5 Tips for Returning to Strength Training After a Mastectomy

If you’re a woman who lifts weights and find yourself faced with having a mastectomy, you’ll have a lot of research and reading to do. So for Breast Cancer Awareness month, I wanted to share the top five things I wish I’d known as a woman who strength trains and has had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in March and May of 2015, respectively.

Strength training after a mastectomyMy hope is that by reading about another woman lifter’s experience, your experience will be a little easier.

If you had a mastectomy that wasn’t prophylactic, you can certainly use what you need here and leave the rest. There’s a whole other set of physical and emotional challenges when you have cancer, but you’re still a woman who lifts, and therefore, we’re sisters.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or physical therapist. This information is based only on my personal experience, and I can’t possibly know what YOU should do – check with your doctor or physical therapist before starting any exercise program.

5 Tips for Returning to Strength Training after a Mastectomy

Be sure to also read my article on Strength Training after a Mastectomy.

1. It takes a lot of strength and courage to have a mastectomy, but even more so after. Recovery may be much harder and slower than you imagined. It’ll knock you on your ass even if you’re fit, strong, and well-conditioned. Getting back to training will likely take longer than you thought it would, and you will need steely courage and patience as your conditioning and muscles shrink.

Yes, you can diligently walk and try to do light lower body training while your heal, but prepare to have many days when you just don’t feel like doing anything. A mastectomy affects your entire body, and for a few weeks after surgery you might be dizzy and nauseous just from medications. Your body is working furiously to rebuild traumatized tissue, so you’ll be fatigued and lack stamina. You may be in some pain and discomfort, and you most certainly won’t be able to lift anything heavy until you have your doctor’s permission.

You will regain your strength and stamina, though – you will. Let yourself cry and feel frustrated – no one said having a mastectomy didn’t include emotional healing, too.

2. There’s no use comparing yourself to anyone else. You can just stop comparing yourself to other women who got back to training more quickly than you. Just because you read about someone else lifting after just six weeks doesn’t mean you will be. Personally, I didn’t feel like lifting much at all until I was cleared for exercise six weeks after my reconstructive surgery. All told, I took about four months off from heavy lifting. I worked on walking longer and faster, progressing with physical therapy, and regaining my range of motion. That is quite enough when you’re healing from major surgery, believe me.

3. You will spend a lot of time regaining shoulder mobility and range of motion. This is perhaps the biggest issue I have with my pre-op conversations with my surgeon. I just was not prepared for losing my shoulder and arm range of motion (ROM). I did not regain full overhead range of motion until a couple of weeks before my reconstructive surgery, which was eight weeks after my mastectomy.

This seemed like an eternity, and why? Because I couldn’t wear any of my existing tops, wash or brush my hair effectively,  or reach things higher than a few inches over my head. My arms would not straighten overhead – period. Be extremely diligent about stretching and doing your PT exercises – you will get there.

4. It’s your job to retrain your chest and upper back muscles.

Pectoral (chest) muscles. Yep, this is a big one, obviously, because your pectorals are involved in cooking, showering, getting dressed, driving, and pretty much anything else you do.

If you have reconstructed breasts, your pectoral muscles may be repositioned over your implants (I don’t know how it works with DIEP flap or other procedures). These muscles might spasm and jump around for awhile and seem very weak as they learn how to function in their new position. Don’t expect to be doing push ups or any chest exercises for awhile, okay? Just slowly rebuild strength and follow your doctor’s advice.

Upper back and shoulder blades. Being able to keep your shoulders down and back is essential when strength training, because rounded shoulders can lead to injury. However, pulling your shoulder blades back into a better posture might be difficult after a mastectomy for a variety of reasons.

Limited range of motion and tight, shortened upper-body muscles may make good posture seem foreign. You’ll work on this in physical therapy by stretching your chest and strengthening your rhomboids/upper back, but know that by the time you’re released to exercise you might still have trouble keeping your shoulders from rounding. Be diligent with your PT exercises and strengthening your upper back to address that rounded shoulder posture.

5. Find a physical therapist who will do soft tissue work – AND who is kind and compassionate. A good physical therapist is your first line of defense against scar tissue, and thus against range of motion issues and pain. Find a good PT before your surgery, one who is not afraid to do aggressive deep soft tissue work with you.

My unfortunate experience was that my first physical therapist wasn’t comfortable with, or didn’t see the value in, soft tissue work. She helped me regain my ROM, but I was left with painful scar tissue that nearly caused me to have a third surgery. It wasn’t until I found a PT who specialized in mastectomy patients that I realized what I’d been lacking. Her amazing work helped me through ongoing muscle tightness and pain. She was also very kind, patient, and compassionate – something my first PT lacked. (Fact: You need to be around kind, caring individuals while you’re going through this.)

So before your surgery, interview PTs and find one you connect with emotionally and who specializes in post-mastectomy rehab. You deserve the best care possible.

Above all, have hope. It will get better. Recovering from any surgery takes time, and with determination and consistency you’ll get through this. Oh, and did I mention patience?

Peace and love to you, my sisters!

This article first appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.

17 thoughts on “5 Tips for Returning to Strength Training After a Mastectomy

  1. Hey Suzanne,

    A great read and some solid actionable advice. It is a life changing experience going through a mastectomy and the health benefits for strength training are huge!

    My wife has currently just had her operation a couple of months ago so this has been helpful!


  2. Suzanne
    I really appeciate this piece. I was not a weight lifter before having double reconstruction with pectoral implants. I would so appreciate if you would write a follow up piece on how your lifting changed. What exercises you thought were best and what your weight loads were after mastectomy. I am in an isolated area where there are no PT trainers who understand Mastectomy patients and I would very much like to improve my fitness.


    • Thanks for writing, CJ. I hear you that it’s tough to find help in some areas. You’re doing the right thing by reading up!
      You just made me realize I didn’t link to my second article here. Lots more detail in this one: https://workoutnirvana.com/how-to-strength-train-after-a-mastectomy/
      It was a process, of course, and at first many things were hard that weren’t before. But at this point, the main difference is that pull-ups are more difficult than before. I’m not sure I’ll be able to master them again, but I’m trying! Let me know if you have more questions after reading my latest article.


  3. Thank you for sharing. I also had double prophylactic mastectomies. I was very worried that I was being crazy for having the surgery without a positive cancer diagnosis. Well it turns out there were 3 focal points of cancer starting to develop. The surgery saved my life. And I didn’t need chemo or radiation because they were still stage 0.

    I want to start exercising, but I am afraid. I was told that I should not do any exercises involving the pectoral muscles, They told me that the muscles can change the shape of the breast implants as the muscle gets stronger. Or that the implant can shift out of place from doing these types of exercises.

    I see how the shape of the breasts changes when the pectoral muscles contract if I lift something or do anything that requires strength. So it worries me that they will change the shape of the breasts permanently. Have you noticed any changes of this sort?

    Thank you.


    • Hi, thanks for writing and congratulations on getting through your surgery! I don’t know where are you in your recovery, but I think it is extremely misleading to tell someone they shouldn’t strengthen their chest after a mastectomyy. If you do not strengthen your pectoral muscles, you could end up with a muscle imbalance and/or poor posture, which translates to pain in your shoulders or back later on. I was told by an orthopedic surgeon, my reconstructive surgeon, and two physical therapists to strengthen my chest. If your implants were inserted propery and you have tissue supporting them laterally (otherwise they’d slide into your armpits), they shoud not move at all. I don’t know how having more strength and muscle could change the shape of your implants. Yes, your implants might shift when your pectoral muscles contract, but they should stay in place. It’s an adjustment when the implants shift, but you don’t even notice it after awhile. I have bench pressed up to 75 pounds in the last two years and had no issues whatsoever. I would suggest, if you are post-recovery, that you start with very light weight and do three sets of 20 reps, then gradually increase the weight. Good luck! I hope you do start strengthening your chest!


  4. You rock!! I’ve been a lifter for almost 20 years & competed one time so I was so nervous about how long/when I would be back in the gym. I’m 6 1/2 wks post op. Thank you for all of this information & giving me hope that all us sisters CAN get back to our old routines eventually. Thank you again!! 🙂


    • Hey A’ndrea! So cool to connect with you. Congrats on getting through your surgery and initial recovery. I get your apprehension about the long time off. You’ll get there… A slow re-entry wins the day. Good luck, and stay in touch!


  5. hi, Suzanne, and thank you thank you thank you! I’m four weeks post-op and feel like I’ve never been in such poor condition… It’s scary and frustrating! It was encouraging to read this article this morning and hear your story. Thank you!!


  6. A note of caution— If you have lymph nodes removed during the mastectomy, you must be extra cautious with lifting weights and pressure on your arms (even massage or blood pressure readings). If you push your body too hard, you may develop lymphedema.


    • Thanks for writing! More research is needed in this area, as a study has suggested that starting with light weights and a very gradual increase in weight does not increase lymphedema risk. Best to consult with your doctor and a VERY knowledgeable physical therapist who specializes in post-mastectomy recovery.


  7. Hi suzanne

    Im three weeks posts ops and slowly gaining strength and energy. It is hard i must say adjusting the tight muscles and so on, but im hoping that I could recover in 7 weeks time.


    • Hi! Big hugs for you as you navigate your recovery. Go to physical therapy as soon as it’s approved and start moving more and more. It feels tight now, but your body will appreciate movement. Your new normal is what YOU make it <3.


  8. This was helpful. I had surgery last year and went through chemo and radiation and now cancer free but will have to have surgery again on my breasts. It does take.forever.to heal and am grateful to know it isn’t just me. I am looking forward to reconstruction but not the pain and uselessness when you can’t do the simplest things. This time around I plan to be more proactive and by doing physical to and the exercises to help with mobility. Thank you for sharing.


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