The dip is an integral part of a full body workout and for beginners, provides one of the few major chest exercises for a full body calisthenics program. Dips are also important for developing balance and stability in the shoulder joint in a calisthenics to improve joint integrity and reduce the risk of injury, as it is exercising the shoulder in another plane and direction.
This tutorial will cover the proper form of a dip and also progressions towards being able to get your first dip.
Where can I do Dips?
Traditionally Dips are done on either Parallel Bars, or Rings (harder). However, if you are working out at home there are many options available for you.
You can push two tables together, two chairs, two stools, use the corner of a counter top, or any other two level surfaces with a gap inbetween them for your body to go!
The other option is to invest in some rings that you can anchor somewhere, go to the park and use parallel bars if they have them, or go to the gym for any of these things
Much like how we need to have confidence in the static position of a plank before adding the dynamic element of a push-up, we similarly need a good ‘support’ position before being able to do dips properly.
To do a proper support hold, shoulders should be depressed and slightly retracted to make your chest stand out and minimise the amount your shoulders roll forward during the dip (this is bad and can cause injury). Arms should be locked straight and elbows should be externally rotated so the pits of your elbows face forwards and the tips of your elbows point back. Given enough vertical space, your legs should be locked straight and squeezed together. If not, your legs may bend but they should not come apart and there is no point to crossing one leg over the other.
Whether or not you can already do dips, it is a good idea to work up to being able to do atleast a 60 second support hold on your apparatus of choice.
There are different viewpoints on the best hip angle (e.g. where your legs should be in relation to your trunk). Regardless of whether your legs are in line or slightly in front of you, your body should never arch and should always be hollow. If you keep your legs in front of you slightly the dip should be slightly easier and if they are more in line it should be a bit harder. The legs-forward variant is more like the type of dip involved in the Ring Muscle-Up and the Legs-back dip is more like one that you would use to train a Backwards Roll to Support on the rings. I am demonstrating on rings for ease of access, but this same thing applies to dips on parallel bars.
Like absolutely everything else you may have read on this site, your elbows should not flare outwards. This is an inefficient and mechanically unstable position for your shoulder joint and massively increases the risk of injury. If you have been externally rotating your elbows (elbow pits facing forward) during the support correctly, all you need to do, much like the in push-up, is to ensure your forearms are vertical to the floor. If your elbows tuck in a bit like the ‘Right’ photo up there, it’s not a huge deal, it could be due to the width of your dip bars, but if you can, keeping your forearms vertical will be a more efficient way of dipping and you’ll probably find them a teeny bit easier.
Many people in the fitness industry think it is hazardous to break parallel in a dip and that it will cause injury, but that is not necessarily true. This perspective is held by the same people who believe locking out your elbows during a pull-up and going below parallel in a squat are damaging. For someone with no history of injury or who is just starting out, none of these things are problems if you have good form, good mobility and condition your connective tissues from the very beginning by just using full range of motion, you will be fine. Others believe there is no point to going past parallel for muscle development. If you are a bodybuilder, go for it, the minimal reduction in injury potential is probably worth it for you. If you want to do calisthenics or gymnastics or anything more all encompassing from a movement perspective, dips to the fullest depth your shoulder joint will comfortably allow are going to be perfect for you in developing the strength for things such as ring and bar muscle ups and improving your shoulder integrity in extension for many other movements such as the back lever.
However, one thing to note is it is much harder to stop your shoulders rolling forward at maximal depth, which is the impetus for concern about full depth, so be aware of this when practising this exercise.
Now this is a bit of a controversial progression for dips and a lot of people think it has little or no carryover to the real dip but I personally have had success using this exercise as a tool for people who have no vertical pressing strength and could not yet even hold a support position in their journey towards a full dip.
This exercise can be scaled by putting your feet up onto a box as well in order to make it harder. If you are strong enough for Dip negatives, by no means should you be doing these, this is just an absolute ‘square one’ exercise for those without the ability to do support holds and negatives.
Once you have a solid support, this is the first (and ONLY!) legit progression towards full dips. Starting in a support position you are going to perform the lowering portion of the dip, focusing on maintaining full body tension in your shoulders and legs to keep position.
Once you can do 3 sets of 10 of these, 5s controlled tempo on each rep, then you should be able to start doing full dips at 3 sets of 5.
Assisted Dip Machine?
I would not recommend this as a tool for developing your dip as it is one of the least effective progression to a full dip and does not help you get used to use the stabilising muscles required in a full dip. This is the equivalent of training a chest press machine or a bench press on a smith machine to improve your normal bench press. It’s just not good.
From here, once you have mastered the full dip, you can move on to doing ring dips, then the world is your oyster, you absolute dipping machine!