Spending hours on your feet, interacting with customers, operating machines, and preparing drinks are just some of the tasks that baristas complete daily. There’s a lot that goes into transforming beans into beverages, including grinding, tamping, measuring, brewing, and pouring. It’s a fun job – but also one that can take its toll on your body if you aren’t mindful.
Because it’s such an active, high energy occupation, it can result in strains and sprains if you don’t manage your movement. Over time, this could cause lasting injuries.
To make sure that your time spent behind the bar is as long and pain-free as possible, here’s how you can prevent your daily tasks from interfering with your future performance.
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A barista pulls espresso into a cup. Credit: Neil Soque
Reducing The Strain of Everyday Tasks
As a barista, you’ll spend your day moving your joints and muscles into various positions as you prepare customers coffee. In a single shift you’ll be slinging and knocking portafilters, tamping espressos tightly, and angling your milk pitcher to pour latte art – often at a high speed, and dozens of times an hour.
In addition to these tasks, you’ll also be lifting and packing heavy deliveries, containers, and packages in narrow and awkward spaces, or navigating shelves that might be too high or low. It’s no wonder that a study by Wilfred Laurier University found that the majority of baristas surveyed suffer from lower back and shoulder pain attributed to their job.
Understanding the risks present in an average day’s work can help you make improvements to your actions before physical therapy is required – or in severe cases, before lasting damage takes place.
Only medical professionals can diagnose and treat workplace-related injuries, but there are a few ways you can reduce your risk of developing them.
A barista brews coffee on two Kalita Waves at the same time. Credit: Neil Soque
Start With Your Posture
Because being a barista involves spending many hours upright, your posture plays an important role. Paying attention to your body placement and weight distribution is key. By balancing and centering your body weight, you’ll prevent more than back pain. This is because poor posture can exacerbate everything from muscle aches and pains, headaches and heartburn.
Turn your attention to the way you stand. Do you tend to lean forward or push your hips out? Are your shoulders rounded or up around your ears? With a few adjustments to your alignment, you can break these postural habits.
Bram Dekker, Senior Barista at Bocca Coffee in Amsterdam, understands the importance of posture. As one of the cities most talked about specialty coffee bars, he has had to learn to be aware of how he stands and moves. He says “I try to be wary of my stance – if my shoulders are upright, or if my back is straight. Because most of the movements [baristas make result in our bodies] bending slightly forwards, it’s important… to be aware of that.”
If you find that your posture or stance could do with improvement, aim for a neutral one. The NHS recommends imagining a string pulling up from the base of your spine through the crown of your head. From here, pull in your abdomen, keeping your shoulders relaxed and parallel with your hips, and your feet hip distance apart.
By centering your core, you increase your overall stability and balance, preventing injury and providing more power to the movements you make.
A barista works behind the bar. Credit: Neil Soque
Put Your Best Foot Forward
Spending a lot of time on your feet means that what you wear on them matters. It’s not uncommon to come home with tired, swollen, and blistered feet because of the incorrect choice of footwear.
Podiatrist Patrick Raftery recommends that those required to stand for long periods at work choose shoes that are enclosed, fasten well, and have inner cushioning. It should also have a firm back for ankle support, toe wiggle room, and a wide, non-slip heel. If you’re predisposed to foot pain, you might want to invest in compression stockings or special inserts as well.
As standing uses 20% more energy than sitting, it can tire you quicker. Taking regularly scheduled breaks will help you reduce foot fatigue. These breaks don’t need to be long for you to reap the benefits. Research suggests that short, frequent breaks of just 10 minutes can relieve muscle fatigue and improve mental well being.
Behind the bar of a coffee shop. Credit: Neil Soque
Manage Your Movements
While poor posture and long hours spent standing can cause discomfort and tiredness, the unique movements required of baristas are usually what cause injuries. Research by an American worker’s compensation insurance company shows that café workers lost more days due to workplace injuries than any other workers in the restaurant category. Repetitive stress wrist injuries (often nicknamed Barista Wrist) resulted in an average loss of 265 days.
By taking care with how you prepare drinks, you can reduce the likelihood of this occurring. However, it’s worth noting that there is no single best technique. How comfortably you can work will often depend on factors such as your height and the height of the machine. If the machine is placed too high or too low, working with it will be uncomfortable.
According to Karen Fitt, Director of Melbourne Hand Rehab and President of the Australian Hand Therapy Association, it’s common for baristas to develop injuries related to manual tamping and placing the portafilter in the grouphead. These actions require them to adopt an awkward shoulder posture and palms up posture, which can lead to pain.
There are a few guidelines you can follow to reduce your risk of injuring yourself while preparing coffee. When tamping, do so with your elbow at a 90-degree angle and your wrist straight. The pressure being exerted should come from your arm and not your palm or hand.
Wearing a flexible wrist brace can relieve secondary injuries from chronic conditions such as arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or tendinitis. However, Bram cautions that you should “take care of yourself [and] listen to your body – if your wrists/back/anything is hurting, don’t work another shift. It’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse and worse if you don’t let it rest. That one shift might doom you to one week of sitting at home not being able to work.”
The busy front of a bar at a coffee shop. Credit: Neil Soque
Organize Your Environment
After adjusting your movements to be kinder on your body, you can turn your attention towards optimizing your workspace. You may not realize it, but small adaptations to your surroundings can improve your workflow. This, in turn, can make a big difference in the amount of strain you put on your body, and make your work day easier.
Kaspar Tammjarv, freelance barista trainer and reigning Dutch Latte Art Champion, is a big believer in adjusting your workspace to work for you. “Because I have back pain, I try to minimize awkward rotations and bending of my body. This means that at high volume cafés I keep the milk out near the steam wand or at the top of the fridge ready to go, and set up my station flowing from left to right to minimize back and forth movement.”
The kind of adjustments you’ll need to make will depend on your personal preferences and unique physical surroundings. Kaspar notes that “there are always small adjustments that can be made to fit your body. Never be afraid to do a little rearranging if it makes more sense for the way you move.”
A barista works behind the espresso machine. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
One uncomfortable bend, twist, or crouch may not seem like a big deal when it comes to your form. However, when you’re rushing through these movements dozens of times a day, the stress on your body can add up. Keeping your station organized in a linear way will minimize this – as will ensuring that you bend and lift using the correct technique.
According to the Mayo Clinic (an American not-for-profit academic medical centre), you should observe the following movements when lifting a large or heavy object:
- Start by standing as close to the object as possible. Kneel with one leg on the floor, or squat with the object between your knees.
- Engage your core and lift the object. Power the movement with your legs, breathing normally and resting the object on your knee before standing.
- Use your legs to stand. Don’t twist your body, and keep the object close to your frame.
By doing so, you’ll reduce the strain your back and knees, and instead activate your core and legs.
A Portafilter lies on a scale. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
Being a barista can be demanding – both physically and mentally. Thankfully, a little awareness and preventative measures can go a long way towards preventing pain and injury. By paying attention to your everyday movements, you can go on to have a long and healthy career doing what you love behind the bar.
Enjoyed this? Read A Barista’s Guide to a Successful Work Shift
Written by Caitlin McCarthy. Feature photo: Neil Soque.
Please note: The advice provided in this article is informed by the personal experiences of the author. It is not intended to replace official medical care. Always consult your healthcare provider before implementing any medical advice.
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