By Josh Thigpen
It’s crazy that no matter how long you do this sport you are always learning and always improving. I have been at this for almost 20 years and still new things click like it’s the first time I’ve ever done it. I will be the first to say that yoke has not been my best event throughout my career. However, I have really seen some progress recently and it is becoming a strength for me. I attribute my yoke improvement to the following things.
- Unilateral Strengthening
Most people have a dominant arm, but did you know most people also have a dominant leg? If you don’t know which leg is your dominant, have someone push you from behind which will cause you to step forward. The leg you instinctively step forward with is your dominant leg. You can also jump off of one leg and the jumping leg would be the dominant one. This might not seem like a big deal, but it could be causing some serious strength imbalances.
Growing up I played basketball and even had a short stint doing the high jump. When I jump off of one leg for a lay up or dunk, it was always off of my left leg. Thousands of jumps later my left leg became noticeably stronger and bigger than my right. It continued that way throughout my strongman career with my left leg a full inch and a half bigger than my right. Squatting has been a strength for me, but I would always shift to one side and have pain in my right knee. When doing yoke, my left leg always felt so solid on every step, but my right leg tended to be more wobbly and less stable.
Until recently when I had an epiphany and realized my left leg didn’t get that much stronger overnight. It was after years of repetition. As an experiment, every time I went up the stairs I would take each step right leg only. I go up the stairs many times throughout the day. Sometimes I would even carry my dog up for a little added weight. (He’s only a 13 pound Dachshund but still it’s something). And every once in a while I take two steps at once to increase range of motion and difficulty. I also began shifting my weight to my right leg every time I stand up from a chair or bed. What have been the results of this experiment? My yoke became much quicker, stronger and more stable. My right leg is feeling much closer to my left every step. My squat has increased very rapidly proving my right leg had been holding me back. When squatting, I feel more balanced and powerful, almost as if one leg had lengthened to match the other. And my knee pain has virtually disappeared. Going up the stairs one leg at a time takes a while, it’s annoying, but it worked tremendously.
I recently began doing extra sets of triceps work with my left arm in order to balance out my arm strength as well. I’m not saying you need to take the same type of measures, but addressing a weak leg and arm will make you a better strongman or woman. It has been one of the best things I’ve done for overall improvement because the growth isn’t just limited to yoke and squat, this has and will continue to improve virtually every event in strongman.
2. Narrowing Your Pick Up Stance
It is my experience and observation that most people do too wide of a pick up on the yoke. That included me for a long time. A wider stance will make the actual pick up a little easier but you will then have to shift your feet closer in to get back into walking position. Doing this will cause you to lean over to one side forcing a slow and unsteady start. You would be better off with a medium to narrow stance that transitions you into your stride easier. The only time you want a wider pick up is when you are going for a near maximum or maximum weight pick up.
3. Training It Lighter for Speed
The yoke is almost always a timed event, so the faster you can go the better. One way to get faster is training it with medium to light weights and really moving fast. I have seen many people constantly just load up yoke as heavy as they can every single time they train it. The problem is often times, they don’t get any faster. In fact I’ve seen some guys go the same slow speed with warm up weights as they do when they load up heavy weights. Part of the reason for this is never actually working on speed with lighter weights. There is also a recovery factor because heavy yoke takes a lot out of your body as a whole so doing some lighter days is beneficial. You do however need to feel heavier weight on yoke as well, which is why in my Cube Method for Strongman programs we have both light speed days and heavier days with yoke.
4. Using a Safety Squat Bar in Training
The safety squat bar will push you forward and force your lower and upper back to work more than with a regular bar. It has more carryover to yoke than a regular bar. A yoke crossbar is thick and forces you into a similar position as a safety squat bar. Squats and good mornings with the safety squat bar are the two main movements that will increase your yoke. Lunges would be good as well. Your lower and upper back will become much stronger which will transfer to stronger yoke.
Other than strength, the number one reason people drop the yoke is because of breathing. Most of the time people will hold their breath from the start which is okay if you finish the yoke incredibly fast. Although if you can’t hold it the whole way, you are going to eventually let that air out which will fold you over and the yoke will go with you. A better approach is to keep a big chest with a certain amount of air and take quick breaths. When I am coaching my strongman class, I always tell them I want to hear every breath they are taking on yoke. It’s just a way to ensure they aren’t holding their breath.
6. *Bonus* Strengthening the AbsI
f you have weak abs, your yoke will be no where near what it could be. Weak abs will cause you to fold over and put a lot of strain on your back. If your abs are strong, you will be able to support the weight and stay more upright. Do some specific ab work in training and you will see the difference on yoke. The pick up and carry will feel stronger and more powerful. This doesn’t have to be anything crazy just make sure to hit some abs once or twice a week and that should be sufficient. Of course everything will benefit from stronger abs, but yoke in particular will see improvement.
By implementing these 6 things, I literally cut my yoke times in half! Document your yoke improvements and tag me on Instagram @josh_thigpen
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