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September 06, 2020 10 min read

When the sun’s out, the guns should be out as well. And while the “guns” usually mean our show-stealing biceps, it’s just as (if not more) important to give proper attention to the triceps.

The often less impressive cousin of the bicep, triceps are usually more visible from the backside and less-so from the gym mirror when you’ve got a good pump on. However, if you want to fill out those sleeves, building muscle on your triceps is absolutely essential.

Not only are the triceps larger than the biceps when it comes to muscle mass, but stronger triceps will also mean an improvement in your other lifts—especially if they’re lagging behind.

So, when an exercise comes around that not only hits all three heads of the tricep muscle but also requires minimal equipment, then it’s probably a good idea to incorporate it into your routine.

More Than Just the Triceps

While the name “tricep dip” might suggest that the movement is an isolation exercise, that wouldn’t be further from the truth.

Yes, dips do primarily engage the triceps, but your entire upper body is utilized in the movement—which makes this a great exercise for upper body workout days. There are three primary muscle groups that are engaged during a dip.

When it comes to the physiology behind the exercise, the triceps are the biggest movers. They serve to straighten your arms, and therefore they move your body up from the bottom of the movement. As the name “tri-cep” suggests, this muscle is actually made up of three heads. And if you do the tricep dip properly, you can expect gains in all three.

The second-largest movers are the pecs and the delts (shoulders). Much like the bench press, dips are a pushing exercise, and the physiology behind the movement also shares a lot of similarities.

You’re pushing the body up much like you press the bar away while bench pressing, and so you can expect gains in the chest and shoulder region—especially with the anterior deltoids.

Another (often overlooked) muscle group that’s important to keep in mind is the abdominals. You must keep these engaged throughout the exercise in order for your spine to stay in a neutrally aligned position throughout. This will stabilize you, make the movement easier, and develop a 6-pack to complement your huge arms.

And lastly, we have the forearm muscles which will be needed in order to keep your body up and stable as well. An essential part of having a strong grip.

A man doing tricep dips.

What’s the Big Deal with Dips?

If you want a little more inspiration than just the promise of massive arms, then this section is for you.

First things first: the functionality of the movement.

Whatever you might need to be able to push in life, tricep dips will make sure that you’re prepared. Whether you’re pushing a heavy shopping cart or push-starting a car, your triceps are going to be the ones doing the heavy lifting. So, it makes sense to get them ready for whatever life might throw at them.

The engagement of your chest and front delts will also help you whenever it comes to lifting anything. Anything from a kid to a barbell will be easier to lift if you’ve got strong pecs and shoulder muscles.

Lastly, your core muscles will also see measurable improvement. The abdominals are one of the most functionally used muscles in your body. Not only do they help to improve posture, but also maintain spine alignment, improve stability, and improve the transfer of power throughout the body. Plus, no one can really scoff at a 6-pack.

But What About…?

There is arguably no better lower body exercise than the squat. If you’re looking for strong legs, look no further than the barbell squat. Sure, the details can be argued but the squat will always remain in the upper echelons of lifts. 

So, when the dip is called the squat of the upper body, it’s high praise indeed. 

Don’t get us wrong, there are a number of contenders for the title of “upper body squat”; but the dip is probably one of the strongest. Significant similarities even lie in the physiological movement of the body in each respective exercise. Both the dip and the squat require the upper arm (or upper leg in the case of the squat) to be eccentrically lowered to at least parallel with the floor. Then, the movement is reversed by rising concentrically. 

But that doesn’t really answer the question of why dips are arguably the best tricep exercise, and potentially the best front-upper body overall exercise.

When it comes to bodyweight exercises, push-ups are often seen as comparable to dips because of the muscles worked. The fact is that you’ll never be able to overload the triceps or the chest with a push-up as much as you can with a dip. Not only are you pushing your entire body weight (unlike just a fraction of it with a push-up), but it’s also much easier to do dips weighted, with a dip belt.

When it comes to weight, triceps dips will also allow you to lift much higher loads than tricep pushdowns or skull crushers—two popular alternatives to building big tri's.

So, What about the Bench Press?

While you will be able to overload your muscles more (and hence, get them bigger) with the traditional bench press; this lift will place an emphasis on the chest and shoulders—but especially the chest. Dips, on the other hand, have a more well-rounded engagement of the triceps, delts, and pecs. 

Additionally, the bench press needs equal amounts delt to pec power, which means your delts are more likely to get gassed out before the chest has been properly engaged. However, dips engage the chest more than the delts, and can, therefore, develop the chest better. There’s also the fact that dips will make the chest wider and thicker, while the bench press will only make it thicker.

A Note on Mobility 

But part of what makes dips so great is also what can make them more difficult, or even impossible, for some people to do.

The bench press, while a terrific exercise, can impinge on your shoulder mobility in the long run. If you’ve got jacked up shoulders or shoulder mobility issues, dips are probably not the way to go. However, if that’s not an issue for you then dips are a great way to strengthen and stretch shoulders at the bottom of the movement.

Completing a dip with a full range of motion (either to parallel or slightly below) is a difficult task if you have rotator cuff issues—but working up to a proper dip makes it that much more important. 

And a full range of motion and mobility isn’t just useful for your other lifts, but it’s also a necessary ingredient for the longevity of your muscles and shoulder joints.

What is important, however, is not to push yourself too hard when you’re starting out. If half-reps are all you can manage, then that’s better than getting injured. Below we’ll look at the proper way to do dips, so you can avoid shoulder injury and say hello to both bigger arms and more functional strength training.

How to Dip 

For the basic dip, all you really need is a dip bar (or parallel bars), making it a terrific option for home workouts. The bars should be parallel and stable, and your grip should be at shoulder-width apart. If you’ve got extra-wide or slim shoulders, then the available equipment might prove more difficult to use. There’s also the option of dipping in between benches or rings, but we’ll look into that further down below.

This is how you complete a dip:

1. To begin the movement, step or jump up between the bars and lift yourself up so your arms are straight. This is the start position.

2. Keep your core and glutes engaged in order to prevent swinging. Keeping your chin raised and chest high will also help.

3. Slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself down over the course of 2 to 3 seconds; the longer the better, since this will increase your time under tension and help with muscle growth.

4. The bottom of the movement will be when your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, parallel to the floor—or slightly lower. But don’t overextend at the bottom, especially if you have poor shoulder mobility or are new to the exercise.

5. At the bottom of the movement, pause for a couple of seconds and then press up powerfully. Remember to keep your glutes and core engaged in order to stop yourself from swinging.

6. Once you get back into the starting position, try to avoid locking out your elbows. This will increase the tension in your triceps, thereby stimulating more muscle growth.

7. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

While the movement seems to be a simple one overall, there are a number of proper form tips to keep in mind. Not only will this make sure you’re not leaving any gains on the table, but it’ll also help you prevent injuries and overextending unnecessarily.

Dip Form Tips

As with most bodyweight exercises, proper engagement of the abdominals quickly becomes essential for the successful completion of the movement. This goes for everything from pull-ups to push-ups; from the beginning of the movement to the very end.

And while you will have to consciously engage more muscle groups, it will ultimately improve your ability to dip and the amount you can do. While you’ll be putting a stop to the swinging, your 6-pack will slowly be coming to the forefront. Furthermore, this will help your lower back from over-arching. Your spine should be kept in a neutral, straight position from the shoulders to the knees.

It can also be a good idea to train the abdominals independently if that’s your weak point with dips.

We’ve talked about the width of the grip before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Wide-set hands will put less tension on your triceps and more on your shoulders, risking injury, and unnecessary tension in this area. 

Another important thing to keep in mind is what your shoulders are doing. They should be pushed back and then down, without them rolling forward at all. It will help if you raise your chin and engage your neck muscles in order to prevent this part of the body from rolling around. 

Along with keeping your chin high, raise your chest as well. Between every rep when you’re at the top of the movement, push your chest forward and up.

While your torso will be slightly in an inclined position with a lean forward for balance, make sure that your forearms are kept vertical from both the front and the side. You don’t want your elbows flaring out or in, either. That’s why grip width is so important—so your hands are directly below your shoulders, but outside of your hips. This will help with the transfer of power, but while also keeping your shoulders safe from injury and the correct muscles engaged.

Common Problems to Avoid

When it comes to dips, they’re not just the “squat of the upper body” for the related general gains they bestow. The same goes for the common issues during the movements.

When it comes to squatting; we’ve obviously all seen the guy doing half reps and not going as low as he should. And on the other hand, there are those that don’t call a squat, a squat, unless they’re basically touching the ground. The story is similar when it comes to dips. 

There are those who’ll be chasing numbers and doing half-reps, with their arms coming far from parallel with the ground; and there are those who’ll dip down to extreme lengths. The drawbacks are the same for both squats and dips.

Doing half-reps, as we all know, is not good for muscle and strength development. Going through a limited range of motion will have limited benefits—obviously. But taking the range of motion to the extremes can also have bad effects on your joint health and longevity. The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

The balance between gains and safety is usually struck at around parallel, or slightly lower than parallel to the ground. It’s really not necessary to go lower than that but doing less will mean leaving gains on the table.

This type of cheating can also take the form of going much too fast throughout the movement. Whether we do it consciously or not, we tend to try to utilize the “bounce” at the bottom of movements in order to make the concentric movement easier. This goes for both squats and dips—and most other exercises for that matter.

When it comes to dips, doing them too fast will usually cause our shoulders to come out too far, especially later in the reps. Not only will controlling the rep speed help when it comes to avoiding injuries, but it’ll also help in giving our muscles more time under and tension, and therefore more gains. 

Variations of the Dip

It goes without saying that the dip is a difficult bodyweight exercise, so it’s helpful to start off with easier variations. On the other hand, whenever you work up to doing dips easily, it’s probably time to spice things up a little bit. 

The easiest variation is the bench dip with knees bent. All you need to do is place your hands on a bench (or other raised surface, like a sturdy chair) behind you and place your feet together with knees bent. Lower yourself slowly, and then return to the starting position. Thanks to the bent knees, most of your body weight is supported by your legs through the floor, rather than the triceps lifting you up. 

A natural progression from the above, you can also do bench dips with straightened legs. Putting your legs further out and increasing the angle forces your triceps to take on a higher proportion of your bodyweight.

Want to take it one step further? Place your legs on an elevated surface as well. This will further increase the proportion of your body weight that must be supported by your arms, but you’ll still be receiving some help from the legs. Before moving onto the main dip, you can also try looping resistance bands around the parallel bars and your legs in order to make things easier.

Lastly, we have two variations that add to the difficulty of the base dip. 

First, we have weighted dips. As the name suggests, these require you to either hold a dumbbell between your legs, or (the easier option) to attach a barbell plate to a dip belt. Whatever you choose, it becomes very easy to scale up the difficulty.

And finally, we have the ring dip. Done while holding two suspended gymnastics rings, this exercise is much more difficult since your body has to keep them close together—or else your shoulders are in for a world of pain. While much more dangerous and difficult, the difficulty can add a whole new dimension to build muscle and fill out your shirt sleeves.