Minimalist dips workout: build a stronger upper body with these 2 dip variations

Minimalist dips workout: build a stronger upper body with these 2 dip variations

An in-depth look at the tricep and chest dip
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Diving into Bodyweight

They’re a huge benchmark of brute strength, humbling the biggest of guys, and it goes without saying that they look impressive, which is why they’re often seen (with push-ups) to display and/or measure athletic ability.

After all, they require you to lift a large portion of your bodyweight without using much assistance.

Dips are effective at helping you build more strength and mass because:

  • They’re a compound movement
  • They help with more strength and power vs tricep-specific movements
  • Variations exist, so you if you’re stuck with equipment or bored, you can change it up

Now let’s explore why all of the above is good for you...

What are dips & why should they be in your workout program?

You might have heard of dips before, but what you might not know is why they're so effective, and how with some simple tweaks you can add muscle to not only your arms (triceps), but to your chest too.

The biggest reasons dips are so great is due to the fact that they’re a compound exercise, which means they ask more of your joints (and muscles) to help assist with movement.

The benefits of compound movements

Although some promote single-joint exercises due to the fact that they can be easier to learn as a beginner (study) and rely on neural factors less (the body needing to adapt to them), multi-joint exercises are better for muscle growth.

  1. Due to the help from multiple joints, they allow you to lift more weight which increases the chance of greater muscle stimulus.
  2. It’s been proven to have a greater increase in muscle thickness, plus one study showed an increase in PT (peak torque of elbow flexors) all of this leading to a bigger, more muscular look.
  3. Overall health is improved as it leads to better adaptations than single-joint exercises alone (study).

So as you can see, multi-joint movements have a tonne of benefits and this isn’t all of them.

So why is the dip a great choice in particular and what muscles does it target?

The dip is one of the few tricep movements that is a multi-joint movement. This means it's perfect for your goals if you want to lift heavy amounts of weight and add noticeable mass to your arms in no time.

Here’s the 3 heads of the tricep broken down:

The Tricep Heads - The long head, lateral head and medial head
The long head, lateral head and medial head

A study done by ACE showed that the tricep dip is effective at engaging muscle activation in the tricep and is in the top 3 movements for building tricep mass (study). 

As mentioned, the dip doesn’t only target the tricep; because it’s a multi-joint movement, it means we’re using several muscles.

“The pectoralis minor is a small muscle under the pectoralis major that protracts, downwardly rotates, and depresses the scapula. It is trained during its stabilizing function during exercises such as dips."
Bret Contreras
Bodyweight-Strength Training Anatomy

It also works the Anterior deltoids (the front of your shoulders), rhomboids, trapezius and core to stabilise and assist the movement.

What equipment do you need to do the dip?

As far as equipment goes, dips are almost as basic as it gets (next to push-ups, and body weight squats). That’s one of the reasons why I love them.

They're as minimal as it comes, with variations helping you when you’re limited to location, or stuck with very little equipment (like a hotel room).

For the full version, all you need is two parallel bars.

If your gym doesn't have parallel bars or a tricep dip station, then you can use an assisted chin up and tricep dip machine (placing a weight on it to hold it down - more on this in the video below) or a power tower.

A popular alternative for when you don’t have any of this equipment is to do a bench, or chair dip, which is a great tricep movement.

There are a few things to take notice of:

  1. Because your legs are on the floor, or on a bench in front, it reduces the total amount of bodyweight that's lifted and makes for an easier variation.
  2. Don't go too deep, as this can place your soft tissue at risk. If you regularly descend too deeply, you risk injuring certain structures surrounding the shoulder joint, which is why you hear of shoulder problems being related to the dip (it’s usually this variation that they’re referring to).
  3. This exercise can be dangerous if not performed properly. Keep a tall chest during this movement and don't allow the lower back to round. Make sure you rise all the way up to lockout.

However, if you have never done any kind of dip before, you might be wondering…

How do you do dips correctly?

Although dips have a bunch of variations (we’ll walk through two in particular in a second) they all have a few things in common.

Play

This video that walks you step-by-step through how to do the initial set-up of the dip and the two variations (I’ve also gone ahead and written these up for you too).

The 2 main dips

The tricep dip vs chest dip

As I mentioned, there’s typically 2 types of dips.

Although both target the upper body and work the same areas, by changing our position slightly we can change the emphasis on different parts of the upper body, switching between targeting more of the back of the tricep, and targeting the lower chest.

Now let's check them both out…

The Tricep Dip

Dips for bigger arms

The tricep dip

This is the classic dip, and it’s what is commonly referred to as a “tricep dip”. This is often done on parallel bars (a dipping station) and is the one that bench dips resemble the most.

The main difference between this movement and others is the placement of the arms and elbows.

Due to the fact that you keep your elbows are kept close to the body, it minimises the tilt and allows your triceps to take on the bulk of the work, especially at the last few inches of the lockout where it matters the most.

Here’s how to do them:

  1. If you’re using an assistance machine, then you’ll want to place some weight on it to hold it down - we don’t want that getting in the way.
  2. Next, step up to the platform and adjust the width of the bars - for the tricep dip, you’ll want to use a grip no wider than shoulder-width. Opt for the narrower setting on dip bars when possible.
  3. Next, brace your core and pull your shoulder blades back. Grip tight onto the bars and lift your body up whilst straightening your elbows.
  4. 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.
  5. The key here is to only bend as far down as your shoulder flexibility allows - preferably to 90 degrees whilst keeping your traps in a neutral position, making sure not to shrug them at any point during the movement.
  6. Press up, locking your elbows at the top and squeezing the triceps.

The chest dip

How to dip to target the chest

The chest dip
Notice the flaring of the elbows vs the narrow tricep dip?

As far as chest movements go, this is pretty underrated.

Although most only think of just the triceps, due to it’s stabilising function, this is super-effective at causing muscle damage to the chest. More specifically, the lower chest.

Muscle damage largely happens when a muscle is stretched and long.

So things like flyes, cable flyes, dips, pec-dec seem to cause this pretty well. Other ways you can damage the muscle is by doing slow lowering (eccentrics) moves.

Mix slowly lowering with the chest dip and you’ve got one badass way to grow a bigger chest.

“Most people fail to use a full range of motion during this movement and therefore do not receive an optimal workout. Keeping the forearms perpendicular to the floor while leaning the trunk forward places the tension on the pectorals and spares the elbows. Keep the elbows tucked into the body and don't let them flare outward. Go deep but not so deep that you aggravate the shoulder joints.”
Bret Contreras
Bodyweight-Strength Training Anatomy

So, you’re probably wondering how to actually do them...

Here's how to do the tricep dip, step-by-step:

  1. Move (or choose) the handles to the wide position on your dip station/assistance machine.
  2. 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.
  3. When you lower your body, allow your elbows to flare out to the sides.
  4. Stop when your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Going any lower than that will only stress the shoulder joints and won't add much to your chest growth.
  5. Be sure to focus on contracting your pecs as you press up, and flex them hard at the top without locking out your elbows fully.
Dip workout at home
I think he might be pushing the sofa the wrong way 🤔

How do you do dip exercises at home?

If you’re reading this, then you might want to be using dips in as part of a body-weight program.

Although body-weight programs aren’t optimal for skinny guys trying to build muscle, they can be tailored to fit your situation. Maybe you’re a beginner, or someone who has only minimal equipment around right now. Heck, maybe you’re even travelling for work and just need something to keep you sane.

If the above sounds familiar, I’ve got some options for you...

As mentioned earlier, the bench dip variation would be the bench/chair dip. However, for the biomechanics and safety reasons mentioned before, it’s not the one I like the most for replacing the usual tricep and chest dip.

Instead, I prefer this alternative, which target the chest and triceps in a similar fashion:

Chest Variation

Narrow Triceps Push-Up

This is similar to a traditional push-up, with a slight variation: a grip that is shoulder width, or slightly narrower.

Keep the body in a straight line throughout the exercise and do not allow the hips to sag. Lower your body until the chest hits the floor.

Look down during the set and make sure the elbows are in line with the wrists. Keep your body locked into a powerful position, ensuring that you’re working the core during the movement (similar to the stabilising of the dip).

Tricep Variation

Diamond Push-Ups

The diamond triceps push-up is more challenging due to its narrower position. Because of this, it targets the triceps to a greater degree.

This variation is performed with the hands touching each other and forming a diamond shape with the thumbs and index fingers.

Free dips workout program

Weights and bodyweight version

Free dips workout program for a stronger upper body

Although this is an article about dips, you should be thinking outside of the dips box when working out.

After all, if you want a body with a dense chest, a wide back, broad shoulders, and legs that look athletic, I’ve got some news for you:

Dips aren’t what’s going to get you there.

Instead, you’ll want to incorporate dips into a program surrounded by smart weight programming.

Because of this, the workout I’m giving you here isn’t purely a “dips” workout. Just like a push-up challenge, that would be pretty ineffective at building a stronger, better-looking body.

I’ve decided to go a step further and give you both the bodyweight version and the weightlifting version.

That way, if you’re stuck somewhere in a blizzard and still need to get a workout in, you’re more than covered.

The following is a day from both the weight version of the workout and a day from the bodyweight version.

Let’s get into the example workout program. I’ve provided a weights version (preferably) and a bodyweight version.

The choice is yours...

Bodyweight Version
Weights Version
MovementSetsReps
CIRCUIT 1 - LEG AND BACK SIZE
MovementSetsReps
Water jug Squat38
Chin-Ups38
CIRCUIT 2 - BACK AND CHEST SIZE
MovementSetsReps
Decline Push-up or Chest Dip312
Tote bag single-arm row312
CIRCUIT 3 - SHOULDER SIZE AND AB SIZE
MovementSetsReps
Standing Shoulder Press Reach212
Superman Plan28 breaths each side
MovementSetsReps
CIRCUIT 1 - HIP AND SHOULDER TECHNIQUE
MovementSetsReps
Goblet Squat38
Chest Dips38
CIRCUIT 2 - ARMOUR UPPER BODY
MovementSetsReps
Barbell Curls312
Seated 1-Arm Shoulder Press312
CIRCUIT 3 - SHOULDER SIZE, MOBILITY AND POSTURE CIRCUIT
MovementSetsReps
Body weight Glute-bridge212
Romanian Deadlift215

Something to note.

The chest dip is typically found with an opposing movement that targets the opposite plane of movement.

For example a row, or shoulder press. This allows you to target a different body part, whilst you let the chest rest, meaning you maximise efficiency.

The same goes with the tricep version. It’s found with a different movement (such as a bicep, back or leg/hip movement)

It’s all about cutting downtime in the gym, whilst maximising your potential for growth.

Oh my. Troubles...

Alternatives: What if you can’t do the dip?

Great question. Although I gave you alternatives to the dip that you can do at home, what about ones for the gym?

Although there’s a few out there, only a few come close in my opinion.

The Assisted/Negative Dip

https://thesuperhumanlab.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Tricep-Dip-Asisted-1024x597.jpg

If you’re just starting out, then you might struggle with doing the full range dip.

If this is the case then a great alternative would be the assisted machine dip, or a negative dip.

I typically prefer the negative dip over the assisted, due to the muscle damage that happens during a focus on the negative portion of a movement.

Close-Grip Bench Press

As mentioned, few movements come close to allowing as much weight to be lifted, and targeting the triceps.

Most movements out there are single joint movements, like tricep extensions and kickbacks.

The close-grip bench press is the exception and is my favourite alternative to the tricep dip.

When you’re doing it, just make sure to keep your elbows from flaring and very narrow, otherwise the shoulders and chest take too much of the workload (and we don’t want that).

Go Beyond The Dip.

As you’ve hopefully gleaned, dips are more than what most gym-goers think they are.

They can add some serious mass, and help improve technique in other movements too.

Just remember to not view them in a vacuum, and do more.

Anyhoo, that’s all for today.

Do the workout above, and not only will you be enjoying dips, but you’ll have a bigger upper body too.

If you want the rest of the 4-week program, click below and I’ll hook you up.

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Written By
Dean Phillips
Former skinny guy and the owner of The Superhuman Lab. I’ve helped thousands of men build more muscle, gain more confidence and become superhuman. I’ve also gained more than 60 pounds myself (going from 112 pounds to more than 172 pounds).
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