Want to get crazy strong triceps and build up strength to do the ever elusive muscle up?
Yeah, me too.
Dips are one of those old school exercises that calisthenics masters like Al Kavadlo love—and for good reason.
Not only will dips build up your triceps strength like no other exercise can, they’ll also work the front of your shoulders (anterior deltoids), your chest (pectorals), and your back muscles (rhomboids) as well as your abdominal muscles and core strength. Plus, they’ll get you more functionally strong than any machine-assisted triceps exercise ever will, and should be a staple of your training regimen.
But although a lot of gym goers are familiar with the modified bench dip, most people don’t actually know the best way to scale up the exercise and build up to the full dip using a dip bar or p-bars.
Tip: No dip station or access to parallel bars? Put two chairs about shoulder width apart, make sure they won’t slide, and go to town.
Here’s how to get started with dips, no matter what your current strength level:
How to get started with dips
Here’s a quick video on how to get started with dips:
Start with whichever progression is appropriate for your current strength level. For all the dip progressions, you’ll want to be able to do about 20 reps before you move onto the next progression (although that doesn’t mean you can’t try the harder versions for fun as you go along—just be smart and don’t do anything that hurts!).
Bench knee dips
If you’re just starting out with dips, bench knee dips are a great way to begin to build up your triceps strength. And while some trainers and coaches dislike triceps dips because of the possibility of a rotator cuff strain, only those with previous shoulder issues should avoid them.
To do them, get in front of a bench or sturdy elevated surface and position your hands palm down behind your back. Your legs should be bent in front of you and your feet on the ground. Pull your shoulders back and keep your chest up high, then lower down so that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle. Push back up and repeat.
Straight leg bench dips
Once you’re fairly comfortable with bench knee dips, it’s time to move on to straight leg bench dips.
To do them, you’ll want to get in a similar position as with the bench knee dips but with your legs extended straight on the ground. Engage your abs, pull your shoulders back and lower down so that your elbows are parallel with the floor.
Elevated legs bench dips
Next up we’ve got bench dips with both legs elevated. It’s getting real!
To do these, you can either get in front of a bench with both legs on a bench or chair in front of you, or you can embrace your inner acrobat and put your legs up on a set of p-bars like I do in the video above. If you’re using a bench, repeat the same method as above, bringing your elbows to 90 degrees.
If you’re using p-bars, this is where you can start leaning forward slightly and try and get below a 90 degree angle to even further strengthen your triceps.
One elevated leg bench dips
The next step in the dip progression is to do dips with one leg elevated. This gets significantly harder so don’t worry if it’s difficult for you at first—you’ll build up strength quickly with practice!
To do them, you can do the same as above and either get in front of a bench with one leg on a bench or chair in front of you, or you can put your leg up on a set of p-bars like I do. If you’re using a bench, try and get to parallel, making sure to switch legs every so often so that one leg doesn’t get a ton stronger than the other.
If you’re using p-bars, try and get to below a 90 degree angle and make sure to lean forward to keep your shoulders healthy and happy.
Ok, you’re onto the full thing!
For full dips, get in between a dip bar or set of p-bars and grip the bars at your side. Pull your shoulders back and down, engage your abs and lean forward slightly. As you lower down, you can either cross your legs or straighten them and bring them at an angle in front of you to keep them off the ground.
Remember that you want to try and get to at least a 90 degree angle with your elbows—but if you can go all the way down so that the bars are basically at your armpits, go for it. Push back up so that your arms are straight and try again.
Other cool things to try
Once you’ve mastered the full dip, the possibilities are endless. Although you’ll first want to put your energy into training for multiple reps and make sure you’ve got your form down, here are some other fun dip variations you can try:
Straight bar dips. Position both hands in front of the body on a single straight bar. Lower yourself down as you lean over the bar and reach your legs out in front to keep your balance. Straight bar dips require more shoulder, biceps and abdominal strength as well as a greater sense of balance—so don’t be discouraged if they feel extra tough at first.
Plyo dips. Position yourself in between a set of dip bars with your hands gripping the bars at your side. Lower down into the bottom of the dip position, then as explosively as possible, push yourself up in the air so that your arms straighten and your hands let go of the dip bars. Land back in the bottom dip position and repeat.
Korean dips. Position both hands behind the body on a single straight bar. Engage your abs and tighten your lower back muscles and dip down so that your elbows reach at least 90 degrees, then push back up. The Korean dip is an extremely challenging variation of the dip—you should probably be comfortable with regular straight bar dips and be able to do at least 20 regular dips before you even give it a try.
Happy dip training!