We like to take a holistic look at health and fitness here on Coach, providing advice on staying both physically and mentally fit, as well as recipes and all the info you need to eat well. However, sometimes it’s not about looking at the bigger picture. Sometimes it’s all about getting massive, sleeve-splitting upper arms, and to do that you need to start training your triceps.
People tend to focus on their biceps when bulking up their guns, but the triceps are a bigger muscle group than their glamorous, front-of-arm counterparts, so if your aim is impressive size then neglecting them is pure folly.
The triceps are so called because they are made up of three heads – the lateral head, the medial head, and the long head – all of which need to be worked to increase strength and size in your upper arms. Fortunately you can work all three heads at the same time if you pick the right exercise, and the triceps dip is that exercise.
Read on for the full guide to this classic bodyweight exercise, including several variations to increase the challenge once you’ve mastered the basic version, variations that can help you to hit a new bench press PB as well as better fill out your T-shirt sleeves, you need. Why? Once you’re dipping on parrallel bars (or rings), the triceps dip is one of the toughest moves you can do without weights, because one relatively small muscle group must lift and lower your entire bodyweight.
And the rewards are huge. “Your triceps are your dominant ‘push’ muscle to straighten your arms, and are far more powerful and useful for hitting a big bench than the pecs,” says Paul Carter, lifelong lifter and founder of Lift-Run-Bang.com. “Make your triceps as strong as possible and you’ll get stronger in all the big pressing moves and add serious size to your arms.” Continue reading to find out how to master the triceps dip.
How To Do Triceps Dips
Wherever and however you dip, the key is arm position. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart on the surface you are dipping from, with your arms straight. Squeeze your core and glutes then raise your chin and chest to keep your body tight. From there, start the move by bending your elbows. Dip down until your arms are at a 90-degree angle.
Pause at the bottom for a one or two count, then press back up powerfully, ensuring you keep your core and glutes tight to prevent your legs swinging. Don’t fully lock out your arms at the top; keeping a slight bend in your elbows at the top forces your triceps to work far harder.
To expose your triceps to as much time under tension as possible – a key stimulus for adding new muscle tissue – lower your body as slowly as you can. Aim for two seconds at first, building up over time to four seconds. Get as low as you can without stressing your shoulders.
Three sets of eight to ten dips, perhaps pushing the third set until you physically can dip no more, should leave your upper arms in tatters for a day or two.
At the gym you can do dips that support your whole body on parallel bars, but you can also use a bench or chair to dip anywhere with your feet on the floor. Just make sure whatever surface is involved can take your body weight, and it’s probably wise not to opt for a chair on wheels…
Triceps Dips Form Tips
“The dip is one of the best exercises for building triceps size and strength for a number of important reasons,” says Viktor Genov (pictured), a personal trainer at Fitness First Tottenham Court Road. “First, they allow for a great range of motion, which is critical to working a muscle fully. As a compound lift that causes shoulder extension and elbow extension, the dip also recruits more muscle fibres, and the movement pattern allows a big stretch at the bottom position as well as a big contraction at the top.”
If you can’t do a full bodyweight dip, Genov advises starting with a band-assisted variation. “This will enable you to master the movement pattern and begin to build the strength needed to do the full move,” he says. “You can also make it easier by leaning your chest forwards and bringing your knees closer to your chest.”
Parallel bars are the best option for dips. “For the ideal hand placement the bars should be no wider than the length of your forearm,” says Genov. “If your hands are any wider apart then you will shift tension away from your triceps and towards your shoulders, so you risk placing too much stress on your shoulder joints.”
As with press-ups, it’s essential your abs are fully engaged from the moment before you start the set to the moment after it’s finished. “Bracing your abs effectively is so important to getting better at bodyweight moves,” says Genov. “You can improve your ability to engage your abs by doing more planks. If you want to master bodyweight exercises, planks will become your best friend.”
“Your shoulders must work very hard in the dip because they need to be fixed in position the whole time, pushed forwards and downwards,” says Genov. “Keep your head as far back as you can with your chin up, not pressed down towards your chest, and tense your neck muscles to keep your head still. Lower yourself until your shoulders are level with your elbows – don’t go any lower than this because it risks straining your shoulder joint and removes tension from the triceps.”
“Keep your elbows tucked in to your torso as much as possible and don’t ever let them flare out to the sides,” Genov says. “By doing this you will place and keep more tension on the triceps and reduce the potential stress on your elbow and shoulder joints.”
“Pointing the toes straight down ensures complete tension throughout the entire body,” says Genov. “Most people always try to make a bodyweight move easier, but that makes it less effective. By making it harder and placing the maximum tension on the target muscle – in this case, the triceps – you are making these muscles work harder and that’s what gets the best results.”
- Beginner Up to 5 band-assisted reps at a 2131 tempo
- Intermediate Up to 5 reps at a 2131 tempo
- Advanced 10+ reps at a 1121 tempo
- Viktor Genov’s PB 15
3 Ways To Do More Dips
1. Bring friends
In a new study from Edge Hill University, test subjects reported that having just two onlookers helped volunteers squeeze out more reps with lower perceived effort during a chest workout.
2. Grip and rip
“If you feel like you’re about to hit failure, squeeze the bars hard,” says strength and conditioning coach Joel Dowey. “You’ll fire up the surrounding musculature through an effect called irradiation – and should be able to crank out a couple of extra reps.”
3. Brace yourself
“Cross your legs, or squeeze your feet together,” says Dowey. “By ‘bracing’, you’ll make your entire body more rigid, enabling you to force out more reps than you’d manage if you were just flopping around.” Bonus: it also works on pull-ups.
Triceps Dips Variations
From beginner to expert, dips are versatile enough to include in anyone’s workout. One way to tweak the move is to lean forwards to increase the involvement of the pecs, instead of holding your torso upright which keeps the focus on the triceps.
To keep mixing things up, master each of these variations before moving on to the next.
1. Bench dip with knees bent
How Place your hands on a bench or box behind you with your feet together and flat on the floor with knees bent. Lower slowly as far as you can, then press back up powerfully.
Why This is a beginner-friendly move because the amount of your own bodyweight that you have to lift is reduced by the position of your legs.
2. Bench dip with legs straight
How Place your hands on a bench or box behind you with your feet together, legs straight and heels on the floor. Lower slowly as far as you can, then press back up powerfully.
Why While still a beginner-friendly move, this variation is slightly tougher because you have to lift and lower a higher proportion of your own bodyweight.
3. Bench dip with legs raised
How Place your hands on a bench or box behind you with your feet together on a slightly lower bench or box with knees bent. Lower slowly as far as you can, then press back up powerfully.
Why Having your feet elevated increases the amount of bodyweight you have to lift and lower, making this a more challenging variation.
4. Parallel bars dip
How Grasp parallel bars using an overhand grip and raise your body until your arms are straight. Keeping your chest up and your core engaged, lower slowly as far as you can, then press back up powerfully.
Why This is the classic triceps dip and mastering it will help you add size and strength to the backs of your upper arms. Always warm up your triceps as well as your elbow and shoulder joints before doing this move.
5. Parallel bars dip with weights
How Attach weights to a weight belt and grasp parallel bars using an overhand grip, then raise your body until your arms are straight. Keeping your chest up and your core engaged, lower slowly as far as you can then press back up powerfully.
Why Once you can comfortably manage three sets of ten parallel bars dips, sticking to a slow and controlled tempo, you may want to consider adding extra resistance to your reps in the form of a weight plate. This will challenge your muscles far more, but start out with a small plate – 2.5kg to 5kg – and build up the extra resistance slowly so your muscles and joints have time to adjust.