When I started lifting weights regularly, it didn't take long for the lower-body work to show up in my thighs and butt. My dedication to squats, deadlifts, and lunges was visibly paying off after a couple of months, but I couldn't really say the same for my upper body. No matter how many dumbbell exercises I did, I couldn't get my arms to shape up in the way I wanted them to. I did shed some stubborn fat around my upper arms and gained a little bit of muscle, but the progress my triceps were making didn't at all match the progress my thighs were making.
I finally realized I was making the mistake of only doing dumbbell isolation exercises, such as biceps curls. I decided to switch over to doing compound exercises, like military press and bench press, both with a barbell, and that's when I saw definition show up in my arms and shoulders that was never there before.
But there's one exercise in particular that has completely changed my upper body: chest dips. This compound movement is a tough one, and it requires a lot of practice if you want to be able to do it unassisted. It's totally worth it, though! Here's what it looks like. (Excuse my facial expressions, but this movement is damn hard!)
The goal is to lower down until your arms are at a 90 degree angle and then push yourself back up. You want to feel your triceps engage, but avoid locking out your elbows when you push up. Easier said than done. Chest dips work multiple muscle groups at once, so you'll feel it in a lot of places: chest, front of shoulders, triceps, lats, and trapezius, which is your upper back. That's a lot of bang for your buck. It's no wonder that I saw great results from this exercise; working that many muscles in one movement sped up my gains big time.
When I first started doing chest dips, I had to use an assisted dip machine because I didn't have enough strength to lift up my own body weight. These machines add weight under your feet so that you have something pushing you back up, which makes it much easier. I began working on dips using 140 pounds of assistance, which is more than my body weight. However, it only took me three months to gradually work my way up to doing them unassisted — and I was only doing the move once a week.
A couple of weeks ago, I looked in the mirror and noticed the line of my triceps for the first time. The front of my shoulders have really shaped up as well, and I can see more definition in my chest area. More importantly, words can't express how excited I was when I finally nailed my first unassisted chest dip. The fact that I can lift up my own body weight makes me feel so strong and powerful, especially when I see myself doing multiple reps next to a big, muscular dude doing the same exercise.
If you want to try chest dips yourself, don't feel bad about using an assisted machine. This will allow you to build up the necessary strength. If your gym doesn't have one of these machines, you can do negative chest dips. That means you would start at the top of the movement (when your arms are straight) and lower yourself down really slowly (as in 6-10 full seconds) until you hit 90 degrees with your arms. Then you can put your feet on the footplate below you and push yourself back up to straight arms, then repeat. Start by doing three sets of six to eight reps to start until you can build up to 10-12 reps. Over time, you'll strengthen your muscles to where you can eventually lift yourself back up without having to use the footplate beneath you.