Are dips part of your strength-training routine? Triceps dips are a challenging exercise that uses your own body weight as resistance. Being a compound exercise, this movement works more than one muscle group in your upper body at the same time, including the triceps, shoulders, and upper back. We love compound exercise because we know that they give lots of return for the time we spend doing them. However, dips can place significant stress on the shoulder muscles too. The last thing anyone needs is a shoulder injury! Are dips bad for your shoulders and are there ways to make them safer?
Triceps Dips: Safe or Not?
If you don’t use proper form, triceps dips are a risky exercise for your shoulders. Doing them in a sloppy manner places your shoulders at a higher risk of injury. According to the American Council on Exercise, dips exert substantial stress on the anterior deltoids. The problem is the shoulder, despite being a ball-and-socket joint, doesn’t have the stability that the hip joint has. When you dip, it compresses on the capsule of the shoulder joint and creates added shearing forces on the shoulders.
When you descend into a triceps dip, using poor form, it also increases the risk of shoulder impingement. Impingement is a condition where the ligaments, tendons, and bursa that run underneath the acromion, the bony prominence on the shoulder blade, become compressed. The end result is inflammation and discomfort, especially when you do dips or when you lift your arms up. That’s why form is so critical when you dip.
One mistake people make when dipping is they let their shoulders roll forward. To perform a triceps dip safely, your body should move straight up and down. One reason your shoulders roll forward is that you’re trying to dip too low. As you descend below a certain level, there’s a tendency for the shoulders to push forward and that increases the risk of shoulder injury. When your shoulders reach the level of your elbows, you’ve dipped deeply enough. Don’t try to go past that point. You’ll get the full benefits of the exercise without dipping below this level.
Another mistake when dipping that can lead to shoulder problems is letting your elbows move outward, or flare, when you dip. This places substantial stress on the shoulders and greatly increases the risk of shoulder impingement. Also, don’t let your elbows touch your torso during the exercise.
Dip Variations to Avoid
Some dip variations are higher risk than others. The most shoulder unfriendly way to dip is to do it using gymnastic rings. If you’ve been to a gym lately, you might have seen someone doing this. Unfortunately, they’re putting their shoulders in jeopardy! That’s because the rings aren’t fixed in place and this makes them unstable. If the rings move a bit, it can cause a nasty shoulder injury. It’s best to do dips from a stable position to lower your risk of shoulder injury.
Some people use parallel bars or a dip stand to do dips. This requires more strength to do successfully as opposed to bench dips. Bench dips are where you place your hands on a bench or other stable surface and dip. You can even place your feet on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you when you dip down. Although this approach provides more stability, it still places a significant amount of stress on your shoulders as you rotate your shoulders rotate internally as you lower your body. The danger is, over time, this could lead to shoulder impingement. The lower you dip, the greater the strain you place on your shoulders.
One way to reduce the stress on your shoulders is to place your hands closer together and do a narrow grip dip. Most people place their hands further than shoulder-width apart, but to minimize the stress on your shoulders, a bit narrower than shoulder width is safer.
Keep Your Upper Body Workout Balanced
When you do dips, you push your body weight upward, making dips a pushing exercise. To balance your upper body workout, work the opposing muscles as well to prevent muscle imbalances. To do this, include pulling exercises that work your anterior shoulders, chest, and triceps. One way is to add exercises that pull your body up, like a pull-up, to your routine.
Even if you can’t do a pull-up yet, you can train your body to do one over time. If you have a pull-up bar, try hanging from it as long as you can without lifting yourself up. Once you can hang for 20 seconds or more, use a bench to that allows you to stand with your chin above the bar. Using an underhand grip, grab the bar and step off the bench so that you’re hanging with your chin above the bar. Hold this position as long as you can. You’ll develop greater strength over time and will eventually be able to tackle a full pull-up.
Rows are another pulling exercise that helps balance the pushing motion of dips. Dumbbell rows, barbell rows, or trap bar rows are all effective pulling movements. Other alternatives are bent-over barbell rows and inverted rows. To isolate one side, incorporate single -arm dumbbell rows into your routine. One variation to be wary of is upright rows. If you do them with poor form, you could end up with a painful shoulder impingement.
The Bottom Line
Triceps dips are an effective exercise for targeting the triceps but it’s important to use impeccable form. If you have a history of shoulder problems, you may be better off working your triceps in another way. Overhead triceps extensions is a reasonable substitute. You can also reduce the strain on your shoulders by placing your hands closer together and doing narrow-grip triceps dips. Don’t risk injury by getting sloppy when you do dips. It’s an exercise with benefits but also higher risk than other common triceps exercises.
American Council on Exercise. “Follow-up Q and A: Dangerous Dips”
OrthoInfo.com. “Shoulder Impingement/Rotator Cuff Tendinitis”