Dips Hurt Shoulders: 6 Potential Reasons

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
January 22, 2023

Among the most effective calisthenic exercises are the dips - an upper body movement involving the exerciser suspending on and then lowering themselves between two parallel bars so as to train the push muscles of the torso.

Though dips are relatively safe when performed with the correct form, there is a real risk of sustaining injuries to the shoulder - most of which will likely be due to improper execution or other errors in your training.

Symptoms of shoulder pain from dips in particular, are indicative of quite a number of different issues. 

Whether it be due to rotator cuff irritation, a deltoid muscle imbalance or performing the dip to excessively low depth, any sort of pain experienced during dips means that you should immediately stop performing the exercise and investigate the cause of said pain.

What are Dips?

Dips are a closed-chain compound resistance exercise of body weight-sourced resistance, though additional loading may be possible with the inclusion of a dip belt and weight plates. 

tricep dips

They are most frequently encountered in calisthenic and athletic training programs, but may also be present in certain bodybuilding plans due to their relatively low impact and ease of performance in comparison to heavier compound chest movements.

Muscles Worked by Dips

Dips are the very definition of a compound exercise, as they recruit the muscles of the triceps brachii, all three heads of the deltoids and the pectoral muscle group in a dynamic capacity.

tricep dip muscles

Furthermore, muscle groups like the serratus anterior, the various muscles of the core and many muscles located along the back of the torso are also utilized as supportive or stabilizing muscles throughout the movement.

How to Perform a Dip

To perform a repetition of the conventional parallel bar dip, the exerciser will suspend themselves over the bars with the elbows fully extended and the feet entirely off the floor.

Contracting the chest and core muscles, the exerciser will then bend at the elbows and lower themselves downwards, tilting the torso slightly forward as they do so.

Once the upper arm is parallel in direction to the bars, the exerciser will push through their hands and extend the elbows once more - stopping once they have returned to the initial stance of the movement. 

This completes a repetition of the dips exercise.

The Shoulder Joint in Relation to Dips

The shoulder structure is actually a set of different tissues surrounding a ball-and-socket joint that allows for rotation of the humerus in a radial direction.

During dips, this joint goes through a large arc of motion, requiring stabilization and support from muscles like the deltoids and scapula - as well as involving non-muscular structures like the rotator cuff and biceps brachii tendons.

dip shoulder joint

As the exerciser descends into the dip, the scapula will move backwards (retraction) and the humerus or upper arm will rotate in place while the torso moves downwards. This motion is subsequently reversed during the concentric portion of the movement, hence the equally distributed risk of injury between both phases of the dip’s movement pattern.

As such, if performed in excess volume or with poor form, these structures may be forced to bear a greater amount of body weight than they are capable of sustaining - leading to injury and physiological conditions relating to the structures therein.

The most common sort of shoulder joint disorder from improper dip execution is a partial or otherwise minor tear of the rotator cuff, usually due to an unbalanced or excessive descent during the initial phase of the dip’s range of motion.

Dip Form Mistakes That can Lead to Shoulder Pain

Though it is entirely possible for issues unrelated to dip form to result in shoulder pain, the majority of cases should begin with an in-depth investigation into the lifter’s dip execution, as this is where the culprit is most likely to be.

1. Excessive Depth

The most likely cause of shoulder pain from unweighted dips is simply excessive depth during the eccentric portion of the movement.

Whether done intentionally due to the mistaken idea that doing so improves pectoral muscle activation, or if otherwise done by accident - dipping too far past a 90 degree torso angle can easily place excessive force and stress on the entire shoulder structure itself. 

This further compounds other small issues like poor shoulder rotation or inflexible pectoral muscles, leading to a risk of concurrent injuries and greater failures in form adherence.

To correct this issue, the exerciser should seek to follow proper dip form cues as much as possible, and may wish to perform the exercise while an experienced friend watches from the side so as to assess whether they are indeed dipping too far downwards.

2. Performing the Dips Vertically or “Sagging”

Just as performing dips to excessive depth can result in stress of the shoulder joint, so too can doing so when the torso is bent too little during the repetition. This is otherwise known as “kyphosis” in anatomical study, and refers to the spine bending out of alignment as other portions of the body take on a disadvantageous position that can shift the curvature of the back.

Within the context of a dip repetition, this will appear as if the exerciser is pushing themselves upwards from a nearly vertical angle, with the lower and middle portions of the back curving inwards as they do so.

To correct this, the exerciser should flex their core muscles appropriately, and seek to maintain a slightly forward tilt to their torso as they perform the eccentric portion of the movement, all the while keeping the forearm in-line with the wrist.

3. “Braking” Momentum During Repetition

As is the case in nearly all forms of resistance exercise, “braking” or suddenly stopping the momentum of the body can easily result in acute injuries of soft tissue.

For dips, this could mean suddenly dropping the torso downwards before halting the movement entirely, resulting in shear force and damage being done to many different structures throughout the upper body.

In order to avoid this outcome, the exerciser should perform dips (especially the descending or eccentric phase) in a slow and controlled manner, avoiding the usage of momentum at any point during the exercise.

4. Don’t Rotate the Shoulders Internally

Though shoulder rotation is the most likely to result in shoulder pain, internal rotation of the upper arm or even the elbow joint can also have much the same effect. 

Furthermore, internal rotation of the shoulders and upper arm or excessive flaring of the elbow can all pull other parts of the body into disadvantageous positions, further affecting the exerciser’s dip form and leading to a greater risk of injury.

As such, when performing the dip, it is important to always keep the shoulders rotated externally by partially retracting the shoulder blades, as well as to keep the elbow and forearm parallel with the wrist as much as possible.

For individuals having trouble maintaining this position, additional mobility work of the wrist, elbow or shoulder may be required.

5. Failing to Retract and Depress the Scapula

Though keeping the scapula or shoulder blades in a fixed position will make dips impossible to perform, failing to retract them as the exerciser descends into the dip will cause internal rotation of the shoulders, a collapsing chest and upper back, as well as a host of other issues relating to form.

This is not a very common problem, as it is natural instinct to retract the shoulder blade as the shoulder rotates externally, as is otherwise only ever seen if an individual is confused about proper dip form.

As such, correcting this particular issue is quite easy, and may be practiced by having the exerciser perform bent-over dumbbell rows with correct form so as to better ingrain the correct movement pattern into their muscle memory.

6. Keep the Elbow Over the Wrists

Though the elbows indeed switch between a state of extension and flexion throughout each dip repetition, they are not meant to move out of place as they do so. This can easily lead to poor form and injury, especially during loaded dip repetitions.

The elbow should ideally remain vertically parallel to the hands while simultaneously bending alongside the torso, tucked to a relatively close length.

Non-Form Related Issues That Cause Shoulder Pain

Though poor form is the most likely cause of pain when performing dips, other factors relating to the exerciser’s training methodology or lifestyle outside of actual dips execution may also be to blame.

Unlike form issues that can be corrected quite quickly, some of the following shoulder pain causes are more difficult to fix, and may require changes be made to the exerciser’s training frequency.

Equipment Used

Whether the exerciser is using makeshift dip bars or training equipment that is not entirely compatible with their physique, the usage of the wrong type of equipment can easily cause pain to be present in the shoulder joint and surrounding areas.

In particular, dip bars that are too far apart can lead to poor rotation of the shoulders or flaring of the elbows, and it is generally best to avoid parallel bars that are too wide for your shoulder width.

Poor Shoulder, Chest, or Clavicular Mobility

Poor mobility in the soft tissues of the shoulders, chest, or the tendons that connect the clavicle bones can all result in pain or instability after a set of dips. 

This is because of irritation and generally poor function in the structures therein, and can easily be corrected with dynamic mobility work performed immediately prior to working out.

Other cases of poor mobility such as those caused by a history of injury or advanced age may require more clinical solutions, and as such it is a good idea to seek out a physician if your poor mobility is not caused by a lack of dynamic stretching.

Excessive Weight Loaded

While most sets of dips are performed entirely with the eerciser’s own body weight as a  source of resistance, more advanced lifters may choose to keep progressive overload through additional weight in the form of weight plates and other wearable pieces of fitness equipment.

Doing this in excess can easily place too much strain on the delicate tissues of the rotator cuff, causing pain and general symptoms of damage.

To avoid this, it is best to err on the side of caution when adding further weight to your dips. Start with a relatively small amount, and work your way up until you reach a rate of perceived exertion of about 7-9.

Overtraining or Excessive Volume

Another possible cause of shoulder pain from dips is from simple overtraining - a condition that arises from too great a training frequency, or otherwise from performing excessive dip volume over the course of multiple workouts.

This can cause irritation of the connective tissues of the shoulders alongside a host of other issues.

In order to remedy overtraining and excessive volume, it is a good idea to go over one’s training program and ascertain whether the frequency with which dips are performed is too often, or whether excess volume per workout is indeed present.

If unsure of how to go about investigating this, seeking out the advice of a more experienced coach or following another training program made for lifters of experience level should be sufficient.

When to Talk to a Doctor About Your Shoulder Pain

In the event that the pain from dips is accompanied by other symptoms like numbness, tingling or a loss of range of motion, it may be time to consult a medical professional, as these symptoms can indicate an injury more serious than simple home-based rehabilitation can fix.

Even if none of the aforementioned symptoms are present, if your shoulder pain has been affecting you for a longer period of time than several days, it is a good idea to talk to a physician so as to speed up recovery and identify the nature of your condition.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Do Dips "Destroy" Shoulders?

Dips are indeed a risky exercise for the shoulders, but are otherwise safe if performed with the correct level of intensity and proper form.

To do so, ensure that you are following every form cue possible, performing preparatory work before a set of dips, and are subscribed to a trainer-approved workout program.

What are Two Warning Signs of a Rotator Cuff Tear?

An injury to the rotator cuff can be characterized by quite a number of symptoms, the majority of which involve sharp and intense pain when rotating the shoulder within a certain range of motion. Other symptoms may include numbness, tingling, a “grinding” or “catching” feeling when moving the arm or an entire loss of motion within a certain range.

Remember that many of these symptoms can also be indicative of conditions other than a rotator cuff tear, and it is a good idea to get checked by a medical professional if you suspect that your shoulder is injured in any way.

What Exercise Replaces Dips?

Quite a number of exercises can replace or entirely surpass dips, with movements like the push-up or bench tricep dip being just as effective while surpassing conventional dips in terms of specificity of usage.

What you use to replace dips will ultimately depend on what sort of training goals you wish to meet. Powerlifters or other strength-based athletes can see better results from weighted movements like the bench press, while home-gym owners may wish to stick with a similar exercise like push-ups.

In Conclusion

Checked your form and altered your training program but still experiencing pain from dips? It may be time to seek out professional advice.

Whether it be a physician if you wish to check for more serious injuries, or a coach for a more in-depth look at your dip execution, rest assured that the pain is likely not indicative of anything permanent, and should secede in time.

References

1. Mckenzie, Alec & Crowley-McHattan, Zachary & Meir, Rudi & Whitting, John & Volschenk, Wynand. (2021). Glenohumeral Extension and the Dip: Considerations for the Strength and Conditioning Professional. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 43. 93-100. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000579.

2. Dora Janela, Fabíola Costa, Maria Molinos, Robert G Moulder, Jorge Lains, Gerard E Francisco, Virgílio Bento, Steven P Cohen, Fernando Dias Correia. (2022) Asynchronous and Tailored Digital Rehabilitation of Chronic Shoulder Pain: A Prospective Longitudinal Cohort Study. Journal of Pain Research 15, pages 53-66.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
inspire us logo
Inspire US serves as an informational hub for people looking to start their fitness journey.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information being shared is for educational purposes only. You must consult with a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.
Copyright © Inspire US 2023