Strength-training exercises

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

The weights used in strength-training exercises include:

  • your own body weight – as in push-ups and squats
  • free weights – such as dumbbells and barbells, which you hold, or wrist and ankle weights, which you attach with straps
  • weight machines – devices that have adjustable seats with handles attached to either weights or hydraulics
  • elastic resistance bands – sometimes called TheraBands, these are like giant rubber bands that provide resistance when stretched; they are colourcoded according to the level of resistance.

An exercise professional can advise which weights and bands you should use. As a general guide, women might start with hand weights of 1 kg each and men might start with 2 kg. Once you can do 10–12 repetitions of an exercise easily and without strain, you can gradually add extra weight or use tighter bands.

You can buy free weights and resistance bands at sporting goods stores and some major retailers. Some people make hand weights from everyday objects, such as plastic bottles filled with water or sand. If you try this, use scales to check they are equal weight.

Some simple strength-training exercises are shown below. You may want to begin with exercises to develop your balance and strengthen your core muscles and then progress to the other strengthening exercises.

How much?

Try to do 2–3 sessions of strength training each week, on every other day. It is important to have rest days between the sessions. Strength-training exercises involve a number of variables:

  • repetition – the completion of an exercise from starting position, through the movement, and back to the start
  • set – a series of repetitions
  • rest – the time between sets.

During each training session, you will complete a number of sets of different exercises. An exercise professional can help design the best program for you. As a guide, you might aim for 6–9 different exercises per session and choose exercises that target the major muscle groups of the arms, legs and torso. For each of the exercises in a session, you might do:

  • 6–12 repetitions of the exercise per set
  • 1–4 sets of the exercise per session
  • 60–90 seconds of rest between sets.

A program should challenge your muscles without straining them, so that may also guide how many repetitions you do in a set to begin with. Once you become comfortable with a program, you can make it more demanding, but do this by small increases.

Check with your health care team before starting any new exercise program. Although we have provided strength-training exercises to suit most people, some of them may not be right for you.

One-leg balance

Muscle group: Overall balance

  1. Stand on a soft but firm surface, such as an exercise mat or carpet.
  2. Slowly bend one knee to lift the foot off the ground so that you are balancing on the other leg. Keep your eyes on a fixed point in front of you and breathe slowly and deeply. Hold the pose for several seconds if you can.
  3. Lower your leg and put your foot back on the ground. Repeat the exercise with the other leg.

You may want to start near a chair or wall so you can steady yourself. For a challenge, put your hands on your head as you balance and/or close your eyes.

One-leg balance


Muscle group: Core (torso and pelvis)

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about hip width apart. Place your hands on your lower abdomen and lift your pelvic floor muscles. Keep breathing normally.
  2. Slowly lower one knee out to the side, without moving the hips. Hold for 15–30 seconds.
  3. Return to starting position. Repeat with the other knee.

Pelvis tilt

Muscle group: Core (torso and pelvis)

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your 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. Relax the muscles and rest for a few seconds, then repeat the pelvic tilt.
Pelvis tilt


Muscle group: Core (torso and pelvis)

  1. Start on all fours, with legs hip width apart, knees directly under hips, hands directly under shoulders, and back in a straight line. Do not lock the shoulders.
  2. Keeping your back flat and steady, extend one leg while supporting the torso with both hands on the floor. Once balanced, slowly extend the opposite arm. Pause for 5–10 seconds.
  3. Maintain normal breathing. Slowly return to all fours. Change sides and repeat the bird-dog pose.

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

Bird dog

Standing 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, bending your arms at the elbow.
  3. Once your nose is close to the wall, push away, against your body weight. Breathe out as you push back to the starting position. Repeat the standing push-up.
Standing push-up

Modified push-up

Muscle group: 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, bending your arms at the elbow.
  3. Push up – try not to lock your elbows at the top. Breathe out as you push back up to the starting position. Repeat the modified push-up.

If you feel any pain in your back doing this exercise, bring your hands closer to your body.

Modified push-up

Calf raise

Muscle group: Calves (back of lower leg) 

Equipment: Step, hand weights (optional)

  1. Stand upright, with a wall or chair as support if necessary.
  2. Lift your heels off the ground, keeping your knees and body straight. Breathe out while lifting.
  3. Hold the position for a moment. Return to the starting position, then repeat the calf raise.

Increase the difficulty slightly by standing with the balls of your feet on a small step (so that your heels hang over the edge) and/or holding weights in your hands. You can also add challenge by doing the exercise one leg at a time.

Calf raise

Standing row

Muscle Group: Shoulders, back and triceps (back of arm) 

Equipment: Elastic resistance band

  1. Attach the resistance band to a fixed point, ensuring it is well secured. Stand with your arms outstretched at waist height.
  2. Pull the resistance band by drawing your elbows backwards and maintaining hands at waist height. Breathe out while pulling the band. Make sure your spine does not move, but keep your neck and upper shoulders relaxed.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position, then repeat the standing row.
Standing row

Chair rise

Muscle group: Quadriceps (front of thigh) and gluteals (buttocks)

Equipment: Chair

  1. Sit towards the middle or front of a chair with your hands on your knees.
  2. Stand up, using your hands on your knees for assistance if necessary. Keep your back straight as you stand up. Breathe out while standing.
  3. Sit back down slowly, then repeat the chair rise.

Add a challenge by standing without using your hands to assist, then try with your arms across your chest. When standing unassisted, stand in one movement without rocking.

Chair rise

Wall squat

Muscle group: Quadriceps (front of thigh) and gluteals (buttocks)

  1. Stand 30–40 cm from a wall with feet shoulder width apart. Slightly bend your knees and lean back into the wall, placing your arms and palms against the wall. Tilt your pelvis so your back is flat to the wall. Tuck your chin in.
  2. Keeping your body in contact with the wall, slide down (as if 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 up until you are back into starting position, then repeat the wall squat.

Add a challenge by sliding further down the wall, but stop before the knees go over and in front of the toes (there should be no more than a 90-degree angle between hip and knee).

Wall squat

Shoulder press

Muscle group:  Shoulders

Equipment: Gymstick, barbell, pole, broomstick 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. Push the bar up until it is above and slightly in front of your head. Breathe out during the lift and maintain good posture – don’t raise your shoulders.
  3. Pause, then lower the bar back to the starting position. Repeat the lift.

Increase the difficulty by adding weight or elastic resistance to the bar.

Shoulder press

Upright row

Muscle group:  Shoulders and trapezius (upper back)

Equipment: Hand weights

  1. Stand with your arms by your side and your feet shoulder width apart. Hold the weights with palms facing
  2. your thighs. Tighten the tummy muscles (abdominals).
  3. Bending your arms, raise both weights slowly
  4. up to shoulder height. Breathe out when lifting the weights and avoid jerking them up. Maintain your head and neck position, looking straight ahead. Feel the exercise work the muscles in your shoulders and not in your neck.
  5. Pause, then lower both weights back to the starting position. Repeat the lift.
Upright row

Biceps curl

Muscle group:  Biceps (upper arm)

Equipment: Hand weights, Gymstick or barbell

  1. Stand with your arms by your side. Hold the weights with your palms pointing forward.
  2. Bend your elbows to lift the weights to shoulder height. Keep your elbows tucked in, avoid moving your shoulders and make sure your body does not sway. Breathe out during the lift.
  3. Slowly return almost to the starting position but do not fully straighten your elbows – keep them slightly bent. Repeat the lift.
Biceps curl

Expert content reviewers:

Prof Sandi Hayes, Senior Research Fellow, ihop Research Group, School of Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, QLD; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA, SA; Chris Pidd, Consumer; Steve Pratt, Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager, Cancer Council WA, WA; Kellie Toohey, Accredited Exercise Physiologist, University of Canberra, ACT.

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