Building central support sfter Breast Cancer surgery

If you started re-building your physical strength after surgery by following the exercises in Part 1 of our three-part series, you should feel an increased range of motion and mobility. And hopefully a greater sense of ease and confidence in your body. This next series of exercises will help you to focus on your spine and build central support for your entire body—from the inside out.

Finding central support

Just as the mast of a ship supports the main sail, your spine is the main support for your entire body. Think of your body’s central support system as a half-wetsuit that wraps the torso and covers the hips and shoulders. Everything inside the wetsuit contributes to the support system that keep you upright, stable and mobile. And while breast cancer surgery affects your upper body, adding exercises that focus on your spine will set the stage to building core strength and three-dimensional support for your entire body.

Improving central support

Deep in the body, there are a group of muscles that form what we refer to as “a girdle of support.” Nestled along the spine are the multifidi muscles which are responsible for almost 70% of the spine’s stability. Next are the more than 20 muscles used to breathe. Conditioning our breathing muscles is critical to creating a stable yet mobile ribcage— the bony base of support for the shoulders. More superficial are the abdominal obliques which provide muscular support around the ribs. These muscles connect to the primary muscles in our shoulders and help control smooth, efficient movement in the upper body. Finally, the muscles of the buttocks and back work to create a posterior sling like a diagonal seat belt running from each hip to the opposite shoulder.

These four sets of muscles, when in sync, help us feel stable, aligned and secure through the midriff. They provide the critical base of support we need for moving our upper body. When you access and target these muscle systems correctly, you create support that will help balance out pain, strain or weakness in the body.

The process of developing a strong support system requires commitment and hard work but after four to six weeks of doing these exercises three to five times a week, you should feel significant improvements in strength, power and confidence.

Starter exercises for central support


This exercise series is designed to recondition your entire body before you return to regular workouts that involve bearing weight on your arms. You should not feel any pulling or ripping sensations. If you feel any strain, make your range of motion smaller. If this does not help, omit the exercise altogether and revisit in a week. Exercises should only be attempted on the recommendation of your physician.

  • Try 6 to 10 reps of each exercise one after the other, then do three sets of the entire series (approximately 15 minutes)
  • Start with 3 to 5 times a week


Breathing (lateral and back)

  • Sit or stand and wrap a stretchy band (or even a pair of tights) around your midriff
  • Cross the ends over each other in the front and pull on them, so the band feels snug around your ribs and abdomen
  • Breathe laterally (out to the sides) and backwards, so your torso expands into the band
  • As you exhale, deflate and narrow your torso to squeeze the air out, tugging on the band at the same time so it pulls in around you

Don’t worry about taking a big breath. Focus on expanding sideways and back without raising shoulders and straining your neck. Keep it small to start and if you feel strain or excessive tightening in your neck, ease off.

Rocking (multifidi)

  • Stand in a split stance with one foot forward and one foot back
  • Rock from foot to foot in a rhythmic motion, allowing your arms to swing easily
  • Repeat on the other side

Although this exercise works the deep multifidi muscles, it’s unlikely you’ll actually feel them working. You may be aware of muscles in your buttocks and legs, however, which is normal.

Hip sway (obliques)

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat
  • Lay arms at sides, like an A-frame
  • Sway your knees to the left until you feel heavy on your left buttock and shoulder (right buttock and lower back will lift off the ground)
  • Roll back to centre as if unwinding the spine until you return to the start position. Repeat on the other side

If easy and comfortable, keep your shoulders square. If not, allow them to move with you.

Neutral bridge (buttocks and back)

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat
  • Lay your arms at your sides
  • Press your feet and the back of your shoulders into the floor and raise your hips toward the sky
  • Lower your hips with control

When you lift your hips, imagine a long diagonal line from your shoulders to your knees. If you feel your lower back working a lot, lower your hips slightly: you may feel your buttocks immediately or not. Avoid squeezing them as this may strain your knees.

Continue with Part 3 of this series: Building upper body strength after breast cancer

Original version of article published in: Re-Think Breast Cancer, March 21 2017

Published on

Sign Up

Enjoy exercise analysis, class design, career advice, success stories and more! Get Body Harmonics Shoptalk blog articles delivered to your inbox.

Pilates At Home Free Trial