One of the best exercises that have been used since the dawn of fitness training are dips done between parallel bars. In this exercise, you use your own bodyweight (or adding to your bodyweight) to grind, pound and yes, sweat your way into superb upper body strength and fitness. This exercise is outstanding for both activating the chest and triceps and many accessory muscles of the shoulder girdle in ways that cannot be fully accomplished by other exercises. Dips are mechanically simple, but this exercise is far from easy.
Muscles Activated by Dips
Dips are somewhat akin to a severe form of a push-up or a bench press and use many of the same muscles as these two standbys. The largest muscle activated by dips is the two-headed pectoralis major muscle. The clavicular head of the pectoralis major begins along the anterior (front) surface of the clavicle (collarbone). The sternocostal head attaches from the manubrium (the top portion of the sternum or “breast bone”), the upper six ribs and in some people, as low as the external oblique muscle of the abdominal wall. Both heads of the pectoralis major muscle come together and attach to the head of the humerus bone of the upper arm near the shoulder joint. The pectoralis major muscle has several functions, and these depend in part on the position of the arm. It adducts the humerus (draws the arm toward the midline of the body) and medially rotates the humerus arm bone at the shoulder joint where both parts of the pectoralis major act together. Acting alone, the clavicular head helps to flex the humerus (moves the humerus bone of the upper arm anteriorly). In dips, the pectoralis largely acts to flex the humerus at the shoulder.
The triceps brachii is strongly activated by dips. The long head of the triceps runs from the scapula (shoulder blade) just below the shoulder joint and it joins the other heads of the triceps brachii to cross the elbow and attach to the ulnar bone in the forearm. The lateral head of the triceps begins high on the humerus bone but does not cross the shoulder joint. The medial head of the triceps begins in the middle of the humerus and is mostly buried by the other two heads, but part of it can be seen above the elbow. The long head of the triceps or the “inner head” achieves the greatest activation in dips, because it is active at both the shoulder (extends the shoulder joint by pulling the upper arm backward) and the elbow (extends or straightens the elbow joint).
Parallel Bar Dips
You don’t need the gymnastic length of parallel bars to do the exercise, as short bars will work well. The bars should be only slightly wider than shoulder-width. Bars that are too wide risk hurting some of the rotator cuff muscles. Your hands should be semi-pronated as you grab the bar. You should begin with only your own bodyweight, but soon this will not be enough.
1. Jump up so that your bodyweight is supported through straight elbows. It is usually too traumatic on the shoulders to do your first repetition from the down position. Starting at the top will allow the shoulders and elbows to contract and be prepared for the difficult climb.
2. Lean forward, and then slowly lower your body between the bars by bending your elbows. Lower your body until your hands are in line with your axilla (armpit). This full stretch is critical because it allows the arms to be extended as far as possible, and this position fully activates the pectoralis major. However, if you have not stretched your chest to this degree before, or if you have had a shoulder injury, you should stop before this point, and then proceed lower on subsequent workouts.
3. After pausing for two seconds in the down position, you are ready for the trip upward. Your elbows should be wide and pointing away from your body if you wish to fully activate the pectoralis muscles. This is because the arm will be medially rotated and the pectoralis will attempt to stabilize and pull the upper arms toward the center of the body (adduction). This activates the medial and lower sections of the pectoralis muscle more completely than if the elbows are close together. In addition, you should continue to lean forward (chin toward your chest) to emphasize the inferior (lower) fibers in the pectoralis muscle. If, instead you want the triceps to take the majority of the work, you should keep your body vertical (do not lean forward) and keep the elbows close to your side (not wide) during both the up and down movement. You should, however, recognize that in this position, the triceps will rapidly fatigue and they will give out long before the chest.
4. After enough training time has passed so that you can easily reach the full, stretched position at the bottom (and can do 10 good reps in your set), you can make the upward push rather explosive. However, if you are quite tight and not used to the stretch, do not explode upward, but push at a constant and smooth cadence as you straighten your elbows (make sure the elbows do not come close to the ribs as you are moving upward).
After a couple of months with dips, you will be ready to turn up the intensity a little more. At the point that you are unable to do any more complete repetitions, slowly drop to the bottom and push up as high as you can, then drop back to the bottom again for the push upward. You will not go to the top, but with these partial contractions, the shoulder flexion and adduction/stabilizing functions of the pectoralis are still stressed. Alternatively, you can do negative (eccentric) repetitions after your triceps are fatigued. You will simply use your legs (push with your feet) and “jump” to the top position, then slowly lower to the rock-bottom position as you resist gravity. Three or four negative-only repetitions are enough to finish your set. If you lose the downward control, stop the set.
It is important that you control your torso as you lower it, otherwise you risk injuring the tendon insertions of the pectoralis and/or the elbow joint by a free fall. If you only lower part of the way down you will activate the medial and lateral heads of the triceps, but if this is all you do, then there will be very little for the pectoralis muscles. Thus, to fully activate the clavicular head of your pectoralis fibers, you must drop down deeply so that your hands are at the level of your axilla.
Dips are certain to activate untapped muscle fibers in your chest, shoulders and triceps and their only choice is to get stronger and larger. Before very long, you will have progressed in this very basic exercise so that 100 pounds tied around your waist or attached to the chain of a weight belt would not be abnormal. That’s not bad progress! However, do this slowly at first, particularly as you come up from the bottom. After a few weeks, you will begin to progress quite rapidly. Be very careful about driving upward in an explosive manner with a lot of weight, and do this only after you have had a few months for your tendons to accommodate to the stress and stretch of the movement.
Machines certainly have important roles in modern training programs and they are also great for rehabilitative purposes after an injury. However, sometimes returning to very basic training routes like dips makes a lot of sense. With dips, you can use this very simple exercise from the dark ages of fitness training to develop a 21st century torso.
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