What Muscles do Dips Work? 3 Big Ones…and Countless Others!

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Awww…dips, man! Now we’re talking!

Bodyweight exercises and workouts have been getting more and more attention in recent years, but the dip is in a class of its own. Watching a guy crank out pull-ups just isn’t the same as seeing some dude knock out 50-plus dips.

Or more

The best thing is, if you get really good at dips, you get rewarded…with greater resistance in the form of a weighted dip belt!

Dips…what’s not to love?

Are dips really that effective, though? What muscles do dips work?

@calisthenicsking

Today we’re going to break down all things “dip”. You’ll be blowing up your chest and triceps with big sets to your garage gym routine in no time!

What Muscles do Dips Work?

Think about that guy in your high school who could do, like, 80 dips (everyone I’ve ever talked to knew this kind of guy so I assume you did too). Think about what he looked like…

Did he have:

Jacked triceps? 

Barrel chest?

Both?

If you answered “yes” to any (or all) of these questions, you probably have a pretty good answer to the question “what muscles do dips work?”

The triceps and the chest are the primary muscles worked by dips.

@calisthenics_family

However, there is a lot going in during the dip. As you can imagine, a number of secondary muscles play a part in the movement.

Before getting into key stabilizing muscles, it is best to introduce the different types of dips. Each type utilizes stabilizers to a different extent and degree; the dips muscles worked are actually quite diverse!

Ring Dips vs Bar Dips

If you mainly hit the Globo gym/Bro gym, this topic may not seem all that relevant to you. Where the heck are the rings and who the heck does “ring dips”?

When you’re in the basement or garage, though…you get good at rings dips really fast. It is a whole heck of a lot easier to move your rings up and down than it is to screw around with dip bar attachment!

Besides being more accessible for the home gym crowd, ring dips create a lot of work for the stabilizing muscles, particularly the shoulders. The rings are not “fixed” objects like the dip bar is so your upper body has to essentially be “on” for the duration of your set. 

@vanessarosef

Finished a rep and hanging out in the start position for a second before starting your next rep? Feeling your arms slightly swaying and quivering as you struggle to keep the rings by your side? Congratulations, your shoulders are still getting smoked and even your back is getting part of the action!

Ring dips also allow a bit more flexibility in terms of how and where you hold the rings. 

The ascension portion of the ring dip is essentially the finishing portion of a ring muscle-up making the ring dip a good progression movement for perfecting this advanced skill.

Unfortunately, due to the factors discussed, it is difficult for even the best gymnasts to knock out huge sets of ring dips. There are just too many muscles that need to be stabilized for an extended period of time to allow for extremely high rep sets. 

So what’s a dip fan to do if they want to knock out the high-rep sets?

Enter Bar Dips

Bar Dips involve either a special piece of gym equipment, usually either free-standing or screwed into the pull-up rig. Two horizontal bars protrude from the base, allowing for different hand placements and muscle focus.

Bar dips can also be performed on more “traditional” horizontal bars that gymnasts use or on smaller, portable parallettes.

Because of the fixed nature of the dip bars, much less focused muscle stabilization takes place with bar dips. Hanging steady on a dip bar for an extended period of time certainly isn’t easy, but is much less strenuous than attempting to do so suspended from rings.

The lack of effort necessary for stabilization can be applied to executing bigger sets of dips. It is not uncommon to witness people knock out close to 100 reps of bar dips in max attempts (that guy from my high school? He could do over 80). You’ll rarely see ring dip sets go this high.

Dip Alternatives 

Dips offer a number of alternatives that either scale the exercise, making it easier or more accessible for those new to the exercise or ramping up its difficulty.

Bench Dip

This is a popular alternative that is often substituted when there are no dip bars or rings available for “dipping”. The athlete can either place their hands on a bench below them and their feet on the floor in front of them (easier option) or their feet on a second bench in front of them (harder option).

With the feet on the floor, there is a great deal of additional support from the lower body. This takes less tension off of the chest and triceps, but still provides strengthening work and prepares the athlete for more traditional dips.

When the feet are placed on a second bench, much of the lower body is still supported, but at the horizontal angle. It can do less to assist the chest and triceps with the dipping movement, making for a challenging exercise.

What do dips work when you’re using a bench, though? Due to the almost “reversed” set-up, bench dips primarily work the triceps muscles so don’t expect as much of a chest workout when doing these.

Assisted Dips

Like the bench dip, there are a number of ways to perform assisted dips. You’re unlikely to find the assisted dip machine in many home gyms, but you’re sure to find one in every globo gym.

The assisted dip machine allows you to perform bar dips in a largely “traditional” manner while providing a specific level of support. The more support you opt for when selecting your weight, the easier it is to perform each dip. With this type of assisted dip machine, you can systematically work up to unassisted bar dips by simply moving a weight-stack pin as you get stronger!

Assisted dips can also be performed by enlisting a friend or lifting partner to hold on to the lifter’s legs or feet for the duration of the dip set.

Generally, the higher up on the body the partner holds the legs, the more support they will provide and the easier the exercise becomes. As the partner moves down the legs and to the feet, they support less of the lifter’s weight and the chest, triceps, and back are worked into overdrive!

Weighted Dips

We’ve discussed some of the best dip belts before. It is no secret that you can make the seemingly innocuous dip a lot more challenging by slapping on a dip belt, attaching a kettlebell or plate below you, and holding on for dear life!

Don’t have a dip belt? Thankfully there are a number of different ways to add weight to your dips. The old, “hold a dumbbell between your ankles” trick is where most people start

In my experience, I am always much more focused on the dumbbell and can only get through a few reps before everything…suddenly starts to get a lot easier…

(…the dumbbell has obviously fallen from my feet!)

Thankfully, if you have a standard powerlifting or weightlifting belt, you can easily attach a kettlebell or even a dumbbell to yourself.

This has been a go-to method for me for quite a long time, although it can be a little tricky actually getting into position with the kettlebell hanging so close to the body.

I normally erect a small “step” comprised of plates leading to the rings to more easily facilitate the start (and finish) of each set.

My answer to “what muscles do dips work?” after doing weighted ring dips: “feels like all of them!”

Go Do Dips…You Have No Excuse Not To!

We’ve all seen the videos on YouTube of jacked dudes doing calisthenics, to include bar dips, in beat-up playgrounds around the world.

@calisthenics_amsterdam

Heck, I get YouTube ads of these guys repping out dips, trying to explain to me why I should buy their course and learn to do them too!

I’m not going to purchase their course (sorry, guys; I can already do some of this stuff!) but they have a point. 

It is really easy to find a place to do dips, whether “traditional” or modified. 

Also, like the guys in those videos, you will completely blow your chest and triceps up (while sculpting your back), by putting in time on the dip bar or rings. 

An accessible exercise that gets you jacked…what else could you ask for?

Maybe a dedicated dips workout?

Lucky for you, if you’re a CrossFitter, you might get asked to perform a lot of dips from time to time. Take a look at the classic Hero WOD JT:

If that’s not a workout made for a shirtless guy at an ancient playground, I don’t know what is. If you want to look good before hitting the beach someday, even a single round of JT will do it for you!

Take a look at the 6th workout in the 2014 CrossFit Regional competition.

That is a lot of work, but look closely. Of all of those tough movements, only the dips are performed once. Everything else is performed twice.

Ring dips are that hard core. 

In conclusion, they are accessible, they get you jacked, and you have to do them in CrossFit.

You know what you gotta do now…

Dips

Mastered the bar dip, ring dip? Know the answer to “what do dips work?” and ready to put them to the test? Try one of the best upper body WODs involving dips. I promise you’ll get all the practice you can handle!

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AUTHOR

Tom, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, ISSA-CPT, PN1-NC, DPA, CAPM has been CrossFitting for over 10 years. He has participated in a number of team and individual CrossFit competitions across Europe and the United States. He was the 2012 Chick-fil-A Race Series champion (North Georgia Circuit) and has put together a few gnarly garage and basement gyms in his time!

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