The tricep dip is a mass-building exercise for the triceps… When done correctly!
If done on a set of dipping bars, it’s a great exercise and one that most people should be including in their push or tricep-focused sessions. When doing tricep dips on a bench, however, the effectiveness and safety are both significantly reduced.
Whichever tricep dip you use in your current routine (or have programmed in), you might not always be able to utilize this exercise due to injury, availability of equipment, or even preference as I strongly believe you should enjoy most of the exercise you do, some are definitely more necessary than others.
Therefore, having some alternatives is always going to be beneficial and in this article, I’ll cover some of the best tricep dip alternatives that will target all three heads of the triceps and allow you to carry on building muscle mass and strength.
The 9 best tricep dip alternatives are:
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extensions
- Diamond Push Up
- Kettlebell Skull Crusher
- Rope Kickbacks
- Bodyweight Tricep Extensions
- Skull Crushers
- JM Press
- Tricep Cable Pushdown
Tricep Dip Muscles Worked
A tricep dip will work all three heads of the tricep to some extent.
To really target the long head of the triceps you are best using exercises that place the arms in an overhead position as this allows for a full stretch to the triceps long head but as far as compound movements for the triceps go, the tricep dip is certainly up there as a mass builder and would be a good addition for those looking to build and grow your triceps.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll be focusing on alternative exercises that solely target the triceps but for clarification, the dip in general is a compound movement. Depending on body position, your triceps, chest, and delts will be active and engaged to some extent.
Anatomy of the Triceps
Having a basic understanding of the triceps anatomy is good so that you can choose exercises that will work the muscle group fully. Doing so will give the best results when it comes to muscle growth and tricep development.
Just to cover the basics, the triceps muscle is made up of three heads; the lateral head, long head, and medial head. Each one has different insertion points in the upper arm and each also has different functions as a result.
To emphasize each head of the triceps (again I’m running through basics instead of doing a full anatomy lesson), you need to utilize a variety of arm positions in relation to your torso. As an example, arms overhead will emphasize the triceps long head whereas arms by the side, like in a cable tricep pressdown, will emphasize the lateral and medial heads.
Exercises will have crossover so in each alternative, I’ll mention what head the exercise is targeting so that you can get a balanced selection of exercises in your routine.
Are Tricep Dips Bad
Tricep dips can get a bad name depending on how you choose to do the exercise. Tricep dips on a bench (especially when elevated) are not necessarily bad for your triceps, it’s just an exercise, after all, the issue instead comes from the position it puts your shoulder joint in.
Bench dips place the anterior deltoid under a significant amount of stress and put it in a compromised position. While the shoulder joint is very functional, it does have limitations and a bench dip or regular tricep dip executed with poor form puts it in a vulnerable position for injury.
It’s like deadlifting with a rounded spine, some people will have no issue but as you add more load (weight to the bar) the risk of injury increases substantially. This is also true of triceps dips. While bodyweight dips might not stress your shoulder too much, increasing the load over time certainly puts your shoulder joint in a vulnerable position.
To get a full range of motion with a bench dip, you need to lower yourself to an unrealistic depth to get a proper stretch in the triceps, and even then, the tricep is going through a very minimal ROM. Even using good form, most will only be able to go to a depth of parallel at the elbow joint before the shoulder and upper body needs to take over in order to increase depth and ROM.
Are Tricep Dips Dangerous
Following on from the above section, it’s worth pointing out that tricep dips (mainly when done on a bench) are not only bad for most people but actually dangerous.
When trying to get a better ROM and stretch on the tricep during the eccentric portion of the dip, you inadvertently place the anterior delts under an extreme stretch that once combined with external loading can lead to some serious shoulder irritations and eventual injuries.
This is done through bone grinding against cartilage and wearing it down or causing impingements due to the unnatural position that you subject your shoulder to during these dips.
Tricep Dip Alternatives
1. Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is the best alternative to the tricep dip because it’s the only other exercise for the triceps that is considered to be a compound exercise. A compound exercise is one that requires multiple muscle groups to perform a lift.
In a standard bench press, the chest is the primary muscle while the triceps and front delts act as secondary or assistance muscles in the movement. The close grip bench press, therefore, shifts the focus and places the tricep as a primary muscle group in the movement while the chest and front delts become the secondary muscles that are active.
It’s worth noting that shorter lifters with a smaller wingspan might find their triceps are overactive on a normal bench press and actually take over more of the weight. This is why some people can grow big arms when benching yet see minimal chest development.
The reason you want to include a compound movement in an exercise is that you can lift more total weight. Will lifting more weight and getting stronger is not necessarily the key to muscle growth, working up to a close grip bench press of 315lbs will do more for your tricep development than a 45lb cable pressdown ever will!
2. Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extensions
As mentioned earlier, the long head of the tricep is most engaged and active when using an exercise that involves placing the arms into an overhead position. This is to place the triceps in a fully lengthened position and work the tricep through this lengthened and stretched position.
The cable rope overhead tricep extension is great for keeping tension on the tricep throughout the movement. A dumbbell overhead tricep extension is a good option but loses some tension at the bottom of the movement whereas the cables allow you to keep tension throughout the full ROM.
3. Diamond Push Up
As the dip is primarily a bodyweight exercise (though you can add additional weight through a dipping belt), it’s good to add other bodyweight exercises in its place. The reason being that you challenge your muscle groups differently when you add gravity and stability into the equation.
A pull-up is noticeably more difficult to perform than a lat pulldown and a diamond push-up can offer a similar challenge when compared against the close grip bench press.
As you need to stabilize your body, diamond push-ups can be a great warm-up exercise to activate your triceps as well as smaller stabilizing muscle groups before moving on to some exercises that use a heavier weight.
4. Kettlebell Skull Crusher
I’ll cover skull crushers as an exercise shortly but for those with any elbow issues when working triceps, the kettlebell skull crusher can be an elbow-friendly alternative to both the skull crusher and tricep dip.
This allows you to place your elbows at an angle that allows your forearm to stack over your upper arm in a more joint-friendly position as opposed to using a fixed bar which forces the angle of your joints during a lift.
This variant allows for the benefit of the skull crusher which allows you to hit the triceps long head but the only downside is that it will be much harder to increase the weight you use. Therefore, in terms of a direct alternative to the tricep dip, this would be seen as more of an isolation exercise.
5. Tricep Cable Kickbacks
The triceps kickback is an exercise that gets a lot of hate from trainers and to an extent, they have a valid point. A dumbbell tricep kickback keeps the tricep under load for a very minimal period of time and to build and hypertrophy a muscle, you want to keep it under load and tension for the entirety of a set!
With a dumbbell kickback, you only feel tension at the very end of the rep, what’s interesting about this exercise though is that the peak contraction for this rep actually places the tricep in a close to fully shortened position.
When you train a muscle, you want to fatigue it in the shortened range, mid-range, and lengthened range so this is where the tricep cable kickback turns a laughable exercise into a potentially great tricep finisher.
The position allows you to train the tricep in the shortened position (where the load is heaviest at the top of a rep during the concentric portion) but the cable also keeps active tension and load on the tricep during the eccentric and first part of the concentric. For this reason, it’s actually a great exercise to finish on.
6. Bodyweight Tricep Extensions
A bodyweight tricep extension can be done on a bench, bar, stairs, dip bar, rings, TRX, or even on the floor. It’s an incredibly versatile movement and a good alternative to a bodyweight tricep dip.
With this exercise, you might struggle for progression as it’s harder to add additional load like you can to a tricep dip with a dip belt so you’d be best using this as a tricep warmup or finisher exercise.
Something that is good about this exercise though is the ability to modify the position of your body to emphasize different parts of the tricep. Doing this exercise from the floor will emphasize the lateral and medial head whereas utilizing a bar or structure that allows you to do the extension from an “overhead position” will work the long head.
7. Skull Crushers
Besides the dip and close grip bench press, a skull crusher is about as close you can get to a compound exercise for the triceps.
As mentioned earlier, if you have any elbow issues when training the triceps then this won’t be the best exercise for you but if you have strong enough joints, this is an excellent exercise to lift some decent weight.
Using an EZ curl bar is something that will allow you to vary your grip to an extent for a more comfortable pressing position and to make this exercise more effective, instead of ending the exercise around skull level (hence the name), take the bar behind your head for an added stretch to the tricep.
The end position should resemble a pullover and this position significantly stretches the tricep for more growth potential. This position is also the reason why people often feel sore triceps after using a lying pullover or straight arm cable pulldown.
** Also check out skull crusher alternatives **
8. JM Press
The JM press is a hybrid exercise between a close grip bench press and a skull crusher. It’s a powerlifting accessory lift to specifically build some tricep strength and size.
The main benefit to this exercise over a close grip bench press or tricep dip is that it’s much more friendly on the shoulder joint. Most of the movement with a JM press comes through elbow extension instead of having a degree of tension placed on the shoulder.
This is a more advanced movement though and is not one for beginners due to being in a weaker/unstable position during the press.
9. Tricep Cable Pushdown
Finally, we have the tricep cable pushdown which is a joint-friendly exercise and an excellent tricep builder when it comes to the lateral and medial heads.
There is not much to say about this exercise but when it comes to form cues, making use of a long rope or using two ropes attached to the carabiner will allow you to get a much better ROM.
A v-bar, standard rope, or straight bar all restrict full extension as you can’t go past hip/thigh level whereas a rope variant allows you to bring your wrists behind your torso for a much full extension.
There are numerous reasons why you can’t (or shouldn’t) do a tricep dip. While I think the dip in general is an excellent compound exercise, there are numerous alternatives that allow you to work the tricep in a range of positions and apply load in a different way.
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