For me dips always were the small brother of pushups in the calisthenics cosmos. And as small brothers sometimes do, they stayed in the big ones’ shadow for a long time. Pushing equals pushing, doesn’t it?
Luckily it is not that simple in the world of calisthenics. Would be boring else wise, wouldn’t it? A comparison I often name is the one between pullups and rows. Both are obviously pulling patterns, but largely different. Both have their unique benefits and neither can replace the other.
It’s the same with dips and pushups.
Both are unique and more like twin brothers standing beside each other. They may look fairly the same, but their character – their benefits and uses – differ from one another.
Ok, enough weird family analogies for now. Let’s talk dips and discover everything about them related to calisthenics – from their uses to the mistakes many do, and finally to how to progress from no dips to Bulgarian Dips.
First, we’ll start with the unique benefits dips provide!
Why should I do Dips in the first place?
- Dips build pushing power in a vertical movement pattern1
- Because of this vertical movement, they build strong shoulders -,, especially regarding later overhead presses. None other calisthenics exercise than dips does that despite Inverted Presses.
- Dips are really basic and can be done anywhere you got access to a high bar* or parallel bar*
- Dips can like any calisthenics exercise easily be scaled upwards, through additional load or more demanding variations
The most common mistakes when performing Dips
Dips’ eternal fiend – the elbow flare
The elbows most often flare out into this chicken wing posture, if you are lacking mobility. More in detail – shoulder extension.
The great thing is – dips build shoulder extension at the same time – actively! The holy grail of flexibility. To read more on that – I can recommend Thomas Kurz’ Stretching Scientifically!*
Just make sure to go as deep as your mobility dictates. If your elbows flare out sideways, you are working too deep – avoid this at all costs!
Stay patient and mindful and the range will come with time. Besides strong and injury-free shoulders.
Not feeling your shoulder blades control the movement
At first sight, dips look really simple: Lower and push back up.
But in these few seconds much happens!
Let’s examine the job your scaps do more closely:
- They control the whole movement and move from a depressed position at the top into a retracted one at the bottom – and visa versa.
- While your big chest and triceps muscles might be the main contributors of force they aren’t the star of the show
- Contrary to the traditional fitness approach, the big muscles play a secondary role and will do their job if the scaps work properly.
- Instead, focus on your shoulder blades and let them be in control the whole time. Stable and mindful scapular movement will ensure you are doing the movement the best way possible.
Not using your full range of motion
As stated above – too much range isn’t helpful, but too less neither. As always the most beneficial answer lies in between black and white.
Most of the time using your full range of motion is the best thing you can do. 2
Unfortunately, many rep out half range dips with high momentum just to say proudly they’ve done 5 sets of 20. While 5 sets of 20 might sound impressive they leave a lot of possible gains on the table, by letting momentum do much of the job.
Instead, be wiser and strive for 5 perfect dips instead of 20 fucked up ones.3
For a great technical tutorial, check out Tom Merricks Video on how to properly perform Dips for Calisthenics.
What to do after you nailed your first one?
Solidify your base and get strong
The best thing to do, after you nailed your first dip, is to stick with them because Calisthenics is all about the basics – you never outgrow them!
I found myself many times doing an already mastered basic move, and found with grown conscience, that there is room for improvement. May it be scapular coordination, more ROM, or whatever it might be. Perfection is an illusion!
Get them down really well and build a solid foundation. I would say something like 12-15 great reps are a solid foundation.
Then you are ready to play around with the following ones!
Try out more advanced variations of dips – my favorites!
What’s better than 5 dips? 5 dips + 20kg added to your vest*, of course!
Weighted Dips are the simplest way to improve the difficulty and build more strength.4 Just use a belt and load up. When under additional load technique gets even more important – never sacrifice form for reps.
I would aim for 5 reps with half your bodyweight hanging from your belt.
Because of this instability, they are great for your overall shoulder health and every rep will be more taxing compared to normal ones on parallel bars.*
The same rules apply as for standard dips, plus an additional one:
Turn your rings* out at the top position.
Bulgarian Dips take the ring dips even further by getting your arms more away from your body.
Before trying Bulgarian Dips, be sure to have a strong baselayer first. Ring Dips should be easy for you, your mobility should be OK and you should be cool with training on gymnastic rings*.
By letting your arms go more sideways, your shoulders will have to work in an internally rotated position and the increased leverage will make them much harder. They are a great exercise to build strength specifically looking up towards the Iron Cross.
Iron Cross Flys from Support
These beasts take the Bulgarian Dips even further.
Although technically not a dip, but a straight arm exercise resembling the Iron Cross – they can be useful to build up more strength in this direction.
To do so start in a support hold and just take your arms out to the side – keeping the elbows straight and rings turned out.
While this may sound easy, it is a hell of an exercise!
Start slowly and only if you are used to straight arm exercises, as well as very strong already.
Otherwise, the injury risk will be relatively high and the exercise will not be much of use.5
These are the hardest dips I encountered in my relatively young calisthenics life. Have fun! 😉
To dip or not to dip
In my opinion, dips should be, from time to time, a part of everyone’s calisthenics training cycles:
They are simple, easily scalable, and besides inverted presses, one of the few exercises to strengthen your pushing power in a vertical movement pattern.
I, for my part, always neglected dips6 and to no surprise, vertical pushing power is one of my biggest weaknesses.
Do you dip regularly or feel the same as I falsely did and think that pushups are sufficient?
Write me your thoughts and experiences regarding dips7 in the comments down below. I would love to hear from you!
Sources and further reading
- I can wholeheartedly recommend Tom Merrick’s Tutorial on Dips. He covers this exercise in detail.
- Daniel Vadnal of FitnessFAQs created a lot of content about dips. I found these videos on how deep to dip, straight vs. parallel bar dips and the best 11 variations useful.
- Besides these YouTube videos, Al Kavadlo wrote a great post to start with about dips and different, progressive variations.
- They especially strengthen scapular retraction and depression – besides the obvious like chest and triceps.
- Unless training reduced ROM exercises for special purposes or to strengthen parts of the movement. Two examples would be rack deadlifts to strengthen the lockout or pause squats to strengthen the bottom position.
- If your goal is to build strength and mobility. There are some occasions when momentum is fine and even desired, like in CrossFit or learning the pattern of your first muscle-up. But for strength and mobility purposes banish momentum into the deceiving corner it came from.
- Above 20 reps or a total of 90 seconds under tension, strength gains are diminishing and you are more on the endurance side of training. If that is your goals go for it. If strength is your goal rather add weight!
- I found these very useful with additional banded support.
- As well as inverted presses….
- Or anything else which concerns you and wanna tell the vast world of the WWW!