Dips are a funny exercise. They can be both the best and worst exercise for your shoulders. This is because they require a high level of flexibility and control through the shoulder girdle. This is something that most people lack, hence why dips have gotten such a bad rap. Combine this with most people going far too heavy and using crappy form, and you have a recipe for disaster.
I've had long term shoulder issues ever since a rugby tackle gone wrong when I was 15. Throughout the years, I'd managed to slowly regain the ability to do most upper body exercises without pain. However the pain free dip continued to elude me. What follows is what I did to be able to do full range bodyweight dips with zero pain, and most recently a personal best of a 20kg weighted dip for 7 reps.
I can't guarantee this will work for everyone, but I'd be pretty damn surprised if it doesn't given how jacked up my shoulder used to be.
These are more important than any of the nitty gritty programming details I'm about to lay out for you. Stick to them and your shoulder will be fine. Break them and the circle of pain will continue.
1. Every rep must be full range of motion with a full pause at the bottom
2. If you feel any pain in your shoulder, you must stop and increase the band thickness. If pain still persists, end the session/do a different exercise.
As a coach, I had recently begun using bands to help people get their first bodyweight dip. If you're not familiar with this, you just drape a band across the bars and put your knees on top to take some of your bodyweight.
I noticed that when I would demo these to clients, I would have little or no pain. An idea sparked in my brain - my dip pain was seemingly load related. What if I scaled the load back to the point where I had zero pain, and just tried to progress from there?
So that's exactly what I did. I started with a thick resistance band (I think it was a green). I also made a promise to myself that if I felt any pain in my shoulder I would increase the band resistance. You could probably use a dip assistance machine for this too, however the bands are better in my opinion because they provide the most assistance in the bottom, where most people will experience pain.
I began doing banded dips twice per week as my pushing assistance exercise and did not decrease the band thickness until I could do 20 perfectly controlled reps with a full pause at the bottom. This was a big hit to my ego because I already had the ability to do about 10 regular dips.
The pause is critical, as well as actively pulling your shoulder blades together at the bottom. This will build stability in the shoulder.
Dropping from one band to the next can be a lot, so sometimes you are best off just loosening the stretch on your current band before swithcing to a thinner one.
Gradually I made my way down the band thicknesses until eventually I did the thinnest band for 20 solid reps with no pain.On my first full bodyweight set I got about 7 reps, and most important with no pain.
PROGRESSING TO WEIGHTED
This is where you need to be very careful. It's easy to get carried away with your new-found dip superpowers and start doing too much too soon.
Get it straight in your head from the beginning that you must earn the right to do weighted dips, just like you had to earn the right to do pain-free bodyweight dips.
I strongly suggest erring on the side of caution here. One bad weighted rep could inflame your shoulder and send you back to banded dips again. I personally waited until I could do 15 strict bodyweight dips before I added any weight. However, I think it would actually be better to wait until you can do 20. You are always better off being conservative when it comes to the dip. If my shoulder starts feeling funky, I won't hesitate to cut my dips a set short and just do some dumbbell bench instead.
Once I could start weighting them up, I began a light-heavy 2 day split for my dips. Monday was my light day where I would do bodyweight for 8 - 15 reps. Friday was my heavy day where I would do weighted for 6 - 12 reps. When I could exceed 12 reps on this day, I'd go up in weight. Recently I hit a plateau of sorts (which I think had more to do with my bodyweight going up) so I took out the weighted day and replaced it with heavy dumbbell bench, while keeping the one day of bodyweight dips.
Finding the best way to to structure the week for dips will take some further experimentation, though I sense that less is more, as I find dips to be a fairly taxing exercise that require about 3 days for recovery.
I strongly believe that if I could pull this off, so can most people. It's just a matter of fining your pain-free starting point with the band, and progressing as slowly as you have to from there.
I can say that performing dips in your routine is 100% worth it. Not only will it enhance your shoulder health, but they are a tremendous exercise for building size in the pecs and triceps especially.