If you want to impress this summer, get yoked!
When it comes to statement-making physiques, big arms and razor-sharp abs have their place in the minds of the general public, but nothing screams “power” like a set of thick, broad shoulders and a tree trunk neck.
This collection of muscles and joints, known informally as ‘the yoke’ runs from the triceps up to the deltoids, through the traps and upper pecs and culminates in the many sinewy muscles of the neck.
There is no faking a yoke – you either have one, or you wish you did. Lots of people will train parts of the whole whilst leaving other areas undeveloped. This leads to an overall mismatched and incomplete physique which doesn’t have the impact of a fully developed, loaded yoke.
In this article, we’ll look at the best exercises you have at your disposal to create a yoke that demands respect. I’ll take it step by step – from the “back arms” to the neck and give you some ideas how to implement them best in your training plan.
Traditionally, the yoke is accepted to be the shoulders and upper chest only, but I disagree. A mountain range starts at the foothills, and a yoke starts in the triceps. It may well be impossible to have big shoulders and small triceps, but let’s not leave it to chance.
If we are looking to increase the sheer size of the triceps, then there are some key movements that we must incorporate. The number one movement, if mass is our target, has to be weighted dips. The weighted dip has the advantage over the bodyweight variety of being loadable. Chances are that once you get the technique correct, you can bang out easy sets of 10/12 bodyweight dips.
However, to really focus on stimulating muscle mass we must ensure that we are working in the 5-8 range regularly. To this end, weighted dips are just about the best upper bodyweight exercise there is.
I would recommend doing 3 sets of 5-8 once a week. Some are lucky enough that they could do weighted dips twice a week and feel no ill effect. For others, weighted dips are problematic and cause undue stress on the shoulders. If you are taking your mobility and stretching seriously and this is still the case, then perhaps the weighted dip is not for you.
In this scenario, I would highly recommend close grip bench presses instead, again in the 5-8 rep range, with a challenging weight. By “close grip” we mean generally no further apart than if you were to put your arms straight out in front of you.
Biceps, sadly, are not part of the yoke so won’t be covered here. Needless to say, if you are increasing the size of your triceps then you will need to increase biceps too, for your own sense of balance. And because big biceps are cool.
Moving further up the chain, your triceps should be met at the top by great, peaked deltoids which give the impression of overhanging your arms like boulders on a cliff.
For the overall yoking effect, we must focus on our front deltoids but please remember that the deltoids have three heads, all of which must be stimulated regularly and with extreme prejudice if you don’t wish to disappear when you turn sideways.
It’s hard to look past lateral raises here, either cable or free weight variety. Done at high reps and with good form, these really can sculpt that pleasingly round shape at the tops of your arms. However, this should be paired with a strength-based movement for 5-8 reps again, for example strict press or dumbbell presses to ensure that you are adding extra beef to your shoulders which the lateral raises can help to perfect.
Traps and upper back
The most visible and iconic part of the well-developed yoke is the upper back and traps. One of the best exercises I know for developing this is the Kirk Shrug. Pioneered by powerlifting legend “Captain Kirk” Karwoski, this is a shrug variant which will challenge your ego but explode your traps.
Start with a weight around 25% of what you usually shrug, use a double overhand false grip and shrug the barbell up to the top of the movement without using your arms. At the top of the movement, hold for a second and then release. Allow the weight to drop back down but resist it as much as you can; slower the better. This is one rep.
Add 3 sets of 10 Kirk Shrugs into your routine and watch your traps blow up in a very short space of time. I have introduced this lift to lots of people and never heard a bad review yet. Kirk shrugs work. Period.
At the top of our tree, we have the neck. It is impossible to fake a big neck, and one of the calling cards of the dedicated lifter is his inability to do up the top button on a work shirt. There are lots of methods of directly training the neck, some of which have long fallen out of fashion such as neck bridges and neck harnesses.
Opinion is split on direct neck training: some find it scary and think it’s dangerous, others strongly advocate it. Personally, I get all the neck training I need from shrugs, press and deadlifts but I have had success previously from doing plate raises – but with the neck.
Lie on a bench, but a bit further along than usual so your head would flop over the end if you didn’t support it. This is exactly what we’re aiming for. Get a small weight plate and wrap it in a towel. Place it on your forehead and extend the neck all the way back – be slow here and start light. Please!
At the bottom of the movement your chin should be pointing towards the ceiling, slowly reverse so your chin ends up being tucked into your chest. This is one rep. 3 sets of 8-10 should be more than enough here.
Why you should be powerbuilding in 2022
It is perfectly natural to want the best of both worlds. Who wouldn’t want to be both rich and happy? What about intelligent and good looking? And, as lifters, who would be against looking strong as well as being strong?
For all your lofty strength ambitions and the necessity of bulking-related modesty (I see you, training in a hoody and sweatpants in December!) it’s fair to say nobody gets into lifting weights to look worse.
And yet, too often we see those chasing truly big numbers who abandon all hope of looking good and accept that their fate is to waddle around, with gut extending over their belt and all their hard-earned muscle hidden under a layer of blubber.
Similarly, we also see ripped, lean bodybuilders who can get out-benched by a high school footballer and couldn’t hit a parallel squat if their protein shake depended on it.
Enter powerbuilding. As you can probably guess from the name, powerbuilding is a hybrid of bodybuilding ethos with a powerlifting base. Or, to put it more simply: be strong, look muscular.
Sounds good? Read on.
Getting yoked: Master the basics
All of the above won’t mean a thing in the world if you are not regularly benching, deadlifting and pressing challenging weights and making consistent progress in these lifts. There is a certain thickness that can only come with training for a number of years with consistency and dedication, ensuring that you are eating and sleeping enough.
If it sounds boring, it shouldn’t. This is where all progress in the gym stems from; consistency, hard-work and repetition.
With summer just around the corner, chances are you are thinking about the physique you wish to present to the world. Most guys around the pool will be doughy and overweight. Some will be strutting their abs or their pecs. When someone who is genuinely yoked arrives, a hush descends and they command respect instantly.
Good luck in becoming that guy. Get yoked for summer.
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