PowerliftingTechnique.com is independent and supported by our readers. We may earn a commission if you buy through the links below. For more, see our disclosures page.
When I built my garage gym, one of my top purchases was a dip bar. Many think that sounds odd, but the dip is a great exercise for building strength and size! Before you begin using this exercise, you might be asking:
What muscles do dips work? The dip exercise works your chest, arms, and shoulder muscles. It is a great exercise for improving your upper body’s size, strength, and power. The dip is also a simple movement, making it a desirable exercise for any workout program.
If you aren’t using the dip exercise, you lose a chance to improve your upper body tremendously!
In this article, we will talk about the following:
- What muscles do dips workout?
- What are other variations of the dip exercise?
- What is the benefit of the dip exercise?
- Mistakes to avoid when doing dips
So without further ado, let's DIP into this article!
Dips: Muscles Worked
The dip target muscles are:
Contrary to popular belief, the dips do not work the back muscles. The desire of the dip is to perform an extension of the upper body, which pertains to the chest, shoulders, and arms. The only purpose of the back is to stabilize the movement.
Let me preface this, though. You need a stronger back if you want to dip stronger and more successfully! As I said, the dip doesn’t train the back, but if your back is weak, so will your dip be.
The dip is a pressing motion, just like the push-up. If you want to learn more about the comparison between both exercises, check out his article about how the dip compares to the push up exercise!
The chest muscle is the prime mover of the dip exercise. This means the chest is the primary muscle used to execute this movement. During the dip exercise, the chest muscles are responsible for shoulder flexion and extension.
Shoulder flexion occurs when the body goes down during the dip exercise. Shoulder extension is when the body goes upward during the dip exercise. The desire of the dip is to bring the body upward, which has to do with the action of extension.
The dip is a compound movement that uses both the shoulder and elbow joints. The primary shoulder muscle involved in the dip exercise is the anterior deltoid. The anterior deltoid is on the front of the shoulder and assists the chest muscle with shoulder flexion and extension.
As mentioned before, the shoulder and elbow joints perform the dip exercises. The elbow is a hinge joint, which allows the elbow to perform both flexion and extension. Because the dip desires to bring the body upward, the main muscle used to execute this pressing action is the arm muscle, more importantly, the tricep muscle.
What About The Back Muscles?
The dip does not train the back. However, the back does stabilize the upper body during the dip exercise. Because the back stabilizes this movement, it must be strong and rigid for performance.
When you discuss any exercise, it’s important to understand the movement's desire. The dip desires to perform extension, which is pressing your body upward.
The opposing action to extension is flexion, meaning when the body goes down during the dip. During that downward phase, the back gets tense and rigid to help control the movement.
Once the body has reached depth, and the lifter begins to press the body upward, that's when the back will relax and shift leverage onto the pressing muscles of the chest, shoulders, and arms to execute the movement.
Muscles Worked in Different Dip Variations
Regardless of the variation, the muscles worked in dips are the same used in variations. However, certain people might need variations based on ability or need. When considering the right variation, we need to consider the concept of “specificity,” which means doing specific movements for specific results. Some top variations for the dip exercise are:
- Bench Dips
- Eccentric Dips
- Weighted Dips
- Ring Dips
- Tricep Lever Pushdown
Bench dips are the simplest variation of the dip exercise. They can be done anywhere! To perform the bench dip, you can use a chair, bench, or anything with a flat surface just about hip height.
The bench dip requires your hands to be placed behind you in a pronated position. Once this happens, you will drop your body down until your arms are about 90 degrees. You will continue to bring your body up and down until all reps are complete.
Because this movement requires you to exercise resistance behind your body, there is a big stretch with the chest muscles. During this movement, the chest and shoulder have priority in this variation.
Tricep Lever Pushdown
This exercise is a machine-based movement that replicates the actions of the dip exercise. A tricep lever pushdown is a great option for those who can’t support their body weight. It's also a great option for those struggling to stabilize their body weight.
Since this exercise is a machine-based movement, it is a fixated resistance that doesn’t allow resistance to move outside its normal range of motion. This helps make the movement safer than other variations of the dip exercise.
Most lever pushdown exercises allow the lifter to move with a pronated or neutral grip. The pronated grip exaggerates the chest and shoulder muscles, but using a neutral grip helps to engage more of the arm muscle.
For anyone newer to dips or who can’t control their body weight, the eccentric dip is a great variation of the dip exercise. The eccentric dip means you focus on the “downward” phase of the dip, which is easier than the upward phase of the dip.
The dip exercise desires to press your body upward. However, this is the hardest part of the lift. The easiest part of the lift is when you lower your body downward, known as the stretching or the “eccentric phase.”
In a study by Walter Herzog, it is noted that the eccentric phase of the movement is easier than the concentric phase of the movement (the shortening phase). So those who struggle to do the dip exercise can do the eccentric dip instead.
It is also noted that the eccentric phase causes more damage to the muscle than the concentric phase. That is another reason the eccentric dip can help improve size and strength without performing the lift's hardest aspect.
You should start performing the weighted dip if you can easily perform the dip exercise. For the weighted dip, you can use various types of resistance, such as a weighted belt or chains, to make the movement tougher for increasing strength.
Weighted dips wouldn’t change the muscle being used, but the amount of effort used would change. Because a weighted dip is heavier than body weight, it is for those who want to increase upper body strength.
Whether you want a stronger bench press or overhead lockout, the weighted dip can help overload your effort to make you stronger with your chest, shoulders, and arms.
Of all variations on this list, the ring dip is the hardest of them all. The ring dip requires the athlete to perform the dip movement with massive control. This means that all the stabilizing muscles, including the back, would be engaged much more than normal.
When performing the ring dip, the rings are not stable. The bench, eccentric, and weighted dip all use stationary equipment that allows the athlete to exercise with stability. However, the ring dips are unstable and require athletes to control their body weight the whole lift.
The muscles engaged with the ring dip are the chest, shoulders, arms, and back as well. The back is not directly trained, but the back is a stabilizing muscle group that is needed tremendously when performing this movement.
Dips are a massive tool in any program. However, if you struggle to do the dip exercise, check out this article about the top 13 dip alternatives to do the dip exercise.
Benefits of Dips
The benefits of the dip exercise are:
- Improve pressing mechanics
- Increase size and strength
- Easy to Implement – can be done anywhere!
Improve Pressing Mechanics
Everyone wants a strong bench press. It’s a highly sought movement for upper body strength. To be a better bench presser, though, you must have a strong chest, shoulders, and arms.
The dip exercise helps you build a stronger press by challenging the chest, shoulders, and arms while promoting the right mechanics for a better press.
Generally, the dip exercise requires you to have a neutral grip. When doing the dip, the elbows are placed closer to the body so that you engage not just the chest and shoulders but arms.
This means that when doing the dip exercise, we help strengthen all those muscle groups and learn how to press using different mechanics. Many people bench press with their elbows outward, but having your elbows inward improves your pressing motion. It also helps you press from a safer position, too.
Increase Size and Strength
Many people want to get bigger and stronger. However, a statement I have once heard said:
Someone who is stronger is bigger. But someone who is bigger, might not necessarily be stronger.
To me, this means that if you increase your strength, the size will come. The dip is an exercise that builds size as it stems from the fact it builds tremendous strength.
It doesn’t have to be the traditional dip exercise you use in your program. It can be a variation that was stated above. If you are doing the dip exercise, you are putting yourself in a position to become stronger and bigger.
Easy To Implement – Can Be Done Anywhere!
One of the most attractive aspects of the dip exercise is that it can be done anywhere! The bench dip, for example, can be done from home using a chair, couch, or even the edge of a counter!
Learning how to master the dip means you are improving not just your strength but your stability as well. We mentioned that the dip exercise requires stability, especially in your own body weight.
Mistakes To Avoid When Doing Dips
Mistakes to avoid:
- Head placement
- Dipping too deep
When performing the dip, placing your head in a neutral position is ideal. This means not looking forward or downward but right in between.
Looking forward during each rep could cause you to elevate your posture and place more of the load onto your shoulder joint.
Head placement will always influence spinal position, meaning where you look and how you place your head can cause your posture to either be in the correct or out of position.
Posture is influenced by head placement, as mentioned previously. The reason posture matters is that if you do the dip exercise and are placed vertically, that could stretch the shoulder joint further back than normal. Most people want to do the dip exercise, looking partially downward, leaning forward, and pressing from almost a declined position.
Doing this lets you comfortably perform the dip exercise with better mechanics and correctly place the load on all the joints.
Dipping too deep
You want to lean slightly forward and reach 90 degrees with your elbow joint when performing the dip. If you perform the dip too low, this could cause the shoulders to stretch too far back.
If the shoulders are too far back, they are in a weakened position, making you not effectively press how you normally should. We want to have an advantage with this movement, not a disadvantage. This is our most dangerous mistake when performing the dip exercise.
Many people feel the dip exercise is comparable to the decline bench press. Click this link to learn more about the pros and cons of which exercise is better for your program!
With dips, the muscles worked are the arms, shoulders, and chest. The stronger your dip is, the bigger your gains will be. Although the dip doesn’t train your back, your back must be strong to support this movement.
If you struggle to dip, there are several variations to keep this superior movement in your program.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do dips work out?
The muscles used in dips are the chest, shoulders, and arms, as it is a pressing exercise for the upper body. Many people think your back is used, but it’s not. However, a weak back will limit your ability to do dips.
Do dips work my back?
The dips do not work your back directly. The back is used to stabilize the dipping motion. When performing the dip, your body goes downward and upward. During the downward phase, the back tightens to help support the upward phase that comes afterward.
Are dips safe?
The dips are safe if you perform them slightly forward while bending your elbows 90 degrees. Anything lower than 90 degrees could potentially be harmful to the athlete.
What if I don’t have a dip bar?
Variations to the dip exercise include the bench dip and the tricep lever pushdown. The bench dip can be done with any equipment around hip height, and the tricep lever pushdown is a common piece of equipment in most gyms.
Can dips be a primary movement?
Dips can absolutely be a primary movement. When designing a workout, the order of your exercises matters. The dips are a compound movement; because of this, they can be prioritized as the first or second movement of any workout routine.
About The Author
Joseph Lucero is a strength and conditioning specialist who owns his online coaching business “Harvesting Strength.” He earned his master's degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio and has his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification (CSCS) from the NSCA. He coaches all types of strength athletes, including powerlifters and strongmen, and has authored many books on Amazon regarding different topics in strength training!