Quick on Your Feet: Preventing Injury Behind the Bar With Agility Training

Lessons taken from agility training can also be applied to everyday work behind the bar.
Lessons taken from agility training can also be applied to everyday work behind the bar.

Collisions behind the bar. Quick stops on wet surfaces. Preventing spillage. Behind the bar, agility is as essential to work as drink recipes, especially when it comes to injury. But if you're not in shape, cultivating agility can be difficult.

Although it's defined by the dictionary as "the ability to move quickly and easily," it's a bit more difficult to define in athletic movement. According to personal trainer and former Olympic sprinter Dennis Blake, "Agility training can be defined as the ability to maintain body control [during exercise], and to use speed and technical skills to complete a task."

Dennis Blake is a retired male sprinter from Jamaica and a two-time Olympian. Photo courtesy of bronzemedal96.com Dennis Blake is a retired male sprinter from Jamaica and a two-time Olympian. Photo courtesy of bronzemedal96.com

Despite its place in most fitness gyms now, agility training is a relatively new addition to fitness programs for non-athletes. It's only within the past decade that these types of strategies have been adopted from elite training programs for more accessible gyms. But those with high-impact professions like bartending can benefit from building flexibility, endurance, and speed: all parts of agility and physical traits crucial for success behind the bar.

And agility training comes with a lot of benefits, says Bryant Sharifi [pictured below], a former bartender and founder and head performance coach at Perform For Life in San Francisco. "[They] include improved neuromuscular ability, or communication between your brain and body in order to move more efficiently, improved speed and quickness, cardiovascular system improvements, and improved coordination and balance," he said. It "can improve dynamic balance, [or] the ability to maintain control of a moving center of mass over a changing base of support ... Bartenders need to react quickly and maintain their base of support as they work in tight spaces with slippery floors with several people at a time in their way."

Bryant Sharifi, a former bartender and head performance coach. Photo courtesy of performforlifesf.com

But mindfully and safely building agility and endurance can be challenging. Doing it healthily depends on maintaining proper form and being very careful about your foot placement, posture, and movements. Although many agility training exercises are outlined online, it can be wise to start your training program with a personal trainer. "An assessment with a coach or trainer or teacher lets you know exactly where to start," said Blake. "That helps them and you look at your strengths and weaknesses and identify where most work is needed."

A coach can also help you break down the exercises to modify them to best fit your fitness level and your body, said Sharifi. "Start with drills that challenge your agility at a level that meets [and is adapted to] your body's demands. Zumba can help not only get your hips loose but will get you fast on your feet. Or, hire a personal trainer or take small group classes that focus on athleticism components like speed, agility, power, etc."

The motions involved in shaking and stirring hundreds of drinks a night heighten the risk of repetitive stress injuries, and can strengthen muscle groups while underworking others. Having a professional identify which muscle groups need a little more (or a little less) work can prevent injuries that might be sustained in the gym or behind the bar. It may cost you up front, but will save you money on potential injury treatment in the future.

Lessons taken from agility training can also be applied to everyday work behind the bar in the "sport, yes, sport, of bartending," said Sharifi.

If you’re serious about preventing injury on the job, Blake recommends taking time before your shift to stretch, either at the bar or at home (Here are some recommendations for pre-shift stretching). “However you’re moving within [a bar or restaurant], they should at least come in early and do some basic stretches before they start their work. They don’t have to be a lot, but this is going to help a lot with spills and injuries.”

Here are some moves to work into your exercise routine:

Perform two sets of 12 repetitions of each exercise, working up to 15 repetitions, and then to three sets of 15.

Bodyweight Squats

Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip width apart, pointing your toes slightly outward. Pick a spot on the wall in front of you, and keep your focus on it throughout the movement. Without rounding your back, push your hips and butt back as you bend your knees. Track your knees over your feet. Keep your chest and shoulders back as you squat.

Frog jumps

Squat with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Jump forward from your squatted position, landing on your hands and knees. Come back to standing and repeat.

High knees

Stand up straight and run in place, bringing your knees up high enough that they touch the palms of your hands. Both knees up is one repetition.

If you want to get fancy, Sharifi suggests buying a speed ladder.

Clair McLafferty is a writer and bartender based in Birmingham, AL. She is the author of The Classic & Craft Cocktail Recipe Book, and collects (and drinks) whisk(e)y for fun.

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