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How to Improve Dip Range of Motion?


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So: when doing dips, my ROM (range of motion) has always sucked. It’s been this way all throughout my training in dips: I’ve done them both on P-bars and on rings, and I’ve always had this problem. When I test my shoulder hyperextension (arms behind my back), it’s not great. I stretch after my workouts, but not daily.

I know that in order to get more ROM out of my dips, any extra flexibility needs to be a useful ROM for my muscles – that is, I need to be able to apply force in that ROM.

I think that means I need both stretching and some light exercises. However, I don’t know what exercises to do. Does anyone have a method that helped them with a similar shoulder problem?

Cowardly Assassin
Training Log | Challenges: Current8th, 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st

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Hi Paul,


I'm going to start this answer from the basics, some of which you probably already know, but I'll include just in case (and for completeness).


Shoulder ROM consists of 2 equally important components

(1) Gleno-humeral joint motion

(2) Scapulo-thoracic "joint" motion


The gleno-humeral joint is a ball (humeral head) in a shallow socket (glenoid fossa of the scapula). It works similarly to how you would expect any ball and socket joint would. The scapulo-thoracic "joint" assists in shoulder ROM by pointing the socket in different directions (and also translational movements). You seem to be very aware of scapular retraction/protraction, elevation/depression. But also very important to shoulder movement is scapular rotation (upwards and downwards).


The gleno-humeral is a true joint (to be specific a synovial joint). It has a joint capsule, it has synovial fluid ("the lubricating oil"), it has ligaments, etc. The scapulo-thoracic "joint" is not a joint in the anatomical sense. Your scapula simply glides superficial to your ribcage/thorax (and its respective muscles).


Barring posterior capsular stretches, and a number of unlikely (for you) conditions, you probably don't want to work on increasing your gleno-humeral ROM. For any joint in your body there is a trade off between flexibility/ROM and stability. More flexible people with lax ligaments have a higher rate of shoulder dislocation. So there is a point where more flexibility can be considered a bad thing. The average person's gleno-humeral joint, when compared to the other synovial joints of the body, sits very far on the flexible and potentially unstable side of the spectrum (also the reason why the shoulder is one of the most commonly dislocated joints).


Now I know a lot of people here make a big deal about the distinction between mobility and flexibility. You state that you would like to increase your ROM, but also ensure that you are able to apply force in that ROM. Let me give you an example of how you could fail that goal, then an example of how you could succeed in that goal. 


(Potential fail example) If you stretched the capsule and ligaments of your gleno-humeral joint, but the muscles that power the joint remain unchanged - you would increase the passive range of motion (PROM) of the joint but not necessarily have improved active range of motion (AROM). If your muscles still had good force to provide at its excursion at the extreme of motion, then you improved the PROM, you would also improve the AROM. But if the force provided at its extreme excursion was small to begin with, then you improved the PROM, you would get your 'flexibility but not mobility' that you worry about.


(Success example) You can not possibly have that problem if you work at increasing your scapulothoracic mobility. There is no joint to begin with. Your scapula is attached to the surrounding structures by 17 different muscles which point out in pretty much every direction. Your scapulothoracic ROM is limited by the length and tightness of those muscles. If you stretch and work at lengthening and strengthening those muscles, any range of motion increase you achieve will have useful force behind it.


But how to specifically help you?

Well this is the annoying part. If I could meet you in person, I could examine you, watch your scapulothoracic rhythm during your total shoulder ROM, figure out which muscles require stretching or release and work from there. On the internet, I just have to guess.


I think I can make an educated guess though, based on what exercises you post in your log, my experiences with those exercises, and also based on anatomy and the fact we have great difficulty reaching certain muscles to massage/myofascial release them. I think based on your vertical pull (pull up), horizontal pull (row), and vertical push (HSPU) progressions you are probably quite tight in the follow muscles which attach to your scapula:


Trapezius (probably upper middle and lower components to be honest)

Rhomboids (major and minor - 2 muscles but very similar actions)

Levator scapulae

Latissimus dorsi - in a specific location (if you are one of the people where you lats have a fibrous attachment to the inferior angle of the scapula)


You say you stretch after every workout? Do you stretch and release those muscles specifically?


Here is how I would release each of those muscles:


Rhomboids. Middle and Lower traps: Lacrosse ball or whatever ball equivalent. Lie on the ground and grind that ball into all the 'tight' spots. Poor man's version - find the corner of a wall and rub your back against it like a bear, finding all the tight spots. A foam roller is usually too big (for me) to correctly target the rhomboids.


Latissimus dorsi - I'm sure you stretch your lats. It almost like a reflex for me for pull up type exercises. However there is one specific area that you want to be targeting specifically for its ability to limit scapulothoracic motion. At the point of your scapula which is the closest towards your toes (called the inferior angle), your lats usually have some amount of fibrous attachment at that point. If you get a foam roller, and do your standard back roll, but lie slightly obliquely so that it is line with your scapula and not your spinal column, you will release the correct portion of your lats.


Levator scapulae and Upper traps: Here is an article by Jim Bathurst (of Beast Skills fame) on releasing your levator scapulae. He says it is specific for levator scap, but it will hit the upper traps as well. Essentially it is the same as a lacrosse ball with you lying on the floor. But instead of just being able to apply pressure backwards, you can apply it backwards and upwards by fixing the ball from translating.


Anyway just ending with a disclaimer - many assumptions (some possibly incorrect) are made in this post, but such is the fate of any "internet consult".

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So yeah, in order to see if any of the above post helps, I would try:


Doing a ring dip negative and then sitting in the bottom ROM (which I presume is what you are worried about).


Then do the releases above.


Then try the ring dip negative again - and see if there is any difference.


If you really wanted to, you could do the releases separately, then try a dip after each release to see which (if any) was the most important component.


Hope some of that helps. Let me know how you go :)

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