The dip is often considered to be the upper-body squat, and for good reason, since, along with chin-ups, it’s one of the most effective exercises you can do for the upper body. Legendary trainer Vince Gironda was a big proponent of the dip and had his own particular way of performing it. Unfortunately, I see a lot of people who either don’t perform it correctly or do so without understanding the functional biomechanics of the shoulder complex. The dip is, indeed, a very useful exercise, but you should know how to benefit from it, otherwise you are wasting your time or, worse, exposing yourself to injury. I will take the time here to analyze this exercise and explain how and why I prescribe it. Let’s begin with the variations and different ways to perform the dip.
The bench dip
I never prescribe the bench dip. First, because it’s unnecessarily stressful to the shoulder joint, and second, because it’s hard to increase the load, and I would definitely NEVER have it done it with added plates on the legs extended like you sometimes see (talk about unnecessary stress to the joints!).
If you have read my article on the bench press, you already know that the shoulder girdle is quite complex and involves multiple joints working together in synergy. You will also recall that the glenohumeral joint at the shoulder is pretty much restricted in extension (about 30 degrees for most people). That means that to be able to bring the arm far behind the body, you absolutely need to use the scapulothoracic joint (movement of the shoulder blade) and even need to open the rib cage to increase the range of motion (ROM). If you are prevented from doing that, due to a lack of flexibility, you are definitely exposing the glenohumeral joint to mechanical stress.
If you look at the positioning required for the bench dip, you will notice that, since the legs are fully extended up front and that you need to grab the bench from behind, you are fixed in a kyphosis (rounded torso), which means that you will not be able to do the aforementioned motion and go deep into the movement. Even worse, the arm is already placed in extension, as it has to be behind the body on the bench, so you might already be at the maximum of 30 degrees. You understand that the real range of motion left will be insignificant and thus, quite useless. To sum up, this version is not safe and not significantly effective, which is why I never recommend it.
The parallel-bars dip
This is the most conventional way to perform dips. It is usually done on parallel bars with knees bent behind the torso. To be able to perform it effectively, you first must be able to hold onto the bars and stabilize your shoulder blades as you go down. Any control lost on the way down will, once again, expose the shoulder complex to injury, especially if you use added weights.
When done correctly it is effective, but I prefer to use the V-bar, as it allows me to be more specific to either chest or triceps and is more functional (better ROM). Once again, what happens when you go too far back or too low is that the glenohumeral joint is quickly restricted from the limited ROM and forces a greater shift from the glenohumeral to the scapulathoracic joint. This is where it gets unsafe. One other thing is that I would not bend the knees and would rather keep legs extended right under the body to align the center of gravity with the working joint (shoulders).
The Gironda V-bar dip
It's unclear if Vince Gironda actually invented the V-dip bar, but, more than anyone else, he certainly made it popular. As the story goes, he was training at Easton Gym before he had his own place, and he went out in the stairwell to where the handrail formed a V (you know, when it goes around a corner). He tried dipping using the handrail and felt it was more functional and effective and ended up calling it “the ideal shaped” bar for dips.
Like me, Vince was not a fan of bringing the elbows straight back, as he knew the motion was quite limited. What the V-bar does is lessen the stress applied to the shoulder joint by giving you room for more range of motion to the sides. Vince and I are also alike in how strict we can be about details and form. He had it performed chin in on chest, elbows out, toes under face, and with a rounded back. That final point is the only one I would change for the reason I explained earlier, at least for chest development, as expanding the ribcage will further stretch the targeted muscle.
Vince had two versions of the dip, one with hands facing each other and one with the grip reversed. Vince found the V-bar dip more effective for chest, as it allowed for greater and more functional ROM, and as you go deeper in the motion you get a deeper stretch of the pectoralis major. Personally, I don’t recommend the second version with palms in pronation for two reasons. First, the main purpose of bending forward and going deep and low in the exercise is to develop chest and rib-cage volume. The pectoral major muscle is an external rotator and adductor of the arm, which means that in the bottom position, where it would be the most stretched and, therefore, more recruited, it would be even more stimulated if the arms were opened in outward rotation and supination. I can understand the opposite, though, as he might find the contraction at the top felt better as you get to end the movement in inward rotation. However, if I have to choose, I always favor the stretch to the contracted position of an exercise as the former has more impact on hypertrophy.
The second reason is for safety purposes again, as it is quite uncomfortable to be in maximum inward rotation at the shoulder joint while supporting the whole body weight and going down to maximal arm extension. Nevertheless, the way Vince had his clients perform dips was quite unusual and effective compared to the “conventional” way to do so. It simply took time, concentration and practice to get used to it.
The chest dip on V-bar
The chest dip is done while bending forward because the goal is to target the pectoral major muscle. The motion looks pretty much like a decline bench press would if turned upside down. A lot of people, though, make the mistake of keeping their feet behind them, as they think this will help in maintaining the bent-over position. I find this quite amusing, as it doesn’t make it easier at all; in fact, it makes it even more difficult. This is basic biomechanics: bringing the legs behind the body will move your center of gravity backward, thus creating an unbalanced equilibrium that will have you spend unnecessary strength to keep your torso bending forward. Keeping legs straight and in front of you will balance the center of gravity of your upper and lower body and keep the resultant in line with the working lever, the shoulder joint. It is then not only more effective and functional but also easier to perform if you simply extend the legs in front (try it and see for yourself).
Conventional (faulty) form
Revised (more efficient) form
The way I perform the chest dip is quite similar to Vince’s version, only I place the V behind myself so that the handles (which I will grab about midway) are opening in front of me. As I pointed out, I also use a supinated grip to allow for a better opening of the shoulder girdle and rib cage, which will give me a deeper stretch of the pectoralis major and serratus anterior muscles.
The triceps dip on V-bar
The triceps dip is quite easy to perform, as you simply stand straight with legs extended under the body and the head in line with torso. As opposed to the chest dip, the focus here should be to use the arms while keeping the shoulder blades quite stable during the exercise. Since the arms are maintained to the sides, the range of motion will be less important than the opened chest and elbows version, but this will only be true when the dip is performed on the parallel bars. If you use the V-bar this time with the V facing you (so that the handles are closing in), the extension of the arm will have a slight outward angle and will allow for more range of motion without compromising the restricted glenohumeral joint. The grip will also be closer to the end of the V about shoulder width. That way you can safely perform straight dips with more efficiency.
More tips for dips
Sometimes I incorporate quarter reps to increase stress without having to use dangerous added loads, which can lead to problems overtime like shoulder separation or impingement. This technique is especially interesting in the stretch position.
I always hold for a clear count of one second in the bottom and top positions on every rep to make sure I benefit from maximum stretch and contraction of the muscles. A lot of people “think” they pause, but it’s rarely long enough to get a significant effect. To give you an idea, it should be long enough to let someone take a clear picture of you at the bottom of the rep! Keep that image in mind while training and I guarantee you will feel the difference.
I also like to superset dips with chin-ups, as it is a good antagonist movement that helps stabilize even more the arm and shoulder girdle. I consider them complementary to each other.
Once again, this article gives you an example of how deep we can dig into an exercise by analyzing its components in order to make it either more effective or safer. I’ll leave you with that, as I think you have a few things to try at your next workout.
Train hard and train safe!
M.Sc., Physique Canada Tier 1 Elite Athlete, CBBF Canadian Champion (2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011)