Tendonitis, torn ligaments, bulging discs, nerve damage – for a bartender, they’re just risks of the job. Despite the hazards often accepted as par for the course, it’s a great way to make a living. Preventing injuries by stretching, resting and exercising appropriately is key, but for those who are already hurt, physical therapy can help gently repair existing damage and establish healthier ways to move.
Toby Maloney, partner at the Violet Hour and The Patterson House, knows the damage being in the industry can do. “My knees are bad,” he says. “In 2005, I injured my left shoulder and couldn’t use it really at all. I had to shake everything with my right hand, and that’s when the tendonitis started.”
According to ActiveCare Physical Therapy owner and director Karena Wu, bartenders commonly injure their low back, shoulders and elbows from the repetitive motions of bartending. One reason for the shoulder and elbow injuries, says Maloney, is the heavier ice.
“That ice is heavy and hard to get the right water content out of with a short shake,” says Maloney. The weight of the ice also makes for more noise in shaking, which adds to the show of making drinks. “It’s violent,” he says.
“I’ve watched a lot of people shake,” says Maloney. “The way they’re shaking hurts their elbows or their shoulders. They don’t correct it because they think that it’s something they have to live with.”
Since only about 14.4 percent of service industry workers have health insurance, most will continue working without addressing injuries that can cause chronic pain. “I lived with it for 10 years,” says Maloney. “Just last year, I went to a physical therapist. For $168, he showed me a couple exercises, did this thing with ultrasound, he talked to me about my braces, and it hasn’t hurt since. For $16.80 per year, I could have been pain-free.”
What can bartenders do to stay healthy? According to Wu, they should make sure to, “Get adequate sleep, exercise proper body mechanics, and [do] some sort of exercise,” she says. “If you don’t get enough sleep, your system is working at a deficit. It’s taxing on your system for movement, strength, and sequencing [remembering the order tasks should be performed].”
A good general rule of thumb? “Be nice to yourself,” says Maloney. “Go to work, stay healthy, exercise when you’re not at work. Don’t go to work when you’re really sick. Drink a lot of water, even if it never seems like you have time behind the bar. And shoes. Seriously. If you’re going to be on your feet for 14 hours a day, buy good f*cking shoes. Once your feet start hurting, your knees start hurting, you starting moving differently and everything gets out of whack. It is so worth buying not one, but two pairs of good shoes and switching them out and wearing them every other day.”
Bartenders can strengthen the muscles they use daily with a few of these simple exercises:
For your back, plank and bridging exercises are best. “Front planks or side planks are great because they work all four abdominal muscles at the same time,” says Wu.
One of the best exercises for the shoulders is external shoulder rotation, says Wu, in addition to high and low rows. “You can do these seated or standing,” says Wu. “If you do them standing, stand with a flat back. This is good because you you exercise the back and the core at the same time. If you don’t have the strength and endurance to do that, you’d get into a lunge position – a stride stance – with one foot in front of the other next to a chair or workout bench. Rest your hand on that and bend forward as much as you can.”
“Elbow exercises are actually movements of the wrist,” says Wu. The first she suggests is table supported wrist curls. “Typically, you’re seating and your forearm is supported on the table next to you. You’d basically let your hand hang over the edge with palm facing towards the floor. The right hand is hanging down. You bend your wrist and lift the back of the hand towards the ceiling.”
To work the other side of your forearm, flip your hand over so the palm is facing the ceiling. Go through the same movements as before.
The other she suggests is slightly different. With the palm of your hand facing you and your thumb towards the ceiling, “bend the wrist so that the thumb moves up towards the ceiling and then the pinky moves down towards the floor.”
Prepare for and recover from shifts with these easy stretches:
For the low back, “a good one you can do anywhere is a seated figure four. Sit and cross your left ankle over your right knee – how gentlemen sit. If the leg can lay flat where the calf is parallel to the floor, you would bend forward at the hips. Keep a flat back, rest your forearms on your right lower leg. That will stretch the left piriformis muscle.”
Another is a modified low lunge. “You’re down on both knees, and you’d step one foot out in front. With a flat back, lean your body forward from the hips and the pelvis.”
For the upper body, stand in a doorway with your hands up. “Stand so that you’re in the middle of doorway,” says Wu. “Rest your forearms on the doorframe and step forward. Let your body stretch. Don’t actively push it forward. You’ll see a stretch across the chest.”
To stretch your elbow, “hold your arm straight out in front of you with your palm facing the floor,” says Wu. “If this is the right hand, grab the back of the hand and the fingertips with your left hand. Pull the right hand towards your trunk. Then you’d flip your palm over to do the opposite side.”