Although there has been a recent upsurge in the popularity of chin-ups, there hasn’t been as much enthusiasm for parallel bar dips. Bodybuilders say it tears apart the shoulders, personal trainers say it’s too difficult for most of their clients, and strength coaches complain that it’s not sport specific. It’s time to look at the facts and fallacies about an exercise that was once a staple in athletic and physical fitness programs.
If you go back to the early days when YMCAs were the gym of choice, you’ll find that dip stations were often available – or, perhaps, gymnastic parallel bars. But now, except for those revolutionary “suspension rings” that have been hitting the strength circuit, gymnastic equipment and dedicated dip machines simply are not available. At least, with chin-ups you can use a crossbar in a power rack. However, even if you wanted to perform dips, you are now lacking the means to do them.
When you think of dips, you usually think of chins. When dips are combined with chin-ups, as they often were in bygone days, you have a great upper body combo. Even if you don’t do a single fly, pulldown, triceps pressdown or biceps curl – you can develop great upper body strength and muscle mass with chins and dips. Want proof? Just look at the upper body development of gymnasts, whose conditioning programs usually never include barbells and dumbbells. Chins and dips are, you might say, exercises that give you the most “bang for your buck.” And the old-time bodybuilders knew this – especially Brooklyn’s Marvin Eder.
Eder’s most significant bodybuilding accomplishment was placing third in the 1951 AAU Mr. America, considered one of the most prestigious competitions at the time. He weighed 198 pounds at 5-feet-8 and sported 19-inch arms. As with many bodybuilders in his era, Eder complemented his muscle building workouts with Olympic lifts and power lifts. Pound-for-pound, Eder had few equals. Among his most notable strength feats were a 355-pound clean and press, 285 snatch, 345 clean and jerk (with a 365 clean), 665 full squat and (just for fun) 300 pounds for squats for 50 reps! But it was his upper body strength that was especially impressive. Here are some of his lifts: bench press 515 (raw); wide-grip chins, 8 reps with 80 pounds; 8 consecutive one-arm chins with one arm; and a parallel bar dip with 400 pounds for 7 reps and one rep with an additional 434 pounds (accomplished by having two men hang from his feet).
In the area of muscular endurance, in 1954 Jack La LaLanne completed 1,000 vertical dips in less than 35 minutes without leaving the bars. Although Simon Kent completed 3,989 dips in 1998 for a Guinness World Record, consider that the video of his performance showing that his arms never came close to being parallel to the floor.
Powerlifters used to be big on dips. Pat Casey, the first man to officially bench press 600 pounds (raw), weighed 340 pounds and could perform a parallel bar dip with an additional 380 pounds. However, now that bench shirts help with the drive off the chest, the exercise has been replaced in favor of board or towel presses. Although pressdowns and French presses are fine for bodybuilders, as they offer different recruitment patterns, such isolation movements are not nearly as effective as dips. But the primary reason most athletes avoid dips is laziness – they are hard work!
As for terminology, the standing position is with the arms extended so that the body is balanced by the hands on the bars. The movement begins with the triceps contracting to control the descent of the movement. As with the descent of the bench press, the descent in dips must be controlled to avoid injury. Dr. Richard Dominguez, an orthopedic surgeon who co-authored Total Body Training with bodybuilding champion Bob Gajda, said that rapid descent in the bench press was a primary cause of injury among his bodybuilding clientele who required shoulder surgery.
Dips work the anterior shoulders, pectorals and triceps – many of the same muscle groups worked by the bench press. In any list of best-ever triceps exercises, it would be hard-pressed to find one equal to dips. According to MRI research by Per A. Tesch, PhD, dips are superior to close-grip bench presses for developing all three heads of the triceps. As a bonus, the trapezius and many other back muscles are involved in dips to provide stability. Dips are hard work, and women and heavier individuals often have trouble performing a single repetition. Let’s start with the easy way out. If you are not strong enough to do dips, there are many variations of dip-assisting machines that will help you. With some designs you stand on a footplate, and with others have you kneel on a platform. With these devices the platform connects with a pulley mechanism to a weight stack. Increasing the weight in turn produces more upward force to the platform, such that virtually anyone can perform the exercise through a full range of motion. However, you don’t need a high-tech machine to do dips.
Here are two variations of dips that don’t require the use of machines: (1) Starting with the arms extended in the locked position, flex one knee and have a training partner grasp that ankle and provide as much assistance as needed – be careful not to knee your training partner. (2) Stand inside a power rack and place a barbell across the safety pins, set slightly above mid-thigh level. Bend one knee and place your ankle across the barbell-this will serve to reduce the amount of weight your upper body must lift. Both of these variations effectively reduce the amount of weight your upper body must lift.
Bodybuilding guru Vince Gironda recommended using a reverse grip (palms facing away from the body) in dips. The trainee would round the upper back, chin to chest, elbows pointed straight out, feet together, toes pointed down and under the face. Such a variation is a bit harsh on the shoulders. Regarding those who encounter shoulder injuries from dips, the problem often can be traced to structural imbalances. Further, dips are best performed on a V-shaped dip apparatus, which accommodates a greater variety of body types.
As your dipping strength increases, you will need to increase resistance by (1) having a training partner pull down on your ankles, (2) holding a dumbbell between your ankles or (3) using a chin/dip belt (although the belts used by mountain climbers can also be used for this purpose). Holding a dumbbell securely is more difficult to coordinate compared to using the belt, and eventually the weights you will use on this exercise will become too heavy to hold in this manner.
Another great variation is to attach lifting chains to a chin-dip belt, as the chains will make the exercise more difficult at the top of the movement where you are strongest.
Dips are a great exercise for bodybuilders, powerlifters and anyone who just wants to be strong. For old times’ sake, at least give this “old school” exercise a chance – you might just love it!