Love coffee? Encourage baristas to love and take care of their bodies.

As a true coffee lover and after living in Melbourne for a little over 3 months, I’ve been around to few trickles of coffee shops. Melbourne has a reputation when when it comes to this black gold (you should watch the movie). Myself I used to be a barista and I love watching them in action. I notice their habits, their way of doing things. How they brush of coffee grinds of the portafilter, what type of bean they use, how they tamp, how they greet customers, how they steam the milk, what kind of latte art they go with. Recently, I have noticed more. How far forward the head is while they make latte art, how out of position the shoulder is and how awkwardly angled the wrist is while they tamp. I wouldn’t be worried if this happened a few times a day, but for a busy barista we’re talking 200+ times a day! Reinforced poor movement patterns will wear out the body over time and I know some baristas struggle with aches.

Barista 7 - brian moats
Credit: Brian Moats

[Disclaimer: I was never a great barista – they require innate attributes I do not naturally possess.]

So with this in mind I started writing down what I noticed. The more I kept going the more I ended up exploring ways baristas can refine their movements for longevity. In my mind I stumbled across these three categories, if you will, posture – pressure – prevention/prehab.
  1. Posture (technique) is alpha~omega for anything you do!
    1. When tamping, poor posture arises when your head is sitting in front of your body, your shoulder rolls forward, and your wrist is anything but neutral. What this means for you is that your body is compromised in a mechanically weaker position. Basically you’re more likely to suffer injuries.
      • Keep a neutral shoulder (for some that means pulling it back).
      • Lean forward at about 30-45 degrees to more easily active the big chest muscle (Pectoralis Major). It makes it easier to relax and get an even tamp.
      • Keep your elbow slightly lower than your shoulder and your forearm lined straight down to the table.
      • Stay balanced and apply even and level pressure through your whole hand.
      • Now apply even pressure through your whole hand from your core.
    2. As for grip, you want to avoid positions that the wrist are not designed for. Maintain a neutral wrist. The most common mistake is adding too much ulnar deviation (see Ouch! underneath). A neutral wrist position is clear if you look at the comparison. The photo shows how force translate through the wrist. It is a shame you can’t get the prima tamper anymore. No worries, though, as good form with a normal tamper gets you a stellar result.
      • Use the whole hand to spread the pressure more evenly.
      • With the palm at the top, your fingers should be touching the lower part of the tamper.
      • Examples coming up in the next post.

        Credit: Prima Coffee
    3. Pulling out milk from the low standing fridge with hunched posture is not ideal, so here is an outstandingly average tip: squat/lunge with a neutral spine when doing it.
  2. Pressure
    1. Of all the factors involved with extracting glorious coffee, tamping contributes the least! (*momentary, erratic thought* what contributes the most? I will have to get to that some other time!) As explained in more detail on the blog of Barista Hustle, the goal with tamping is gently squeezing out the air pockets between the coffee grinds and to keep as level as possible. The reason for this is to avoid channeling. Channeling basically means that water chooses the way of least resistance. This leads to inconsistent taste of the coffee as one part of the coffee grinds has more hot water flowing through it than another.

      Pressure graph
      Credit: Barista Hustle
  3. Prevention / Prehab
    1. You need to find a technique that you can sustain for long term. Remember, all you’re trying to achieve is even extraction in an ergonomic and consistent way.
    2. Read posture and pressure again to adopt better habits!
    3. If you’re already in trouble, your shoulders are falling apart, your neck, wrist and back aches. I would first recommend seeing a manual therapist (ie. chiropractor or physiotherapist). However, these are the exercises I would recommend if you want to give it a go to solve it on your own.
      1. Passive and active hanging. Believe me it is a long post, but if you like your shoulders and wish for them to love you, it is definitely worth the minuscule amount of time (relative to how long you’ve had your shoulders) to read it.
      2. Crawling. Crawling is a compound movement that combines whole-body strength, neuromuscular firing and coordination which serves to make your core and limb power more symmetrical. Basically, when you can crawl for a minute or more it means your core and limb strength are well balanced. Best of all crawling is fun when compared to boring rehab exercises and the progressions are endless!
      3. Barista wrist? Go easy on the crawling, however there should be little issues with hanging. A gyro/power ball is a great tool to safely increase wrist strength and create a surge of blood flow to help heal the injury. You should use it every day until you can comfortably keep it spinning smoothly for at least a minute.
      4. Shoe wear and heel lifts. Believe me, they definitely matter. I’ll keep it as brief as possible. Your body is one coherent, functioning unit. If you make a change to one part, there MUST be a change somewhere else to balance the body. This means your shoes might be part of your neck or back ache (will have to cover this later).

Let me deduct the take-away message for any barista out there. If you would love to reach your pinnacle of barista potential (or just feel better and do a better job), be wary of your posture while doing your job. At least bring your head back. With consistency as the objective, tamp as lightly as possible. If you’re already in a pinch check out Prevention / Prehab above.

For us mortals, stand up straight and have some awareness of your body when you go about doing what you do.

More about tamping next time! We will also cover free pouring!

Ending with a little something about coffee.

This morning I drank water because it’s healthy…warmed up. And poured over coffee grinds. In a mug. Coffee. I drank coffee.

Ciao ciao!

If you would like to check where these ideas were spawned.

5 thoughts on “Love coffee? Encourage baristas to love and take care of their bodies.

  1. He’s the hero Baristas deserves, but not the one they need right now (but in a few months 🙂
    Can you make a similar post for everyone sitting at desk with the computer on for 8 hours a day at work?


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