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I want to be able to train dips, with a goal of moving to ring dips, then muscle ups. My problem is that when I do regular dips, or machine assist dips, I get a high, consistsent level of shoulder pain. I think the mechanism of the injury is that my shoulders rotate internally slightly, possibly because I'm trying to recruit the wrong muscles in the movement, and I get a lot of pain in my rotator cuff.

I think its also notable that, while most people describe dips as a tricep exercise, I only feel the strain in my chest muscles. I've tried to do dips on a dip assist machine, but I have the same shoulder problems regardless of the amount of assistance I use (my theory is that the dip assist machine may be forcing me into an unnatural posture, which encourages bad technique). When I try to do dips purely as a tricep exercise (by holding my upper arms in a fixed angle relative to my upper body, and rocking forward), my triceps aren't nearly strong enough to handle the exercise.

My shoulders tend to be fairly prone to rotator cuff problems. Any exercise that's usually considered "bad for shoulders" is definitely bad for mine. Has anyone out there experienced anything similar? Has anyone worked through it?

My question is:

  • do I have a specific combination of bad dip technique and muscle weakness that needs to be addressed, and once it is, I'll be able to dip safely OR
  • should someone who's prone to rotator cuff problems just stay away from dips entirely, and stick to benchpresses, and standing presses (neither of which cause me any shoulder pain)

I'm 6'4", 181 lbs. I can bench a pair of 60lbs dumbbells for 3 sets of 8, and lateral dumbbell raises with 15lbs, but other than that, haven't historically done much pressing

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If possible, a video would be great (or a form check from someone local); perhaps the bars are too narrow for your frame? In any case, I'd lay off the machines. – VPeric Aug 30 '12 at 17:06
Im traveling right now, might be a little while before I can, but that's the right question, thanks. – DavidR Sep 3 '12 at 13:37
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I also have had varying levels of rotator cuff pain over the years. Most of the time for me its been from bad technique on bar bell bench press, or dumbbell shoulder/bench press movements. There are many ways you can isolate and train (very carefully!) these muscles. I have always found a pain free shoulder strengthening exercise to be the seated barbell military press. I don't really like the smith machine version but that can be a way to start and learn the movement. Give it a try and see if it works for you. I've built up the strength in my shoulders substantially doing seated military press and rotator cuff pain has diminished and largely disappeared.

I've also used this method sporadically throughout the years. I must admit I've been a bit lazy with it though but see how you go with it. Its the one generally recommended by most personal trainers whenever you mention rotator cuffs.

More to your question on dips, they can be a bit tricky as muscles utilised can change (as you've identified) depending on your posture during the movement. If you want to strengthen your triceps for dips, I would recommend replicating a similar (but more controlled movement) in the rope pushdown.

Hope that helps.

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Thanks, that's good advice. I recently started doing military presses ala Mark Rippetoe, and I agree with you, they're about the best thing I've done for my shoulders in a while. I might follow your advice and just do tricep cable extensions, I would build up the relevant muscles and work around the injury... Maybe doing those 2 exercises for 6 months or so will get me strong enough to attempt dips again safely. Thanks! – DavidR Sep 3 '12 at 13:41
Nice. The only other thing I'd add is triceps (like biceps) respond to volume. So do 5-10 (yes TEN) sets on the cable extensions with no more than 2 minutes rest until your triceps feel like they are going to fall off. – Mike S Sep 3 '12 at 23:09
@DavidR if you are happy with my answer - please accept :) – Mike S Sep 4 '12 at 23:23
Accepted. Sometimes just changing up your workouts and doing alternate exercises is the smart answer. – DavidR Sep 5 '12 at 15:38
@DavidR agreed. – Mike S Sep 5 '12 at 23:15

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