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:
- Use the distance between your middle finger and elbow to determine grip width.
- Start with the chest up and out. “Stand proud” is the cue. This will also accompany retraction of the scapula.
- Set the head in a neutral position. This position should be maintained throughout.
- Squeeze your glutes, this will stabilize your hips and ensure we avoid any spinal faults or deviations.
- Take a deep breath prior to the descent. This will keep your core engaged, providing a smooth base to ascend from.
- You BEND at the elbow, not FLARE. The elbows are posts……posts DON’T move.
- 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.
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……..you 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.