Skip to content

Strength-training exercises

Strength and resistance training uses weights or other resistance to increase the size, strength and endurance of your muscles, and to strengthen bones. It is sometimes called weight training.

The weights used in strength-training exercises include:

  • your own body weight – you use body weight for push-ups, pull-ups from the floor or against a wall, and squats, yoga and matwork Pilates
  • free weights – this includes dumbbells and barbells, hand weights and weighted bags which you hold, along with wrist and ankle weights which you attach with straps
  • weights or resistance machines – these are devices that have adjustable seats or handles attached to either weights or hydraulics, weight stacks, levers and pulleys to provide resistance
  • elastic resistance bands – sometimes called TheraBands or stretch bands, they are like giant rubber bands that are hard to stretch; they come in different colours according to the level of resistance.

An exercise professional can suggest what weights or bands you should use. You can buy free weights and resistance bands at sporting goods stores, some major retailers or online. Hand weights can be made from tin cans or plastic bottles filled with water or sand. Use scales to check the weights are of equal value. Use a backpack that has a handle to hold, and vary the resistance by adding bags of sand or water bottles.

This section includes simple strength and resistance exercises to try with an exercise professional or at home. You can also watch videos of these exercises online here.

How much training should I do?

Try to do strength and resistance training at least 2–3 times a week, with a rest day between each session. Strength and resistance training exercise sessions include several different parts:

  • repetition – doing an exercise from the start position, through the movement, and back to the start (e.g. 10 squats is 10 reps)
  • set – a series of repetitions (e.g. doing 10 squats, 2 times, is 2 sets)
  • rest – the time between sets.

During each training session, aim for 6–10 exercises that target the major muscle groups of the arms, legs and torso. An exercise professional can design a program, or as a guide, you can try:

  • 6–10 different types of exercises
  • 4–10, 6–12 or 8–12 repetitions of each exercise per set
  • 1–4 sets or rounds of each exercise per session
  • 1–2 minutes of rest between sets.

A program should challenge your muscles without straining them. This is a good way to decide how many repetitions you do in a set when you first start exercising.

To help work out the repetitions or amount of resistance, aim to feel like you have 2–3 repetitions left at the end of a set. If you feel like you could do another 8–10 repetitions, then the resistance is too low. Once you become comfortable with a program, you can increase your strength by making it harder – but just make small increases at a time.

You may feel some soreness after exercising. This is normal at the end of a set, or 1 or 2 days after you have exercised. But any soreness should not be excessive. If you are quite sore or the pain continues for more than 2 days, then the session or resistance was too hard.

Standing wall push-up

Muscle group: Chest and shoulders

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Lean slightly against the wall with your arms outstretched at shoulder height and your hands on the wall. Do not lock your elbows or knees.
  2. Slowly move your body towards the wall, by bending your arms at the elbow. Keep your feet where they are.
  3. Once your nose is close to the wall, breathe out as you slowly push away, against your body weight, and return to the starting position. Repeat.

If this is too easy, move your feet back a bit or try a modified knee push-up.

Modified knee push-up

Muscle groups: Chest, shoulders and arms

  1. Start with your knees and hands on the floor and your arms extended. Keep your back and bottom as straight as possible, and keep your head in line with your spine.
  2. Lower your torso slowly, by bending your arms at the elbow. Aim to keep your chest moving straight towards the floor (not forwards or backwards). Only go as far down as you feel you can.
  3. Breathe out as you push back up to the starting position, and try not to fully straighten your arms and lock your elbows at the top. Repeat.

If you feel any pain in your back doing this exercise, bring your hands closer to your body. If this still feels hard, do the wall push-up until you build more strength.

Calf raise

Muscle group: Calves
Equipment: Wall, step, hand weights (optional)

  1. Stand upright, with your hand resting against a wall or on a stable chair as a support (if necessary).
  2. Breathe out as you lift your heels off the ground, keeping your knees and body straight.
  3. Hold the position for a moment. Return to the starting position. Repeat.

Don’t try this exercise if you have balance issues or tend to feel dizzy or light-headed.

As you improve, increase the difficulty by standing with the balls of your feet on a step (so that your heels hang over the edge), holding a hand rail. You can also try the exercise as pictured holding hand weights, or doing one leg at a time.

Standing row

Muscle groups: Shoulders, back, and back of upper arms
Equipment: Elastic resistance band

  1. Attach the resistance band to a fixed point such as a railing, pole or a closed door handle, ensuring it’s well secured. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your arms outstretched at waist height.
  2. Breathe out as you pull the resistance band towards you, keeping your elbows and hands at waist height. Make sure your back doesn’t move, and look straight ahead. Keep neck and shoulders relaxed to avoid your shoulders lifting up.
  3. Slowly and with control return to the starting position. Repeat.

Chair rise

Muscle groups: Front of thighs and buttocks
Equipment: Chair

  1. Sit towards the middle or slightly to the front of a chair with your hands on your knees.
  2. Breathe out as you stand up, using your hands on your knees for assistance if you need to. Keep your back tall and straight as you stand up. Keep your head up and look straight ahead. Try to stand up in one movement, without rocking forward and back to help you.
  3. Slowly sit back down. Repeat.

Increase the difficulty by crossing your arms over your chest, or holding hand weights. Or try not sitting down, but just touching the seat lightly before  standing up again.

If you are doing this exercise for the first time and feel off balance, please do this with an exercise professional, carer or friend.

Wall squat

Muscle groups: Front of thighs and buttocks

  1. Stand about 30 cm in front of a wall with your feet shoulder width apart. Slightly bend your  knees and lean back onto the wall, putting your arms and palms against it. Tilt your pelvis so your back is flat against the wall and tuck your chin in a little.
  2. Keeping your body against the wall, slowly slide down (as if you’re going to sit) until you can feel your legs working – this may not be very far. Hold for 10–30 seconds if you can.
  3. Slowly slide back up the wall again until you are back to the starting position. Repeat.

Increase the difficulty by sliding further down, but stop before your knees go over your toes (there should be no more than a 90-degree angle between hip and knee).

Shoulder press

Muscle group: Shoulders
Equipment: Gym stick, barbell, pole, broomstick, tin cans or hand weights

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Hold the bar at chest height with your elbows  almost completely bent (so they are almost touching your sides).
  2. Breathe out as you push the bar up until it is above and slightly in front of your head. Keep your back and neck straight and don’t lift your shoulders.
  3. Pause, then lower the bar back to the starting position. Repeat.

Increase the difficulty by adding weight to the bar or increasing your hand weights.

Upright row

Muscle groups: Shoulders and upper back
Equipment: Hand weights, tin cans

  1. Stand with your arms by your side and your feet shoulder width apart. Hold the hand weights with your palms facing backwards. Tighten the tummy muscles (abdominals).
  2. Breathe out as you bend your arms and raise the hand weights slowly up to shoulder height.  Avoid jerking the weights when lifting them up. Keep your head and neck aligned, and look straight ahead. Avoid lifting your shoulders to your ears. You should feel the muscles in your shoulders work, not the ones in your neck.
  3. Pause, then lower the hand weights back to the starting position. Repeat.

Use lighter weights to start with and increase as your strength and fitness improve.

Biceps curl

Muscle group: Front of upper arms
Equipment: Hand weights, gym stick, barbell or tin cans

  1. Stand with your arms by your side and feet hip width apart. Hold the hand weights with your palms pointing away from you.
  2. Breathe out as you bend your elbows to lift the weights to shoulder height. Keep your elbows tucked in at the sides. Try not to move your shoulders and make sure your body does not sway.
  3. Slowly return the hand weights almost to the starting position without fully straightening your elbows – keep them slightly bent. Repeat.

Use lighter weights to start with and increase as your strength and fitness improve.

Clamshell

Muscle groups: Stomach and side (core)

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about hip width apart.  Place your hands on your lower tummy (abdomen) and lift your pelvic floor muscles. Keep breathing normally.
  2. Slowly lower one knee a little bit out to the side, without moving the hips. If your hips tilt to one side, you have lowered your knee too far. Hold for 15–30 seconds.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position. Repeat with the other knee.

Pelvic tilt

Muscle groups: Stomach and side (core)

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor about hip width apart.
  2. Flatten your back by tightening the muscles in your abdomen and buttocks. This will tilt your pelvis up slightly. Hold for several seconds.
  3. Fully relax the muscles and rest for a few seconds. Repeat.

Bird-dog

Muscle groups: Stomach and side (core)

  1. Start on all fours, with legs hip width apart, knees directly under hips, hands directly under shoulders, and back and head in a straight line. Keep the elbows slightly bent. Gently lift your pelvic floor and lower abdomen to support your lower back.
  2. Keeping your back straight and steady, extend one leg while supporting the torso with both hands on the floor. Once balanced, slowly extend the opposite arm. Hold for 5–10 seconds.
  3. Keep breathing normally. Slowly return to all fours. Repeat on the other side.

If you find it hard to keep your balance, leave both hands on the floor and just extend one leg at a time. You can also do the bird-dog lying over a fitball, which can be a good alternative for people with bad knees who find it difficult to kneel.

Increase the duration of each hold by a few seconds each week. To make it more challenging, try holding a light hand weight with your outstretched arm.

Featured resource

Exercise for People Living with Cancer

Download PDF

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed August 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Kirsten Adlard, Accredited Exercise Physiologist, The University of Queensland, QLD; Dr Diana Adams, Medical Oncologist, Macarthur Cancer Therapy Centre, NSW; Grace Butson, Senior Physiotherapist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Cox, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Wai Yin Chung, Consumer; Thomas Harris, Men’s Health Physiotherapist, QLD; Clare Hughes, Chair of Cancer Council’s Nutrition, Alcohol and Physical Activity Committee; Jen McKenzie, Level 1 Lymphoedema Physiotherapist, ESSA Accredited Exercise Physiologist, The McKenzie Clinic, QLD; Claudia Marck, Consumer; Dr David Mizrahi, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Research Fellow, The Daffodil Centre at Cancer Council NSW and The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Rob Newton, Professor of Exercise Medicine, Exercise Medicine Research Institute, Edith Cowan University, WA; Jason Sonneman, Consumer.

You might also be interested in: