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Overlooked movements: Dips

The long awaited next installment of the overlooked movement series is here!

A series where I remind you of classic movements that just aren’t being exploited like they once were. Movements that were the ‘meat and potatoes’ of many seriously strong people’s training..

Today with have another upper body compound with a huge degree of versatility.

The mighty parallel dip! 

A compound movement featuring multiple joints and muscles. Calling on the pecs, triceps, rear deltoids as prime movers. And involving the abs, glutes and trapezius muscles as stabilizers. The bar dip certainly offers a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of musculature.

In the grand scheme of natural bodyweight progression, I’d place dips smack in the middle of push-ups and pull-ups.

Push-ups are usually easiest to master. Once proficiency is in place, you’ll likely have the necessary strength to do a full dip. Or at least the confidence. Forging on, once dips are “mastered”, it’s highly probable you’ll have respectable pull-up strength.

For the record, ‘strength’ in these movements is defined as: 

  • Push-ups – 20 reps with PERFECT technique.
  • Dips – 10+ reps with PERFECT technique.
  • Pull-ups – 5+ reps with PERFECT technique (Ideally I’d like to set the marker at 10 for ultimate entry to the ‘bad-ass’ club)

Dips and weighted dips are a staple of my programs. Dips lend themselves to accommodating a grand spectrum of strength levels. You can load them with external resistance (weight belt, dumbbell or rucksack) and train a lower rep, strength style protocol. You can jump up, and rep it out with your bodyweight – depending on your strength. And, if you’re not quite strong enough yet, to do full dips, you can elevate your feet on a chair or have someone take hold of them. This allows you to technically lift a smaller percentage of your bodyweight.

Hence their versatility.

Before we continue, it’s important to take stock of the exact dip style we’re placing under the spotlight today. The parallel dip. Not the bench dip.

Primarily because the bench dip features way too much internal shoulder rotation for my liking.

Internally rotated shoulders, far from the best anatomical position to apply load. 

Aggressive shoulder internal rotation causes pain for many people, and those people often don’t have ‘optimal’ shoulder health/mechanics. Which for clarification’s sake, is the ability to move from various degrees of shoulder flexion to shoulder extension – without pain or compensation at other joints/muscles.

Tight lats, scapula winging, upper back muscle imbalances and upper cross syndrome. All common and possible issues that leave people unable to raise their arms fully above head without over-arching the lumbar spine or suffering significant pain. This is why posturology and physical therapy is a complex and thriving industry. The shoulder is one of the most complicated joints.

Tight and/or weak rotator cuffs are very common.

Even if you’re not restricted with rotator mobility, you’ll do very well to go down to any appreciable depth in the bench dip. To achieve a 90 degree angle between the radius (forearm) and humerus (upper arm), without pain, would be impressive – and quite rare.

So the anatomical positions of the bench dip force a reduced range of motion versus it’s far superior cousin, the parallel bar dip. The lesser the active range of motion, the lesser the muscle recruitment and stimulation. Which is entirely logical.

Now if we study the anatomical positions of the bar dip (or ring dip), we’ll see many differences. 

In the starting position, the shoulders are ‘down and back’ – a classic posture improvement cue. And a non-fancy term for external rotation/scapula retraction.

The movement is initiated by bending at the elbows and allowing your torso to move forward and down, in a controlled fashion.

We continue lowering until we break that 90 degree angle with the forearm and upper arm. That’s your yardstick. Some may be able to go lower, some may not be able to get to 90 degrees. Individual mobility will determine this. Go as low as you feel a stretch in the pecs, not a strain.

As we can see though, the shoulders in the ‘bottom’ position are still retracted. And should remain so throughout the entirety of the movement. Faulty mechanics here would be allowing the elbows to flare. Flaring the elbows entails……….you guessed it, internal rotation of the shoulders. 

A further note of importance is grip width. Notice in the examples above, the subjects are all using a grip in or around shoulder width. Variations do indeed exist, Vince Gironda endorsed his ‘chest dips’, where you take a very wide grip and get a big stretch in the pecs. Although he advocated this as a chest movement, and only a chest movement.

We don’t want isolation here. We want muscle synergism. Taking an ultra wide grip like that is too risky for my liking and may be asking for a torn pec!

A simple tip to find your grip width is to use the distance between your elbow and middle finger. 

This usually equates to in and around shoulder width. I use this grip and have had no injuries, strains or issues.

Piecing together the perfect dip: 

  1. Use the distance between your middle finger and elbow to determine grip width.
  2. Start with the chest up and out. “Stand proud” is the cue. This will also accompany retraction of the scapula.
  3. Set the head in a neutral position. This position should be maintained throughout.
  4. Squeeze your glutes, this will stabilize your hips and ensure we avoid any spinal faults or deviations.
  5. Take a deep breath prior to the descent. This will keep your core engaged, providing a smooth base to ascend from.
  6. You BEND at the elbow, not FLARE. The elbows are posts……posts DON’T move.
  7. Descend to a point where you feel a STRETCH in the pecs. A stretch shouldn’t equal pain. Just how deep you can go will be influenced by individual mobility – around a 90 degree angle with the elbow and forearm is a good marker.

In ideal world, I’d have you doing dips on bars at a height great enough to eradicate the need to cross the legs behind you and flex at the knee. Whilst this is O.K. – in the presence of fatigue, this can lead to spinal deviations (flexion/hyper-extension). Where the knees don’t remain in alignment with the spine.

Dips on rings are great too! 

And require significantly higher amounts of stability. They also allow more wrist freedom and natural movement at the joints. If you’ve got access to rings, damn well use them! They’re great.

Programming – 

A really good way to incorporate dips into your training, would be to alternate them with a bench press variation. One week you do bench press, one week dips. In terms of rep ranges, I’d let your strength dictate. If you can’t execute more than 10 reps with your bodyweight, don’t add external load. If you’re a strong mofo…… could do weighted sets of 5. I wouldn’t like to see too many people go heavier though, the risk of injury doing weighted dips with very heavy loads, is imminent.

Horse shoe triceps?

Exercises like pressdowns, extensions and kickbacks do indeed go some way to building admirable triceps. But due to their identity as isolation movements, they won’t recruit as many high threshold motor units. It’s these motor units that have the greatest potential for strength and hypertrophy (growth).

Because the load, in relation to overall strength with dips is high, you can be safely assured you’ll be calling on all your highest motor units and muscle fibers.

Parallel bar dips……….jaw-clenching, taxing, powerful and basic. They’ve sculpted many a pec, tricep and deltoid. 

Do these regularly and you’ll have real functional strength and an aesthetic physique to accompany it.

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

13 thoughts on “Overlooked movements: Dips Leave a comment

  1. Great post, thanks. If I improve with push-ups will I be able to do these parallel dips? I currently do dips from a step which is about 15cm high but I now realise that this isn’t great. Whoops!

    • Hey! Thanks for getting in touch 🙂 15cm elevated feet isn’t much at all. I’m willing to bet you’re strong enough to do a full dip(s)? How many push ups can you do? If the number is around 20, then with all you’ve told me, you must be plenty adequate in the dip department, haha.

      • Shameful with pushups. With my elbows going outwards like wings I can do several, however with my elbows going back towards my butt, I can’t even do a full one. 🙈🙈🙈🙈

      • Ah I see, yeah that’s the catch isn’t it? Got to tuck them elbows! That suggests your triceps could be weak – or probably are. I think I’ve done a post on push up progressions in the past, I’ll drop a link…………..Not trying to make you read my site from top to bottom 😉 haha.

        But it could help you, basically try elevating your hands whilst really focusing on keeping those elbows fixed in at your sides.

      • 20 kg for reps is pretty good. The top part of a bench press is a great diagnostic tool. If you find the top portion is a ‘sticking point’, that would almost confirm the weak tri’s theory.

        Just elevate your hands and work on it, you’ll be repping the handstand push ups in no time! 🙂 So leg day is your thing?

      • I’ll definitely work on it. Leg day and glutes are my thing but my upper body strength is improving. My biceps are awesome. Triceps are getting more defined but obviously I need to increase strength. I’m not too bad with a bench press. The press-ups issue might just be practise so I’ll give it a go and see what happens. But leg day is my favourite. I have a whole other day separate for glutes amd glutes is now my favourite day. However glutesdayandlipstick doesn’t have the same ring to it 😉 hahah

      • Awesome! Oh you certainly can’t beat a nice set of glutes on a girl! Come to think of it, glute strength is something I need to work on a bit. Even though I actually have gluteal definition, haha. And I know girls don’t like guys with ‘pancake’ asses lol.

        Glutesdayandlipstick would be a serious mouthful! Doesn’t have the same ring…….you could’ve had “theglutegirl” hahaha.

        Glutes are so neglected though, everyone sits so damn much, glutes get lazy and we see a boatload of screwed up posture! Rant over 😉

        I actually do all out track sprints once a week and get a nice dose of DOMS in the glutes! Oh, and I have good biceps too (all about the peak). Had to rival you there…….haha

      • My favourite is the weighted glute bridge. I’m going to have to ask someone to by my spotter soon as it’s nearly too heavy to lift onto my hips haha. I try rolling it up my legs but they get a bit squished. What’s your leg day routine?
        Nah can’t have a pancake ass. But at least us women have our fat distributed there in the first place so it gives me a head start haha. I love lipstick so it had to go with that too. Although I have started enjoying lunges so it could have been lungeslegdayandlipstick 😀 my posture has improved massive amounts since I began working out. Do you have IG? My Instagram is all about my fitness and diet :))
        I need to improve my cardio! I enjoy rowing machine and a little bit of the spinning bike but not much else. I should try doing sprinting actually.
        I make people surprised when I get my swans out haha they don’t expect it from me I don’t think.

      • Haha, I love the term ‘swans’! Can I share that term in the future? 🙂 ha.
        I actually don’t have a full out ‘leg routine’, I’m not following a body part split. I’m doing full body compounds; squatting every workout, deadlifting once per week. But that’s done wonders for quad development. I’ll definitely be going down the split routine route in the near future though.
        Lunges are great right? But again, that name would’ve been a BIG tongue-twister! Having said that, I won’t tell you my original blog name here *cringes* but let’s just say it was a mouthful! Haha.
        I don’t have IG yet, but it’s in the forefront of my mind. I’m not the biggest ‘picture guy’, always been a tad camera shy. But fire me the link to yours, I’ll def check it out.
        Yeah, for cardio, I LOVE sprints! I used to sprint for my county back in school as I was a nifty 100 meter runner. At the start of the year me and a friend have been hitting the track once a week like clockwork and banging out all out, 50 meter sprints. And that distance will slowly be increasing in the months to come.
        If you can’t tell, I think you should DEFINITELY do some sprints! 😀

      • You may haha only if they are well earned swans though. I have earned the right to call them swans haha. Oh ok that’s interesting about the full body compounds. I am still at odds on what to do most days. The only days I have happily set out are legs and glutes. The rest just mashes in somewhere, depending who I go to the gym with. My quads were the first things to develop and I am proud of them.
        Oh was it worse than my name idea? I hope so! Lol.
        That’s fair enough, everyone is different. I tried to do twitter but it’s horrid. I logged back on to an old account and I followed too many people and I just wanna clear it and start again. But I think I’ll just stick with IG. I enjoy IG and all of my follows are still relevant to my current lifestyle :)) my name on there is joelyroely 🙂
        After a rather persuading pitch, I think I’ll DEFINITELY give sprints a go.

      • My guns could be good enough to be promoted to the swan category, haha! Although, as always, they could be better too. Yeah I always follow a program that’s centered around improving the big compound lifts; squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, chin-ups and dips etc.. and then I’ll rotate in a lighter style of training when things start stalling a bit in terms of strength.
        Good quads are a must, especially for ladies!
        Yes, my name idea was worse, it was a spur of the moment………”I wanna start blogging, yeah it’d suit me!” moment. Where I didn’t want to think, just wanted to start hahaha.
        Oh good old Twitter, funny you say that, I actually just signed up to it after being urged by some close friends and I thought it would be a good platform to share posts and interact with more people (which I love). But, it’s been slow progress and I really don’t want to start spam following everyone and anyone, like some do. But I’ll keep it, it’s a bit of fun. I definitely haven’t ruled out IG, I could see myself putting up some cool piccies in the future haha………..maybe, just maybe the rare selfie too hahahaha.
        Yeah I saw yours, just as you said it’s all relevant to what you’re into and do, so that’s cool!
        You didn’t take too much persuasion then? Perhaps I have a good career ahead of me a salesman instead? 😉 In all seriousness though, they’re great. Great anaerobic cardio and an awesome way of keeping the lower body powerful and explosive.

      • Good sounding program. I might shake it up soon. Try something different. Lean down a bit. Increase my cardio significantly for a month and see what happens.
        Yep defo a salesman in the making! Hahah.

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