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Baseball Strength Training Programs: Are Dips Safe and Effective?

Written on December 12, 2012 at 9:52 am, by Eric Cressey

I received the following question from a baseball dad earlier today, so I thought I'd turn it into a quick Q&A, as I think my response will be valuable information for many players - as well as those in the general population who want to avoid shoulder problems.

Q: What's your opinion on bar dips for baseball players? My son's high school coach has a strength training program that includes bar dips and I was wondering about the safety and effectiveness of the exercises for baseball players. 

A: I'll occasionally include dips in strength training programs for general fitness clients, but I'll never put them in programs for baseball players.

You see, when you do a dip, you start in a "neutral" position of the humerus with respect to the scapula; the arm is at the side (neither flexed nor extended):

The eccentric (lowering) portion of the exercise takes the lifter into humeral extension far past neutral.

This is an extremely vulnerable position for many shoulders, but particularly in overhead throwing athletes.  You see, overhead athletes like swimmers and baseball, volleyball, cricket, and tennis players will acquire something we call anterior instability from going through full shoulder external rotation over and over again.  Essentially, as one lays the arm back (external rotation = osteokinematics), there is a tendency of the humeral head to glide forward (arthrokinematics). 

If the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers aren't perfectly strong and completely on time, the only things available to prevent the humeral head from popping forward in this position are the long head of the biceps tendon and the glenohumeral ligaments at the front of the shoulder.  Over time, these ligaments can get excessively stretched out, leading to a loose anterior capsule and a biceps tendon that moves all over the place or simply becomes degenerative from overuse.  And, anyone who's ever had a cranky biceps tendon will tell you that you don't want to overuse that sucker.

As a quick digression, this is one reason why you're seeing more anterior capsule plication (capsular tightening) procedures being done, with Johan Santana probably being the most noteworthy one. The problem is that after a surgeon tightens up a capsule, it takes a considerably amount of time for it to stretch out so that a pitcher will regain his "feel" for the lay-back portion of throwing.  Additionally, anecdotally, I've seen more biceps tenodesis surgeries in the past year on throwers and non-throwers alike, which tells me that surgeons are seeing uglier biceps tendons when they get in there to do labral repairs.  These are tough rehabilitation projects without much long-term success/failure data in throwers, as they fundamentally change shoulder anatomy (whereas a traditional labral repair restores it) and call into question: "Does a pitcher need a biceps tendon?"  Mike Reinold wrote an excellent blog on this subject, if you're interested in learning more.

Bringing this back to dips, we make sure that all of our pushing and pulling exercises take place in the neutral-to-flexed arc of motion, meaning we try to keep the humerus even with or in front of the body.  This is because humeral extension past neutral (as we see with dips) has a similar effect on increasing anterior instability as throwing does.  For those who are visual learners, check out the first few minutes of this rowing technique video tutorial:

I'd argue that the negative effects of bench dips are even more excessive, as they don't allow an individual to even work from a neutral position to start, as the bench must be positioned behind the body, whereas the parallel bars can be directly at one's side.

So, to recap...

1. No dip is a good idea for an overhead throwing population. Bench dips - which are probably used more because they are more convenient for coaches out on the field - are especially awful.

2. Regular dips probably aren't a great idea for the majority of the population, especially those with bad posture, weak scapular stabilizers, poor rotator cuff function, or current or previous shoulder pain.

3. In particular, anyone with a history of acromioclavicular joint injuries or chronic pain in this area (e.g. osteolysis of the distal clavicle) should stay away from dips (and another other exercise that puts the elbow behind the body).

4. Bench dips are really awful for everyone.

Looking for a program that trains the upper body safely and effectively - and without dips? Check out The High Performance Handbook, the most versatile strength and conditioning program on the market.

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60 Responses to “Baseball Strength Training Programs: Are Dips Safe and Effective?”

  1. James Says:

    Eric,
    Slightly off topic, but what are your thoughts on the whole “dead arm” phenomenon?
    James

  2. Lisl Says:

    Superb article!

    And one I shall be forwarding to personal trainers who work where I train after I witnessed one client dislocating her rib being made to do power plate dips last week….. :/

  3. Justin Says:

    Hey Eric,
    I do dips to work the triceps but find it painful in my clavicle area due to the strain it puts on it. What exercise do you suggest I replace the dips with that will still work the triceps without putting undue strain on my shoulder, elbow, and clavicle? I do overhead triceps extensions and triceps pull downs but would like to have at least 3 exercises and am not a fan of triceps DB kickbacks as I find them ineffective

  4. Frank Candela Says:

    Cressy,

    Another epic post coach. Damm you are good!

    Frank

  5. Steve Says:

    Eric,

    Very good blog post. You state “If the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers aren’t perfectly strong and completely on time, the only things available to prevent the humeral head from popping forward in this position are the long head of the biceps tendon and the glenohumeral ligaments at the front of the shoulder.” AS a former pitcher and now pitching coach, I have as well as some players have experienced tightness and some pain where the bicep tendon connects to the shoulder. Is it probable that the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers are strong enough for the pitching/throwing work load? In your opinion what can cause this common tightness I have experienced regarding the upper bicep tendon? is there anyway to correct this?

  6. Stephen Robb Says:

    Eric,

    This is great inforamation and a real eye opener, thank you. What would you suggest to replace the dip in the workout of an overhead athlete in the gym. Also, is there anything that coaches can do out on the field to replace the bench dip?

    Thnank you
    Stephen Robb
    Babson ’03

  7. Matt Kenny Says:

    This was great. Thanks, Eric!

  8. Hollister Says:

    Another great post Eric and an excellent question from the dad who has a son in a program at the high school. Thanks for your detailed explanation.

  9. Mario Says:

    Eric,
    Great Stuff. So glad to see you answer this question. I had been wondering the same thing. I would often substitute dips for over head presses for people with pain in over head pressing moves, but worried about the shoulder extension past neutral. What would recommend with this type of situation.

    Thanks.

  10. Ben Says:

    Great information. As a volleyball player, what would you recommend as a substitute for dips, other than push up variations?

  11. Eric Cressey Says:

    Ben,

    Push-up variations, DB bench presses, landmine presses, etc. will work great.

  12. Eric Cressey Says:

    Mario,

    Work on push-ups, floor presses, and possibly some landmine presses as progressions later on.

  13. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Matt!

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for the kind words. Check out my responses a bit earlier and it should answer your question.

    Nice to see another Babson guy on here!

  15. Robert Says:

    Mr.Cressey
    I am a pitcher also, would the same humeral extension concept apply with pushups and db bench?

    Ex: pushups- not going past 90 degrees and -and db bench ..not letting your elbows dip past your shoulders/trunk

    Thanks

  16. Robert Says:

    Adding to my previous question, Would you suggest that pitchers only do floor db bench?

  17. Eric Cressey Says:

    Justin,

    Close grip bench presses, floor presses, and landmine presses would all be valuable additions, most likely. Hard to say without evaluating you, though; I’d check with a qualified medical professional to evaluate your shoulder.

  18. Eric Cressey Says:

    James,

    Dead arm is somewhat of a garbage term. Lots of causes, and lots of ways to fix it.

  19. Eric Cressey Says:

    Steve,

    It’s likely poor anterior instability. Step one is to educate them on how to center the humeral head in the glenoid fossa, and then maintain that “centration” with all rotator cuff exercises, scapular stabilization drills, and – eventually – throwing.

  20. Ted Says:

    Eric: What about weight-assisted bar dips?

  21. BT Says:

    EC,

    Would this apply to dips on rings as well? What about ring bulgarian dips? For athletes and general fitness folks.

  22. Eric Cressey Says:

    Brian,

    Yes.

  23. Eric Cressey Says:

    Ted,

    Same problems.

  24. Eric Cressey Says:

    Robert,

    Push-ups and DB bench presses are different, as you go from a flexed position to neutral, not a neutral position to extreme extension.

    Plus, with push-ups, you can draw a lot of stability from the floor.

  25. Eric Cressey Says:

    Also, Robert, we’ll use regular DB bench with our pitchers. Don’t do it a ton, but it has a place.

  26. Alex Says:

    Eric,

    Does the same logic/issues hold true for ring dips?

  27. Eric Cressey Says:

    Alex,

    Absolutely.

  28. larry Says:

    Hi
    I’m just reading this now about a month after publication. I’m 63 years old and learning to surf and have never had a serious shoulder injury. I do no other overhead exercises. I’ve been doing ring dips for about four years without any problems. After reading this article I feel like I should stop doing them although I’m reluctant to. Would that be your recommendation?
    Thanks
    Larry

  29. Eric Cressey Says:

    Larry,

    There are definitely better options (push-up variations, for example). Try switching over; I think you’ll find them to have much better carryover to surfing, too.

  30. Mark Says:

    Hi Eric, interesting post. I am a swimmer and surfer and this explains why I have always felt a bit suspect on the dips. Lately I have been trying some static holds in the start position of a dip….they seem to feel like they actually help with stability especially on straps or rings. Is there much merit to this?

  31. Eric Cressey Says:

    Mark,

    Statically in that position, I don’t think they’d be a problem. I’d use a variation of positions to train your stability for the wide range of activities you’ll get with surfing and swimming, though.

  32. eric Says:

    Eric,
    What’s your opinion regarding hip extension exercises applying the same paradigm with the acetabulum/femoral head? Is there a difference between open/closed exercises? (glute kick plate vs. ankle cuff cable extension) Would they be contra-indicated for the same reasons?

  33. Eric Cressey Says:

    Substantially different, Eric. It’s much easier to control femoral anterio glide at the hip with sufficient glute activation. The shoulder is much more unstable and the cuff is harder to manage than the glutes.

  34. aram hamparian Says:

    I can’t do overhead presses or flat presses of any kind, but can do weighted dips. What other alternatives do I have for chest and shoulder development. BTW, DB fly’s are out, too. Thanks Eric!

  35. patrick Says:

    Eric, would you recommend that gymnasts dont do dips in their strength training programs? Thanks for all the great information!

  36. val poulos Says:

    Amen to this article. This is one of those exercises that people just won’t give up. There are so many better, safer ways to strengthen triceps without trashing the shoulders, especially for people with shoulder issues. As always, Eric Cressey is right on the mark!

  37. Victor Says:

    Dear Eric I know the question was about baseball players doing dips, but 77kg Olympic weightlifter LU of CHina does these with 3 25kg plates hanging from his waist and I believe exercises like this is the reason the Chinese weightlifting team is so good.

  38. Fred Says:

    Of course, as a swing dancer, I have more latitude than a baseball player, but I used dips in the past with light weight to increase my ROM in that plan and worked wonders. 5 reps/day 5 days/week for about 5 weeks. I experienced discomfort at first and soreness in the tendon then 5 weeks later, I felt better than ever and gain 4-6 inches of ROM.

  39. Mike Says:

    Eric,

    Whats your opinion on using a seated dip machine?

  40. Eric Cressey Says:

    Mike,
    Not a good one. Might as well be bench dips.

  41. Eric Cressey Says:

    Fred,

    You likely gained ROM because you stretched out (or tore up) your anterior capsule. Not all ROM is good ROM.

  42. Eric Cressey Says:

    Victor,

    I think it has more to do that they Olympic lift a lot.

  43. Eric Cressey Says:

    Aram,

    Loaded push-ups come to mind.

  44. Matt Says:

    Hi Eric,
    I am a college pitcher (and PT student). I stopped dips a few months ago, but because I was getting notable ulnar nerve irritation at the bottom position. Ever notice anything similar?

  45. Eric Cressey Says:

    Matt,

    Not surprising. Pitchers get enough flexion/extension, and getting to this extreme position of flexion with significant triceps action could make an ulnar nerve cranky. Is it subluxating as well?

  46. Mark Ashton Says:

    Eric,

    This is a fantastic article and the 8 ways to screw up a row video is one of the best thing you`ve done. It applies to *so many* other exercises.

    Love your work!

  47. Olly Says:

    Thanks for a great article Eric!

    Do you think Static holds on the gymnastic rings with the arms in neutral (the gymnastic rings “front support” position) can play a good role in strength and stability development for the shoulders (albeit Isometric)? I find multiple sets of 30 sec holds of these really challenging but very beneficial because everything has to stay engaged (shoulders, core etc.) I’ve had two AC separations on the right shoulder and this seems a good, safe way to train strength and stability.

    Many thanks,
    Olly

  48. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Mark!

  49. Rachel Says:

    Eric,
    I am a crossfitter currently trying to work on getting a ring muscle-up and one of the main elements in the progression is a big dip. I’d appreciate your thoughts on how to progress in my muscle-up ability if doing dips is not highly recommended…is there no way to make them more safe? I am particularly interested because just the other day when I was doing my dips I felt very “hunched” at the bottom, which I’m guessing is due to the what you covered in this article.

  50. Rachel Says:

    Also, thanks for all your great information. I really enjoy your articles and learning from you insight, even if sometimes that means extra research :)

  51. Bob Hamlin Says:

    Hi Eric,
    Thanks for the time you put into this one – a really great article.
    So what about gymnasts? The muscle-up is an important way to get above the bar/rings, and the only way to get to a strict muscle-up is by progressing through tons of pullups and tons of dips.
    What’s the right way to progress so that the dip can be done safely? Are there any indicators to watch for before working the dip?

  52. Colin Says:

    Eric

    What about flaring the elbows out to the side – as Vince Gironda used to teach them…are they an improvement?

    Regards

  53. Matt Says:

    Eric, I never had ulnar nerve subluxation before the pain with dips, but it has subluxed 3 times since then.

  54. Billy S. Says:

    Excellent post, Eric! I’ve always had a gut feeling that Dips weren’t good for the general population – even the weight assisted ones (very popular at my fitness center, unfortunately). And I was especially glad they weren’t included in your outstanding High Performance Handbook. Now I can actually cite some anatomy and reason behind my worries to my clients & members. Thanks for the info!

  55. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Billy!

  56. Eric Cressey Says:

    Colin,

    I think that just opens up another can of worms with respect to joint stress.

  57. Eric Cressey Says:

    Patrick,

    I think it’s a bold move to suggest that gymnasts not do dips in the programs, as they need it to compete in their sport!

    That said, I think it’s important to recognize the gymnasts aren’t the ordinary individuals we encounter in “normal” training. Gymnasts don’t sit at computers all day, and most are too young to acquire big time postural distortions. And, I’ve never seen a gymnast over the age of 40 – so they certainly aren’t at an age when tissue degeneration is a huge deal.

    Conversely, look at the regular fitness enthusiast who wants to start banging out 30-40 dips in a session, and you see where the problems can come about. One group has spent their entire life preparing to be stable in these positions, while the other has skipped steps and gone right to adding load to dysfunction.

  58. Eric Cressey Says:

    Olly,

    I’d proceed cautiously and just listen to your body. Don’t force anything that hurts.

  59. Eric Cressey Says:

    Bob,

    See my response to Patrick below.

    Knowing your history, I’d leave out dips…for good.

  60. Eric Cressey Says:

    Rachel,

    I’d work hard on getting great thoracic mobility, adequate lat length, and a TON of rotator cuff strength.

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