More than any other muscle the trapezius is symbolic of great strength and power. There is a reason for this. Really big traps are not built without lifting heavy loads. They’re built by performing heavy multi-joint movements such as cleans and deadlifts, not by just pissing around with pansy weights for high repetitions. Building a big yoke is hard, and for many trainees the goal of building one remains elusive and permanently out of reach, primarily due to an unwillingness to program and undertake heavy workouts.
What is meant by the yoke?
The yoke is basically comprised of the neck, trapezius and rear deltoids. By far the biggest constituent of the yoke are the trapezius muscles which are logically the most targeted. The development of the neck and rear deltoids however is also important, and therefore should not be neglected.
So why is building a big yoke important?
With regard to looking powerful – forget big arms, big legs or even a big chest- posessing a big yoke is king. Additionally, whilst their development is admittedly desirable, the aforementioned body parts all have at least some negative connotations associated with their development, especially if they are displayed and shown off in everyday clothes. For example, big arms can if displayed in isolation make you appear excessively vain and narcisstic whilst big legs will more often than not generally go unnoticed.
More than any other factor the yoke is the likely basis on which you will be judged.
A well developed yoke cannot be hidden even when it’s owner is fully clothed. A big neck and big traps hint at the primordial ability to unleash great power. A massive yoke tells a story of tons of hard work, great strength, struggle, mental toughness and resilience. The posessor of a big yoke usually commands respect.
7 rules for building a big yoke
1. Heavy compound movements
This is the key component for building a big yoke. You cannot build a thick, impressive yoke by handling pansy weights. Ancilliary work with higher repetitions is helpful but your training needs to primarily revolve around heavy compound movements such as squats, bench presses, presses and most importantly deadlifts. This is not something that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before, but often needs to be re-iterated because people frequently don’t seem to get it.
I recently gave some well-meaning advice, to some young lads working on machines at the local gym who asked me the best training methods to get big and strong. I advised them on the importance of building a foundation by doing a number of basic, multi-joint, free weight exercises and they thanked me for my advise. When I saw them in the gym again they were still pissing around on machines.
2. Heavy deadlifts
There is very little the deadlift doesn’t train. There is a myth especially among some of the “old school” bodybuilding fraternity, that it is a dangerous exercise which only develops the spinal erectors. These individuals go on to say that it should only therefore be performed by powerlifters. Provided that the exercise is performed with correct form this is completely untrue.
With regard to engaging the traps when deadlifting, isometric contraction is required to maintain back tightness during the movement, and the upper traps are involved in keeping your chest up and also in completing the lockout.
Deadlifts done heavy are brutally hard, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Additionally and more importantly, deadlifts build big traps and great overall body strength. They are tremendously effective at doing this, and so they should be a staple part of your workout. Therefore you need to pull, and pull heavy.
3. Hang Cleans/Snatches
The clean is one of the most effective movements for building the traps, comprehensively. The yoke development of any big competitive weightlifter attests to their effectiveness.
The full versions of these olympic lifts however require a level of technical competence, which is off-putting to some trainees. We can however, circumvent some of the technical issues by employing the hang versions of these movements. Additionally, most people will utilise more of their upper body when doing hang cleans or hang snatches. I recommend doing these once a week, as training guru and former powerlifter Jim Wendler advocates, for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. If you need to use straps on any of these movements then use them as we are not training grip.
4. Neck training
The neck receives indirect stimulation from other upper body compound moves, but will benefit most from additional direct work. It is unlikely you will have a pencil thin neck if you are employing heavy compound movements in your workouts. The blood supply to the neck is excellent, and it responds well to exercise.
There are various exercises that can be utilised for neck development, but some need to be applied with caution – neck bridges being a prime example.
Going too heavy with neck work can be unwise, as the neck is easily injured. Never try to max out when working the neck.
With regard to training the neck, you are probably better off using the neck harness, or the neck machine if your gym has one. I would also advise employing higher reps preferably in the ten plus range. Jim Wendler the inventor of the 5:3:1 system advocates neck work after each workout, with the neck harness, and the four way neck machine.
Rack Pull Shrug
You will need to employ the power rack for this one. Set the safety pins at or close to knee level, and load the bar with approximately 120% of your deadlift 1RM. Utilising a normal deadlift stance proceed to pull the bar up to lockout, then shrug the weight in one single movement. This will engage the traps isometrically during the pull, and concentrically during the shrug. I can attest that this puts more slabs of meat on the upper back than virtually any other exercise.
Barbell shrugs train primarily the upper portion of the trapezius which is the portion above the shoulders. This is the visible portion of the yoke that you wish to develop.
Proceed to load the bar with around 75% of your deadlift 1RM, shrug your shoulders straight up to your ears. Perform sets of 10-20 reps. As with all movements the key to doing shrugs is to maintain proper form.
6. Snatch-Grip High Pulls
If snatches from hang still present a problem then these are a great substitute and equally effective.
Some advocate the upright row as an alternative and I’ve included that exercise in this list, However I believe that the explosive nature of the lift, muscle recruitment and ability to load it heavier makes the high pull a more effective movement than the upright row. Additionally the upright row is notorious for causing shoulder injury.
7. Upright Rows
I have left these until last. Like many others I never was an advocate of these, mainly because of their injury potential. However if performed for higher reps (10 – 15) utilising good form these can usually be done safely and will assist in building a big yoke.
Evidently any exercise that stimulates the muscles of the yoke should potentially assist its development and there are many that fulfill this criteria. However your core work should revolve around the movements highlighted in this article.
Essentially, big compound moves trained heavy over time are required for building a big yoke. An impressive yoke has to be earned, and will certainly not happen overnight. You will need to become strong in order to develop it. That may mean being strong in the eyes of the strong, not just in the eyes of the wanabees at your local commercial gym. It will take years to achieve, but in the process you will become a better person and the final reward will make the effort worthwhile.