Parallel Bar Dips: Old School Power Builder

I enjoy reading everything I can about the conjugate training methods. My problem is that I train alone at home, and I can’t safely use a lot of the assistance exercise ideas. So I’m always looking for ways to use the core concepts of the conjugate system and make them work with the resources I have available.
A big name in the strength world has written extensively about the importance of increasing triceps strength to improve bench press performance. He has many good ideas about how to do this. Unfortunately, board presses aren’t possible for me because I train alone. I do the usual triceps exercises, but I can’t handle enough weight in triceps extensions for there to be meaningful carryover for my bench because my elbows hurt too much. So what’s the answer?

Looking back over many years of lifting, and thinking about what worked and what didn’t, the exercise that contributed the most to my bench was the old school parallel bar dip with extra weight. Not many people do them anymore to build power, but there was a time when some top benchers used them with great success.

First, let’s clear away the misconceptions and the nonsense. Mike Mentzer used to write that dips were the “upper body squat,” and this idea was picked up by a lot of armchair trainers who write articles for bodybuilding magazines and fitness columns. It makes for good copy because it sounds cool—upper body squat. But I can tell you flat out—it’s pure BS. There is no magic to dips despite what the columnists say. They work the triceps, shoulders, and chest, and they produce good gains but only when you use enough weight.

This is where the magazines and all the armchair trainers fall apart. For experienced powerlifters, body weight dips are useless for producing strength gains, and few writers have any idea what kind of weight is possible in the dip because they’ve never done them. To illustrate what’s possible, sometimes they refer back to an old story that’s been retold many times about Marvin Eder doing dips back in the 1950s with guys literally hanging off of him, but there’s very little concrete information.

So how much weight do you have to use? Is 100 lbs of extra weight for five reps a lot of weight? Some people actually think 100 lbs is a big deal. The fact is that 100 lbs isn’t a lot of weight. It’s a decent weight, but a 200-lb guy who is doing dips with 100 lbs is actually lifting maybe 270 lbs, and that’s not a lot of weight. A smaller guy who weighs in at 150 lbs and is doing dips with a 100-lb dumbbell is lifting a nice weight as a percentage of his body weight, but he’s only moving maybe 220 lbs.

Because some guys mistakenly think that dips with 70, 80, or even 100 lbs is a lot of weight, they don’t push beyond that level, and they never see significant size or strength gains from dips. But the truth is that moving 100 lbs in dips for 5–8 reps won’t turn you into a bench machine. To get a much bigger bench you need to change your thinking about what’s possible.

So what’s a good goal? To start, shoot for extra weight in the range of 50 percent body weight, and build from there. Try to move it up to 100 percent body weight for five reps. The closer you get to handling extra weight that’s equal to your body weight, the closer you get to a raw, double your body weight bench press. For many of us, that’s about as much weight as we’ll be able to handle. If you’re gifted in the bench, you’ll be able to use more, but average guys will have to work hard to get to extra weight equal to body weight.

Assume you weigh 200 lbs. Your max raw bench is 250 lbs, and you decide to include dips. You aren’t used to the movement so you start out with just body weight to give your shoulders, pecs, and arms time to adapt to the exercise. Over a period of weeks/months, you slowly add weight until you’re now dipping with 100 lbs (50 percent body weight) for five reps. You’re now moving 270 lbs for five reps. This could very well add 20–50 lbs to your max bench. Are you any bigger? Your triceps will be bigger, and you will see it in the mirror. Have you gained any weight from this? Probably not.

If you’re an experienced lifter and you’re already raw benching in the mid-300s and up for reps, don’t expect an increase in upper body mass or your max bench when you hit 100 extra lbs of weight. You’re already strong, and getting up to 100 lbs isn’t going to do much for you. If you’re at that level, you need to look at 100 lbs as a milestone and plan on getting stronger.

Move the weight up to 200 extra lbs and you can expect that your triceps and shoulders will be much larger and you will be much stronger. This is a level of strength that’s tough to reach, and most guys never get there because they don’t stay with it. And they don’t stay with it because they don’t think it’s possible to get there.

The great Pat Casey did dips with 205 lbs at a body weight in the 240s and raw benched in the mid-400s as a young man. As his body weight increased to the low 300s, he raised his dip weight to the low 300s as well. His max competition bench was roughly 620 lbs. So looking at Pat’s routines, his max strict bench was roughly equal to his max total dip weight (body weight plus extra weight) for 3–5 reps. Pat’s routines are still on the internet. His main assistance exercises were very basic and included lying triceps extensions (300–365 lbs), incline dumbbell bench (220-lb dumbbells), dips with heavy weights (minimum 205 lbs up to low 300s), and front presses.

Pat did a lot of dips! He relied heavily on this exercise, and it worked well for him. Because Pat weighed anywhere from 250 lbs to the low 300s when he performed dips with 205 lbs for multiple sets of five reps—which was a low weight for him—he was moving some nice weight. When he did dips with extra weight from 205 lbs to the low 300s and up, he was moving some tremendous weight!

My old training partner and I did dips with around 155 lbs for five reps at body weights in the low 200s. By powerlifting standards, we were both too lean to lift heavy weights because we’re both over six feet tall. I’ve written about this problem for this web site. Suffice it to say, your muscle mass will limit/define your maximal strength, and we both needed to gain mass.

When I look back at what we did then and the lifting I did in the years afterward, the dips made a big difference during this period. Neither one of us was naturally good at the bench, but the dips were the number one reason our bench weights went up. I wish we had pushed for bigger numbers in the dip, but we thought those were big weights at the time, and we placed mental limits on what we were doing. In hindsight, we should have kept going heavier!

This year I’ll try to get my raw bench back up to 400–410 lbs at a body weight of 195 lbs. To do that, I’m going to try using dips as my main assistance exercise. I’ll need to get the weight up to 205 lbs for five reps. Right now, I’m using 95 lbs for four reps at 195 lbs body weight. So I have a long road ahead.

Should you try doing dips? Here are some possible benefits. You may find that even though the bench press makes your shoulders sore, you can do dips without pain. This has always been the case for me. It depends upon the reason your shoulders are sore, so this may not work for you. It’s worth trying though.

Even if conventional triceps exercises like the lying triceps extension make your elbows intensely painful, you may be able to do dips with little or no pain and little or no inflammation. This is a significant benefit if you’ve abused your elbows. In my younger days, I had very bad elbow tendonitis from overtraining my triceps, and many years later, my elbows become inflamed if I try to do a lying extension with significant weight. I can do heavy dips without any problem and they work for me. They will build your triceps power and size.

You can easily incorporate chains into dips. This is very easy to do. So if you’re concerned about overstretching your shoulders or pecs in the low position, you can set up your chains the usual way to lighten the load at the bottom and increase it as you push up. And you don’t need more than one or two sets of chains if you’re also using plates. If you get really good, you can use more sets of chains.

You don’t need a spotter with dips. Just make sure you can touch your feet on the floor or that you have a stool to step on. At any point if you feel a twinge in a pec or shoulder, it’s easy to bail on this exercise. I never knew anyone who got hurt doing dips, but if you poke around the internet there is a story about someone who tore both pecs doing dips. No details.
The key to safe dipping is to control your depth. Be consistent from workout to workout, and never do a dip where you can’t touch the floor with your feet when you get to the bottom of the lift. If the dipping bars are too high and you can’t touch your feet to the ground, put something on the floor that you can reach before you start dipping. If you feel a twinge, stop what you’re doing and put your feet down immediately.

You don’t need a lot of equipment with dips. A set of stand alone dipping bars are very affordable. I’ve used dipping harnesses, and I’ve also used a length of chain. They both work fine to hold the weight. If you’re using a length of chain, wrap a towel around it or it will hurt like hell.

Although they aren’t that popular anymore, you can do negatives in the dip pretty easily. If you’ve thought about trying negatives, the dip is a good place to start. You can also incorporate chains into your negatives. Someone once said that negatives don’t help strength development but will increase size. Use them wisely. Don’t overdo the weight and control your depth. If you want more mass, dips are one of the few big, upper body exercises you can do using negatives without a spotter.

There is no doubt in my mind that some of the best benchers could do some amazing numbers in the dip, but they’re already doing triceps specialization exercises that are effective so there’s no point in doing dips at their level. Which Elite Fitness lifters would I like to see try dips for six months and write about their experiences? My number one choice is Jim Wendler. I don’t think I have to tell you why. Jim would tell it like it is. If I’m reading his training log correctly, Jim raw benches around 455 lbs and weighs around 235 lbs. So Jim could probably work up to 200 lbs in the dip for reps pretty easily. He’d probably need to go as heavy as 250 lbs to really see some carryover in his bench, but that could take him up to a 500-lb max. That would be very interesting.

I’d also like to see what Matt K. can do. Matt sometimes does dips at the end of his workout with 100 lbs and reps out with that weight. I’d like to see what he could do if he decided to concentrate on heavy weights for a while. We already know what he did with basic one-arm rows. Matt K is a guy who doesn’t set limits on his performance. As a result, he raises the bar for the rest of us. Matt’s performance forces everyone to rethink what they can do in their own workouts. If Matt can do rows with 300 lbs for eight or more reps, what’s stopping the rest of us from doing 150 lbs for 20 reps? Nothing. We need to believe that we can do it first and then the body will follow. If you don’t read Matt’s training log, I recommend it.

If Matt decided to try dips with heavy weights, I’m sure we’d see some amazing numbers. Because Matt is into bodybuilding right now, this would be a very cool experiment. Matt’s logs indicate that he hurt his shoulder, and dips have become painful for him. Maybe he will consider it when his shoulder heals up.

To sum up, for average guys, dips are a long-term project. You won’t see results overnight by adding dips to your bench routine, and body weight dips aren’t going to do anything for you. Get rid of that upper body squat nonsense. You’ll need time and determined effort to make them work, but they offer a lot of advantages for guys who are raw lifters and have limited access to advanced equipment. You don’t need a lot of equipment to do them. You can do them alone, and you don’t need a spot even when you’re handling max weights. Adding chains is easy, and they allow you to control the resistance at the bottom, middle, and top of the lift. Dips are one of the few exercises that allow you to really work the triceps hard without elbow pain. It’s also simple to see where you are in terms of your bench and easy to see if they’re helping. If you’re looking for a way to get your triceps stronger to increase your bench, consider doing dips.

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