There are many ways to train the fundamental movement pattern of the push. Both bodyweight training and weightlifting have been used successfully to create sculpted pecs, shoulders, and arms. But while different exercises may all work, which one will work best for you?
What muscles do these exercises target?
These movements all involve flexion of the shoulder, and extension of the elbow, all while keeping the torso and lower body strong for support. They all achieve moving resistance through this plane of motion in very different ways, however. Depending on your goals, there may be a preference of which will work for you.
How to choose which is best for you?
This article will pit dips vs push ups vs bench press in a battle of the push exercises. Whether you want to be the next bar star, powerlifting champ, or just flex your pecs in the mirror, we’ll explain each of these moves, their pros and cons, variations, as well as how to perform them.
What are dips?
Dips are a vertical push exercise, training the chest, shoulders, and triceps in the sagittal plane. Dips are performed by suspending the body using the arms, traditionally between a parallel bar. Variations of the dip will be discussed below.
Dips are unique from the other two exercises in this article in that although they involve the same joint movements – shoulder flexion and elbow extension – these are performed at a different range of motion, with the shoulder reaching hyperextension of 90 degrees or beyond.
This means that dips require more shoulder mobility than push ups or bench press. Shoulder pain commonly prohibits athletes from performing dips, and there are even cases of injury to the clavicle and upper ribs when dips are not performed with correct form and sufficient shoulder mobility.
Of these three exercises, dips will require the most triceps strength. This is because the angle of the push doesn’t allow the chest muscles to contribute as much to the lift.
One advantage of dips is that there are not many exercises that work in this range of motion, as most pushing movements occur in front of the body or overhead.
Dips also require a lot of coordination and strength, as in traditional dips, the feet are not anchored to the ground as they are in a push up; this makes dips a true open-chain upper body exercise.
There are many variations of the dip, from bench dips to assisted machine dips, to fully suspended body weight dips, and even weighted dips with a weight vest or plate belt.
As mentioned, dips put the shoulder through an excessive amount of extension, which can be a problem if your mobility isn’t up to scratch. Because all your weight is held up by your hands, dips may also be difficult for those with wrist issues.
Dips also are not as accessible as push ups, because they require at least a surface to sit on behind you.
How to do it:
If you are a beginner to dips, try bench dips. Here’s how to perform bench dips:
- Sit on a bench with your hands on either side of your hips.
- With the knees bent or legs straight, lift your hips off the bench, slightly in front of it.
- Keeping your butt close to the bench (you should feel your back brush against it as you descend), bend your elbows and lower your hips down.
- Keeping your elbows tucked, lower down as far as possible, then push through the triceps and straighten the arms to the top.
- Progress your bench dip in difficulty by going from bent knees to the straight leg version, even elevating your feet on a step for more challenge.
Next, you’re ready to progress to machine dips. To perform these:
- Set up with your knees on the pad and gripping the handles on either side. For chest dips, turn the handles out wider. To focus more on the triceps, keep them narrow.
- Keeping a straight line from your knees to your shoulders, bend your elbows as you lower yourself down.
- Feeling the stretch on your anterior deltoids, push your arms straight, squeezing the triceps at the top of the movement.
- This exercise can be progressed by lowering the counterbalance weight.
Finally, you can try full bodyweight bar dips on the parallel bars. To perform this move:
- Position yourself on the parallel bars with your arms fully extended. For a chest dip, lean slightly forward at the hips. To focus more on the triceps, stay upright.
- Pointing your toes and staying tight through the legs and core, lower yourself down to 90 degrees shoulder flexion, then drive up to the top.
- Once you are comfortable performing this movement, you can add weight to your workout with a vest or holding a weight between your legs.
What is the bench press?
The bench press is one of the most fundamental strength training exercises. This exercise involves a horizontal pressing movement of a barbell from the chest to a fully extended placement at the elbow.
The bench press is one of the three powerlifting exercises, alongside the barbell squat and the barbell deadlift. This exercise requires strength and coordination from many of the body’s anterior muscles, allowing you to not only work the chest, but other muscle groups of the upper body such as shoulders and triceps, serratus anterior, and the supporting muscle groups of the shoulder.
The bench press exercise has a significant advantage over both dips and push ups in the ability to progressively overload the muscles with weight. Of the three exercises, it is also the easiest push exercise to modify down to a lower difficulty level with lighter weights. While push ups and dips can be modified, at the end of the day you’re still working with your bodyweight.
While dips and push ups are put to use by most people as muscle endurance exercises, pumping out many reps, the bench press may be the best pure strength exercise of the three.
The bench press is a technical exercise and requires good technique to avoid injury. Studies have shown that the bench press is best used by training to failure, which can put you at risk if you’re lifting heavy with no one to spot you should you get stuck under the bar.
Obviously, the bench press requires more equipment than the other two moves in this article, so a disadvantage would be that you can’t perform a bench press anywhere, anytime like you can with, say, a push up.
How to do it:
There are two main ways to vary the barbell bench press, each having their own benefits. The first is by altering the angle of the bench, with exercises such as the incline or decline bench press; which can alter the activation of each head of the pectoralis major, the deltoids, and the triceps. The next is by modifying grip width on the bar, altering the distance from the shoulders to the bar.
To perform a standard, flat bench, barbell bench press:
- Position yourself with the back flat, and feet flat on the floor with the knees bent 90 degrees.
- Start holding the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width, with the bar over the mid-chest.
- Bend the elbows and lower the bar to the chest, keeping a 45-degree angle at the shoulder.
- Touch the bar to the chest, and push up to the starting position.
In addition to the aforementioned ways of varying the bench press, you can also use dumbbells, cables, or bands in place of a barbell; this allows you to work one side at a time, or just to recruit more of the stabilizing muscles of the upper limb to keep the weight stable throughout the movement.
What are push ups?
Push ups are one of the foundational bodyweight exercises. A whole-body exercise, push ups are pressing movement that targets the chest muscles, anterior deltoids, and triceps. Push ups are one of the few closed chain upper body exercises, and many people include them in their workout, for good reason. Push ups are used by everyone from school gym teachers to the armed forces as a measure of fitness. Chest shoulders and triceps are all challenged here, in addition to many other muscles.
Push ups have the advantage over dips and other push exercises in that they require no equipment. Also, when comparing dips vs push ups, push ups are easier to modify for beginners than dips.
Push ups can also activate other muscle groups such as the abdominals and the latissimus dorsi, particularly when the feet are elevated.
A lot of people struggle to perform push ups. It’s one of those exercises that require the whole body to work together, and a weakness in any part of the body can make push ups quite difficult. That being said, there are many easier variations that can help you build up to doing your first push ups.
There are many ways to progress push ups to make them more difficult, but they still don’t have the same capacity to lift heavy as something like the bench press.
How to do it:
Push ups have many variations, from a beginner wall push up, to knee push ups, all the way to diamond push ups or advanced plyometric clap push ups. We’ll describe the steps to the standard push up here.
To perform the standard push up:
- Start in a straight arm plank position with the feet together.
- Keeping the body straight from the head to the heels, bend your elbows and lower your torso until your chest muscles touch the floor – or come close.
- Squeeze your chest and triceps muscles as you press back up to the starting position.
- Perform as many reps as possible before losing good form.
- Note: A good transition exercise from the push up to the dip is diamond push ups. Diamond push ups are a standard push up with the hands close together, which helps target the triceps significantly more than standard push ups.
If a standard push up is too difficult, try either performing them from the knees – still with a straight back from your head to your knees – or the standard position but with your hands elevated on a box or a step.
Push ups challenges are all the rage on the internet these days, whether it’s 100 push ups a day for 30 days, or starting with 10 push ups and adding another 10 push ups every day until failure. Head online to see some of the awesome results people are getting by using these challenges to get motivated.
We hope this comparison of dips vs push ups vs bench press has helped explain some of the main differences between these push exercises, and that the upper body workout portion of your training routine can include any combination of the three. There’s no one right way to do it, so use these tips to experiment with the right combination of exercises for you!
Frequently Asked Questions
Are dips better than push ups?
When choosing between dips vs push ups, it depends on your goals. Push ups and dips are both valuable bodyweight exercises, working the same major muscles, however, they’re done from fundamentally different positions and place different forces through the joints. Personally, I would use both push ups and dips as part of a well-rounded push program, as both target the muscles in a different way.
Are dips better than bench press?
Again, choosing between dips vs bench press depends on your goals. For people who want to train calisthenics at outdoor parks, dips are going to be your go-to. If you’re a guy or gal who wants to get as strong as possible and lift heavy, the bench might give you the pecs you’re after. The author still recommends both for well-balanced muscles. A note is that dips can be a great accessory exercise for bench press when you find that you have a sticking point, struggling to lock out your elbows at the top of the lift.
Are push ups better than bench press?
To put a different spin on this answer, both push ups and bench are better in some aspects, like strengthening your core, increasing endurance, and using your body as the resistance. Both moves perform the same primary muscles in the pushing movement pattern, however, the body position is reversed.
But if the point is to lift heavy, again, the bench will come out on top. There are some pretty strong calisthenics athletes and gymnasts out there who may disagree, though!
Are dips easier than bench?
In terms of learning the technique, both moves are easy to learn but difficult to master. Both dips and bench press can be dangerous if performed incorrectly. If it was my client, I would teach them the bench press first as we’ll be able to use a nice light starting weight to warm up the pecs and train the movement pattern before progressing. Even in the easiest version of a bench dip, the dip still requires strong wrists and mobility in the shoulders that many beginners may not yet possess. Between the dip and the bench press, the bench press would be my starting point.