Monday, 9 July 2012

Dips: Superstar or Shoulder-Wrecker?

Few upper body exercises are as controversial as Dips. Some praise dips as being the squat of the upper body claiming it is one of the best exercises for upper body development. Others bash dips as being a shoulder injury waiting to happen. Who is right?


The answer to this question (and to most training questions) is, “It depends.” As with any exercise selection decision, you have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages and then make an individual, case-by-case decision.

The potential advantages of dips
  • They move your body through space – that generally makes for a really good exercise
  • They are a great test of relative strength (strength related to body weight)
  • They involve a lot of muscles and are hard. This makes them great for strength, function, muscle mass, fat loss and time efficiency
  • They are easy to load (most gyms have dip belts that let you attach extra weight on). Also, you can purchase your own  for about $30-40 dollars.
  • Many gyms have machine assisted dips which can be a good option. Bands can also be used.
  • You can do them without a gym (e.g. most parks and playground) – great for travel or for those who do not have access to a gym
  • Trainer and author of Powerbuilding Josh Bryant has pointed out that they are one of the very few upper body exercises that are often praised in bodybuilding as one of the best exercises for both the chest and the triceps.
  • Bodybuilding guru Vince Gironda was really big into dips for chest development
  • Dr. Ken Leistner favored them over bench press for chest development
  • Strength Coach legend Bill Star has praised dips in his fantastic article The Quest for a Stronger Overhead Press for their ability to improve pressing performance. In the article, he tells about Mavin Eder a natural bodybuilder who back in the 50’s was able at a body weight of 198lbs (89.9kg) to do a dip with 434lbs (196.9kg) attached to him. This was very likely helpful in his ability to press (standing overhead press) 355lbs (161kg) and bench press 575lbs (260.8kg).

The potential disadvantages of dips
  • It is easy to go down too far and injury the shoulder
  • Dips place the shoulder in a hyperextended position which may even with proper form stress a healthy shoulder
  • Dips can bother the chest (where the sternum and ribs connect) for some individuals (I have had this occasionally with younger male athletes

The application:
  • As with anything, form is important. Click HERE for an instructional video of dips
  • I do not think it is wise to “outlaw” dips (or most exercises for that matter), but it is also unwise to assume that they are an appropriate exercise for everyone
  • If you experience pain during or after doing Dips, it may be best just to leave them
  • If you have issues with your shoulder or thoracic spine mobility, it may be better to take care of that before even considering Dips
  • I typically do not use Dips with athletes or clients who have a history of “shoulder issues”
  • I am leery of using Dips for athletes who play sports that place a lot of stress on the shoulder in the form of overuse (e.g. volleyball, baseball) or collision (e.g. football, hockey)
  • If you are a trainer be extra careful if you choose to use dips with your clients and discuss the advantages and disadvantages with them first
  • I never use bench dips. While they are great for the triceps, they force the body to be even more upright and place extra, unnecessary stress on the shoulder joint
  • Avoid extremes positions in most cases. Bodybuilding literature often talks about excessive leaning forward with flared elbows to emphasize the chest or staying very upright with elbows tucked to isolate the triceps. While I fully agree that these positions will help isolate these areas, they also place a lot of extra stress on the joints and are not appropriate or necessary for most people. I generally use a moderate amount of forward lean and avoid flaring the elbows.
  • Be controlled on the way down and ease slowly into the bottom position (do not bounce out of the bottom)
  • Use a full, but natural, pain free range of motion. Partial dips are like partial squats – they are great for stroking your ego, but not good for building strength & muscle. However, excessively deep dips can wreak your shoulders
  • If possible, consider using a V-bar as opposed to a parallel bar for dips. The V-bar allows you to move up or down the V to find your most comfortable hand width. Also, I personally find it less stressful on the shoulders than parallel bars.
  • A close-grip bench press or push-up (by close I mean shoulder width) are great alternatives to Dips.
  • More recently, I have been doing dips with suspension straps. They are very humbling and far more difficult to do than regular dips, but I find the freedom for my body to move naturally with the free-moving handles to be very comfortable on my shoulders.

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