Short answer: If your shoulders are healthy and flexible enough to assume the bottom position of the dip, the exercise is safe.
Nonetheless, it would be naive to think that dips cannot cause issues – mechanically, they’re not the most shoulder-friendly exercise. People with a history of shoulder problems should be cautious.
Issues may also arise if you go too deep or perform weighted dips with weights that your body is not ready for.
Why Are Dips So Hard on The Shoulders?
The problem is the bottom of the dip which aggressively stretches the shoulder and creates a great opportunity for an excessive anterior glide of the humeral head.
The position could also cause shoulder impingement by pinching the rotator cuff and the biceps tendon.
As a bonus, the lack of upward scapular rotation during dips increases the chances of the humeral head to get “trapped” by the structures surrounding it.
But assuming the stretched position is not the only difficulty; you also have to insert force while in it. This augments the stress on the involved tissues even more.
What Can a Man Do to Avoid Shoulder Pain During Dips?
1. Develop basic pushing strength first.
When I was in high school, our gym teacher told us that all boys should be able to do 10 pull-ups and 12 dips by the end of the summer. I went to the local park and tried to do a few dips on a set of corroded parallel bars. If my memory is correct, I got one and a half-rep, and even though I couldn’t see myself from the side, I’m pretty sure that my facial expressions were similar to those made by people squatting 800lbs.
The next day, I woke up with nagging shoulder pain and wrongfully concluded that dips aren’t for me.
My weakness rather than dips was the problem.
Untrained individuals shouldn’t jump straight into dips.
3 solid sets of 20 deep push-ups done on push-up bars or parallettes are a good prerequisite to cover before attempting dips.
Alternatively, if you don’t have either, you can use cinder blocks or even books to elevate yourself. The goal is to condition the shoulder and the pushing musculature for dips by increasing the range of motion of the basic floor push-up.
Another really solid option are push-ups between two chairs. This is a great chest exercise in and of itself.
FAQ: Should I also do flexibility drills for my shoulder?
Dedicated flexibility and mobility training will help but cannot replace the strengthening phase. Being able to assume the stretched position isn’t enough; you have to develop strength over that range of motion.
2. Do dips on narrow bars.
The calisthenics boom stimulated a rapid construction of fitness playgrounds in my city. At first, I was excited, but when I actually tried to use them, I was heavily disappointed for two reasons:
- The parallel bars are too wide for me.
- The spacing between the rings is also too wide.
Excessively wide parallel bars intensify the strain on the shoulder joint by forcing you to flare your elbows to the side. This puts the glenohumeral joint (shoulder) in external rotation and increases the chance of rotator cuff injuries and impingement.
For that reason alone, I rarely frequent the new, flashy fitness corners unless they have V-bars which allow you to take a narrower grip.
My guess is that many of the playgrounds were engineered by the same architect as they all look similar, apart from the colors, and have that problem.
Ideally, you want the parallel bars to be slightly wider than your shoulders.
After building some dipping strength, you can try dips with a wider grip, but if you are a beginner still examining the new territory, stick to narrow bars.
FAQ: But they told me that wide grip dips are better for my chest?
Technically, the wide grip increases the involvement of the pectoral muscles, but the shoulders suffer too much. For most people, the extra stimulation is not worth it. Don’t worry. The chest is working hard even when you do the exercise with a close grip.
3. Don’t drop like a sack of potatoes.
To take advantage of the stretch reflex at the bottom of the dip, some people descend really fast. The bouncing motion greatly facilitates the first 1/3 of the movement, but the help comes at a price – you’re stretching the supporting tissues aggressively.
It’s safer to lower yourself slowly under control almost as if you are pulling yourself down rather than letting gravity do all the work for you. This technique increases the muscular tension stored throughout the body and provides extra protection for your joints.
To completely remove the stretch reflex, you could also pause at the bottom as done in competition style bench pressing.
4. Don’t allow your shoulders to drop down too much.
Some ultra-flexible gymnasts can do dips with their elbows pointing at the ceiling, but that’s not the case for average people.
The increased forward travel of the shoulder during dips is behind most of the joint pain caused by the exercise.
For general training, stopping when the shoulder and elbow joints are at the same level (parallel) or going ever so slightly deeper (below parallel), is as low as most people can tolerate, especially when doing weighted dips.
5. Be careful with weighted dips.
Rushing into weighted dips before building a foundation is not recommended. A good number to shoot for are 20 bodyweight dips in a single set. Only then consider adding weight.
While the number may seem high to untrained individuals, it’s more than achievable with a little persistence and serves as good insurance.
6. Don’t max out on weighted dips.
A few years ago, I made weighted pull-ups and dips my only upper body exercises. I began chasing numbers and, on many occasions, performed heavy triples doubles and even singles. At one point, I found my brain, drastically reduced the weight and returned to high-rep sets with lighter loads.
7. Don’t do triceps bench dips.
Bench dips are harsher to the shoulders than the classic parallel bar version since the stretch is even greater.
Q & A
Are dips more shoulder-friendly than the bench press?
This is a tricky question. While the bench press has the potential to cause many shoulder problems mainly due to bad technique and too much weight, some people can’t do dips but bench pain-free because the shoulder doesn’t extend as far as it does during dips. You’ll have to try both to see where you stand.
Are push-ups safer than dips?
Yes. The push-up and the overhead press put significantly less “bad stress” on the shoulder joint than both – dips and bench presses.
The main downside of the push-up is the low difficulty of the exercise. Sooner or later, it becomes too easy unless you do an enormous number of repetitions and sets.
Sure, you can do weighted push-ups, but loading them with enough weight is not as convenient as strapping a belt and doing dips.
Having said that, weighted push-ups can be utilized effectively as a main pressing exercise with a little extra dedication.
Do I have to do dips to reach the potential of my chest?
Of course not. If dips don’t agree with your body, cut them, at least while you figure out what’s going on. No exercise is that important. Other pressing movements can be used to build up your chest.
E.g., DB bench presses, push-ups, barbell bench presses…etc.
Are ring dips more shoulder-friendly than the bar version?
Not really. Rings allow you to find a “groove” that may remove some of the discomfort, but they are also unstable and have the potential to stress the shoulders negatively.
For most people, bar dips are good enough. But if you plan to develop ring strength for different gymnastic elements, ring dips will have to be a part of your routine sooner or later. Personally, I don’t like the way they feel, but the exercise is solid if you build to it carefully.