The yoke walk is one of the most grueling events in strongman, and due to the reduced range of motion, hundreds of kilos can be lifted and carried. One slight misstep or mistimed breath can mean injury or passing out. If this sounds like a brutal exercise, it's because it is.
The yoke walk involves picking up an implement across the top of an athlete's upper back, usually on top of the trapezius muscle (high bar) or between the traps and the rear delts (low bar), carrying this implement down a course.
This is the most systemically taxing strongman event for most people when done for near maximal loads. The bale tote yoke (700ish kg) at the Ohio Arnold classic has claimed many great strongmen, causing joint and nerve injury to necks, backs, and hips.
Doing a near maximal yoke walk is not for the casual strongman enthusiast or the person who wants to use strongman for health. The distance can vary depending on the competition. The event is often used as part of a medley alongside another form of carrying.
How To Yoke Walk
Yoke Walk Setup
The setup for the yoke walk is essential. It's about generating as much tightness for your body shape to a particular implement and keeping that tightness while stepping and taking short breaths.
For most people, a good start is to set the yoke height where the cross bar is at their upper mid to upper chest. With a regular foot stance, this height should allow enough ground clearance not to hit the floor, and the pickup shouldn't be too high, turning it into a partial squat.
High bar and low bar positions are both viable, but I recommend most beginners start with a high bar. I've found this is a little more natural to find the correct balance point and allows a more upright torso, lessening the risk of hurting your lower back.
Hand placement is about finding the position where you can generate the most tightness. For most people, I recommend starting with the forearms parallel with the ground and then raising and lowering them slightly by a few inches to see where you can generate the most tightness. This space may vary between yokes with different distance uprights.
From here, I like to cue to flare the lats slightly and put some pressure into pushing the yoke slightly forward. This will help to keep the yoke stable as you are moving and can also assist in creating some forward momentum to help with speed.
Smaller lifters and some females might find they can generate more tightness by keeping their arms on the crossbar like when back squatting. This is a viable option, especially if the arms of the yoke are so far from the individual you need to reach.
Holding the yoke this way is very similar to holding a back squat. The one downside is the yoke has more potential to sway back and forth as the cross bars are not being stabilized. This can be an issue at first, but over time I've seen some smaller lifters master the technique and generate incredible tightness to the point the yoke is stable.
Picking Up The Yoke
I recommend wearing a belt and bracing hard with a big breath before lifting the yoke off the floor. A heavy yoke requires the ability to maintain intra-abdominal pressure while carrying it. To do this, I would take a big breath at the start.
Then you need to learn how to take half breaths. While some recommend holding the breath completely, it's only really applicable for shorter or very quick runs. The better option is to learn to stay tight while taking half breaths, as this will transfer to any distance yoke.
Walking The Yoke
You want to take short steps with fast feet when walking with the yoke. This will allow you to keep stable and minimize stabilization time on a single leg. Taking too big strides can often lead to losing balance and dropping the yoke.
With these shorter steps, you want to be trying to accelerate and think fast feet. You can use bigger steps if the yoke is a bit lighter, or after the first 5 meters, if it's feeling good, you can open up the stride length slightly. Doing this from the start before getting stable can often mean losing balance.
Yoke Walk Benefits
Get Better For Competition
Heavy yoke walks are primarily trained to get better at performing them in competition. The primary reason to perform them is to get better at them for competition. The yoke walk is not an efficient hypertrophy exercise as the range of motion muscles go through is small, and the recovery cost of the exercise is enormous.
Teach You How To Brace
The yoke forces an athlete to utilize efficient bracing strategies that may carry over to other exercises if that is a weakness. In my opinion, it would be an inefficient way of helping an athlete to better brace. Still, you could take advantage of some crossover effect since the yoke has to be performed in their next competition.
Develop Huge Back Strength
While not the most efficient way to train the lumbar and thoracic extensors, McGill's work shows how much effort they put through with the yoke . While I wouldn't recommend using the yoke as the primary exercise to improve the spinal erectors, if you have to do yoke for a competition, it can be an excellent way to kill two birds with one stone.
Anecdotally I have found the back strength from yoke transfers well to the walkouts and lessens the feeling of "getting crushed" on squats.
Get A Stronger Squat
Doing heavy yoke walks won't help you get a stronger squat directly. However, if you tend to let the feeling of "being crushed" intimidate you on max squat attempts, the yoke can help fix this problem. It's hard to feel quite as intimidated when you're used to carrying 50-100kg over your squat max for distance.
Yoke Walk Muscles Worked
The yolk walk primarily uses lower body musculature (quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves) to move the weight across the course. In contrast, the upper body powerfully contracts to keep the implement stable.
In a study by McGill et al. in 2009, thigh and abdominal muscle activation peaked during the initial phases of the walk, while lumbar and thoracic extensors peaked during lift-off and lowering . Glute activation peak varied across the pick, initial steps, and walking.
While the load used in this study averaged just under 180 kg, I have found similar in practice. The initial pick can be very taxing on your spinal erectors as they fight to keep your torso erect under such a big load.
A powerful abdominal brace is needed. If it's not there in the initial step phases, you will likely lose balance or collapse forwards.
How To Improve The Yoke Walk
Yoke walk is normally about finishing the course the fastest. So the appropriate way to train the yoke most of the time is to train it for speed. You could start around 50-60% of your competition weights and move as quickly as possible while keeping your steps short and your feet fast.
This is how I program the Yoke walk in my off-season Strongman program, so you're not crushing yourself with heavy loads but getting better and faster for the Yoke walk event.
On these lighter weights, if you go into a jogging gait, it won't transfer very well to heavy. However, if you replicate the same gait you would have at competition weights, you will get solid carryover while not destroying yourself with competition loads.
I would keep loads around this mark in the offseason, only training the yoke bi-weekly unless it is a significant weakness for you. I tend to have clients start with a weight they can move 20m in under 10 seconds and then progress from there. If we know competition weights, then I might go with the percentage.
If you have an extremely heavy yoke in competition, the heaviest I would go up to in training is about 90%.
I asked Brian Shaw how heavy his final heavy yoke training was before the 700+kg yoke in 2017 at the Arnolds. That heavy session was 90% of the competition weight.
He went on to win the event while other athletes went to around the 700 kg mark and hurt themselves—a lesson for us all to learn from.
Yoke Walk World Record
There are many "world records" in the yoke walk due to the different implements used and courses walked. However, the most impressive world record is by Brian Shaw at the 2017 Arnold Classic. It was 711kg/1565lbs bale tote yoke walk for 10 feet in 14.08 seconds.
Yoke Walk vs. Farmers Walk: What’s The Difference?
The farmers walk requires the athlete to hold a handle or implement in each hand and carry it across a distance. While they are similar, the farmers walk usually involves a larger range of motion pickup than the yoke.
The grip is often the limiting factor in a farmer's walk without straps, whereas the yoke has no grip component. The yoke has no limiting factor from the grip and a shorter range of motion. This results in loads being far heavier, leading to a shorter step length and less knee flexion when compared to the farmer's walk .
With handles at the side of the athlete, the upper back is stressed in a slightly different way to the yoke as it keeps the athlete erect.
Yoke Walk Alternatives
It's tough to replicate the exact feeling of a yoke walk. The thick crossbar, heavyweight at the bottom, and the feeling of balance are not easily replicated. If you don't have access to a yoke, you can use heavy squat walkouts and holds to practice breathing and bracing as you would in a yoke.
It's better than nothing, but unless you have previous experience with the yoke walk, it's not likely to carry over a great deal. I have also seen people carry a heavily loaded barbell across their back and walk between two squat racks.
While this can be an ok substitute, it can be hazardous if you have no access to a yoke. Make sure if you are attempting this, you have a spotter on each side to grab the bar just in case. With a genuine yoke, if your legs give out and you tip forward, the yoke will hit the ground. With a barbell, it will be your face.
Yoke Walk With Barbell & Chains
A chain yoke can be a useful assistance exercise for the yoke. The instability forces the core musculature to work extra hard to stabilize the load. This is a double-edged sword, though, as the instability will mean a lesser load is used, and speed needs to be controlled as the weights will swing.
This means it might not be heavy enough to carry over to your competition loads. Still a viable assistance exercise, but I wouldn't replace your regular yoke training with this entirely.
I love the yoke walk exercise as a test of strength in the sport of strongman. It requires a unique mix of strength, speed, and mental grit. However, as an exercise to make you bigger and stronger, it falls short compared to regular gym training due to the injury risk and huge fatigue cost.
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1. McGill, S. M., McDermott, A., & Fenwick, C. M. (2009). Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(4), 1148-1161.
2. Hindle, B. R., Lorimer, A., Winwood, P., Brimm, D., & Keogh, J. W. (2021). The Biomechanical Characteristics of the Strongman Yoke Walk. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 110.