Resistance Exercise: How to Incorporate Strength Training Into Your Routine

Kate Williams Bone Health, Exercise for Cancer, Physical Function, Resistance Exercise, Strength training

Last month we talked about the benefits of resistance (or strength training) exercise during and after treatment. Hopefully if you are already undertaking this type of exercise, it has underlined the importance of persisting with it, and if you’re not already doing it, we’ve motivated you to get started! … So where is that exactly?

Where should I go?

First it is worth considering location. If you are already a member of a gym or fitness facility, or like the idea of attending a ready-made space, this may be a good option for you. These places can be useful in that they have lots of different exercise options, allow you to potentially meet up with a workout buddy and offer the flexibility of independent routines or group classes. However if you find such establishments intimidating, transport is problematic or are financially restricted, a home workout – or one you can take down to the local park – may be a better option for you. Alternatively you may wish to start in a more personal environment with supervision, which our clinic gym and exercise physiologists at MAC offer.

What should I use?

Next, what equipment is best for ensuring good results? If at facility you’ll likely have a range of options – machines, cables, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls… the list goes on. Whilst having a range of equipment is useful, it’s really about what you DO with it that matters. Make sure what you choose is appropriate for you, allowing you to perform the movement with correct technique. If you’re at home and have no equipment to speak of, fear not – many of the most effective exercises involve no equipment at all! (scroll to the end of our blog to see a video with a few examples) Your own bodyweight, or simple household items such as soup cans, filled drink bottles or a basic chair can come in very handy. Resistance bands are a cost effective tool which can be used for a whole variety of low-impact movements.

How much should I do?

The general consensus for muscle and strength gain is 2-4 sets (number of times you perform the exercise between rests) of 8-12 reps (number of times you actually complete the movement) with 30 seconds to 1.5 minutes rest between sets. However this very broad ‘recipe’ is not appropriate for everyone. For some people who are just beginning strength training, a good starting point may be to perform an exercise for only one set of 6 repetitions, as they build up their strength and get used to the movement. Alternatively at times it may be more beneficial to perform an exercise with a lighter weight for 15-20 repetitions. Resistance level is also important; the weight selected should challenge you in the final few repetitions of an exercise, while still allowing you to perform the exercise with proper form. This area in particular is where you should really be guided by your exercise physiologist to set-up the best plan for YOU.

How often should I do it?

Lastly, performing the program 2-3 times per week, on non-adjacent days, generally leads to optimal strength gains. A days break between resistance sessions is important in allowing muscle repair and regeneration, ensuring adequate recovery to avoid unnecessary fatigue and allowing muscle growth to occur. Our on-site MAC group performs their program each Monday and Thursday, whilst others of my patients – who perhaps have been involved in their programs longer, or were already doing resistance activity prior to their treatment – take a Monday, Wednesday, Friday approach.

Things to remember:

  • The program that is right for you will depend, among other things, on your type of cancer, treatment type, stage and side effects and previous exercise levels. Your exercise physiologist is the best starting point to determine the most appropriate plan for your personal situation.
  • If you are currently undergoing treatment for cancer, even aiming to maintain your muscle mass and strength can be a good starting point. ‘Stopping the rot’ will go a long way towards helping you cope with your treatment.
  • If you were previously doing strength training but have had a break – whether due to treatment or otherwise – consider having your program reassessed. It’s likely your level of fitness may have changed, and along with it the suitability of the routine.
  • A strengthen program needn’t take up much time. Much can be achieved in only 10 minutes, whilst simply integrating body weight movements into your everyday work or home live may also achieve effective results.

If you have any questions on resistance exercise training for cancer, feel free to email Kate at .

BAECHLE, T. R., & EARLE, R. W. (2000). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, Ill, Human Kinetics.

Welcome to ENRICH, video, Cancer Council NSW, October 2016, viewed 15 December 2016, <>.