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This or That: Push-ups vs. Parallel Bar Dips

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar. But which should you do to accomplish what result? In this series, I'll try to give some answers. Last week I compared the bench press with the dumbbell fly press. This week I'd like to compare two body-weight chest exercises (as opposed to purely weight-lifting exercises): the classic push-up versus parallel bar dips. Ready for the break-down? Here we go.

As full-body, functional training exercises go, it's hard to beat the push-up. In a push-up, you place your body in a plank position, with feet together and hands directly below the shoulder with arms straight. You should be perfectly flat—like a plank—from the back of your head, down your back, across your hips, down your legs to your feet. Now, maintaining that flat posture, lower your chest to the floor by bending your elbows. Your chest should lightly touch the floor before you, well, push back up to your starting position.

All pretty familiar, right? Here are the strengths of the push-up:

  1. Focuses on pecs and triceps: This exercise, like the bench press, which also involves a pressing motion directly forward from the chest, engages the complete pectoralis major. This is the big fan of muscle underneath your "breasts" that gives your chest its size and definition and is what you think of as your chest. A push-up also challenges your triceps.
  2. Unlimited variation: You should think of the basic push-up as being sort of like a plate of spaghetti: there are a lot of sauces you can put on it. Variations include medicine balls and stability balls, plyometrics and inclines; but if you want to do chest isolations, just moving your hands is a great variation. Varying the width of the hands will focus the work on different parts of the pecs. The wider your hand placement, the more you isolate the outer portion of the chest. The narrower the placement, the more you work the sternal head (center of the chest near the sternum) of the pectoralis muscles. This narrow placement will also shift the intensity more towards your triceps.
  3. Functional training: Beyond the chest work it provides, a push-up trains your entire body to function as a unit. That's because you have to use your abdominal muscles and back muscles to maintain your alignment as you push. Hence, it is a functional exercise. You won't get six-pack abs by doing push-ups. But the kind of full-body, real-world strength you develop from push-ups will help you in real-life strength tests—slipping in the shower, picking up a bag of groceries, tossing your little nephew in the air—in ways that a lifetime of isolated weight-lifting cannot.
The push-up is therefore a key exercise to any program that seeks not only big muscle, but functional strength for life activities. And, because of its endless versatility, it is possible to keep adapting the push-up to changing programs.

Parallel Bar Dips
Ever looked at a male gymnast's upper body? If so, you probably really envied his muscles. Some of that muscle is gained on the parallel bars. So why not steal a page from his book? Parallel bar dips involve standing between two parallel bars (typically a pair of longish handles on a stand) with one hand on each bar. You will take a step and press up so that you are above the bars with your upper body, arms straight to hold you up, with legs dangling between and below the bars. From here, you will bend your elbows to lower your body between the bars, coming down until your hands are near your chest with elbows bent behind you, then straightening your elbows to press back up and lift yourself back to the straight-armed start position.

Here are the benefits of the parallel bar dips:
  1. Multiple upper body benefits: Dips primarily work the inferior pectoralis (lower aspects of the chest), which are largely missed by bench press and push-ups. They also target the triceps as well as the some of the anterior deltoids (front aspect of your shoulder). This exercise is also great for working the flexibility of your shoulder girdle.
  2. Body angle important: This exercise depends on your body position, and can be manipulated to target different muscles. If, as you dip down, you incline your upper body forward, you will put more of the lift into your chest muscles. If, however, you remain vertical or upright as you dip down, you will target your triceps.
  3. Functional with options: Parallel bar dips are, like push-ups, functional. That is because, like the push-up, they involve your ability to lift and move the weight of your own body, rather than an arbitrary added weight. Like the push-up, they offer the opportunity for training the body to function as a unit rather than simply bulking up individual muscles. Parallel bar dips can be made more difficult with the addition of a weight belt to which you can add however much additional weight you would like. This will give you the functional benefits of balancing your own weight—and engaging your core, abs and back to make your body act as a unit—while letting you add additional pounds as desired.
In the end, these are both great functional chest exercises with additional triceps work, and sooner or later both should form part of any comprehensive weight-training program. Remember that the chest dips will target the lower chest, providing definition, where the push-ups will target the upper and middle chest, providing thickness. Both have sufficient versatility, however, to bring new intensity to any program.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.