When talking about building muscle in the upper body, specifically in the chest, deltoids and triceps, we can only talk about a select few movements that are known to bring the best results.
The bench press is the number one choice for almost all lifters. The second place is then a mix of push-ups, dips, dumbbell bench, incline, narrow grip,…everyone has their own preference and needs.
But in this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the dip and how it works together with the bench press, who should use it and when. Is it really better than the bench press, and if so, why?
First, let’s take a look at the dip.
Dips – The Technique
You start off in a parallel bar (or a V-bar) support with your arms locked and pressed down. From there, you lower yourself to a certain depth (more on that later) and return to the starting position.
This movement works the chest, deltoids and triceps equally well and is a staple in many bodybuilding and strength programs.
It is called the “upper body squat”, both because it is so effective and because both are often performed wrong. Some trainers, like Mike Mentzer, recommend it even over the bench press. It used to be a favorite of many old school bodybuilders such as Marvin Eder and Pat Casey.
Yet, as we will see, not everyone likes it.
Two Ways To Dip And The Injury Risk
The “type” of dips depends on the depth you descend to. Most trainers advocate to only lower yourself until your upper arms are parallel to the floor or slightly below (drawing a parallel with the back squat).
The second type is the “full” dip, where the shoulders come very close to the hands at the bottom. However, there are some problems with this variation.
Why? Because the dip is a closed chain exercise, your shoulders aren’t fixed to anything. Thus, they can move freely and, if you lack control, can move in ways not conducive to health.
The lower you go, the more prone you are to let your shoulders go into anterior tilt: a fancy name for letting them hunch forward. In that position, all sorts of bad stuff like impingement and overuse injuries can develop.
So, how do we insure good form? First of all, if you can’t do at least 15-20 push-ups, you are not ready for dips. And I don’t mean the stuff we were doing at gym class; I mean perfect reps. That alone should take care of the problem in most cases.
Then, when you are doing dips, always make sure your shoulders stay neutral and your spine as well. Do not let them roll forward or shrug to your ears. A neutral spine is not only a strong base to express strength from, but also leads to better movement.
And now the eternal question:
To Go to Full Depth or Not?
If you are a general fitness enthusiast and care primarily about muscle mass and strength, I’d say no: there is no need to go much below parallel. Not everyone has the skeletal construction that will allow such movement; and there is no need. You can get just as strong and muscular with “regular” dips.
That said, a certain group of people do need to be able to do a full range-of-motion dip. Anyone who is interested in gymnastics exercises like the muscle up or the iron cross needs to be capable of easily doing full dips. They are a prerequisite for many advanced exercises which demand much more shoulder strength and mobility.
Bench Press Vs Dips Comparison
Both movement target the upper body well.
However, the bench press allows us to use more weight and therefore put a larger load on the muscles. It is because of that more useful in building better overall upper body strength. There is a reason it is used in NFL Combine tests.
In comparison, the dips has by far the lower loading potential. Even 45 pounds added to dips will make them much harder. Strapping weights that equal your bodyweight to yourself and repping out a few is a feat that takes dedicated training and time. But due to different leverage, the lower weight will still produce a similar hypertrophy response.
Both exercises have similar injury potentials, meaning that they are safe as long as they are done with correct form.
Synergy Between Bench Press and Dips
What now? Do we dump the bench press and hail the dip as our one true exercise? Well, maybe not yet.
As I said before, some people have either preexisting shoulder problems or injuries which prevent them from doing dips safely. For those people, push-ups can usually be a great substitute.
If you can do dips safely without injury, you might want to do them exclusively. However, I would advise against that. While they offer pretty complete development of the chest, shoulders and triceps, they are more lower-chest focused. For complete growth of both the upper and lower fibers of the pec major, include incline or flat bench.
Usually, the bench press will take the place of the main exercise and dips will be an accessory, included to maximize muscle gains. As such, you should do them for 4-6 sets of 6-12 reps. Once only your bodyweight becomes easy, get yourself a weight vest or a dip belt and add some more.
Dips aren’t bad. Any exercise has an inherent risk of injury: IF it is done incorrectly.
Dips aren’t better than bench. Bench isn’t better than dips.
For best results, combine both in your program. You can choose either as a focus, or, if you are pressed for time and want a shorter workout, only use one.
Using neither of them is the only thing that would be a sin.