In the world of designer barbells, bench press purists, and PR blowhards, the solution to your niggling shoulder pain, “tennis elbow,” and underwhelming amount of weight on the bar can be solved by adding one often overlooked exercise into your program.
I love programming this movement because I know that (when executed properly), nothing builds raw strength quite like it, nor allows you to master your own bodyweight.
In the world of chasing a bigger, more impressive bench, I understand that raw strength and mastering your bodyweight don’t sound like anything you do (or should) care about.
But, let me tell you…if you heed the words in the rest of this article, not only will you find yourself free of stabbing pains in your shoulder, that dull, throbbing elbow ache, or suffering the angst of being unable to slide more weight onto the bar…
…You’ll also find yourself crushing pain-free PR after pain-free PR in the weeks and months to come.
You ready, Kemosabe?
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Here’s the exercise I’ve been harping on about – the one that will help you eradicate injury, bulletproof your upper body, and add pounds to your bench press, quicker than you can imagine.
Folks, the exercise I’m rambling on about is DIPS, and here’s why:
Dips Will Help Heal And Eliminate Your Injuries
Think of your usual plan of attack for building up your bench:
- Endless pressing variations (incline, flat, decline, dumbbell, barbell, machine)
- Little (if any) focus on mastering your the weight of your own body (push-ups, dips, etc)
- Always, always, always working in a transverse plane of motion (horizontal, and upper body focused)
All of which amounts to your shoulder blades being rendered immobile, pinned to a bench, and unable to move freely as they need.
I mean, consider the cue you probably heard when you were learning to bench. It was likely something to the tune of:
“Pinch your shoulder blades, back, down, and keep them up there.”
So, you’ve got your shoulder blades literally on lockdown, then you’re going to hold hundreds of pounds above your face, that your shoulder blades need to support. Aaand then you’re going to rinse and repeat this cycle 2-3 times a week for months on end (or at least until the next time your shoulder starts twinging).
I wonder what could possibly go wrong?
This persistent lack of scapular movement can lead to, among other issue:
- An impinged biceps tendon (speaking from personal experience, you do not want this in your life)
- A subscapularis that doesn’t “wake up” or activate (also speaking from personal experience, this can create A LOT of unrelenting pain)
- Elbow pain (commonly known as “tennis elbow”)
In many cases, simply swapping out a few pressing variations in favour of *properly executed* dips can cure all of the above.
- Unlike damn near every other chest exercise, dips don’t pin your shoulder blades to a bench under hundreds of pounds. Instead, they allow your scapula to move freely – which aside from being a much needed change of pace, will help you build more stability, strength, and when you do return to pressing heavy…you’ll find yourself tossing around your old PRs for sets of 5. All thanks to a little more freedom of movement.
- Feeding off of the above, dips don’t have a fixed bar path that you’re locked into. Instead of forcing your body to conform to a line of movement that you may well not be suited for, you allow yourself to trash your chest (or triceps) in a way that allows your body to move freely, and naturally.
- As a result of the above, which will help reduce built-up, rampant inflammation from months of immobilizing your shoulder blades, angering your joints, tendons, and ligaments, I’ll bet my carbs for the week that your nagging aches, pains, and angry joints will dissipate, then heal.
All this factual speak aside, there’s one more aspect to dips worth mentioning:
Not only are you going to bulletproofing your body from injury, but you’re going to get a wicked upper body pump in the process.
And that’s good enough for me.
Dip Variation Is Plentiful
The further down the rabbit hole of muscle & strength I go, the more I realize that everything is interconnected, and by spending all your time trying to isolate one movement or one muscle, you’re leaving a lot of strength, muscle, and progress on the table.
A realization of which has led me to explore what I refer to as “Integrative Movements.”
(Note: I credit this my use of this term and class of exercises to Eugene Teo).
For our purpose, integrative movements refer to exercises that have you working in different planes of movement, and using multiple joints. Since someone is going to ask, it’s the ability to work in different places of movement that separate integrative movements from traditional compound movements.
In the context of this article, a properly executed dip requires your delts, serratus (to some extent), pecs, and triceps to come together in one cohesive movement. And, depending on your form, you can tweak dips to hammer your triceps OR your chest.
Here’s how your execution needs to be adjusted, depending on your target muscle:
- Torso angled forward 10-20 degrees (find your own sweet spot)
- Elbows pushed out to your side as you lower
- Think of jamming your biceps into your outer chest as you contract at the top
- Knees & feet slightly ahead of the rest of your body
- Your torso should be as upright as possible
- Elbows push back behind you as you lower
- As you push out of the bottom, lean back ever so slightly for a max contraction at the top (5-10 degrees)
Alright, alright, alright.
The pain and injury eradicating prowess of dips is now clear to you.
You understand the differences between chest and triceps dips.
And you get why you should be building dips into your training.
All of which leads to one unanswered question, and the culmination of this article:
“How The Bloody Hell Do I Build Dips Into My Program?”
As with many answers in fitness, I’m going to have to revert to the old adage of “it depends.”
Rather than try to cover the proper application of dips from every single angle, I’m going to highlight the two most common uses (which also happen to be the ones I have personal experience with – either with clients or with myself): Damage Control and Taking A Preemptive Strike.
#1. Damage Control
If you’re battling elbow or shoulder pain, try swapping out all barbell and machine movements for the next 3-4 weeks. Neither were built with your unique body structure or mobility in mind. Spending too much time on exercises that force your body into an unnatural position are a sure-fire way to develop insidious injuries that will creep up on you, and latch on.
So, to counter this deleterious effect, eradicate the inflammation, thus allowing yourself to heal, and build injury-free strength, in place of your typical barbell and machine movements, bring in their dumbbell counterparts, push-ups, and dips.
#2. Taking A Preemptive Strike
In a perfect world, this is how you will build dips into your program moving forward. I mean, wouldn’t you rather bullet-proof yourself against injuries, plateaus, and missed lifts ahead of time, rather than waiting for your world to crumble around you in the face of searing shoulder pain?
I know I would.
In any case, not only is firing a preemptive strike simple, but it’s much more effective than waiting until you’re forced into damage control mode.
For this purpose, I’ve seen the best results from focusing on dips as the core triceps builder 60% of the time, and using close-grip bench press for the remaining 40%.
So, over a 12 week training cycle, this would mean using dips for 8 weeks, and close-grip bench for 4. The exact setup of which is only limited by your creativity. Personally, I prefer to rotate between the two every 4-6 weeks. This time frame is long enough that you can make tangible progress from week to week, but not so long that you grind your joints, tendons, and ligaments into dust from putting through the same movement patterns for months on end.
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The Final Reps
If you’ve read through to here, congratulations on separating yourself from the lunkhead bench pressers who will forever be wondering why their shoulders yell out in agony when they roll over in bed, lamenting their sore, angry elbows, and beating themselves up over being “stuck” with a 200lb bench press for months on end.
On the other hand, if you’re like most in our generation, who simply scroll to the bottom, here’s your takeaway:
- You don’t have to deal with angry joints or stalled bench press numbers forever. Not if you regularly work dips into your program.
- Integrative movements could well be the missing piece to your programs.
- The solution to busting through plateaus is rarely to do more of what clearly isn’t working. You need to look elsewhere if you’re serious about progressing.
- Depending on your goals & programming needs, you can create a lot of variation with dips.
- Taking a preemptive strike (at least in this context) is always going to be more effective than scrambling around playing damage control.
Now, go forth and dip your heart out.