My objective is, and has always been, to identify the BEST exercises for Physique Development. “Best” being defined as the most productive, the most efficient (cost / benefit), and the safest (without compromising effectiveness). For example, if five Pectoral exercises were rated (on a scale of 1 to 10) as follows: 3, 5, 7, 9 and 10 – I don’t see any reason to bother with the 3, 5 and 7. It makes more sense to stick with the exercises that rate 9 and 10. If we were to treat exercise like investments, we would not bother investing $100 on products that paid back $30, $50 and $70 – when there are other products that guarantee paybacks of $90 and $100. This is just common sense.
There are specific bio-mechanical components that determine which exercises rate higher than other exercises for any target muscle. These include: range of motion, alignment, early phase loading, how active the operating lever is (relative to the direction of resistance), whether the target muscle is positioned directly opposite resistance (opposite position loading), and whether the operating lever of the target muscle is moving directly TOWARD the muscle origin. Sometimes an exercise will be in compliance with most of the components, but then will be drastically out of compliance with one or two components. For example, one of the rules is that the direction of resistance should always be opposite the direction of movement. If you’re performing Biceps curls, you’re pulling UP and the direction of resistance is pulling DOWN.
In assessing a Torso Rotation with a medicine ball, it doesn’t matter that the movement is aligned with the origin and insertion of the target muscle (the obliques and the transverse abdominis), and that one is using full range of motion. The resistance is vertical, and the movement is horizontal – which could not be more WRONG. When we rotate our torso to the left, resistance (from a cable, for example) SHOULD be pulling from the right – parallel with our movement, and directly opposite our movement. Otherwise, our movement is not being challenged.
The principle point of non-compliance (concerning Parallel Bar Dips) was that the forearm (as the operating lever of the Triceps) is mostly neutral (parallel with resistance, instead of perpendicular with resistance – which would make it “active”) during the entire exercise. This meant that the Triceps would only get about 10% – 11% of the load, rather than 100% of the load. Supine Dumbbell Triceps Extensions DO provide a perpendicular forearm during the range of motion. We discover that a 180 pound man doing Parallel Bar Dips will only load each of his Triceps with about 119 pounds of resistance. The man doing the Supine Dumbbell Triceps Extensions will load each of this Triceps with 240 pounds of resistance – simply by using 20 pounds in each hand.
It’s not that Parallel Bar Dips do not work the Triceps; it’s just a very inefficient way of doing it – on a cost / benefit basis. You pay more, but get less. You work harder, and get less load on the target muscle (because so much of it going to the Anterior Deltoids, in this case).
As a Pectoral exercise, the main problem with Parallel Bar Dips is the inability to move the operating levers (the humerus) directly away from, and then directly toward, the Pectoral origins. As with most exercises, muscle elongation and muscle contraction relies on a person’s ability to move the operating lever of a target muscle, away from and toward, the muscle’s origin. Most of the Pectoral origins are on the Sternum; the Pectoral insertion is on the humerus, of course.
Performing a Supine Dumbbell Press is one of the better movements for the Pectorals, because it allows the humerus to move laterally – directly away from the Sternum, and then directly toward the Sternum – during the eccentric and concentric parts of the range of motion. About 10% of the Pectoral fibers originate on the Clavicle (the “clavicular” fibers), and another 10% originate on the 6th and 7th ribs (the “costal” fibers).
The rule in bio-mechanics requires that we move the operating lever toward the muscle fibers we choose to target. One could argue that Parallel Bar Dips are meant to target the Costal fibers, since our arms are moving in that general direction. Yet, the Costal fibers are not parallel with the torso. They are diagonal with the torso. Therefore, the movement that best targets them would also be a diagonal movement – moving the humerus outward (laterally and upward) and then inwardly and downward. This would be the ideal movement for those fibers. And the direction of resistance should also be diagonal – directly opposite the direction of movement.
Parallel Bar Dips compromise one’s ability to move the humerus in that direction, because the Dipping Bars are fixed in one position. In a somewhat futile attempt to bypass this problem, people often try to “aim” their elbows out upon descending into the Parallel Bar Dips. The problem with this is that it causes the forearm to break from the “neutral” position, thereby shifting some of the Pectoral load onto the Triceps. This creates the first compromise – the reduction of load to the Pecs.
Another problem is that the fixed position of the Dipping Bars also prevents full contraction of the Pectorals. All other Pectoral exercises end with the hands / arms in front of the torso. None of them end with the hands / arms alongside the torso. An additional issue is that despite our best efforts to “aim” our elbows outward upon descent, the angle of our torso is too vertical. This forces our elbow to go backward, to some degree, engaging the Anterior Deltoids, to a large degree. They are much smaller than are the Pectorals. So, they end up getting more actual load, than do the Pectorals.
It would be nice if we could cause the Dipping Bars to move outward, upon our descent, and then inward, upon our ascent. This would help us move our humerus out laterally and upward, and then inwardly and down – more fully. However, then we’d run into the problem of our legs getting in the way. How could the Dipping Bars be brought all the way in, without hitting (and being stopped by) our thighs?
It would also be nice if we could somehow angle our torso forward about 15 degrees more – but the weight of our legs (pulling our body vertical) prevents that. Another nice thing would be if we had more options for resistance, during Dips. Ideally, it would be good if we could select a weight that is light enough for us to do 30 or 40 reps, slowly, with good, as a warm-up. Then, it would be nice if we could add 10 or 20 pounds at a time, set by set, until the weight is heavy enough to only allow 6 or 8 reps, with good form. Lastly, it would be nice if the direction of resistance was diagonal – not vertical.
About the Author
Doug Brignole is a veteran competitive bodybuilder, currently in his 38th year of competition, still competing at age 55. Having started at the age of 16, and winning numerous teenage competitions in addition to the Overall Mr. California, and his weight division in Mr. America and Mr. Universe. He has been an enthusiastic student of biomechanics for many years, writes for a number of websites and magazines, and is now working on his second book. He has been certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.