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Jim Tip: Dipping Differences

Learn how to do dips for both the chest and triceps (two distinct variations) to build maximum upper-body size and strength.

Jim Tip: Dipping Differences

Dips are a great muscle-building exercise for the upper body because they allow you to overload your muscles with considerably more weight than you'd use for an isolation exercise – and often for relatively high reps (depending on your strength level, of course). Think about it: A 200-pound guy banging out 15 dips is doing a fairly high-rep set with a pretty heavy weight (200 pounds). That's a great way to build some muscle!

But which muscles are you building with dips: the pecs or the triceps? Gym goers have been debating this for decades. And the answer is, it depends on how you're doing them. You can do dips one way to target the chest and another way to emphasize the triceps. Do you know the difference between these two dipping variations? Most people don't, so I'll break it down for you point by point.

Dips For Chest

  • When it comes to doing dips for chest, use a set of bars that place your hands outside of shoulder-width. Some parallel bars are wide on one end and narrow on the other; use the wide end for chest. Some assisted dip stations I've seen have narrow and wide settings where the ends of the bars can be flipped one way or the other (and typically on assisted dip machines you can fold up the pad for body-weight dips). However, many dip stations have only one fixed setting, so just try and find one that's relatively wide. 
  • Once you're up on the bars, bend your knees and push your legs back as far as possible. This turns your torso more horizontal and places greater emphasis on the chest.
  • When you lower your body, allow your elbows to flare out to the sides.
  • Stop when your upper arms are about parallel with the floor. Going any lower than that will only stress the shoulder joints and won't add much to your chest growth.
  • Be sure to focus on contracting your pecs as you press up, and flex them hard at the top without locking out your elbows.
  • Using these critical tips will help you use more of your chest when you dip and less of your shoulders and triceps.

Dips For Triceps

  • When it comes to doing dips for triceps, the body mechanics are pretty much the opposite of what you want to do for chest. For starters, you should use a grip no wider than shoulder-width. Opt for the narrower setting on dip bars when possible.
  • On both the descent and ascent of each rep, keep your body as vertical as possible. You can accomplish this by keeping your legs straight down below you, which will position your body more upright and place more emphasis on the triceps.
  • When you lower your body, keep your elbows tucked in to your sides and pointing back behind you.
  • As with the chest-focused version, lower down only until your upper arms are parallel with the floor.
  • Focus solely on the triceps as you push yourself back up and flex your triceps as hard as you can in the top position, reaching full lock out. This last point is important. Locking out the elbows – those last few inches of the rep – is all triceps.
  • Using these tips when doing dips will ensure that you're mainly targeting the triceps while minimizing the focus on the chest and shoulders.

Strength Matters

Where you do dips in your chest and/or triceps workout depends on your strength. If you can't do at least 10 body-weight dips, do them at the beginning of your workout when you're fresh to help build more strength on the exercise. Once you can do 10 or more dips with your body weight, you can move dips to later in your workouts, after your major pressing exercises (bench press, incline press and dumbbell presses for chest and close-grip bench press for triceps). In fact, dips make for a great finishing (burn out) exercise for either a chest or triceps workouts.

Adding Weight

Feel free to add resistance to your body weight for weighted dips by using a weight chain with a plate dangling from it or a weight vest -- just do so wisely. Progress slowly, adding only a five- or 10-pound plate at first until that ceases to be challenging for your desired rep count.

When deciding whether or not to do weighted dips, my "10 dip" rule above is good reference. If you're not able to do at least 10 consecutive body-weight dips with good form and full range of motion, you're probably better off not doing your dips weighted. One exception to this rule would be for the person who can do, say, nine body-weight dips but really wants to focus on upper-body pressing strength with a couple sets of five or six reps on dips. In this case, go ahead and add around 10 pounds of resistance for the low rep counts. 

Seeking Assistance?

There's no shame in utilizing the assisted dip machine if you can only do a few reps (or less) of body-weight dips. Just don't let the assisted dip machine be your crutch. Make it your specific goal to graduate to body-weight dips as soon as possible. Better yet, work however many body-weight dips you can into your assisted dip workout.

For example, let's say you want to do three sets of 12 dips, but you can't do anywhere close to that with your body weight. For each set, do as many as you can unassisted (whether that's five dips, three, one or even half a rep), then, upon reaching failure on bod-weight dips, immediately switch over to assisted dips and rep out until you reach 12 reps. Just make sure you pick the right amount of assisted weight. If you use too much assistance, that 12th rep might be too easy. In that case, lighten the amount of resistance the machine provides on the next set. (Remember, in the case of assisted dips or pull-ups, the heavier you go on the machine, the easier it will be.)

So, hopefully you now have a good grasp on how to use dips for both the chest and triceps, as well as when and how to use weighted and assisted dips. For a video demostration on chest vs. triceps dips, here's a video I shot a few years ago:


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