In a recent article, I mentioned my fondness for using dips and pull-ups together in the same workout. But what about when we want to take things to the next level by adding external loads? Enter the weighted dip.
Weighted dips are a fantastic exercise for building upper body strength and size. By adding extra weight to the dip exercise, you’re increasing the resistance and placing greater demand on the chest, triceps, and shoulders.
A favored exercise by strongmen, powerlifters, and minimalists, this exercise has almost limitless loading potential, and won’t limit you to your own creativity when experimenting with methods of progressively overloading your dips.
In this post, we’ll discuss how to load weighted dips, the benefits of weighted dips, how to perform them, and a few tips to make progress.
How to set up weighted dips
While it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to think of a few creative (and not so creative) ways to perform dips with added weight, it can be tough to decide which is best without trying them in advance. In my experience, the main methods are:
- Dip belts
- Weight vests
- Plates and dumbbells held between the legs
- Chains around the neck (for the Westside vibe …)
There are, of course, pros and cons to each. Having used both dip belts and weight vests extensively, I will say that these are my two preferred methods.
Using a weight vest for dips
The advantage of using a weight vest is that it translates very easily to calisthenic super-sets or tri-sets. However, it can be tough to load the exercise if you require more than around 50 lbs of external resistance.
Additionally, weight vests require more effort to stabilize the weight, since you’re essentially balancing above the dip bar with external weight. Most people feel top-heavy in the starting position when using a weight vest for this exercise. The same, obviously, goes for the use of chains around the neck.
Using a dip belt for dips
The advantage of a dip belt is that you can easily load it with multiple plates or even a weight pin, allowing for loads in excess of 80-100 pounds or more. If pure strength is your game, then this will likely be the preferred method for you. This method also tends to feel more stable, as the weight is below the parallel bars, avoiding the “top-heavy” feeling that you’ll get when using a weight vest.
Using a plate or dumbbell
For the utmost in convenience, holding a weight between your legs may be your preferred method. I personally have no problem grabbing a weight plate or dumbbell between 25-35 lbs between my legs for a full set. Anything over 35 lbs gets a little dicey, in my experience.
Dropping a 45lb plate onto concrete from 3 feet in the air will certainly grab the attention of anyone within earshot of the event … you have been warned!
For the overachievers, combine methods
Lastly, you can combine the methods above. For instance, using a 50lb weight vest in combination with a 35 lb plate between the legs will provide you with a strength stimulus only rivaled by the big barbell exercises.
When to start weighted dips
If you’ve been doing regular dips for a while, you may be wondering if you should start adding weight to your dips.
A good rule of thumb with weighted dips (similar to weighted pull-ups) is to transition to the exercise if:
- Your goal requires improved maximal strength
- You are very capable of doing multiple sets of bodyweight dips in the 10-12 rep range.
Though the benefits of normal dips are many, adding weight truly transforms the exercise into a suitable substitute for a barbell exercise. If you meet these two criteria, I believe it makes the most sense to consider transitioning to a weighted version.
Programming weighted dips (sets and reps)
As always, I would recommend sticking to the best practices for making progress in resistance training: try to hit 10-20 sets near failure, per week, split between two or three weekly workouts.
In my experience, weighted dips can basically be subbed out for any slot in an existing program that calls for a compound horizontal press.
That is to say, if you simply prefer dips to bench press, there’s nothing wrong with using them instead of your normal bench press. The sets and reps for weighted dips can be matched to either a hypertrophy rep range or a strength rep range.
Similarly, if you’re completing weighted push-ups in a program, but nearing the limits of your capability to load the exercise, switching to a weighted dip can be a great way to continue making progress.
Weighted dips vs weighted push ups vs bench press
Let’s face it, we’ve all got a finite amount of resources to devote to our physical practice. Similar exercises, like dips and push-ups, may perform a similar function in a program but allow variance for different goals.
While it seems like most boilerplate fitness advice is “just do everything”, I think a more realistic approach would be to admit that it makes more sense to pick things that align with our goals, and just do those things instead.
While I’m a huge fan of weighted dips, I do admit that they aren’t the exercise to suit every single purpose. Let’s discuss some of the tradeoffs between these exercises:
Personally, I would choose weighted pushups as a main pressing exercise if:
- You’ve tried dips in the past, but they tend to bother your shoulders, weighted push-ups are an excellent option.
- If you have an intention of building the upper chest (clavicular head) with push-ups.
- You have some sort of specific goal that involves doing push-ups (like passing a physical fitness test for work, or completing a Murph challenge).
I would choose weighted dips as a main pressing exercise if:
- You want a pressing exercise that closely approximates an equal and opposite stress to what you experience with weighted or unweighted pull-ups.
- You want to build pure strength but you don’t want to go to the trouble of obtaining the equipment to bench press.
- You want to build muscle strength while saving time (without as many warm up sets, or having to travel to a gym).
I would choose bench press as a main pressing exercise if:
- Your goal is pure strength, and you’re not limited in access to gym equipment or time.
- Your goal is pure aesthetics, and you want to specifically target the chest from various angles.
5 Benefits of Weighted Dips
Besides the pull-up, is there an exercise that more brutishly communicates upper body strength and power more than the dip? You’d be hard pressed (pun intended) to find one. If you’ve never tried the weighted version, you should. The benefits of weighted dips are many.
The main benefit of a weighted dip is that it can be sufficiently loaded as a substitute for a barbell exercise. We can get the kind of stimulus we’d normally get from a heavy bench press session without the need of a spotter, gym, or specialized equipment.
While there’s nothing wrong with pounding away at sets of bench press in the gym, I believe that the weighted dip should be given equal respect. Here are just a few of the benefits you can expect by incorporating this exercise into your weekly routine:
1. Very minimal equipment requirement
While bodyweight dips can be done virtually anywhere, weighted dips require a bit more forethought (but not much).
If you’re using a dip belt, then all you need is a sturdy place to do your dips. You can easily improvise a squat rack into a dip stand as seen in the picture below:
However, if you’re using a weighted vest for your strength training, then all you’ve got to do is bring or wear the vest to whatever location or park you’re planning to do your dips at. It’s that simple.
2. Don’t require a spotter
Though there are numerous ways to bench press safely without a spotter, the benefit that a weighted dip provides is that you don’t even need to think about it.
No safety arms, safety straps, specialized racks, or workout partners. Just get in the dip stand and perform your set. If you feel yourself beginning to fail, put your feet down. It’s as simple as that.
3. Excellent hypetrophic benefits for the triceps and lower chest
If you’ve ever felt the pump from doing numerous sets of bodyweight dips, wait until you try the weighted version.
If what you’re after is hypertrophy, I’ve found that you truly don’t need to go heavy:
- Warm up with 1-2 “warm-up” sets of bodyweight dips or push-ups, as described above
- Add 10-20% of your body weight in plates to your weight vest or dip belt
- Pump away at dips until you reach 2-3 reps in reserve
- Rest 1-2 minutes between sets and repeat for the desired number of sets
4. High carryover to maximal strength
If you’re in pursuit of maximal strength, then weighted dips are an excellent vehicle to get you there. In addition to a steady diet of bench and overhead press variations, the weighted dip is a missing link for a lot of lifters.
There’s a reason that the weighted dip is recommended as a boiler-plate lock-out accessory lift in the powerlifting world – they work.
For strength carryover, I recommend treating the weighted dip as a substitute for a traditional barbell exercise:
- Complete 1-2 “warm-up” sets of bodyweight dips or even push-ups
- Add weight progressively until you’re reaching near muscular failure in the 3-5 rep range
- Rest 3-ish minutes between sets and repeat for 3-5 sets
5. Nearly unlimited loading potential
One area dips are superior to weighted push-ups is in the loading ceiling. It’s hard to load a push-up beyond more than one plate. You will almost assuredly need a partner to stack plates on your back, or you’ll need to create a precarious elevated push-up setup with boxes and benches to utilize a dip belt for the push-up. Not so with dips!
Very strong bench pressers have been loading dips with 100-200 lbs for decades, using a simple weight belt and Olympic plates.
Tips for progress
1. Start Light
If you’re new to weighted dips, start with a light weight and see how your body responds. Similar to the weighted pull-up, a very small amount of weight adds to the difficulty of the exercise very quickly. 5-10 lbs is likely all you need in the beginning.
Full ROM for Full Results!
It’s been shown that using a full range of motion is the most optimal for stimulating growth and strength improvement in the chest and arm muscles. While partials have their uses, they seem to unnecessarily slip into many people’s programs who are simply trying to meet arbitrary rep goals.
If mass and strength are your goals, don’t be that guy.
Use the Form that’s Conducive to Your Goals
For the greatest stimulus on the chest, keep your elbows slightly flared out to place greater emphasis on the chest muscles. I also find that bringing my feet forward (in front) of me allows for a more horizontal position which pumps the chest more.
To target the triceps, do the exact opposite: keep your elbows closer to your body, and use a more vertical position, with your feet behind you.
Lastly, make sure to depress the shoulder at the beginning of every rep to avoid any nagging shoulder pain from dips.
Rest and Recover
Treat this exercise like any other big exercise. You’re providing a strong stimulus to the target muscles, and you’ll need to recover. Personally, I find that this exercise taps my recovery resources even more so than the bench press. Your mileage may vary here.
Dips are a fantastic compound exercise that can easily be trained as a main lift, in place of a barbell exercise. They are notorious for building strength and size in the chest, shoulders, and triceps. If you want to take your dip game to the next level, try weighted dips.
If you’re new to weighted dips, start light and focus on using a full range of motion. Gradually add weight over time to keep challenging yourself and make progress.