July 24

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The Ultimate Guide to Dips – Gym Back to Basics


There's no doubt about it - as gym exercises go, dips are tough.

You can fiddle around on fancy weight training machines all you like, but sometimes there ain't no substitute for good old fashioned hardcore exercises.

Along with squats and pull-ups, dips are one of the most fundamental gym exercises. So if you're not afraid of a bit of sweat and ​some hard work, it's time to roll up those sleeves.

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What are dips? The Ultimate Gym back-to-basics Guide

The dip is an exercise that involves lowering and lifting the weight of your body.

Using your upper body you need to maintain a fairly upright position. Although there are a few variations, dips are normally performed between two parallel bars.

The exercise works a number of upper body muscles but the main emphasis is on the chest and back of the arms.

Why perform dips?

Dips are very effective at strengthening the muscles of the chest and arms.

Dipping involves working against your own bodyweight in a compound exercise which means you also recruit significant numbers of other muscles during the movement. You'll also develop coordination and stability.

Put these factors together and you have a great all-around conditioning exercise, whose benefits carry over to a number of sports.

​Dips for sporting ​performance

For example, dips can build strength and power for the 'pushing' phase at the end of the stroke in freestyle swimming. Dips can also build strength and coordination in key muscles and movements required for climbing. Meanwhile, racquet sports players all require chest and triceps power - key benefits of dip training.

The large recruitment of upper body muscle fibres makes the dip a great all-around strength builder in the gym. Therefore, it's a great metabolism-boosting exercise.

​Performing dips also breaks the monotony of machine exercises.

Not to mention, lifting your own body up and down using just your upper body will give you a great sense of achievement.

How should I perform dips in the gym?

There are a number of variations. The most common version is performed upright, between two parallel bars.

Traditional dip starting position

Using a step if you have to, grasp the bars at your sides using your hands.

Some bars are not parallel - by shifting forwards or backwards along the bars you can adjust your grip width. You should aim for a grip width just a little wider than shoulder-width.

Make sure your wrists and elbows are straight and when you take your body weight, your shoulder girdle is down. That is to say, your shoulders don't go into a 'shrugged' position.

Now cross your ankles and bend your legs at your knees. This allows you to pivot your body forwards slightly. In other words, you won't be suspended vertically between the bars. You should be leaning forward by 10 degrees or so if viewed from the side.

The lowering phase

Keeping the shoulders down, lower yourself smoothly allowing the elbows to bend.

Aim for the elbow joint to be bent at 90 degrees - your upper arm will be roughly parallel to the floor. Inhale as you lower.

If you're new to dips and find them hard, you may wish to reduce the range of downward movement. Allow your strength to build up before going to full depth.

Your arms should stay fairly close to the body. If you want to place more emphasis on the chest muscles, your arms may adopt a more 'outwards' position.

At the bottom of the movement, pause briefly.

The pushing up phase

Keep the body aligned and the shoulder girdle retracted downwards.

Push up smoothly, concentrating on squeezing the chest muscles.

Exhale as you push. Don't try to gain momentum by swinging your torso or arching the back.

Aim to keep your face and neck muscles relaxed. Push up until the elbows are nearly, but not quite straight.

Don't lock out your elbows at the top of the movement.

Safety for dips in the gym

Although it's a great exercise, parallel bar dips are demanding - especially for beginners.

If you're new to dips, or you don't have much gym experience, you need to keep in mind the following:

Since you're lifting your whole bodyweight, you require a fair degree of strength.

Unless you can complete at least 6 strict reps, you should start off by using an assisted dip machine. Either that or bench dips are an option too.

If you're strong enough to lower yourself under strict form but not push back up, you can start with negative reps only. For example, just perform the lowering part of the exercise and then use a step to get back to the start position. A few negative sessions will quickly build your strength and enable you to tackle the full movement.

​A note on shoulder stability

Dips place a fair degree of stress on the shoulder joints. If you have any history of shoulder injury, you should not perform dips without first consulting your trainer or qualified physiotherapist.

Even if you have no previous history of shoulder injuries, dips are demanding. They require careful execution so as not to place the shoulder joint at risk.

It's vital to maintain a strict range of movement.

Once the elbow passes its 90-degree range, the stresses on the shoulder increase dramatically. It's also very important to keep the shoulder girdle down.

Allowing the shoulders to slump forward and hunch up potentially destabilises the joint.

For the same reason, don't bounce or swing during the lifting phase. It will be tempting when fatigue sets in!

Stop immediately if you feel any pain or discomfort around the wrists, elbows or shoulders.

Which muscles do dips target?

Performing dips in the gym - what muscles do they work?

​The main muscles used are the long, lateral and medial heads of the triceps in the upper arms. Dips also involve pectoralis major and minor, which are collectively known as the pectorals of the chest.

Leaning forward to emphasise the chest also brings into play the anterior deltoids - the front of the shoulders. The latissimus dorsi muscles of the side of the back are also involved in the pushing up movement. This is particularly true when the arms are held close to the body and you remain in a more upright position. This more vertical position also shifts the emphasis away from the chest onto the triceps in the upper arm.

​Other gym options you can use instead of dips

​Some gyms have single station dip machines that offer a similar movement. You sit upright and push down handles either side of the body, effectively simulating a dipping movement.

Although not as effective as full dips, especially for chest development, the adjustable weight makes this a great beginner option. It can serve as an effective introduction to the real thing.

A better option is the assisted dip machine. 

This is just like bodyweight dips, except that a pad supports your body weight. This pad can give a variable upwards assistance. In effect, it removes some of your bodyweight from the exercise.

You get help from the machine to push your body back up. You get all the benefits of free dips while at the same time enabling you to set the exact amount of resistance required to complete a full set.

As you become stronger, you can gradually progress from using weighted assistance to completely unassisted (bodyweight) dips.

Dips with extra weight

Weighted dips are strictly for experienced dippers.

If your bodyweight is insufficient to produce fatigue after 15 reps or so, you may need extra weight.

By wearing a dip-belt, if your gym has one, you can strap on extra weight plates, effectively increasing bodyweight. You can, therefore, achieve fatigue within the desired number of reps.

Bench dips

gym alternative to dips - bench dips

You can perform bench dips between two parallel benches. Alternatively, you might use just one bench.

Feet are on one bench and hands grasping the edge of the rear bench so the hips are just clear. With the arms by the sides of the body, the hips are lowered towards the floor then raised again.

The triceps and lats are worked, but the chest is relatively uninvolved.

Although bench dips are less physically demanding than full dips, they are not without risk. If the arms come away from the side of the body or the shoulder girdle drops, the shoulder joint can quickly become destabilised.

Again, these would be unsuitable for those with a history of shoulder injury.

How should I integrate dips into my gym routine?

For most people, free dips are hard work.

Two or three good quality sets is as much as you'll ever need to do. However, you should ensure that you can perform at least 6 strict reps per set.

If you can't manage 6 reps even on your first set, try using an assisted dip movement.

A dip machine or some negative reps will also help until you've built up sufficient strength.

​Accessory exercises to develop strength for dips

Don't forget too, that push-ups and bench press will also help to build the strength you need to execute dips correctly. You should only consider weighted dips once you can manage 15 strict reps for 3 sets of bodyweight dips.

Remember that dips are hard work for triceps. If you work your triceps first, you may find they are too fatigued to assist the chest in dipping.

Placing dips in with other chest work makes sense, but don't expect to knock off hundreds of dips after hard bench pressing.

Remember too that dips can be demanding on shoulder joint stability. Some people like to work their shoulders before going on to dips. The increased blood flow and pump to the shoulder area seems to help stabilise the girdle during dips.

Use your common sense and if in doubt, seek advice from your trainer.

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    Paul Stokes

    About the author

    Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs. He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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