While dips may not build muscle all over your body, they can be an effective exercise for building upper-body muscle. This is especially true of your triceps and the pectoral muscles of your chest. Although there is only one type of dip, a simple form variation changes which of the two muscles the exercise builds.
Dips have one basic requirement. You must be able to suspend some or all of your weight by using your hands. Normally, this requires a set of parallel bars, especially for chest dips, but one variation of triceps dips calls for a chair or two. No other equipment is required until you reach a point that your body weight alone doesn't provide enough of a workout. At this point, you will need a weight belt that allows you to increase resistance by hanging weight plates below your waist.
Tricep dips hit all three heads of your triceps muscles. Hitting the triceps hard requires lowering your body without leaning forward. This means your head and spine remain aligned and vertical throughout the movement. To start a triceps dip, you hold your body weight on the parallel bars with your hands. Then you slowly lower your body until your upper arm is parallel to the floor. Hold your position for a brief second, and then push your body back up to the starting position. Perform triceps dips using three sets of 10 reps to start, and increase the sets as you gain strength.
One simple change in your downward movement changes a triceps dip to a chest dip. Instead of keeping your head up and aligned with your spine, you lean your head and chest forward. Your body position for the rest of the exercise remains unchanged. You will feel the difference in your chest muscles immediately. This doesn't mean your triceps stop working; they will still be working during the exercise. Remember that you can add more weight if needed. Perform chest dips using three sets of 10 reps to start, and increase the sets as you gain strength.
Less Strenuous Version
You will need a chair to perform less strenuous dips. Sit in your chair. Put both hands on the front edge of the chair seat, and walk your feet forward until your back clears the forward edge of the seat. Lower your body and raise your body as if you were using parallel bars. This less-strenuous version works only as a replacement for triceps dips; it cannot be varied to work your pectoral muscles.
Upper-Body Muscles Worked
Dips may target the muscles either of your chest or your triceps, but they also work other muscles of your upper body. The anterior deltoids of your shoulders and the rhomboids, latissimus dorsi and teres major of your upper back assist your movement throughout the dip. Although these other muscles aren't targeted, their size will increase as you perform the exercise.
Lynda Schwartz is a fitness professional who began writing in 2004. She has contributed to "Women's Day" and "Good Housekeeping" magazines, as well as covered fitness and well-being for online publications. Schwartz holds a bachelor's degree in exercise science and health promotion.