Occupational Fitness for Tattooers

In the last few months, health and fitness has become a major part of my life.
Since May 2012 I’ve lost sixty pounds. A passionate foodie, I’ve learned to cook healthy food, and time formerly spent killing time is now spent at the gym or doing 20+ mile bike rides while the rest of the city sleeps. Inevitably there’s been crossover in every facet of my life- and now my fitness bug has finally crossed over onto Occult Vibrations. One of the great things about running OV is that, while we have a ‘theme’ of occult and esoteric tattoo subject matter, I can always go off the grid and cover things like documentaries on comic book writers to fundraisers for schoolbooks  and even tattoo subject matter that falls outside of our focus and it’s alright. This is one of those things. It’s also the first ‘original content’ we’ve ever filmed for OV, so… be kind with my filming editing skills. They’ll get better, I swear.

My friend Jay Pepito- an awesome fella who’s in a band with my buddy Klint (the aforementioned fundraiser for school books Klint) and is a personal trainer at my gym, contacted me about running an article here on OV about fitness for tattooers. Exercises that are designed with the physical needs of tattooers in mind to make sure that they are able to have longer healthier careers. Jay is passionate about body and lifestyle conditioning. Just talking to him amps you up and makes you want to work that little bit harder. I found this quote by him particularly relevant to my life:

“I believe that only you can liberate yourself from the destructive cycles that you are trapped in, and that you know in your heart that you deserve to be free, happy, and whole.”

 Damned right. I accepted his request to write an article and even helped him shoot a (very amateur, very. My camera man skills are rusty) video showing how to implement the workouts in the article. I should point out the standard caveats now:


If you’re going to start a workout routine, do more than just read this article and watch a video; contact a personal trainer or talk to someone at your gym about the right way to do it. But these basic workouts can, if done correctly, make your life- and your tattooing- a lot easier.

Occupational Fitness for Tattooers
On a daily basis, I observe movement dysfunction in my clientele.  I’ll see students who spent hours at a computer with forward head syndrome, construction workers with spinal issues, runners with knee problems, etc.  Simply put, we are what we repeatedly do.  We ingrain patterns into our musculature, and those tissues remember those patterns.  Tattooers, like all tradespeople, are prone to particular issues, and having trained several, I’ve had some first hand experience with treatment for those issues.  This article is my attempt to explain some of these things to those of you in the tattoo trade who may have had some job-related physical issues that maybe  you think aren’t quite enough for a visit to the doctor, but could probably benefit from a little bit of tlc in the gym.

1) Low Back Pain and Lumbar Flexion

Imagine you’ve got a client laying on a table, working on a back piece.  For the parts closer to the ribs, you can probably reach fairly easily while seated, or standing right above them. But let’s assume that you have to work on shading a large section that cuts from left to right.  Rather than move your client around, you may just stand up, and sort of ‘bend over’ to finish the job.  This action on it’s own is probably not going to cause any lasting injury, but if you’re actually holding that sort of ‘bent back’ position for extended periods while you work, you will irritate your lower back, and have to deal with some unpleasant soreness later on.  Keep repeating this, and you may end up with chronic low back pain, a serious condition that may not be easily remedied.

We refer to this rounded lower back position as Lumbar Flexion, and it’s to be avoided generally, especially for prolonged periods.  If you’re feeling a great deal of back pain after a long day at work, ask yourself if you found yourself in Lumbar Flexion for most of that day’s tattoos.  If so, it may be time to modify your approach, by either learning to keep your lower back straight while working, or perhaps moving your client into a position where you can access the tattoo without rounding the lower back!  Generally, if someone has a pretty weak lower back, I’ll try to strengthen the area with exercises like back extensions, kettlebell swings, glute ham raises, etc.  Strengthening the lower back safely can be a bit challenging for gym newbies, so please consult a qualified trainer or coach to help you with your form!

2) Tight Hamstrings/Tight Hip Flexors

Tattooers spend a lot of time sitting, which is actually linked to early death, (seriously), as well as a host of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.  But for our purposes, one of the biggest issues I encounter with clients who work seated is tightness in the hamstrings (the back of your thighs) and hip flexors (imagine you’re standing, and I ask you to raise one leg up to about 90 degrees, and balance on the other; your hip flexors would be the muscles that are pulling your raised leg up).  Unfortunately, until someone develops a way to tattoo that doesn’t involve sitting, you’re going to have to treat these issues on your own.  Keeping the hips strong with exercises like squats, deadlifts, glute-bridges, lunges, and step-ups are a great way to keep the tissues healthy and performing, but it’s likely that you’ll also benefit from some static stretching in these areas.  Check out the video below for a few great stretches for the hamstrings and hip flexors.

3) Digital Extension

Manipulating a tattoo machine for hours at a time is a great way to strengthen your grip.  Unfortunately, it’s also a way to actually harm the muscles of your hands and forearms, due to overuse, and it can be particularly damaging because most of us favor one side.  If you think about it, you are essentially gripping something tightly for hours at a time with one hand, and never gripping the same way with the other, probably something you’d never do outside of your occupation.  One way to help out with balancing the strength of the hand and forearm muscles is by practicing finger, or digital, extension.  I basically just keep rubber bands around, and wrap them around my fingers, and go for sets of 10-12 at a time while I’m reading, or watching TV. It’s helpful because it allows the muscles that perform the opposite movement to gripping to get some exercise as well, and keep things balanced locally.

4) Shoulder Retraction

When you were younger, your parents, teachers, etc., probably frequently told you to ‘sit up straight’, or ‘fix your posture’.  One of the most important components of having good posture, is having healthy shoulders that sit in the proper spot.  Many of us carry rounded, or slumped shoulders, because for whatever reason, Western Culture promotes it.

This is actually really bad for your shoulder, which is an incredibly complicated and unstable intersection of 5 separate joints.  One easy way to help with this is to perform exercises that encourage retraction, or pinching together, of the shoulder blades.  Things like rows, chin-ups, band pull-aparts, face-pulls, etc., are great for strengthening the muscles that encourage healthy shoulder positioning.  However, a few hours in the gym per week won’t undo the countless hours spent everyday with rounded shoulders.  So it’s absolutely essential to catch yourself in the act, and correct it by pulling your shoulders back into a healthy position.  As it turns out, your parents were right about this.]

5) Hydration

If you’re like me, sometimes a whole day goes by without a sip of water.  This is inexcusable.  Water is one of the essential components of the human body, and without it, things don’t function quite properly.  Despite what you may have heard, there is no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest a minimum or maximum amount of water per day, so the old 8 glasses a day thing is a bit of a fallacy.  However, it’s not bad practical advice.  I’d say, if you’re active, shoot for at least 12 a day.  Maybe keep a 32oz refillable water bottle on hand, and try to drink one during every tattoo you do that day.  If you do 3 2-hour tattoos, that’s 96 oz, which is exactly 12 glasses of water.  Not too difficult eh?

Try adding these simple suggestions to your routine.  You may find that a nagging problem you’ve had for a while is alleviated by some  modifications to your movement patterns.  I hope these help you out, and give you the physical capacity for a long and healthy tattoo career!

Jay Pepito is a certified personal trainer currently teaching weight-lifting at the University of Pennsylvania and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from Temple University.  He owns a Personal Training/Strength and Conditioning business called Supreme Strength and Conditioning, located in Philadelphia, PA.  When Jay is not training himself or others, he enjoys riding his Harley, creating music, playing with his dog, getting tattooed, and eating copious amounts of animal protein.  He is fortunate enough to wear tattoos by Eli Quinters, Mike Schweigert, Kevin Leblanc, Joey Knuckles, Norm, Josh Hoffman, Zeke Owens, and Steve Tiberi.  You can follow him on instagram and twitter as @jaypepito, or you can check out his website, www.trainsupreme.com, for fitness articles and other random musings.


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