If you have followed my training journey, by now you can see that I have a raging man crush on pull-ups and dips. These two exercises and their variation are on another level when it comes to building the strength and mass of the upper body. These exercises can be considered the squat and dead-lift of the upper body. Though most are aware of dips and pull-ups, some may not know the variations that hit specific muscles differently. Below are a list of variations for dips and pull-ups that will not only be the biggest bang for your buck exercises, but variations that will allow you to hit all the surrounding muscles.
(Note: Demonstration Videos Are Linked)
BENCH DIPS: These should not necessarily be a main exercise for the day, but an accessory movement to build up your strength for dips. Individuals who say these hurt their shoulders either have a history of shoulder issues, add more resistance than they can handle, use an excessive range of motion, or use momentum to complete more than they can under control. Bench dips are used for beginners to get them used to the dip motor pattern (a downward press that involves a more narrow front deltoid path) and help strengthen the muscles required for parallel bar dips.
FORWARD LEAN DIPS: Though seen as bad form, leaning forward and going through a lower/shorter range of motion can help individuals target their pectoral muscles better and provide a longer time under tension. The forward lean is used to keep more pressure on the pectorals and less on the shoulders/triceps (though regardless of the variation, all muscles will be hit to some degree). The shorter range of motion is used to stay at the bottom of the dip for more tension on the chest pectoral muscles (at the bottom of the any press movement the pectorals are activated to a greater degree due to the stretch/contraction process). It is only recommended that you have already accomplished doing multiple sets and reps of regular dips before you try adding in this variation.
ARCHED BACK TOP END DIPS:Just like the forward lean dips, arched back top end dips will have people judging you (that is…..until you get bigger/stronger, then the same people either copy your exercise form or ask for advice). This variation of dips are used to primarily strengthen your triceps. Rather than doing endless tricep extensions, using a tricep dominant compound exercises will give you a better ability to progressively overload, will provide the body with a greater stimulus, and will have a better carryover to your competition lifts (if you are a strength athlete). The goal here is to place the most amount of stretch/contraction on the triceps without the adding more stress to the chest/shoulders (after already doing a lot of pressing, the last thing you want is to add more stress on the muscle that has no added benefits, aka diminishing returns. The goal with this exercise is improving the triceps).
BONUS: PUSH-UPS: Any variation of push-ups will benefit your upper body. Between different angles, different grip width, or different loading parameters, push-ups are the first step in advancing to dips. Before want to accomplish your first repetition on dips, you should be able to bang out multiple sets and repetitions of push-ups. Though the angle and difficulty is different, the same muscles are being taxed (only to a different degree).
PULL-UPS: Though pull-ups are not necessarily a variation of pull-ups (go figure) many get confused between pull-ups and all of it’s variations. Pull-ups are when you have your hands pronated (palms facing away from you) and pull yourself up by pulling the bar to your upper/middle/lower chest (bring to upper chest rather than to your lower pectorals/with elbows more to the side to focus on your mid back more). You can complete pull-ups with a narrow, shoulder width, or wide grip depending on your focus. It is recommended to mix up your grip widths to keep yourself mentally fresh. I tend to start at a more narrow grip and add resistance (using a spud dip belt) until I cannot add more resistance for that given width. Once I cannot progress any farther I drop the resistance amount, but increase the difficulty by widening my grip.
CHINUPS: As pull-ups are to be done pronated, chin-ups (also called “chins”) are to be done supinated. Chin-ups may look very similar to pull-ups, but are done a little differently. While pull-ups are done by pulling yourself to where the bar meets your upper pectoral, chin-ups are performed by bring the bar a little more down to your lower pectorals. This is because during the pull-up the elbows are more towards the side trying to squeezing the shoulder blades together by a folding like action (think of the upper arm movement during a rear deltoid fly except angled higher). This activates the mid back more than the chin-up. During the chin-up you are kind of (forgive me for saying this) “scooping” the elbows underneath you while keeping them directly to your side. This activates the lats/biceps to a greater degree and the mid back to a lesser degree than the pull-ups. Just like the pull-ups, chin-ups can be done with different grip width to add difficulty or to focus on different primary muscles.
HAMMER/NEUTRAL GRIP PULLUPS: If the pull-up and the chin-up had a baby and that baby’s name from Frank, and Frank was not a usual child, not usual even the slightest (don’t know where I am going with this), then the hammer grip pull-up would be Frank. Just like the title states, the hammer/neutral grip pull-up will be performed with a neutral grip (palms faced towards one another) or faced the way you would use a hammer (hence the name “hammer grip”). These seem to be easier than both the chin-up and the pull-up due to the hand placement (neutral grip) and the motor pattern. With pull-ups and chin-ups you are initially pulling yourself to a bar you need to get in front of you (go ahead and try to pull straight up, there’s a head in the way) which makes the process a little more complex than “just pull straight up”. With neutral grip pull-ups you have the ability to pull straight up due to (most of the time) nothing being in your path during the full range of motion. I also find these to stretch/contract my lats better and tax my biceps less. Most beginners should start here due to the same muscles being taxed. but the variation is much easier and does not require as much grip strength (palms facing together provides mroe of a “lock” with your grip).
BONUS:INVERTED ROWS: If the neutral grip pull-up is the baby Frank. Then inverted rows are the ugly long lost cousin no one wants to be seen with or hear from (apparently his name is Jimmy). Though seen as such an easy exercise due to allowing your feet to be resting on the ground, inverted rows provide tremendous amounts of benefits for those who are beginners, those who have trouble retracting their scapula during a pull-up, and those who are somewhat heavier. This exercise can be done supinated (palms faced up) or pronated (palms faced down). It is difficult to do neutral grip inverted rows unless you have access to “TRX straps” or gymnastic rings. The exercise can be modified for those who need more/less resistance by changing the angle in which they are performed. Either by changing the height of the bar your are rowing yourself towards (changing the angle changes your center of gravity which in turn changes the exercise difficulty) or by changing the elevation of your feet (same as the bar height, changing the angle changes the difficulty).
Now that you know many variations for both exercises, you must remember that adding in too much variation can cause less efficient ability to track progress while too little variation can cause you to stall. Try a few variations one day (1-3) and the others on another day (1-3) if you are on a split such as upper/lower or push/pull. If you are on a full-body split then try one variation each day.
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