Australia's Biggest Morning Tea

Every dollar raised makes an incredible difference

Register Now


Strength and resistance training

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 or resistance that can be used include:

  • your own body weight – as in push-ups, pull-ups and squats, yoga and matwork Pilates
  • free weights – such as dumbbells and barbells, hand weights and weighted bags 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, weight stacks, levers and pulleys to provide resistance
  • elastic resistance bands – sometimes called TheraBands or stretch bands, they are like giant rubber bands that provide resistance when stretched; they are colour-coded 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.

How much to train

Try to do 2–3 sessions of strength training each week, on every other day. Strength and resistance training exercise sessions include several different parts:

  • repetition (reps) – the completion of an exercise from starting position, through the movement, and back to the start (e.g. ten squats is ten reps)
  • set – a series of repetitions (e.g. doing ten squats, two times, is two 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, 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.

We have provided some simple strength and resistance exercises to try with an exercise professional or at home below. Watch videos of these and other exercises.

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.

Standing push-up

Modified knee 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. 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.

Modified push-up

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 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 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 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 return to the starting position. Repeat.
Standing row

Chair rise

Muscle group: 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. Sit back down slowly. Repeat.

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.

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

Chair rise

Wall squat

Muscle group: Front of thighs and 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. Repeat.

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, 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. 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.

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

Shoulder press

Upright row

Muscle group:  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 weights with palms facing your thighs. Tighten the tummy muscles (abdominals).
  2. Bending your arms, raise both weights slowly 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, and avoid lifting your shoulders to your ears.
  3. Pause, then lower both weights back to the starting position. Repeat.

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

Upright row

Biceps curl

Muscle group:  Front of upper arms

Equipment: Hand weights, Gymstick, barbell or tin cans

  1. Stand with your arms by your side and feet hip width apart. 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.

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

Biceps curl


Muscle group: Stomach and side (core)

  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: Stomach and side (core)

  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: Stomach and side (core)

  1. Start on all fours, with legs hip width apart, knees directly under hips, hands directly under shoulders, and back 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 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 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. The bird-dog can also be performed lying over a fit ball, which can be a useful 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.

Bird dog


Exercise for People Living with Cancer

Download our Exercise for People Living with Cancer booklet to learn more and find support.

Download now  Order for free

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.

Page last updated:

The information on this webpage was adapted from Exercise for People Living with Cancer (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in September 2023. 

Talking bubbles icon

Questions about cancer?

Call or email our experienced cancer nurses for information and support.

Contact a cancer nurse