Building upper body strength after breast cancer

After breast surgery it’s common to feel a sense of mistrust in your body, second-guessing even the simplest exercise or movement. Even kinaesthetically aware yoga and Pilates teachers report feeling this way post-surgery. With this in mind, an important part of your journey towards greater wellbeing should involve strengthening the mind-body connection and rebuilding trust.

In rebuilding your relationship with your body, it’s important to ask yourself some fundamental questions: Am I working too hard? Not hard enough? Is this sensation a warning or validation? Taking the time to reflect on inwardly focused questions like these will help you to reconnect mind and body, regain trust and build confidence.

At this stage of your recovering and rehabilitation, you’ve worked hard to establish support, alignment and strength in your central spinal support system. Now, you’re ready to work your upper body (obliques, rotator cuff group–especially subscapularis, shoulder girdle and shoulder muscles) with far less risk of creating tension and strain that could set you back.

Piggybacking on the muscles that we looked at in our Central Support article, let’s revisit the key role played by the abdominal obliques. These muscles form the base of support for the upper body and help keep the ribs aligned so that shoulders sit properly. Fibres of the obliques weave together with the serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi muscles—two important and powerful muscles that help control movements and stability of the shoulder complex.

Once the obliques are awake and providing support in the torso, it becomes easier to work with “spiralling the arm bone” and setting it correctly into the shoulder socket. Next, we turn attention to the rotator cuff group deep in the shoulder. These relatively small muscles need to be strengthened to help secure the arm bone in the socket, giving the shoulder inherent stability. Finally, we’re ready to work the entire shoulder complex, integrating torso, shoulder girdle and shoulder muscles to build upper body strength with good alignment and smooth movement.


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 3 sets of 6 to 10 repetitions (reps) of each exercise (approximately 15 minutes)
    [NOTE: the other two breast cancer articles say this: 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


Side Wall Lean (obliques, serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi)

  • Start by standing with the right side of your body towards a wall and your right hand slightly forward of your body, against the wall (elbow should be slightly bent
  • Keep entire body long and straight and lean (from ankles) into the wall, bending elbow deeply
  • Straighten elbow to return to the start position

Feel for muscles in the arm and side torso (obliques) working as you move. As you gain control and feel confident about using the arm and side torso, try pushing off and landing on the wall with your hand. It will start to feel like a sideways push-up!

Caution: If you feel the front ball of your shoulder working or straining, move your hand a little more forward on the wall. Ideally, your arm and torso muscles should be working, not the front of the shoulder.

Side Bend with Arm Sweep (spine and shoulder integration)

  • Stand with your feet hip-distance apart (or a little wider if that helps you feel steadier) and place your arms at your sides
  • Tilt your head and bend your upper body to the right so it feels like your ribs are closing on your right side and opening apart on your left
  • Simultaneously reach your right arm out to right as if you’re offering someone an apple with your hand
  • Reverse to tall standing

The key here is syncing the side bend motion with the arm sweep/reach. The movement should feel fluid and easy–like your arm is an extension of your torso.

Arm Wave (rotator cuff)

  • Stand with your feet hip-distance apart (or a little wider if it helps you feel steadier)
  • Cross your arms over the front of your body as if your hands are in the front pockets of a pair of pants
  • Start to move your arms up and out to sides until you reach a V shape
  • Reverse the motion and cross your arms over your back as if you’re placing your hands into your back pockets

The key is turning your arms out on the way up and in on the way down into the pockets (both front and back). Modify or decrease the motion if there is any strain and feel for muscles working in your arms, chest and upper back.

W to V Arms Against Wall (upper mid-back & shoulders)

  • Stand with back against a wall and your arms in a W shape, palms facing your head
  • Try to keep back straight against the wall as you slide your arms upward into a V shape
  • Reverse the motion to return to the start position

This exercise works your upper body muscles against gravity and can be tiring. Feel for muscles working in your entire upper body, in particular between your shoulders blades. Modify or decrease the motion if there’s any strain but remember that it’s common to feel fatigue building at the top of the shoulders and back of your neck—a good sign that some critical support muscles for your neck and shoulders are waking up!


Original version of article published in: Re-Think Breast Cancer, March 28 2017

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