Everything in life has been a fight. From my lifelong mental health issues, my familial disappointments, my poor life choices, and the rough hands dealt throughout, I’ve found it imperative to fortify my body as a physical representation of the formidability of my mind.  The breaks I did catch were due to my mother’s love, which bequeathed to me an education and a moral compass—two vital components for success in a world that looks to strip it from you at every turn. All other achievements came through extremely demanding work, which I also learned from my impactful single mom, who was also a second-grade teacher.

That's why this article emphasizes the yoke: It denotes hard work. The yoke takes a lot of time to construct. And it certainly separates an average workout hobbyist from someone who trains. Apart from contact sport players and powerlifters, no one really says, “I want a giant neck” or works toward giant traps. However, growing up, I wanted one thing above all else—not to be messed with. And that never changed. Therefore, I always desired the musculature that intimidated people, which has always been, in my opinion, the muscles that are visible even with a t-shirt on: those of the neck, traps, and upper back. The YOKE.

And once I found out that a big neck reduces the risk of a knockout, I hammered it even more. Why? Life is a fight, and we’re all warriors in the battle with it. Metaphorical and literal knockout punches are thrown left and right. To paraphrase David Goggins, you don't need a gun to be a warrior; we’re all going through a battle that's between these two ears.

My father was an alcoholic from the day I was born until the day he died from it, when I was 23. I found out through a text message from a cousin with whom I no longer speak. There was to be no ceremony, and I inquired as to the whereabouts of his remains years later, only to find out that they were collecting dust. The family wouldn’t bother to find the time for a proper gathering.

RELATED: Building the Yoke

I remember my father explaining that heroin was like “going to hell and back,” when we met on one rare occasion. I was 16. We knew he smoked it, but for how long varied according to whom you spoke with. At 10, I told him I no longer wanted to see him when he arrived at my door, and I stuck to it. I was obstinate. I knew I didn't want to be around him, and I didn't want him around my mother. (My obstinacy would pay off in developing a 20” neck, as this muscle group is more stubborn than all of the others. You must be more determined to develop a muscle than that muscle is to remain its size).

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My father died twice. The first time, it was for eight minutes—at which point your chances of revival are almost nil—when he was projected 50 feet from a car. He told me that he remembered lying there and taking notice of this profound peace that was almost tangible. “I knew I could stay with this peace or make one last effort, and that's when I let out all I could with a grunt,” he would later recount. That grunt saved him, as whoever was looking for him heard it and got him airlifted back to life.

The second time was permanent. He became sick, and his liver couldn't fight off the infection he suffered from years of alcohol abuse. These years of abuse led to all-too-common emergency room visits for alcohol withdrawal–induced seizures, from which he bit off part of his tongue. Seeing your father fighting a tube being shoved down his throat with no pants on is a motivating sight because of the sheer rage it induces. My mother went $10,000 in debt in her attempt to rehabilitate him, from supporting him while he stayed at a halfway house (purveying a cell phone, food, and clothing), to hosting an intervention and continually funding him thereafter.

The last time I believe I saw my father was at a restaurant where I could no longer endure his lack of motivation to procure a job, coupled with his contemporaneous satisfaction with my mother’s purchasing all of his provisions. So, I said something rude, as I knew it would provoke him. My mom tried to pacify the mounting tension, but it was superseded by his response to her. An argument materialized that stopped the entire restaurant in its tracks. I stood up from my table, pointed my finger at him, and repeatedly proclaimed I would beat the living shit out of him. We parted ways.

His death absolutely infuriated me; it meant I couldn't fight him. He robbed me of my chance to punch him in the face. Cognizing these facts about your father is embarrassing and maddening. He was a loser. A failure. Something he claimed I was destined to be. Nevertheless, one of the things I detested about him the most was his sickly frame. He was 5’5 and 130lbs. at best. Nothing about his physical appearance indicated protection, which a child must feel. I desired a stoic father, imposing in his corporeal characteristics. Instead, due to his physiological state and palpable absence, I developed a lifelong state of hyper-vigilance. It’s something I battle with every day, and I regularly discuss it in therapy.

The corollary of the antecedent was an earnest attempt to validate myself as a male in the most primal ways. I starved for approval from other men I deemed tough and intimidating. The man I chose as the source of my validation was an ex-convict who would eventually set me up and commit a crime in front of my very eyes that has shaped me to this day. I’m not a victim. I sought that criminal element and experienced what men of low caliber do.

To press on, rather than cry on, I repudiated any association with the dregs of society and spent significant time mapping out my father’s life. I rendered a trajectory diametric to his—and I feed off of it every day. Everything had and still has to be, completely opposite of him. I haven’t had a drink in eight years. And I amassed a sizeable frame, now standing at 6’ and 275 pounds. Also, he had a cat (yes, a house cat) tattooed on his right forearm, so I went ahead and inked a lion on my left. I work in extremes.

I’ve told select teams I’ve worked with this story, and the following. On one random summer night at the tender age of 15, I received a call at 3 AM from the very same convict I once exalted as the barometer of formidability. I looked at my friend beside me, and we both knew it was a setup. This scumbag was 6’3 and more than 200 pounds. at 19, in addition to being fresh out. He was slated to come over and pick up a PlayStation controller with a neighborhood kid who was going off to college and apparently needed it. It begged the question: Why would this felon call on his behalf? So, I stuffed a wrench in my back pocket. My friend brought a screwdriver. I’m disappointed to concede that I was prepared to hit another person in the head with a wrench. We waited on my stoop until a van approached. The college-bound kid emerged out of the passenger’s side. As fate would have it, the passenger’s mother came out of the driver’s side, and that ex-con was nowhere to be seen. No wrench and screwdriver needed. A real experience with what could have been. It frightens me to this very day.

Did my life turn around immediately? No. I’ve been fighting demons my entire life. The fact that I’m not incarcerated is a big deal. A miracle I call Mom. She bestowed upon me a moral compass that guided me in every maelstrom of life. For every disadvantage is an implied advantage. For example, I feel as though I barely had a father, yet I was privileged, for I had a mom. Steering away from a victim mentality demands focus on the advantageous facets of one’s life. It took quite some time to mollify the hatred I harbored for my father and for the other gentlemen referenced above, yet it was consistently mitigated in concurrence with my perpetual recognition of how privileged I was, and am, for the influence of my mother. So, for the post-traumatic stress, clinical anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and pure O for which I am medically treated, I am grateful. I am lucky.

And I genuinely believe that the corollary of these crucibles is my work ethic. My obstinacy.

If my purpose of elucidating the aforementioned experiences, as well as succeeding, wasn't transparent enough, it’s to illuminate that the road to a life of rectitude is far more difficult than such trials we encounter, whether self-induced, in our adolescence. You don't emerge from a personal hell to obtain a master’s degree with a 3.808 grade point average and coach at the DivisionI level for eight years unless you’re willing to WORK. And that's what the yoke is all about. Hard. Fucking. Work. Work no one wants to do.

Without stubbornness beyond that of the obstacles we’re striving to hurdle, we’re subject to life’s proverbial roll of the dice. During the last year of my master’s degree, I could feel something treacherous in the air. I informed my mother that I sensed as though something in the ether was preparing itself to prevent me from appropriating my degree. She has always been frightened for my safety, and this portend didn't help.

Yet, as I walked toward school in the pavement-laden Staten Island, as I did most days enroute to Wagner College, I saw a white butterfly. It turned out that the all-white, rarely seen creature was fluttering before me a mere hour after my mom was hit by a car and left for dead. Her radial head was shattered, requiring three screws; a bone in her dominant hand was fractured and operated on, and she had suffered lacerations on her bicep and a torn rotator cuff. An assault on my mother like that, the woman most important to me, more than anything and everyone, still hasn't set in. If it ever does, I believe I might flip out. We went to the cops in vain to fill out a criminal report, which the police deterred us from doing. They even managed to discourage us from filing a civilian report. A deadly weapon hit a 60-year-old woman, and the precinct could not have given a shit less. We filed a complaint to Internal Affairs.

Odd run-ins on public transportation ensued until I was eventually sucker punched while sitting down and reading on a train. I lost my composure and stood face to face with what would be seven teenagers. A quick assessment of my situation incited the realization that I was two months away from graduation. I walked away, only to walk across that stage in cap and gown for my mother. Three days after being assaulted, I became a primary witness to the death of two children in a vehicular incident in Brooklyn. The district attorney would characterize it as the most tragic case in his 12 years in the position. To see firsthand the death of someone, let alone a child, in such a violent fashion, alters your optics on life forever. I am not the victim; the children and the families are. Again, we must note implied privilege. I was alive. A witness to the tragedy, I was able to provide testimony before a grand jury that helped with obtaining an indictment.

Nevertheless, I’m more callous now. I care for excuses less, and I barely cared for them before. What got me through these more recent experiences was the comprehension of how much this degree meant to my mother. My mother applied to undergrad for me, as I couldn’t have cared less about school. I seriously considered dropping out freshman year to pursue jiu-jitsu fulltime. My fear of my mother prevented this from becoming a reality. To have my master’s degree program paid for in full because of the work I put in as a coach… that smelled of a success my father told me I’d never achieved, and it was an accolade my mother wanted for me more than anyone. That degree is for her, for if I slipped, she would fall.

The arduous road I trekked throughout my post-baccalaureate days is a haze. Very little is clear in retrospect. However, the moments I can always recall are the heavy block pulls. The barbell rows. The plate shrugs for sets of 100 repetitions. The band pull-aparts for 200 reps a set. The neck extension, flexion, lateral flexion, and rotations. And the regimen and the routine that helped immensely. Without them, you can’t have a yoke.

A yoke requires one to be steadily directed (my course was set by my understanding of the impact of my outcome as a man on my mother’s well being), stubborn (driven to achieve at all costs for my mother), tenacious (persistent in my attempts to obtain success crucial to that end), and even extreme at times (sacrificing all comforts of mediocrity for the appropriation of this success), as these are the criteria for hard work. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention that lifting is the most potent solvent for all of my biochemical imbalances. That in and of itself deserves an entire article to explain. A schedule is pertinent for those with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder).

We may all agree that life lacks certitude. However, physical strength and size tend to provide a measurable amount of control in a world that often seems to lack it. Life, if you want to succeed, forces you to be tough cognitively speaking. You must display equanimity in the storm. And it's vital to allow your physique to visibly represent that fortitude. Below are varied regimens, and an exercise index, of what it takes to get a big neck to survive the sucker punch, big traps to carry on during tough times, and an upper back that scares the ghosts of your past as they watch you press on.

Below are training samples that allowed me to get a 20” neck, sizeable traps, and a sizeable upper back—all done with minimal equipment, mostly at home, and with extremely high rep counts.

Yoke Index:

  • Plate Shrugs
  • Block Pulls
  • Band Pull-Aparts (BPA)
  • 3-D Band Pull Aparts
  • Neck (N) Flexion (F), Rotations (R) [Right and Left are Isolated from one another], DuringLateral Flexion (LF), Extension (E),
  • Neck Harness Extensions
  • ALL N Exercises are bodyweight.

1. Example of Incorporation Into Maximal Effort Work:

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2. Typical Yoke Specific Work:

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3. A More Demanding Example:

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4. Short on Time:

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5. The Best Yoke Pump I’ve Had:

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Max Barnhart, MA, CSCS, has been involved in collegiate strength and conditioning at the NCAA Division I level for eight years. In addition to coaching, Max has been fortunate enough to publish two articles in NSCA publications and to conduct his master’s thesis on the reduction of the bilateral deficit and concomitant effects on extroversion and personality type. Max’s true passion is the optimization of student-athletes’ athletic and personal potential through strength training and through raising mental health awareness among such populations.