By Michael Krueger
The parallel bar dip is a rather unique exercise. It is often compared with other exercises like bench presses and push-ups, but it is in a class of its own. Pair it with the pull-up, and it is the perfect superset. Depending on its execution, it works to varying degrees the shoulders, back, chest, triceps and, of course, the core. This is an excellent exercise that should be a part of nearly every program.
The bars should be about shoulder width apart; if they are too wide, your shoulders will let you know in short order. If they are too narrow, you obviously will have trouble fitting between them. I’ve learned that the diameter of the bars makes a huge difference in how comfortable my hands are while I am doing a dip. I prefer the bars to be at 2 1/2 inches in diameter. I’ve found that if commercially available bars are padded, they are probably trying to compensate for being very small. Unfortunately, the padding doesn’t help much.
Make sure that the bars are secure. Many racks have dipping attachments; some are better than others. Most are too narrow in diameter, too short, and designed in such a way as to discourage their effective use. I’ve seen homemade dipping apparatuses that are very effective, in part because they were tailor-made for one individual. I’ve also seen people dip between two chairs back to back and this scared me a bit. It doesn’t seem stable enough. A catastrophic failure of your equipment is not conducive to a good workout.
The best parallel bars are usually found in playgrounds, not that they are generally used by the kids for dipping. They are nice, sturdy, large-diameter steel bars built relatively close to the ground so all you have to do is grab the bars and bend your knees to use them. I like finishing a run at the elementary school near my home and doing a couple of sets of dips before walking home.
How to Properly Execute a Dip
Start with your hands parallel, palms facing, straighten your arms, and bend your knees. Take a deep breath, and slowly lower yourself until your upper arm is just above parallel to the floor. Keep your elbows in line with your wrists. Your elbows shouldn’t stray too far from your sides, 45 degrees maximum. If you are very flexible, you may lower yourself a bit more, but be careful, since this can put tremendous stress on your rotator cuffs.
Once you hit the bottom position, immediately begin your ascent to the starting position. Don’t pause on the bottom, but do ascend smoothly and pause for just a moment on the top. That is one rep.
The actual movement is quite natural and will vary a bit from person to person, depending on segment length and flexibility. One caveat is that if you have an existing shoulder problem, dips may not be the best choice for you. This being said, if you have a shoulder problem, you should get it fixed. Shoulder health is extremely important in every aspect of firefighting; never ignore pain or diminished range of motion.
Here are a few tips that can make dips easier and more effective:
1. Always keep your head up and shoulders back; do not slump.
2. Don’t look to one side or the other; spinal alignment is important in reducing the possibility of neck strain.
3. Take a deep breath on the way to the bottom position, and brace your abdominals. Bracing is like what you would do if you were expecting a punch to the stomach. This movement helps to stabilize your spine by providing a solid core.
4. Remember to exhale during the exertion on the way back to the starting position.
Beginner and Advanced Techniques
If you can’t do a dip yet, there are ways to do assisted dips. The techniques are the same as with a pull-up. You may use bands, or partner assist, or do negatives only. I don’t recommend the assisted dip machines for the same reason as I don’t care for the assisted machine chin-up. I don’t think that they really duplicate the move, since they don’t recruit any of the stabilizer and core muscles that are so necessary in performing dips and chin-ups. This is my opinion only; your experience may vary.
The obvious way to make a dip harder is to add additional weight. This may be accomplished with a weighted vest or a belt connected to a chain looped through a weight plate or by holding a dumb bell between your feet (a trick I have never been able to do).
The weighted vest is the simplest way to add weight. The only downside is that the amount you may add is limited, but it is a great way to begin. The belt, chain, and plate method is nice because it is virtually unlimited in the amount of weight that may be added. The biggest downside is that they can become very uncomfortable as the weight climbs, and if the chain between your legs is poorly positioned, the result can be most painful and demotivating.
You may also slow the movement down, taking 5, 10, or even 30 seconds on both the up and down portions. It is still important to go smoothly and to not stop at the bottom. You may also try varying the lean angle of your torso. Generally, you would try to remain mostly upright; this is the easiest position and involves the triceps to the greatest degree. Greater forward lean increases the range of motion somewhat and therefore makes the movement more difficult. It also increases the stress on the chest more, sort of like an extreme decline bench press.
The somewhat new trend of “suspension training,” where you use handles attached to straps hanging from a bar, is another way to make dips more challenging. It’s like working on gymnastic rings; it’s an enjoyable variation.
As a strength-building exercise, body position probably doesn’t matter all that much. Just use whatever position feels most natural and comfortable. If you are using dips as a “body building” muscle-specific move, then the variations have a bit more meaning. If you are training as a power lifter, then adding weight to your dip is the utmost priority. Some power lifters will dip using more than their body weight in additional weight, all in an effort to get a really big bench press.
One Last Warning
While dips are a wonderfully effective exercise, use caution in their application. There are various injuries that can occur while doing dips. Usually these injuries are caused by going too deep, descending too fast, doing too much volume, and adding too much additional weight too quickly. Of course, these are the same injuries that are caused by the same basic mistakes that cause most lifting injuries.
Always listen to your body when beginning a new exercise or when increasing the intensity of any existing movement in you program. If you aren’t certain of how exactly to perform a move, get competent instruction and take it slow until you feel comfortable with it and are certain that the move will be of benefit to you.
Lastly, if you ever find yourself in the position of having fallen through a roof, suspended by your armpits in the rafters, you will be glad you added dips to your routine.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.