bent over row, it should be difficult to distinguish between the two. As such, the semi-bent over row with plates is a simple, yet effective drill for grooving the appropriate neural pathways of the reciprocal muscles.

13. Think Push-Up

Another great mental illustration is to visualize using the same mechanics on dips as what you would use for perfect push-ups. This helps engrain the notion of the elbows moving along the torso line near the lats rather than drifting toward the ears.

A common trend seen with dips is to alter the angles and mechanics to target the triceps. Unfortunately, altering natural body mechanics is a great way to promote dysfunctional movement patterns and destroy the joints. This is something I refer to as "erroneous muscle targeting" as the lifter has to abandon proper activation patterns in hopes of isolating specific muscles.

A properly performed dip should involve upper body centration with equal stress across the joints and involved musculature rather than isolating a specific area. Besides saving your joints, this places the lifter into the strongest position to handle the most weight for the most reps, ultimately maximizing muscle growth.

If the goal is to target a specific muscle group, there's a more efficient method that can be employed. Rather than butchering your body's natural mechanics and reinforcing faulty movement, try using pre-exhaustion or pre-activation while maintaining the ideal mechanics and technique for that movement.

For example, if the goal is to hit the triceps more effectively on dips and minimize stimulation to the chest and shoulders, perform an isolation movement such as triceps press-downs or extensions immediately prior to hitting a set of dips. This will cause the triceps to fatigue and fail before the chest and shoulders give out.

More importantly, you'll have emphasized a particular muscle group while keeping your movement pattern intact rather than wrecking your natural body mechanics with a mutated variation of the exercise.