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“Bench Dips” for Triceps: Good or Bad ?

It’s a very common exercise.  We frequently see it done in weight rooms and aerobic classes, and it’s regularly demonstrated in fitness books and magazines.  It only requires a bench (or two benches), or a STEP – and some people even add resistance by stacking barbell plates on their legs (with someone’s assistance, of course).  The goal is – ostensibly – to work the triceps muscle.  But does it ?

As with any exercise, we begin evaluating this one with some basic physics principles.  In analyzing any exercise, one of the most important questions to ask ourselves is this: does the lever, which is operated by your target muscle, cross resistance?

In this case, your target muscle is the triceps.  The triceps operates the forearm lever – meaning that it moves the forearm lever, by extending the elbow (note: the forearm lever is also operated by the biceps, but in the opposite direction).

So here’s the initial question phrased a bit more specifically: does resistance (gravity, in this particular case, since there is no pulley or machine being used) cross the forearm lever?  Does the forearm lever interact perpendicularly, with gravity, during Bench Dips?  Answer: essentially – no.  Throughout the movement – whether you are in the “up” position, or in the “down” position – the forearm is almost entirely parallel to gravity.  A lever that is perfectly parallel to resistance is neutral, which means that the muscle that operates that lever is mostly unchallenged.

When you observe someone performing Bench Dips, you’ll notice that the upper arm lever does cross resistance.  A lever that crosses resistance is active, which means that the muscle that operates that lever is being fully loaded by the resistance.  During Bench Dips, it is the frontal deltoid that is doing most of the work, because it is the muscle mostly responsible for operating the upper arm lever in the pathway of this particular movement.  However, most people have no intention of working their frontal deltoid when doing Bench Dips.  And worse, this particular movement works the frontal deltoid through its riskiest range of motion – the extreme stretch.

So, while most people do Bench Dips with the intention of working their triceps, they are getting very little triceps benefit, a significant amount of frontal deltoid work, and a considerable amount of risk to the front deltoid.  There are much better triceps exercises, and there are much better (i.e., safer and more effective) frontal deltoid exercises.  So the Bench Dip is actually a very poor choice of exercise.  This is even more true when one is in a fully-equipped weight room, surrounded by far better options.  It would be like brushing your teeth with a pencil, instead of toothbrush.  And adding a wrist weight to your arm while using the pencil to brush your teeth, will not make it work any better.  It’s simply not the proper tool, and neither is the Bench Dip.

To be more specific in regards to the mechanics of Bench Dips, the degree to which the forearm angles one way or the other, determines the degree (if any) of triceps involvement.  For example, if the forearm angles “back” during the movement (the elbow is farther back than the hand on the bench), there will be SOME degree of triceps involvement.  However, if the forearm angles “forward” (the elbow is in front of the hand on the bench), there will be very little triceps involvement.  The degree of the forearm angle is largely determined by how close (or far) one is to the bench.  The farther away one is from the bench, the less the triceps works, and the more the frontal deltoids work.

If we compare the mechanics of Bench Dips to either a Triceps Pushdown (with cable) or a Flat Bench Triceps Extension (with a pair of dumbbells or a barbell), you can easily see the difference.  In the case of Triceps Pushdowns, the cable indicates the direction of the resistance, and you can see how the forearm lever moves “across” (perpendicularly to) the cable, during the range of motion – which is good.  During the Triceps Extensions with dumbbells (on a flat bench) – again – you can see how the forearm lever crosses the downward direction of gravity at the midway point – which is very good.  These two exercises are far better for the triceps than are Bench Dips.

When we see someone in the weight room, doing Bench Dips with a load of barbell plates on their legs, it may appear that they know what they’re doing, and the exercise may appear to be productive – especially if the person doing them is muscular.  However, these two assumptions are not entirely accurate.  As I’ve said many times before, if a person does five exercises, and one of them is mostly unproductive, they will still reap the benefit of the other four exercises.  The unproductive exercise will not “un-do” the benefits of the other four.  It will simply not contribute as much – if any – benefit, and it may pose a risk of injury, as well as result in wasted effort.  For these reasons, I believe it would be better to skip Bench Dips (and other less-than-maximally productive and/or risky exercises), or replace them with other, more productive / less risky exercises.










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  1. koz

    February 29, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    Hi Doug,
    You clearly are carving out a path on biomechanics that’s impressive and I look forward to more analyses like this one and to the book on biomechanics you’ve mentioned (I hope that’s progressing nicely).

    I’m especially looking forward to your analysis of dumbbell squats, an exercise I saw you had included in your recent IM article.

    If and when you write that article (or, hopefully, before, in answer to this comment), I’d very much like to know the poundage you’re using, given the high reps and volume in your db squats workout. I imagine it’s not too much, at least I hope it’s not too much because I can’t imagine that I would be using a lot, given the volume you prescribe.

    Many thanks for your substantive contributions to bodybuilding.


  2. dougbrignole

    February 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    Hi Koz. Thank you for your supportive commentary.

    I will take you up on your request, and make a point of writing my next blog about dumbbell squats. I will include the poundages I use, as well as the reps/sets.

    I just released a book for academia, which I co-authored with a sociology professor, Adrian Tan (see my previous blog article). It’s about the fitness industry, rather than about exercise science. My next book will be strictly about biomechanics, and will also be (initially) for academia, as I don’t want to over-simplify things for the sake of a commercial audience. I am well into the fourth chapter of that book now. The following book will be a more simplified, commercial version, and will reference the previous book – in specific circumstances – for those who want the more elaborate explanation.

    I very much appreciate your feedback.


  3. koz

    March 1, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Hi Doug,
    I look forward to buying and reading your book on biomechanics, even though it’s meant for a more academic audience. I’ve found that several books of this kind that I’ve read over the years have been accessible and useful. (But admittedly that might be because I read academic stuff in another area.)

    Whether for a more academic or general audience, I hope you’ll include ample line drawings to assist your explanations. I can follow your descriptions but in doing so I’m constantly moving my joints as a way of visualizing what you’re describing. Line drawings would help facilitate comprehension.

    Re. your tricep exercise analysis, I noticed that you did not cover hand torque, which is important for hitting the triceps…or at least seems so to me.
    If, e.g., my hands are vertical to the floor when doing a pushdown, my triceps don’t feel as though they’re being activated as much as when I increase torque (bring the thumbs down). This, in turn, brings up the issue of handles, i.e, the effect of a handle that’s straight across, vs. one that’s 45 degrees on ea. side, and other variations. Is a tricep exercise without the right torque of much value, e.g., if you do lying tricep extensions with two dbs perpendicular to the floor, are you getting much tricep stimulation?

    Which then brings up the issue of the way torque in an exercise can affect muscles not directly hit by the exercise. E.g., doesn’t torque when doing a tricep pushdown increase front delt stress? If so, does that have any implications for bodybuilding?

    Overall, the issue I’m raising is this: what torque issues need to be considered along with lever mechanics issues?


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