Last updated on February 8th, 2023 at 05:12 pm
Regardless, whether you perform bar, bench, or machine dips, there’s nothing more irritating than feeling it in your shoulders.
In fact, this could be more than mere irritation, and in some cases quite painful.
So, what exactly is going on here?
Allow me to explain some of the most common reasons for “feeling” your shoulders when doing tricep dips.
For the purposes of this article I’m going to concentrate on bar dips, but the same principles apply for both bench and machine dips.
The most common reason you feel tricep dips in your shoulders is because your shoulders are internally rotated. Irrespective of the type of dip you perform, i.e. bar, bench, or machine, you should always retract the shoulders first. To retract the shoulders, pull the shoulders back and you’ll feel the back of your shoulder blades move towards each other.
1. Your Shoulders Are Internally Rotated
Shoulder mechanics play a huge role when it comes to performing dips.
There is a tendency to allow the shoulders to slouch forward, especially at the bottom of the dip movement.
Basically, what is happening here is the shoulders have become internally rotated and unfortunately this applies additional pressure to them.
When performing tricep dips you will want the shoulders to be retracted at the bottom of the movement.
So, in effect you pull the shoulder blades back and towards each other.
This is exactly the same “scapula retraction” when you perform bench press.
In fact, you almost want the shoulder blades to be in the same position as when you perform a pull-based exercise.
A great example of this will be a single-arm dumbbell row.
So, with this movement you typically start with the shoulder internal rotated.
However, as you pull the dumbbell up to your side the shoulder blade moves back and inwards.
In fact, as stupid as it sounds, you could perform a few light reps of single-arm dumbbell rows before doing your dips.
This will help you to understand the shoulder mechanics of the movement and get you in “practice” for where you want the shoulders to be.
Dr. Ryan DeBell explains this principle very well in the following video.
2. Your Elbows Are Flared Out
I would hazard a guess the most common error in form when performing tricep dips is allowing the elbows to flare out.
In fact, elbow flaring should be avoided with tricep and even chest exercises, such as the bench press.
This is even true of the humble push up.
I cannot tell you how many times I see people performing push ups, dips, bench presses, and many other push-based exercises and allowing the elbows to flare out to the sides.
Not only is the incorrect technique, it also places the shoulder joint under a lot of excess stress.
Think about how you perform any tricep exercise, you always aim to have the elbows tucked into the side, as close to the body as possible.
The same technique is used when performing tricep pushdowns, skullcrushers, close-grip bench press, etc.
By keeping the elbows close to the body you will target the triceps much more.
Plus, this ensures that the pressure is taken away from the shoulder joint.
3. You’re Not Warming Up Your Shoulders Beforehand
I typically perform a few shoulder mobility exercises before I go anywhere near tricep dips.
In fact, I also happen to do this when I bench press too.
I see far too many people go straight to the dip bars and immediately start performing dips.
As I say, shoulder mechanics play a huge role in dips, and this is why it’s important to ensure that the joints are properly warmed up first.
And I don’t mean stretching the shoulder joint either.
Stretching should always be performed at the end of a workout.
This is a way to tell the body that the workout is over, and therefore time for the muscles and the joints to relax.
The last thing you want prior to performing tricep dips is the shoulder joints to relax.
There is a tendency to place a straight arm against a wall or rack and then stretch the shoulder joint and side pecs.
Or what I sometimes refer to as the “doorway stretch”.
You know what I mean – you stand in a doorway, place your hands on either side, and then lean into the stretch.
Yes, this is a great stretch, but it also a great way to relax the muscles.
Save this for the end of your workout.
However, prior to performing tricep dips you really want to get the shoulder joint mobile and put it through its full range of motion.
4. You’re “Dropping” Into The Dip
Something that you generally see with any exercise when the body is being lowered is the habit of “dropping” into the movement.
I often see this when people squat or perform pull ups.
Basically, rather than slowly lowering yourself into position, you just drop.
This frequently happens during tricep dips as well.
This “dropping” motion places the joints under a huge amount of pressure.
And this is probably one of the reasons that you for shoulder pain from dips.
For me, the lowering portion of the tricep dip should always be performed in a slow and controlled manner.
Once at the bottom of the movement you then explode back up again.
It’s very much the same as when you perform a push up.
Slowly lower yourself, before exploding back up.
Something else I try to visualize is that rather than pushing myself up from the dip, I imagine I am trying to force the dip bars into the ground.
I find that this helps me to really focus on the working muscles.
With that being said, if you are just dropping into the bottom of the movement you need to stop this straight away.
Not only are you placing huge stress on the shoulder joints, you’re actually losing out on the best part of the exercise.
5. You’re Going Past 90 Degrees (Not Always a Bad Thing)
Now, there’s much debate about how low you should go when performing tricep dips.
Firstly, I will say that I go far lower than most.
In fact, my armpits are pretty much right next to my hands.
However, I have good shoulder mobility and I’ve been performing tricep dips for more years than I care to remember.
With that being said, if you are experiencing issues with the shoulder joints when performing dips, my method probably isn’t advisable.
I see nothing wrong with lowering yourself until you have a 90 degree angle at the elbow joint.
By this I mean that your forearm is at a 90 degree angle to your upper arm.
Once you get to this stage, simply push yourself back up.
You will still be working the triceps and the chest adequately, and you won’t be putting as much pressure on the shoulder joint.
I’m not saying that this is how you should perform tricep dips forever.
However, if you are experiencing discomfort in the shoulders then it’s probably best not to go below 90 degrees.
You’ll find that over time as you get stronger and your shoulder mechanics improve that you’ll be able to go down lower.
Key Learning Points
- Always retract your shoulder blades when performing dips. If you allow your shoulders to internally rotate this places a huge amount of stress on them.
- Keep your elbows tight to your body. Allowing your shoulders to flare out to the sides places additional stress on the shoulder joint.
- Ensure you warm up your shoulders prior to performing dips. Put your shoulder joint through its full range of mtion first.
- Always lower yourself in a slow and controlled manner when performing dips. Allowing yourself to “drop” into dips places a huge amount of stress on the shoulder joint.
- Unless you have great shoulder mobility you shouldn’t dip past 90 degrees.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.