I've had numerous people come up to me at the gym lately and ask my advice on good chest exercises. Most of the time, they're just frustrated with their bench press stalling or just are looking for something different to freshen up their workout. Aside from recommending that they incorporate dumbbell work, I almost always recommend dips. I usually get the same stupid, blank stare look on their face like I'm crazy, followed by the question "But don't dips ruin your shoulders?"
I don't know where this preconceived notion came from. Dips ruin your shoulders just like squats ruin your knees, and deadlifts ruin your back. They are all ridiculous misconceptions that have been passed down from gym rat to gym rat for decades. I have been doing weighted dips for the past 15 years with zero, yes ZERO shoulder pain. In most (but not all) cases, people are likely experiencing shoulder pain while doing dips for 1 of 2 reasons: 1.) they don't have the chest, shoulder, and tricep strength to perform a dip. or 2.) their form sucks.
Typically, I would recommend that someone be able to do at least 25 strict, controlled pushups all the way up and down before attempting dips. This gives me some level of confidence that they have the upper body strength necessary to not completely botch the exercise. Secondly, I make sure they understand proper form. The biggest reasons for irritating the shoulders are the grip and the range of motion. The grip for parallel dips should be slightly wider than shoulder width. Going too wide will place more strain on the shoulders increasing the likelihood of aggrevation. Some people advocate that the range of motion should stop when your elbow forms a 90 degree angle. While this might put less stress on the shoulders initially, it also allows people to start packing some serious weight on their dip belt. Just like the half-repper that puts 400 lbs on the bench press, too much weight will put extra strain on your shoulders no matter how short the range of motion is. I think a full range of motion is fine as long as your aren't overextending your shoulders or chest. I've seen some people exaggerate their motion so far that their biceps touch their forearms at the bottom of the rep - not a good idea in my book. Go down until a point were you feel comfortable and get a nice stretch throughout the chest.
Lastly, if you have pre-existing shoulder or elbow issues, or if dips cause pain when doing them, they probably aren't the best idea. With muscle imbalances and different leverages, some people just aren't built for dips. Others, like myself, absolutely love them. So, in a nutshell, are dips ruining your shoulders? If they are, in most cases it's your own fault due to inadequate strength, poor form, or just using too much weight. Dips are no different than any other exercise - use proper form and listen to your body.
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