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Get STRONG after breast cancer

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

The best upper body exercises for improved shoulder mobility, function, and strength after treatment

The first and most vital piece of advice I can give is to ensure you do everything your physio tells you, pre and post-surgery and radiotherapy. Religiously do these exercises as regularly as instructed, to ensure your shoulder mobility is not restricted. What I want to talk more about here, is where to progress from this.

Stand Tall! Effects of treatment on posture

Trauma to any area of the body will mean you naturally and perhaps subconsciously, want to protect the affected area. If you’ve had a lumpectomy, mastectomy, or any form of surgery to the breast/chest area, you may feel your posture slipping, letting the shoulders round to protect the area. The same applies to the stomach if you’ve had a DIEP reconstruction.

So, in terms of rebuilding strength in the upper body to improve posture after treatment, in general I would aim to:

  • Practice regular expansion and contraction of the rib cage and intercostal muscles through breathing techniques such as these

  • Open up the chest, building on physio exercises by stretching the pectoral muscles regularly – here are some of my favourite examples using simple things you have round the house

  • Build upper back strength and isolate smaller muscles around the shoulders to improve posture and shoulder function – here are some examples to get you started

Get Strong! Strength training the upper body

My mission is to support clients to feel stronger and more in control of their bodies during and after treatment. Strength training can be anything from simple bodyweight exercises to Olympic barbell lifting (and anything in between). And the benefits in breast cancer are HUGE.

Twice weekly strength or resistance training will(1):

  • help keep your bones and joints strong, so important post menopause,

  • reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis,

  • reduce muscle wastage during treatment (chemo especially),

  • ease pain and stiffness in the joints caused by ongoing therapy and/or medically induced menopause,

  • increase energy levels,

  • reduce weight gain…and the list goes on.

There are precautions you need to take, BUT this does not mean you need to avoid weights and lifting all together.

I have seen clients go from strength to strength (quite literally), using resistance bands lifting kettlebells, barbells, and dumbbells during and after breast cancer treatment, with the right guidance. I would always advise getting the OK from your oncology team first and ensuring you have guidance from a cancer rehab specialist to advise on the best exercises, using the correct technique.

Put simply, these are the rules I follow:

  • Nail the shoulder mobility first before lifting too much weight to ensure the muscles in the upper body are working effectively

  • When you’re ready to begin lifting, start light and progress slowly. See how your body responds for a few days after lifting before progressing

  • Be cautious if you’ve had surgery or treatment to your lymph nodes. Unfortunately this will put you at a lifetime risk of lymphoedema. However this shouldn’t put you off, but specialist guidance is a must as you progress with strength training. Ensure you:

    • Don’t wrap resistance bands around the hands (or legs)

    • Avoid long (more than 45ish seconds) static holds such as the plank, although that’s not to say you can’t progress to this, but putting pressure through the affected area of the lymph can be risky

  • Allow for a rest day after strength training to support recovery, just going on a gentle walk to keep things moving

  • Be careful not to compete with your pre-cancer self. If you lifted before cancer, don’t compare weights lifted now (quite yet anyway!)

  • Make it fun! Find a trainer or training partner who you get on with, who motivates you and who you enjoy working out with. Get the environment right – outside in the fresh air is always more exhilarating (in my opinion!), or in the comfort of your own home if you prefer.

I genuinely believe that done in the right way, anything is possible post cancer. I hope this blog motivates you to get support in building your upper body strength. If you need any further guidance on strength training the upper body, please do get in touch.

Contact Sarah:

· T: 07742 442137

· S: @getmebackuk (Insta, Facebook, YouTube)

Look out for the next part of this blog series discussing lower body and core strength coming soon!


1. ACSM: Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Patients and Survivors

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