Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

5 Tips to Help Prevent Working Bartenders from Getting Injured

Elizabeth Reyes

As the cocktail industry is maturing, so are its professionals. And along with the normal aches and pains of aging, the compounding effects of long hours on your feet and repetitive motions increase your risk of injury.

“When I opened my first bar in 2008, I heard bartenders complain about carpal tunnel syndrome and shoulder and elbow injuries,” says Beau Williams, the owner of Kansas City’s Julep. “I shrugged it off then as old timers not being able to keep up, but I realize now I wasn’t considering the cumulative effect of our habits behind the bar and how they catch up to us over time.”

We asked Williams and other industry veterans to weigh in on their strategies for staying healthy and injury-free, on and off the clock.

1. Practice Prevention

In addition to regular runs, pilates and yoga, Ivy Mix, the owner of Leyenda in Brooklyn and co-founder of Speed Rack, keeps standing appointments with her chiropractor, masseuse and physical therapist.

“I go to stop things before they start,” she says. “Because if I’m not healthy and throw my back or shoulder out, I can’t work. That’s worth the investment in my health.”

Joy Richard of Charleston, S.C.’s Bar Mash shares this “proactive rather than reactive” philosophy and depends on massages, acupuncture and glucosamine supplements to prevent flare-ups and future issues.

Sometimes, prevention is just common sense.

Jason Hedges, the beverage manager of New York City’s Gotham Bar and Grill, says, “I see younger bartenders carry too much up a flight of stairs or too many bottles in one hand. I’d rather take multiple trips than risk an injury by lifting too much.”

2. Treat Your Feet

“We spend so much time on our feet that I don’t spare any expense when it comes to comfortable shoes,” says Hedges.

Enrique Sanchez, the bar director at San Francisco’s Arguello, says that while good shoes are expensive, they are “worth the investment and will save you from pain in the long run.”

Three Dots and a Dash’s beverage director, Kevin Beary, recommends rotating and replacing footwear often, noting that “when shoes are shot, it impacts your whole body.”

While sneakers and nonslip Dansko clogs are often the footwear of choice, bartenders like J.P. Smith of San Francisco’s Mourad don’t have that option. He relies on Dr. Scholl’s inserts and regular post-shift Epsom salt foot soaks to keep his feet in top shape.

3. Stay in Shape

“Building muscle, conditioning and muscle strength have definitely helped me combat work related injuries,” says Atlanta’s Kellie Thorn, an avid kickboxer and beverage director for Hugh Acheson.“When I have better posture and more stamina, I don’t hurt myself as much.”

“This profession is mentally and physically grueling,” says Hedges, who credits regular runs as well as yoga classes with keeping his “head clear” and his body in “top shape.”

Alex Howell, the lead bartender of Chattanooga’s Easy Bistro & Bar, depends on trail runs for much-needed mental breaks and to stay in “as good shape as possible” for the job’s demands.

According to Beary, who walks a mile to work to “loosen up” for the day ahead, even a quick walk around the block for “fresh air and sunshine” can be “really beneficial for your emotional health.”

4. Practice Good Technique

“A lot of youngsters aren’t paying attention to how they’re working. You need to be conscious of repetitive motions and how they impact your body,” says Beary.

Mix agrees body awareness is key. “When I’m behind the bar, I ask myself, Am I standing equally on both feet? Am I using my core to move? Am I hyperextending my knees leaning against the rails?”

For Hedges, it’s all about efficiency. He stages his bar station so everything he needs is within arm’s reach. “That way, I don’t have to do too many twists or put extra stress on my knees and joints,” he says. “And if I feel a twinge in my back or something like tennis elbow coming on, I alter the way I stand and shake before a minor ailment turns into a major one.”

5. Find Some Balance

“We work long hours, and it’s a very physical and social job, so we need to listen to our bodies and find some balance,” says Thorn.

“If you just worked 15 hours three days in a row, do you really need to push through a hard workout or attend another industry event? Or do you need to stay home, drink some water and get some sleep?”

For Williams, balance now means “pounding mugs of water” and heading straight home instead of indulging in post-shift drinks.

Sanchez agrees that lifestyle choices are crucial to career longevity. “In your early 20s, you can drink all night, barely sleep, eat crap, wake up the next morning and be fine. But as you get older, you need to shift your eating, sleeping and workout habits to keep up. Remember: You’re a professional.”

As Howell says, “You’re not young forever, and bad habits can catch up to you quickly if you’re not careful. Always recognize your limits and take good care of yourself if you want to be in this profession for the long haul.”