I’ve not been shy about the fact that I’m a big fan of parallel bar dips. If you incorporate them into your routine properly, it’s likely that you’ll find you’re in the same camp. However, I do believe that dips, in particular, are an exercise that must be “respected” as we incorporate them into a lifting routine.
It’s not uncommon for a lifter to start doing dips, experience the benefits, and then immediately develop some nagging sternum pain or shoulder pain from this exercise. While everyone’s anthropometry is a little different, these aches and pains from dips are generally easily avoidable by following a few simple guidelines.
I believe this mistake is akin to the runner who begins running, discovers they enjoy running, then proceeds to run every day and gets shin splints 3 weeks later. In this case, we don’t blame the exercise, we blame the operator. It’s a case of operator error.
Use the tips below to keep your shoulders and sternum happy for the long haul.
Why dips can hurt the shoulders or sternum
The truth is that dips do place us in a fairly “unusual” position, with the shoulder in extension behind the body.
Observe the image below of me in the bottom position of a dip. I’m sure the camera angle helps some, but you can clearly see the extreme extension of the shoulder joint.
This leads to shoulder pain in folks whose shoulders aren’t used to this extreme stretch, and is exacerbated by lifters who have trouble keeping scapula tight.
This leads to chest (sternum) pain in folks whose chests aren’t used to being subjected to such and extreme stretch.
Over time, my shoulders tolerate this position well, as long as I maintain upper back tightness and don’t hammer dips day in and day out. However, it took a little while (and some trial and error) to get there.
What follows are my tips for keeping happy shoulders and sternums during your weekly practice of dips or weighted dips.
Tips to avoid dips being dangerous for your joints
As I’ve said above, I firmly believe that most folks can do dips safely, as long as they are being smart with how they incorporate them into their routines.
Just what do I mean by that? Here are a few guidelines to keep your joints healthy:
1. Get proficient at push-ups first
Personally, I think this tip should be obvious, but I’ll state it here anyway: if you can’t do 20-25 push-ups, then why are you doing dips at all? One of the primary benefits of doing dips is that switching to the “floating push-up” (aka the DIP) is a simple way to make push-ups harder once they become too easy.
Having some basic upper body strength before working into doing dips regularly just makes sense, both from a risk mitigation standpoint as well as a simple exercise progression standpoint.
I recommend being able to crank out sets of 20 push-ups like it’s nothing before worrying about dips. In fact, I may even recommend most people do some weighted push-ups first, as well.
2. Make sure to depress the scapula on every rep
While I do acknowledge and believe that everyone’s body is different, there are some common “form blunders” among folks who experience pain from dips. In this context, the “proper form” for a dip would include:
- When setting up in the rack you’re using, depress the shoulder by lowering the joint. This motion develops tension in the pectoral. This will physically lower the shoulder and raise your body a few inches.
- Upon lowering your body, allow your scapula to rotate around your back. In the bottom, the scapula should be pinned together, like you’re trying to “grab a pencil” between the shoulder blades. This bottom position should feel almost like the bottom of the bench press.
- On the concentric phase, allow the scapula to rotate forward once again, depressing the shoulder at the top.
Many folks who experience pain do so because they are losing this tension in the upper back in the bottom position, allowing the shoulder joint to “roll” forward and placing an extreme stretch on the tissues in the front of the shoulder.
3. Only do dips once per week, in the beginning
Start by picking a day in your exercise week to incorporate some dips. Warm up the shoulder joint with some push-ups, just like you typically would.
Complete two to three sets of bodyweight dips, staying far away from muscular failure (more on that below). Rest 2-3 minutes between sets. You are welcome to “circuit” other exercises together during your rest period.
Spend the rest of the week doing your normal push-up, bench press, overhead press, or whatever your program typically calls for. If all goes well, then experiment with incorporating dips more often!
4. Play with various grip widths
Many lifters find that some grip widths aggravate their shoulders more than others. It can be helpful if you’ve got an implement with a “V” shape, such as a power tower in a gym or a power rack attachment.
Most lifters (myself included) find that shoulder-width grips treat their shoulders the best. However, you may find that you prefer a different position. This can be a challenge when everyone’s body is a different width.
5. Experiment with the range of motion
One of the things that makes dips challenging is that there’s no agreed-upon “full range of motion”. Some people assert that a 90-degree angle in the shoulder is “full ROM”, while others would say that the angle of the humerus must be parallel or even below parallel from the ground.
With so much variance, the best thing to do is to experiment to find the depth that works for you. Shoulder troubles from dips tend to be related to internal rotation of the shoulder in the bottom position. Many people find that they can simply cut the range of motion a couple of inches “high” and avoid the issue altogether.
6. “Test” the exercise by staying far away from muscular failure in the beginning
Perform as many reps as you feel comfortable with, stopping before you hit your first “slow” rep. This will guarantee you are still at least 3-5 repetitions from failure.
The reason I recommend you do this is to see how your body responds. After a few weeks, if all goes well, feel free to continue the set until you hit your first “slow” repetition. This “slow” repetition will typically be around 1.5 to two repetitions before failure.
Rest a couple of minutes, then complete another set or two. You’ll likely feel fine, and that’s what we want. End the pressing session there, and allow yourself to recover.
7. Stop the set if you lose tightness in the upper back
In my experience, the most reliable cue for “technical failure” dips is that we lose control over the upper back and are no longer able to keep the upper back tight in the bottom. The same goes if we lose our ability to depress the shoulder joint at the top, as described earlier.
Both of these things indicate that the surrounding musculature has been fatigued to the point that you’re likely losing the benefit of the exercise anyway.
Losing this tightness allows the scapula to move forward and creates a “chicken wing” position for the upper arm. This is likely what leads to a lot of lifters complaining about shoulder pain.
I recommend that if you notice yourself being tempted to lose upper back tightness and chicken-wing your upper arm during one of your reps, just stop the set. You’ve reached “failure” on dips for today – go home, rest, and recover.
You’ll be stronger next week.
“Safe” alternatives to dips
While I think it’s important to keep in perspective the fact that any exercise can be used improperly and create injury, there are some folks who just can’t do dips without getting some nagging pain or injury.
That is totally OK. To be honest, I thought I was one of those people for years until a couple of years ago when I began to slowly reintroduce the movement using the principles above.
There’s nothing wrong with simply doing a different triceps exercise. If you just can’t or don’t want to do dips, here are a couple of alternatives to try:
Dip alternatives if your goal is to build the triceps
- Diamond push-ups
- Weighted diamond push-ups
Dip alternatives if your goal is to build the chest
- Regular push-ups
- Decline push-ups
- Weighted push-ups
Dip alternatives if you’re a gym-goer
- Close grip bench press
- Floor press (a personal favorite of mine)
- Heavy dumbbell presses
Don’t be afraid to experiment
As I’ve said before, there were years of my life where I simply didn’t do dips because I believed my body just didn’t like them. While I’m sure there are some folks out there for whom dips just don’t agree with their particular anthropometry, in my case it turned out to be operator error, as I said before.
I would do dips in a certain workout, enjoy myself, experience some of the benefits of doing dips, and immediately I’d want to throw a few sets into every full-body session I was doing. What happened? Nagging pains, every time.
Playing with the frequency, the intensity, the proximity from failure, and the angle of press allowed me to find a practice of dips that actually works for me.
You should do the same. You may be surprised with the result!