Upper body strength – a gentle start

I get asked about this a lot. (This, and ‘how do I get a flat tummy?’. That’s a whole different conversation) Particularly after breast cancer treatment, I’m asked how to build strength and flexibility in the arms and shoulders, in a way that’s safe yet effective. I’m writing this now after doing a Facebook Live with Breast Cancer Care. You can see the little film we made here…

You need to wait 8 weeks after surgery, to be sure that the wounds are fully healed deep down, as well as on the surface of the skin. Then I recommend using resistance bands (rather than weights) and your own body weight, and to build up a basic routine that, in time, can be built upon. Try to do this 3 times a week, on non-consecutive days so that your muscles can repair in between – it’s the combination of rest and resistance that causes us to build stronger muscles.

Try these 7 exercises. When you’re using a resistance band, let the slack, non-used part of the band just fall away, rather than wrapping it around your fingers as this could affect your circulation. Once you’re familiar with how to do each exercise, adjust the length of the band – shorter, in order to work harder – so that there’s enough resistance that doing 10-12 repetitions of each exercise is enough. What you’re aiming to do is to tire the muscles each time. None of this should hurt though, and if you’re feeling a twinge, perhaps through cording or frozen shoulder, then ease off, and discuss it with your specialist nurse.

These exercises are chosen specifically to help with problems with shoulder mobility, and are safe for you to do if you’re at risk, or suffering, from lymphaodema (just make sure that you wear your sleeve, and follow the usual precautions.)

The trick here is to start small, but gradually build it up over a period of, say, 6 or 8 weeks, so that you are challenging yourself steadily. You will hopefully find that your strength increases and you need a stronger band. Be a real nerd about technique – do these exercises really really well and stop if you find that fatigue is making you perform them badly. Enjoy.


Wrap the band around your back and hold it underneath your armpits with your elbows bent and fists facing side on. Slowly straighten the arms.



Anchor your band under one foot and start with your arm by your side. Keeping the arm straight, and the thumb pointing downwards, raise the fist up to shoulder height and lower.


Hold band along your spine, and then straighten the upper arm slowly. Make sure the band stays in a straight line and stretch it up above the head so the band follows the middle of your spine and head.


Hold the band under one foot, and at full length. Starting with the fist at shoulder level, and palm facing away from the body, stretch the arm right up as far as you can above your head, keeping the rest of your body still.

5.  ROW

Anchor the band securely in the middle around a door handle, post etc. Hold your tummy muscles taut and the band in each hand with your elbows bent and by your waist. Draw the elbows and shoulder blades back, in a rowing motion. Don’t rock the rest of your body – only your arms should move.



Stand with your band under your front foot. Hold your fists together in the middle of your tummy. Draw your hands gradually up the middle of your torso with your elbows wide. Do until your fists are up to your armpits (no higher). Your elbows should be higher than your fists the whole time.


Stand close to a wall, with your arms straight out and hands at armpit height on the wall. Keeping your trunk and back straight, come up onto the balls of your feet then let your body sink towards the wall by bringing your elbows back and your shoulder blades together. Don’t let your hips sink low, or too high. Your body should stay in a straight line from head to ankles, and only your shoulders, elbows and wrists move. If this feels too easy, try taking a tiny step further away from the wall, drop your hands a little lower so they’re still at shoulder height, and try this again.


  1. Carolyn, I found the video yesterday the helpful/ reassuring of all information and support I have found since diagnosis December 2017. As I live in rural North Derbyshire I am a good way from you! Do you do phone or email consultations? Another 2 chemo and radio to follow, am wanting to maintain as much fitness as possible throughout treatment. Happy to pay. Thanks, Sarah


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