Parallel Bar Dips – The Upper Body Squat!

More than just a chest and triceps exercise, the parallel bar dip is a full upper body powerhouse movement. Not only will it add size and definition to the chest and triceps, it will help increase strength and stabilization in many other pressing movements. This can help lead to heavier and more productive upper body workouts, which in turn leads to new growth and strength development.

The functionality and biomechanics of the dip exercise are extremely similar to the squat and its effect on lower body development and strength. In a full rear barbell squat, the body acts to stabilize itself actively through recruitment of numerous muscle groups such as the intrensic core stabilizers, hip flexors, spinal erectors, hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes. The squat taxes all systems in different portions of the movement, and requires constant active stabilization to perform correctly. This is the main advantage of the dip over a supported pressing exercise (such as the flat bench press); the dip requires balancing stabilization with the hands supporting the entire movement, just as the feet are the center of balance in a barbell squat.

A stabilization component added to any exercise adds numerous benefits, such as enhancing core strength and stability, increasing caloric utilization, and achieving greater neuromuscular efficiency. Because the dip is supported only by the hands, entirely different paths of muscle recruitment become involved in stabilizing the eccentric, isometric, and concentric portions of the movement. In effect, this requires all of the systems of the body to constantly adapt and fire off responses to keep the body from falling forward, descending too quickly, or losing control of elbow position.

Beyond the stabilization component, the dip is similar to the squat as a multi-joint exercise in that it retains constant tension on the primary movers throughout the entire range of the movement. The dip has the advantage over squats in this department however, as at the top end of a squat the knees can be locked out! In the dip, the top of the concentric portion of movement (the press up) still actively requires the tricep to stabilize and extend the elbow and keep the body from falling forward, side to side, and rearward. Comparing dips to the squat, the chest acts as the glutes, the deltoids act as the hip flexors, and the triceps act as the quadriceps. A simple side view of both exercises demonstrates these similarities very vividly, and it becomes evident that the dip is truly of equal as a power movement – only for the upper body!

Not just limiting to the prime movers, a number of other muscles must be recruited in order for the dip to be executed with control and safety, as in the squat. Just as a tight core is required in the squat, such is the same with the dip for reasons discussed prior – stability. The body must be controlled to prevent excessive forward and rearward lean and maintain ideal neutral spine position. The core functions to keep this balance in both exercises, and becomes an important factor in setting the dip apart from the rest of the presses.

To keep the elbows in line with the body, the latissimus dorsi act as guides for the arms in the movement along with the trapezius muscles. These help to again stabilize the elbows extension during the delicate balance of allowing the tricep, chest, and deltoids to accelerate during the concentric portion of the dip. The forearms act much like the lower leg in a squat, helping to stabilize the wrist (akin to ankle stabilization in the squat).

The range of motion in a parallel dip is much more free than the comparable bench press; it allows a deep stretch during the eccentric portion of the movement, as well as a powerful contraction during the concentric phase. In comparison to the barbell press, a much deeper eccentric stretch can be accomplished, barring flexibility rather than the limiting factor of a barbell resting on the chest. Even in a dumbbell press, stabilization of each hand is required to perform a deep eccentric stretch, and can become a dangerous exercise if side to side balance loss at the wrist occurs.

Understanding everything involved in this complex movement reveals an exercise that rivals the king of lower body exercises as a resource to help build strength, muscle, and stabilization endurance. The constant tension on nearly all muscle groups involved, the synergy of working muscle groups, the stretch and range of motion, and the degree of muscle fiber stimulation prove that the parallel bar dip is a potent exercise for many goals. To understand how to utilize this exercise, care must be taken to understand each portion of the movement. Also important is the knowledge of both progression and regression of the exercise, in case of additional strength requirements or deconditioning and general inexperience with the exercise.

Starting with the beginning portion of the movement, grip should be slightly wider than shoulder width (roughly 2-2.5ft total distance between hands). Grasp the handles and press up into an elbows extended and locked position, making sure the feet are either high enough to not touch the floor in full body extension or that knees can be comfortably tucked into a 90 degree angle to the rear of the body. Control the body from swaying front to rear before beginning descent. In preparation for descent, tighten the core muscles and prepare to draw in air. Slowly lower the body down, allowing the elbows to bend alongside the lats. Maintain core tension, and inhale during the descent.

The ending of the eccentric portion of the movement is when the arms reach a bend of 90 degrees at the elbow. Do not initially allow the body to lower further than this position, as flexibility can become a limiting factor in performing the exercise safely. Body position can be varied in order to help place emphasis on different movers. For example, leaning forward slightly into the descent places more tension onto the chest and deltoids, whereas remaining near vertical will shift weight towards greater tricep tension. Use caution when differing from a neutral upright position, as excessive strain can occur in the elbow joint, rotator cuff, deltoid, and pectorals if flexibility and strength are limited.

Coming out of the hole, guide the arms tight aside the lats into full elbow extension by pressing through the chest, deltoids, and triceps. You should never bounce out of the bottom of the movement; this can cause excessive tension and lead to injury. Extend the elbow to a “soft” lockout, do not snap or jerk the elbows into full extension. Utilize muscular control and tension to achieve a full extension rather than relying on momentum, thus utilizing more stabilization mechanisms and potential stimulating the muscle even further.

To progress the dips further, adding weight is a very viable option. Just as with any other exercise, to make changes in strength, endurance, or composition the stimulus must be progressed in order for adaptation to occur. When a sufficient amount of bodyweight dips can be performed (12 or greater), added weight can be a viable means of getting more from the exercise. Additional weight can be added be either gripping a plate or dumbbell between the legs, or investing in a dipping belt to which weights can be attached. The latter option is greater, as it relieves the stress of having to actively support the weight during the movement by clamping with the knees or lower leg. Please take into consideration body and wrist stabilization before adding weight however, as weak factors in form can and will be exposed by increasing load. Just as adding too much weight to a bench press can result in rapid loss of control of either the eccentric or concentric portion of the movement, the same can occur in a dip. Losing control quickly can result in falling to the ground from and elevated position, or can destabilize the movement causing undue stress on a number of muscles at the same time. Use common sense, and progress slowly to reap the benefits of continued weight and adaptation.

To regress the exercise, it is recommended to have a spotter assist you in hold your legs from the rear. This has the advantage over using a dipping machine that may have an “anti-gravity” knee pad, as you can still move in a natural path of motion while stabilizing a portion of your body weight. Only the deconditioned or heavier person should utilize a dipping machine, as they may need a greater amount of assistance than a single spotter can provide. Begin with low repetitions per set, with greater amounts of sets to accomplish a higher number of overall dips. For example, completing 6 sets of 3 reps still equals 18 total reps in the end. Next time around progress 5-10% more total reps per workout. In no time will you be dipping your bodyweight for multiple sets, in ample quantity of repetitions.

Utilization of the parallel bar dip is as much of a no-brainer as adding the squat to legs day. The overall muscle stimulation provided, coupled with an intense stabilization mechanism and ability to actively progress and regress the exercise make the dip a formidable foe to the stale bench press.