Dips vs Bench Press

Dips vs Bench Press | Which Is Best for Chest Development?

Compound movements are always preferred for muscle development and when it comes to your chest, there are definitely two powerhouse movements that fall under this category in the bench press and parallel dip.

For most training programs though, it’s difficult to include multiple compound exercises. This means that most people will opt between the two and in honesty, 90% of people will choose the bench press over a dip. 

Could this be something that is impacting your chest development though? 

In this article, we’ll do a dedicated comparison and head to head of the dip vs bench press to see which really is best for chest development.

Dips vs Bench Press: Initial Comparison

Don’t make me choose…

We already know most people will opt for a bench press over the dip and in honesty, If you could only pick from one of these exercises to use for the rest of your lifting life, the bench press would likely be the recommendation.

It’s not that the bench press is necessarily better than the dip. However, for an upper body compound exercise, the bench press is a great mass and strength builder that is also easier on your joints (the dip is not ideal for those with fragile shoulders). 

Most find the bench press much more enjoyable and effective in targeting the chest compared with a dip but this is just based on real-world experience and is anecdotal. So, what does the data suggest?

A thesis study by Schanke in 2012 (7) compared various ‘push’ based exercises to the bench press, all performed at 80% intensity. The researcher used EMG technology to detect the activation (%) of the pectoral major muscle group.

During the parallel dips, the study participants experienced on average 31% less muscle activation compared to the bench press.

Just as a side note, the pec-deck machine, and the cable crossovers were almost as effective as the bench press, so they can be used interchangeably.

This article on T-Nation summarizes this data nicely and I remember reading this article while I was still in high school!

Based on this, it would be a fair assumption that the bench press is better than the dip for chest development. At least from muscle activation and a stimulation viewpoint. 

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the parallel dips do not have a place in a training program, far from it! 

We’ve previously covered this exercise as one of the best options if you want to work chest without bench pressing as the dip is definitely an underrated mass builder, especially for the chest.

Unlike the bench press, the parallel dip may activate the pectoralis minor muscle which is the muscle underneath the chest, giving an overall larger appearance when trying to build a dense and thicker chest(7).

The bench press may also be better in stimulating secondary muscle groups of the tricep brachii, and the front deltoid – though this will depend on your limb length. 

That is unless the dip exercise was performed in the close grip/vertical variation which emphasizes elbow extension and upper arm flexion(6). Then again, the close grip bench press may be a better counterpart to this dip variation, but that is another comparison altogether.

When comparing the two, the dip doesn’t need to replace the bench press (or vice versa) and both can be implemented successfully in a push session. 

If using the bench press to build strength, you could utilize a 3×5 or 5×5 rep scheme followed by weighted dips in the 8-12 rep range to induce muscle hypertrophy. 

Alternatively, I would suggest employing the parallel dip as a warm-up or as the last pectoral exercise during a session, typically for the final ‘burn out’ sets, or as we like to call it in the science world ‘metabolic stress’.

Let’s look at each in more detail though to see how you can best implement one or both into your chest or push routines. 

What is the Bench Press?

Those of you who have earned the title of ‘Gym Rat’ should be fairly familiar with the bench press, whether you are performing it correctly or not though, is another question altogether.

In my personal opinion, the bench press is one of the best exercises for overall upper body muscle development and strength. There’s a reason it’s used in the NFL Draft Combine and also why countless bodybuilders credit their chest development to this exercise.

Why so?

The bench press is a multi-joint compound lift that allows you to load up the weight and accumulate tension on the pectoralis major muscle (chest)(1).

Secondly, it works the triceps (back of upper arm) and anterior deltoid (front of shoulders), which I will touch on later in this article(1).

To perform a bench press, you’d follow the step below:

Step 1: Place an exercise bench underneath a racked barbell, lining the head of the exercise bench with the barbell

Step 2: Re-adjust the barbell to a height that is around a ¾ length of your fully extended arms when lying flat on the exercise bench

Step 3: Load up the barbell in relation to your goals and individual capacity

Step 4: Secure the weight plates with safety clips

Step 5: Apply safety pins in case you are unable to lift the barbell, ensuring the weight does not collapse on your rib cage

Step 6: Lie down on the bench press and place your feet outside shoulder width to create a stable base.

Step 7: Grasp with an overhand grip, shoulder width apart and pull your shoulder blades down and back to create a stable base for your upper body

Step 8: Brace the core and arch the lower back slightly to ensure spinal neutrality (safe spine position)

Step 9: Un rack the barbell and lower it to the chest (upper rib cage area)

Step 10: Pause to minimize any momentum

Step 11: Press the barbell off the chest by extending the arms

Step 12: Exhale and repeat

Bench Press Progressions

#1 Eccentric Loading Bench Press

We tend to be stronger in the negative portion of a lift (2). In the bench press, this is lowering the weight down to the chest.

To perform an eccentric bench press, you would have a spotter help you lift a weight that is 25% heavier than your usual bench press weight. 

You’ll then lower the weight under control. At the bottom of each lift, the spotter will help you lift the weight so that you are constantly overloading the eccentric phase. 

This method allows you to build extra tension on the working muscles.

#2 Banded Bench Press

To perform the banded bench press, simply place a resistant band(s) on top of the barbell and attach it around the exercise bench.

This creates additional tension on the working muscles, as well as keeping constant tension throughout the movement (3).

Bench Press Regressions  

#1 Smith-Machine Bench Press

Some would argue that this is a bench press variation and others would call it a regression because you won’t be using any stabilizing muscles to control the weight. Either way, you are still bench pressing.

The smith press guides the range of motion and places less stress on the rotator cuffs, therefore it is a great beginner-friendly regression to the conventional barbell bench press (4).

#2 Reverse Band Bench Press

You would perform this regression by attaching resistance bands to each side of the barbell and the top of the rack.

A reverse band bench reduces the resistance of a bench press, especially at the bottom position where the bands are in the most stretched position.

This regression allows you to strengthen a certain range of motion where you are typically weakest while being assisted in the most difficult bottom position.

** A reverse banded bench press can also be used by advanced lifters in order to lift more weight and use the bands to help at the bottom of the lift where you are in the weakest position.

What Are Parallel Dips?

Another multi-joint compound exercise for the upper body is the parallel dip.

The parallel dip is similar to the bench press in terms of movement pattern (pressing) and muscle activation, but differs far too much to be considered a variation. 

This is because the bench press works in a horizontal position lying down (even though you press vertically) while a dip involves physically moving your body in a vertical pattern. 

The parallel dips are rarely used as an alternative to the bench press, but are widely accepted as an addition to a chest or push workout.

They can also be used at the start of a workout to increase core body temperature and lubricate the working joints with synovial fluid – though as mentioned this isn’t ideal for anyone with existing shoulder issues or limited mobility of the shoulder joint.  

This warm-up could increase the pliability of joints and muscles, thereby reducing the risk of injury during the more physically demanding exercises.

Generally, the parallel dip is a bodyweight exercise, but some advanced lifters tend to attach a loaded dipping belt to create extra resistance and subsequently more muscle stimulus (5).

Some parallel machine dips have a weight assist, which is more of a beginner-friendly setting, lifting up some of your body weight if you’re not strong enough to dip your weight.

Bodyweight dips are however also good for doing reps to failure which can provide an effective stimulus through manipulating a training mechanism called metabolic stress.

Metabolic stress is essentially activated when you get that deep burning feeling on the muscle.

It is worth learning how to perform the parallel dips to broaden the selection for exercises in your arsenal.

I have highlighted 8 steps that can be followed below:

Step 1: To place the focus on the chest set the dip handles wider apart as this has shown to activate the pectorals the most (6, 7).

Step 2: Grasp hold of the dip handles

Step 3: Brace the core and glutes 

Step 4: Pin the shoulder blades back, look down and flex at the knees to draw your feet off the ground

Step 5: Tilt your torso forwards so you are more parallel to the ground

Step 6: Initiate the movement by lowering from the shoulders first followed by bending at the elbows. Lower your body closer to the ground as much as your range of motion allows

Step 7: From the bottom position, take a deep breath and press upwards and extend at the elbows

Step 8: Breath out and repeat

Parallel Dip Progressions

#1 Weighted Dips

As I have briefly mentioned, the weighted dips which require a dipping belt, allow you to increase the intensity and reduce the rep range to failure/near failure (5).

Bodyweight exercises are often difficult to progress but bodyweight exercises allow you to use stabilizing muscles which is ideal for overall muscular and strength development. When adding a dip belt, you can add a form of weight progression to an already great and beneficial exercise. 

#2 Banded Dips

To perform banded dips, a resistance band must be looped around the top of the upper back and attached to the dip handles.

Resistance bands add additional resistance to your body weight and keep constant tension on the working muscles, whereas in the standard Parallel dip tension can be lost at the top of the movement while locking out (3).

Parallel Dip Regressions

#1 Band assisted dips

Let’s face it, not everyone is able to lift their body weight when doing dips, and there is nothing to be embarrassed about, we all start somewhere.

Placing a resistance around to the dip handles creates a support for some of the body weight.

You can get into a parallel dip position and place your shins on top of the band.

** Note this is different from a banded dip where the resistance placed around your upper back makes the exercise more difficult but when kneeling on the band instead, the exercise becomes easier.

The bottom position of the parallel dip is often the most grueling and dreaded position for a newbie lifter so the good thing is that the resistance bands provide the most negative resistance in a stretched position, which is at the bottom of the parallel dips.

#2 Assisted dips platform

Most parallel dips machines have a platform assist, similar to the bands, you would place your knees onto the platform and allow it to support some of your weight.

You can set the amount of weight you want it to assist you with. For example: if you weigh 176lbs you may need to set the weight stack to 88lbs which means that instead of lifting the full 88lbs, you’d start with 50% of that resistance at 88lbs total.

Is the Dip or Bench Press Better for Chest Development

We’ve now looked at both exercises and done an initial comparison of the two, so, which is better for chest development out of the dip or bench press?

If you’re looking for overall strength and muscle growth for your chest, the barbell bench press is likely to be a superior exercise over the dip. If however, you want to focus on functional strength and work stabilizing muscles, the dip will be the better option.

Both exercises have their benefits and drawbacks which we’ll quickly cover so that you can decide which is better based on your personal training goals and preferences. 

Bench Press Pros

  • Heavy compound movement
  • Works multiple muscle groups
  • Can be progressed in terms of weight/load for many years
  • Has multiple variations for progression

Bench Press Cons

  • Doesn’t isolate the chest
  • The bench press doesn’t work the chest through a full range of motion
  • Needs dedicated equipment (bench, barbell, squat/power rack)

Dip Pros

  • Can be trained through a large range of motion
  • Needs minimal equipment
  • Can be progressed for a long time when utilizing a dipping belt
  • Targets a number of stabilizing muscle groups as well as major muscles

Dip Cons

  • Countless people have issues with shoulder injuries or impingements when dipping
  • You need very specific form in order to target the chest (which beginners won’t be familiar with) 

Conclusion

If we have to compare both of these upper body exercises for building a bigger and stronger upper body, I would have to say that the bench press is #1.

This does not mean that the parallel dip exercise should be scrapped, as it has a firm place as a warm-up or chest finisher, in my opinion. That’s also not to mention it targets the smaller pectoralis minor muscle.

As a take home message – use both exercises for all round chest development.

If you’re still in two minds about the effectiveness of the dip then you can also check out another of our comparison guides – Dip vs push ups

References

1. Solstad, T.E., Anderson, V., Shaw, M., et al. ‘A comparison of muscle activation between barbell bench press and dumbbell flyes in resistance-trained males’ 2020; Journal of sports science & medicine 19(4):645

2. Mike, J. ‘Eccentric Exercise: Benefits and Applications to Training’ Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance, 2019; 429-441

3. Shoepe, T.C., Remirez, D.A., Almstedt, H.C. ‘Elastic band prediction equations for combined free-weight and elastic band bench presses and squats’ The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2010; 24(1):195-200

4.     Cotterman, M.L., Darby, L.A., Skelly, W.A. ‘Comparison of muscle force production using the Smith machine and free weights for bench press and squat exercises’ The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2005; 19 (1):169-176

5.     Weakly, J., Till, K., Darrel-Jones, J., et al.‘Strength and conditioning practices in adolescent rugby players: Relationship with changes in physical qualities’ The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2019; 33(9)2361-2369

6.     Bagchi, A. ‘A comparative electromyographical investigation of triceps brachii and pectoralis major during four different freehand exercises’ 2015; Journal of Physical Education Research 2(2): 20-27

7.     Schanke, W. ‘Electromyographical analysis of the pectoralis major muscle during various chest exercises’ MS in Clinical Exercise Physiology, December 2022, 38pp

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