Master Your Dips With The Trap Bar

Master Your Dips With The Trap Bar

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

I’ve recently highlighted a number of different exercises that can be performed with the trap bar including the longitudinal method as well various bodyweight movements.  However, trap bar dips are another gem that deserve attention.

Dips are one of the best functional strength and mass builders for the chest, triceps, and shoulders.  Unfortunately, most individuals perform them incorrectly and end up doing more harm to their shoulders joints, neck, pectoral tendons, and elbows than anythingelse (read more about Proper Dip Form Here).  However, by performing dips on the trap bar, the lifter is literally required to hone in their mechanics and perform them with near perfect technique. 

Also big shoutout to my good buddy and fellow trainer Cedric Hiles (@teamcanfitness) for the inspiration for these.  Cedric is an awesome up-and-coming trainer and definitely worth following.

Besides being the most challenging dip variations you’ll ever attempt, here are 5 reasons why performing dips on the trap bar are so effective.

1. When it comes to trap bar dips you have 2 primary options, namely the standard orientation and longitudinal method both shown in the video.   Although both variations are incredibly challenging and unstable, each version provides unique features that can help improve upper body mechanics.  The standard orientation with the hands on the actual trap bar handles produces anteroposterior instability as the bar wants to move and tilt from front to back.  This teaches the lifter how to centrate and pack their shoulders while also creating ample forward torso lean.  That’s because an overly upright position will cause the bar to tilt back every rep. 

Most individuals are overly upright when performing dips.  Besides minimizing core activation this causes the shoulders to elevate and protract.  By creating ample forward torso lean this optimizes dip technique and body alignment be creating the all-important hip hinge.  In contrast excessive forward torso lean (not as common of an issue) is also not ideal as it can crowd the shoulders.  The key is finding the perfect position, balance, and body alignment.  When performing this specific type of trap bar dip the lifter is literally required to employ these aforementioned mechanics and positions as anything less will create anteroposterior instability resulting in a loss of balance every repetition.

The longitudinal trap bar dip on the other hand gives immediate feedback regarding symmetrical loading.  That’s because there is mediolateral instability as the bar wants to rotate and rock from side to side.  Simply put if you have a tendency to favor one side of your body, push more with one arm, or tilt to one side with poor symmetrical alignment, the bar will tilt to the side providing immediate feedback about your dip technique. 

Photo Courtesy: Shannon Adams

Photo Courtesy: Shannon Adams

2. It may be quite obvious but, both dip variations are exponentially more unstable than traditional dips.  That’s because the bar wants to twist, shake, and rotate.  In addition, the bar tends to oscillate with subtle yet frequent perturbations similar to oscillating kinetic energy (i.e. hanging band technique), making these some of the most challenging upper body movements you’ll ever attempt. 

3. Although the primary benefit of performing trap bar dips is to improve body mechanics, technique, and motor control, the longitudinal and standard variations each have their own unique stimulus in terms of muscular emphasis.  Most trap bars handles are approximately 26-27 inches apart creating a slightly wider dip position. As a result the trap bar dip with the traditional orientation is slightly more outer-chest and shoulder dominant.  In contrast the side bars employed for the longitudinal method are typically 23-24 inches apart.  This slightly narrower position places more tension on the triceps and inner chest. 

4. Due to the incredibly strict form and precise body mechanics needed for performing both trap bar dip variations, the lifter inevitably ends up finding the ideal 90-degree joint angle.  Many lifters over-stretch with an excessive range of motion on dips.  Besides placing undue stress on the shoulders and pectoral tendons it actually reduces tension to the targeted musculature as the chest and triceps had to relax to allow the collapsed position to occur.  The trap bar version instills optimal 90-degree joint angles (approximately) as anything else destabilizes the shoulder joint creating uncontrollable instability on the trap bar. 

5. Both variations can be progressed or regressed depending on the level of the trainee and the goals of the movement.  Placing the dip bar on the safety pins of a squat rack as shown in the first two versions is much more unstable and unforgiving making these highly advanced and challenging.  By placing the bar on the rack hooks (where you would rack a barbell after a set of squats) instead of the safety pins, this keeps the trap bar more locked into position with less rotational forces involved. Although it’s still unstable and difficult it’s also a bit more conducive for overloading by performing weighted variations as shown by my awesome client Leslie Petch.  Both the traditional orientation and longitudinal method can be performed on either the safety pins or hooks thereby providing 4 total options.

Ultra Advanced Variations

Wait, did I say trap bar dips were the most difficult dip variations I’ve ever done?  Well I lied, sort of.   In essence if you really want to get crazy you can employ the anti-chaos method by hanging the trap bar from bands and performing dips.  And yes, these can also be performed with either the standard orientation orthe longitudinal method as shown in the video

Besides exaggerating the various forms of instability mentioned above (mediolateral and anteroposterior instability), there is also a significant degree of oscillating kinetic energy.  To minimize this effect and reduce the instability, the lifter will be required to perform these dips with inordinately smooth and controlled mechanics as anything but precise execution will make these feel impossible. 

So yes just for the record these are the most advanced and challenging dips I’ve ever performed.  And just in case you were wondering, the stimulus to the chest, triceps, and shoulders from these is brutally intense due to the heightened levels of intramuscular tension and motor unit recruitment needed to lock these in.  In other words, these aren’t just useful for ingraining proper mechanics but in reality they can be very effective for building functional size and mass, provided the lifter is advanced enough to control the movement.