February 15, 2022 9 min read
Parallel dips are a progression of the tricep dip that also work your chest and shoulders. But any move that puts weight on the shoulder joint like this one has to be done with the proper form to be effective and avoid injury.
Read this guide to learn all about the parallel bar dip including how it’s done, what it does for your muscles, and how you might try programming it into your workout routine.
Before we walk you through bar dips, you have to know how to get on the bars. You may have seen parallel bars at gymnastics events and even watched a professional use them, but it’s unlikely you picked up on the way they held themselves on the bars.
You can use a dip machine, dip bars, parallettes, squat rack attachment, or the dip station at your local gym.
The idea is to stand in between two bars with one on each side of you, grab onto each with a neutral grip, and lift your feet so your body weight is supported entirely by the bars.
Seems pretty simple as far as form goes, right? It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. First of all, you need to protect your shoulder joint from bearing the entire brunt of your weight.
Shoulders are one of the most common injury sites among weightlifters and powerlifters.
You could be put out of training for weeks or months if your shoulder is so hurt it can’t bear weight, so you need to take great care when you’re doing these straight bar dips.
Here’s what you need to do to get into the proper parallel bar position:
With these simple positioning instructions, you should be able to avoid injury. If you feel pulling or pain, stop the rep.
It’s possible your serratus anterior, an often-overlooked muscle that helps with scapular retraction, is too weak and needs some training before you can execute more dips.
Remember the positioning tips we went over in the last section to make sure your pecs and triceps are working to support your weight rather than the rotator cuff and shoulder.
Follow these steps to execute flawless parallel bar dips:
Parallel bar dips are generally known as a chest and upper arm exercise since they concentrate force on your pecs and triceps muscles. Your shoulders also see some activation while back muscles help in the second phase.
More specifically, parallel bar dips work your pectoralis major, triceps brachii, front deltoids, rhomboid, latissimus dorsi, and levator scapulae.
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Leaning forward and putting your chest in front of your elbows are what make this primarily a chest dip rather than a tricep dip. You’ll notice when you do bench dips, the upper body is straight. You can keep your body straight on parallel bar dips to target the tricep more.
We’ve already given you a bunch of form notes on the parallel bar dip but we haven’t quite covered all the ways people make mistakes with this dip exercise. Here are the 5 most common dip form errors:
As with any other exercise, you build muscle better when you go through your target’s entire range of motion. In this case, that's the pectoral muscles, which have a huge range of motion.
Other muscles like the anterior deltoid also need complete movement to maximize gains.
In short, that means you have to dip down entirely and lift back up to the starting position on every single rep.
Pay attention to that elbow joint. It needs to get to a 90-degree angle.Your shoulder should also sink just barely lower than the elbow at the lowest point of the parallel bar dip. And when you come back to the starting position, make sure you reset entirely to give your muscles the biggest possible challenge.
All the way up, all the way down, moving particularly slowly during the eccentric phase to push your pecs, triceps, and deltoids to their limits. A full lockout at the top of the exercise also makes each rep more consistent.
If you want to shred your rotator cuff, sprint through this exercise as fast as possible. You’ll also be robbing yourself of possible gains since your muscles won’t face nearly as big a challenge if you’re moving too quickly.
Controlled movement maximizes the strain on the muscles and muscle groups at work during the exercise.
You want to keep your muscles in the phase of the exercise when they’re under the greatest strain, which in this case is the initial downward phase. Not only are you more prone to injury, but you’re also going to start making many more form errors if you go too fast. That means a lower likelihood of any significant growth in muscle mass.
As our muscles get tired, the body tries to compensate with other muscles to get through the strain. You might have seen people ‘kipping’ during pull-ups, chin-ups, and dips, making use of lower-body momentum to raise the body past the pull-up bar or get the arms fully extended in the case of a dip. That’s a great way to take the load off the chest and triceps, robbing them of any gains. Plus, it speeds things up, which makes injury more likely, as we pointed out in the last section.
Slow and steady wins the race.
The erratic motion of kipping and the awkward movement that happens when momentum enters the equation will ruin this exercise for you and could make injury more likely.
If you catch yourself trying to kick or moving your lower body at all to get more power, you’re probably past the proper rep limit. Curving the lower back is another sign you’re trying to use momentum during your parallel bar dips. You might not notice because it’s something the body can do sort of subconsciously, so mind your spine as you move through your reps on this exercise.
Ideally, your parallel bars are shoulder-width apart or slightly wider.
That ought to give you the perfect amount of control while also making your muscles work hard to get through the dip. Some people have longer or shorter arms, making a more narrow or wider grip better suited to them. But they don’t change their parallel dip style to individualize it because they think the discomfort in their shoulders is just ‘feeling the burn’ as they should be. This is mostly a mistake beginners make because they don’t know how to customize their workouts yet.
That being said, some seasoned fitness enthusiasts forget and fall into the same trap, so it’s important to be on the alert for it no matter what your experience level. Learn the difference between the burn you feel as muscles turn acidic in a workout and discomfort from moving your body the wrong way.
Remember how we focused on pulling the shoulder blades back and down during the initial discussion about proper bar form at the beginning of this guide? That’s to prevent your shoulders from shrugging and swallowing your neck during the dip. When you do this, you’re taking pressure off the chest and moving it to the shoulder, which you don’t want to do.
The most common cause is that your muscles are fatiguing and you’re trying to make it to the end of the set.
If you can’t get through your reps without your shoulders raising, you’re aiming too high. Reduce your sets by 2 - 5 reps and use other bodyweight exercises and tricep exercises to build upper body strength before increasing your goal rep count again.
The parallel bar dip is one of the best exercises for transitioning between back, shoulder, and chest exercises.
Whichever way you have your exercise plan scheduled for the week, this dip fits well in between days or between targeted routines if you like to work out different parts of the body on the same day. It’s also perfect for moving through a really wide range of motion at the shoulder and elbow without relying on barbells or dumbbells. The elbows and shoulders can be put through almost their entire range of motion in an upward and downward direction.
Progressions are also simple enough with parallel bar dips.
Once you find that you can easily do 2 or more reps higher than your goal rep count, you can add weight in the form of weight plates held between your feet or, for a safer option, attached to a dip belt.
If you’re into weightlifting and just want an effective bodyweight exercise for non-gym days, you should consider using the parallel bar dip to fill intervals in your training program or move your chest to full exhaustion. Bench presses are a more dangerous way to get your pecs to full exhaustion, but you can superset parallel bar dips and push-ups to get it done without the risk of dropping a barbell on yourself.
We’ve already talked about the utility of parallel bar dips as a transitional exercise. Let’s look at some examples.
If you have a 5-day workout split that looks like this:
Then you might use parallel bar dips as a triceps and deltoid exercise on day one and again as a pectoral exercise on day three.
The beauty of this particular 5-day split is that you can use the dip on both arm and chest day because leg day is scheduled in between.
The best place to program a parallel bar dip is after pull-ups or chin-ups. You can also use them as one part of a larger training program to build your pull-up strength.
If you have bench presses or barbell rows in an upper-body routine, the parallel dip is a great follow-up for those as well.
To some extent, you can practice some core discipline with this dip, although there are better core exercises out there. If there was a third day when the parallel bar dip might be useful, it would probably be as a back exercise on day five.
Progressing past the dip as it’s laid out in our step-by-step in this guide can be done with a dip belt and additional weight.
Some people prefer to put a heavy chain over their shoulders instead because it won’t throw you off your balance the way a swinging weight plate might.
If you’re having trouble mastering it, you can use a resistance band to assist you during the eccentric phase of the exercise.
Another good way to build up strength for more parallel bar dips is to support yourself on the bars without dipping.
Once you can do 4 sets of 8 - 12 reps of these dips, add more weight before you start adding more reps or sets. That’s what will get you bigger pecs and triceps while increasing the rep count will build endurance capacity in those muscles.
You’ll be surprised how much difference this simple dip exercise makes in your chest or arm day routine. Make sure you follow the form tip in this guide so you can execute a flawless parallel bar dip with minimal injury risk to your shoulder joint.