Dips vs Push-Ups: The Differences Explained

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

Among the many bodyweight exercises targeting the upper body, few are as popular or accessible as the dip and the push-up - two chest-focused compound movements known for their effectiveness at leveraging the entire body weight of the exerciser as a form of training resistance.

Despite their similarity in biomechanical utilization, the dip and the push-up are often compared due to the differences in stance and actual gross loading of all recruited muscles.

The main point of distinction between dips and push-ups lies in the fact that dips require the exerciser to suspend themselves between two bars, whereas push-ups only require a plank position to be maintained. This means that the angle of resistance and actual amount of weight being lifted differs, with dips producing a more vertical and heavier load.

What are Dips?

Dips are a body weight compound exercise performed for the purposes of training the push-muscles of the upper body, usually in moderate to high volume sets with the use of dip bars or gymnastic rings.

parallel bar dips

For individuals without access to exercise equipment, a pair of chairs or similarly sturdy objects are also used, making dips accessible to all individuals with sufficient upper body strength to perform them.

Benefits of Dips

Dips are known for being an exercise that is easy to perform but difficult to truly master, as they are easily performed for several repetitions by even novice level calisthenic practitioners, but also present quite a challenge when additional weight is added through a belt or wearable equipment.

As such, it is entirely possible for an individual to go from being a complete novice to resistance training to an advanced level athlete while keeping dips within their workout plan.

Furthermore, the range of motion and isometric contraction involved in a dip repetition makes it uniquely effective at training both constituents of the pectoral muscle group, surpassing other common chest movements like the bench press or chest press in terms of pure muscular recruitment intensity.

Difficulty of Dips

While dips are indeed considered to be a novice level exercise (when unweighted), in comparison to push-ups, they are somewhat more difficult.

This is simply due to the upper body strength required to suspend oneself entirely from a pair of parallel bars, whereas push-ups will place the exerciser on the floor and thereby require far less of their own bodyweight be supported.

In terms of form complexity, both the dip and the push-up are relatively simplistic and easy to learn, and present a low risk of injury, even for unconditioned individuals new to resistance training.

How-to do Dips

To perform a repetition of dips, the exerciser will suspend themselves above two parallel bars with the hands set parallel to the shoulders. 

tricep dip muscles

From this position, they will bend at the elbows and contract the muscles of their core, lowering the torso and rotating the upper body slightly forward as they descend towards the bars. 

Once a significant stretch is felt by the exerciser in their chest muscles, they will push through the hands and return to the starting position. This completes a repetition of the bodyweight dips exercise.

What are Push-Ups?

Push-ups are a classic compound resistance exercise performed for purposes ranging from simple upper body training to athletic analysis - all with a relatively simple and beginner-friendly pushing exercise that requires no equipment whatsoever.

push up

In training, push-ups are usually used as a secondary compound exercise or as a form of upper body muscular endurance development, as the amount of resistance involved in a conventional body weight push-up is usually not sufficient enough to easily induce hypertrophy in all but novice-level exercisers.

Benefits of Push Ups

Push-ups present quite a number of benefits to all that perform them at regular intervals, with aerobic development and upper-body muscular conditioning being the most obvious of such effects.

Other benefits that may be received from performing push-ups include greater bodily coordination, improved core muscle stability and improved proprioception - all factors that place push-ups squarely within the realm of athletic carryover movements, hence their frequent inclusion in many functional fitness programs.

Difficulty of Push Ups

Push-ups are a novice level exercise that the majority of individuals are capable of performing for multiple repetitions - though those of particularly heavy bodyweight or a lack of general muscle mass may wish to perform knee push-ups instead.

How-to do Push Ups

To perform a repetition of the push-up, the exerciser will enter a plank position on the ground with their feet together and the legs fully extended. The hands should be placed parallel to the shoulders and the elbows should be in a state of full extension as well.

push up

To begin the repetition, the exerciser will flex their core, ensure that their lower back is at a neutral curvature, then bend at the elbows in a slow and controlled manner. 

Once the torso has been lowered to within several inches of touching the floor, the exerciser will then push through their palms, returning themselves to the original starting plank position.

Muscles Worked by Dips and Push-Ups

In a more general sense, dips and push-ups are practically interchangeable in terms of what muscle groups are activated by either exercise.

Both the dips and the push-ups exercises will recruit the pectoral muscle group, the deltoids, the core musculature and the triceps brachii to appreciable levels - especially when performed correctly and with a lengthy time under tension.

Where the two exercises will differ, however, is in the intensity with which the aforementioned muscle groups are recruited to. 

Differences in Muscular Activation of Dips and Push-Ups

Because of the fact that the exerciser will essentially lift their entire bodyweight while performing dips - as opposed to only part of it with the push-up - the subsequent recruitment of the upper body’s musculature is far more intense.

In particular, dips will recruit the deltoids and triceps to a greater degree than push-ups, especially in an isometric capacity due to a lack of stability from the position in which dips are performed.

As such, dips are often considered to be more advanced than push-ups in terms of strength requirements, and are often used as either a progression after push-ups or otherwise as a primary compound movement within calisthenic training programs.

Dips or Push-Ups for Progressive Loading and Strength

Throughout most resistance training programs, the concept of progressive overload and strength development will often go hand-in-hand, as steadily keeping the body challenged is the surest way of continuing physical development from working out.

As such, when selecting exercises to perform for the long-term, it is best to go with the dip rather than the push-up. 

While there is some merit to push-ups being used for progressive overload through a steady increase in repetition volume, it is far more time-consuming and dangerous in terms of developing tendonitis. 

Instead, exercisers wishing to improve the flow of their progressive loading scheme will wish to utilize dips instead, which may be loaded with weight plates or other forms of additional resistance so as to maintain overloading of the muscles without excessive volume.

Equipment for Loading Dips and Push-Ups - a Comparison

One important factor to consider when planning for progressive overload is the manner in which it is achieved.

While it is technically possible to add additional weight to a push-up repetition, doing so is generally unsafe or otherwise inconvenient in the long term. This is not so much the case with dips, where an individual needs to simply clip on a belt or otherwise wrap weights around their torso through specialized fitness equipment.

As such, once again, it is dips that come out as the better choice for long-term strength and explosiveness development.

Dips or Push-Ups for Volume and Hypertrophy

Though both dips and push-ups may be performed at high levels of training volume, it is far more efficient to utilize push-ups simply due to the high amount of resistance encountered when performing a conventional or loaded dip repetition.

For athletes wishing to work on their upper-body muscular endurance, or individuals that are averse to performing high-resistance movements, it is far better to stick with push-ups. This is made possible by the shorter range of motion and lower amount of resistance involved in the latter exercise, equating to more volume being possible without excessive strain being placed on the body.

Athletic Carryover of Dips and Push-Ups

For athletes or individuals seeking improvement in the more functional side of fitness, deciding between push-ups or dips may be somewhat more difficult than simply selecting for volume or resistance, as both are met during athletic activities.

Depending on what sort of athletic activities you are planning to participate in, either exercise could be the correct choice, or even both if your physical development is already beyond the intermediate stage of training.

For endurance athletes or individuals planning to participate in a sport that requires greater upper-body muscular endurance, push-ups may be the better choice.

On the other hand, for individuals who require greater explosiveness and gross muscular strength, including dips in their athletic training program should lead to better performance within their sport.

Otherwise, for gymnasts or calisthenic athletes that encounter actual calisthenic exercise as a part of their sport, it is best to combine the two within a training program for the greatest specificity and carry-over to their chosen sport.

Injury Risk of Dips and Push-Ups

Though all exercises carry some level of injury risk when performed incorrectly, dips and push-ups do not share the same level of danger, as one is more likely to result in serious injury than the other.

In this case, push-ups are arguably safer than dips simply due to the fact that the body is strained to a lesser degree entirely. Dips require a completely stable and physically-sound upper body in order to perform properly, and any errors in form or physiological issues can easily result in injury.

Push-Up Injuries

Though push-ups are arguably very low impact, certain injuries of the shoulder joint or scapula are still possible with grossly incorrect form or excessive volume. While these injuries are generally avoidable with proper form adherence and programming, they can nonetheless still occur for particular careless exercisers.

In terms of actual risk of injury for exercisers who follow proper training methodology however, the chance is very slim.

Dips Injuries

Unlike push-ups, the relative risk of injury for dips is somewhat greater due to the position it places the exerciser in. 

While it is indeed true that any serious physiological injury can occur if the exerciser follows proper training methodologies, there is still a small risk that is arguably best substituted with push-ups for individuals of advanced age, those with a history of injury or exercisers without access to actual exercise equipment.

Combining Dips and Push-Ups

Rather than deciding on whether to only perform dips or push-ups, it is entirely possible to incorporate both exercises within the same training program, or even within the same workout.

To do so, the exerciser should choose to prioritize one exercise over the other, with the lower-priority movement being performed at a lower level of intensity so as to avoid excessive fatigue and overtraining taking place.

The majority of individuals will likely see better results from prioritizing dips due to the higher amount of resistance present, but athletes or those seeking muscular endurance related to the mechanics of the push-up can prioritize it instead.

In Conclusion

So - included dips for the intensity, or push-ups for the volume? Or have you decided to go with both for the greatest effectiveness possible?

Remember that your choice of upper body exercise is not solely constrained to the dip and the push-up - even if you have no access to a gym. Other movements like the bench triceps dip, TRX flyers and a number of others are all capable of creating much the same training stimuli if needed.

References

1. McKenzie, Alec, Zachary Crowley-McHattan, Rudi Meir, John Whitting, and Wynand Volschenk. 2022. "Bench, Bar, and Ring Dips: Do Kinematics and Muscle Activity Differ?" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 20: 13211. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph192013211

2. Borreani S, Calatayud J, Colado JC, Moya-Nájera D, Triplett NT, Martin F. Muscle activation during push-ups performed under stable and unstable conditions. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2015 Dec;13(2):94-98. doi: 10.1016/j.jesf.2015.07.002. Epub 2015 Sep 2. PMID: 29541105; PMCID: PMC5812863.

3. Tillaar RVD. Comparison of Kinematics and Muscle Activation between Push-up and Bench Press. Sports Med Int Open. 2019 Sep 5;3(3):E74-E81. doi: 10.1055/a-1001-2526. PMID: 31508485; PMCID: PMC6728153.

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.
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