I recently intervened in a discussion between a few clients at the gym who couldn’t seem to agree on whether bench presses or dips were better for building upper body strength and muscle mass.
The funny thing was that they all had excellent points and showed some great results from their chest building exercise routines.
It seemed to come down to a “my chest is bigger” argument, which is never the right way to look at it.
Dips Pros And Cons
Dips tend to have kind of an elite athlete aspect to them, and you rarely see people at the gym doing these exercises. Or at least not doing them right.
One reason most beginner fitness programs won’t include them is that you need a considerable amount of upper body strength to get started with dips.
We’ll get to some training exercises further down, but let me first show you what to expect.
It targets the pecs.
The first thing I need to point out is that dips are possibly one of the best ways to target your pectoralis major muscles (pecs). And they do so with much less engagement from your shoulders.
It allows greater range of movement.
Secondly, you can achieve a great range of motion, especially once you get to a stage where you can complete 6 or 7 reps.
The deeper you go, the more intense the dips become.
Dip stations more affordable and versatile.
Finally, you can buy a dip station with a full-size frame to allow for some pull-ups at a much lower price than you’d spend on a bench, barbell, and set of weight plates.
You’ll also find that a good dip station won’t take up much space, leaving you with more options to expand your home gym.
Lack of flexibility
One of the downsides with dips is that you don’t have huge flexibility when it comes to intensity levels.
Once you can do a full set of 10 to 12 dips, your only real option is to switch to weighted dips. And with a weight vest or belt, you don’t have the same ability to make adjustments as you would with bench presses.
May cause injury especially when done with weights
I also find that bad form with weighted dips is more likely to cause injuries in your shoulders than a bench press would.
That’s why I would recommend you to work with a personal trainer first to make sure you get the dip movement right from the start.
“Dips are simple. They're effective. They look bloody cool, and they pack on slabs of muscle, using just your bodyweight and a stable surface.” - Edward Cooper, Writer at Menshealth.com.
Bench Press Pros And Cons
The bench press is possibly one of the most flexible ways to do a full upper body workout while isolating very specific muscles.
As a result, you should be able to layer on muscle mass where it matters to you most.
That’s why you see most gyms lined up with multiple weight benches, but let’s take a closer look at what to expect.
A lot more flexible depending on your equipment
First of all, you have a huge range of flexibility by switching between a barbell and dumbbell setup.
Dumbbells give you more range of motion and the option to switch to more hand positions. And an Olympic bar will allow you to pile on the weights and maintain more control.
Targets a variety of muscle groups
By adjusting the backrest of a flat bench, you’ll also be able to target the upper, middle, and lower chest muscles.
For beginners, the dumbbell bench press is the better option as you can set yourself up in a matter of minutes, and you won’t need someone to spot you.
The first thing I need to highlight is the cost of buying an adjustable or a flat bench, along with a full set of dumbbells or Olympic weight plates.
If you’re serious about gaining chest muscle mass, then you could quickly be heading for $1,000 just to do one set of exercises in a home gym.
Requires precautions as it may cause injuries
Both barbell and dumbbell bench presses can expose you to risks of accidents and injuries if you don’t get the form right.
You may also experience some kind of wrist pain from benching.
The barbell tends to invite loading it up more, but if your muscle stabilizers  aren’t developed enough, then you can quickly run into trouble.
And with dumbbells, the problem is often getting into the setup position and not maintaining good posture.
Sample Dip Exercises
The best way to do this bodyweight exercise is to make sure you have a setup where your legs can almost hang to the ground when you’re at the lowest point of the dip.
The two types of dips I get my clients to are these ones.
To target your chest muscles, you need to lower your body down while keeping your forearms perfectly vertical.
Lower yourself down until your elbows are at a right angle and your upper arms are parallel to the ground.
Now, push yourself back up and get your core and chest fully engaged.
Once you get to a stage where you can do 12 of these, switch to weighted dips.
Another great option to use dip bars is for triceps dips.
For these, you’ll want to place your feet on a bench or chair in front of the bars so that your arms are slightly behind your body.
You should notice a big difference with these exercises, with most of the strain on your triceps rather than chest.
And a great option to spice the exercise up a bit is to switch to weighted dips.
Sample Bench Press Exercises
What I love about the bench press is that the slightest modification will allow you to target specific chest muscles beyond your pectoralis major.
Here are my two favorites.
Barbell Bench Press
I know it might sound boring, but your standard bench press with a bar is still one of the greatest options.
Load up the bar and grip it with your hands slightly more than shoulder-wide apart.
Then, lower the bar to your chest while counting to three, and then push it back up for the count of 2.
And don’t try to cheat with faster movements or not going all the way down. Always think quality over quantity.
Incline Dumbbell Presses
I’ve already mentioned that dumbbells can give you a longer range of motion, but by also setting yourself up in an incline position, you can shift more of the strain to the upper pecs.
You should also notice your shoulders taking some of the weight, which is why you’ll want to pick some heavier dumbbells.
Choosing The Right Exercise For Your Strength Level
So, you might be wondering where I stand on the whole dips vs. bench presses debate.
And the way I approach this with clients is to base the decision on strength levels.
If you cannot do about 6 to 8 dips without supporting some of your weight, then I believe you’ll get a lot more out of bench presses.
It’s also the better option to lower the strain on your shoulders when you haven’t built up enough strength.
But once your upper body is able for several sets of dips, then I think it can be a very effective exercise to have in your regular routines.
Can You Build Muscle With Dips?
Yes, you can build muscle with dips. They are a great option to isolate the chest area, and even once you can do more than 12 reps, you can easily switch to weighted dips to increase the intensity a bit more. They're also go-to exercise both for chest and triceps.
Are Dips Better Than Decline Bench Presses?
Yes, dips can be better than decline bench presses because they activate the entire chest area. With a decline bench press, you have much more isolated upper body strength training rather than allowing training of multiple muscle groups.
Will Dips Make Your Chest Bigger?
Yes, dips will make your chest bigger as long as you maintain good form to avoid shoulder problems. For dips to work as proper chest building exercises, you need to be able to slowly lower yourself down far enough to fully engage all muscle groups in your chest.
Why Are Dips So Hard?
Dips are so hard because you have to support and stabilize your entire body weight. They also put a lot of strain on your shoulders if you haven’t built up enough strength. And that can easily lead to a rotator cuff injury .
Dips Vs. Bench Press, Which One Is Better?
If you have the upper-body strength to do dips, then definitely give them a try. You won’t regret the effect they can have.
And if you’re not there yet, then try them out occasionally to see if you're gaining enough strength to start including these movements.
For me, there’s a place for dips and bench presses in every exercise plan, so don’t discount either of them.